Who’s a dinosaur now?
A lot of journalists (and others) have been calling Jeremy Corbyn a dinosaur. They should beware of the label. At the turn of the 20th century, the dominant political discourse – at least in what today would be called the ‘Westminster bubble’ – was that liberalism was passé, that the future lay with great empires and imperialist societies, and that anti-imperialists were doomed to ossify. ‘Imperialism’ infected all political parties, including the ‘Lib-Imp’ wing of the Liberal party, and even some Labour MPs. Yet within five years of E.T. Reed’s depiction in Punch in 1900 of the remaining Liberal anti-imperialists of his time (shown here), imperialism had lost its attraction to voters, the ‘imperialist’ party was hammered in an election, and a new, quite old-fashioned looking Liberal government came to power. The Lib-Imps retained some influence, and imperialism in practice went on (it still does); but the former antis certainly didn’t give up the ghost. After 1905 it was they who seemed to represent the progressive political spirit of the time, with the imperialists increasingly cast as the dinosaurs.
Like Reed’s ‘Osaplesadont’, Jeremy Corbyn may look antediluvian now, but only to people with short historical memories, or with a material interest in portraying him as such. Free-marketism as currently practised, with gross inequalities – free-market economists once believed that the market would iron those out – and extreme ‘austerity’, has only been around for about forty years. That isn’t a long time. There are already signs that people are seriously resiling from the trend: in Scotland, Greece and Spain, and in popular – if as yet ineffective – movements all over. ‘To my generation,’ a 23-year-old Corbyn supporter told the Guardian a few days ago, ‘his ideas seem quite new. His ideas on renationalisation of the railways and the energy companies. Free university tuition that people of my generation have not had. The idea of spending more money on infrastructure.’ Mark that. New.
All the other Labour leadership candidates are in their mid-forties. They’ve known nothing but Thatcher/Blairism and the gloss that the commentators of that time put on the politics that had gone before. Younger Labour Party members are free from that. So are older members, like Corbyn (and me). We have a broader perspective. What may seem normal and inevitable to the middle-aged can appear merely fashionable to the more experienced and the more innocent. E.T. Reed was wrong about the anti-imperialists. Corbyn’s opponents may be similarly wrong, at least in electoral terms, about the anti-austerians.