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Book Review: Dangerous Hero by Tom Bower

I recently read the book Dangerous Hero: Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot For Power, by renowned investigative journalist Tom Bower. Bower has also written books on various people such as Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell and Tony Blair, with varying degrees of deserved brutality. He now has turned his attention on the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition.

Much of the book is not quite the trove of astonishing revelations that it might have appeared to be, if only because I had realised quite some time ago what Corbyn is and stands for, and read about his involvement in, and support for, hard-Left causes for quite some time. I knew about his support for Hamas, his attendance at a funeral of a killer of Israeli athletes (he initially lied about it), his outreach to Sinn Fein IRA within days of the Brighton bombing of 1984 (I was a student living in Brighton at the time, and it was when the name “Corbyn” first entered my consciousness), his holiday-making in the Soviet satellite states and so on. I knew much of this, and assume that most political junkies who follow UK affairs had a reasonably solid grasp of all this gruesome detail.

What is nonetheless striking about this book is the way it shows that Corbyn’s Marxism was quite possibly formed in a period when – never fully explained in his own accounts – he left Jamaica (in the late 60s) and had, so Bower speculates, gone to Cuba. Corbyn’s hatred of the UK, and the empire it created, is very much at the core of his political credo. Corbyn is incurious in some ways about enterprise – other than loathing it, and has tended to leave the details of how a socialist state will direct our lives to colleagues such as John McDonnell. What really floats Corbyn’s boat is his adversialism towards the UK and West as a whole. Any power and person whom he thinks has the ability to hurt the UK and the West as a whole gets his support, no matter how murderous or malevolent.

This anti-British, anti-Western stance is a coherent strand throughout. It explains Corbyn’s cozying up to Iran (and willingness to appear on Iranian TV and get paid for this) – because he hates Israel (a pro-Western, broadly free nation); it explains, even his anti-semitism (Bower is very clear about this; no sophistry about how Corbyn is anti-Zionist but not anti-semitic); it is the key to his hatred of the US and the UK. It shows why he has been a champion of the cause of a united Ireland, preferring to support the IRA, and attend the funerals of IRA operatives, rather than focus on the messier routes of democratic politics in Northern Ireland. And it also shows why he has more recently praised Venezuela, at least until its recent disasters, because that country was seen as being a pain in the bum for the US. To take another Latin American case, Corbyn was happy, it seems, for the Argentinian junta to invade the Falklands Islands, a UK territory, and never mind the democratic wishes of the island’s locals.

One of the most useful parts of the book was its account, told with moments of unintended humour, of Corbyn’s time as a Labour Party councillor in North London, and of how he worked to remove real/alleged enemies and take control. Bower also shows that while Corbyn obviously craved the approval and circle of senior hard-Left figures such as Tony Benn, he was no real intellectual himself and did not contribute original ideas. What Corbyn was very effective at – and Bower ruefully admits this – was being an organiser of protest. He also had a sort of rubber-ball quality – he seemed able to take all kinds of abuse and setbacks and kept ploughing on. He was and is also fairly immune to straightforward venality and corruption, one of his few positive traits. (That does not mean his views are less unpleasant, but as far as one can tell Corbyn was not motivated by money in the way that Tony Blair seems to have been.) It also seems that he is quite a red-blooded sort of bloke, but also not very easy to get on with for the long haul: three marriages as of the time of writing. Another nugget: One of his former wives said that she never saw him read a book during the time they were together.

It is sobering to think that Corbyn has learned nothing from the past half a century in any way that would affect his thinking away from socialism. The many disasters of socialist states have had no impact on his thinking. The end of the Berlin Wall is, one suspects, a grave sadness to him, and people around him, such as media advisor and unashamed Stalinist, Seamus Milne. This fixity of ideological purpose makes me think that socialism really is, for some, a secular religion. The Bower book contains the nugget that John McDonnell, now shadow Chancellor, once thought of going into the priesthood.

Now, a socialist might scoff and say that libertarians can become a bit dogmatic too (that is correct), but there’s a big difference: a market-based economy has, through the processes of bankruptcy and profit, a feedback system in which bad, mistaken ideas fail, and good ones succeed. With socialism, by contrast, failure (such as the misallocation of resources in Soviet Russia) is taken to mean that the State must do even more socialism, that “beatings will continue until morale improves”, so to speak. The free market is like a sort of constant Karl Popper-style testing of hypotheses (business ideas). Socialism does not have any sort of equivalent process.

What to explain how far Corbyn has come despite all this? Bower gives some idea about this. Corbyn is sly and enjoys letting others do the dirty work of knifing colleagues and betraying real/alleged enemies, and likes to appear above it all (he is not unique in this, of course), and play the part of the scruffy, dotty-but-endearing Leftie with his vegetable patch and penchant for photographing street furniture. It is striking how even the joke tag “Magic Marxist Grandpa” is almost an affectionate term, until you realise what Marxism will do. Corbyn shows you can get away with appalling, mistaken views if you speak softly, are bit of a “character” and have good manners (although he can lose his temper when confronted in some cases). And finally, there is Corbyn’s quality of patience. He’s been working away, waiting for his chance. In 2015, when the former Labour leader Ed Milliband stood down, the party’s leadership/voting rules allowed a person such as Corbyn to stand. People voted to let his name go on the ballot. It is proof that random events can really make a difference. (Ironically, it rather undermines the Marxist idea that we are propelled deterministically by economic forces and relations of production. Specific human acts can make a big difference.)

The book, however, for all its pace and verve, is unlikely to convert a lot of people away from Corbyn and what he stands for, although I suppose one or two people might be swayed. I do think that the anti-semitism must have rattled a few even more devoted fans, and his dithering over the EU issue is a delight to watch because Brexit is an issue that doesn’t fall into any obvious map that Corbyn has in his head.

An issue with this book is that Bower has no references or footnotes, a fact that Bower justifies by saying that so much of what he was told was off the record, and that he took legal advice to that effect. The problem with no references is that it is easy therefore for some people to attack the veracity of some of his details. Peter Oborne, who like some right-wingers has a sort of madly odd affection for Corbyn, on the grounds that he is “authenic” (I fail to see what is great about being an authentic nasty piece of work), has attacked the book’s accuracy. Bower hasn’t responded. I remember many years ago, when I wrote pamphlets for libertarian causes, that Brian Micklethwait and other old friends such as the late Chris Tame drummed into me the importance of references and sources, with lots of specific details, in the interests of good scholarship. If a book is going to drive a stake into the heart of Corbyn, I think it would have been more effective had it contained some explicit sources.


Dangerous Hero
is a gripping read – I went through it very fast – and it is gruesome, even chilling, reading. It is a well-paced, angrily written account of the life of a man who, let’s not forget, is still a potential prime minister of this country. As his IRA chums used to say, defenders of freedom have to be eternally vigilant, because for the likes of Corbyn, they need to be lucky just once.

Ars longa, vita brevis

The Guardian reports, “Sculptor Antony Gormley plans Brexit giants off the French coast”:

Now, on the eve of Britain’s potential departure from Europe, Gormley is planning a new and dramatic intervention on the beaches of northern France. He wants to erect a group of seven huge sculptures, made from iron slabs, on the coast of Brittany. They will look towards Britain, the lost island of Europe.

There is something in that image that can appeal to both sides. I think Mr Gormley might make better art than his predictable opinions might lead one to suppose:

Gormley describes Brexit as “a stupid moment of collective fibrillation” and argues that such an imposed separation from the rest of Europe will be damaging and false. “We belong to Europe, geologically as much as anything else. We were only separated five thousand years ago. The whole idea that somehow we can go it alone by making greater relationships with the former Commonwealth and with our friends and cousins in America is just ridiculous,” he tells Wilson.

Mind you, it will take about thirty seconds flat for some wag to call these figures standing on the coast of France as they wistfully look towards Albion “the illegal immigrants”.

“People do not walk there if they can avoid it”

Emma Duncan has written a piece for the Times with which I ought to agree. It has the title “The city of billionaires is a vision of hell” and has the strapline “San Francisco shows what happens when rent controls are used to tackle a housing shortage”.

Her article starts with a vivid description of San Francisco’s woes:

… San Francisco and its environs have the highest density of billionaires on the planet. It is also the most visibly poor place of any I have been to outside India or South Africa, and the horrors on show hold lessons for London.

As Tom Knowles reported in The Times yesterday, there are more than 8,000 homeless men and women on the streets of what is, with a population of less than 900,000, a small city. Every time we stepped out of our city-centre hotel, we saw homeless people slumped on the pavements or wandering aimlessly. In the Tenderloin district, a formerly respectable area a quarter of a mile away, there are homeless encampments on most blocks and shit on the pavements. People do not walk there if they can avoid it.

In the four days we were there, I went into maybe ten shops. In three of them, homeless people walked in, took stuff and walked out. In Starbucks, for instance, a homeless man swept a lot of biscuits and chocolates from beside the till into a bag. I started to say something to try to stop him, then looked at the woman behind the till who shrugged her shoulders. I asked the manager how often this happened; he said seven or eight times a day. I asked him what he did about it; he said he filed “an incident report”.

My son said that the police have given up on property crime because they are short of resources, because this sort of crime is so common and because there is a certain sympathy for the perpetrators. We took two buses when I was there; on one of them, the man in the seat in front of us peed on the floor. My son said it was a regular occurrence.

It then offers two possible explanations:

When you talk to San Franciscans, many take the view that homeless people are sent there from cities whose welfare provision is less generous than California’s. That seems implausible, since there is little welfare on offer in San Francisco, and surveys of the homeless population show that the vast majority are local.

Those who have studied the problem say that the main explanation is the price of property. The tech industry is so big and well paid that demand for property has pushed prices to insane levels. Average rents are about twice what they are in London. To pay the rent on a one-bedroom flat in London you would need to work about 170 hours on the minimum wage; in San Francisco, you would need to work 300 hours. As rents rise, people get turfed out of their homes and end up on the streets; combine that with negligible health provision for the poor and you end up with a lot of mentally ill people on the streets.

The response to rising rents in San Francisco has been rent controls. Nearly half the homes in the city are now covered by them. But they have made the situation worse, not better, because they discourage people from letting out property and thus reduce supply, pushing house prices up further.

The Instapundit co-bloggers talk about San Francisco often. Though I would guess that none of them would be reluctant on ideological grounds to mention rent control as the main cause of San Francisco’s problems, as far as I recall they have usually cited the explanation that Emma Duncan rejects, namely over-generous welfare payments that act as a magnet to homeless people from other states. Beyond that they speak of general bad governance, often mentioning that the last Republican mayor of SF left office in 1964.

Of course both causes could be operating. If a single shop has homeless people walking in and openly stealing from it without fear of punishment seven or eight times a day, then bad governance most certainly is operating. But is that the cause or the symptom? My reasons for wanting a more precise diagnosis than “socialism sucks”* are not entirely disinterested. Rent controls are one of the most popular policies offered by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. Apart from a few old fogeys who remember the deleterious effects of the Rent Acts, Brits love the idea of them. As Ms Duncan suggests, London may soon follow the example of San Francisco in re-introducing rent control. Lord knows the world is not short of examples that show this is a bad idea, but San Francisco might make that argument real to a British audience better than most places, as it is a city quite a lot of British people have visited recently and come away from with shit on their shoes. Do any American readers, particularly San Franciscans, have any observations to share?

*Two economists called Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell, who seem to be more convivial than economists usually are, have written a book with this title that is currently nestling in my Kindle. My husband recommends it. He says it is about beer.

Brexit predictions

So. How is this going to pan out?

So…it has come to this

Police have launched an investigation after Nigel Farage vowed to “take the knife to the pen pushers in Whitehall” after Brexit

Let me get this straight. A very high profile mainstream politician, whose party could feasibly call on a larger base of mainstream support than any other at present, attracts police attention as a result of what is clearly a rhetorical flourish.

Wow.

Let us pray for our bishop, Mug

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who alone workest great marvels: Send down upon our Bishops, and Curates, and all Congregations committed to their charge, the healthful Spirit of thy grace; and that they may truly please thee, pour upon them the continual dew of thy blessing. Grant this, O Lord, for the honour of our Advocate and Mediator, Jesus Christ.

Sadly, the Book of Common Prayer is rarely heard in Anglican churches these days. The Book of Common Sense likewise. I have spoken to one or two bishops, and know people who regularly meet with those crozier-wielding smiters of the infidel over Earl Grey and custard creams. They are usually nice people. Learned. Well-meaning. Really, really nice. But, oh dear, their poor brains are sorely in need of those great marvels that the Lord alone workest:

Church leaders urge government to ban pointed kitchen knives

Church leaders in the Diocese of Rochester have called for the government to enforce stricter rules on the sale of domestic knives.

They’ve written an open letter asking for a ban on the sale of pointed kitchen knives. The letter was also signed by leading crime experts, as well as MPs, and community leaders.

“Historically we needed a point on the end of our knife to pick up food because forks weren’t invented. Now we only need the point to open packets when we can’t be bothered to find the scissors,” the letter reads.

It continues: “A five-year study in Edinburgh found that of the sharp instruments used in homicides, 94 per cent were kitchen knives. Research demonstrates kitchen knives are used in a large percentage of homicides due to their availability and lethal nature.

“Criminologists have demonstrated that reducing availability in turn reduces crime.

“The UK has worked for the public good by restricting handguns, paracetamol, smoking in public and plastic bags – now it is time to say ‘no bloody point’.”

The letter and conference are part of a month of awareness-raising activities about the dangers of knife crime in September, supported by the Diocese of Rochester, the Church of England in Medway, and the London Boroughs of Bromley and Bexley.

“Does Britain have free speech?”

The title is quoted from a Quillette article (h/t instapundit) inspired by the following letter to author James Flynn from Tony Roche, publishing director of Emerald, explaining their decision to drop his book:

“I am contacting you in regard to your manuscript ‘In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor’. Emerald believes that its publication, in particular in the United Kingdom, would raise serious concerns. … the work could be seen to incite racial hatred and stir up religious hatred under United Kingdom law. Clearly you have no intention of promoting racism but intent can be irrelevant. …”

In the 1930s, J.R.R.Tolkien’s publisher contacted him regarding publishing ‘The Hobbit’ in Germany. To do so, they were legally obliged to provide an assurance that Tolkien had no Jewish ancestry. Tolkien gave them two courteous letters, saying he would rather they sent the first but he acknowledged it was up to them. The first politely withheld the information. The second expressed Tolkien’s “regret” that he had “no ancestors of the gifted Jewish race”, adding that his pride in his German ancestry would be sensibly diminished if enquiries of this kind pointed to Germany’s future. (Alas, back then, all too clearly they did.) Because it is this second letter that was found in the publisher’s files, it is thought they acted on Tolkien’s request to send the first.

My pride in being British will be sensibly diminished if Emerald’s letter points to our future. My Brexit enthusiasm owes much to my knowledge that one side would let Britain become a place where Emerald could feel less concerned, while the other are determined to give them cause to feel yet more.

Emerald Publishing was founded in 1967 “to champion new ideas”, according to its website. I guess you could say free speech is an old idea and banning it is the new idea – though also a very old one. Or maybe ‘champion’ doesn’t mean what I thought it did. Such pride as I ever felt in British publishers was sensibly diminished as I read that letter – and it did not cheer me to think that while the decision may reflect some cowardice or even complicity in Emerald, shocked to find an un-PC book had somehow crept into their planned list, the letter may also be factual and more honest than the activists who would prosecute.

Another unfortunate speaks

A few months back I posted about the conflict between feminists and strippers at the Spearmint Rhino strip club in Sheffield.

Writing in the Guardian, Kate Lister both provides an update on that dispute and brings up a fascinating parallel from a hundred and sixty years ago:

Today’s sex workers, like their Victorian sisters, don’t want ‘saving’

In a series of letters written to the Times in 1858, an anonymous sex worker, referring to herself as “Another Unfortunate”, challenges the widespread assumption that all sex workers are an “abandoned sisterhood”. The tone of Another Unfortunate is defiant, proud and attacks the paternalistic moralising of the groups who wish to save her.

I had no idea that such things were allowed to be said in the Times in 1858. I suspect it would not have been allowed in 1958.

That Which Shall Not Be Named

It waits. It hungers. In its tenebrous embrace all memories, all identities, all names are lost. What was once known becomes unknown.

And a jolly good thing too, that’s what I say.

The Scottish government’s creepy Named Person Scheme has been fed to Azathoth, the BBC reports.

An earlier post of mine called “Sixty pages” described one father’s experience of the pilot scheme:

The surviving extracts appeared to indicate that the minutiae of his family life had been recorded in painstaking detail for almost two years, under a Named Person scheme which has been introduced in his part of the country ahead of its final roll-out across all of Scotland in August. A separate note made by the Named Person charged with keeping an eye on the academic’s two little boys was concerned with nappy rash.

Rob Fisher also wrote about it here: What the GIRFEC?

Samizdata quote of the day

The ASI has renewed its call for British passport holders in Hong Kong to be given the full rights of British citizens, including the right to settle here. If this were to be done, the People’s Republic would denounce it as post-colonialist interference, but it might well make them tread more carefully.

Madsen Pirie

An unmissable podcast

I am sure the Samizdatistas and the Samizdata commentariat alike are familiar with Brendan O’Neill of Spiked Online, as well as the brilliant and rather naughty David Starkey. Starkey appears as a guest on O’Neill’s most recent podcast. Put aside an hour and listen to their conversation – you will be very glad you did. It contains enough SQOTDs to last a year.

Update: the Starkey interview may be in the process of going viral. When I first stumbled across it, it had clocked up a not-insubstantial 25,000 views or so. Fast forward a few hours to now and it’s almost at 40,000. Excellent, and may that number continue to rise sharply. It deserves wide dissemination.

Samizdata quote of the day

One incident of Sectarianism in Northern Ireland does stick in my mind – myself and a friend were dropping off a car at a “park and ride” in Belfast and went for a bus – I went to buy a ticket and the driver said “We are full”, the bus was half empty so I tried again and got “WE ARE FULL” as a reply, and the bus drove off.

I asked my friend what that was all about – and he said “it is your English accent” and when I questioned further I got the further information “the driver was clearly from the Nationalist Community”.

So there you are – my own “Rosa Parks” moment, except that the lady was told to sit at the back of the bus, whereas I was not allowed on the bus at all.

Paul Marks