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Reaction published an article recently by the novelist Helen Dale, entitled: “Why are there so few right-leaning artists?”, in support of a new grass roots movement called ‘Artists for Brexit’. Its manifesto reads as follows:
“Artists for Brexit is currently an informal grassroots network growing in numbers and visibility, expressing solidarity with artists across all forms who have felt isolated, intimidated and silenced by educational and cultural institutions, and shouted down on social media, all because they sided with the democratic majority by choosing to vote Leave.”
Grass roots movements seem to be in vogue at the moment – whether it’s ‘Momentum’ on the Left, or ‘Our Future, Our Choice’ for Remain, or the ludicrous ‘Activate’ on the Right – it’s fashionable to see the work of traditional politics (parliament, executive, legislature) as a broken and corrupt sham, in contrast to the purity of ‘real’ activist-orientated political participation.
But as for myself, echoing the great (but unclassifiable) Jonathan Meades, I tend to think that “Roots are for vegetables”.
Although it might be true that opposition to Brexit has become a kind of idée fixe for the present-day cultural policy establishment, these things come and go. Fashions change. Some of the greatest English writers of the last century, those who make up the recognised canon, whose books are never out of print, are hardly hostile to a conservative world view. Take one of my favourite writers: Evelyn Waugh, whose later work becomes obsessed with social worlds that may appear quite alien to modern life. But then again, his early work is hardly conservative at all – brilliant satires engaging with the modern themes of technology, social change and with a strong anti-establishment ethic.
Great writers resist easy classification.
By contrast with Waugh, Ayn Rand, who was self-consciously a ‘libertarian’ writer is an appalling novelist. In Rand’s work, the limits of the libertarian world view, with its shallow appreciation of economic motivations and the acquisitive instinct, is transplanted wholesale into thoroughly dislikeable protagonists like John Galt. The individual character is not seen, as it should be, as the starting point for the exploration of greater mysteries, such as humanity’s place in nature. Instead, it is treated as a denuded and wholly passive cipher for benevolent ‘market forces’.
Art can talk about history, economics and politics, of course – but to confuse engagement with political themes with the classification of art itself as right- or left-leaning is simplistic.
So let’s spin it another way: why are there very few right-leaning novelists? In Britain right now? And by that, I mean novelists who imbue their work with the mythology and story-telling of the Tory Party.
The Tory Right, since the birth of Thatcherism, has been swallowed up by its veneration of the market, accompanied by a bland affirmation of technological progress. There are notable exceptions – Jesse Norman’s dialogue and appreciation of Edmund Burke for example. The Big Society, though easy to caricature, was too a sophisticated and serious attempt to go beyond the managerial ethic.
But for too long, too much of the Tory tribe has had no place for a coherent and persuasive picture that binds together politics, economics and society – how we encounter each other in the social world, how we then form ideas of the ‘good life’ in partnership, and how notions of collective happiness, goodness and fairness can inform those encounters.
Every time we are faced with a national accident or turning point that demands thought and care and a vision that can tell us who we are and where we are going, whether it’s the 2008 crash, the fire at Grenfell tower, the ongoing crisis at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, the Tory party seems to fall short. And in this respect, Theresa May, a manager’s manager, is the leader the Tory party deserves.
It’s hardly the stuff of great literature. And maybe that’s why there are no right-leaning artists.