Portsmouth Cathedral has kicked off its series of Lent lectures, “A Faith-based manifesto?”. The series aims to encourage people “to think and reflect on how the way we vote might be informed by our faith, beliefs and values.” In the light of the recent controversial intervention by the House of Bishops this is an interesting topic, regardless of one’s own views on faith and religion.
Owen Jones appeared at the Cathedral last night and spoke to a good crowd, over a hundred people I’d guess. I was particularly interested to hear him, as I generally tune out when he appears on TV and radio. I’ve seen him get in a tangle often enough when he comes up against seasoned inquisitors that I find him hard to take seriously. Equally, when someone allows themselves to be described by Russell Brand as “our generation’s Orwell” on the front of their book, you have to wonder how massive their own ego has become, or whether they have actually read any Orwell. Or, for that matter, any Russell Brand. Jones is the least-deserving of the entire tribe of left-of-centre commentators of any such comparison; easily the best of them operating these days is Nick Cohen.
As Jones kept reminding us, his talk was about “hope” rather than faith. I started jotting down a few notes to base a blog on. Jones has a connection to Portsmouth in that his grandfather was in the Dockyard, and it is from him that Jones says he derives a lot of his political outlook. We had the usual reminder that Wilson said the Labour Party owed as much to Methodism as to Marx, although Jones himself doesn’t have a religious faith himself. That was the last positive reference to the Labour Party all night, which surprised me. And then we got stuck into the talk.
Greece came first. We heard all about the collapse of their economy, which shrunk by a quarter between 2008 and 2014, and the social problems that accompanied the slump. There is no doubt the country is in a mess. But Jones identifies the roots of the crisis in the austerity programme the Greeks have had to implement to get their mushrooming debts under control. He had nothing to say about the debt itself. Instead, he blamed the Germans and the EU for imposing conditions on further bailouts and lauded Syriza. He had been in Greece a month ago and saw the “hope” Syriza are bringing the Greek population.
The origins of the Greek debt remained unexplored. It has become a commonplace that Greek retirement and pension rules are an example of their profligacy; indeed it has become an exaggeration. However, as this Economist piece from 2010 shows, the roots of the crisis are deep, and they lie in the madness of the Greek state. But none of this, for Jones, is the Greeks’ fault. The governments Greece has elected, democratically, are not to blame for the debt; it is all the fault of the EU, and Germany in particular, for imposing austerity on Greece as part of the bailout conditions. This is like blaming the doctor who has to amputate your leg after a car crash you had while driving drunk.
At this point Jones returned to a vague comparison between the despair of Greece and the situation in the UK, trying to pretend that the same social breakdown is happening here. He took us on an oratorical tour of social collapse and suffering. We have all seen what is happening in Greece on TV, and the idea that we have anything like that happening here is ridiculous. The Welfare State here continues to function normally – and has even been eating up more and more government spending.
It is ridiculous to bandy “austerity” about as a sign of peoples oppressed and victimised when it means a collapse of the state in Greece, but is actually a sign of increased state intervention in the UK. Of course our society is not rid of poverty, and as long as there is any, there is too much of it, but the claims Jones makes are sometimes (and not for the first time) statistically illiterate. For instance, he claimed that there has been a surge in low birth-weight infants born owing to the recession and austerity. The data on this is a bit laggy – the latest figures I could find through the ONS only cover 2012. However, they show nothing like a crisis.
The real message of Owen Jones, which he gave us at length, is conspiracy theory. Everything bad now is the fault of the bankers. Bankers and Tories. Bankers and Tories and the Germans and the EU. It is a mix of moral certainty, stab-in-the-back theory, and wild nonsense about foreign powers and shadowy elites that is reminiscent of 1930s Europe or 1950s America. There are bankers under the bed. Anybody being touted as “our generation’s Orwell” would surely be aware of the folly of such an argument. Orwell satirised Jones’ simplistic, sloganistic politics better than anyone: “four legs good, two legs bad”.
Jones is no Orwell; he is rather more like Orwell’s antagonist Kingsley Martin, the fellow-travelling, credulous, inconsistent, shrieky editor of the New Statesman who espoused every wacky cause presented to him. Take Jones’ attitude to the Germans – one minute they are the wreckers of Greece, but the next he tells us we should be copying their economic and social models. He can’t have it both ways, but he will try his best to. I asked him on Twitter about this contradiction and his response was to call me a “liar” and a “sad dishonest Tory”. I never got an answer.
The surprise of the night was Jones finding himself unable to tell us to vote Labour at the election. Indeed, he went out of his way to insult Labour’s Portsmouth North candidate John Ferrett on Twitter afterwards. The best Jones could bring himself to say was that Labour are “better than the Tories”. Jones’ hope is clear: he wants to see a Syriza- or Podemos-style popular outburst here. If that’s the only hope he’s got – and goodness knows he is thin on solutions despite being full of doom and gloom – then we’d better hope that the economic recovery keeps moving forwards and away from the kind of disasters his heroes in Greece are inflicting on their people.