“In 2017 I cast my vote with my partner and our six-month-old son in a polling station just around the corner from the West End Foodbank.
It was the first time in my life that I felt fully enfranchised.
After years of alternating between voting tactically, voting with a held nose, or spoiling the ballot paper,
It was disconcerting and moving to know that my “X” now corresponded to the ideals of a party I truly believed in.”
So much about the closing passage of Alex Niven’s new book,
New Model Island: How To Build A Radical Culture Beyond The Idea Of England, rang true for me when I read it in late 2019.
The above excerpt, though, is the one that stuck in my mind most prominently a few weeks on,
its guarded optimism and visceral power coloured (but, crucially, not negated) by the heavy defeat suffered by Labour in December’s general election.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party,
whichever way one looks at it, was flawed, and was unable to sufficiently turn historic tides and survive an increasingly hysterical culture war to avoid such a loss.
Yet that sense of cautious hope that it produced, of a nascent rebuilding project, of a generational hunger for social justice,
Remains utterly valid, and perhaps more important now than ever.
New Model Island is a book thick with emotion, of which those feelings listed above are only a few.
A discursive yet concise meditation upon regional identity, solidarity and community, its power lies in Niven’s ability to instil each anecdote, theory, and piece of political analysis with a potent mix of universalism and intimacy; to indulge a cliché, he makes the personal deeply political.
We speak the week after the election, our conversation beginning, inevitably, with some reflection upon the result.
“It’s just reiterated the massive difficulty of getting in an even slightly progressive government,” he says, sadly.
“We were on strike [Niven is an academic at Newcastle University, and took part in December’s nationwide UCU action] for the last couple of weeks of the campaign.
I went out [campaigning] in Newcastle, and a couple of marginals – Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland – and we did our best… but it didn’t seem to make any difference in the end.”
One of the major themes of the book is the desperate need to address the profound alienation.
That has been allowed to fester by Britain’s deepening political and cultural divides.
Much to Niven’s disappointment,
The symptoms of this alienation were clearly identifiable on the doorstep, and Labour’s solutions were too-often unwelcome.
“There was this sense of the possibility of change not really existing, in England particularly.
A lot of the encounters on the doorstep were quite negative – there wasn’t a great love for Boris Johnson,
But there was the anti-Corbyn thing, the anti-EU thing,
A sense that Johnson was the lesser of two evils, that the promises in the Labour manifesto wouldn’t amount to anything.”
In the book, Niven writes at length about England’s sense of itself as a “cursed country”
(“Englishness is so often felt as a condition of loss”), and the outcome of the election, not to mention the tenor of the public reaction to it,
Would appear to bear this out.
Yet he also avoids sweeping generalisations throughout;
his central argument that “England” is so ill-defined, so multiplicitous,
So contested a place that it can hardly even be said to exist in any meaningful way.
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