Another innocent citizen dead – and all because of STUPIDITY!
But, Judge Dredd – there was nothing we could do… nothing SHE could do.
She could have left a forwarding address!
Dredd talking with a fellow judge
Script: Pat Mills; Artist: Ron Smith; Letters: Tom Frame
The unfortunately named Rex Peters, who had been transformed into a half-man-half-tyrannosaur monstrosity in the last episode, kills and eats his wife before moving on to do the same to Cyril J. Ratfinkle, the lab assistant who was responsible for tricking him into drinking the eponymous blood of Satanus which was responsible for the transformation. After discovering the bodies, Dredd goes off in pursuit of Peters only to find him in his office where is was attempting to hang himself. But the tyrannosaur takes hold of him once again and attempts to kill Dredd.
As luck would have it, this is the third of my first four articles which feature an episode scripted by Pat Mills. “The Blood of Satanus” would go on to be Mills’ last Dredd script for 15 years until “Flashback 2099: The Return of Rico” (progs 950-952).
Legend has it that in the original script of this strip, Mills intended for Rex Peter’s wife Lynsey to be an ex-girlfriend of Dredd’s, but it was decided that Dredd wouldn’t have any romantic relationships. Presumably this was changed quite late in the process because Dredd’s body language on discovering Lynsey’s corpse suggests that he is rather more distraught than the callous dialogue (repeated above) would suggest. So this is another example of Mills attempting to inject Dredd with a little more humanity.
Initially, this no romance rule seemed to just be because the comic was aimed at prepubescent boys who don’t like kissing – in other words, the characters might be screwing in the background but we just aren’t bothered with such things. It isn’t a universal rule – Dredd is even seen attempting to seduce one of his captors in “Battle of the Black Atlantic” (progs 128-129), albeit in an attempt to evade capture rather than to get his rocks off (although I believe this is the only story to feature Dredd actually groping someone). Eventually it evolved to become a part of the lore itself, with it implied in “Love Story” (prog 444) that judges are prohibited from having romantic or sexual relationships – a story played for laughs – and then further explored in “The Falucci Tapes” (progs 461-463) – a somewhat more sombre story in which a judge is blackmailed over his secret affair. It’s a theme that comes back from time to time, especially in the 90s when recurring character Judge DeMarco falls for Dredd (“Beyond the Call of Duty”, progs 1101-1110).
The “Satanus” in the title is a significant recurring character, both in Judge Dredd and across 2000AD. Satanus first appeared in “The Cursed Earth” (progs 61-85), which we have already touched upon. Satanus is a black Tyrannosaur who is cloned from a fossil and was the star attraction of a dinosaur theme park before going on a rampage and killing his keepers, and yes, the parallels to Jurassic Park are undeniable (which is not to say that Michael Crichton took the idea from 2000AD – early Dredd is stuffed with sci-fi concepts that had been mined from elsewhere).
However, that’s only half of the story. It goes on to emerge that Satanus is the son of Old One Eye, the tyrannosaur antagonist of Flesh!, a strip which ran in the very earliest days of 2000AD (progs 1-19). Mills would go on to reincorporate Satanus numerous times. His son, Golgotha, appears in the ABC Warriors (“Golgotha”, progs 134-136), shortly before “The Blood of Satanus” appeared in print, and would go on to appear in Nemesis the Warlock from “Book Five” (progs 435-445) onwards. “The Blood of Satanus” would even go on to get its own spin-offs/sequels in the Judge Dredd Megazine, although they are pretty tangential (“Blood of Satanus II: Dark Matters”, Megazine 214-217; “Blood of Satanus III: The Tenth Circle”, Megazine 257-265).
Finally, this is the first time we have met Ron Smith in this series, who after Mike McMahon would go on to become the iconic Dredd artist for the early-to-mid 1980s. Ron Smith first worked on “The Day the Law Died” (progs 89-110), drawing four of the episodes, and he quickly became a regular artist on the strip. His humourous (not not especially cartoonish) style complimented the more comedic direction the strip was go in during that period, particularly when John Wagner began his co-writing partnership with Alan Grant. He would also go on to be the main artist for the weekly Saturday Judge Dredd strip which appeared in the Daily Star from 1981 onwards (when the format switched to a shorter strip appearing in the weekday editions of the newspaper, he stepped back), which was more overtly comedic.
Here we see a fairly early example of Ron Smith’s work. He hasn’t quite settled into the style that he is best known for; particularly the inking is much heavier and occasionally more sketchy compared to his later work.
One of the things Ron Smith is known for is his tendency to reuse character art in his Dredd work. Ratfinkle’s boss, who shows up in this episode, is the spitting image of a Russian spy who appeared in “Battle of the Black Atlantic” (progs 128-129), and years later appears again as an android in “Casey’s Day Out” (prog 422).
Wisely, Smith doesn’t opt to give the man-tyrannosaur the short arms that tyrannosaurus rex is famous for; nonetheless, the creature design doesn’t look very much like the original dinosaur – neither is it believed to have the prehensile tail that it uses to choke Dredd at the end of this episode! But then, the idea that drinking dinosaur blood would turn you into man-monster seems a little hinky, so perhaps its a little futile trying to understand the science behind this story.
It’s from Judge Dredd! He’s going to forget about all that killin’! He says I can murder anyone I like! Whoopee!
Script: John Wagner; Artist: Mike McMahon; Letters: Tom Frame
Dredd is alerted to huge traffic jams outside of the Des O’Connor apartment block. Investigating it appears that all of the residents have been sent presents, and that the couriers have been ordered to dress up in Christmas regalia, despite it not being Christmas. It emerges that Barney, the City Hall Computer, has malfunctioned and in a misguided attempt to make all of the residents of Des O’Connor Block happy, is giving them all what they want. Attempts to shut down Barney fail, but ultimately the computer realises that he has ended up making people more unhappy than before and so he shuts down.
The first two episodes I covered in this series are fairly atypical for Judge Dredd, not merely because they were written by Pat Mills, but also because one was part of a so-called “epic” story while the other explores Dredd’s backstory. This episode, by contrast, is much more focused on Mega City One life, and Dredd takes more of a backseat. Unusually perhaps, this is true in the case of most Dredd strips.
The more common episode has some crime committed, the situation escalates, and Dredd sort of turns up at the end to sort it out (normally with a bit of violence thrown in). This episode follows that basic structure, although it is unusual because it doesn’t actually get resolved by Dredd either shooting anyone or beating them up (although he gets to do that as well!). Instead, the story ultimately sorts itself out as Barney discovers that he has made a grave error of judgement.
Barney originally appears in “Father Earth” (progs 122-125), but stories about robots and computers going haywire go back as far as “Krong” (prog 5) and is a central part of the strip’s first multi-part storyline “Robot Wars” (progs 10-17). It’s a theme that John Wagner would return to again and again, arguably most significantly with the introduction of robot judges in “Mechanismo” (Megazine 2.12–17) – a plot element that has been returned to repeatedly over the last 25 years.
This is also one of the first stories to feature the idea of the city block, or “block” as they are more conventionally known. Although the idea that everyone lived in massive skyscrapers is a concept that is established on the first page of the very first episode “Judge Whitey” (prog 2), it was only really with “City Block” (prog 117-118) that the strip began to explore what every day life for the citizens of Mega City One was really like and look at blocks as a sociological perspective. “City Block” is also where the convention that most buildings are named after famous people from the 20th Century was established, normally for humourous or ironic effect. It also quickly became a norm for blocks to be named after British celebrities that very few Americans would have ever heard of – Des O’Connor being a case in point!
It is also significant to see how Mike McMahon’s artwork here has evolved compared to “The Return of Rico“. That in itself is already significantly different to his early work when he essentially copied Dredd creator Carlos Ezquerra’s style (to Ezquerra’s chagrin), but by the time we get to Des O’Connor Block, McMahon has settled into the style he is perhaps most famous for, the cartoonish, gangly Dredd with massive boots. He’d continue to adopt this style for a year or so, but his style continued to evolve. He only draws occasionally for the strip now, but when he does his style is far more abstract to the point of being almost cubist in style.
If you don’t know, Des O’Connor was a light entertainer who was a staple part of British television from the 1960s-2000s.
Although this story is not set at Christmas, it did in fact appear in an issue of 2000AD that was published around Christmastime (it has a cover date of 22 December, which at the time meant that it was due to be withdrawn from sale on that date). This is a minor break from the tradition in the Judge Dredd strip that stories typically take place 122 years after publication (making this episode set in 2101 AD and the current date in the strip being 2142).
Script: Pat Mills; Artist: Brian Bolland; Letters: Tom Frame
As part of their mercy mission crossing the Cursed Earth to save Mega City Two from the deadly 2T(fru)T virus, Dredd’s crew reach Mount Rushmore (which has been relocated to be closer to Mega City One). There they discover that an extra head has been carved on the iconic monument, that of the head of the Mutant Brotherhood Brother Morgar. The Mutant Brotherhood attacks Dredd’s party and captures two of his fellow judges, but Dredd manages to outmaneuvre them and threatens to blow up Morgar’s sculture unless he frees the judges. The judges are freed, but the Mutant Brotherhood live to pursue the crew…
By the time “The Cursed Earth” started in 2000AD (progs 61-85), Dredd’s popularity had been come firmly established sufficiently that he replaced Dan Dare as the leading strip in 2000AD. At the time, 2000AD was predominantly black and white with the exception of the cover and centre pages. Becoming the lead strip meant that each episode would lead with a colour splash page, and this chapter includes one of the most iconic examples of this.
The art is by Brian Bolland, although most “Cursed Earth” episodes were illustrated by Mike McMahon. Bolland is known as one of the most iconic Dredd artists and it is easy to see why – although at this stage his art is still developing and we are yet to see him at his height. This is a good example of the sort of project Bolland was given at the time; an opportunity for his imagination to run riot with all sorts of different character designs.
“The Cursed Earth” is the first so-called “mega epic” in the strip’s history, although it is predated by the much shorter “Robot Wars” (progs 10-17) and the Luna-1 cycle (progs 42-58), which is more a series of interconnected stories. Taking place almost immediately after Luna-1, it means that for almost the entirety of Dredd’s second year of publication, the action takes place outside of Mega City One.
The idea that Mega City One bordered on an irradiated wasteland inhabited by mutants was established as far back as “The Brotherhood of Darkness” (prog 4), and the Brotherhood of Mutants and Brotherhood of Darkness share a number of similarities – indeed both seem to have their roots in “The Family” which appears in the Charlton Heston “kill all hippies” film The Omega Man (1971) – itself an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954). That said, the overall plot of The Cursed Earth is acknowledged to be strongly influenced by the novel Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny (1967) and its film adaptation (1977).
This episode makes extensive use of the all terrain vehicle which features in “The Cursed Earth”. The Judge Dredd strip, especially in the early days, commonly featured exciting new technology. The Land Raider is a bit unique however in that it is actually a tie in with a range of Matchbox toys which were launching at the time called Adventure 2000. This episode is the first to properly show the vehicle in action as it seperates its two sections and the rear section scales the face of Abraham Lincoln (damaging his nose in the process).
This is another strip by Pat Mills, and it is interesting to see how Dredd is presented in this arc. Early Dredd strips see the main character as quite unapolegetically violent and cruel, whereas here he is presented as much more just and merciful. Indeed, the action revolves around the fact that they are attempting to avoid a confrontation with the mutants. He comes across as a veritable bleeding heart liberal in this episode in his attitude towards mutants, refusing to kill them even after they capture two of his fellow judges (a fact which comes back to bite them in the bum in the very next episode).
Overall, Mills tended to humanise Dredd as much as possible in all of his early strips. The characterisation of Dredd has varied greatly over the years as different writers have tackled him, but for the most part the main writer John Wagner adopts a somewhat less sadistic version in future strips than he did in the earlier strips, suggesting that Mills influenced him somewhat in this respect. Indeed, “Origins” (progs 1505-1519, 1529-1535), which is a sequel of sorts to “The Cursed Earth” sees Dredd start along a path in which he becomes advocate for mutant rights, a plot point which goes on to dominate the strip for the following three years.
A final point, since this is the first time he has cropped up, about Tom Frame. Frame would end up becoming the main letterist for Judge Dredd and his tight, efficient script ended up becoming a part of the strip’s personality itself.
Yes, that is indeed a carving of President Carter on the left of Mount Rushmore. Anachronistic pop cultural references played for laughs are a very common trope in Judge Dredd.
Dredd’s main companion throughout this run is Spikes Harvey Rotten, an outlaw punk biker who orignally appears in “Mega City 5000” (progs 40-41). Notably his character design is completely different in that story, resembling a Hell’s Angel than a punk. I’m guessing original artist Bill Ward didn’t have a clue who Johnny Rotten was, and missed the reference.
The appearance of a can of Heinz baked beans is only the first branded item we see in “The Cursed Earth” – indeed the story famously features two arcs – “Burger Wars” (progs 71-73) and “Soul Food” (progs 77-78) – which for many years were banned from being reprinted for fear of the various trademark holders suing them. Those episodes were scripted by John Wagner and Chris Lowder respectively, and not Pat Mills.
Script: Pat Mills; Artist: Mike McMahon; Letters: Tony Jacob
A mysterious figure arrives as the Kennedy Space Port and tries to make contact with Joe Dredd, claiming to also be called Judge Dredd. Dredd immediately realises that Rico has returned. He returns to his apartment to find Rico waiting for him, having shut off the oxygen and heating. It is revealed that Rico and Joe are both clones who were inducted to the Academy of Law from birth. Rico ultimately graduated top of the class, with Joe a close second. But Rico ends up being corrupt and, after killing a man, Joe arrests him. Rico is sentenced to 20 years on the Penal Colony of Titan, from where he has just returned. He reveals that in order to survive the harsh climate on Titan, his body has been adapted and horrifically disfigured. He proposes a shootout to the death, but Joe is too quick for him and Rico is killed.
Although I have selected this episode at random, I couldn’t have picked a better one to start with! During the first year, the lore surrounding Judge Dredd, not to mention the creative teams, underwent a lot of revision. Although it is now seen as a fairly core part of the strip, this is actually the first time it is established that Dredd is in fact a clone.
Indeed, it is an idea that doesn’t get explored very much for a long time. Rico doesn’t come up again until nearly two years later when it is revealed he has a daughter (“Vienna”, prog 116), and it isn’t even established that he is a clone of Judge Fargo, the founder of the judge system, until 1984’s “Dredd Angel” (progs 377-383) – although I believe it was mentioned in a timeline that was published in an annual before then. After that, however, this aspect gradually became more of an established part of the lore, and eventually a younger clone of Dredd would adopt the name “Rico” in “Blood Cadets” (1186-1188), a story which contains a partial flashback to this one. This Judge has not turned out to be corrupt.
Possibly Rico’s most famous appearance was as the main antagonist in the 1995 Judge Dredd motion picture. In this case he is presented as being genetically identical, and even has the same fingerprints, but is played by the Armand Assante as opposed to Sylvester Stallone who was in the lead role.
The other concept introduced in this story is the idea of the Penal Colony on Titan where corrupt judges are sent. This would go on to become a central feature in “Inferno” by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and Carlos Ezquerra (progs 842-853) and later still in “Titan” by Rob Williams and Henry Flint (progs 1862-1869).
It is worth noting that this episode is written by Pat Mills. Pat Mills is the founding editor of 2000AD, but the main Judge Dredd writer at the time (and for most of the strip’s history) was creator John Wagner. In fact, the sum total of Judge Dredd strips written by Pat Mills is very small – essentially it comprises this and “The Cursed Earth” (progs 61-85), but his influence during the strip’s early development is hard to under-estimate. Pat Mills would go back to revisit this story in 1995, with “Flashback 2099: The Return of Rico” (progs 950-952). This is essentially the same story, padded out. I have to say I think it is the inferior of the two tellings, as the original is a masterpiece in efficient storytelling. The remake includes lots of ellipses about how the judicial system is essentially fascist which, firstly, we sort of knew without having it spelt out, and secondly, doesn’t really justify Rico committing extortion and murder – so it’s hard to see what point is being made.
More typically for this era, it it illustrated by Mike McMahon. McMahon became the default Dredd artist following creator Carlos Ezquerra’s departure citing creative differences. This is still very early McMahon, at a time when he was essentially hired because of his ability to replicate Ezquerra’s art style. McMahon’s style would develop significantly over the following years, and this isn’t rendered in the “big boots” style that became his trademark, but it still has some incredibly dynamic figure work. No-one has ever managed to draw a better Rico than the on page 5. It’s also worth noting that during this period, Dredd’s uniform was still undergoing a fair bit of revision; this strip still has him drawn with the “rounded visor” style of the early days. Eventually McMahon would go on to develop the more angular version of the helmet that is more familiar during the “Luna-1” cycle of stories (progs 42-58, wherein Dredd is made temporary “Judge Marshall” of a lunar outpost) and other artists would go on to adopt this style.
The “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” quote is of course a reference to the Hollies’ pop song from 1969.
One curiosity is that at one point Rico overwhelms Maria, Dredd’s housekeeper, and ties her up in the apartment, only to go on to remove all the oxygen from the apartment. How she survives is not clear – although she does appear on the last page (and in subsequent stories). Dredd’s servodroid Walter the Wobot does not appear in this episode – presumably he’s out shopping.
You actually see Joe and Rico Dredd’s unmasked faces as young men in a couple of frames, albeit as long shots. The tradition of never showing Dredd’s face actually began as far back as prog 8 when Dredd’s face is “censored” – apparently because it was too ghastly to show to readers.
It’s been a while since I wrote anything 2000AD related on this blog, and I’ve been getting back into it recently, so I thought I’d start a new blog series and see how far I get.
The idea of this project is to take a random single Judge Dredd episode from each year and write about it, with a view to exploring a bit of the strips’ history and how it has developed over the years. As it will be random, sometimes I’ll be reviewing two stories that are fairly close together and at other times they’ll be quite far apart. I’ll obviously be missing a lot out, not least of all the various specials and the Judge Dredd Megazine, but I’ll try to give context where appropriate.
We’ll see how far I get! I have a tendency to not finish projects such as these, and even just one post per year of Dredd still amounts to 43 posts and counting. But hopefully I can have some fun with it.
So, four months on, it would appear that I’m still not over the Rise of Skywalker.
(Spoilers ahead, obviously. But if you haven’t seen it by now, do you really care at this stage?)
So, first of all, I should say what kind of Star Wars fan I am. I was two when the original film came out, but because my parents were kind of nerds, I was almost weaned on it and Spielberg’s early blockbusters. I had some of the Kenner toys (although not as many as my friends), obviously. Aside from reading the Dark Empire comic and its follow ups (quite liked the first at the time, although it hasn’t dated well – hated the rest), I never really bothered with the Expanded Universe stuff, which I generally considered to be hackneyed trash (an opinion I still broadly hold having read some of the “classics”). Didn’t think much of the Special Editions. Don’t rate the Prequels, although I was never one of those “these films simply don’t exist” people. Liked the Tartakovsky Clone Wars. Was slow to warm up to Filoni’s The Clone Wars, but when I did at around season three, I fell for it hard, and there for Rebels. I was going through some stuff when the Disney era of Star Wars media began and, as such, consumed most of the early comics and novels, although I’ve fallen off the wagon over the past couple of years. Broadly liked The Force Awakens and Rogue One and while I don’t think Solo was great, I can name many many worse films that have a better reputation.
Oh, and, most defining of all (it would appear), I’m very much Team The Last Jedi. Not because I think it’s a perfect film; I’ve watched it several times and could spend many hours pointing out all of the bits that don’t work for me. But when it does work, it’s wonderful. I guess I’ll get more into that later.
I’m a fan who considers this to be a film franchise first, a TV franchise second, and I can take or leave most other things (with the exception of the tabletop game X-Wing, which I’m a little obsessed with).
So, back to the Rise of Skywalker. By now this has been a very widely dissected film – and I’m by no means the only person who didn’t like it. I think my position is probably best summarised as being somewhere between these two video essays:
I don’t have an awful lot else to add to those essays. I do take issue with the argument often stated in various parts of the internet that the films should have been “planned” better. The original trilogy wasn’t planned at all, and the Prequels were presumably better planned than any other films in the franchise, but it didn’t make them any better. The first two Sequel films actually complement each other well; the problem is that while Rian Johnson very much took a “yes, and” approach to The Last Jedi, Abrams is clearly a much less generous collaborator. As Patrick Willems said in a previous video, Abrams is someone known for starting series not for ending them – and that ended up being a major problem.
I also wonder to what extent Lucasfilm had actually planned for this film, which ended up getting trashed at a fairly late stage. I got the Art of the Rise of Skywalker a few weeks ago and it is notable that not a single piece of pre-production art of Palpatine exists in it (as opposed to this mysterious Oracle), and only one image of the Sith planet Exegol. Given that this book was mysteriously delayed for four months, they had time to insert this art if it existed.
Similarly, if you read the Aftermath novels it’s established that part of the Emperor’s Grand Design in the event of his death was to have a loyal cadre of Imperials go off to find a mystery place somewhere in the Unknown Regions that he had identified and build the First Order. You can still see the skeleton of that idea in Rise, but it ultimately contradicts this. For one thing, how did they get there if they didn’t have either of the Wayfinders? Secondly, why are the First Order and the Final Order different things? It’s all such a mess.
And then there’s Snoke. The most baffling thing for me is why Snoke just got casually dismissed as a clone instead of being something interesting – the idea was he was always intended to be little more than a head in a jar seems unlikely. People have picked up on how Rise seems to trash so much of The Last Jedi but there’s a lot set up in The Force Awakens which is treated with similar disdain. It’s such a depressing experience. This for me is a far more egregious contradiction than the “Rey nobody” twist in Last Jedi that upset so many people.
Of course, to be a Star Wars fan is to live in disappointment. Return of the Jedi was fairly critically panned at the time, and while I think I was too young to see it then, it certainly feels like a step down from the first two now. I had spent much of my early life looking forward to nine Star Wars films, which I imagined would be coming out like clockwork, every three years, from 1986 to 2001 and, well, that didn’t happen. In fact for a long time it didn’t look like it was going to happen at all. What we did get were the Special Editions which did some frankly horrible things to some of my favourite bits of the original trilogy. And when we finally did get episodes 1 to 3, it’s fair to say that they weren’t rapturously welcomed by those of us who had spent the best part of 20 years waiting for them.
But at the same time, people have short memories. People forget that Return of the Jedi was panned, and even the Prequel loathing has softened over time. And I guess you can shrug and dismiss the Rise of Skywalker hatred as just part of the same cycle. For me it’s different though.
You see, for all of Return of the Jedi‘s flaws, it does ultimately satisfyingly complete the story started in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. It is harder to defend the Prequels, which are objectively bad movies, but they are at least interesting failures, with interesting things to say. I’d rather watch films like that – the Matrix sequels also fit into this category – than safe cash grab sequels.
That are the Prequels about? It is admittedly sometimes hard to see through the terrible dialogue and garish CGI, but ultimately the story they tell are about how civilisations fall: it isn’t because a cackling villain turns up and ruins everything, it’s because the institutions designed to stand as a defense against tyranny (in the case of the Prequels, the Republic and the Jedi Order) grow complacent and lose their sense of purpose. And yeah, Palpatine has to come along to push it over, but the edifice was already crumbling before he came along.
That, to me, feels incredibly relevant right now – as it did back in the early 2000s when we were fighting a stupid preventable war like the one that informed Lucas when he set out to make the original films (Vietnam).
I kind of hate the fact that the themes of the Prequels resonate as strongly for me as they do, because I so dearly want them to be part of much better films. Fortunately I now have the Clone Wars to tell that story far more dramatically and entertainingly. But I give Lucas credit for trying to say something complex and nuanced in a film about space wizards.
But what does Abrams have to say? I know exactly what Lucas is saying in both his trilogies; and it’s clear what Johnson is saying in The Last Jedi, but ultimately in the Abrams films, it’s just stuff… that happens. I can give him a pass for The Force Awakens, which is just setting up the trilogy and is entertaining enough, but how do you set about finishing a epic a series as the Skywalker Saga without having anything to say?
Nostalgia and World Building
The biggest fundamental problem with Abrams’s films is that they are rooted in nostalgia at the expense of everything else. With The Force Awakens, that is understandable: the anger which certain parts of the fandom felt towards the Prequels is pretty hard to ignore. The Force Awakens was a useful reset button which should have given Lucasfilm the creative space to go in new directions with the franchise. That certainly seemed to be the plan with The Last Jedi – of course for a lot of fans that was a step too far. And that’s a hard schism to bridge: ultimately for a lot of people, all they wanted was more of the same and a film that took took the same material and ultimately asked different questions was just not on their checklist at all. It’s understandable why Lucasfilm got frit over the outrage over it and decided to make something that was comfortable, but given how many TLJ haters who seem as disappointed with it as the TLJ fans, I think that was the wrong call.
In retrospect, we’d have probably had better films if the anger over the Prequels had been a little more restrained. By the time Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced a new film series in 2012, it had just become a “known” fact that the Prequels were an unmitigated disaster and that the Sequel trilogy should be nothing like them. People like Simon Pegg had popularised the notion that they were unspeakable.
I especially remember this video, by a copywriter called Prescott Harvey, which came out in advance of The Force Awakens. It is an open letter to JJ Abrams and, at the time, was accompanied by a petition which thousands of people signed:
Post-gamergate and The Last Jedi nerdrage, I find this film a little uncomfortable to watch. The entitlement feels eerily famliar. That bit when his voice rises to almost a shouting pitch about how Star Wars must never be cute (which, even ignoring Return of the Jedi, dismisses much of the appeal of R2-D2, the jawas, Yoda and the ugnaughts in the first two films and seems to ignore the fact that there is significantly more graphic violence in the Prequels than the original trilogy), sounds like the archetype of every angry white nerd throwing his toys out of his pram we’ve heard ad nauseum in the years since.
And yes, superficially, there’s nothing too much to disagree with in this video: it does a fairly good job at encapsulating what the Original Trilogy was in essence. The problem is the suggestion that Star Wars shouldn’t strive to be anything more than that, that it should be kept in a safe little box. The logic is that Lucas tried to mix things up in the Prequels, they weren’t good, so that shows you shouldn’t mess with a winning formula. But the bad things about the Prequels wasn’t their ambition, it was their execution. And pushing so hard for future filmmakers to impose limitations like that was always going to be a monkey’s paw.
Prescott Harvey got the filmmaker he could only have dreamed of in the form of JJ Abrams. His previous film Super 8 seems to exist purely to make you think that Steven Spielberg made a horror film at around the same time he was making Close Encounters and Poltergeist (it was an entirely forgettable affair and I can pretty much guarantee you that everything memorable you think happened in it was actually a bit you remember from Stranger Things). His Star Trek films are basically an exercise in mashing up all the cool bits Abrams remembered from the Star Trek films he grew up with, mashed together (he just about pulled it off in his first film but, echoing Star Wars, came horribly unstuck in his messy second effort).
What is remarkable about both Abrams films is quite how pathologically they copy the Original Trilogy. It isn’t enough to have space ships that look like the TIE Fighters and X-Wings of old, they had to have actual TIE Fighters and X-Wings. The Empire and Rebellion were replicated as close as possible as they could be. And of course we had to have yet another Death Star.
And much of this was at the expense of world building and even the impact of the Original Trilogy. The sacrifice of the Rebellion over the course of those films has now been revealed to have achieve almost nothing; not even the Emperor actually died. In the years since The Force Awakens, Lucasfilm has authorised several novels, comics and even a TV show (The Resistance) to flesh out the Star Wars galaxy as it existed at the start of Episode VII, but even having read much of this it still feels pretty hollow.
Much of this replication can be excused away by the argument that, as George Lucas himself put it “Star Wars rhymes“. But rhyming isn’t the same thing as repetition, and that doesn’t mean that things that have dramatic justification in the originals have to happen in the Sequels simply because. So many of the beats in The Rise of Skywalker feel like characters going through the motions and beats of another film rather than getting there by themselves. Perhaps the most egregious is the notion that Rey is somehow conflicted about possibly, maybe, turning to the Dark Side when she is only ever presented as being repelled by the idea. We have the throne room sequence in Return of the Jedi replicated but she’s never actually tempted in the agonising way that Luke is; at worst she appears to briefly flirt with the idea of sacrificing herself to save her friends. Contrast that with the throne room scene in The Last Jedi which clearly echoes similar scenes in past films including Return of the Jedi, but doesn’t simply regurtitate past dramatic beats and comes at the climax of a film that has spent much of its time getting you to that point.
And in order to disguise how slavish this all is, they mask it by making everything bigger. It was bad in The Force Awakens when Starkiller Base could not only blow up planets, but multiple ones at once from across the galaxy. Where do you go from there? Well, you simply give every single Star Destroyer (which look identical to the original Star Destroyers but are now canonically bigger) a planet destroying ray gun. But all the bigger stuff does is serve to make everything feel more hollow, especially when you’ve done so little work fleshing out the galaxy which is now apparently under threat.
Retcons and Cash-ins
Admittedly, it has taken me a while to warm up to the Prequels, and a large part of that was The Clone Wars, which has spent much of the past 12 years clarifying and expanding on the material that was in the Prequel trilogy. We’re already seeing that with Rise of Skywalker with the publication of its novelisation which seems to have been written specifically to smooth over many of the film’s cracks. So it is that we now know that Palpatine didn’t have a son so much as a renegade “failed” clone, and that Rey and Ben Solo’s kiss was strictly platonic.
But this is where we come to the worst aspect of Star Wars fandom and how it has intersected with Disney corporatism; the need to explain everything. Star Wars has always had this. Its pretty harmless when it boils down to anthologies about every single background character ever, such as Tales from Mos Eisley Cantina, but there’s always been a tendency to take this too far. So it is that we have Skippy the Jedi Droid, and the explanation that there is a reason why some of the garbage spotting in the scene in Empire Strikes Back looks vaguely like the robot IG-88 who popped up in the bounty hunter scene a few minutes earlier (Boba Felt killed him! Oh, and there’s four of him. Oh, and he ended up merging with the Death Star shortly before it blew up in Return of the Jedi).
We don’t need any of this stuff, and much of the time it cheapens the original stories, relegating them to trivia. And while I am a big fan of The Clone Wars, which is in some respects a massive retcon, it’s not a good thing that the show had to do as much heavy lifting as it did; the Prequels should have done that in the first place.
But while this has been a part of Star Wars for as long as Obi-Wan Kenobi started wittering on about “a certain point of view” in Return of the Jedi, it has become a mania in the modern Disney corporation, filling its live action adaptation of their classic animated films with retcons intended to “fix” the original (I recommend a couple of videos by LindseyEllis for more on this). It’s no surprise that the first two standalone Star Wars films which came out, Rogue One and Solo, both ostensibly exist to “fix” and “explain” bits of the original films.
And that’s only one half of it. I think I liked Rogue One a lot more than some people because I’d read Catalyst first, which is entirely about Galen Erso. So I understood him, Jyn and Saw Garerra’s characters a lot better going in than most people did. But you shouldn’t have to read a book to properly enjoy a film. Yet this is now a feature. Starkiller Base made no sense to you in the Force Awakens? If you buy the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary it will helpfully explain how that works. Indeed, if you buy the Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary, it will tell you that it was built out of the planet Ilum, which appears in the Clone Wars.
We’ve reached a point now where shoddy explanations and poor characterisation no longer feel like a bug in the new Star Wars films, but a feature. Most people just want the big explosions and if you want the films to make sense, why there is helpfully a whole range of books out there to make it all make sense in your head. And, presumably, eventually a spin off TV show which will do all the heavy lifting for you.
There comes a point where this stops feeling like spin off merchandise and starts to feel like a confidence trick. It seems to all but encourage lazy writing; the worse the film turns out to be the more books get to come out to “fix” it. This seems to be what “plot hole culture” seems to have been leading up to, and it feels deeply cynical and dispiriting.
I should emphasise that I’m not puritanical about all this. I don’t expect a company like Disney to be making films for the sake of the art, just as Lucas wasn’t. Indeed, it’s actually a little weird to me that Disney has eschewed Lucas’s tendency to fill his films with kewl new spaceships that the fans will want to rush out and buy. But that would mean producing something novel rather than focusing exclusively on nostalgia by making everything look and feel like the films they grew up watching.
Ultimately no amount of retroactive fixes can make a film devoid of substance a good film. And this is ultimately the difference between the Prequels being redeemed by later media and the Rise of Skywalker receiving similar treatment. No amount of retconning can avoid the fact that that film ultimately has nothing to say.
A New Hope?
So my dislike of Rise of Skywalker is not just rooted in the film itself, but in the corporate culture in which it developed and how its rooted in an obsession that sees Star Wars in terms of nostalgia and facts but is less interested in things like theme and meaning.
But it isn’t despair that kills you, it’s the hope. And there is a part of me that is still rooting for the franchise. I quite liked the Mandalorian, although it was pretty unchallenging. And while the recent “Final Season” of the Clone Wars was, for the most part, fairly solid but run of the mill, its final arc, which echoes the events in Revenge of the Sith, is emotionally shredding.
And while I definitely get the impression that The Rise of Skywalker is the film that the producers ultimately set out to make, as something of a Lucasfilm-watcher, I do get the impression that the studio was concerned that it was going to be a bit of critical flop.
For one thing, Disney decided not to market it in its own right but as part of a season of Star Wars alongside the new video game Jedi: Fallen Order and the Mandalorian. The Mandalorian was particularly interesting because it meant releasing a show which had a massive spoiler in it that had been kept secret before airing, but at a time when they couldn’t launch Disney Plus across Europe – meaning that a very large market didn’t legally have access to the show. That always felt like a weird decision to me, but it did mean that thousands of people were ecstatically tweeting about The Child/Baby Yoda instead of expressing their concerns about the upcoming film. I think it paid off for them, but I doubt they’d have done it if they truly believed that The Rise of Skywalker could have stood on its own feet.
The other thing that reassures me that that they are taking their time not to rush into any more films, having axed the Weiss and Benioff series – which had lots of alarm bells wringing – and not yet having axed the promised Rian Johnson series – which will be alarming to some but very reassuring to others (especially after his triumphant return to the big screen with Knives Out). Indeed, taking their time is something I wish they’d done with the Sequel Trilogy. I can’t help but feel we’d have ended up with a stronger Episode Nine, irrespective of curveballs such as Carrie Fisher’s tragic death, we’d had the traditional three year wait between films (meaning that Episode IX would be due for release in 2021) rather than two.
Hopefully the departure of Bob Iger from Disney means that the corporation as a whole becomes less obsessed with this idea of making sequels and remakes as a way to retcon existing properties. And, ultimately, finishing off the Skywalker Saga always was going to be a far harder task than making tangential Star Wars films in the future. It’s just such a shame they dropped the ball so badly with this one.
By even more than my usual standards this is a dreadful ramble, being as it is an attempt to nail down my thinking about the state of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties right now. tl;dr: I’m just so tired of this shit.
So, now that both the Lib Dem and Labour manifestos have been launched, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma: I definitely prefer the Labour version to the Lib Dem one, with one very major exception (which ought to be obvious but don’t worry folks, I’ll be joining the dots below). Worse, I actually prefer Labour’s campaign thus far.
Disclaimer: I haven’t read either manifesto in very great detail, and this isn’t really the focus of this article other than first impressions and where the parties are placing their emphasis. If you think I’m misrepresenting either manifesto here, feel free to point it out in the comments below.
I voted Labour in both the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In 2015 I had no qualms about doing so; in 2017 I was very deeply conflicted about it and nearly couldn’t go through with it. I’ve hated how Labour have conducted themselves so much that I went into this election pretty sure there was no way I’d do it again.
This is an election of grim ironies. Labour under Corbyn has turned “Blairite” into a catch-all insult. We are to believe that Blairite = melt = moderate = centrist = liberal = neoliberal = conservative = fascist — such has been the level of discourse within the left over the past four years that these words no longer have any meaning other than to other people. And yet, just as moderate-hating Labour supporters were keen to brag about how moderate Labour’s 2017 manifesto was, this manifesto wouldn’t look that out of place with 1997 Tony Blair’s irritating grin beaming off of it (to add more irony, the wavy text on the front is more reminiscent of the Kinnock-era Labour Party Logo — I guess it was commissioned by Michael Foot technically?). Indeed, the keynote policy of a windfall tax is a carbon copy of Blair’s own 1997 windfall tax, right down to it raising approximately the same amount of money in real terms. In that respect, at least, I think the Lib Dem manifesto is at least more honest, pledging to raise taxes a little for all people rather than pretend it can just be covered by easy scapegoats.
But, to be fair to them, it is on the economy that their manifesto feels much stronger. While the Lib Dem manifesto says good things about devolution and creating opportunity, the emphasis in the Labour manifesto is on levelling up. And this is important. We are in the mess that we’re in as a country right now in no small way because of how lopsided our economy has become, and how large swathes of the country has been left behind. Politicians have been keen to brag about how their policies have strengthened the economy over the past few decades, much less keen on ensuring that the country as a whole sees those benefits — and that’s been a crashing failure.
The signs are that Labour understand that problem; I don’t really get a sense that the Lib Dems do. To be fair to them, they do also have a welcome focus on wellbeing and shifting focus of economic policies away from growth — but it feels like a bolt-on to the economic policy at the end, not a core focus.
Obviously, my big issue with the Labour manifesto is Brexit. Again, it’s deeply ironic that the leader who has defined himself in opposition to centrism has made his position on the single most important policy of the day a matter of the most studied triangulation that would make Bill Clinton blush. My biggest problem with Labour’s Brexit “policy” (scare quotes very much intentional) is that I don’t believe it, and don’t believe it is credible. I don’t believe that Corbyn will negotiate a Brexit deal, based on his priorities, and then expect the Labour Party to sit out a subsequent referendum. I don’t believe there will be a subsequent referendum if Corbyn thinks he can possibly get away with it. The Lexiteers in Corbyn’s inner circle have made it perfectly clear that they will not allow a referendum to happen, and if you think they will you need only look at how this policy was agreed upon by Labour conference — forced through by a chair who could plainly see that the vote was split and refused to take a card vote.
I get that this seems like an obscure detail to get hung up on, but it’s in details like these that decisions gets made. The agreed upon policy was that after negotiating a deal, Labour will have an emergency conference to decide what its policy should be. The way Labour’s constitution is formulated easily allows for Corbyn to push through a motion reversing the policy of a referendum. I’m not saying he’ll definitely do it, and I’m not saying it wouldn’t massively backfire on him. What I am saying is that he’d like to do it, that many of his closest advisers intend for this to happen, and that he has form in shooting himself in the foot in the name of ideology — I present his entire 4+ years handling of the Brexit referendum and beyond as evidence.
And if he can’t stitch up conference, again like Blair, he simply ignores it — as is the case of Labour’s position on immigration. It’s hard to dismiss this as anything other than a dog whistle and it suggests that Labour’s Brexit positioning is hardening again. In 2017, they proudly stood on a platform to end free movement as part of their preferred Brexit deal, a position which they have spent the last two years slowly softening thanks to pressure within the party. Now we are likely to see them once again make it part of their Brexit deal. Assuming they do go ahead with a referendum (which assuming Labour wins I’ll concede is probably the most likely outcome eventually, regardless of what Corbyn wants or tries to do), we are likely to see it once again fought on immigration and a repeat of all of the ugliness that we saw in 2016. Corbyn is doing this with his eyes wide open.
The cynicism is breathtaking. In an interview before the manifesto was finalised, Len McCluskey stated his opposition to free movement, arguing that “If we don’t deal with the issues and concerns, we will create a vacuum that will be filled by a far right seeking to become the voice of the white working class.” In that respect he’s right: if people don’t see the benefits of immigration then we are playing into the far right’s hands. But the answer to that is to deal with those underlying issues, which is what a manifesto is meant to do, not give the far right what they want anyway with a pat on the head and a wink. Ultimately, this reads like a vote of no confidence in Labour’s wider economic policies — an admission that Labour don’t really feel they’re capable of rebalancing the economy. And I struggle to get past the fact that if McCluskey and Corbyn get what they really want and we leave the EU, he’s right: their economic policies won’t be worth a damn if they are having to also deal with the political, diplomatic and economic fallout of Brexit.
For me, the dog whistling about immigration and the charges of antisemitism are impossible to divorce. When Corbyn was first elected leader, I felt minded to defend him on the latter issue. The fact is, there most definitely are people on the right of Israeli politics who seek to use charges of antisemitism as a deflection over criticism over Israel’s treatment of Palestine. We’ve seen plenty of bad faith arguments being employed, such as Maureen Lipman’s claim that “Corbyn made me a Tory” four years after telling people to oppose Labour in protest over the position of Ed Miliband (who happens to be a secular Jew) on Palestine. And you are deluding yourself if you think that the Tories’ rightward shift is in any way more in the interests of British Jewry than Corbyn in Number 10: I hope more sensible people can see Johnson and company’s far more explicit Islamophobia and see that as a red flag and a warning of what to expect.
But none of that is to deny the charge that antisemitism exists within Labour and has been allowed to fester. There are simply too many examples of explicit antisemitism and we have seen too little action. The fact that Richard Burgon remains a shadow minister after is not only saying that “Zionism is the enemy of peace” but then denied saying it speaks volumes.
The problem is, it’s a complex issue which is more about how people on the hard left view the world than explicit racism. When Corbyn sees a mural leaning into fairly blatant antisemitic tropes, he doesn’t recognise it as such because what he does see is a mural about evil capitalist bankers plotting wars and division on the backs of everyone else. I don’t actually doubt his sincerity when he argues that he simply didn’t look closely enough at the image: he saw what he wanted to see. I’m completely confident that most people on the hard left who share his world view don’t see this as antisemitic and sincerely believe you can divorce these tropes from their source. The problem is you can’t, and this worldview is entirely at odds with the world works.
There is no grand global capitalist conspiracy to keep us under heel; that tragedy is, as Marx himself spelled out 150 years ago, there doesn’t need to be. You don’t even need to be a Marxist to see that without any form of regulation markets lean towards monopolisation, poor standards and the privatisation of wealth. And while I’m as in favour of greater lobbying transparency as anyone (it was my job to campaign for it for a decade, after all), the problem isn’t people working in the dark over some wicked grand design — it’s individuals and companies looking out for themselves and their short term interests. Even when you look at worrying trends such as Russia’s interference in the democratic process worldwide, it’s important to remember that this isn’t merely a case of Putin pulling the strings; it’s Putin finding allies who feel they can profit equally from the fallout and taking advantage of problems countries like the UK had festering for decades. The fact that there is no grand plan is far more scary than the comfortable fiction that there is one.
You should take the charge of antisemitism within Labour seriously because you should believe the victims of any form of racial or ethic abuse and stand in solidarity with them. But even if that wasn’t the case it should concern you because underlying it is a toxic world view that will influence how Labour governs. The problem isn’t merely the more blatant abuse — it’s the spectrum that it lies on. And when we see McCluskey and his fellow Lexiteers seeing this an election as an opportunity to throw migrants and settled European citizens under a bus for political gain (regardless of the mealy-mouthed language he couches it in), it’s all part of a similar trend which casually dehumanises people who are politically inconvenient to them.
Labour has always had a tribal problem. It’s been bizarre watching Tom Watson reinvent himself over the past decade from Labour’s headbanger in chief (jeez, in a previous life I used to run a parody website about him) to the “above it all” gracious statesman he likes people to now see him as. It reminds us that much of the mindless tub thumping that has characterised Corbyn’s leadership was around long before he got to take charge. But the combination of it with the plain nastiness of the hard left has been a tough thing to watch over the last few years. I used to think that over time it would burn itself out and the grownups would slowly begin to reassert itself; now I think the way it resolves itself will be much more convoluted and painful.
And it is worth emphasising how nasty the hard left can be. I feel that the generations ahead of me don’t really get what the fuss about Militant was; my awakening was joining the Lib Dems in the mid-90s and meeting teenager after teenager whose Lib Dem parents had had to deal with threats to murder their children delivered by brick through their living room windows at 2am. I’ve seen friends beaten up for the “crime” of winning a student union election. I’ve sat in Stop the War coalition meetings seeing the AWL gleeful at the fact that we had failed to stop the war because it now meant the “gloves could come off”. And I’ve seen friends lives and careers ruined because some trumped up little twerp sees himself as the next Gramsci and is going to use their position to take over some minor voluntary sector organisation in the name of The Cause. Tom Watson really wasn’t the great force in politics that his admirers think he was, but what is replacing him looks set to be far worse.
So, to recap: on strict policy lines I can absolutely see the attraction of Labour’s manifesto but the Brexit policy and the culture of the party behind it makes me sceptical that it can deliver. So it should be a slam dunk for me to back the Lib Dems, the party I spent most of the last three decades supporting, in this garbage fire of an election. So why do they have to make it so damn hard?
Because here’s the plot twist. With all that said about Corbyn — for all his failings that make me deeply wish almost anyone but him was leading the Labour Party right now — there is no possible outcome of this election that I can see that doesn’t involve either Corbyn or Johnson in Number 10. It’s one thing two years into a parliament for the Lib Dems to fail to offer Corbyn their support in trying to muster up the votes needed to install him as Johnson’s replacement — the numbers weren’t there even within the Labour Party for that to happen. It’s quite another thing to rule out backing Corbyn under any circumstances, as the Lib Dems have now done.
It is worth pointing out that the Lib Dems have equally ruled out backing Johnson under any circumstances too. But assuming that the Conservatives win a plurality of the seats in the House of Commons (currently the most likely scenario), here’s what this new formulation of equidistance means in practice:
with Corbyn unable to secure a majority, the Queen will invite Johnson to form a government;
Lib Dems vote against and Johnson fails to secure a majority;
Corbyn is invited to form a government; Lib Dems vote against and Corbyn fails to secure a majority;
repeat for two weeks until another damaging election is called (in which the Lib Dems will be wiped out), OR the Lib Dems abstain and Johnson becomes Prime Minister by default, OR the Lib Dems massively climbdown and agree to back Corbyn, breaking an election promise and having given away all of their leverage.
I can’t see any other outcome. There’s absolutely no reason for Corbyn to stand down at this stage — he will rightly be able to claim a fresh mandate and with no independent MPs for the Lib Dems to hide behind, the smaller party will have no negotiating position. I’d like someone to be able to convince me I’m wrong, but I just can’t see it.
The thing is, I get it. There’s a soul-deadening hypocrisy in our political discourse that dictates that when the Lib Dems fail to court Labour they are condemned for tribalism while nobody expects Labour to court the Lib Dems. We’ve seen this with tactical voting and the debate over standing down candidates; people are very quick to express outrage over the Lib Dems’ determination to fight in Canterbury and yet Labour have not come under any pressure to do the same in any Lib Dem-Conservative marginals. On an emotional level I share the Lib Dem frustration over this. I just think that if you’ve spent years attacking your rivals left and right for pursuing Brexit unicorns, arguing that your belief in a political Loch Ness Monster isn’t an especially credible position to take.
The tragedy is, this is so unnecessary and so distracting from the party’s anti-Brexit core message. I would dearly loved to have seen the Lib Dems look at each Labour MP in turn, stand down in the marginal seats where the MP has a strong Brexit track record and continue to oppose the sitting MPs who lack one – this isn’t about pacts, it’s about messaging. I get that part of the thinking behind ruling out any coalition is to avoid the debate degenerating into an obsession with rehearsing the coalition talks before they’ve even happened, as legend has it was the case in 1992. But a formulation must have been possible which didn’t involve pledging something that is impossible to actually deliver; accepting Corbyn can’t be got rid of is not the same as, for example, saying that Seamus Milne shouldn’t be let anywhere near Number 10.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that crafting the right message around possible coalitions and deals is easy. What I am saying is that the current position ruling out any kind of deal at all is completely at odds with reality and that the party has had time to game plan a different option.
At the heart of this problem is the elephant in the room: the 2010-2015 Lib Dem-Tory coalition. The Lib Dems can argue until the cows come home that they are not picking sides between Labour and the Tories, and insist that they are criticising both parties equally — but people will assume that they are hefting to the right if they don’t see more being done to attract the left than they have done in this election thus far. The Labour answer to each and every Lib Dem criticism of them is the coalition and the Lib Dem voting record during that period. Now, I personally feel that ultimately the coalition has proven to have been a mistake. Nonetheless I can sit here and explain how that is the nature of coalitions for junior parties to have to support a lot of the senior party’s policies, that the party made a sacrifice in the national interest and that the alternative to the coalition would have been a far worse Tory government. But trust me, no matter how right it is, that argument doesn’t land. If you want to look like you aren’t crypto-Tories to any soft Labour supporters, you don’t have to spend your lives apologising for the coalition years but you do need to send a very clear signal that you aren’t the Tories in disguise.
As it stands, the Lib Dems positioning has felt from my perspective that it is as opposed to Labour as it is to Brexit, and that doesn’t feel like the hopeful message I was hoping the party would adopt in this election. It feels nihilistic. It feels like nostalgia for the salad days of “coalicious” when the Tories were our moderate, reasonable, only very slightly evil friends who only had our best interests at heart. In short, it feels like the empty, vacuous and dishonest politics of Clegg which I thought the Lib Dems had moved on from.
I was kind of just sad about this and the party’s failure to get its message across until I saw it’s baffling decision to release an attack video on Corbyn, featuring a Corbyn puppet attacking reality. Just about the best thing I can say about this video, which has now been taken down, is that it was such a spectacular miscalculation that it hasn’t even worked as a dead cat earning the Lib Dems lots of appalled media coverage in the way that the Tories’ fake factchecking service and Labour manifesto have. I thought the even-handed attacks on Labour were part of a well researched targeting operation focused on getting disaffected Tory voters on side and that it’s only alienating me because I’m awkward; now I’m starting to think that it’s more about how the party’s senior advisors and strategists really thing — and that’s an incredibly depressing thought.
For all this, I think I will probably still vote Lib Dem. I live in Hendon, a constituency that was extremely close for Labour in 2017 but one with a heavily Jewish population where the Lib Dems actually won in the European elections this year. With tactical voting websites split over whether I should vote Labour or Lib Dem and Labour failing to campaign in any meaningful, visible way, my suspicion is that the Tories are a shoo-in and so I might as well vote for the least bad option. I just wish I felt like I was a part of a greater cause this time around rather than having to choose between two distasteful options.
I’ve been fascinated by the response to the new Lib Dem position to fight the next election on a platform of revoking Article 50 and doing so if (and at the moment, it’s a big if) they win an outright majority. Polly Toynbee has denounced it as “extremist” with Emily Thornberry deciding to up the ante by comparing the party to the Taliban (I don’t know where I stand with regard making jokes about this reaction, possibly because I haven’t come up with any good ones, but I think Rajin Chowdhury makes some strong points about the unfortunate racial dimension that, as a white man, I’m privileged to not be impacted by).
There’s a few things to unpack here. Basically, there are three questions: is the policy undemocratic?; is the policy divisive?; and, is the policy likely to be a vote winner?
In terms of the latter, I’ve heard a lot of people express the worry that it isn’t – including, funnily enough, some of the six million people who signed a petition a few months ago demanding article 50 be revoked without a referendum (indeed, I don’t recall Lucas, Thornberry or Toynbee denouncing that petition). All I can say to that, aside from that time will tell, is that I would imagine the Lib Dem leadership team did their research very seriously before committing to this position and that, thus far, the polls have borne that out.
Is it undemocratic? Well, this is an interesting one. I’m still trying to keep up, as a constitutional reformer, with the situation that all my opponents have switched from saying that parliamentary sovereignty should and does trump everything else to seeing them consistently argue the exact opposite, including by people who for decades argued to leave the EU on precisely these terms. Before the crazy started, a party pledging to keep the nation’s status quo constitutional arrangements after winning a democratic mandate in a general election wouldn’t be considered noteworthy, let alone undemocratic or extremist.
Of course, you can argue that if the Lib Dems were to do this it is still unlikely they would win more than 50% of the popular vote. This is of course true. Nor was there a majority in the popular vote to impose austerity in 2010. Nor was there a majority voting for a whole host of policies which have had a major impact on our lives since time immemorial. This is a problem the Lib Dems have always recognised and pledged to do something about; neither Labour nor the Conservatives have ever made any such commitment.
There is also the argument that a general election result cannot trump the specific mandate of the 2016 election. This is where things start to slide into the third question, which is largely about politics. But I would point out at this stage that not only does that referendum result have no legal status whatsoever, but also that any democratic regime in the world which has referendums as a central mechanism for making major decisions, particularly Switzerland, would likely have stricken that result down as unconstitutional a long time ago.
If you think referendums should form a part of decision-making, then it is incumbent on you to prevent them from being quite so open to abuse as they currently are. The UK is very, very bad at holding referendums: we don’t have a legal framework to do so other than one that was sketched out in 2000 to deal with, at the time, a series of abandoned referendums for regional assemblies. We haven’t significantly updated referendum law since them, despite the debacle of the 2010 AV referendum providing us with a very salutary warning as to what might happen in a higher stakes national ballot.
It is perhaps Cameron’s greatest failing, having decided to hold that cursed referendum in 2016, to imagine that the unfair practices done in his name in 2010 would be done against him in 2016 – despite knowing that a number of the same people were involved in both campaigns. Not only did he not take that into account, but he doubled down, unjustly excluding 16 and 17 year olds and even EU citizens from the debate, for no reason other than to hand the leave campaign an unfair advantage by excluding the people with some of the greatest stakes in the result from being able to take part.
In short, if you are going to make this claim that the 2016 result should be binding, you need to at least be able to make the case that it was held democratically. In that regard, I fear, you would be on a very sticky wicket.
Finally, as in all things, we are left with the argument that this policy is divisive, and that we should be healing divisions between remainers and leavers, not deepen them. And this argument certainly has some superficial merit: the country is indeed deeply divided.
I guess my counter to that is that I’m not at all convinced that a compromise exists that can heal those divisions, and that the best approach would be to adopt the position that will at least end this ongoing festering wound. Revoking article 50, for all its risks, would at least give British politics a chance to breathe, and to start a dialogue about something, anything, other than Brexit – a great many of which would help heal those rifts. Keeping the debate going by contrast will only ensure those divisions continue.
From where we are now, I can’t see a compromise that will keep most people relatively happy. There certainly was a window of opportunity. In the summer of 2016, like a lot of people, I worked on the assumption that we were going to end up with the softest of soft Brexits and that, by 2019, would effectively have a trading arrangement akin to Norway. The result was close enough that no-one could reasonably argue that there was a strong mandate for a “hard” Brexit in which the UK went it entirely alone. Better yet, from monitoring the debate, both Vote Leave and Leave.EU had consistently argued that claims that we would drop out of the EU without a deal were “Project Fear” and specifically cited Norway as a model example.
To be clear, it wasn’t an option that I exactly relished: the Norway model is essentially the Leave position made manifest. We’d have to pay billions to the EU and have very little say in return – certainly no more votes in the European Parliament or Council of Ministers. But hey, there was a mandate, and I guess we have to listen to the will of the people. What’s more, only a few absolute headbangers were calling for a harder Brexit and surely Theresa May wasn’t going to listen to them?
How wrong I was. The subsequent conduct of the May administration appeared to work on the basis that the referendum had been a thumping victory for leave and not the narrow one that it was in reality. And as they did so, so did leave opinion harden. One of the greatest acts of gaslighting of the last few years has been to attempt to argue that the subsequent debacle has been because of remainers refusing to compromise and secretly undermining the talks, rather than leavers. Theresa May made a deliberate decision to put them in the driving seat and leave everyone else out in the cold.
So we ended up with a deal that didn’t please anyone and a leave contingency even more determined to leave at all costs, and this crazed government we have now. I didn’t do anything to create this situation and neither did Jo Swinson. The response by politicians on the leave side following Jo Cox’s murder by an extremist was not to pause for thought but to double down on the rhetoric about “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” – and indeed we now have a government that has shut down parliamentary scrutiny, legally due to our shoddy constitution, or otherwise.
To be clear: this is not the situation we were in in 2016 where there was legitimate hurt on both sides that needed to be addressed. We’re in a situation where one side of that divide has been radicalised, and the other side has been repelled as a result. I’ve criticised the idea of centrism in the past, arguing that politicians shouldn’t be aiming for the moving target of the middle way because they are then entirely subject to the whims of their opponents, but it increasingly feels that trying to find a middle way here isn’t merely fudge but appeasement.
You don’t deradicalise a significant body people by trying to meet them halfway. Not only are people like Stephen Kinnock’s attempts to exhume the withdrawal agreement doomed to fail; if they had been successful they would be lumped in as filthy traitors just as much as the rest of us. Equally baffling is this idea that a Labour negotiated withdrawal agreement would somehow satisfy anyone, least of all the Brexiteers.
And so we return to the topic of a second referendum. For years, despite my misgivings of referendums, I thought this was the least worst option. I could see how revocation would be simpler, and it would certainly be my dream option, but I couldn’t see how it could be a politically acceptable solution to anyone other than a small cadre of remainers. I supported attempts to bring Labour on board and finally get off the fence by supporting this position; if they had done so a year ago we would likely have had the referendum by now.
But the question of what options you put in the referendum has become increasingly hard to answer. Six months ago, if Parliament had supported such a proposal, it was still just about possible to hold a referendum on remain versus Theresa May’s deal; I can’t see how that could be seen as anything other than a stitch up now. You could put crashing out of the EU with no deal at all as an option, but while people might relish the fight, it is surely not a responsible option any respectable political party could consider – it would be putting people’s lives up for debate in a public poll.
The other option is for the leave option to be a new withdrawal agreement. This is roughly what Labour seems to be tearing itself apart over now. The problem is, it’s an incredibly silly policy. Do you argue for remain and put forward a withdrawal deal that you don’t believe in? Do you say you’re going to support the withdrawal deal that you negotiate, and thus alienate your remain supporters? Or do you stay scrupulously neutral, as if that could possibly mean anything? Labour has got itself into such a mess that it might actually be for the best for them to have a formal position to remain, but give Jeremy Corbyn a free rein to negotiate the best deal he can come up with and campaign for it in the subsequent referendum in a personal capacity. That I can say that in all seriousness shows quite how hard to sustain the referendum position currently is. What looks likely is that Labour will end up committing itself to a policy almost identical to the one that David Cameron campaigned on in the 2015 general election; and look how well that turned out.
I can still see a referendum still happening as a compromise between the Lib Dems and Labour. Paradoxically, if the Lib Dems kept its position of supporting a referendum, the lack of pressure would probably make it harder to achieve. We’ve now reached a point where Labour feels it has ownership of the policy – helped by the Lib Dems vacating that space – and that will make it harder for the likes of Len McCluskey et al to persuade Corbyn to go back on it if they found themselves in government (I would be amazed if McCluskey didn’t still have a go though).
Ultimately, this muddle only strengthens my case that no position exists any longer that both leave and remain supporters can live with, and the fact that Labour is even considering an attempt at such a byzantine approach says more about the lamentable state it is currently in than anything else.
No Brexit policy is going to heal divisions; it is thus up to political parties to base their policy on what is best for the country, not try to ameliorate people with fudge. The Lib Dems have thus adopted the most responsible, straightforward and open position.
Ultimately, Brexit has only highlighted the deep divide in the UK; it didn’t cause it. If we’re going to ease that rift, we have to start looking at the deep inequality and alienation that was exploited in that poll. I’d have liked to have heard more emphasis on this coming out of Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth last week, and I have heard equally little from Labour conference in Brighton this week (scrapping posh schools, however desirable, won’t cut it). If pro-Europeans are ultimately going to win the peace, they need to start offering a vision of EU-membership from which the entire country reaps dividends, not just London and the major population centres. I don’t think offering a bit more hope would go down too badly in the election, either.
After years of being ignored and disparaged, the Liberal Democrats are suddenly the place to be. As well as a successful by-election, over the past few months a total of 6 MPs have joined the party, 3 ex-Labour and 3 ex-Conservative (the careful balancing suggests that there is a certain amount of stage management going on, and that there may yet be more to come), swelling the parliamentary party from 11 to 18.
This has caused a degree of consternation among the party faithful, not to mention some high profile resignations. It’s certainly given me pause for thought, especially with regard to the Conservative defections.
Now, to a large extent, I’m willing to give these people the benefit of the doubt. Philip Lee has apparently stated that his proposals to ban HIV+ asylum seekers was motivated purely out of health concerns and the desire to give asylum seekers the proper treatment; okay (that isn’t what his amendment actually says though). He claims that his abstention on same sex marriage was because he is in favour of all marriages being treated as civil unions and that the state shouldn’t be involved in marriages at all; that isn’t a million miles from my own position (not believing in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good however, I still would have voted in favour of the 2013 Act in his position). Sam Gyimah’s filibustering of the legislation pardoning Alan Turing and other people convicted of scrapped anti-homosexuality laws was a party political bid to ensure that the government’s own (lesser) version of the legislation could be passed instead; that is parliamentary party politics.
I can go further, and say that people must be allowed to change their minds. People grow, especially when placed in different environments. Party politics is a shocking place for tribalism and blinkered attitudes. Defecting to another party is a brave step which inevitably leads to people’s voting records and statements being trawled over with a fine tooth comb; you have to make some allowances for people to not be perfect. What’s more, there is the good of the country to think about. With Labour as weak and divided as it is right now, looking very much like a spent force, high profile defections aimed at boosting the Liberal Democrat’s profile and widening its appeal is a potential way out of this mess.
So I don’t want to rush to judgement on the voting records of individual ex-MPs, can see why there are a lot of positives about these defections, and why the senior party is so keen to encourage them.
But I still hate it. Really hate it.
I hate it so much that, at the height of the party being at it’s most self-congratulatory on Saturday night, as Sam Gyimah was revealed on stage during the conference rally, I had to go on a Twitter break as it was upsetting me too much (I might give it another go after conference is safely over). I had another sleepless night. And hey, it’s 2am now so I guess I’d better make that 2 sleepless nights.
Whatever good reasons there are to promote these defections, the fact is that it has caused massive ructions within the LGBT+ Lib Dems, resulting in its Chair Jennie Rigg, Vice Chair Zoe O’Connell and exec member Sarah Brown to all quit the party, along with several others.
These aren’t people known for their disloyalty to the party. Many of the people most angry about this round of defections actively supported the party during the darkest days of the coalition, when people like me had long abandoned it. The fact that previous regimes had managed to keep them on board, only for it to fall apart now, suggests a very significant failure in both communication and empathy from the current senior Lib Dem team.
A lot of, to use the modern garbage phrase, “the optics” have not been great. Philip Lee’s first response in an interview on BBC News was not to be conciliatory but to imply legal action, stating that “they’re defaming my character and they should be careful about what they say”. A later statement put out by Baroness Liz Barker and Helen Belcher, while making some fair points, frames the controversy as emanating from “a small number of activists” who, as well as accusing Lee of homophobia and xenophobia, felt that “they should have been consulted” – no mention is made of the fact that these activists included the chair of the party’s officially recognised Associate Organisation representing LGBT+ members, let alone any regret that they felt the need to resign.
I feel that too much of this controversy has focused on individuals and not looked at broader trends. We’re still reeling from a party leader who not only declared that homosexuality is a sin (a point that a number of his fellow Christians would take issue with), but that his failure to reconcile that with his leadership of a political party espousing liberal values was liberalism’s failure, not his.
But Tim Farron is ancient history now, even if he remains on the party front bench and will presumably continue to abstain or obstruct any future legislation for gay rights (we’ll have that fight if and when it happens). The swathe of rightwing populism that has resulted in Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK, has also resulted in a nationwide campaign against the rights of transgender people, leading to a massive spike in hate crime. It has lead to an ongoing campaign in Birmingham to ban the teaching of acceptance of LGBT+ people in schools, a campaign actively supported by at least one Labour MP, who remains under the party’s whip (a fact which automatically denies any Labour supporter from taking the moral high ground over the Lib Dems’ own current situation).
Let’s be clear here: we’re seeing a concerted effort to see, in effect, a return of Section 28 – the homophobic legislation banning local authorities from providing any material designed to “promote” homosexuality. And at the same time, we have a national government shutting down parliament and openly attacking the very concept of rule of law.
None of these fights are lost, but I know I’m not the only queer person who can feel the walls closing in on them right now, and is deeply concerned about where all this leads. Having visited Berlin over the summer, I was reminded how the rich, diverse and progressive Weimar-era Berlin culture was snuffed out within a few years. The ease with which the progress we’ve made over LGBT+ rights over the past couple of decades could go into reverse feels very real to me.
More mundanely, there’s the Lib Dems’ own ambivalent experience of defections from the Conservatives in recent years. With the exception of Bill Newton-Dunn, I can’t think of any prominent former Conservative who has managed to make a happy home within the party, and a lot of who have shat the bed while they were in the party. I joined the Lib Dems in 1995, shortly before Emma Nicholson defected to the party; she now sits as a Conservative in the House of Lords. We had the whole debacle of the Pro-Euro Conservative Party joining the party en masse in 2001 after their failure to win any seats in the previous European Election. Among them was future IEA director and prominent, um, Brexiteer Mark Littlewood. This brief excitement about the thought of masses of Tory defections lead to the creation of the Peel Group, but no more prominent actual defectors. You can draw a direct link between this network and the Orange Book, and of course between the Orange Book and many of the most damaging decisions the Lib Dems made while in coalition between 2010 and 2015.
For me, that’s the background: the prospect of the party re-examining its identity once again at a time when the basic rights of LGBT+ people are more open to question than they have been for years. Yet despite all that, I can see the potential wins and I can see the bigger picture. All I’d really like to see is reassurances rather than the contemptuous dismissal we saw in the Barker-Belcher statement, or waffle about Lee having “a very nuanced position”.
Fundamentally, if the Lib Dems are to take a moral stand against supporting Labour over its failure to tackle antisemitism, we can’t then start telling our own LGBT+ members that when it comes to discrimination against them, it’s all a question of nuance and pragmatism. I’m sure a lot of this debacle has been provoked by egos rubbing up against each other, but ultimately I don’t give a fig about that. The party needs to sort this out, and fast.
Content warning: contains discussion around mental health, depression and anxiety
Hi there, dear reader.
You may notice that I haven’t been blogging much recently. Um, at all, to be precise. Indeed, aside from the occasional spurt of enthusiasm, I haven’t really been blogging with any degree of regularity since 2010.
Why is that? Well, lots of reasons. I was briefly banned from blogging during the AV referendum campaign, during which I worked for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, and I didn’t really get back into the habit from then on. Even before then, I found winning the (hah!) Lib Dem Blog of the Year Award back in 2007, weirdly intimidating – shades of imposter syndrome I guess. Fundamentally though, my output declined as my mental health fell apart, culminating in me essentially not getting out of bed from 2014 to 2017. And that mental health decline coincided as my disappointment with party politics, and the Lib Dems in particular, grew.
I should stop here and point out that this is not a case of causation. I don’t blame my mental health on how the Lib Dems governed themselves (and for a while, the country). It’s far more a case that as my mental health declined, I found myself less able to deal with the adversity I faced, and that largely came from within the political party I had spent by that point over a decade organising within.
I quit the Lib Dems in 2012 quite suddenly, after months of attempting to keep it together. At the time, I was one of the main organisers of the Social Liberal Forum, and one of the few people who set that organisation up who hadn’t by that point either gone into government or defected to Labour. It was hell. Instead of doing any work to help the organisation’s goals, I spent sleepless night after sleepless night having what I now recognise to be severe anxiety attacks.
So, to be clear, I don’t blame the Lib Dems for the state of my mental health. Nonetheless, it did utterly break my heart. I helped set up the SLF because I saw the writing was on the wall and that Nick Clegg was steering the party in a direction that I couldn’t follow. Despite the howling criticism at the time about “factionalising” the party, my biggest regret in life is that we didn’t start that process much sooner than we did.
I remember the evening that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was announced, in May 2010. It was quite a surreal period walking around Westminster during that time; you had the palpable sense that no-one was in charge of the country – it felt quite liberating and a tiny bit terrifying. I ended up voting for the coalition at the party’s special conference, but nonetheless regarded it as a crushing defeat. I wouldn’t have done if I had conceived the degree to which Clegg would press ahead with his personal agenda at the expense of the party (the “compromises” the Lib Dems made over higher education, free schools and NHS reforms were all personal hobby horses of his, not things imposed by the Tories), and if I’d predicted that the Tories would, in 2015, manage to win a general election outright (I massively overestimated Labour’s ability to capitalise on the coalition’s unpopularity).
The truth is, I feel massively responsible for the coalition government, and everything that has followed – including Brexit and the current crisis the country is in. That’s a feeling that has had the effect of completely eating up all of my self confidence and sense of any moral authority. It’s hard to write when every time you do, you’re overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing.
It’s odd therefore, that I’ve found myself crawling back to the Lib Dems. In fact, I’ve done it twice. I rejoined in 2015 and even did a bit of campaigning in the 2017 general election, only to be again disillusioned by Tim Farron’s faltering leadership, and allowed my membership to lapse again. By contrast, Vince Cable was a far more effective leader than I predicted. He certainly seemed as rudderless as I predicted, and the party seemed to spend two entirely fruitless years obsessed with meaningless internal reforms that didn’t seem to go anywhere, but you can’t argue with the last set of elections, so he must have been doing something right.
When the leadership election was announced, I knew that I couldn’t sit outside and had to join, to vote if nothing else. Jo Swinson has been a personal friend of mine for 21 years, and if failing to do more to tackle the Orange Book takeover is my greatest political regret, then helping to get Jo elected in 2005 for the first time is my proudest moment.
The question is, am I going to end up being disappointed again? On substance, I’m pretty happy with what she’s said and done thus far. In terms of presentation, well, last week was a bit of a mess. Her team need to do much better and avoid pitfalls like that if they are going to maintain the momentum that she has been building.
I find myself in the odd position of being deeply sceptical of leaders in general, and considering them to be a necessary evil, and yet believe in Jo personally. I think she’s smart enough to take the Lib Dems forward, and has the emotional intelligence to navigate a very tricky and fraught political situation that inevitably require compromise on all sides. I know she isn’t the crypto-Tory that Twitter likes to constantly reassure me she is. Of course, by having a friend in a senior position during such a time of political crisis means that I have to churn through a daily tide of bile and vitriol, and I’m struggling to develop a thick enough skin after years of sitting comfortably on the fence. It doesn’t help that some of this bile is coming from personal friends who I respect, and indeed love. Hopefully I’ll find a way to navigate through all this in time.
Why not stay neutral? Why not even simply jump ship and become a Labour supporter? After all, I’ll always be on the left of the Lib Dems and in many fundamental ways (wealth taxes for one) would consider myself to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.
I did in fact vote Labour in the last two general elections. In 2017, it was strictly tactical but in 2015 it’s fair to say that I supported much more of the Labour manifesto than I did the Lib Dems’.
Weirdly, I’ve never felt more alienated by Labour than I currently do. It isn’t simply about Brexit, although that forms a large part of it. Corbynites seem entirely convinced that the only objection anyone could possibly have to Corbyn is his policies and that everything else is a pretext to cover for opposition to his socialism. My answer to that is: what policies? I’m sure he has some, but aside from things like his support for the Tory welfare cuts in 2017 and opposition for free movement of people I struggle to be able to name any of them.
And that’s the rub for me; we can argue about whether the ability to win elections and govern effectively became too predominant in the era of managerial politics (which appears to have well and truly come to an end now), but the Corbyn and his supporters appear to think they are entirely irrelevant. Under Corbyn, the worst of hard left politics – the type I used to have to deal with in student politics which typically ended with my friends getting beaten up – has merged with the worst aspects of the same Labour tribalism and triangulation that Blair, who they avow is to be regarded as the Great Satan, relied upon. It’s a toxic mess and one that at worst has lead to a growth in leftwing antisemitism. An alarming number of formerly sensible people seem at best complacent about this and at worst apologists for it. At a time when racism and white supremacy is on the march, this is something I find quite chilling. I could never be a part of it.
So I’ve rejoined the Lib Dems and, for the first time in 2012, have decided to out myself as a supporter. I’m currently terrified that I’m going to get let down again; but I do have faith in Jo that it ultimately won’t be. Is that all I have? Time will tell.
This has been a very self-indulgent, meandering blog post, but I’m going to publish it anyway. At some point in the last few years, I lost my voice and all of my optimism – and that sent me into a vicious cycle that I’m still recovering from. Somehow I need to get them back; nihilism is now killing the country and the world in the way that it was eating me a few years ago. Right now, just believing that a better, kinder world is possible feels like a radical act. I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be the political activist that I used to be, but if I can at least just put my thoughts into words again, that would be something.