March 1, 2021

At the beginning of the 1930s, Britain was in chaos. At home, millions were out of work, while in Europe, Fascists were starting to bully their way into power. The leading intellectuals of the day, including TS Eliot and FR Leavis, were filled with pessimism; hope, if it could be found, lay in the restoration of order and tradition. A younger generation, however, including poets WH Auden and Stephen Spender, put their faith in Communism. But with war approaching, even they would end up profoundly disillusioned with what Auden remembered as a “low, dishonest decade”.

Writing in the 1920s, DH Lawrence had foreseen it all. The son of a miner, he hated industrialism, which he believed had “frustrated that sense of community that would make us all unite in pride and dignity”. Politics had no solutions; it dealt in meaningless abstraction, rather than ordinary feeling. Talking with political activists, Lawrence observed, “is like trying to have a human conversation with the letter x in algebra”.

Exiled from Britain after the First World War, he set off an a “savage pilgrimage” before tuberculosis finally caught up with him. By 1930, he was dead. It was up to a new generation of writers, each in their own way inspired by Lawrence, to respond to his challenge to politics. They are the subject of Marc Stears’s new book Out of the Ordinary, which shows how the likes of George Orwell, JB Priestley, and Dylan Thomas rejected the abstract ideologies of their day. In using a language that was concrete and specific, Stears argues, they created a new vision for politics.

A political academic and former speechwriter for Ed Miliband, Stears believes that revisiting the output of these writers in the 1940s can provide a solution to our polarised present moment. The technocratic politics of the Blair and Cameron years have left Britain divided. Populism, both on the Left and Right, has failed to offer a convincing solution to years of economic inequality and political gridlock. For Stears, the answer is a politics of what he calls “the ordinary” and “everyday life”.

In Stears’s account, Orwell, Priestley and Thomas rejected Lawrence’s “abstract idealisms”, refusing to fall, as Thomas puts it, “for the latest isms like pups for rubber bones”. For Orwell, vague and abstract language was the source of his era’s “political chaos”. It allowed politicians to manipulate the truth, and in its worst instances, to justify murder.

They eschewed the pessimism of the Right, too, and what they saw as grandiose ideas of Britishness. Priestley attacked what he called “Big Englanders”, Orwell hated “Rule Britannia” and flag-waving officer types, while Thomas loathed Elgar.

Instead, they aspired to a language that was tangible and rooted in people’s everyday lives and experiences. For Thomas, “the everyday” lay in memories of his childhood in Swansea: “the pubs and clubs, billiards rooms, promenades, and the suburban nights”. For Priestley, in “filling stations and factories”, “arterial and by-pass roads”, and “bungalows with tiny garages”, while Orwell associated ordinariness with “solid breakfasts, gloomy Sundays, smoky towns, winding roads, and green fields”.

When the Second World War broke out, Stears argues, these writers were forced to reconcile their sense of unease with conventional ideas of Britishness. In doing so, they turned their commitment to specificity into something of popular substance. Priestley’s Postscripts challenged Churchill for radio listeners; Orwell commissioned programmes for the BBC in India; Thomas wrote radio plays and film scripts.

After the War, however, the country failed to unite around this vision: Attlee built the welfare state from the top down, while successive governments — both Labour and Conservative — enfeebled local government. Politics become increasingly technocratic and distant from everyday concerns. All the things that once connected politics to everyday life, from trade union branches to local newspapers, began to disappear.

This is a compelling account, but how applicable are the insights of these long-dead writers to contemporary politics? Today’s politics has arguably become more, not less, abstract. Indeed, we live in an increasingly abstract world, where things that were once solid — from telephone booths to paper money — have melted into an intangible digital world.

In his book, Stears recalls a conversation with a Labour pollster who, in the 2015 election campaign, told him that people valued spending time with loved ones more than any other issue. Nothing else came close. When Stears asked him why the party didn’t make this more of a focus, he was told this — the issue that matters most to people — isn’t what politics is about.

But if politics feels distant from people’s everyday preoccupations, it is because its language so often fails to connect. Both Left and Right talk of “equality”, “responsibility” and “aspiration”: vague, abstract words with no relevance to people’s lived experience. Even when politicians try to resolve these problems, their language fails to bring ordinary people onside. “Social mobility” and “levelling up” are phrases almost unheard outside the corridors of Westminster.

This linguistic emptiness means that politics is, as the philosopher Simone Weil wrote, increasingly “peopled exclusively by myths and monsters”. The slipperiness of abstract words means they can “represent for us an absolute reality”, while, at the same time, “mean anything whatsoever”. We reach for abstractions to explain systems of belief and ideologies: “fascism”, “sovereignty”, “patriotism”. But too often these words are manipulated to smear political opponents or shut down debate. When this happens, the common ground erodes and polarisation becomes inevitable.

The Conservative Party’s risible “war on woke” is a case in point. “Woke” is a meaningless expression often used by proponents as a commitment to vaguely progressive ideals. For its detractors, however, “woke” is nothing short of the 21st century’s answer to Bolshevism. If we cannot even agree the meaning of a word, substantive argument becomes impossible. A “war on woke” is like trying to catch a phantom. And when only 4% of the public know what a culture war actually is, the chase is futile, too.

And if conventional political language loses its purchase on ordinary life, voters will look for unconventional politicians to fill the vacuum. When Donald Trump, for instance, pledged to “build a big, beautiful wall”, his language couldn’t have been more concrete. This was ordinary language at its most ordinary. Trump was electable because he refused to obey the conventions of politics and speak its jargon.

That isn’t to say that Trump-style populists are the solution to this crisis. Instead, if we are to develop a politics that can connect with voters’ lived experience, specificity is a place to start. Rather than gesturing vaguely to “community”, for example, we should talk about the institutions that facilitate one: affordable housing, for instance; access to fields or parks; pubs, shops, places of worship and schools.

Politics will never be entirely free of abstractions, of course. For politicians, abstract language will always remain a useful tool to paper over the divisions that run through parties. Concrete language leads to firm promises, which are hard to keep. And disregarding all vague words would, as Orwell acknowledges, lead to a kind of “political quietism” where big ideas could not be debated at all. What’s more, phrases like “the ordinary” and “the everyday” are themselves abstractions, with different associations for different people.

But a concern for the everyday would, in Stears’s view, bring politics closer to people’s lived experiences. He believes it might help convince them that policy is not something irrelevant and aloof from their daily lives, but something that can be created by them, and in their own image.

In the meantime, what’s certain is that too often, politics feels like a poor substitute for the things that actually concern us: decent work, relationships, health, and a good place to live. If we could move politics closer to these concerns, we would go some way to solving many of the great challenges of our age.