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Will Starmer discover his Romantic side? Britain is crying out for visionary politics

(Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)


July 5, 2024   5 mins

Hungover with apathy, there was no champagne drunk in our household after last night’s theatre of the predictable. Starmer is in power, and the Tories are out. How did our politics become so dull?

Should there have been more dancing in the streets? Possibly. Yet too much had already been said about change and it failed to convince. This was also predictable. If there is a crisis facing our societies today, it is not about who commands the majority; it is a crisis of the political imagination. Presented with manifestos that looked remarkably similar, the choice was really down to who would not fuck it up the most.

I appreciate calling for a better “imagination” may seem rather trite in the contemporary moment. The election is won. And like “solidarity”, it is a word that has been stripped of meaning, often thrown around by those who in the next breath call for the destruction of great works of art. And yet, faced with this meagre offering, my sense is we’re in desperate need of those who put imagination central to their visionary projects. While the promises of better healthcare, policing, and tighter immigration controls is standard fare, who really believes that anything else will change beyond next week? In other words, just like times past when political ideas were facing the same kind of suffocating greyness, we need time to rekindle the spirit of romanticism.

Romanticism is often associated with late-18th to mid-19th-century artists and poets who broke away from the dreariness of classical world views. Often misunderstood, it has nothing to do with some idealistic flight from the world. And it certainly has nothing to do with nostalgia. Searching for a deeper appreciation of the senses, the romantics insisted on the need to reimagine all the fundamental categories for society, including how we see life, how we encounter nature, and how we respond to changes in an increasingly globalising world.

While frequently associated with the pioneering writings of Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley, the tradition started much earlier in Florentine Europe. If romanticism is about facing the tragedy of existence, confronting its horrors, yet still finding new reasons to believe in the world, these elements are all apparent in the most magnificent poem ever written, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

Not only did Dante’s intervention have a profound impact on how we understand the relationships among perpetrators, victims and witnesses of violence — he literally invented what Hell looked like. The poet offers us a number of important lessons as we consider the state of politics today. Dante doesn’t turn away from the intolerable conditions faced by the wretched of the earth. Rather, he slowly observes them, and asks questions of Virgil, his educated guide. Dante is a student who doesn’t have ready-made paradigms or solutions to the ills he witnesses, nor does he seek to pass judgment without knowing the context.

Thoughts invariably turn to the crisis in the Middle East, whose implications will be globally felt for decades. What began with the killing and forced abduction of Israelis last year, an act that symbolically brought back memories of the Holocaust, has resulted in the devastation of Gaza. The absence of any rigorous debate on this issue was telling during the campaign. This can no doubt be partly explained by the vitriolic impasses of a social media infused by identity politics. But we should expect more. As the romantics understood, being a visionary is not about tribal dogmatism. It’s about creating the conditions where the freedom to think and critique can flourish.

In the Comedy’s third canto, Dante wrote that “the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis”. We shouldn’t expect our leaders to be perfect. But we should ask them to be human, which means letting us know what they really think and feel. Starmer was so fearful of putting a foot wrong, he ended up appearing robotic. He was afraid to confront the intolerable and its complexities; he maintained his neutrality in a time of crisis.

But there is also something deeper taking place in this poem. Let us not forget it was written out of Dante’s lingering love for Beatrice Portinari, his muse who died aged just 24. This fact in itself offers another lesson, particularly for those who woke up this morning in need of motivation. After all, deeply felt ideas can be an antidote to the tragedies of the world. Dante conjured up tremendous images with the power of his words. It’s not just about what is written or spoken. It’s about embarking on a journey that tasks us with imagining the future.

Much the same could be said of that second great romantic, William Blake. While “Jerusalem” remains a staple of Labour’s songbook, its call for mythical salvation at every possible public opportunity is seldom discussed in any political sense today. Writing at the dawn of industrialisation, Blake was at pains to warn of the shift to mechanisation and the unwieldy power of the technological advance. As he suggested: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Blake’s resistance was to create one of the quintessential designs of the age, The Ancient of Days, which shows the God Urizen (who was the new deity for this industrious time) looking down upon the earth. The tyranny of technology for Blake was evident. As he recited:

“What demon
Hath form’d this abominable void,
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? Some said
‘It is Urizen.’ But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding, secret, the dark power hid.”

Blake’s vision has never been more relevant. The only myth we are seemingly allowed to believe in today is the myth of technology, with all its dubious claims of connectivity, enrichment and improvement. Just look at the ways in which we are presented with the latest AI imaging as if it’s akin to a Biblical miracle, while the rest of us look on in a state of bewilderment at the banality of it all. Blake, by contrast, provided a strident warning against the fetishism of technologically driven progressivism, offering a powerful defence of the power of the arts.

“The only myth we are seemingly allowed to believe in today is the myth of technology.”

Yet today, can we name a single political party who didn’t promise to somehow improve our lives and make the necessary efficiency savings by appealing to more technology? And how many placed the importance of investing heavily in the arts and humanities a cornerstone of their policies?

For all the talk about the future, it was telling that the issue of higher education was barely mentioned during the campaign. It was also telling as the campaigns unfolded, that one of the country’s leading arts universities — Goldsmiths of London — has been left to fall on the free-market sword that was wantonly placed into its hands.

Short of pulling back on its promise to provide free tertiary education, Labour’s fixation on growth and jobs points to a continuation of the policy where the value of degrees is bound to salary prospects. I’ve never met a single arts student who believes they may earn as much as a banker. Yet it’s pretty clear who is more important to any collective vision for society. Indeed, as Blake maintained, the arts are not just some fanciful cultural pastime. They are essential to the “destruction of tyrannies”.

And without them? Perhaps we shall soon find out, living in our own Dantesque wilderness of doubt. The question, then, will be which path to take. Will we, against the odds, recover something vital? Or will we walk among the trees like automated zombies, led by dead ideas towards an unclear future that only replenishes our cynicism.


Professor Brad Evans holds a Chair in Political Violence & Aesthetics at the University of Bath. His book, How Black Was My Valley: Poverty and Abandonment in a Post-Industrial Heartland, is out in April.


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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
6 days ago

If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it’s that the last thing you want running your country is a bunch of leftwing romantics.

David Morley
David Morley
5 days ago

Or right wing romantics for that matter.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
5 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

or indeed any romantics of whatever hue.

Dr E C
Dr E C
5 days ago

This article is about fifteen years out of date. Higher Education, the Arts and most cultural institutions have since been captured by racist, misogynistic Maoism. The last thing our country needs is for today’s f***ed up visionaries to have more power than they already do. Invoking the spirits of Dante and Blake is an insult to the memory of these great dead white men who are now seen as controversial to teach (thanks to their race, sex, religion and by virtue of being western in the west).

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
5 days ago

Our universities over produce graduates, at great expense, many of whom will never find a use for the knowledge they gained while there. We therefore need to limit those who do study for a degree to those who will benefit themselves and society.
There will still be wealthy arts students who can pay their own way, and there would be grants or scholarships for those less well off, but who show talent.
We need to accept that a degree isn’t for everybody, and that we need plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, etc. and fund and respect those careers appropriately.

David Morley
David Morley
5 days ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

I don’t wholly disagree. Of course we need plumbers etc. But there is something very gradgrind about your vision of the future. Is that all we can expect of the British genius – that we kept the lights on and the water running.

Frank Litton
Frank Litton
5 days ago

Reading this eloquent plea for another kind of politics, I recall a distinction made by the French writer Charles Peguy (1873-1914). Peguy, reached the` academic heights from the poorest background when he won a place in the Ecole Normale. His academic progress was disrupted by his political activism; a socialist, a nationalist, and above all an ardent Dreyfusard. He won the admiration of his socialist colleagues and with it the possibility of career as journal editor. But he broke with socialists. They had, he claimed, abandoned ‘Mystique’ for ‘Politique’. Mystique provided the motive and intellectual resources to defend Dreyfus with its ideal of a French Republic. The socialists gave up on the ideal for the pursuit of power for its own sake.
Looking at the election from the neighbouring isle, am I correct in noting a regular complaint, so well exemplified in this piece, at the absence of vision? Voters were not invited to put their particular interests in the context of a general interest. All politique, no mystique.
Peguy did not just make the distinction; he examined in depth how the ways history was told, society studied, philosophy presented frustrated the search for mystique.
He deserves attention.

David Morley
David Morley
5 days ago
Reply to  Frank Litton

On my reading list for a while.

I don’t want to underestimate the importance of material wealth and the practicalities of life – but we do need to get beyond a vision of the future centred simply on how we share out the booty.

David Morley
David Morley
5 days ago

Starmer was so fearful of putting a foot wrong, he ended up appearing robotic. He was afraid to confront the intolerable and its complexities; he maintained his neutrality in a time of crisis.

And he got elected, so his behaviour perhaps tells us more about ourselves as an electorate than it does about Starmer as a man. We want our politicians to be honest, until they are ….

David Morley
David Morley
5 days ago

If the twentieth century has taught us anything it is to be suspicious of grand all encompassing visions.

At the same time, the author is right that without some sort of vision the country (the west?) feels directionless – fated to just accept whatever the free market, and technology, turns up. Many of the most important things in our lives seem to sit outside democratic control, with AI being just the latest.

From Thatcher on through Blair and beyond there has been no clear vision of what we as a people want Britain to be like in the future – unless it’s that everyone, gay, trans, black, white, will all be variants of a kind of lower middle class clone. Even that one has gone of the rails with rising house prices.

Meanwhile our woke morality consists of the dregs of a former vision, a socialist one, with all the important stuff about social class removed and replaced with childish sentimentality and whining. Adopted now as the preferred values scheme of the rich and privileged.

So we do need a vision – one that has learned from the past, which is less hubristic, less obsessed with every petty inequality, more concerned with the big stuff – and creates a sense of meaning and direction in a country which has lost it.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
5 days ago

We can expect no vision at all from a man who gets down on his knees in obeisance to marxist identity cults, thinks women can have penises, and believes supranational organisation should have sovereignty over the UK.