Last week was the 20th anniversary of the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the book that made single-mother-on-benefits-writing-in-a-café-in-Edinburgh J.K. Rowling a multi-millionaire and celebrity who, like most of us, shares her thoughts on politics with the rest of the world on Twitter. However, it can be argued, Twitter isn’t the only place where she expressed a political opinion. The Harry Potter world, in the words of my dear friend Joe, is a “Blairite fantasy”. So, if you are puzzled by the current state of British politics, this is for you. It will, of course, contain spoilers.
The story, as everyone who hasn’t lived under a rock or under a dictatorship knows, revolves around the battle of good versus evil, embodied in this obsessive character whose name nobody dares speak. Not even his followers, who are reminiscent of the SS. In fact, the shadow of nazism lurks over all this, because at the centre of the matter there is an issue of blood purity. So if this is a fable about Nazism how does this have anything to do with British politics? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute, but something else worth remembering is that the new generations who are now getting engaged with politics have largely grown up with their worldview shaped by the novels. I am one of them.
Someone said in a speech I can’t reference (as it was under Chatham House rule) that they notice people on the doorsteps who reticently say they will vote Labour but it’s clear they just won’t tell you they’ll in fact vote Tory because, in their words, to do so would be to admit they are uncool and a bit mean. Having experienced plenty who’d say they vote Tory but inexplicably went elsewhere on polling day, I doubt the conclusion they took: people tell you what they think you want to hear. This person was roughly my age, though, and their remarks really seem to me reminiscent of Harry’s first day at Hogwarts. On the train, Harry befriends a Weasley, a pureblood wizard from a pro-muggle family (the North London Remainers of the magic world), who reinforced in Harry the point of view influenced by Hagrid that to be sorted in Slytherin means you are uncool and a bit (lot) mean. So, when the Sorting Hat tried to put him in a house according to his personality and abilities, he adamantly swayed it to the house he felt he ought to be a part of.
Now, it is true Slytherin had many dodgy characters coming out of it, but the Hogwarts microcosm is one of group-think. There isn’t anything inherently evil about qualities such as ambition and loyalty to your friends. However, prejudice is likely to draw away people who can change the image of the house, leaving to it those who turned such neutral qualities into something bad. Going back to the comment about the Tories, it becomes no surprise then when people either question your being nice or your being in the right party. Likewise, positive prejudice means a lot of dodgy behaviour from the good kids goes unnoticed (I’m looking at you, James Potter). The many scandals related to anti-semitism in the Labour party, as well as a lot of abuse targeted at other people and being often rationalised as deserved rather than the person being mean.
Another, related, big problem is the entrenching of identities transferring to politics when politics is about things you believe in. It’s a no brainer to me that people in politics, of whatever side, all want to make people’s lives better, we just disagree about how. Even within one broad line of thinking (take for instance liberalism) people have widely different views, as shown by this absolutely brilliant video on the two main liberal economists of the 20th century, Hayek and Keynes. There is a danger in equating absolute morality and a team, but it’s a binary view that was entrenched in the series until the later books, when child Harry grew into a more balanced man, digging beyond the surface to uncover the complexities of the human character. Some of us, on either side of the political divide, have grown with Harry, but the fact just yesterday the veteran Labour MP Yvette Cooper dedicated her speech to the Fabian Society to the subject of online abuse targeted at MPs on both sides of the aisle is an indication that not everyone did. The most worrying part of it is seeing the abuse perpetuated by people who should have been grown up like Harry before Harry Potter even was published, but that’s a topic for another day.
Politics is not the only way to see Harry Potter playing out beyond being just a great story, in fact a friend suggested he thinks it reflects some of the tropes from the tradition of Christian symbolism in fantasy literature (0f which Tolkien and Lewis were the main promoter of the last century, but so was Oscar Wilde at the turn of it and so many others before them). However, seeing the Blairite fantasy in it is a legitimate view. A neoliberal Labour party isn’t that far away from the right advocating for private responsibility (which has its logical conclusion in ethical capitalism on the macro-level), except maybe for its half-embrace of Keynesian economics (who has ever embraced cutting public spending in times of good economy to fix the roof while the sun shines?) over laissez-faire liberalism. In fact, all the defections from the Conservatives of members of the Tory Reform Group happened under Blair, which still leads people to question whether we are truly Conservatives 20 years on. Such a question implies a buying into the characterisation verging onto caricature of what the right stands for that is needed to justify the Third Way in a centre-left party.
And the caricature of Slytherin as being automatically a Death Eater is based on this same principle of painting the whole with the same brush as their worst elements in order to justify an us versus them that just isn’t really there, in order to uphold one’s view of oneself from the Gryffindor perspective.