Martin Amis doesn’t need to look far to find out what went wrong with the world. He’s one of the centrists who have killed liberalism.
It must be confusing being Martin Amis. To be presented in the mirror every morning with what looks like a discarded exhibit from Madam Tussaud’s Rotting Cadaver Gallery, and know that, deep inside, there still lurks a person.
To know you’re lauded as a literary hero, when you’re only the second-best writer called Amis (after, of course, Philip Amis, who wrote Urban Water Supply: Ghana Water & Sewage Corporation, Development Administration Group, 1999).
To gaze out of your window, over one of the great cities of the world, full of life and fury, and then to have to haul yourself to a desk to churn out a few hundred more words of a novel with a hero called something like Declan Emoji who’s lost his zest for life through overuse of textspeak and social justice warrior-ism and the fact that his children aren’t talking to him, and who can only regain his sense of manhood in the 21st century when reinvigorated by a torrid affair with a wiser (and much younger) woman, who kills herself at the end because she has served her purpose.
We know it’s confusing to be Martin Amis, because he tells us. Just last winter he popped up like a recurrent spot in the small of your back, to give his opinion on Brexit and on Trump.
‘I’ve been wracking my brains,’ he said, ‘To think what has happened in the last ten years that has made everyone in the West so credulous and so easily swayed in this unpleasant direction, in retrograde, and all I can think of is the internet.’
Which just shows how difficult it is being Martin Amis. He honestly can’t think of anything that might have that might have stoked anti-Islamic feeling and might have fuelled the fires of the far-right.
He has wracked his brain. That sizable and prominent a brain must take quite some wracking, and yet, brave soldier that he is, he wracks it nonetheless. He wracks it for us. And finds it wanting.
When he looks around at a world crazed by paranoia about Islam he truly cannot imagine why that might be. He must have forgotten that other writer called Martin Amis who called for enhanced interrogation of Muslims at airports.
When he was wracking his brain, trying desperately to work out how people could be so easily swayed by movements that posed as bulwarks against an Islamic threat, he must have forgotten that someone who looked and sounded very much like him said: ‘There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not let them travel. Deportation, further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East and Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.’
Poor confused Martin Amis, who spent so many years shouting that Muslims should be banned from travelling, and is now baffled that people voted for those who promised to ban Muslims from travelling.
Of course, this is unfair on Martin. He’s not the only one. The entire centre-right to centre-left project has spent the last two decades setting fire to liberal institutions, but has spent most of 2017 standing around, scratching its head, wondering where liberalism went and blaming other people for its disappearance.
After the Second World War, on both the national and international levels, people put a lot of thought into how you could construct institutions that would prevent crises like those that occurred in the 1930s happening again.
The answers they variously came up with – welfare states, free education, mixed economies, democracy, the rule of law, due process, the United Nations, the European Union – were not perfect, but they were honest attempts to make more of life more stable for more people by avoiding wars and crises.
On the whole, these institutions held fast, and life for people in western Europe got better than it had been before at a rate never before seen.
For a while, almost for a living memory and for the first time in history, life in Europe was peaceful. So peaceful people began to take it for granted.
Until the ‘radical centre’ arrived. Across the world, from the New Lefts of the 1990s to the ‘compassionate conservatisms’ of the noughties and beyond, the radical centre had no truck with the shibboleths of an old, desperately uncool world.
This was punk politics, and it didn’t care who it offended. Ideology was for the past, institutions were for squares, all that mattered was performance, deliverables, targets. Management punk.
For the cobwebbed old social democrats of the past, stoking fears about immigration would have been unthinkable.
David Blunkett had no problem with describing our schools as ‘swamped with immigrants’, and Jack Straw told everyone he was afraid of the constituents who came to his surgeries wearing the veil.
For Bretton Woods liberals of the 1940s, the United Nations was the great hope for international order. For Tony Blair it was an inconvenience that should be ignored whenever it failed to rubberstamp anything he wanted it to do.
For liberals of all stripes, due process is fundamental to liberty. For New Labour it was a hindrance to summary justice and to be sidelined with ASBOs and control orders whenever possible.
Habeas corpus has been one of the fundamental liberties of free English people (well, barons, technically, but in this age of internet fame, aren’t we all cyber-barons, really? No. No, we’re not.) for 800 years. Nowadays, barely a year goes by without a Home Secretary from either party trying to extend the rights of the police to hold people without charge,
The NHS was built on the conjoined visions of Beveridge and Bevan, but has been run down for over a decade now by Health Secretaries from Milburn to Hunt.
Free tertiary education was a symbol of the universalism of the vision that came out of the Second World War.
Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, the society in which you live would make sure that you could fulfil your potential. Education would save the world from the disasters that ignorance had brought with it. So it, too, had to go, all the parties agreed.
In every corner of the state, in every aspect of the country, the radical centrists destroyed whatever they touched. Anything that was hopeful or liberal was replaced with something authoritarian and metrics-based.
They did all they could to coarsen and cheapen the world, and now we all have to live in a world that is coarse and cheap.
Which maybe wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t all act so baffled by it.
Nathaniel Tapley is an award-winning comedy writer-performer, who has worked on
Have I Got News For You, The Revolution Will Be Televised, The News Quiz, Tonightly, Gigglebiz and Dick & Dom