Who’s a dinosaur now?

Bernard Porter

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A lot of journalists (and others) have been calling Jeremy Corbyn a dinosaur. They should beware of the label. At the turn of the 20th century, the dominant political discourse – at least in what today would be called the ‘Westminster bubble’ – was that liberalism was passé, that the future lay with great empires and imperialist societies, and that anti-imperialists were doomed to ossify. ‘Imperialism’ infected all political parties, including the ‘Lib-Imp’ wing of the Liberal party, and even some Labour MPs. Yet within five years of E.T. Reed’s depiction in Punch in 1900 of the remaining Liberal anti-imperialists of his time (shown here), imperialism had lost its attraction to voters, the ‘imperialist’ party was hammered in an election, and a new, quite old-fashioned looking Liberal government came to power. The Lib-Imps retained some influence, and imperialism in practice went on (it still does); but the former antis certainly didn’t give up the ghost. After 1905 it was they who seemed to represent the progressive political spirit of the time, with the imperialists increasingly cast as the dinosaurs.

Like Reed’s ‘Osaplesadont’, Jeremy Corbyn may look antediluvian now, but only to people with short historical memories, or with a material interest in portraying him as such. Free-marketism as currently practised, with gross inequalities – free-market economists once believed that the market would iron those out – and extreme ‘austerity’, has only been around for about forty years. That isn’t a long time. There are already signs that people are seriously resiling from the trend: in Scotland, Greece and Spain, and in popular – if as yet ineffective – movements all over. ‘To my generation,’ a 23-year-old Corbyn supporter told the Guardian a few days ago, ‘his ideas seem quite new. His ideas on renationalisation of the railways and the energy companies. Free university tuition that people of my generation have not had. The idea of spending more money on infrastructure.’ Mark that. New.

All the other Labour leadership candidates are in their mid-forties. They’ve known nothing but Thatcher/Blairism and the gloss that the commentators of that time put on the politics that had gone before. Younger Labour Party members are free from that. So are older members, like Corbyn (and me). We have a broader perspective. What may seem normal and inevitable to the middle-aged can appear merely fashionable to the more experienced and the more innocent. E.T. Reed was wrong about the anti-imperialists. Corbyn’s opponents may be similarly wrong, at least in electoral terms, about the anti-austerians.


  • 7 August 2015 at 11:20pm
    Julia Atkins says:
    Bernard Porter is not wrong, but he should have counter-attacked on the dinosaur analogy. There is an obsession with dinosaurs in contemporary culture. Hence museums; hence countries getting excited when old bones are discovered in strange locations; hence reviving the monsters for Hollywood. Toy dinosaurs remain a good present for younger children. Could our rulers ever have such a kind attitude to socialism that Corbyn represents?
    Perish the thought and perish the analogy. Dinosaurs are loved. Socialists are reviled. Fingers crossed for what I hope will be a September surprise.

    • 11 August 2015 at 10:16pm
      Lisl says: @ Julia Atkins
      What Reed's depiction resembles is primarily your typical anti-Semetic subversive individual -- the enemy of the State.

      Look at any hate tracts from the era (or even now), and that is the profile you will find. His lizardness comports nicely with Hitler's vermin symbology.

      Hateful and racist, and thoroughly English.

    • 12 August 2015 at 7:00am
      Bernard Porter says: @ Lisl
      Yes, I see how it might look like that, through the distorting lens of hindsight, and in ignorance of the historical context; but this reading is almost certainly nonsense. Anti-semitism was involved in the debate over empire c.1900, but always, I think, on the other side - by a very few anti-imperialists (especially Labour) who blamed Jewish capitalists for the Boer War. Any anti-semitism detected in Reed's cartoon is in the eye of the modern beholder.

    • 12 August 2015 at 2:25pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Bernard Porter
      In that particular period, what would you say were the most powerful or widely-repeated arguments in favour of imperialism? Trade, new markets, profit? Moral obligations to civilize the "lesser breeds without the law"? National prestige, or the need to compete with other imperial powers?

    • 12 August 2015 at 3:59pm
      Bernard Porter says: @ Bob Beck
      Too complex, I'm afraid, to do the question justice in a blog comment - especially when the main topic of discussion is meant to be Jeremy Corbyn, not imperialism. It needs a book. As it happens (!) I've just written that book: 'British Imperial', to be published in a month or two by IB Tauris. I hope this doesn't read as a put-down or a shameless plug; it isn't meant to be either.

    • 12 August 2015 at 5:50pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Bernard Porter
      Not to worry; not taken as either (though there'd be nothing shameful in a plug, the author's life being what it is). I studied history, but my British history is patchy at the very best. Will await your book with great interest.

  • 8 August 2015 at 1:12am
    Bob Beck says:
    I'm trying to work out the derivations of the various names for Reed's creature, with only partial success. "Philanthropod" is clear enough, and "Disarmadillo". Is "Osaplesadont" based in racist mockery of African or Indian speech ("O sah, please-a don't"?) "Majubatherium" baffles me altogether.

    • 8 August 2015 at 7:59am
      Bernard Porter says: @ Bob Beck
      After the Battle of Majuba Hill in the First Boer War (1881). Britain lost. Imperialists blamed Gladstone. 'Osaplesadont' is a pathetic schoolboy. Very unlikely to be racist.

    • 8 August 2015 at 5:21pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Bernard Porter
      Right; thanks for the background.

  • 11 August 2015 at 8:07pm
    streetsj says:
    I thought that quote from the 23 year old was just an example of ignorance. Labour has regularly discussed nationalising the railways which were only privatised five elections ago. University tuition fees only came in, what?, 10 years ago. There was much discussion at the 2005 election about whether they should go, be raised, or whatever. The comment about infrastructure is just meaningless.
    So what this 23 year old is actually saying is I know nothing about politics so it's all new to me.

  • 11 August 2015 at 9:37pm
    Stephen Games says:
    So people who came of age under Thatcher/Blair have short political memories but 23-year-olds have quotable wisdom? Quaint.

    • 11 August 2015 at 10:47pm
      Paul RK says: @ Stephen Games
      Where's the claim or implication of wisdom? While something of a historical perspective extending beyond the past three decades is a desirable attribute in a would-be political leader, or a journalist for that matter, the 23 year old's impression is of interest, and therefore distinctly quotable, as a likely sign of why Jeremy Corbyn's policies are being so enthusiastically received by parts of the youngest section of the electorate.

  • 11 August 2015 at 10:21pm
    DACT says:
    It depends how you understand ignorance, streetsj. There are many ways, but I’ll keep it binary: willful ignorance (not wanting to acquire knowledge) and induced ignorance. I’m no expert on agnotology, but certainly some forms of it can be aduced to the mass media (modern and past, as Bernard Porter aptly refers to with Punch), Just look at the incredible levels ignorance of the North American public which is fed with Fox infotainment, as is the British public with The Sun (another key rag of Murdoch’s empire), the Daily Mail, etc., which have, among many other things, contributed to de-politicize politics. And that suits the established parties’ leaders just fine as people lose the idea of participatory politics and learn to believe that democracy is passively voting every four years. It may be true that the Labour Party has discussed the renationalisation of the railways, etc., but how are those issues disseminated to the great majority? Not in the mass media, that’s for sure. No wonder there are thousands of ‘ignorant’ 23-year-olds who don’t know what streetsj knows. But the point is that that particular 23 year old wants to know, mistakes and all. And no doubt many others are also beginning to want to know, too. Hopefully enough to cleanse the LP of those who still slavishly follow a Labour leader who consolidated Reagan-Thatcherite neo-liberalism in the UK and has brazenly encouraged imperialist ventures in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

    • 12 August 2015 at 2:30am
      Bob Beck says: @ DACT
      Whether the Canadian segment of the "North American public" suffers from "incredible levels [of] ignorance" is at least debatable; but if so, it has little to do with "Fox News infotainment" in either original, or home-grown form.

      Fox News, while available through some cable TV providers, is not generally part of any company's "basic cable" package and enjoys, so far as I know, minuscule viewership in Canada. An attempt to create a Canadian imitation, Sun News, failed ignominiously, reportedly reaching an audience of 8,000 or fewer souls, in a country of around 35 million.

      I take this to mean that, even after almost a decade of Conservative social/political engineering of the most rigidly ideological and viciously partisan kind we've ever experienced, there just isn't much of a market for this particular brand of ignorance-inducing infotainment in this country. Small mercies, etc.

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