Jeremy Corbyn’s real gamble on the Article 50 bill

Jeremy Corbyn’s real gamble on the Article 50 bill was assuming that the remain voting Labour supporters — which should be the smartest of the lot — would be switched on enough to realise that any concessions on Brexit would not come in the commons where a heavily whipped Tory majority of 18 is bolstered by hard Brexit supporting UKIP, eight DUP MPs, the increasingly bizarre Labour Leave gang, and even the odd Lib Dem.

It was Jeremy’s hope that enough people would understand that the fight for workers’ rights, for free movement, for human rights and fair tax structures, would be a sustained campaign across the county, in and out of the media and parliament for the two years of the negotiations. And that it will continue after that: as it always has. Jeremy has gambled on people being able to see a slightly bigger picture than a vote that could not be won, and could not even be symbolically fought without hurting the wider fight: at the moment it seems he’s to be disappointed on that.

To those disappointed by Labour’s stance, you have to hope that people who oppose Brexit think about why they oppose Brexit: and in coming elections vote on those issues.

The left leaning amongst the angry remainers will need to vote for a party that can safeguard the best of the EU legislation, and they don’t need to vote for a party that is willing to get back into bed with the Tories.

Labour nationally needed to be seen to accept referendum result, which meant a party position. No whip, and the there was the ‘not respecting referendum’ stick for Tories, Kippers and their media pals to beat the party with. There’s scar tissue already all over where the ‘shadow cabinet rebellion stick’ beats Labour, most of that self inflicted for this

Don’t think the leadership will be judging anyone harshly for voting the against the whip, John McDonnell has even suggested that ‘rebels’ could be back in fold within months. This will be forgotten long before the next election. After all, there are bigger, and more winnable, battles to fight.

“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.” – Tony Benn

Going full canary: conspiracy theories are the way we understand inequalities

If the main voices in our public discourse are to be believed, tin foil sales have gone through the roof. To use their own phrase, many people have ‘gone full Canary’: and are expressing opinions that can be dismissed as them being willing to believe in conspiracies behind not only how society works but how it’s presented to them through the media.

The Canary, a left-leaning, clickbaity web publication, is having a moment in the sun — or at least Newsnight — and is the target of the ire, ‘well meaning despair’ and laughter of much of the journalism profession. It seems unafraid to push stories that other publications won’t touch, either because they aren’t verifiable or because they are otherwise uninteresting to Buzzfeed or the Guardian. They have become a shorthand for conspiracy, or things about which it can be said “the MSM (main-stream media) won’t cover this”.

But think about it calmly, the commentariat would say, there’s nothing going on behind the curtain.  And that may be right: the world is too complex, and people too fallible and factionate to think that there are often huge co-ordinated conspiracies. That does not mean, however, that all is fair and that motives are honest.

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Post-truth, post-fact, post-description: ponzi schemes of lies that are killing our debates

I think I was a few weeks ahead of some in calling the referendum campaign the triumph of post-truth politics that was just as much a fault of David Cameron as the referendum itself was. Jonathan Swift was much further ahead of the post-truth politics game, as in most things: “the greatest liar hath his believers,” he said,”and it often happens that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work [ …] Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”

It’s no longer the case that the truth will eventually get its boots on and catch up. For a time it just seemed that the truth needed to up its game, get a pair of slip-ons, get a better narrative, frame the debate: the truth now is on a continuing 24-hour cycle of being shouted down and tripped up. There is only one truth, it’s sometimes complicated or nuanced, there are many more lies — as many as you have space for in the media and on the internet.

And you might think that there are a lot of column inches to fill in the newsagents, but that’s just peanuts to the internet.

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Labour can’t win back voters by championing the status quo

Labour does have a problem with reaching people.

The party made a decision under Kinnock, Blair, Brown and even Miliband to move away from being the party of organised labour. A change that also contributed to the decline of organised labour itself. That has left the party at the mercy of the media to reach the working class voters it depends on.

The ‘dispossessed’ that voted Leave aren’t likely to be union members: there are just over seven million now, dropping from 13 million in the late ’70s. The rise of insecure work and the restrictions on union bargaining power have made it more crucial — but paradoxically less attractive — to working class people to join and organise in the workplace.

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The rise of the idiocracy

The leavers are rising in the polls and everyone is starting to get scared that they might actually win. And, of course, it’s Jeremy Corby’s fault.

It’s not unusual for Corbyn to come under attack, he doesn’t sing loud enough, or bow at the proper angle, and he baulks at the idea of mutual mass destruction. And we all know what Cameron thinks about his suit and tie. But what is odd is that this time around he’s effectively being criticised for not coming to the aid of his opponent in his hour of need.

David Cameron is struggling to get his message across. For the first time his privilege is not buying him an easy ride with an unusually un-supplicant press: and he’s looking to those with experience of not having everything their own way.

Cameron did not see this coming, but in many ways he is the architect of his own downfall. The establishment is trying to pin the blame on the Labour leadership but everything about this is a Tory mess. Even leaving aside that the very referendum is Cameron’s own fault – a self-serving promise to prevent haemorrhaging even more votes and party “loonies” to UKIP – the actions of the Tories have created a situation in which rational argument has lost its power and a new idiocracy rides the waves of ill-informed public opinion.

When Ed Miliband said that the media has focused on the “sexy blue-on-blue action” in covering the referendum campaign, he may have made Today programme listeners push away their boiled eggs, but he was right. Labour has been hamstrung in getting the socialist case for remaining in the EU across, not through a lack of passion, but through a lack of coverage.

Labour (and especially Ed) are used to this, but it is the first time that sections of the Conservatives have been on the wrong side of the tactics that they have spent the last 10 years developing.

So successfully have they terrified the BBC into a false version of impartiality they call ‘balance’, that ideas are never challenged, only countered. Lies are given equal weight to the truth.

And the right wing press doesn’t even have to pretend to be impartial. So if a view – or most frustratingly a fact – isn’t palatable to the owners and their editors then it will get the shortest of shrift. This is a problem. Yes, social media and the internet means that we can go beyond newspaper bias to get to more of the truth – but only if we have the time, critical analysis skills and networks to do so. We can hear Jeremy Corbyn’s every word, see every stroke his cat gets, if we subscribe to it on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat: but in the mainstream media his statements are not treated impartially. They are given less credence than those who are prepared to spread lies, to deny facts and give the appearance of idiots when it suits them.

Now the Tory leadership is feeling the Iain Duncan Smith effect: a man who has casually denied links between his workplace capability assessments and the deaths of those they removed benefits from, a man who has defended the fiasco of universal credit, a man who tried to change a law to make his actions over workfare legal after they’d been ruled otherwise by the high court, a man who has made an artform of using false statistics in the face of the evidence and chastisement from the ONS, a man whose greatest lie may have been that he cared. Through all that Smith knew that the right wing press would support him and that a neutered BBC would let his statements pass without comment, given equal credibility as the truth.

And as a result, he has become unanswerable. As Auden said, “A sentence uttered makes a world appear; Where all things happen as it says they do.” He believes that he can say anything; he can. And of course others have seen it work and take advantage too.

From the Hutton report onwards, the BBC has shied away from confrontation in news: and the Tories have enjoyed every moment of it. They spent six or seven years being unchallenged on their lies about the causes of the financial crash, and they grew in confidence to the point where they felt able to say “I don’t accept that view” and dismiss any factual argument put to them.

We are living in an age that is post-democracy. Power is concentrated in an elite, says political scientist Colin Crouch, who make “electoral debate a tightly controlled spectacle… considering a small range of issues.” The majority of the electorate, he says, play “a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to signals given to them.” In a single issue vote, with a narrow debate, this makes the infantalisaton of our media actively dangerous to democracy: and we’re seeing this turned up to 11 by a band of chancers that display no more signs of intelligence than Nigel Tuffnell, let alone Nigel Farage.

The lie of the £350M sent to Brussels – proven not to be true, widely debunked, yet still emblazoned across the Leave campaign bus – is the ultimate example of this. It sits in the background on breakfast TV, the moderators on the ITV debates don’t challenge Boris Johnson when he repeats it again and again

David Cameron and his ilk have a specific problem too: the Tories have consistently stoked fear of immigration, because otherwise they’d have to admit that austerity and privatisation is the cause of stress on housing, jobs and services – not migrants. They can’t defend the lies of the leave campaign and are trapped by their own past rhetoric. Consummate politician though Cameron is, he doesn’t quite have the confidence to U-turn on that. There’s no doubt, however, that the idiots would flip and tell that truth if it suited them. They are not just post-democracy, but post-truth.

There are stories that Leave literature has been telling black and asian communities that there will be more and easier immigration after leaving Europe, in direct contrast to the anti-immigration narrative that we hear elsewhere from the same campaign. Likewise the EU is labelled undemocratic by those who don’t turn up to vote despite having been elected to its parliment, and those who would happily turn any state control over to the private sector.

We have a referendum debate conducted in a post-democracy, post-truth, landscape: one where facts aren’t valued and liars aren’t called out. We have already had a Trexit and left a place where rational argument holds any sway.

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The Labour doorstep? A load of cults

From each according to his ability, is half of Marx’s founding ideas.

From the ‘sensible establishment’ supporters of Labour’s pre-Corbyn core, there is something different: forget abilities, what we require from each is a particular form of commitment to and participation in activity that we see as ‘correct’. The virtue signalling of the ‘Labour doorstep’, and the dismissal of those that don’t feel that this is the best use of their efforts in pursuit of a (supposedly) shared goal.

The idea that knocking on doors providing up to date voter data (oh, and having ‘conversations’, although in what form we’re never really told) is the only route of activism available to the foot-soldiers.

Having an opinion is frowned-upon until a certain amount of dues-paying doorstepping has been completed.

A Red Wedge-style series of fund- and awareness-raising gigs with high profile names is dismissed as meaningless in electoral terms. Unless they also knock on doors.

Labour far outshone the Conservatives in doorstep conversations in May last year. But, if knocking on doors alone won elections, it wouldn’t be the Labour Party in power: it would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In coalition with meter readers and Betterware franchisees.

Social media may be an echo chamber, but volume still matters. It’s where people are — but crucially most see no substantive delineation between platforms, between local and national issues, nor between ‘real life’ and the real people they communicate with online*. And that’s why Tom Watson’s digital project, and what it comes out with is so important: we do need to be able to understand how the psychology of people plays out as a whole. That includes conversations around unity in the media, and on the web. And it included targeted digital interactions.

I’ve a lot of time for Jess Phillips, the ‘outspoken’ MP for Yardley, or at least it seems I feel I have to spend a lot of time thinking about what she’s said now. She’s recently been talking about how people on the internet are stopping her being ‘herself’. She says that people are willfully misinterpreting her — and that’s contributing to the rise of the robot MP, too afraid to say anything put the scripted party line.

I wonder if she sees the parallels in how she jumps to give her opinion at things, often speaking before the full story is known, and how other people behave towards her? It is true that we often find most distasteful in others the behaviour that we recognise and dislike in ourselves.

The irony is that, yes, she was misinterpreted by the media — ‘I’ll stab him in the front’ — when talking about how Jeremy Corbyn was misinterpreted by the media and giving that as a reason to potentially work against him. Is she not worried that PLP member’s attacks on Corbyn risk him turning into a frightened ‘robot’ too? Isn’t that what we had for a leader in the previous two elections? How did that work out?

People I know, who know Jess Phillips say she’s the same in real life as she is online. That has certain merits, but it’s not quite true: everything we do online is mediated either by oneself or others. We have to understand the prisms through which we’re seen.

If you’re an MP, you’re not normal — you’ve had a particular set of ambitions, opportunities and experiences. If you’re more than passingly interested in politics, you’re not normal either. Look again at your Facebook feed: although it’s skewed towards your personal likes, is it more political or personal? Watching Googlebox, liking ‘indie music’, or tweeting about ‘bake off’ doesn’t give you some direct line to ‘people’. Only thousands of real conversations — and arguments — offline and online, and through the unfortunately mediated press,  can do that. People like Jess are really valuable to that goal, so she needs to be onboard: but intra-movement discussion needs to be constructive as well as honest. We need to beware we don’t conflate a common touch with an actual principle.

But what if you aren’t ‘on the doorstep’? I find this criticism both disingenuous and exclusive. In reality it’s one of the stock criticisms that can now be laid at the new kind of activist: they’re not doing what we always have done.

Emails from our local party leaders often feel like they’re prickly at an influx of activists: they often “remind new members” of some protocol, despite there being no way for those enthusiastic neophytes to know.

This behaviour, and the exaltation of those ‘on the Labour doorstep’ feels like a set of shibboleths to assert control of the movement. It also feels like an all-purpose criticism to use when change feels uncomfortable. Change may be uncomfortable, but it has to happen.

*This new book Social Media in an English Village is well worth a read on real-life social media use, free to download from UCL Press.

This originally appeared on Labour Uncut.

Jeremy Corbyn: One direction

We live in a small town in Oxfordshire — Cameron country — where Labour are a distant third in all elections, and the Conservative social club is a signposted landmark and a social hub. My wife Libby is never one to shy away from a political discussion, despite being the daughter of a sometime Liberal Democrat councillor. At least once she has stopped to engage those having a fag outside ‘the Con club’ as it’s known and asked them their opinions on matters of the day.

Most of the time it happens with more respect and decorum than PMQs, even though, leaving aside the Chancellor, participants in these impromptu street exchanges are likely to be more intoxicated.

But do you know what? These proud Tories haven’t got a clue what is going on: they have no inkling that there has even been a Health and Social Care Act, let alone what  its impacts are. But these are the people, working class in the true economic sense and ‘aspirational’ — if that means that they are happy to work hard, desire have nice things and want look after their families and friends — that we have been told that the Labour Party needs to win over in 2020.

Truth is, it probably is possible for a Labour party to bring these people along: but it’s not going to happen by nodding assent to the direction of Tory policies and then just arguing with the nuance. We have essentially been agreeing that we all have to stand in a lake of excrement, but we’re saying we should have socks on as well as our sandals. We can offer a different, hopeful, fair, path: and that means an alternative to austerity. Out of the Labour leadership contenders I only see Jeremy Corbyn articulating anything like that. The halls across the country, bursting like a boyband concert, are testament to just how many people see the same thing: and that feels fantastic.

I’ll admit to not having been too aware of him before this campaign, but I’ve been more and more impressed by his stature, attitude and messages. He’s being painted as further left than Lenin, but there’s nothing in his policies that sounds outlandish.

Let’s get ‘electable’ out of the way: the ravaging the press gave Ed Miliband is the new standard that every Labour leader can expect from here on in. Pandering to it is not going to work: changing the debate is the only way. Consistency of thought and message, and — yes — being “a signpost rather than a weather vane”. I can’t say that any of the other candidates have improved my opinion of their abilities in this spotlight.

Corbyn is leading the internal party polls, they say, but there are a lot of shy Tories.

No, that’s unfair: every Labour member I’ve ever met is committed to social justice. It used to be that the destination was the same, but members had different ideas about how to go there: now it seems that the ambition and the drive to move beyond small changes are missing from the usual suspects.

The upper tiers seem to be surprised by the support for more socialist ideas in the membership, and that’s part of the problem. At the very least it shows a lack of their supposed electoral nous: who’d have thought that there were a load of left wingers in the Labour party? There may have been four million conversations on the doorstep, but how many internal conversations about policy?

It’s a shame that the leadership seems to hold the steering wheel, the map and the gas money, but at the moment it does and that’s why getting someone going in the right direction is so important. It’s why we need signposts. Deputy leader candidates (especially Tom Watson and the very impressive Stella Creasy) have spent a lot of time talking about the need for Labour to be a movement — and that’s true, I hope whoever wins that contest they can both work towards it. But that means a leader that also wants that.

Movements have to have leaders, it’s what drives momentum, passion and commitment. Far better they are the reluctant type driven by principle rather than personal ambition, for they are most likely to do what is right — and listen to their movement — rather than only opinion polls.

The movement can be big enough, the momentum can be big enough, the membership can be big enough to win in 2020. But we’ve got to offer people a direction, and Jeremy Corbyn is the only one going anywhere.

Protest

I’ve seen a lot of maps over past few days, and I’ve seen enough cartoon characters. Like massively bile-inducing stereograms, the squinting at patches of colour — those heatmaps of hate — produsce nothing but despair.

I’ve taken to focusing now just on how those patches of yellow have changed over the last few decades. The red and the blue (discounting Scotland) are fairly constant, pulsing but constant. The Liberal yellow appears slowly and spreads a little from 87—2010, but essentially remains in the same places.

Now it’s gone.

So, I wonder if the age of the ‘third party’ protest vote is over, for at least a generation. Because it took time for the Liberal Party (in its various forms) to hit a 50 MP balance and they did well — but essentially they were an alternative. One that based its alternative on being ‘a little from column A, a little from column B’. And when they decided that ‘power’ was worth having they couldn’t stay an alternative. And so the support went: splintered in different directions, but it did go.  And the bits that were previously blue went blue and the bits that were red, went red. We’re back to how it was.

So, that’s it for the Liberal Democrats, while they might have an activist base they don’t have a core vote: because as far as the public see it they don’t stand for anything, they just stand apart. Or did.

Now, some people might say Ukip fill that protest vote: but I don’t think it’s the same people that are protesting. That’s another battle. The Greens could fill that protest vote, but it will take a long time to build up anything more than a few percent. And the Greens are not seen as a safe ‘split the difference’ vote — so they are not the same people either.

I don’t know if Labour can get the floating centrist voters that this time felt that they may as well vote Tory, but I know they will lose an equal number to the left if they try to do it by moving to the right. They’ve got to do something different.

Tom might help.  I know that a ‘grassroots surge’ won’t work with the party mechanism they way they are. A large number of activists work hard, but they can do little to affect the way that the party behaves at the top. We may need people that understand the power of the crowd, and the possibilities of connection. Podemos in Spain seem to have a new way of organising that helps people feel part of a movement, collaborative and distributed. That feels like a better thing than just chasing votes and being angry.

Are we… the baddies?

It’s the morning after the night and the five years before. A lot of people around me are asking how this could happen because everywhere they go, online or offline, they meet people who thought the same as them: that it would be nice if things turned our nicer.

I’m in my mid-30s. Unlike most of my contemporaries I didn’t grow up in the UK so really I only know electoral defeat. You see I arrived, literally off the boat, in September 1997. It was still the honeymoon days of New Labour when Britannia was Cool and the establishment was on the ropes after the death of Diana Spencer. That battle, the Labour landslide, the end of two decades of Thatcher(ism) wasn’t mine, but I got to enjoy its benefits.

No, unlike my friends I’ve never had the bliss of a Portillo Moment. Instead I’ve been on a streak of losing teams. Pro electoral reform, yes to an elected mayor for Birmingham, and on the left of the 2010 generals, I was broadly supportive of Scottish devolution (though I couldn’t vote for that of course).

Yesterday I voted for fairness. What I was offered wasn’t ideal but was a step along the way. I voted to not privatise the NHS, to start regulating the rental property market, and to axe the bedroom tax. I voted for some scraps of dignity for people around me, for myself, for my kids.

But I see Dave, not Ed, drive to the palace. And I see the Tory’s 331 seats. I look at it all and I wonder “are we the baddies?”

History is written by the winners. A third of the country thinks we are the baddies. Dave thinks we’re the baddies.

And now I see an in/out referendum on Europe coming. In that fight I’ll be voting to have someone who our government must be accountable to, someone who can force their hand on things like labour conditions and human rights. I see the political voices that represent my side in disarray. I see Farage cowed and humbled in South Thanet without a seat but I see him promising he’ll be back in the Autumn. I see Farage and UKIP rich as ever, ready to fight and ready to move the 1922 Committee towards their corner. And I wonder: how can we be the baddies? When all we wanted was things to turn out a bit nicer. It’s not like have skulls on our caps.

We can’t be the baddies. We’re nice, we’re fun. We are the goodies, surely?

History is written by the winners. Did we lose today? We did. But have they won? No. This is a point of disruption, the start of a story that sends you on a quest. It’s a beginning. The story ends when we beat the baddies.

We’re not the baddies.

Who makes the best cup of tea: George Orwell or Douglas Adams?

The Covered Market in Oxford is simultaneously cheap shoe shop gaudy, and hipsterific. I’m swathed in a gamey fug of meat smells, contained by the low ceiling. Each turn around a corner brings me a fresh sight of hanging flesh; that is, if I’m lucky enough not to to be blinded by a swinging rabbit carcass. If it weren’t for the prices, and the bubbling pockets of tourists, you could be stepping into almost any England of the last 100 years.

Cardews tea merchants opened in 1948 and moved into the market just under 20 years later, and the layout can hardly have changed: tins of tea and jars of coffee beans sit on the dark wood shelves, the shelves sit behind a counter and scales sit on it. I’m here to buy tea, and I have very little idea what I’m doing.

Luckily, on the wall near my head as I queue, there is a tariff that gives prices for different weights of tea. I pick the lowest unembarrassing order and, after embarrassing myself anyway by having to ask for an explanation of the different grades of tea leaf (finer grades make stronger tea, the young assistant told me), tuck two folded and taped white bags into my bag.

Buying a packet of tea, across a counter, in a market feels properly English somehow. Or that may just be the uncomfortable feeling from having to have any encounter where you aren’t totally sure of your exact rank in society. I’m here because I’m doing what George Orwell told me to do. Orwell, in his 1946 essay A Nice Cup of Tea, is very firm on using leaves and is very firm that these leaves must be free to be shaken around the pot (an earthenware pot, firm of course) – and he’s equally clear on the provenance: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea”, he says. So that’s what I got, along with a bag containing his second choice – Ceylonese leaves, which in the tea world didn’t change to being Sri Lankan until 1972.

Tea in Britain has been a tale of empire and class, ever since the 17 century when Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, popularised it and the East India Company began to import tea into Britain. Doctor Johnson loved the stuff and was reported to drink up to 16 cups in a session, but his contemporary Jonas Hanway published an essay that called on tea drinking to be “considered as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation”.

So, while it might surprise us that Orwell thought it necessary to give us his “eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden”, he was following both a grand literary tradition and also a British tradition of thinking it necessary to codify and control such a simple action. In 1941, the Empire Tea Bureau paid for a short film called Tea Making Tips in which one stilted and prim lady of indeterminate age tells another: “There’s no great secret to making good tea, but some people get careless.” It has six golden rules and finishes by throwing to a comedy working class lady, “And what do you say, mum?” That film was aimed at those who needed to keep the wartime effort stoked with hot wet refreshment on an industrial scale; George and I are after something more homely. But do I follow the Orwell method, or should I take a more modern approach and take the advice of Hitchhiker’s Guide genius Douglas Adams, who set out a similar, but crucially different, set of rules in the 1990s?

Where Orwell is traditional and talks about loose leaves and country of origin, Adams is much more rooted in his time – the 1950s, at least when tea bags were first released in the UK by Tetley. “Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea”, is his predictably quotidian, upper middle class solution. I got mine from Tesco in the end, as the only M&S near me is attached to a petrol station in Didcot, but most people who say they shop at Marks or Waitrose really sneak to Lidl when you’re not looking.

Suitably armed, I repaired to my kitchen, which was to become my laboratory. And I was to stay there until the end of the experiment: there and in the lounge drinking cup after cup, and also popping to the toilet (yes, it turns out that the 17th cup of tea is a diuretic). As well as the rigours of science and all forms of confirmation bias I was battling one great problem: that the 17th cup of tea never tastes as good as the first.

The first was made to Orwell’s recipe: pot warmed on the hob, six teaspoons of Indian tea directly into the pot, pot taken to kettle and water at boiling point poured in, a shake and you’re ready to pour. It’s strong, chewy, you can feel it coating your teeth as you drink. The earthy leaves that I spooned into the pot leave an infusion that is tangy and fortified without being stewed.

Adam’s Earl Grey (three bags, boiling water as quickly as you can into the pre-warmed pot, stand for two or three minutes and then pour it into a cup) fills the mouth with a taste of lemons. I don’t really like it. In any real sense the experiment can declare a winner.

The pot is a crucial stage in both of these methods: the mixing of the brew in a separate place to the cup (and as there was no other advice here I chose Orwell’s “cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type” for all tests) does seem to make a difference. The Indian tea is nicer, to my thoughts, than the Ceylon; it seems to produce fewer leaves in the mouth (George is against tea strainers). With milk is preferable to without.

Leaves versus bags, and blends can all be a matter of time and taste but we do find one fundamental difference: Douglas says milk in first, George has a very good reason why it should be last. “My own argument is unanswerable […] by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk”.

Both are aware of the societal pressure to put milk in last; Adams notes that “social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics” and, as he would probably have considered himself an iconoclast, it’s no surprise that he wants to go against the old order.

In one of the later series of 50s-set British sitcom Hi-de-Hi!, the well-to-do parents of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster referred to his sometime intended bride Gladys as “milk in first”, meaning that she wasn’t of sufficient breeding to marry into the family. I’d never heard the phrase and didn’t have a clue what it meant, I don’t think at the age of 10 I’d given any thought to tea production and class. I’ve made up for that now.

It seems that the question is the ultimate “U and non-U” signifier, and one that doesn’t need language to define it. Alan SC Ross, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, coined the terms U and non-U in a 1954 article on the differences that social class makes in English language usage – U standing for upper class and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes. As a working class lad I wasn’t at the forefront of this battleground, but living in Oxford one can see these interplays everywhere. Should I become a “milk in last”?

Nancy Mitford (one of the nice Mitfords) took up the usage in an essay, The English Aristocracy, and in a letter to Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression “rather milk in first” to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. Mitford, it seems, rather meant the whole thing as a joke, but others – including the family of Squadron Leader Clive Dempster – obviously did not.

If I were to find an answer, the Dorchester hotel seemed to be the place to get it. One can book a champagne afternoon tea for two on the balcony for a little over £100, so I did.

We sat on an interior balcony, overlooking the reception where wealthy Russians flow as they check in and out. A little unsure of what to do, we were shown the menu of “specially selected grand and rare teas served in our vintage Minton china set”. I chose an Assam tea after Orwell, while my partner plumped for the blend that Samuel Johnson was a 16-cup fan of. Our waiter was every bit his part in the empire charade: prim, neat, knowledgeable and a foreign national led to kowtow to traditions of Englishness thanks to the still-existing economic hegemony.

At the Dorchester, they put the milk in last. But maybe, like a stopped clock, the U were right on this one. I needed more help, and luckily I found some: back in Oxfordshire. Ross Meredith is a physicist who has studied the science of tea making. He told me: “As the milk makes contact with the hot fluid, isolated pockets of milk would reach a local equilibrium temperature above scalding point — the milk proteins will become denatured — before being cooled to the net temperature in the cup. This leads to a cup with a noticeably heavier taste.”

OK.

“This effect can be avoided by pouring the milk in first, as rather than causing parts of the milk to reach the final temperature of the mix ‘from above’, the milk is warmed to the final temperature from below, as the hot tea is gradually added.”

Brilliant, an answer.

“But whether that affects the taste is up to the individual.”

Damn.

Ross, perhaps sensing my disappointment, alerts me to ISO Standard 3103: Tea — Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests. Last reviewed in 2013, this sets out the internationally recognised method for making a cuppa. He tells me: “It’s intended to standardise the material ‘tea’ for scientific/nutritional research rather than, say, for cafés to be judged, but you can be sure that any café I run conforms to it.”

And it says: “If the test involves milk, then it is added before pouring the infused tea”. It feels wonderful to be right, even if I’m never going to be considered socially correct.

Tea, as the Empire Tea Board would tell you, is ‘the cup that cheers”. Orwell said we should “feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it”. Douglas Adams thought it worth educating Americans that the British were not “generally clueless about hot stimulants”. It’s wonderful.

Fancy a brew? Orwell-style, with the addition of a tea strainer? Of course you do.

References:

Orwell (1942, Evening Standard) A Nice Cup of Tea

Adams (1999, H2G2) Tea

Empire Tea Board (1941) Tea Making Tips

ISO 3103: Tea – Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests

Hi de Hi! “Wedding Bells” (1987)