Owen Jones is one of the most successful writers in Britain yet he does not actually like writing. “I never wanted to be a writer,” he has written, “I don’t particularly enjoy writing, in lots of ways I’m not a very good writer.” The honesty is endearing. Still, how grim to see one of our most renowned columnists admit that writing is “a means to an end”. Where is the love of language that inspired such commentators as Mencken, Waugh, Hitchens and Cockburn? What does it say about the reading public that a man for whom writing is a mere propaganda tool has reached such heights?
Jones appeared almost from nowhere, with a slim, fresh-faced appearance and cheerful, down-to-Earth style that earned him a following above that of wordier, angrier leftist commentators. His books Chavs and The Establishment became bestsellers and he is one of if not the biggest attraction of The Guardian with his videos and columns.
The honesty that I mentioned is real and admirable. The problem is that it exposes weaknesses that – well – are not. The greatest of these is a shallowness of reflection. In one column that addressed religion, Jones offered familiar prejudicial criticisms of theistic truth claims before admitting that while these were “questions that the more patient Christian has time for”, “it wasn’t simply he couldn’t believe in God; he didn’t want to either”. That is true for many people. It takes self-awareness to admit it. Yet the fact remains that it displays unreflective bias and incuriosity that should embarrass any influential public figure.
The same column went on to address “Islamophobia”, a theme that Jones has returned to many times over the years. Why, he asked himself, was he not a more voluble critic of political Islam? Well, “polls show that support for political Islamism is tiny among Britain’s Muslims”. What is “political Islamism”? That is like “imperialist colonialism”, or “adult pornography”. Still, even bypassing this rhetorical quirk, Jones was wrong. In a 2006 poll as much as 40% of British Muslims supported sharia law. A 2016 survey found similar results. “Terrorism is being dealt with by the security services,” Jones continued, “And a few articles by me isn’t really going to contribute very much.” Well, articles don’t contribute very much. That is true. But would he say the same about white supremacist terrorism? Of course not.
As terrorism has left a bloody trail across Europe, Jones has shifted to writing on the foreign policy blunders that have made it worse. He admits, almost from the corner of his mouth, that there is “a murderous ideology” that inspires ISIS but prefers to focus on material conditions that, he claims, enabled its growth. He would have no respect for anyone who reacted to the spread of neo-Nazism with commentary on unemployment and political correctness, with no analysis of its supremacist, annihilationist ideas. Why is it acceptable here? Because, for Jones, the world is the people against the Establishment and apart from a few terrorists and despots Muslims are firmly on the former side.
Jones is a revolutionary. A polite, well-dressed, well-spoken revolutionary, of course, but a revolutionary nonetheless. His progressive fervour became insufferable after the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Schadenfreude was to expected, but Jones’ gloating was absurd. “In your face, Enoch,” he tweeted after an African Caribbean Labour candidate won Powell’s former seat. In a world where liberalism has become the norm, progressives are reduced to insulting the long dead. “Britain’s social order is bankrupt,” he wrote this week, “And will have to be replaced.” This would sound almost entertaining if his preferred candidate was not leading the polls.
The problem is that Jones’ judgement offers us no reason to believe that his “social order” would be preferable the status quo. He was an enthusiastic advocate of the government of Hugo Chavez – claiming that the nation showed “you can lead a progressive popular government” – yet has grown quiet on the subject since Venezuala slid into poverty and unrest.
Well, everyone makes mistakes. But I fear that Jones does not have the intellectual tools to stop making them. There is that incuriosity. That unwillingness to explore that which he does even want to understand. In one column, for example, he complained that when he had debated Nigel Farage on why poorer children tended to worse than “their more affluent peers” in school the UKIP man had suggested that genes “might play a role”. “I winced,” Jones wrote. This was apparently “political poison”. Well, the interplay of genes and poverty on intelligence is a complex subject. Anyone claiming that inherent or environmental traits are singularly influential is ignorant and presumptuous. But the mere suggestion is “poison”? Who can know what Farage actually said but Jones’ phrasing is downright anti-intellectual.
Then there is the question of loyalties. Jones is one of many leftists who have tried to build a vague form of patriotism on “a great tradition of struggle and dissent” that includes such minor movements as the Diggers. What his politics have to do with a small group of Protestant agrarians who thought that Britain should be reclaimed from Norman conquerors is unclear, but when he lionises the “sacrifice of our ancestors” without mentioning men who fought and died to protect Britain from, say, Napoleon or Hitler it is obnoxious. Such events, firmly supported by kings and prime ministers, would undermine his anti-establishment narrative. Beyond such fantasies, Jones has that romantic universalism which projects a mirage of sameness and solidarity from his personal experiences and personal preferences. He also has the left.
I do not hate Jones. Indeed, it would surprise me if he is not a good son, friend and neighbour. He seems nice, open and honest. But he is a tribal thinker who internalised leftism as a self-proclaimed “fourth-generation socialist” and appears to have never questioned its creed. He is more faithful than a religious believer.
In one column he mentioned a professor of literature who “hopes that she has brought up her two sons as feminists but…realises that there is countervailing pressure in the playground, at school, on the football pitch”. The idea that there is any kind of intellectual alternative did not occur to him.
Britain is hurting. It is hurting as it feels the pinch of austerity. It is hurting as it feels the blows of terrorism. It is hurting as it looks on the incompetence and cowardice of its government. I understand why people have turned to the left as an alternative. Yet I fear that it is selling them a bill of goods; one that seems appealing but is empty and destructive. Owen does not like to write. That is not the gravest sin. What is worse is that he does not seem to like to think.