UK Parliament Drugs Enquiry

On the 10th February 2022 the UK parliament Home Affairs Committee launched its inquiry into illegal drugs culture and policy in the UK. My submission to the inquiry is outlined below

The ‘Terms of Reference’ that the submission address – with a particular focus on Scotland and drug death rates – relates to current UK drug policy:

  • What are the trends and patterns in drug use across the four UK nations? Responses to this may speak to some or all of the nations.

Full enqury terms of reference can be accesed here

Introduction & Summary

This submission adopts a critical approach to current Scottish Government policy on drugs and drug deaths specifically. It pinpoints the increasing tendency of harm reduction strategies to undermine approaches to drug recovery that advocate abstinence as a realistic goal. The submission suggests that harm reduction undermine the capacity of both medical treatment and the individual drug user to address and overcome the problem of addiction. Following McKeganey (2011: 169)  – who argues that ‘Retaining moral judgements  about drug use and accepting the stigma directed towards drug use if not drug users may be an important part of an effective approach aimed at tackling the use of illegal drugs in society’ – this submission suggests that Scotland’s drug death crisis is underpinned by a wider moral abdication of responsibility by government, policy makers and the wider political community, towards both the individual addict and wider society. As such this submission argues that the drugs issue is no longer simply a question of policy but has become a fundamental moral question that pertains to how the UK and devolved administrations understand addiction in relation to the interests, common norms and values of civil society and the wider national community.

Drug Deaths & Opioid abuse in Scotland

Scotland has the worst drug related deaths per head of population in Europe and is over 3 and a half times that of the UK as a whole. In 2020, there were 1,339 drug-related deaths registered in Scotland. This was 5% more than in 2019 and the largest number since records began in 1996. Moreover, deaths have increased substantially over the last 20 years with almost 5 times as many deaths in 2020 compared with 2000 (National Records of Scotland, 2021a)

To put both the scale and nature of Scotland’s current drug deaths crisis in a global context, Scotland’s drug deaths per 100, 000 of its population stands at around 33.6. The United States rate is 20.6. 89% of drug deaths in Scotland involve opioid abuse. This includes drugs like codeine, morphine, tramadol, heroin and of course methadone. America’s ‘supposed’ opioid crisis pales compared to the extent of the opioid crisis in Scotland, which in 2018 was more than double the rate in the United States. Methadone accounts for almost 50% of all of Scotland’s drug related deaths (van Amsterdam, 2021). Deaths from methadone have almost tripled since 2015. Methadone is also the drug administered directly by the Scottish government to wean addicts off heroin as part of a maintenance and harm reduction strategy

Whilst recognising that there are  specific variables (for example gender, age and economic) that shape the pattern of drug deaths in Scotland – the National Records of Scotland (2021b) suggest that the majority of drug-related deaths occur within a cohort of  males aged between 35 and 54 (the average age increasing from 32 to 43 over the last 20 years). Those living in the most deprived areas are 18 times more likely to die from a drug-related death than those in the least deprived– these variables do not in and of themselves explain the high rates of drug related fatalities as a percentage of the population.

Indeed, recent academic research has identified the rapid increase in opioid related deaths in Scotland as ‘remarkable’ and ‘worrisome’. When comparing opioid related death rates across the UK as a whole research suggests that there are ‘… no clear regional differences…’ and as such their role as drivers of the Scottish opioid crisis is probably limited’ (van Amsterdam, 2021).

The key driver in Scotland’s drug-death crisis is government policy. This submission notes that there are apparent differences in how the UK and Scottish Governments view and treat the issue of drugs. The UK government is characterised as favouring a criminal justice centred approach, whilst the Scottish administration seemingly favour a public health centred approach.

However, as will be explored below the apparent divergence between the UK and Scottish Government’s on this issue is perhaps not as clear cut as first presented. Both governments approach emphasises a policy of harm reduction. In the case of the Scottish example, advocates of harm reduction strategies have been successful in arguing that the idea of abstinence and prohibition, as meaningful outcomes of drug treatment are no longer tenable. This has potentially worrying impacts for the shape of drug policy in the UK more widely. This submission will now look at some of these trends within the context of Scottish drug policy and will then go on to explore the problems associated with the adoption of harm reduction policies more broadly.

Scottish Drug Policy and the Retreat from Abstinence

The Scottish Government’s approach to developing a response to the perennial drug deaths crisis has effectively jettisoned abstinence as a meaningful or desired outcome when treating addiction. This is a view also shared by academics and experts. This tendency underpins recent Scottish government initiatives such as the national anti-addiction stigma campaign.  Launched in December 2020 as part of the Drug Deaths Taskforce set up by the Scottish Government in 2019, the campaign suggests that ‘…many who could benefit from treatment can be discouraged from doing so by language, attitudes and behaviours that appear judgmental…’. and that ‘…tackling stigma could make a significant contribution to reducing drug-related deaths in Scotland.’ As such the campaign suggests that ‘anyone, including media, writing or commenting on issues relating to substance abuse, including drug related deaths, to do so without using the stigmatising language or imagery that perpetuates harm to those at risk.’

The campaign which includes a series of posters and TV adverts suggests that terms such as ‘user’, addict’, ‘drug abuse’ or ‘drug user’ should no longer be used to describe individuals with substance abuse issues. Moreover, the campaign ads continue:

“Substance use has been seen as a lifestyle choice or the result of poor decisions. It’s also been described or viewed as a mistake or the result of moral weakness. This is stigmatising and unhelpful. It shows a connection between drug or alcohol use and personal failures. This allows substance used to be linked to character or morals. Viewing this as just a personal issue adds to stigma. A drug or alcohol problem is a health condition. People should receive help and support, not judgment. Let’s end the stigma of addiction.”

( )

However, the Scottish governments campaign has little to do with actually helping drug addicts. Far from promoting tolerance and respect, the campaign appears to stigmatise the established belief held by many ordinary people that generally speaking, individuals are responsible for what they do and if it is harmful to themselves or others, they have a responsibility to desist from such behaviour.

The Scottish government and its drug experts have all but jettisoned the idea of recovery and have become enthralled to the idea of harm reduction. The dominant view is that stigma and discrimination of Scottish drug addicts, rather than their actual addiction itself, is the leading contributory factor to the annual increase in drug deaths.

In April of last year Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested that  public discussion of  drug rehabilitation was l  a distraction, and  that too much time had been wasted  in Scotland  debating the issue ( 

In July 2020 under the then stewardship of Professor Catriona Matheson, Professor of Substance Use at the University of Stirling, the Task Force published its stigma and drug abuse strategy. Subtitled ‘We all have a part to play’ the strategy argues that the commonly held belief that addicts should be encouraged to abstain from taking drugs is no longer an acceptable view to hold. Matheson argues that abstinence is discriminatory and should no-longer be the aim of official drug policy because it stigmatises those drug addicts who fail to quit. Government policy on addiction, the Task Force argues, is undermined ‘… by the common perception among service staff and others that abstinence is the purpose of treatment… a notion based in stigma… and is a key driver of drug-related deaths’ (Drugs Death Task Force, 2020).  

A ‘hierarchy of stigma’ exits in Scotland which informs a deeply ingrained prejudice against drug users. ‘Public discourse, political discourse, criminal justice discourse, public health discourse, media coverage’ contributed to a climate whereby ‘Stigma is absorbed and internalised by people who have been subjected to persistent stigma. People with a drug problem often have a perception of themselves that simply reflects the prejudices of others that are based in their stigmatisation.’ In other words, as long as public opinion on addiction is shaped by attitudes that are fundamentally opposed to substance abuse, discrimination against drug addicts will continue.

According to Scottish government experts the stigma faced by addicts, is systemic in Scottish society and is a far bigger problem than their actual addiction. Moreover, it is a form of discrimination on a par with racism and sexism, and as such local communities and Scottish public opinion need to be re-educated in relation to the way in which their stigmatised options are discriminatory and perpetuate social inequality (Drugs Death Task Force, 2020).

Harm reduction & Moral Ambivalence

Current Scottish policy is often justified on the grounds that it is a far more compassionate and socially just approach to treating substance abuse in Scotland and is often contrasted favourably with approaches south of the border. However, harm minimalization has characterised both medical and government approaches to drug addiction in the UK since the 1980s – the adoption of methadone as a ’therapeutic’ substitute for heroin (Fitzpatrick 2001; McKeganey, 2011).

Introduced by the Conservative UK Government in an effort to initially control the spread of HIV infection, harm reduction strategies, such as needle exchange, and outreach education on safer injecting techniques have now become common practice in dealing with UK drug problem. In 2002 the Home Office (2002:3) issued guidance stating that ‘All problematic drug users must have access to treatment and harm minimization services not within the community and through the criminal justice system’. This now also included the introduction of ‘methadone maintenance’ as a principal strategy in treating addiction. As outlined in the Government White Paper ‘Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain’ (President of the Council, 1998) and the guidelines on clinical management provided by the Department of Health in 1999 (Department of Health, 1999) the UK approach was now predominantly public health centred. Drug addiction was something to be managed rather than something to be cured.

Indeed, as Fitzpatrick (2001) argues this new ‘public health’ approach was characterised by its side-lining of abstinence as a meaningful policy goal in favour of a more instrumentalised outcomes such as  harm reduction. The objective was no-longer to encourage users to become drug free, but to replace a dependence upon one illicit substance with long-term dependence (or ‘maintenance’) on methadone. This has had disastrous consequences for the drug addict as evidenced above the high levels of Scottish opioid deaths. However, it would be wrong to single out the use of methadone as a cause of Scotland’s drug death rates – used as a strategy within a correct context that centres recovery as its primary goal, methadone has a valuable role to play. As Fitzpatrick (2001: 99) notes that ‘Since its introduction into the treatment of heroin addiction in the USA in the 1940s it [methadone] has been prescribed to patients in steadily reducing doses, with a view to achieving abstinence.’

They key distinction between the initial use of methadone to treat addicts and the contemporary context is the differing conceptualisation of abstinence as a meaningful and desired outcome. As already noted, the turn towards harm reduction that occurred in the 1980s and 90s has all but negated the ideal of abstinence as a worthwhile endeavour, favouring instead a much more instrumentalised, detched notion of addiction management.

There is evidence that clearly suggests that harm reduction strategies do indeed reduce the addict’s exposure to harm – as defined as interventions that encourage ‘safe’ consumption and drug use. However, as McKeganey (2011) notes harm reduction is far less successful in successfully treating the more pressing harm of addiction. As the case in Scotland clearly evidences, a policy predicated solely upon ‘safely’ maintaining a patient’s addiction without addressing the principal problem of addiction itself means very little if the end result is premature death. Indeed, McKeganey (20011) goes as far to characterise the contemporary harm reduction movement as morally ambivalent. I find it hard to disagree with his assessment, only to suggest that in the case of current Scottish drug policy it represents a complete abdication of both moral and social responsibility on the part of government, policy makers and the wider political community in Scotland.

The addict doesn’t only swap one addiction to a dangerous and deadly substance with another, they also become increasingly more dependent upon the state. This fetishization of harm reduction strategies both pacifies the addict as a wilful subject and institutionalises the notion that addiction is something to be managed rather than overcome. Harm reduction policy negates the possibility of the drug user being able to rehabilitate themselves and overcome their addiction. It subordinates the actual interests of the addict and drug abuser – to get better – to the instrumentalised managerial logics of the spreadsheet. It views the addict as statistic, a piece of data, and the role of the state to try and make sure the statistic does not die. The management of addiction has become an end in itself rather than a means to an end, albeit, as Scotland’s drug death figures testify, it is a profoundly dysfunctional one.

Concluding Remarks

The focus upon harm reduction at the expense of recovery and rehabilitation endorses an idea that addiction is socially acceptable and should be respected by wider society. It provides a technocratic managerial solution to what is in fact a fundamentally moral question about the individuals responsibility to wider society and their ability to contribute purposively to that society– in this case the addict’s willingness to exercise personal responsibility for their condition and give up. The retreat from the view that substance abuse is an aberrant and socially unacceptable form of behaviour negates the moral responsibility that the individual addict has to wider society to take responsibility for and through the exercise of personal restraint and abstinence overcome their drug problem, and thereby reintegrate themselves with the wider social community. Scotland’s approach to substance abuse does little for actual addicts, except condemn them to death. It reflects an increasingly technocratic and pessimistic view of the capacity of the individual to take control of their life.


Department of Health (1999) Drug Misuse and Dependence: Guidelines on Clinical Management (London: Stationary Office)

Drugs Death Task Force (2020) Stigma Policy And Strategy

Fitzpatrick, M (2001) The Tyranny of Health. Doctors and the Regulation of Lifecyle (London: Routledge)

Home Office (2002) Update Drug Strategy Directorate (London: HMSO)

McKeganey, N (2011) Controversies in Drugs Policy and Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan)

National Records of Scotland (2021a) Drug-related Deaths in Scotland

National Records of Scotland (2021b) Drug-related death rise. June.

President of the Council (1998) Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain (London: HMSO)

van Amsterdam J, van den Brink W, Pierce M (2021) Explaining the Differences in Opioid Overdose Deaths between Scotland and England/Wales: Implications for European Opioid Policies. European Addict Research, 27, 399-412. doi: 10.1159/000516165

This submission was publihed by the House of Commons in April 2022 and can be accesed directly here, as can the other written submission to the enquiry

Scotland’s no tuition fees policy has created a two-tier higher education system in Scotland which discriminates against Scottish student

Since 2008 the Scottish Government has provided free tuition for Scottish domiciled and EU students attending Scottish universities. Speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival in London in October, former Scottish first minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond claimed that the abolition of tuition fees was his greatest achievement. Current first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said that ‘The abolition of tuition fees is one of the achievements from the last 20 years that I am most proud of’. In 2015 she announced that education would be her ‘defining priority’ while in office. However, despite being an apparent cornerstone of government policy, 14 years of SNP rule finds Scotland’s Higher Education sector in financial meltdown, with Scottish students paying the heaviest price.  

Many so called HE leaders have pointed the finger at Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic as the source of their economic woes. Such arguments don’t hold water and are little more than an apology for SNP policy. The economic crisis in Scotland’s HE sector is a direct consequence of the SNP’s decision to scrap fees for Scots students.  The no tuition fees policy does not simply require serious reconsideration; it needs to be abolished.

According to the public spending watchdog, Audit Scotland, in 2015 only one fifth of applicants who attended the elite Edinburgh and St Andrews universities came from Scotland. UCAS statistics for 2018-19 indicate that the number of Scottish students attending Scottish universities has declined by 4% compared to 2017-18. This has been a protracted trend. Since 2010 the proportion of offers to Scottish students from Scottish universities has fallen. Apparently one in five Scottish students did not receive an offer from a Scottish university in 2015. In contrast, offer rates to RUK (Rest of UK) and international students have increased, figures suggest on average by 11% between 2010 and 2015. 

The current Scottish Government have overseen a period of marked under funding in the Scottish higher education sector. Far from widening participation, the Scottish Government’s no tuition fees policy, together with continual disinvestment, has created a two-tier system of provision which treats Scottish students as second-class citizens, and actively penalises Scottish universities for recruiting Scottish students.

The origins of the current crisis lie in the virtue signalling role played by education in successive devolved administrations. Whilst talked up as a bulwark against the so called neo-liberal valorisation of higher education south of the border by successive devolved administrations, in reality Scottish policy punishes its own young people, and especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Scotland’s no tuition fees equate to little more than an economic attack upon the majority of Scotland’s universities. Teaching and research have become subordinate to income generation and ‘rationalised efficiencies’

Under the SNPs watch, the Scottish Funding Council has reduced its grant to the sector by 7% between 2014-15 and 2017-18, by a whopping £91 million. But as Audit Scotland suggests, when taking into account reductions over the past seven years, in real terms Government funding to the Scottish University sector has been reduced by 12%. These figures do not take into account the fact that Government strategic funding has also been cut by 46% in real terms between 2014-15 to 2017-2018 – a total reduction of some £32 million.

These cuts have been exacerbated by the Government’s limiting of ‘free’ places via the imposition of a ‘cap’ to prevent universities relying on government funding in the ‘no fees’ regime. The ‘cap’ requires Scottish universities to limit the number of Scottish domiciles that they can recruit to their undergraduate degrees and was introduced to keep government funding of free places to a minimum. The Government imposes financial penalties upon those universities that do not adhere to the cap. 

As a result, more than half of Scottish universities are now in financial deficit. There are of course some notable exceptions. According to Audit Scotland, financial surpluses are disproportionately concentrated in 3 of Scotland’s 4 ‘ancient’, elite universities (Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews). Those in deficit such as the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), are the very institutions now dependent upon recruiting Scottish students. For the academic year 2017-18 UWS had an operating deficit of £3.3 million, a 3% increase on its deficit for the previous academic year. 80% of UWS full time undergraduates are drawn from some of Scotland’s most deprived areas.  Government funding accounts for 56% of Scotland’s non-elite universities’ income – the most significant proportion of this being the SFC ‘funding’ of Scottish domicile and EU places. 

Despite this being the era of ‘no tuition fees’, government funded places have become the single largest source of income for most Scottish universities. Scottish Government funded fees for Scottish domiciled and EU students are notoriously inadequate. At £1,820 per academic year, they pale in comparison to the average fees Scottish universities can now charge RUK (£9,250) international students (between £10-26,000 per academic year) undergraduates. The recruitment cap and the enormous income discrepancy between fees implicitly discriminates against those Scottish students the policy purports to be helping, because it both limits the numbers who can get into university, and effectively limits the universities they can actually attend. 

Under the current funding regime, Scottish universities are forced to increase income by targeting RUK and international students. It will come as no surprise that the income from RUK students has increased by £68 million (66%) since 2014- 2015. Over the same period income from international students has increased by £148 million (31%) since 2014-15. It will also come as no surprise that it is the elite Scottish universities that have benefited most from this market – accounting for 66% of the overall increase in fee income across the whole sector from the same undergraduate market.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to free tuition requires urgent review as university teaching and research have become subordinate to chasing income from markets that the vast majority of Scottish universities have no real access to. Scotland HE leaders need to start stepping up to the plate. Whilst many university chancellors, vice-chancellors and principles will privately acknowledge the gravity of problem, they seem less inclined to do so in public. Universities Scotland, the representative body of Scotland’s 19 universities, has openly acknowledge that the current funding arrangements are woefully inadequate, yet do little to oppose the SNP’s disastrous policy. It appears that the leaders of Scotland’s universities are more than happy to see Scotland’s students continue to pay the real price for their own sycophantic cowardice.

In the 13 years since its introduction, the Scottish Government’s no fees policy has thrown Scottish higher education into disarray. Rather than helping Scottish students get to university, the policy actually discriminates against them, and in particular those from the poorest social backgrounds. Effectively excluded from Scotland’s elite universities, they find themselves at institutions penalised for recruiting Scottish students.  It seems as though Scottish students get to go to university not because of the no fees policy, but despite it. 

Deliberately locked out of Scotland’s elite universities, the majority end up either in clearing, or at those very universities whose lack of access to Rest of UK and international markets only exacerbates the already widening inequalities caused by the SNP’s higher education policy. It is testament to the faux nature of the SNP’s apparent egalitarianism that those universities penalised most by the funding gap are those same institutions trying to blaze a trail in trying to widen participation within Scotland. For the academic year 2017-18 the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) had an operating deficit of £3.3 million – a 3% decline on the previous year’s figures. For the same period Saint Andrews and Edinburgh University both had surpluses of £23.5 million and £27.5 million respectively. This inequality makes sense when placed within the context of SNP policy, which effectively functions as a funding cut. 60% of UWS income is generated through Scottish Funding Council (SFC) grants for subsidised student places – the second highest in Scotland. Only 18% of Edinburgh income, and 15% of St Andrews income comes from SFC grants. UWS is the sector leader in widening participation in Scotland, with 80% of its domicile undergraduate full-time intake drawn from Scotland’s most economically deprived areas. This is in itself not that surprising given that its campuses in paisley and Lanarkshire are situated in some of the poorest areas in Scotland. The UWS main campus in Paisley, is but a stone throw from Ferguslie Park, one of the most deprived regions in Europe.

Scotland’s no tuition fees equate to little more than an economic attack upon the majority of Scotland’s universities. Teaching and research have become subordinate to income generation and ‘rationalised efficiencies’. Scottish students are packed into under resourced and failing education facilities and then told they should be grateful for it.

If the Scottish Government really had Scottish student’s interests at heart, they would scrap the no tuition fees policy, and allow Scotland’s universities to compete as equals with other UK universities for students. A direct consequence of this would be that Scottish domicile students would no longer be considered the second-class citizens they are by Scotland’s elite universities and the two-tier system of education that the SNP policy has undoubtably caused would at least have a chance of levelling out.

This article was originally published by Scotland Can on 15th November 2021

The Anatomy of Hate: Submission in Opposition to the Hate Crime & Public Order (Scotland) Bill

Below is my submission to the Scottish parliamentary committee stage of the SNP’s proposed Hate Crime Bill (Scotland). This is a brief preamble that attempts to contextualise the submission and also offer some thoughts on what I think are some key issues in opposing this divisive piece of legislation.

The Bill encompasses one of the l most wholesale attacks upon freedom of expression not only in Scotland, but Europe more broadly. Moreover it threatens to completely undermine the notion of equality before the law. Significant sections of the Bill also threaten to potentially criminalise both the arts and scholarly endeavour in Scotland.

Due to a limit on length the submission does not provide a comprehensive critique of the proposed legislation, but draws out what I think are some of the salient features of the Bill – such as a creeping criminalisation of Scottish arts and academia – and the impact the Bill will have upon the Scottish criminal justice system more broadly. Scotland already has one of the largest prison populations in Europe and the Bill will accentuate this worrying trend. If passed the Bill will cement Scotland’s position as the carceral capital of Europe.

Over the last couple of weeks the Christian Institute and The National Secular Society have successfully launched the broad based Free To Disagree campaign in opposition to the Bill. The campaign now boasts support from academics, QCs, journalists, human rights lawyers, womens rights activists, and principled members of the SNP. Both the Scottish and UK media have now begun to cover the growing opposition to the SNP’s authoritarian legislation. However there are some worrying aspects of this opposition that do need to be challenged.

Increasingly it seems that whilst opposing the Bill, there is a tendency by some to see the proposals as ‘well intentioned’, or that the very real threat to the freedom of expression posed by the Bill, is at best accidental, or at worst, an unintended consequence. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing ‘well intentioned’ about the specific proposals or the ideological motives behind them. They encapsulate the vision a new woke cultural elite has for what Scottish society should look like, and the Bill just the latest manifestation of a sustained culture war being waged against the Scottish public.

The Bill, I hope, will be successfully opposed, but it would be foolish to think that the threats it represents to the freedom’s enjoyed by ordinary Scottish people will disappear. The SNP’s Hate Crime & Public Order (Scotland) Bill, regardless of its passing or not, will frame the trajectory of Scottish politics for some time to come. It is for this reason that it must be opposed unconditionally – no ifs no buts!

The following submission was made as a member of Academics For Academic Freedom:

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill

Call for Views July 2020

Submission in Opposition to the Proposed Bill

Dr Carlton Brick

Academics For Academic Freedom (Scotland)

Lecturer in Sociology, University of the West of Scotland

 Introductory Summary

This submission opposes the proposed Bill. It does so on the following principles:

  • This submission notes that the proposed Hate Crime legislation is indicative of an increasingly neoliberal turn in Scottish criminal justice policy. This turn has become increasingly punitive in form. The Bill exacerbates this worrying trend.
  • This submission notes that the increasingly punitive nature of the Bill will have adverse impacts upon the Scottish criminal justice system. 
  • This submission notes that the proposed Bill undermines the equality implicit in law required to protect a diverse society
  • This submission notes that the proposed Bill undermines freedom of expression and lays a legislative basis for the criminalisation of the arts and academic enquiry

Substantive Objections

  • This submission notes that the proposed Hate Crime legislation is indicative of an increasingly neoliberal turn in Scottish criminal justice. This turn has become increasingly punitive in form. This bill exacerbates this worrying trend.

Relevant literature notes the development of a distinct approach to policy development within a devolved Scotland. This ‘Scottish Style’ (Cairney 2016; 2017) so called, is characterised by an apparently progressive, collaborative approach, committed to social justice and strongly juxtaposed against the excess of the neoliberal UK government. 

However recent critiques of Scottish criminal justice policy have pointed to the increasingly punitive nature of policy intervention and suggest that in recent years it has taken its own neoliberal turn. Neoliberal criminal justice is defined as the means by which legislative bodies adopt increasingly more intrusive and authoritarian outlooks and co-opt more punitive forms of legal and social control, within a wider fiscally insecure context (Mariani, 2001).  Indeed, as one academic has recently suggested, that ‘Despite the SNPs previously critical stance towards New Labour’s ‘neoliberal’ approach to criminal justice’ recent trends point towards a ‘convergence with their predecessors in the Scottish Government and the UK state’ (McBride, 2020: 14). Points of differentiation between a ‘Scottish approach’ to criminal justice and a wider UK/Westminster approach becomes increasingly rhetorical under consecutive SNP governments. ‘Style’ substitutes for real definitional distinction. As McBride (2020: 4) argues ‘The extent to which positive political rhetoric was translated into reform on the ground during the SNP minority government period (2007 -2011) was limited’, and rather than developing a distinct ‘devolved’ approach the SNP took their cue from New Labour’s ‘tough on crime’/ tough on causes of crime approach (McBride, 2020: 4).

The increasing neoliberal character of Scottish criminal justice under the SNP government is illustrated by on the one hand; its increasingly punitive nature, which has had marked impact on Scotland’s prison population and its orientation and focus towards issues of identity and the ‘criminalisation’ of particular forms of behaviours  that had previously considered to be outside the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.

  • This submission notes that the increasingly punitive nature of the Bill will have adverse impacts upon the Scottish criminal justice system. 

2016 Council of Europe study highlights that Scotland has the highest prison population in the EU (Scotsman March 8th, 2016). According to the study 148 people reside in a Scottish jail per 100, 000 of population. The EU average is 136. Between 2005 and 2014 the prison population increased by some 10.7% – for England and wales it was just 4.9%. Scotland also has the highest prison population density in the UK at 97.6 per 100 places. Scotland also has one of the highest rates in terms of inmates serving life sentences – 16.2% compared to an EU average of 15.3%. When placed alongside other EU countries with far greater populations than Scotland these figures are striking. For example, France has less than half (466) Scotland’s total of prisoners serving life sentences but a population of approximately 67 million (12 times Scottish population). In 2018 Scottish prison population was approximately 8,213 (0.15%) of population – ‘…one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe (Howard League Scotland, 2018) – [and] evidence of the system’s more punitive elements’ (McBride, 2020:3) 

One  of principle points of opposition to the OBTC need to spell out what these stand for (which itself created 2 new ‘hate crime’ offences – 1) the offence of offensive behaviours at a regulated football match, & 2) the offence of threatening communications (see Chalmers, & Leverick, 2017: 134)  in its committee stages was the question of why design a law that expands the concept of criminality which would ultimately mean brining more people into the criminal justice system? It seems that this question remains not only unanswered by the proposed Hate Crime Bill, but totally ignored. This appears to be both counter intuitive and counterproductive to Scottish governments broader commitment to social justice. 

Scotland appears to be becoming Europe’s carceral capital, the Hate Crime Bill will make this appearance a reality. This regressive tendency is likely to be exacerbated by two principle elements of the proposed bill : the increase in sentencing for ‘proven’ hate crimes; and the lowering of the threshold of ‘proof’ (for example section 1(1)(b) which ‘does not require there to be a specific victim’; and section 1 (4) that ‘provides that collaboration is not required to prove that an offence was aggravated by prejudice’ (Explanatory Notes 2020: 4)

  • This submission notes that the proposed Hate Crime legislation undermines the equality implicit in law required to protect a diverse society

 Hate Crime legislation exacerbates the neoliberal trend towards increasingly polarised and unequal societies. Moreover, it notes that the provisions within the proposed Bill undermine the equality of integral? to the liberal rule of law.

There has been a notable increase in resistance to Hate Crime legislation by activist groups that represent communities ‘particularly vulnerable to victimisation by hate crime’ (Swiffen, 2018: 122). This opposition is premised upon the expansive and increasingly subjective nature of the definition of a hate crime – in that Hate Crime legislation firstly, effectively problematise all forms of behaviour as potentially ‘criminal’, and secondly legitimates a juridical/ legislative intervention, thus expanding the jurisdiction of the state into matters of sexual (and other) identity. Criticism of hate crime legislation that point to definitional ambiguity tend to miss a far more pressing question. The principle question is ‘…not whether hate violence is a social problem but whether the legislation that has been enacted accords with standards of legality, which is to say whether it is consistent with the rule of law’ (Swiffen, 2018: 137) – that is, does it afford the necessary legal equality required in liberal and democratic societies for justice to prevail.

 Both the creation of ‘protected identities’ and the increased sentencing tariff for ‘proven’ Hate Crimes as proposed by the Bill creates an explicit inequality in how law operates and how it relates to and mediates between individuals and society as a whole.

This is both counterproductive and counterintuitive to the underlying motivation of the proposed Bill as seeking to build a more equal and cohesive society

The demand that ‘protected identities’ are treated equally socially is undermined by the fact that hate crime legislation legitimates inequality of their treatment within the law. Moreover, the issue of ‘identity’ and one’s ability to choose becomes subject and subjugated to an expanding institutional hierarchy of codified and increasingly polarised protected (and non-protected) ‘identities’ and ‘crimes’ (those provable as hate and those not). Moreover these ‘identities’ only become legitimated through a creeping juridification and criminalisation of the social realm. This legal legitimation of social inequality and the implicitly polarising impact of Hate Crime legislation exacerbates the legislations neoliberal nature and normalizes the inherently anti-social’ conception that intersubjective relationships are problematic and potentially ‘criminal’. 

Furthermore, this submission notes that arguments used to propose the Bill acknowledges, legitimates, and institutionalises ‘prejudice’ as a reasonable motivational foundation for law. Chalmers & Leverick (2017:31) note that victims of ‘hate crime’ increasingly feel more fearful of people who share the same identity as the perpetrator.  

However what is this ‘fear’ evidence of ? Is it evidence that the victim IS objectively likely to be ‘attacked’ by ‘people who share the same identity as the perpetrator’? Or is it evidence of an understandable, but nevertheless individuated emotional preconception?  Whilst this reaction is understandable, should it be a legitimated principle upon which a law, such as this, should be justified?  Is it legitimate to ‘fear’ Muslims because of the atrocities caused by Islamic terrorists? Is it justified for a victim of the Manchester bombing to think they are more likely to be attacked again ‘by people who share the same identity as the perpetrator’? Or, rather, should we attempt to encourage a more qualified, less subjectively ‘prejudicial’ approaches to understanding – indeed victims of ‘hate crime’ may well fear those that look like the perpetrator but  this is the very reason why  law requires an objective foundation – otherwise it undermines the status of legal objectivity by  codifying ‘prejudice’.

  • This submission notes that the proposed Hate Crime legislation undermines freedom of expression and lays a legislative basis for the criminalisation of the arts and academic enquiry.

Section 4 (Culpability where offence committed during public performance of play; and Section 5 (Offences of possessing inflammatory material) represents a serious threat to the individual right to freedom of expression. Moreover, it provides a juridical basis for the potential criminalisation of artistic endeavour; and furthermore, the necessary unencumbered precondition for academic enquiry and knowledge exchange.

Section 5 creates two offences of possession of inflammatory material. It provides that it is an offence for a person to have in their possession threatening or abusive material with a view to communicating the material to another person, with either the intention to stir up hatred against a group of persons based on the group being defined by reference to one of the listed characteristics, or where it is a likely that, if the material were communicated, hatred will be stirred up against such a group. 

However, Section 5(4) does provide ‘that it is a defence to an offence under section 5(1) or (2) for the accused to show that the possession of the material was, in the particular circumstances, reasonable.’ But this so called ‘protection’ is itself s a barrier to the freedom of expression as it seriously undermines the individual’s autonomy in formulating a judgement on what is ‘reasonable’; and presumes the necessary intervention of an ‘objective’ 3rd party as mediator. Both these undermine individual autonomy and curtails the freedom of expression. It is illustrative of a creeping criminalisation wherein artistic endeavour and academic knowledge exchange become framed as potentially ‘hateful’.

This tendency is also exacerbated by Section 5 (6) of the Bill which defines the different ways in which a person may communicate material to another person for the purposes of an offence under section 5(1) or (2). This includes ‘Displaying, publishing or distributing… websites blogs, podcasts, social media etc. either directly, or by forwarding or repeating material that originates from a third party’ etc. ‘Giving, sending, showing or playing the material to another person’ & ‘Making the material available to another person in any other way e.g. through the spoken word, the written word, electronic communications, etc, either directly (as the originator of the material), or by forwarding or repeating the material.’ (Explanatory Notes 2020:10).

It is in this respect that the legislation, coupled with its emphasis upon institutional liability, lays a juridical foundation for the criminalisation of academic discourse; knowledge exchange; research; and open debate.

Take for example the distribution or, study and discussion of the works and ideas of Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), Scotland’s foremost modernist writer and poet, and the intellectual father of modern Sottish nationalism. A fascist sympathiser, in 1923 MacDiarmid published two substantive texts outlining his call for a fascist Scotland. In private correspondence during the WW2, he claimed that Nazi Germany and its allies were ‘less dangerous than our own (British) government’. A self-confessed and often celebrated Anglophile, in his poem ‘On the imminent destruction of London, June 1940’, MacDiarmid expresses his lack of concern that thousands of ordinary people were suffering under the Blitz: ‘That I hardly care’ that is any place be ‘burned and lost, it may as well be London. Nay, London far better than most.’ These writings are available in the national Library of Scotland, as are his other works throughout the public and academic libraries of Scotland. Personally, I find both MacDiarmid’s political and private ideas particularly distasteful and his Anglophobia most certainly hateful. However, MacDiarmid’s work is fundamentally important to understanding his legacy in the development of Scottish culture., and should be studied, discussed and debated free from censure, liability and the threat of legislative intervention.

Concluding Remarks   

Equality is not the same as fairness – indeed equality may often seem ‘unfair’ i.e. that it treats subjects as equal (the same) despite ‘obvious differences’ and ‘different abilities’ – in particular spheres these differences are ‘equalised’ through measures that seek to ‘level out’ the inequality (for example work legislation). However, in the spheres of democracy and law the unconditional and non-discriminatory nature of equality is most important. Democracies are dependent upon the idea that regardless of class, economic or educational status for example each member’s opinion and vote carries equal weight. Likewise, central to the equality of law is the notion that it does not discriminate – it is ‘blind’ to status. However, once the law begins to discriminate and treat sections of society differently, it institutionalises inequality and moves from a society of free individuals bound by the rule of law, towards a society of unfree individuals bound by law and nothing else. The proposed Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is indicative of such a shift.

Selected References

Chalmers, J & Leverick, F (2017) A Comparative Analysis of Hate Crime Legislation: A Report to the Hate Crime Legislation Review (University of Glasgow)

Explanatory Notes (2020) SP Bill 67-EN Session 5 

Mariani, P (2001) ‘Law, Order and Neoliberalism’, Social Justice, 28, 3.

McBride, M (2020) ‘Tackling offensive behaviour in Scottish football: A how (not) to guide to developing criminal justice policy’, Criminology & Criminal Justice, pp 1-19,

Swiffen, A (2018) ‘New resistance to Hate Crime legislation and the concept of law’, Law Culture & the Humanities, 14(1), pp 121-139

Will Self Loathing: Urbanité, the Crowd and the Bigotry of the ‘New Normal’

I never thought it would be so easy to take people’s freedoms away, and so hard to persuade them to take them back

Attributed to Boris Johnson. BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 20th May 2020

A self-contained but all seeing city-dweller, the flâneur has been variously seen as an icon of modernity, master of the empowered male gaze, and embodiment of anguished urbanité in retreat from the inhospitable environment of the city and its threatening crowds

Richard Wrigley, (2014) The Flâneur Abroad: Historical and International Perspectives (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

Implemented as an extreme measure for an extreme crisis, lockdown has worryingly morphed in to a ‘new normal’ and has given rise to a new urban presence – the anti- flâneur, or flâneur in reverse. The art of flânerie, derives from negotiating the tension between the desired detached anonymity of the strolling voyeur, whilst simultaneously being immersed in the stimuli of the city and its crowds. As Wrigley suggests, in order to perform the part of ‘anguished urbanité’ in retreat, one must first have the threatening crowds from which one is meant to retreat from. This post- flâneur flâneur, derives pleasure, not from their aesthetic distance from the crowd, whilst also being a physical part of it, but from the veritable absence of the crowd all together. This is urbanité contented. No longer at odds with the hostility of the city scape, the empty urban landscape of the unfree city is where this new anti-urban aesthete feels most at home.

Writing in the New European the British novelist, Will Self reflects upon how “the pandemic has returned us to the correct order of things”. 

Coronavirus provides the latest comfort blanket within which city dwelling anti-urbanites, can wrap themselves in, and continue to propagate their Malthusian misanthropy

An account of a walk taken with his partner through North London’s Alexander Park, the article recounts Self’s sense of satisfaction in the absolute emptiness of the lockdown city scape. Despite its hardship’s lockdown is something Self thinks should be celebrated. Whilst millions of Britons endure the very real pain of not being able to see, or indeed touch, family, loved ones and friends, Self rejoices in the physical absence of other human beings. The restrictions imposed upon the city’s inhabitants has he suggests “ brought London’s history back to life”:

“…the notoriously polluted London air has grown clearer and cleaner; and towards the small hours, the streets are almost completely empty. A couple of nights ago, I heard a nightingale sing in Kennington Lane. I myself haven’t been in a car or on the Tube for a month now – instead walking everywhere. Each night, I head out with my partner, and we quarter and re-quarter the unfashionable regions for an hour or so…”

Lockdown London is the antithesis of the London Self constructs in the novel The Book of Dave.  Published in 2006, The Book of Dave tells the story of Dave, a London taxi driver. Dave is angry, mentally ill, and recently separated from his wife, Michelle, who he thinks is keeping him from seeing his son. Notwithstanding Dave is also a self-proclaimed racist with a particular dislike for blacks, Jews and Arabs. Following a disastrous hair transplant, where hair from his groin is implanted on to his head, Dave suffers the indignity of having a head full of pubic hair.  Such is Dave’s estrangement from the world he sets out to write a book – the eponymous ‘Book of Dave’ of the novels title. Dave buries the book. However, following a catastrophic flood some centuries later, the book is rediscovered and becomes the founding text for a violent and misogynistic cult. 

Throughout the novel much of the dialogue is written in Mokni, an inarticulate white patois – a mash up of cockney, text shorthand, and taxi driver slang. The New York Times thought the novel meaningless shit (what they actually said was that the reader is “ultimately left with a pair of grotesque worlds, facing each other like two mirrors, but reflecting nothing” – but that’s what they meant). Others, including Self, consider the novel a parody of religious fanaticism and a warning against the dogmatic blindness of belief. However, like much of his work, The Book of Dave – more neo-feudal than postmodern – reeks of the author’s aristocratic contempt of the world that exists outside his gated imagination. 

Coronavirus provides the latest comfort blanket within which city dwelling anti-urbanites, can wrap themselves in, and continue to propagate their Malthusian misanthropy. Immunity from the herd, has always been the desired ‘new normal’ for this modern-day elite, for whom Covid -19 and its attendant threats serve as a form of spatial cleansing. Dave the taxi driver, and all the other ‘racists and anti-Semites’, that Self thinks populate the public realm, are well and truly shut up, by being shut in.

In the The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Gustav Le Bon argues that the crowd – by which he means the democratic masses – are incapable of rational moral reasoning. Instead, he argues, they are driven by a primitive, brutalist instinct.

“In crowds”, Le Bon observes, “the foolish, ignorant, and envious persons are freed from the sense of their insignificance and powerlessness and are possessed instead by the notion of brutal and temporary but immense sense.” (The Crowd, 2002 page 22). 

The empty urban landscape of the unfree city is where this new anti-urban aesthete feels most at home

However, against the crowd stands the “isolated individual” – virtuous, enlightened and civilised. All one need do is substitute the isolated individual of Le Bon’s text with the ‘self-isolating individual’ of Self’s lockdown utopia and we have the exact description of the dominant prejudice of our age.

First published in English in 1895, the dust jacket blurb on my edition claims Le Bon’s text had a profound impact on both Hitler and Mussolini. The Guardian quite liked The Book of Dave

What a Kant! The Enlightenment Roots of Nick Cave’s The Red Hand Files

Launched in 2018 The Red Hand Files – the online companion to the  ‘Conversations with Nick Cave’ tours  – represents something of a sea change in the charismatic Australian rocker’s public persona. Commentators have noted the therapeutic tone of these events and the compassionate and collaborative way in which Cave utilises social media (1). This is some change given that Cave one admitted he wasn’t all that interested in his audience and wished that ’they’d just die!’ (2)

Born of out of Cave’s sense that there was a need to counteract the way in which social media was ‘undermining both nuance and connectivity’ and provide a platform for a more ‘thoughtful discourse’ (The Red Hand Files Issue #19 / January 2019) The Red Hand Files has given vent to  an eclectic range of topics. There is the smattering of the (perhaps rather ironic) fodder one usually gets in popstar celeb Q&A’s – “what’s your favourite joke?”; “where do you buy your shirts?”. There are the questions on song lyrics, influences and meanings, and there are heartfelt and sincere requests for advice on loss, death and love. However, ultimately The Red Hand Files reveals Cave as one of the few contemporary artists to unequivocally defend free speech and the absolute nature of unfettered artistic expression.

I would rather be remembered for writing something that was discomforting or offensive, than to be forgotten for writing something bloodless and bland

The Red Hand Files Issue # 86 /March 2020

Underpinning The Red Hand Files is a dogged refusal to submit to the censorious self-righteousness of contemporary ‘woke culture’ and the attempt to shut down artistic expression. Notable are Cave’s defence of Morrisey’s right as an artist to free expression (The Red Hand Files, Issue #48 /June 2019) , and his own refusal to cancel live shows in Israel despite growing pressure from the Boycott Divestments and Sanctions movement – calling the movements demand for a cultural boycott of Israel ‘cowardly and shameful’ (The Red Hand Files, Issue #13 / December 2018).

This apparent mellowing in Caves public (and online) persona has been accredited to the tragic death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, in July 2015. It would be foolish to suggest that such a profoundly shattering loss has not had a deep emotional impact upon Cave, his family and close friends, however the compassionate, contemplative and intimate Cave of The Red Hand Files can be traced to the 1997 album The Boatman’s Call.

The Boatman’s Call Reconsidered

Recorded between June and August 1996 and released in March 1997, the album represented something of a departure from preceding output, in terms of its critical reception and its approach to the creative musical process. The Boatman’s Call, the bands 10th studio album and most critically acclaimed, eschewed the visceral clatter and bang that had so far defined The Bad Seeds sonic arrangements, moreover it saw Cave abandon the Old Testamentesque narratives that had so far informed his song writing.

In terms of its approach to song writing, narrative and sonic arrangement The Batman’s Call was a turning point in Cave’s career. 

The song writing is much more studied and personal in approach to theme and narrative. It is fairly well accepted that Cave’s song writing on the album is heavily influenced by the breakdown of his marriage to his first wife, Brazilian journalist Viviane Carneiro and his subsequent affair with musician PJ Harvey – a fact he acknowledges in The Red Hand Files # 57 August 2019. 

The Boatman’s Call cured me of Polly Harvey. It also changed the way I made music. The record was an artistic rupture in itself, to which I owe a great debt

The Red Hand Files Issue #57 / August 2019

This introspection was reflected in the tone of the album’s sonic makeup. Paired back, and much more restrained, the album is dominated by Caves piano and voice. The Bad Seeds are almost sonically absent – so much so that in his review Neil Spencer referred to The Boatman’s Call as ‘…Cave’s solo album’ (3)

Key members of the group were becoming increasingly estranged from the direction that Cave’s song writing, and musical arrangements were taking. In 2003 guitarist Blixa Bargeld (founder and frontman of Berlin experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten) left The Bad Seeds – following the release of the album Nocturama. Bargeld’s innovative approach to guitar and primitive soundscapes had been a central element of the development and tone of The Bad Seeds sound since 1983. Academic Emma McCovoy has suggested that Bargeld questioned why he was even playing on The Boatman’s Call so alien and unconvincing was its musical aesthetic (4). Far more telling was the departure of Cave’s long-term collaborator Mick Harvey. Harvey – a constant in Cave’s artistic development since The Boys Next Door – took the decision to leave The Bad Seeds in 2009, following the release of Dig Lazurus Dig, thus ending a 36 year collaboration. Harvey has alluded to the role played by The Boatman’s Call in his decision to quit when Cave jettisoned the ethos of creative collaboration that had underpinned their relationship (5).

The artist that emerges out of the albums narrative tone is an increasingly individualistic, sentimental and solipsistic one having ‘substituted the myth of self for the mythmaking and myth-abusing of the band.’ ‘By muting the Bad Seeds, he [Cave] has said goodbye to music’ (6) 

The Bourgeoise Blues

Art must be wrestled from the hands of the pious, in whatever form it may come – and they are always coming, knives out, intent on murdering creativity. At this depressing time in rock ‘n’ roll though, perhaps they can serve a purpose, perhaps rock music needs to die for a while, so that something powerful and subversive and truly monumental can rise up out of it

The Red Hand Files Issue # 35 / April 2019

Biblical scholar and Caveologist Roland Boer considered The Boatman’s Call little more than a ‘half-hearted experiment’ (7). Noting the newfound respectability the album afforded Cave – situating him within the rock/pop mainstream rather than at its darker and apparently more creative margins – Boer pithily observed that the album was born over a period ‘spanning the time Cave finally gave up heroin. And the effect is deadening’ (8). The clean and mainstream Cave that emerges in the late 1990s has whole heartedly swallowed the cult of personality and the bourgeois myth of the ‘aloof’ free thinking individual. 

It is true that Cave’s artistic development post The Boatman’s Call becomes increasingly more individually centred. It is certainly the case that with the last three studio albums. With the albums Push the Sky Away (2013), and Skeleton Tree (2016)  it is possible to argue, that in the studio at least Cave becomes less reliant on  The Bad Seeds as a band (but not as a concept) as the  albums content is largely the result of the  collaboration between Cave and Warren Ellis – Cave’s principle collaborator since Mick Harvey’s departure – both in terms of song structure and arrangement. With 2019s Ghosteendouble album, the band are  dispensed with almost completely– the inside of the sleeve featuring a photo of Cave and Ellis only, the band reduced to bit parts on the albums sleeve notes.

Bourgeoise it may be, but the individuality that emerges out of and through Cave’s recent work is unswervingly Enlightenment in character. This is evident in the discussions on artistic freedom on The Red Hand Files which stem from the shifts that emerge in the creation of The Boatman’s Call – the album even has a song, ‘There is a Kingdom’, that quotes Emmanuel Kant. Cave sings:

‘There is a kingdom/There is a King/And he lives without/And he lives within/ The starry heavens above me/The moral law within…’

One of the most frustratingly enduring aspects of Cave’s work is that it has been  viewed through an overtly religious lens, and that given his unconventionality notwithstanding he is nonetheless first and foremost a ‘Christian artist’ (9). This is nowhere truer than in scholarly critiques. In his forensic analysis of the twelve songs that make up The Boatman’s Call, Peter Billingham notes how the album ‘conveys Cave’s search for a radical Christian theology that might offer the possibility of an existential spiritual redemption’ (10) Moreover the song ‘There is a Kingdom’ draws upon the image ‘of a bird that begins to sing in celebration of the day and light even whilst in the darkness prior to dawn’, which he suggests ‘carries a clear association to an iconic image from the opening chapter of the Gospel of St John, in which Christ is referred to as the “Logos” or “word” that originates all creation (and creativity)’ (11). I would suggest that the deliberate quotation from Kant provides the ‘spiritual’ hook of the song.

There are obvious Christian influences in Caves work. But this is not a reason for ignoring the humanist machinations of The Boatman’s Call and its deliberate nod towards Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (1788). The albums contemplative self-reflective tone prefigures Cave’s increasing concern for issues of artistic freedom. In this respect Nick Cave is one of the few artists that recognises the urgent need to defending the character and nature of autonomous human agency – concepts as relevant today as they were for Kant and other eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers. As Kant’s philosophy upheld the sanctity of reason as the source of moral authority, so to The Red Hand Filesupholds the sanctity of open and free discourse between individuals. 

Nick Cave’s ‘bourgeoise’ individualism stands as an alternative to the pessimism that shapes modern culture and the censorious cynicism that pervades public life. By providing a space for creative, open and mutually respectful communion, The Red Hand Files offers a counterpoint to the woke call out, no platforming culture that has deformed public discourse.  

There seems to be agreement between critics and scholars alike that The Boatman’s Call, for good or bad, marks a sea change in Cave’s artistic development. This turn, I suggest is indicative of a more secularly humanist (re)turn to Enlightenmentesque enquiry that now informs Cave’s recent, and I would argue most important work –The Red Hand Files. Nick Cave is no theologian (12). However, he is an  artist who is not afraid to ‘kick against the pricks.’

  2. Gambatto, A (1985) ‘A Man Called Horse’, in M. Snow (ed.) Nick Cave. Sinner Saint: The True Confessions (London: Plexus) p 37-47. (Originally published Zig Zag Magazine 1985)
  3. Spencer, N (1997) The Boatmans Call in (2013) Nick Cave: Uncut The Ultimate Music Guide (London: Time Inc) pp 90-91 (originally published 3 March 1997).
  4. Emma McCovoy (2007) ‘Now, who will be the witness, when you’re all too healed to see?’: The sad demise of Nick Cave’, Gothic Studies vol 9, Issue 1)
  6. Emma McCovoy (2007)
  7. Roland Boer (2011) Hearing Round Corners. Nick Cave and the Philosophy of Music. Relegree. Studies in Religion and Reception, 1 (2). p 316.
  8. Roland Boer (2011 p 316).
  9. John H Barker (2013) Introduction: Nick Cave 21st Century Man, in  J.H Baker (ed.) The Art of Nick Cave. New Critical Essays (Bristol: Intellect)
  10.  Peter Billingham (2013: 24) ‘Into My rms: Themes of Desire & Spirituality in The Boatman’s Call’, In J.H, Baker (ed.) p18.
  11. Peter Billingham (2013) p18-19.
  12. Lyn McCredden (2017) ‘Fleshed sacred. The carnal theologies of Nick Cave’ in Lovely Creatures: The Best of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1984-2014) p 81 (originally published in K Welberry & T Daizell (eds.) (2009) Cultural Seeds: Essays on the work of Nick Cave (Farnham: Ashgate).

Chavs, the Wokeing Class & Covid-19

In 2011, Owen Jones, Guardian columnist and identitarian leftist, published Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. In the book Jones lays bare the chattering classes disdain for ordinary people. “It seems” he writes “as though working-class people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about.”  Chavs was lauded a significant work, The New York Times called it “a work of passion, sympathy and moral grace.”

But 2011 seems such a long, long time ago. So long ago that Jones appears to have forgotten he actually wrote it. Chavs belongs to a very different time and a very different place. It belongs to a land long forgotten, a land that existed BB -Before Brexit. For Jones, initially an advocate of Lexit (a ‘left wing’ campaign to leave the EU), Brexit was the game changer. Why? Because it allowed ordinary people, chavs included, an equal say in how the country should be governed.

A couple of years ago I reread Chavs. This time round I couldn’t help but feel that Jones’s “passion” for the ordinary classes was actually rather paper thin. Like so many of his ilk, Jones thinks ordinary people should be pitied and patronised, but perhaps more so, they should be kept firmly in their place. God forbid they should be given a say, let alone even listened to. Like many within the ‘liberal’ media and ‘creative’ industries, Brexit shattered Jones’s cosseted world view and exposed the Hameau de la Reineesque nature of his radicalism. Brexit allowed Jones to jump ship – he was never really onboard anyway, so it wasn’t much of a splash. He could now say what he really thought of the working-class, without fear of censure or admonishment. Low and behold they were chavs after all, and racist bigots to boot. And for the last 6 years Jones has been a dedicated foot soldier in the demonization of ordinary British Brexit voters.

So, it is hard to read Jones latest Guardian article on the coronavirus and social inequality without the cynicism it deserves. This is Jones at his best, the working-class put firmly back in their place – poor, pitiful and to be pitied. 

Not only has Jones bought into the caricatures of ordinary people he once sought to expose, but it is pretty safe to say that over the last 9 years or so since the publication of Chavs, he has been at the forefront of the leftist demonization of the British working-class as unconscionable other.  

Much of the criticism of the UK Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been shaped by ideological predisposition rather than balanced scientific evaluation. But Jones does take the biscuit. He writes:

“A decade of austerity, and a social order that deprives millions of citizens of a comfortable existence, will mean many more deaths in the coming weeks and months that could have been avoided.”

Given that he has spent the last 6 years attempting to deprive millions of British citizens their democratic rights, these are weasel words indeed. The absence of any modicum of self-reflection on Jones’s part is impressive, but not surprising.

Owen Jones belongs to what writer Douglas Murray has called the wokerati – a self-selecting, self-serving cabal of illiberal identitarian moralists. Not only has Jones bought into the caricatures of ordinary people he once sought to expose, but it is pretty safe to say that over the last 9 years or so since the publication of Chavs, he has been at the forefront of the leftist demonization of the British working-class as unconscionable other.  

In 2014 Jones followed Chavs with The Establishment: And How They Get away With It. You’ll find it in the autobiography section. 

Looney Tunes! The Cramps Live at Napa State

Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that

Lux Interior, Napa State Hospital 13th June 1978

In 1968 Johnny Cash played a free gig for inmates of Folsom Prison, a show that yielded the legendary album At Folsom Prison. Almost ten years to the month, in June 1978, New York’s The Cramps – “the hottest things from the North to come out of the South” – with support from The Mutants, played a free show for some 300 inmates at Napa State Hospital, a psychiatric facility situated on the Napa Vallejo Highway in California. 

Recorded on a Sony Portapak black and white video camera by San Franciscan art collective Target Video, fragments of the show found its way onto very hard to get video, and in 2001 was released on DVD. Utterly compelling, and unsettling at the same time it is easy to see why the show is widely regarded as if not the greatest live show in the history of rock and roll, then certainly its craziest.

New York psychobilly meets psycho-patient and morphs into a whole bunch of people having one hell of a good time.  I doubt that such an audaciously thrilling expression of human enjoyment would be allowed today.

Now some 41 years later the Napa State show has finally been remastered for limited vinyl release. Available on Cthulhu Fhtagn Records, M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M Mad Mad Daddies Live at Napa State Hospital, boasts bonus interviews with inmates and ‘real crazies.’ Live at Napa State makes for difficult listening, and that’s allowing for the very dodgy sound quality. Each of the 7 tracks is segued with extracts of interviews with hospital patients. The young man with homicidal tendencies is particularly attention grabbing as he fades out to the fuzz and menace of The Cramps finale, T.V. Set.

Oh baby, I see you in my TV set. Yeah baby, I see you in my TV set. I cut your head off and put it in my TV set. I use your eyeballs for dials on my TV set. I watch TV. I watch TV. Since I put you in my TV set

As the final cacophony of T.V. Set rings out and Lux attempts to leave the stage with a celebratory ‘Good Night!’, a voice can be heard amid the frenzied whoops of delight from the audience. “That’s what we need right there!” exclaims the obviously exhilarated onlooker.

A young San Franciscan music journalist, Howie Klein was there to review the show for the New York Rocker. Klein’s review captures the very unique if not politically incorrect premise of the whole show. John Waters eat your heart out.

“Let’s drive up to the funny farm. The Cramps and The Mutants are doin’ a concert for the nuts: should be loads of yuks”. I wanna take the rap for going up to the show at Napa State with the attitude of wanting to see the pinheads and cretins. I had even tried to talk the mutants into doing ‘Cretin Hop’. As long as the loonies didn’t touch me or drool on me it was all gonna be a load of laughs…

What I got instead was the greatest new wave show I’ve ever seen. I’m just sayin’ than I’ve never seen a show where the audience and the bands and the music and everything were so totally tuned in on the same plane…

I’ve never seen so much audience participation. During the Cramps’ incisive ‘What’s Behind the Mask’ one lively young lady jumped on Lux’s back and held on for the whole song, screaming melodically into the mike over his shoulder…

Meanwhile two patients escaped over a fence and were seen running down the highway. (“We don’t go after ’em anymore. They don’t have any money and they’ll be back in a couple of days.”) …

Both bands agreed it was the best show either had ever done. The excitement and energy level went sky high and a more appreciative, enthusiastic and open-minded audience will never be found (although there were some disc fans frowning on the side lines). And I wanna say something a little personal. When one 45 or so tear-old lady came over – as her group was being led back to wherever they take them to calm down – and kissed me goodbye. I kissed her back and told her to come to the Mabuhay when she gets out. “Oh honey, I ain’t never getting’ outta here,” she laughed.”

In the summer of 1977 – the summer of Sam – The Cramps were at their creative best. They had just recorded the seminal Gravest Hits EP with Alex Chilton and were about to go into Philips Recording studios in Memphis (again with Chilton at the desk) to record the even more seminal (if possible!) debut album, Songs the Lord Taught Us. The Napa show included their distinctive two guitar, no bass reverb soaked sound and featured the classic line up of Lux Interior (Erik Purkhiser) on vocals; his wife and only surviving member, Poison Ivy Rorschach (Kirsty Wallace), and Bryan Gregory (Greg Beckerleg) on guitars; and Nick Knox (Nicholas Stephonoff) on drums. Knox, an integral element of The Cramps tight, rhythm heavy sound, would leave the band in 1991, and they were never the same again. The Cramps would finally call it a day in 2009 following the sad death at 62 of Lux Interior. The band had however played their last live show in November 2006.

The Cramps were a unique band and the Napa State show a clear statement of intent. Live at Napa State drips with menace. Sonically The Cramps pull no punches, but neither do their audience. Listening to the L.P is a disconcerting experience. A sense of unease nags the liberal sensibility. You ask yourself ‘should I be listening to this? Isn’t this wrong?’ And then it suddenly dawns. New York psychobilly meets psycho-patient and morphs into a whole bunch of people having one hell of a good time.  I doubt that such an audaciously thrilling expression of human enjoyment would be allowed today.

M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M-M Mad Mad Daddies Live at Napa State Hospital (Cthulhu Fhtagn Records) is available from … if the crazies and pinheads don’t get you first.

The Liberal Lynching of Kanye West

In June I attended the inaugural International Persona Studies conference hosted by Newcastle University. Below is a slightly longer version of the paper I presented. It points to the increasing tendency towards the weaponisation of celebrity culture, and in particular the largely liberal, woke demonisation of American rapper Kanye West that followed his appearance on Saturday Night Live in September 2018.

This paper is concerned with what might be termed a post-racial weaponization of celebrity and focuses upon the condemnation of American rapper Kanye West’s highly publicised support for American President Donald Trump. Particular attention is given to  a selection of comment pieces that appeared in the British liberal newspaper, The Guardian, in the days immediately following West’s pro-Trump ‘rant’ on the American satirical sketch show, Saturday Night Live (SNL), broadcast on 29th September 2018, the paper proposes that the liberal othering of West’s political persona is consistent with rather than contests the post-racial color blind narratives associated with the emergence of a neoliberal racialized subject. Following Paul Gilroy’s (Belcher and Gilroy 2016; Gilroy 2013) critique of the neo-liberal turn in black radicalism this paper suggests that The Guardian’s reportage privileges a form of identity politics that reaffirm neoliberal constructions of racial difference.

The contemporary weaponization of celebrity disempowers and delegitimates expressions of popular/populist dissent, and serves to highlight the ascendency of a new (post) liberal Woke orthodoxy predicated  less  upon ‘…a command of an intellectual and political tradition, but on its imagined superiority to the average unenlightened American bigot’ (Lash, 1983) (‘Liberalism in retreat, in Liberalism Reconsidered, ed Douglas Maclean and Claudia mills (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Allanheld).

The apparent demonization of Kanye West’s support for Donald Trump, by sections of a Woke celebrity ‘community’ and liberal press are largely cast through the language of therapy – as personal failings on West’s part and evidence of his emotional pathology. The ironic but profoundly worrying dynamic here is that this form of critique both appropriates and circulates in  a more socially palatable form, the very same neoliberal tendencies it claims to call out as at ‘post-racial’ mode of representation is adopted to delegitimise West.

Although not a part of the original broadcast West’s speech received fairly universal condemnation, particularly from fellow members of the celebrity community. Chris Rock, filmed West’s impromptu political protest, on his phone and then posted it to You Tube was said to have sniggered throughout and raised an eyebrow to the content (find quotes and find other examples). Much of the media reporting of the incident referred to West’s speech as a ‘rant’.

West, who also announced on the same show that he wished to be known as Ye (the title of his 8th album released in June 2018)), wore a Make America Great cap throughout his performance. A couple of days after the show was broadcast West tweeted that the 13th Amendment 13 of US Constitution– that outlawed slavery – should be repealed. Predictably the tweet received similar celebrity ire.

The singer Lana Del Rey, who had performed at West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian in 2014, tweeted that whilst Trumps election was a ‘… loss for the country’ Wests endorsement of Trump was ‘a loss for the culture’.

West is no stranger to controversy. His pro-Trump speech on SNL one of many ‘off script’ politicised performances. In 2005 whilst taking part in the NBC fundraising telethon in aid of victims of Hurricane Katrina, West proclaimed ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ (cited in Jackson 2014, p142); in 2009 he crashed Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the MTV Video Music Awards, claiming he was highlighting the racial politics that informed the ways in which the music industry recognised talent (Cullen, 2016).

Swift too found herself subjected to similar disapproval when in November 2017 she was ‘outed’ by The Guardian (Friday 24 November 2017 Editorial: ‘The Guardian view on Taylor Swift: an envoy for Trump’s values?’)  as a ‘…musical envoy for Trump values’, and a recruiter for the alt-right.

But The one thing that condemns Swift, above all others, was not her actual support for Trump – there is no evidence or utterance of Swift ever having any opinion on Donald Trump as President or not. Indeed, Swift had, until then, taken great care to cultivate a deliberately a-political public persona. Publicly supporting ‘liberal’ positions on ‘women’,  ‘gay marriage’ and picking up the odd award for her philanthropic work, Swift has kept her voting allegiances very private – it was not her support for Donald Trump that so irked The Guardian editorial. Rather it was that, unlike the majority of her celebrity peers, she has not followed the required cultural script of publicly condemning him.

Kanye West confounds the contemporary Woke sensibility. He is black, but not ‘Blackness’.

Writing for the American website Political, Genevieve Glatsky (‘The weird campaign to get Taylor Swift to denounce Donald Trump’) placed The Guardian’s editorial within the context of an American entertainment industry increasingly homogenized in its public views and seemingly compelled to visibly distance itself from anything and any one vaguely Trumpian. Every now and gain a member of the celebrity tribe will wittingly or unwittingly transgress this cultural script, only to be shamed into submission or shot down in flames.

According to Glatsky Swifts non-condemnation of Trump marked her out as a very visible anomaly amongst her celebrity peers. Saying nothing, not performing to script was interpreted as tacit approval. In such a rarefied culture, Kanye West is not only an anomaly he is a veritable anti-Christ. Yeezus indeed!

Unconscionable otherness: Trump and the civility conundrum

It is clear that the election of Donald Trump to US Presidency in 2016 has problematised the orthodoxies of race, gender and class within increasingly neo-liberalised frames of reference. One particularly pronounced aspect in this being the emergence within public life of a ‘new civility conundrum’ (Negra 2016) – a rupture in the performance of a politics of respectability. Trump constructed as ‘…grotesque, unnatural and unruly’ without the ‘..staid, controlled and civil behaviour’ required for Presidential Office (Dubrofsky, 2016) – highlighting the often problematic and uncomfortable intersection of race, class (and gender):

The reality TV genre is seen as trashy, featuring people without class in behaviour and often in social and financial status. The presidency, however, is for the elite white upper-middle or upper class (usually male) – Barack Obama negotiates the politics of respectability to fit the ideal. Popular press articulations of Trump belie the uneasy alliance between elite whiteness and white behaviour marked as working class or poor (Dubrofsky, 2016).

The narratives that surround both Swift and West are underpinned by the conundrum of Trump (as other), and those who associate with or are associated with him – the deplorables – a form of otherness that is unconscionably (and literally) ‘beyond the pale’.

West’s otherness was thrown into sharp relief, when Taylor Swift finally broke her political silence and announced via  Instagram at the beginning of October 2018 that she would be voting Democrat in the forthcoming midterm elections. The Guardian were ecstatic. Casting the forthcoming midterms as some sort of Celebrity Death match – (The Guardian Kanye West V Taylor Swift: From the VMAs to the White House, who is winning now? – 9 October 2018).

So as West was meeting with Donald Trump to talk prison reform Swift was being reintegrated into the celebrity fold.

In an article (The Guardian, From Joan Baez to Taylor Swift: How musicians found a political voice – October 13 2018) that placed Swifts name alongside that of Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, amongst others- Ed Vulliamy breathless extoled the pop singer’s democratic conversion as ‘Strong, brave – and true’. Furthermore, Vulliamy suggests Swifts intervention in the US midterms is evidence of of a ‘moral left’ renewal (). A conversion of Damascene proportions – on both counts given that the same paper had readily condemned Swift as a front for the American alt-right only 11 months earlier.

What distinguishes the SNL performance from these others is that where previously West had largely been perceived as ‘calling out’ racial injustice, the pro-Trump stance according to some, sees West put ‘the slave-master’s interests above his own people’ (Nadifa Mohamed , Does Kanye West deserve to be called an Uncle Tom? The Guardian Monday 15 October). As noted by Paul Gilroy (2013 We got to get over before we go under. Fragments for a history of black vernacular neoliberalism. New formations) and Lester K. Spence (2015 Knocking the Hustle) black radicalism has recently taken a particularly neoliberal, conservative turn – similarly so hip-hop and rap activism. This turn is often contradictory, however. Perhaps more so than other artists in the genre, West has constantly problematised the attempt to fix his construction of black spectacle within authorised knowledges and discursive frameworks (Curry 2014, Jackson 2014).

Julies Bailey  e(d. 2014 The Cultural impact of Kanye west)has suggested that  West ‘…is of interest to cultural theorist for his challenges to racial stereotypes, and social structures… (2014, p xix); his ‘…human elasticity allows for non-racial positioning of virtues and values often associated with the quest for success…’ that other black artists [such as Michael Jackson failed to master’ (2014, p xix).

Moreover, this ‘elasticity’ may be in part due to an apparent failure or struggle to develop a ’…consistent and concrete persona or branding image in the American public sphere’ (2014 p xviii). Bailey suggests West’s ‘…public and professional image ‘ ( clean cut soft middle class – is often at war with his own highly publicized personal demons of self-perceived defects’ (veered wildly between clean cut good guy/angry militant activist/fashionable ladies’ man/eccentric ego-driven artist/ bad boy wannabee thug’

Significantly Bailey draws attention to West’s voicing of a explicit rejection/ rejoinder, in his work, to the ‘… tacit and blatant attacks upon black maleness that seek to render an essentialised ontology of it as pathological…’ (2014 p xx). West in part formulates a ‘…revolt against the blackman’s acceptance of an identity that is a menace to society (2014, p xx) and a society that constructs it as a menace.

Whilst West’s political machinations and unsettled public persona might appear erratic, they are both broadly consistent with the unorthodox position West has assumed within American popular culture. Within rap, West cuts a particularly non-conventional figure – his clean cut, self-consciously suburban ‘middle classness’ contrasts sharply with the hardcore street hustler image that dominates the genre (Bailey, 2014, Jackson, 2014). Jackson (2014) suggests West’s ‘off-script’ suburban aesthetic is integral to the space he occupies as ‘hip hop activist’. The son of a former Black Panther and English professor and ‘educated in and around historically black colleges and universities’ (Jackson 2014, p 145-146), West has developed a particular critical reading of black history that underpins the unique narrative that inform his art (Jackson 2014, p145-46). Not the orthodox black male rapper, West similarly problematizes idealised notions of enlightened ‘Blackness’ (Curry 2014).

Paul Gilroy argues (Interview ‘in search of a not necessarily safe starting point’. Open Democracy) ‘Blackness’, has become an  essentialised and orthodox position within black radicalism, which robs black experience of its socio-political specificity, has come to dominate contemporary black radicalism (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). Gilroy argues that expressions of black liberation now take their cue from the identarian shift in American politics, and bear little relation to the forms of anti-racism that informed historically informed articulations of black struggle. Moreover, the emphasis upon ‘Blackness’ accentuates a  tendency towards seeing difference as generic experience – often predicated upon the ‘moral authority’ of the victim – and ‘a way of thinking about racial identity which makes African Americans in this sort of instance absolutely interchangeable with one another’ (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). ‘Blackness’ provides a cultural script that in effect actually negates the material structures that differentiate African American experience rather than exposes them.

The contemporary weaponisation of celebrity disempowers and delegitimises expressions of popular dissent, and serves to highlight the ascendency of a Woke orthodoxy predicated  less  upon ‘…a command of an intellectual and political tradition, but on its imagined superiority to the average unenlightened American bigot’

The Guardian’s post-racial liberal narrative replay these themes, codifying West’s otherness as personal trauma and emotional pathology. Ripped from its socio-political context, The Guardian’s negation of West’s political subjectivity reaffirms the processes of racialized subjectification that underpin the contemporary neo-liberal moment.

The Guardian columnist Barbara Ellen (2018. Kanye west needs care, not being put in front of the cameras. The Guardian Sunday 14 October) went so far as to describe West’s views on welfare, prison reform, and the thirteenth amendment as a form of mental illness. His ‘confused diatribe’ – a result of his struggle, Ellen claims with being ‘misdiagnosed bipolar’ – were ‘more of a symptom than an opinion’. Without any pretence to irony Ellen asks, ‘So why is it acceptable to treat West as rent-a-ramble dancing bear, someone it’s OK for liberals to laugh at?’. Her concern hardly a cover for her contempt, and what better way to dispense with any attempt to engage with a political opinion than to patronize it as something that requires pity? The irony of a white middle class journalist lecturing a black American rap artist that his pronouncements on race are those of a (literal) madman exposes the (de)racialization that characterize the neo-liberal narrative. Less a concern for exposing inequality and ‘calling-out’ privilege, Ellen’s critique, underpinned by essentialised notions of black behaviour, functions as a form of colour blind censure, turning Kanye the protagonist into Kanye the victim.

However, it would be wrong to dismiss this as simple ‘white privilege’. Indeed, the Somali-British writer, Nadifa Mohamed (2018, Does Kanye West deserve to be called an Uncle Tom? The Guardian Monday 15 October), in a piece which appeared in The Guardian a day after Ellen’s article, continues the pathological arc. Mohamed argues that West, ‘desperate for love and care’, appears more like an ‘orphaned child’ (a reference to the death of West’s mother, Donda, in 2007) ‘lost in the fantasy land that his Kardashian in-laws live within in Los Angeles’. Although Mohamed cannot help but conclude that the rapper’s ‘manic episodes’ may be a ‘carefully contrived strategy to stay in the headlines, his flirtations with Trump possibly as manipulated as his wife Kim’s nude photos’.

The Guardian’s construction of West’s off-script blackness – proper black people don’t support Donald Trump – serves to negate the rapper as both political subject and black spectacle. Dissent has been a central theme in West’s construction of his blackness. However, the Trump moment sees the rapper not only speaking off script, but off cultural script too. In this sense West’s dissenting blackness conforms with but also problematizes the logics of post-race society. As a performance of black spectacle Kanye West confounds the idea of ‘Blackness’ (Belcher and Gilroy 2016). He is black, but not ‘Blackness’.


Andrews, D.L., 2013. Reflections on communication and sport. On celebrity and race, Communication & sport, 1 (1,2), 151-163.

Bailey, J., 2014. Preface: the cultural impact of Kanye West. In: J. Bailey, ed. The cultural impact of Kanye West. New York: Palgrave, xvii-xxvii

Belcher, R and Gilroy, P., 2016. Paul Gilroy in search of a not necessarily safe starting point. Open Democracy. Available from: [Accessed 15 October 2018].

Cullen, S., 2016. The innocent and the runaway: Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and the cultural politics of racial melodrama. Journal of popular music studies, 28 (1), 33-50.

Curry, T., 2014. You can’t stand the nigger I see!: Kanye West’s analysis of anti-black death. In: J. Bailey, ed. The cultural impact of Kanye West. New York: Palgrave, 127-145.

Ellen, B., 2018. Kanye west needs care, not being put in front of the cameras. The Guardian Sunday 14 October [online]. Available from [Accessed 26 October 2018].

Gilroy, P., 2013. We got to get over before we go under. Fragments for a history of black vernacular neoliberalism. New formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics, 80-81, 23-38.

Jackson, S.J., 2014. Black celebrity, racial politics and the press. Framing dissent. New York: Routledge.

Mohamed, N., 2018. Does Kanye West deserve to be called an Uncle Tom? The Guardian Monday 15 October [online]. Available from [Accessed 26 October 2018].

Spence, L.K., 2015. Knocking the hustle. Against the neoliberal turn in black politics. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books.

Viva Dead Ponies.The short life and long death of Hubert Selby Jr.

‘The transformed individual makes a transformed world….Sooner or later you have to be willing to accept the responsibility for your own life.’

In May 2018 I wrote an article on American novelist, Hubert Selby Jr. Published by Spiked on the anniversary of the UK unbanning his first novel ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, in 1968. The article remains one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences I have had as a writer. As for many, Selby remains both an influence and an inspiration. Above all Selby rejected the lot that ‘God’ had given him. A life stricken by ill health, and riddled with addiction – Selby’s notorious drug habit was ironically a result of his mother’s determination to keep him alive when he contracted tuberculosis, from sick horses (some accounts suggest he contracted the illness from cows – however the official record of the subsequent court case Selby took out against the US Government list the carriers as horses) , whilst in the Merchant marine. Buying drugs only available on the black market, his mother’s love kept him alive, but condemned him to a life of chronic addiction. But Selby was never one to bear grudges. As he was to reflect later he was ‘born dying’.

In late 60s he kicked his dependency upon drugs and alcohol, only to reflect later that ‘I haven’t had a drink for more than 30 years, but I still love alcohol’. This very Selby like statement comes from an article I found in about 2003ish, written by Selby on his deep, almost religious love for drinking, in the journal Addiction Research (2000, Vol 8, No 6). Finding the article resulted in a very brief but thoroughly thrilling email exchange with writer Nick Tosches, who was then curating an online Selby archive.

My Spiked article can be accessed online here The full text is reproduced below.

“Fifty years ago this July, John Mortimer QC successfully appealed the banning of Hubert Selby Jr’s first novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964). It had originally been published in the UK in 1966, by publishers Marion Boyars and John Calder. But within a few months, Wimbledon MP Cyril Black brought a private prosecution against Last Exit’s UK publishers under the Obscene Publications Act. Mortimer’s subsequent and victorious appeal is said to have changed the legal and moral framework of censorship in the UK forever.

Such a judgement is understandable. Last Exit was the last work of literature to be prosecuted for obscenity in the UK. So its unbanning was a significant milestone. Yet one should also note that the Obscene Publications Act was widely viewed at the time as an increasingly prudish piece of legislation, out of step with contemporary tastes and mores. It was also notoriously vague, with a remarkably low threshold as to what might be defined as likely to ‘deprave and corrupt’.

The problem with the subsequent notoriety of the book, and its status as a cause célèbre of British anti-censorship, is that this has overshadowed Last Exit itself – the visceral power of its prose and the profundity of Selby’s moral universe.

This is not to say its content is unshocking, even by contemporary standards. Set in decaying inner-city postwar Brooklyn, Last Exit comprises six short stories and tells the often violent tales of four central characters – Georgette, the doomed drug-addicted drag queen; the exploited but equally rapacious teenage prostitute, Tralala; Abraham, the Negro pimp; and Harry, a violent, out-of-control union agitator with homosexual tendencies.

My copy of 1968 post-trial edition of LEB

But as Anthony Burgess – a witness for the defence in the original 1967 obscenity trial – put it in his 1968 introduction:

 ‘It is unfortunate that so many newcomers to Last Exit to Brooklyn will be approaching it in a muddle of expectation that, thanks to its long ordeal in the courts, has more to do with what has been said about the book than what the book itself says.’ (1)

This ‘muddle of expectation’ surrounding Last Exit has resulted in a view of the novel as, at worst, titillating pornography – on its publication in the US (in 1964) by Grove Press, Time magazine called it ‘Grove’s dirty book of the month’ – and, at best, as a novel intent on exposing social injustice. Both do Selby and Last Exit no favours.

Examples abound of the misleading characterisation of its content. Following Selby’s death at the age of 75 in 2004, the Guardian’s obituary referred to Last Exit as a ‘raunchy novel’. Even the most libertarian eroticist would be hard pressed to find ‘raunchy’ the story of a gang rape of the 15-year-old Tralala, violated with a broom stick and left for dead, ‘naked, covered with blood and urine and semen and a small blot forming on the seat between her legs as blood seeped from her crotch’.

Signed dedication from Marion Boyers to John Calder –

But perhaps the most pronounced misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Last Exit has come in the guise of praise. Its US publisher, Grove Press (home of William Burroughs, John Rechy, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac), characterised Selby as if not a Beat per se, then certainly Beat-ish. Selby was dogged by this claim that he was some kind of missing link between, as one critic puts it, ‘the naturalistic literary agenda that began with Stephen Crane and Frank Norris in the last years of the 19th century [and the] counterculture that began with the Beat Generation in the 1950s and exploded in the 1960s’. (2)

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg heralded Last Exit as a novel that would ‘explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America’. However, despite his proximity to the Beats, Selby is the most un-beatified of the writers who were to emerge in postwar America. He was born in Brooklyn in 1923 to parents he, tongue in cheek, described as middle class ‘in the same way that 95 per cent of Americans during the Depression were middle class’ (3). Selby, who left school at 15 to join the US Merchant Marine in 1944, is an ill-fitted companion to the largely middle-class, university-educated, drop-out Beats. While they sought aesthetic alterity in illicit substances and Eastern spirituality, Selby’s love-hate relationship with narcotics, alcohol and God was a very real matter of life and death.

At the age of 18, while in the Merchant Marine, Selby contracted tuberculosis in both lungs. Given but a few months to live, he was shipped back to the US to die. But after three years in a hospital bed, one lung and 10 ribs lighter, and addicted to highly toxic prescription drugs – which impaired both his vision and hearing, and left him unable to walk unaided due to the petrifaction of his muscles – Selby was to reflect: ‘All in all I have spent a lot of time and energy, as well as money, just staying alive. But here I is.’ (4)

Six years later, he was readmitted to hospital this time with extreme asthma – his one remaining lung now failing. But, as Selby quipped, ‘dying was a way of life’, and he refused to keel over just because a doctor had told him to. Still, his proximity to death terrified him, not because he would one day die, but because the inevitability of death brought the fact that he had done nothing with his life into sharp relief:

‘The thought that I would live whatever number of years and look back on it and see I hadn’t done anything with my life, had wasted it, was something I just could not live with. So I decided to write.’ (5)

A lover of Beethoven, Selby nurtured the fantasy of becoming a composer, but only nine years of schooling and no musical training did for that. He did know the alphabet so, he figured, why not try writing. After all, lying on his back for years in hospital, Selby had little time for anything else but books – everything from the hardboiled tough-guy fiction of Mickey Spillane to Gil Sorrentino’s postmodern metafiction. (Sorrentino was to become Selby’s close friend and mentor, and Last Exit is dedicated to him.)

He bought himself a portable Remington typewriter, and taught himself to write. The first thing he wrote was a letter, to which the addressee replied, so he wrote another. The first piece of fiction he wrote was a suicide note. Writing, like much of Selby’s life, did not come easy. But it was keeping him alive.

Selby’s narrative style, a form of typography that ‘would work as musical notation’ – a direct development of his love for classical music – dispensed with the conventional formalities of dialogue. Selby had a profound dislike of the simplistic and unrealistic ‘he said, she said’ device. Selby’s characters speak with an idiosyncratic flow. Each can be identified by their own rhythms of speech. The form and structure of dialogue is specific to the feel and flow of emotion that shapes each character’s inner life. Of ‘Tralala’, the story of the eponymous teenage prostitute, Selby wrote:

‘About 20 pages long, took 2 1/2 years to get to that point. The story starts with a very short, flat line, then starts to open and flow as she does, until eventually the line never ends as she starts to disintegrate and the final line is a couple of pages long, having the feeling of utter chaos, and never really ends, but stops… When I finished ‘Tralala’ I was in bed for two weeks.’ (6)

Praised as naturalistic in theme, but highly modernist in technique, Last Exit has been misinterpreted as socially aware fiction – its protagonists the victims of the cruelty they experience and endure. As this orthodox reading goes, Tralala, Georgette, and Harry – trapped, brutalised and condemned by the cold, corrupting squalor of the inner city and the society that built it – should be pitied. Their depravity and self-loathing are the determined consequences of their squalid environment.

That those who sought to prosecute Last Exit misrepresented or at best misunderstood its subject matter as obscene is one thing, but it is not without Selbyesque irony that those who jumped to its defence, and have promoted it as art, also ended up condemning him. So in his defence of Last Exit, Anthony Burgess extols its biting exposé of the cruelty of modern society:

Last Exit presents social horrors out of reformist zeal, not out of a desire to titillate or corrupt. Those who found the book capable of debauching its readers were evidently most debauchably and regrettably cut off from the desire to expand their charitable propensities… Those who now approach Last Exit with open minds will soon consider that there is plenty of reforming to do well east of Brooklyn, and our professional reformers must be the first to be reformed.’ (7)

This characterisation of his work as social realism was something Selby railed against. In an interview with John O’Brien, he claimed his characters were not victims. They were not victims of plot – because there was none – nor were they victims of circumstance – because this would simplistically mean that if their circumstances were to change then they would have lived better lives. This is too easy an answer, a convenient get-out that avoids the uncomfortable and often traumatic responsibility of self that underpins Selby’s humanism. He continued:

‘One of the things I find insane is that we seem to believe in this country that if we change the society, then the individual will be changed. That doesn’t happen. The transformed individual makes a transformed world. All these people I write about are looking to outside forces to do something for them. Not one of them wants to know what he can do for someone else… Of course the sociologists say, “Look at the society and what they’re born into” – which is true; but ultimately that doesn’t mean anything because that society is made up of individuals who have made those decisions. Sooner or later you have to be willing to accept the responsibility for your own life.’ (8)

It is the failure to take responsibility that condemns the inhabitants of Last Exit, not their environment, circumstance or immorality. As Selby argues: ‘All of the people in my novels fail because of [a] lack of control. Not because they are immoral by anybody’s standards, but because they lost control. The lack of power is their dilemma.’ (9)

This is the moral heart of Last Exit, and the spirituality that informs its humanist whole. Selby castigates his characters for their continued ‘surrender [of their] problems to God’. It represents a recourse to external causes to explain away or justify their refusal to take responsibility for their actions. Selby, a devout Christian, claimed that writing Last Exit was a way of ‘going to war’ with God, an attempt to resist his own ‘surrender to God’ – ‘the hatred helped keep me alive’, he later acknowledged (10).

Selby’s idiosyncratic, experimental style – flowing unending sentences; the use of the back-slash rather than the apostrophe because it was both nearer at hand on the typewriter and expressed Selby’s sophisticated but violent sensibility – was not a rejection of the world, but a steadfast attempt to connect with it. He understood the world as a painful place. But, unlike the Beats, he embraced the pain and strove to transcend it. He understood that the mundanely traumatic struggles that shape our internal lives are essential aspects of being human. It is the inner lives of his characters, not their external circumstances, that shape their worlds.

Precisely because of its visceral obscenity, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a fundamentally humanist novel. And as such, it is far closer in spirit to the Enlightenment than the beatific sensibilities of 1960s counterculture. Indeed, its steadfast refusal to sentimentalise its subject and its visceral insistence on individual moral responsibility make it a necessary antidote to the increasingly solipsistic disavowal of subjective agency that increasingly characterises the contemporary moment.”

 (1) ‘Introduction’, by A Burgess, in Last Exit To Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr (Calder & Boyers, 1968, pXVII

(2) Understanding Hubert Selby Jr, by JR Giles, South Carolina Press, 1998, p11

(3) Cit. Understanding Hubert Selby Jr, by JR Giles, South Carolina Press, 1998, p7

(4) ‘Introduction’ to Last Exit to Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr, Bloomsbury, 1994, pV

(5) ‘Introduction’ to Last Exit to Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr, Bloomsbury, 1994, pV

(6) ‘Introduction’ to Last Exit to Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr, Bloomsbury, 1994, ppXI-XII

(7) ‘Introduction’, by A Burgess, in Last Exit To Brooklyn, by H Selby Jr (Calder & Boyers, 1968, pXVII

(8) ‘A Conversation with Hubert Selby’, by John O’Brien, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer Vol 12, 1981

(9) ‘A Conversation with Hubert Selby’, by John O’Brien, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer Vol 12, 1981

(10) Cit. Understanding Hubert Selby Jr, by JR Giles, South Carolina Press, 1998, p2