On the face of it, there is nothing complicated about the politics of Harry Potter, who made his first appearance in The Philosopher’s Stone 20 years ago. Like his creator J.K. Rowling, who once gave £1 million to the Labour party, he is a left-wing paternalist in the Bloomsbury tradition — the love child of John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf. He feels a protective duty towards the common man (‘muggles’ in the lexicon of the novels) and a loathing for suburban, lower-middle-class Tories like the Dursleys, his Daily Mail-reading foster parents. The arch-villain of the saga is Voldemort, a charismatic Übermensch who believes in purity and strength and in the final novel promotes his own version of the Nuremberg Laws through the Ministry of Magic. Indeed, the books are shot through with the mythology of the second world war and its aftermath, linking the struggle against fascism to the emergence of a socialist New Jerusalem.
But look more closely and something stranger hoves into view. What is Hogwarts, after all, but an idealised version of an English public school, with its houses, quadrangles and eccentric schoolteachers? As George Orwell points out in ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, his 1940 essay in which he tries to understand why millions of children find stories set in boarding schools so spellbinding, the ‘snob appeal’ of this milieu is ‘absolutely shameless’. ‘The heroic characters all have to talk BBC,’ he observes, something that is equally true of the Potter novels.
In the same essay, Orwell touches on the ‘changeling fantasy’, a common trope of popular children’s literature, in which an apparently ordinary boy or girl turns out to be the child of an impossibly glamorous couple. Harry Potter falls squarely within this genre and that aspect of the novels also taps into the English obsession with ancestry. We are invited to condemn Voldemort for thinking ‘pure-bloods’ deserve special treatment yet to admire Harry’s impressive lineage.
Rowling is often criticised for lifting many elements from classic children’s literature, but the book I was reminded of when I read Harry Potter to my daughter was Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I don’t just mean the glamorised portrait of upper-class, English education. In addition, there’s the romantic longing for a prelapsarian aristocratic society, an England uncontaminated by bungalows and privet hedges. And this is what’s so fascinating about Rowling’s politics. She regards herself as a card-carrying member of the Labour party, a progressive at ease in the modern world, and she is careful to tick all the relevant ‘diversity’ boxes, as Lara Prendergast pointed out last week. But beneath this politically correct exterior lurks an old-fashioned Tory struggling to get out.
As with Waugh, Rowling’s artistic ambition seems to stem from a blow to her amour propre and a desire to reclaim her rightful place in the world. In Waugh’s case it was being sent to Lancing rather than Sherborne because of his older brother’s expulsion for buggery. For Rowling, it was a combination of not getting into Oxford, the failure of her first marriage, and ending up in Edinburgh as a single mother on benefits. Both Waugh and Rowling were influenced by the Mitford sisters. (Waugh was great friends with Nancy.) For Rowling, it was being given a copy of Jessica’s Hons and Rebels as a teenager. Rowling was so taken with Jessica that she named her first daughter after her, and her schizophrenic politics seem to echo those of the Mitfords.
The fascist Voldemort most closely resembles is Oswald Mosley, Jessica and Nancy’s brother-in-law, and it is worth noting, as Christopher Hitchens did in his New York Times review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that the lightning bolt on Harry’s forehead is the official symbol of the British Union of Fascists. Right-wing politics, along with the British aristocracy, exercises a weird fascination for Rowling that doesn’t feel entirely conscious.
Perhaps the disconnect between text and subtext is not so unusual. Labour’s strong authoritarian streak helps explain its appeal to ex-private schoolboys such as Seumas Milne and Jeremy Corbyn. Rowling has a bluestocking quality that reminds me of Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the Fabian Society and an admirer of Stalin. Who knows, in a follow-up novel Harry Potter might grow up to become Labour leader. His creator’s subterranean fascist impulses should serve him in good stead.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.