Important Thinkers of Our Times

JK Rowling Can Dream of Wizards But Not of a Better Future

What can her ongoing opposition to Corbyn tell us about the way we imagine politics?
May 9, 2017, 8:30am
JK Rowling (Photo: Daniel Ogren)

A lack of imagination is perhaps not the most obvious thing to come after J.K. Rowling for. She's made up loads of things, after all. Literally thousands of things. Maybe millions! She's made up far more things that I have. When I see an animal I just look at it and think it looks cool – Rowling? Rowling is three steps ahead. She's already combined that animal with up to three other animals and given it a beak. And it flies now as well. Impressed? We all are.


And yet so many of Rowling's political missteps seem to stem from a cramped and compromised imagination. Her opposition to the idea of an independent Scotland, for one. Her insistence that it remains fine to break a cultural boycott against Israel, for another – the language in the letter she signed defending doing so smoothly bypassing any of the realities of what she was describing. There is a necessary deadening of meaning in sentences like "Cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change" when spoken in relation to the actual ongoing occupation she proposed to tacitly support.

JK and JC (PA/PA Archive/PA Images)

Most of all, we see it in her utter inability to conceive of a Labour party not run by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader two years ago, Rowling and many others denounced him as unviable and have gone on repeating this ever since. Rather than entertain the idea of doing what they could to make Corbyn more electable, they preferred to get in some lumbering faceless scarecrow by the name of Owen Smith for the sole reason that he seemed more or less like what we are used to. He was new, insofar as he was not Jeremy Corbyn, but also as old as time, emerging from some worm infested, mould labelled "Moderate Labour" that lies quivering in a crypt beneath Alistair Campbell's floorboards.

The interchangeable, and therefore agonisingly, meditatively boring qualities of these people seem to be somehow reassuring to Rowling and those like her, rather than horrifying. They behave as though there is a neutral, sensible centre inherently appealing to the public, and it's only a matter of identifying the right shade of pink or the best font, or the right pair of glasses, to sell it. The poor fools who don't already vote Labour will see that we're actually looking after their best interests, if only we can get someone with the right haircut.

How much does Rowling's opinion on Corbyn matter? I would guess her influence is not insubstantial; partially because of her fame, but also because she gives off an overwhelming air of sanity, the same tsk-tsk, eye-rolling, meritless gravitas assumed by so many of the more vehement anti-Corbyn lot. She recently tweeted a New Statesman article which poses the question, "What should you do if you support Labour but can't stand Jeremy Corbyn?", the answer to which was, for some reason, not the single sentence, "Vote for him anyway, you sulking entitled idiots."

Famously, Rowling allegorises topical events using her own fictions in perhaps the ultimate display of the self-satisfied failure of imagination I'm talking about here. Corbyn is NOT Dumbledore, she types furiously. Owen Smith WOULD have won the Triwizard Tournament. Harry came to me in a dream last night and TOLD me my stance on Scottish Independence is correct. Using the moral logic of the world you yourself have invented to justify your opinions is both patently and comically bananas, and also a grand feat of self-validation. The world is as I say it is – not as anyone else suggests it could be. It's not that she has no imagination, it's that she believes her imagination to be the only one that counts. It works only to keep things as they are, to support the things she already believes.


In her Harvard commencement speech in 2008, Rowling spoke at length about the power of imagination in relation to empathy, referring to her time spent working for Amnesty International. There she read documents of torture, murder and the results of totalitarian states. While empathy for victims of extreme violence is commendable, it's also the baseline minimum we expect of a kind, moral person (which I am sure Rowling is). It takes a more muscular form of empathy to look at people who are behaving in ways we find destructive, or against their own interest, or just stupid, and try to understand them. A sensible person like Rowling looks at voters who are repelled by the parade of centrist candidates and sees them as irrational fools. She misses the accumulated history of failures which have led to that distrust.

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It's not just Rowling who thinks this way – the insistence that things must stay the same but with superficial repackaging is everywhere in the anti-Corbyn narrative. You see it in the hysterical objections to his recently proposed policies. Everything he says is bound to be denounced by some smirking wonk with an arched eyebrow as a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Free school meals for children are an outrageous absurdity, four bank holidays are a vile extravagance. This unwillingness to credit the viability of even the most modest and reasonable of improvements will be the death of us, this obsession with clinging to the current state of things even as they rot.

It's an obsession with allowing only incremental change – change so incremental, in fact, that it is imperceptible, because it simply isn't taking place. It's an ahistorical bloody-minded refusal to consider how serious social change has happened in the past, which is not because one day the right member of the establishment class decided to press a button and make things fair. It happened because the oppressed have insisted on the possibility of a different future; a future the people above them were unable – or simply unwilling – to imagine.