When I was ten years old I wrote a letter to J.K. Rowling. In big loopy and (at that point) probably illegible felt tipped pen I asked my favourite author to explain to me the rules of Quidditch. I never received a reply.
Five books later I had half-forgotten about Hogwarts until I went to Oxford—or up to Oxford, as they say, as if it was a cloud, or a magic castle on an outcrop. Only on the other side of the university Sorting Hat myself did I begin to realize that Harry Potter was in fact a Tory.
Few Americans realize this, but a lot of what reads like fantasy in J.K. Rowling is in fact the British class system with magic wands, house elves and the Order of the Phoenix.
The Hogwarts Express is instantly recognizable as the Flying Scotsman to the Queen’s Balmoral and the prize Highlands shooting estates. The Hogwarts Houses are the Oxford Colleges. Harry’s scholastic shopping trips to Diagon Alley (to get your owl and your magic wand) are so obviously the pricey ritual of stocking up for country boarding school. Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross is, surprise, surprise right next to Platform 10 that takes you “up” to Cambridge. And as for a game of Quidditch, it’s either cricket or the sui generisEton Wall Game.
Even fewer Americans realize Young Potter is in fact, as I grew to realise, a Tory. And I do appreciate, from across the Atlantic, this is at first hard to spot above all because J.K. Rowling has Twitterstormed herself into a John Oliver-style US Britcelebrity and 280 character Trump Owner-In-Chief. “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad,” apparently.
Yet when British readers pick up Harry Potter they instantly recognize it as that most Tory of genres. A piece of public school—and in Britain this of course means not only private but elite education—school days fiction, just with wizards on flying brooms.
Whereas in most postwar British public school fiction, such as the 1968 schoolboy insurrection movie If, the school was the enemy, administering senseless punishments and ridiculous demands, from the Philosopher’s Stone to the end, the real hero in Harry Potter is the school. The enemy, those who wish the institution harm.
But there is something deeply deferential—and utterly Tory—in how Harry takes on Hogwarts. The headmaster is practically the boy’s best friend, and he advances by doing exactly as he is told by the wise old Dumbledore. The order the school represents is nothing malevolent in the Potterverse—an enchanted Tom Brown’s School Days. There are no tie-loosening, headmaster-hating rebels for us to identify with at Hogwarts for J.K. Rowling. Only Dumbledore’s boys.
Right to the end—and this is one of the rare moments of dissatisfaction I can usually detect amongst Potterheads—Harry does the Establishment Thing and not marry Cho Chang, but Ginny Weasley, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic, but financially threadbare, noble line.
But is that enough to find Harry Potter inherently Tory?
Not until we enter the Ministry of Magic.
To me, perhaps the most blatantly Tory strain running through the Potterverse is the portrayal of Wizarding Whitehall. Nothing good can ever come of the Ministry of Magic, whose bureaucrats are badgering nincompoops with names like Cornelius Fudge and Pius Thicknesse, men who talk down to the befuddled Muggle Prime Minister, informing him how things are really run through a portrait and a fireplace in Number 10 Downing Street, like a voice of a Regency Palace emissary.
Not only are bureaucrats goofy and gluttonous, but every intervention by the Department of Mysteries and the Department for Magical Accidents and Catastrophes makes things worse. Problems, in Harry Potter’s world, can only be solved by the Wizards themselves—by the Tory Big Society of chipper public spirited Wizards. All that can be hoped for, even under Minister For Magic Hermione in J.K Rowling’s latest 2016 theatre spinoff Harry Potter And The Cursed Child is for government to be less corrupt. Magic will never come to the masses.
There is something terribly Tory too, in what Potter is fighting for, and the way he goes about it. What does he do with that extraordinary Elder Wand? What does he do with with second chance at life?
There is no magical socialism in the epilogue “Nineteen Years Later” at the end of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. There is no life’s work (and clearly no interest) in bringing the magical and muggle worlds back together for all mankind. All we see at Platform 9¾ is Harry Potter cheerfully sending off his children on the Hogwarts Express to public school. Harry has protected a venerable institution and then has simply pottered off, to live out his days in some secluded wizarding Surrey.
But what about Lord Voldemort? The hole in Harry Potter is that there is no meaningful interrogation of the system that produced Voldemort—the system of segregation and secrecy between muggles and magicians. As long as Harry Potter shows no interest in opening Hogwarts, handing everyone in Britain a wand, and closing down the Ministry of Magic, the system that produced both Voldemort, Grindelwald and the Death Eaters, the political system of which Slytherin is an inherent part, will remain.
Because as long as there are muggles and magicians, as long as there is magical blood, there will be wizards who think they are racially superior to the muggle-born, meritocratically catapulted into Hogwarts, and wizards who dream of slavery. But Potter is perfectly happy sending his son up to Hogwarts, at Platform 9¾, next to a now-pater familias Draco Malfoy.
This is why the (non)politics of Harry Potter remind me so much of the politics of David Cameron, our former Prime Minister who proudly said his finest achievement was putting gay marriage into British law. Cameron to Britain was like Potter to Hogwarts: Eton, Oxford, the Royal Family: as long as it was race-, gender- and orientation-blind, it could all carry on as before. The only problem is prejudice. There is no problem in structures.
Just as Eton-run Britain was fine as long as it was no longer sexist, homophobic or racist, Hogwarts-run Britain is fine too, as long as it makes the same journey. J.K. Rowling makes this explicit with the Obama-like Kingsley Shacklebolt as Minister of Magic at the end of the original seven books. Pureblood laws will be dismantled, but not the magical ruling class.
At the end of the day, Harry Potter is so truly a Tory because, like Cameron, he refuses to believe the ancient and venerable institutions that made him, bestowed him with magical powers, and allowed him to flounce into the Ministry of Magic at the drop of a hat could, in themselves, be inherently divisive and unfair. Is this a failure of intellect? Or a failure of empathy? The failure to see that that the lower middle class and mean-spirited Dursleys are that way because they live in a world without magic but full of mortgages?
The Toryism of J.K. Rowling, whose world repeats again and again its fierce belief in an elect, in ritual, in the rights of an elite so superior they must be educated far and away from the hoi polloi is what makes Harry Potter so oddly real, so British, and so urgent for children.
J.K. Rowling’s dark, almost reactionary, fairy tales reveal that in Britain the strings are pulled by an dazzling and hidden aristocracy. This is why I still love Harry Potter—as an enchanted adventure hiding a savage warning: Get into Oxbridge, the elite, or you’ll end up a muggle. In the same way that all fairy tales, from Cinderella to Little Red Riding Hood, contain within them brutal, terrifying lessons—don’t talk to strangers, run after the rich man at all costs—the secret of Harry Potter is that it does it, too. It is a magical mirror on the British class system.
It should come as no surprise that J.K. Rowling is, at least in Britain, now seen as someone on the anti-Left. Happily New Labour under the liberal regime of Tony Blair’s successor Gordon Brown, J.K. Rowling is now fiercely opposed to both Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism and the Scottish National Party’s promise of independence.
“Utterly deluded,” is her take on a Labour Party that now has almost 600,000 members, a number that has more than tripled—a party that went up 32 seats at the last elections and is polling not only ahead of the Conservatives, but in its best polls is higher than Tony Blair was ahead of his landslide election victory back in 1997. Now in her capacity as centrist-in-chief, J.K. Rowling appears only comfortable with a Labour which keeps schtum on nuclear disarmament and rail re-nationalization, tweeting—“THIS ISN’T BLOODY FUNNY.”
British millennial tribune—the majority of whom voted for Corbyn—she is not.
All this is why it feels so strange to me that millenial liberals in the U.S. (and a good many whom I can spot on Twitter are Rose Emoji socialists) are so keen to make Harry Potter one of their #resistance memes.
Strange, because Hogwarts appears to share few of the values of the American Left. For one, there is no moral relativism here—only absolute magical good and absolute evil. And not only is there nothing sharing, progressive or even particularly collaborative about Hogwarts, which, like any English public school is one never ending Triwizard Tournament where winning is never-ending point scoring to be prefect, or to get your hands on the House Cup.
In the wizarding world of J.K. Rowling you are explicitly not whatever you want to be. There is a belief deep in the Sorting Hat. You are what your birth says you are: a Gryffindor or a Hufflepuff—a muggle or a magician. Transwizarding is not allowed, nor it seems, is it even conceivable. Nor is there a sniff of egalitarianism in J.K. Rowling’s world. Muggles may sometimes be nice (like Hermione Granger’s parents) and capable of breeding a wizard. But every muggle character is plodding, boring or dim witted. Just like a Victorian novels of plebs and aristos.
It’s a weird fantasia for millenial liberals to project.
Or maybe not. One reading of millenial Harry Potter memes is that a certain reactionary Toryism is exactly what the #resistance is about: protecting the magic in Berkeley and Brooklyn from Voldemort, whilst offering nothing but a patronizing sigh for the muggles in Middle America. Not only unquestioningly trusting the Chamber of Secrets of the Dumbledores at the CIA on dark forces at work in Washington, but longing for wishful Avada Kedavras like the 25th Amendment to make it all go away. Magical thinking, in other words—not politics.