Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The cracks

In 1945 the country was at war, but by the summer it was a far off war.  The streets of London had already filled with celebrating masses, the sailor swooping up the nurse in his arms, the airman and soldier clambering atop the Trafalgar Square plinths, bottles of ale in each hand, the monarch and family had appeared on the palace’s balcony and waved, next to them the pug heavy, cigar chomping, steel eyed Prime Minister had taken his moment of glory.  Half a world away, men still fought in the sweaty jungles, under the Pacific sun.  Sons died every day, but maybe enough of a war was over.  Churchill, confident that the cries of “we want Winston” would continue, called a snap election.

And lost.

In one of the most surprising results of the twentieth century, a short, bookish politician who had served in the war cabinet led the Labour Party to power.  Clement Atlee would be the first Labour Prime Minister to command a working majority and he was determined to make the most it.

Labour’s 1945 victory was against the odds, but it occurred for a variety of reasons.  The Conservatives bet everything on Churchill’s popularity not even bothering with a manifesto just “Mr Churchill’s message to the people”, but to the public he was a war leader and they were tired of war.  The soldiers still fighting in Asia weren’t impressed at seemingly being forgotten, as though their conflict was just a side show.  But perhaps more than anything, having stood on the brink, the country looked around and thought: you know what?  I fought for it; I deserve something better than what was here before. 

In five years, and in times of more severe financial catastrophe than in 2010, Labour undertook the most exhaustive series of societal and political reforms ever seen in this country.  Scores of industries essential to the infrastructure of the country, and for the benefit of the surviving people, were nationalised – British Power, British Water, British Telecommunications, British Steel, the mining industry, British Rail.  The NHS was created.  A phenomenal scale of council housing was built and new towns constructed as a land was raised up from the rubble.  Five years was all it took to try and make the country a fairer and more decent place to live.

Thatcher began the dismantling of this in the eighties and the current government has followed, piece by piece, privatising each component part.

I think Ed Milliband is right when he says that the greatest challenge facing this country is inequality.  We have a small minority getting significantly richer, a vast majority stumbling along with various difficulties and growing number of people seriously struggling. 

Yes, you are always going to have disparity.  Yes, someone running a multi-national corporation should be better paid for the responsibility they shoulder than someone sweeping the streets, but the divides shouldn’t be so stark.  We should not live in a world where some people are able to buy a watch worth the same as a flat and tens of thousands of people are reliant on charity to ensure they have enough to eat. 

The inequalities aren’t just monetary.  Sophie Heawood’s article for the Guardian nails another marginalised group: the unmarried, and while she specifically focuses on single mothers it can apply to anyone not in wedlock.  The current government has boosted tax credits for married couples and introduced the, admittedly admirable, legislation that allows gay marriage.  The latter is another important step forward following civil partnerships, but it is also small c conservatism, part of a continual mandate that marriage is best.  It implies that any alternative, for whatever reason people choose it, is to be derided.  Marriage, like the market, is sacred.  The current government is, essentially, saying that anyone not like us is wrong.  I didn’t get married because of social expectations.  I proposed because I wanted to tell the world how much I love her, but in many ways, there’s a part of me which would have liked to buck the trend a bit more, lived a bit different, and that difference should be celebrated not discriminated against.

Then there’s gender inequality in general, which is a subject too big to tackle here.  Shortly after my wife and I first moved in together we argued as to whether I needed to identify myself as a feminist.  My theory was that I didn’t for a combination of legalised equality and an assumption that everyone thought the same way I do.  Everyday casual sexism, only a small minority of companies willing to open their accounts to demonstrate equal pay, Page 3’s been replaced by the Daily Mail’s website, whenever Theresa May leaves Downing Street her outfit is scrutinised, but the media never mention what William Hague’s wearing, disproportionately small numbers of women in senior leadership roles and a work-life imbalance to society which means women are fundamentally disadvantaged in the workplace have persuaded me otherwise.  The situation can be epitomised by the tiny number of senior women MPs in the cabinet, the fact that austerity hits women significantly harder than men, and even David Cameron’s dismissive “calm down, dear”, none of which set the example expected of government.

And the problem is that the ideal Conservative, the pinnacle of the “us”, is that one percent often talked about.  For this government in particular, it is the Cotswold village second home dwelling, privately educated, exclusive minority who own most of the wealth and create an increasingly divided, dispirited and desolate world.  There is a victimisation of the poor, be it installing spikes in shop doorways to stop people sleeping rough to the right wing media’s sustained assault on anyone claiming benefits, from zero hour contracts to the withdrawal of legal aid, the Conservatives, like UKIP, are have set up someone to blame, only this time it’s from within our own shores. 

This is one of the main reasons why large portions of Scotland want to get divorced from the rest of the country.  I wrote about why I hoped that wouldn't happen last year and while the result went the way of remaining in the union, rather than settle the issue it seems to have galvanised the Yes vote to try again, to try harder.

Some polls are suggesting that Labour will be wiped out north of the Tweed which would be a disaster, but on the current offering why wouldn’t people vote SNP?  Nicola Sturgeon has excelled on the national stage and doesn’t have quite as much odious baggage as Alex Salmond – a man who has been in politics since the eighties and yet claims to despise professional politicians – and they are championing a better deal, a fairer way of life for Scotland.  Maybe the sums don’t add up, but the message in one far more joyous than that being peddled by the Conservatives who, frankly, don’t, and haven’t for generations, cared what happens in Scotland.  They’re only interested in the people like themselves. 

In England, I worry that we sleepwalked our apathetic way into accepting this.

A few years ago, I was stumbling my way to London Bridge from Ye Olde Mitre on Holborn Circus.  One of my favourite central London pubs, this tiny boozer has a good range of ales, sufficient variety but not so many that you can’t try a pint of each, and some serious pork pies, even if you invariably end up outside doing your drinking in the alley.  You’d like it.  Cutting down a side passage laced with glass and steel, the dark of closed up cafes sucking the light in, I emerged the other side into a sea of canvas.

All around me on the hard concrete slabs were tents huddled close together in the spring breeze, from inside the occasional throb of torchlight.  A few people milled around, looking gortex glad and sporting weeks of stubble, more like they should be a field than underneath the soaringly majestic dome of St Paul’s.  The constant low murmur rebounded off the mighty oak doors as I picked my way through the encampment, an accidental intruder, my progress monitored.

The occupy movement stuck it out for eight months creating a steady yet sustained awareness of their cause, but this aside protest over the past five years has been limited.  There’s been the odd polite march to Hyde Park and occasional bit of student violence, but nothing as widespread or sustained as, say, the poll tax riots, with one brief exception. 

In the spring of 2009 I started to write a novel which was, amongst other things, about what I feared a Conservative victory would bring in 2010.  In my dystopia I imagined that, by 2015, the economy’s continued stagnation would have seen a deliberate attempt to create divisions in society.  To create an us and them identified through their wealth, position in society and politics.  I thought that these purposeful divides between tribes would, eventually, erupt; that London would burn in a crescendo of anger which couldn’t be directed anywhere except against each other.

In 2011 London, and large parts of the rest of the country, briefly exploded in a cacophony of rioting and looting.  In the middle of it, I went for a walk.  The night before the Brockley air had been alive with sirens and rumours as ramraiders went for TK Maxx in New Cross, a group occupied a bookies and a Gregg’s in Deptford, running battles were held on the streets of Lewisham and claims were falsely made that the enormous, iconic (of a sorts) plastic cat that sits above some shops in Catford had been burnt down.  The next evening though it was still and silent.  Bars and restaurants had their steel grills securely fastened and I was almost the only person out on the streets as the early evening sun calmly flattered the unexpected quietness of the city, the anger dissipating as quickly as it had flared.

Unlike my novel the riots of 2011 were not politically motivated.  They were mainly carried out by bored, frustrated youngsters in a hurry to get a new pair of trainers, TV or drunk.  There seemed to be an almost contagious spread of resentment, theft and violence and yet, no matter what they thought, the rioters weren’t actually rebelling against anything, just taking the shortcut to the uber-capitalist dream they’d been sold.  And as soon it was over, as soon as the storm had ceased, the system rolled into gear not to understand and address the issues of youth unemployment and messaging that you are only successful if you own a house a fucking big television but to demonise and judge. 

Since 2010 we have seen a systematic implementation of policies which appear to hamper the majority while greatly benefiting a monied minority and while we may all grumble and mutter about it we have been reluctant to take action as the basic cost of living spirals yet wages are becalmed and tax avoidance amongst the wealth becomes routine.  Maybe we’ve become a meeker society or maybe the assault has been so quiet and subtle many of us simply haven’t noticed.

In 2010 you could almost taste the change and the tension.  This time round we seem happy to just let whatever anyone else wants to happen.  Walking the streets you hardly see a single placard in the windows of houses and flats.  Five years ago, there was a scrum at the stations as campaigners tried to picket you with the leaflets of their masters, now I just see weary commuters trudging to a job which is only just keeping them afloat.   It’s as though political discourse has been reduced to asking reality TV survivors which party leaders they’d shag, suck off or punch and deciding the election that way, as though 140 characters on social media is sufficient to convey a anything other than a hollow platitude.

David Cameron used the phrase “the good life” so many times at his manifesto launch that you’re powerless other than to think of the seventies sitcom.  But no matter what you think of the smugly nice teatime TV fare, on our current trajectory you can be certain that he didn’t mean for everyone.

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