There aren’t any major events within our two political parties to report. Theresa May seems to be settling down into her role. She’s visited various bods in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Germany and France and had a credible and convincing start with her first Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).
You know about those PMQs don’t you? This is a half-an-hour event held every Wednesday and is key to understanding the British system of adversarial politics. Ostensibly it’s for back-bench Members of Parliament (MPs) and the Leader of the Opposition to ask questions of the Prime Minister, which sounds reasonable enough, but in actuality it’s a shouting, bear-pit that’s an embarrassment to watch. MPs often laugh, taunt, shout, boo, hiss and generally behave badly. It’s a very masculine, macho, public-schoolboy type of debate, if you can even call it debate. And at the end there is usually a set-up question to the Prime Minister (from an MP from the same party) about the iniquity of the Opposition. The PM then replies with a cheap punch-line about the Opposition’s policies (and I’ve watched Cameron do just that) which is picked up by the media as the personification of sophisticated debate and repartee.
So, if at best the script has been or will be torn up and this changes to something more sensible that would be good. The one positive thing I will say about Theresa May is she’s not one of the boys, she’s not a product of the British public school system, and at her first PMQs she was tart and to the point and, btw, wiped the floor with Jeremy. But, don’t whatever you do, think that I’m over-enamoured with her; she’s one to watch that one, as she said some very fine things after her blessing from the Queen, but will it be the same old Tory party as before? Probably, yes.
And as for the Labour Party – the processes grind on.
Did I say that I had in mind I’d be writing 3 pieces on the Referendum; what happened, why and how we go forward. I’ve given up on that. Because we are all finding our way, no-one knows where Brexit will lead us. And to the consternation of, I believe, UKIP voters nothing much has changed at all. It will take at least two years before we know the consequences of leaving the EU. However, I know the way I’m going and that is to be more discerning, more informed, more aware of what is going on around me in this country.
And what is happening, what has happened to get us where we are today?
Have you ever read an article and felt that you agree with every word that is written – I have, just now. I read Brexit Blues by John Lanchester (London Review of Books 28th July 2016) and thought, yes. This. This is what I know and feel, this is a mirror of our society. So here is a critique and review of this article.
Lanchester begins by explaining the ‘Overton window’ a political science term to denote how an idea moves from absolute nonsense to a possibility to reality. Back in 1994 a completely crackers political party called the Referendum Party was set up and bankrolled by billionaire James Goldsmith (hmm, that name has come up recently, has it not). It put up 547 seats in the General Election of 1997 and lost them all. But the idea of asking the people whether they should remain in the EU never went away, began to be discussed and then found in party manifestos. Naturally, the leaders of the two main parties were reluctant to actually have a referendum and when Cameron promised the country one in the 2015 election all the pundits knew that he wouldn’t win a complete majority, so naturally the resulting coalition would prevent him from actually having one. But Cameron got a majority, and there you go, a fanciful idea becomes reality.
But that doesn’t explain why we voted to leave. And this is where Lanchester is so astute in his analysis of the state of the nation today. Did you know that Bangladesh is the only country which has both more people than England and more people per square kilometre? (I didn’t) Lanchester argues convincingly that we are a small, densely populated country, and it is this very denseness that is a key characteristic of the English. Because to be English is to be both similar to everyone, and completely different, in not only a class sense but a geographical sense. Think of how different your town is to the next one. The accent, just a few miles down the road and into the city, changes; the life chances and expectations change. You all know this. People I know in Lewes and Brighton, for instance, would think nothing of traveling to London, but in my home town there are many who would never do that, who don’t travel far at all, even a few miles. Political analysis is so often in the UK a class analysis, and just a few pages further in to the LRB there’s review of Lynsey Hanley’s book Respectable: The Experience of Class where she describes a psychological ‘wall in your head’. There’s no literal wall around my home town, but there is, in a way.
Lanchester argues that geography has to be taken into account, and I quote, “To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy.”
What used to happen was that children born in those places used to leave school, gain apprenticeships and work in the same heavy industries that their father and even their mother had. Or if they were bright, the grammar schools lifted them up into the middle classes. And btw, for those of you over the pond, I think the term middle class means something different to you. Here in the UK the middle classes (now termed ABCs and so on) are our professionals – civil servants, teachers, doctors and so on.)
But as Lanchaster points out those grammar schools are no more and the heavy industry jobs are gone. He notes that “UK manufacturing is now a high-skill, high-value industry…” which doesn’t provide mass employment, and that both political parties, rightly or wrongly, actively seek policies to develop this industry. But crucially no political party has developed any strategy to replace those heavy industries – perhaps because they can’t? But what there is instead, funnily enough, is plenty of work, but of the unsatisfying and insecure kind: call centres; courier and care work. Everything that gave a sense of identity, community and self-worth has vanished for these people.
If you ever have time I commend you to watch an episode of Grayson Perry’s latest TV programme on men on YouTube. If you don’t know him, he’s a potter who has more insight into the state of men in the communities that have just been left to rot by the flight of capital than any politician from any of our parties. And that’s the point. Lanchester asks what has been on offer to these people politically? And the answer is nothing really – they have been abandoned.
Lanchester makes a critical point that while we live in a political system (because actually everything we touch, experience and live through comes from and is driven by political decisions) most people see their lived experience through class and economics, and ‘politics’ as something that happens up, or down there, in London, somewhere.
So, why would you listen to any of the people who came forward and spoke earnestly about the merits of the European Union? Why would you listen to an economic argument about the virtues of the EU? Why would you want to vote ‘yes, I wish to Remain’, to yet another be-suited type trotting out platitudes about an economic union that has no meaning when all you’re worried about is whether you’re going to be made redundant, ever get a mortgage or even be able to pay the rent. Forget that the Leave campaign was based on lies – what it did say was you could get back control over decisions in the UK. Now does that sound appealing? Over what, you might ask, well, mainly about immigration. And why wouldn’t you, if you have no control over your zero-hour contract? That’s what people went for – and don’t forget the evidence from the Ashcroft polls that I noted in an earlier post. The main reason for voting to Leave, given by voters of both parties, was to have more control over decisions in the UK. A very, very clever ploy.
There is more in this article (these LRB articles are long ones!) about the state of our two main political parties and their confused melange of interests: the Tories with nationalists who voted out and business interests who voted in; and Labour with its urban elite who voted in and the working class who voted out. Don’t have an election Mrs May – who would people vote for? And there’s more about immigration and immigrants. Did you know that the UK apparently needs 140,000 per year to stay solvent – where do you think our taxes come from with a declining birth rate. I will return to these subjects again.
But I think there’s one last point I’d like to make that Lanchester also brings up. Many of my horrified friends (and family) who voted to Remain say they know no-one who voted to Leave. Who are these people they say? They’re astonished at the result, alarmed even, but also somewhat dismissive of the people who voted that way. How could they? Very easily, actually. For 52% of the voters it made sense to vote Leave.
But don’t despise, instead strive to understand because it’s that geography. We are so small a country, we know so little of our island.
Penny Kocher, 1st August 2016