As this UK election gathers towards its third week, it’s clearer that the situation has become genuinely historical, against the odds. Not merely the government, but the whole relationship between people and government is up for grabs, for the whole country.
In some ways this moment is as historic as 1649 when Charles I met his end, 1688 — the glorious revolution, 1911 — when Asquith destroyed the power of the House of Lords or 1945 — when Attlee laid the basis of the post-war settlement.
So it is vital to know what the British people are thinking, the men and women who struggle every day to make a living, who live in the vast demesne of England and the UK, far beyond the shallow decadent fleshpots of Soho. It is vital to get out to places like, say, Watford, where people really live goddamit, and suffer and struggle, and find out what they think.
So today I decided to go to Watford.
And I really intended to, believe me I did. I really tried. I was all in the direction of Euston station where the Watford train leaves from. I was all ‘let’s go, let’s get out among the great British public, let’s hear what the people who shop at Tie Shop for their ties really really think.’
So I was all let’s go to Watford.
I really tried to get to Watford.
I didn’t get to Watford.
It should have been easy. Euston station is a 20 minute walk through Bloomsbury, an hour on the train reading the Spectator and Broadcast. I used to like this phatic sort of ride, this nothing journey between nothing and nothing. Today, it became impossible. I lingered in Bar Italia, Milkbar and the Coach and Horses, stayed within four blocks of home adjacent to where, I should remind you, Mozart once lived and scoped the papers to see what was happening. Nick Clegg, the Lib-Dem leader would appear to be Jesus, Elvis and Churchill, except when he wasn’t.
According to local papers accessible online, these people are, as I have said, angry about immigration and unemployment. I have to say that doesn’t seem to be a problem at Bar Italia, where all the models are six foot four and Croatian, and no-one seems to work, but it’s a funny old world. People in the UK seem to be quite irritated about a lot of things.
The major parties can slice it and dice it however they like, the twin problems of immigration and infrastructure dominate the British election, but as a shadow. The official Left response to the spreading xenophobia is that this is a response to a lack of social building that new Labour has allowed EU immigration to proliferate without matching it in terms of services, so that people who can’t get a council flat and anyone low-waged wanting to survive in London or other cities needs a council flat or a GPs appointment blames the Somalians ahead in the queue.
The argument is that sufficient services would remove this gnawing frustration. That may be true, but it cannot be denied that there is a fair degree of ‘little Englandism’ among the population south of Gretna Green. It is weird, because it is not primarily a white-skin nativism. It is as likely to be expressed by second generation Jamaican-English in Acton as by Saxons in Somerset, and it is the overwhelming feeling that the UK is full.
Compared to places like the Netherlands etc, the UK doesn’t even qualify as overcrowded, and for most people countryside is a half hour away. Yet there remains a ghostly sense of old England, and the sheer crush of people piling into Victoria Coach Station every morning appears to militate against its survival. Many people live in a state of utter fantasy that they could have the new consumer culture without the illegal serfs making it happen, and that everything would be apples and pears and doing the Lambeth walk etc without them.
The core of this question is not immigration, but sovereignty EU membership demands open borders, and no major party will acknowledge that the question of immigration is really a question of whether to stay in or leave the European Union.
That’s probably the sort of things people in Watford would have said if I’d been there. Instead I went to the opening of a florists’ in Belgravia with the Diarist.
Belgravia’s the single richest postcode in the UK, not representative I grant you because it shifts within about three blocks to the hinterland around Victoria Coach Station where most of the people who make it possible arrive. Go down one street and it’s all Domesday-listed families, take a wrong turn and you’re at the Krakow coffee shop, with Poles in trackies eking out a coffee and a skbvkjvbekvz.
God help me I stayed at the florist’s opening, waiting for the Diarist, who was late. “What do you do?” I said to one woman casually, amongst a forest of mauve wossnames and white thingies. “Nothing at all!” she replied gleefully. She was Haitian-French. Her lips looked George Foreman had just smacked her one. “I used to be a student, then I got married!”
No-one here seemed to care about the debate or know it was going on. It was a freak show of men in country tweeds, and women in nine shades of tan. The Diarist’s friend, a journo and Revolutionary Communist Party stalwart, now working for a broadsheet, asked some actual questions about expensive clients and the management told us of an Arab guy who had had vases flown from India to be filled with flowers and then flown back to Monaco I think.
It occurred to me I was In Vile Bodies, chapter three.
Then the quails’ eggs came round as canapés.
So, Brideshead, then.
Then we all went to a waffle house.
It was a pop-up waffle house. Pop-ups are everywhere, shops that exist for a week or two and then disappear. Some boutique ice-cream dudes were doing it, in Soho. The debate was being projected on one wall, party-themed waffles served out the other. I set up the national affairs desk at the bar.
And so, the debate itself, on foreign affairs, merely served to underline the sense that Nick Clegg, the Lib-Dem leader was making everyone else his biatch, as the issue swung round to Afghanistan, and the proposed $100 billion replacement of the Trident system, a principle to which Labour has stuck even as its futility has become visible.
Under Blair and Brown Labour has managed to make itself the party of death, not life — a grim national socialist party committed to the mass killing of civilians of Afghanistan, and spending half the budget on a mass death missile system, to appease lunatic tabloids, and salve its deep, unrealised sense of imperial destiny.
Some polls show Labour at 25% of the vote in which case it has gone backwards, spent the century getting to the point it was before the first world war. That, above all, is Tony Blair’s legacy — he completed Margaret Thatcher’s stated aim of destroying the political wing of the Labour movement as a real alternative.
Nick Clegg has been getting a degree of adulation, all from the media, desperate for an easy ‘Obama’ figure to slot into this very different political culture. It’s bollocks, but there was no doubt that, in this debate, Clegg held his own, and both other leaders seemed to be importuning him.
Indeed, it was Brown, greyish-white so to speak, who looked like Orwell’s elephant aged instantly by the first shot, and dying where he stood. Cameron? He looked like a gas, argon perhaps, noble only by virtue of his position at the table. Clegg, who is now getting the traditional monstering from the Tory press, alone sounded real.
Not that it was really playing well at the waffle house. Who’s that guy? someone asked. The Prime Minister, someone replied.
God knows how it played in Watford. Put out more flowers.
Next week, we may find out. Anything is possible.