Coming out of the south-east, coming out of the endless hinterland of London, its wreckage piled up on the horizon, tired old Victorian terraces and ’70s tower blocks, tiles sliding off, spanking smart New Labour social housing in yellow and red clown colours, comfortable, low-rise and soulless, coming through old factories, masses of them, and massive, vast acreages of cracked asphalt, weeds breaking through, and vast rusting sheds, the old Art Deco buildings, paint flaking off the stylish flutes and fins, the clock above the big door stuck forever at 10 to five, the ‘burbs as only the Brits can do them, lacking even the slightest variation, house to house, brown brick square boxes, detached in every sense of the word, the deep, deep drive to conformity laid down by terraces reproduced where there is no need.
Coming out over the Orbital, the M25 that pens London off from the country around, coming up the heart of the country, the buildings sparse, their character changes. Factories are vast concrete depots, vernacular brutalism, stained with soot and muck no one has bothered to clean off, or they are Victorian, half-vanished, roof come off, vast walls of intricate brickwork, the occasional smokestack remaining. Coming out through Luton, city round an airport, wrecked and wrecked again, home of the Muslim anti-crusader movement and of the English Defence League, and then you’re in the Midlands, on your way to the north, Stockport, Dudley, Oldham, cities the Industrial Revolution was made on, one hundred, two hundred thousand souls, row upon row of terraces and the works in the middle of them, pubs on every corner, and later, when the wealth flowed in, the porticoed town hall rising out, the library, the museum. Small worlds that people never left, never could. “I was 30 before I went on a train,” my great-aunt told me, decades ago. Born in 1905, she had made it all the way from the terraces and the works to a garden chair in a front yard in Adelaide in the 1970s, a biannual trip back to Blighty on a 747. Working on her tan in a sundress, stirring a G and T.
Black-and-white photos of her in overalls and an unironic doo-rag, making munitions. How far we came in half a century, over one lifetime. Wrong to wreath them in nostalgia, these places, closed lives, or it would be, if anything had replaced them. But the cities rise up to the train and flow away again, like flotsam, like the wreckage of a great vessel on the foam. The terraces broken up not for better housing but for towers in the sky amid arid gardens, the full Corbusier. The works are gone, the vast destruction of England’s industrial heritage completed over two decades, people glad to be rid of them, scenes of thwartedness and loss, of wasted lives consumed, as Nye Bevan said, in the “daily struggle with inert matter”. I’m gonna make me/a big strong axe/shining steel, tempered in the fire/ I’ll cut you down/like an old dead tree/dirty old town/dirty old town, Ewan MacColl channelling Blake for Joan Littlewood’s East End theatre, where theatre would be revolutionised, given permanent form in BBC radio ensembles of song and documentary. The most famous tune to emerge from all this? The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, in the Roberta Flack version, the quintessence of ’70s Californianess, coming back to where it was from as a dream of sun and ease and luxury, a prelude to the lottery.
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Wreckage, wreckage, wreckage. People do not understand what has happened to their country, people inside the M25 Orbital, in the pit of London, in the plush south-east that spreads beneath it. London where the power is, some of it given back to Edinburgh and Cardiff, Belfast taking it. But none for Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle or a hundred other cities. Ten, maybe 15 million people in London and environs, another 40 million or so in regional England, the west, the north. They are the majority, but they are unrepresented as they themselves, cut up into individual constituencies, hanging on to their local pride, their city like all the other cities, its tired streets, its bankrupt football team. From Liverpool through Manchester to Leeds and Bradford, and taking in half a dozen cities between, is one huge conurbation, a swirling rustbelt, brickdust galaxy, to rival London. It is one city, it should have a high-speed rail snaking through it, embrace its fusion and flex its muscles. But arrrrrr, Salford ain’t Manchester, Bradford ain’t Leeds, and on and on. Places from which a world came, put upfront in an Olympics opening ceremony but otherwise left quietly to rot.These places, declining already by the 1960s, vibrant and autonomous centres of life, in need of investment then, universities, advanced manufacturing, the works for the works. “The white heat of technology,” Harold Wilson had said, an early example of the utopian technofix, a way to shoot upwards out of class struggle and the need for Labour to stick with socialism. It didn’t work, but then, it was never really tried. What happened to the UK under Labour from 1964 until 1970 and then from 1974 to 1979 demands a sort of political/coronial inquiry, but it comes down to this: some parts of the left were too left — unions, refusing European-style co-operatives, and co-management, as bourgeoisification, filling the time until socialism with a cycle of wage rises — and others weren’t left enough, preferring only wage rises and no sense of a more expanded idea of the social share, of equality. The result: in a crisis-ridden capitalist sub-system, wage rises chased galloping inflation, ate into the capacity for capital to reinvest. Any aims of pushing from strikes into socialist demands — as were around in the 1970s — were buried in the piles of garbage resulting from binmen’s strikes.
The country was denied a transformational politics, one it had sought and got in 1945 and has been seeking ever since, and into that great vacuum came Margaret Thatcher and her revolutionary bourgeois politics, honed in Pinochet’s Chile, now safe to be released here (“We cannot use their methods,” she had written to Hayek, approvingly, of the lethal Pinochet neoliberal dictatorship — note, not, “we abhor their methods”). Punk appeared to be a left movement when it emerged; in retrospect it would be clear that it was Thatcher’s entourage, scattering rose petals before her. “Anger is an energy” and Oh Bondage! Up Yours! the late Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, sang, “bondage” in the sense of slavery. But by then the left had lost the ability to offer a genuine liberation, and there were enough people willing to believe that Margaret Thatcher did. Thatcher, misunderstood as the grocer’s dutiful daughter, when in fact her energy, her Promethean sense of the world came from her scientific training. Her chemistry mentor, Dorothy Hodgkin, cracked the structure of matter, showed us how to study the molecular arrangement of anything; she was the third or fourth person to see the X-ray pictures of DNA structure that Rosalind Franklin had taken, and that Crick and Watson used to decode DNA as a double-helix. Margaret Thatcher, nee Roberts, was probably among the first 10. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? When you have been inducted into the secret art of rearranging matter, society is a doddle. That’s one reason why she remarked (in good Hayekian fashion): “There is no such thing as society.” When you have reached into the structure of being, why would a pissy abstraction like “society” detain you for a second.
In every one of these northern cities, strung out on your journey to either Manchester or Scotland, the places which made it, and all this destruction in between.
Thatcher? She will be seen as a disaster eventually, the slavish follower of intellectual juju, the economic theory that said the composition of GDP didn’t matter — could be battleships and factories, could be derivative and dog grooming. Didn’t matter to the bottom line, to the social whole, to basic national identity. These things were eternal and transcendental, and nothing would disturb them. That licensed what Thatcher did, which was to use economics to destroy the north of England — and Scotland and Wales — in order to destroy the political base of Labour. Wales and Scotland have since got their own parliaments, and thus a degree of refocus, from which resistance will be mounted. In another decade, Scotland will leave, the UK will be finished, and any fair-minded observer will have to conclude that it ceased to be viable when the “United” ceased to cover economic chances. It was Thatcher wot broke up the UK. It was Thatcher wot destroyed the country’s export capacity, such as Germany now has. It was Thatcher wot essayed a unique dependency on the vagaries of financial services to run an entire country. Yet it is Thatcher who is still venerated as its saviour, even by many of those whose lives have been blunted by her actions.
Thatcher’s other was no one from Labour, that conflicted party, unable to decide whether it was an insurgent outfit or an arm of government. It came from a sociology professor, Zygmunt Bauman, who, fresh from exile from the USSR had arrived in Leeds and could not believe that the destruction of a whole society could have occurred without people rising up. In a series of book from Liquid Modernity onwards, Bauman outlined the way in which not only society but also subjectivity had been split apart — that the destruction of working class worlds had meant the destruction of working-class selves. Captured above all in that love/hate paean to post-industrial culture, Shameless (preceded by Mike Leigh’s film Meantime) in which it’s made clear that working the system has become a form of resistance, the only one left, to the residual Victorianism, such as blamed the poor for the unemployment rate.
If Labour could promise these people something, offer them something … well, it wouldn’t matter a damn. They’re all sequestered in safe Labour seats, the party only needs one in six of them to vote to sail through. It is the swinging voters in the shire they need, five thousand, one thousand, one hundred of them, to turn 20 seats in plush suburbia and put them into power. This bizarre system, this uncompleted revolution, these rotten boroughs — everything in the UK is ripe for being renegotiated, but nothing will be, until the system is in such a terminal crisis that there is no way forward without change. That’s what Britain seems to do best — resigning people to the impossibility of change, turning out futility the way it once did battleships. But at some point that system simply stops working and can no further. That’s where we appear to be now.
The UK in the last few decades has been a place where so many real encounters have been denied by the effect of contingency that one could almost believe in the hand of anti-providence. Had a few Scottish Nationalists not withdrawn confidence from the Callaghan government, they might have gone into the election with the authority of government and won some sort of crappy coalition. Had left-centrist Labour leader John Smith not died in 1994, the party centre might not have been so freaked at the prospect of a 1997 loss as to select as leader Tony Blair, a man who was not Labour at all. All contingent and to chance, yet in retrospect what did occur is ordained with a sense of natural progression. What the UK is now, what’s seen from the train window, is the counterfactual history of another world, where these disasters didn’t happen, where the place is not such that even Soviet escapees do not wonder what the fuck has gone on. There is another world in parallel. Increasingly, it is the one to which all parties save the Tories and UKIP cleave — a renewed social democracy, planned and assessed rationally. If the improvements offered are modest, well the losses have been so great than anything counts as improvement. In the slow yet remorseless advance of Labour now, one sees the accretion of this understanding.
If not this time, then next. There will be a reconstruction of sorts. People understand that you’re not meant to see a wrecker’s yard when you look out a train window. You’re meant to see a country, and that’s what I think they may vote for, come May 7.