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Laurie Penny: A divided society

The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right, but between rich and poor.

For all the talk of one-nation Conservatism, the shadow-play of social injustice begins as soon as you step on to the train to the Tory party conference. Flinging my huge rucksack between the nearest doors just as the Birmingham train is about to pull away, I find myself moving through the low-lit hush of the first-class carriages. Wobbling through the half-empty aisles, I spot two Conservative councillors and several well-known columnists from the Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph curled comfortably in the spacious armchairs, over newspapers and coffee -- but through two sets of sliding doors are the cheaper seats.

Back here, it's stressful and there's not enough space. Standard class on the 8.50 Virgin Trains service is crowded with shift workers, students heading back to college after weekends at home -- and protesters. People from all corners of the country have given up their weekends to attend the national anti-cuts, pro-welfare demonstration convened by the Right to Work campaign and many of them are squeezed into the narrow red pens of Virgin's stock, shut off from the elbow-room of first class by a surcharge that makes all the difference. I drift off into a disturbing dream that Richard Branson is now running the welfare state, and several lurching delays later the denizens of standard class stumble out into Birmingham New Street, rumpled and irritable as only the British public can be after two hours crammed into a rolling metaphor for the state of the nation.

By noon, I am huddled in a car park under a dirty formica sky with several thousand welfare recipients, public-sector workers, local kids and union reps, getting thoroughly and miserably rained on. The press has dismissed the protest as union-led and union-run, because we now live in a world where "trade-union member" is a term of insult, but most of those I meet walking to the march assembly point are unaffiliated citizens. Kathryn, a teacher, says that this is her first protest since the Stop The War march in 2003. "It's mine, too," says Margaret, a retired social worker, who is marching alongside a gang of teenagers from local comprehensive schools. "I don't normally get involved in things like this, but this time, with these cuts, I just felt like I had to say something." "We've got to say something," agrees Kathryn. "It's better than staying quiet."

Everything's entirely quiet in the foyer of the Jury's Inn hotel where politicians and lobbyists are sipping tea in between fringe events. "It's hard to see how any protest will make much of a difference," says one Conservative MP, who refuses to be named. "Everybody knows that we have to make cuts anyway, so nobody's going to take much notice." Other delegates at the bar have heard that there's some sort of ruckus going on in the street, but the retreat into Tory bunker mentality has already begun. Despite this being the first conference in power the Conservatives have held for 14 years, the mood is far from triumphant -- at the fringe events, ministers are already on the back foot, defending the coalition's planned cuts to welfare and public services as calmly as possible.

Back at the march, a crosspatch cross section of British society is voicing its soggy dissent: pensioners grumble about the vehemence of some of the speakers while eating scotch eggs from plastic bags, and dreadlocked students share flasks of tea and foil-wrapped sandwiches with middle-aged mothers pushing prams. There's a curious sense of timelessness to the event. Some of the union reps clearly think they're back in the 1980s, and a dour close-harmony folk band is telling us all about the Hard Times of Olde England, but as the march moves off, it is led by disabled people in wheelchairs and their carers, determined to "show that we're suffering, too". At back of the folk band, moreover, is a man who everyone is trying very hard to ignore, because he is brandishing and occasionally honking through a vuvuzela, an item that seems in 2010 to have finally replaced the pitchfork as the prop of choice for the global working class attempting to annoy and terrify the bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, just feet away inside the secure zone, behind a wall of steel cordons and police dogs, about the same number of warm, dry conference delegates are, and I'm not making this up, watching some contemporary dance. Specifically, a trio of twee pseudo-ballerinas in floaty saris from something called the Arts Conference, enacting modern interpretations of North Indian traditional dances with very serious expressions. They have been hired to twirl very slowly around the main stage before Francis Maude comes on to explain the "big society", and as he hasn't got a lot to say, they've clearly been instructed to take their time. The audience clap, polite and bewildered. Outside in the rain, the people who actually have to live in the "big society" are already howling for reprieve.

You couldn't have asked for a starker, more cliched illustration of the difference between the political elites and the rest of us if you'd given a toddler a fistful of red and blue crayons and told it to draw a picture of a divided society. The lines being drawn are wobbly and childish, but they are lines of pain and anger, and like the etchings of a traumatised child, they deserve to be paid attention to. The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right. The chasm is between rich and poor, and it's growing, dividing those members of the elite, including the liberal elite, for whom the coming cuts are an abstract if regrettable concept, and the people whose jobs and homes and families are under threat.

Most of the latter have not been able to afford the £400 accreditation process for access to the Conservative conference centre, with its finger-food receptions and winsome catered round tables to discuss whether central government should pull an awkward or merely resolved expression while tearing the heart out of the welfare state and refusing to share the financial burden amongst the wealthy. As delegates and journalists at the Demos grill nibble profiteroles and ask Greg Clark MP why he won't be slightly more forthright about shrinking the state, they seem not to have realised how much they are already resented by a good deal of ordinary people. Either that, or they simply don't care.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What can we learn from Liam Fox's book? (Or, at least, from the first chapter)

How Liam Fox helps us face the new era, using orcs, Socrates and his knowledge of general medicine.

It’s a weird and wacky world, people, and we reach for political theory as a way of understanding the myriad linkages – ideological, emotional – between collectives of all sorts and individuals. Reach for political theory, and more importantly political history, for surely it can only be through an understanding of history that we can hope to reach into the shaken-up snow-globe and make sure the itty-bitty little snowman doesn’t get blown to buggery by the winds of change? For profundities such as the above I am indebted, latterly, to Dr Liam Fox, the erstwhile defence minister and currently Theresa May’s International Trade supremo – latterly because I’m primarily indebted to civil servants in his new bailiwick who have revealed to Private Eye that Dr Fox has insisted that they buy his 2013 globalisation excursus, Rising Tides: Facing the Challenges of a New Era, if they want to do just that.

The Eye snarked that Dr Fox’s book had sold just 1,876 copies thus far, but in fact that’s a perfectly respectable sale for a title by a contemporary politician. Ask the residents of Southmoor in Essex how they feel about instantly remaindered political books – half the village disappeared last year into a sinkhole that opened up when thousands of copies of On a Clear Day by David Blunkett, which had been buried in an adjacent landfill, reached a critical point of putrefaction. Some might describe this as ironic, others as justice. Anyway, inspired by Dr Fox’s self-conviction, and wanting to know what we can expect from the man who will be guiding our destiny as a trading nation through the savage cross-currents in the coming years, I hied me to the Amazon cloud reader to read the free sample.

Some might say this was the act of a hack who cares naught for the intellectual property of other writers, and is not prepared to put in the hard work required to understand the full compass of Dr Fox’s thinking, but my view is that the man himself will sympathise with my raw intellectual hunger. So pithily apodeictic (though simultaneously lyrical) is his own writing, that I came away from the free sample richer, wiser, and well equipped to advance his ideas to New Statesman readers – for which I believe both he, and you, will be grateful.

So, I mentioned history earlier, but let the man himself tell you how important it is to him, and us. “I am not one of those who believes that history repeats itself in the most literal sense,” Dr Fox writes, “but I do believe that the types of problems we face are repeated in time and realm.” True, it’s hard to think which “those” he might be thinking of, beyond the character of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, but otherwise I think this is positively seer-like stuff.

Dr Fox’s use of the slightly archaic “realm” in the above may have given you pause for thought. Masterful prose writer that he is, he is softening his readers up for what comes next: a quotation from that great chronicler of humankind’s history, J R R Tolkien. And this, if I interpret it rightly, suggests that when trying to understand the motivation of jihadists, our best guide is the psychology of, um, orcs. But the history of Middle Earth alone cannot supply wisdom – neither for concerned citizens nor for the elves who lead them. For that, we require additional professional expertise, and Dr Fox is once again our man. Like the great Socrates, upon whose method he has undoubtedly based his own, Dr Fox teases out the technê of statecraft by analogy with his own illustrious medical career, in which: “The first task was to gather all the data possible about the patient and their complaint.”

Yes! How true this is. It makes me think of a hypothetical patient (or politician) whose complaint is that although he once held one of the high offices of state – one that requires of its incumbent great probity and discretion – he nonetheless attended many important meetings accompanied by an adviser who had no security clearance, and who had extensive links to lobbyists for defence contractors. Further, it makes me hypothesise that this patient (or politician), set up a “charity” to fund the activities of this “adviser”, which in turn had to shut down because of a mephitic odour, which – were I to have Dr Fox’s training – I’d probably diagnose as symptomatic of rot. It’s true that Dr Fox cautions his readers to “skip over any detail which seems excessive”, but then again: “I believe history brings some context to the subjects covered, something I think is often missed in contemporary debate.” Yes; and if it were the case that the same hypothetical patient had overclaimed the most expenses of any Tory frontbencher – including the rent on a flat used by the aforementioned special adviser – well, that would seem to provide some context for understanding how he’d function were he, once more, to hold a high office of state.

These, it seems, are the sorts of things being missed by contemporary debate. It’s as if the result of the EU referendum in June hit some sort of hard reset in the British political system: everything was turned off and turned on again, and in the process we have indeed forgotten our history, and so, like Phil Connors, we are doomed to repeat it. Thank the Lord for Dr Fox, whose civil servants will by now have absorbed their new boss’s forensic credo. When he was a general practitioner, having dealt with his own patients’ history and placed their symptoms in the right context: “The third task was to determine the course of treatment in the light of best accepted practice and the most up-to-date information available.”

Hear, hear! Given that the most up-to-date information available is that our hypothetical patient-cum-politician is still mired in the rising tide of his own bullshit, the most advisable course of treatment would appear to be euthanasia. After all, Dr Fox isn’t one of those who believes that history literally repeats itself – so a second resignation is out of the question. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump