Occupation is easy. Rebuilding is the hard part

The Occupy movement is attacking the right in vague terms, rather than focusing on specific policies

"Occupy London. Go on. Do it... I dare you... People might watch. People in coats, with ties. Bankers. David Cameron might watch, and we hate him. Bloody Cameron." This might as well have been our Gettysburg address.

Because as far as rallying cries go, the social left of the world needs writers. In the last month, as protests have rippled across the world, it's been the haphazard rag-bag flavour of the left -- not the political brutalism of the right -- that has been burned into the shop fronts of Rome and the consciousness of a generation.

The whole thing -- the hastily stenciled placards, the faint aroma of organics and the rush on tarpaulin -- just smacks of teenage angst, as though the socialist worker has thrown up on an ethics class. Not least because the public have yet to be presented with anything approaching a cogent political aim.

I attended a debate earlier this year that could be couched in similar terms. It was anti-imperialist circle-jerk for the recently philosophical and generationally left. Nato in Libya, they argued, was the continuation of British Empire, the expansion of the American "world police" (a term that should send shivers down the spine of any thinking mammal) and tantamount to colonial invasion. And it's the Tories, they continued with risible stridence, the Tories -- with their cuts and their austerity and their Margaret Thatchers and their racism -- that are to blame.

Now I don't like the Tories. Their social and economic policies are reprehensible, and their political strategy has the mood of a 1950s smoking lounge. But they aren't colonists and if they were, their domestic economic plans would probably have little to do it with it. The argument is, prima facie, a non sequitur.

But that's the problem with a left in the limelight. Without decent, non-centrist organisation -- without the '68ers or the '89ers -- the influence of die-hard socialists in flat-caps and second-hand barbers is unfettered. The message, as a result, tends to lack coherence and consistency.

Now, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Habermasians amongst us may even suggest it's actively good; it keeps political dialogues fresh. The left has always been a bastion of academic rigour, and competing visions inform the cause. All true, or it would be, if the left of today wasn't regularly sodomised by a generation of "socialist workers" who swallowed their political philosophy in Engels' 56-pages.

Today, rather than engage with political discourse by meeting each point head on, there is an overwhelming tendency to hurl as much shit at any wall that will stay up long enough to take it. (In this analogy, the media is a wall). That's why Wall Street wailing won't work.

Hawkish foreign policy is conflated with religious conservatism. Capitalist free markets are dismissed in the same breath as constrained immigration. Cuts to social services are unfairly labelled as Etonian ignorance. Law and order is ignored because heaven forbid we concede a point. The centre-right and far-right are unfairly homogenised, and the racist tendencies of one diluted by the social backwardness of the other. Taxation is divorced from employment, welfare is deified and defence spending is the "actual antichrist".

Why? Why do we distill generations of intellectual superiority into trite sound bites? Because, without a leftist political party that refuses to accept the rights agenda and stick to its guns, we panic. We see a 24-hour news machine obsessed with breaking the next big thing, a clap-happy police force itching for a scuffle, and a public who absorbs Paxman-politics between Strictly and Buzzcocks. And we panic.

The answer? Sophistry, apparently. The result? Insignificance.

The Occupy movement looks a lot like engagement, like it is taking the fight to Cameron's Britain, but there's a reason dogs don't just bark. A right that is scared is very different to a right that is beaten.

But if we continue to attack blue, instead of blue policies, if we go on badgering Conservatives while conservatism quaffs whiskey in the corner, if we burn Phillip Green in effigy while global capitalism spreads like a wildfire, we will be a life subsumed by sentiment, waiting to be swept from the streets.

Occupation is easy; rebuilding is the hard part.

Oliver Duggan is a political blogger and freelance journalist. He has previously reported from Washington DC, British Parliament and the Horn of Africa, and is now living and writing in Leeds. He tweets @OliDuggan

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.