On the Thames estuary

"The estuary doesn’t yield all its secrets on first glance. An hour or so out from the Isle of Sheppey, we arrive at seven bizarre constructions that look as if they belong in War of the Worlds..."

The smell comes first. The sea salts the air, and the mud over which it ebbs and flows adds a rotting, brackish note. Newcomers glance around, wafting their hands suggestively before their noses, keeping it out. To savour a proper lungful of this air is to admit something difficult - that this unarguably ugly landscape, where the grey sea meets the grey sky with barely a smudge of mud in between, is beautiful.

There is more sky here, where the Thames and the Medway meet the North Sea, somehow. The great man-made structures that thrust upwards into it, like the power stations on the Isle of Grain or the cranes at the port of Sheerness, only serve to emphasise how much more there is. What would be an eyesore elsewhere is accepted by the people who sail these waters without comment, as they accept the smell or the mud.

The estuary doesn’t yield all its secrets on first glance. An hour or so out from the Isle of Sheppey, we arrive at seven bizarre constructions that look as if they belong in War of the Worlds - the Maunsell Red Sands forts. Built in 1943, these now-rusty steel boxes-on-legs housed hundreds of men during WWII who used anti-aircraft guns to bring down planes on their way to bomb London. Planting these forts miles out to sea was no mean feat of engineering, and they are a reminder of how desperate, and improbable, some of our war-time defences were. Since being decommissioned in the 1950s, the forts have housed pirate radio stations, trespassers, film crews, scientists and conservationists, but no fixed plan has ever been made for their future. Decades later, the sea is wearing them down - it’s not clear how much longer they can stand and wait for us.

William Raban’s 1987 work Thames Film uses a clever technique of sliding contemporary and historical footage of the estuary together so that different moments in time appear to co-exist. Watching the forts recede over the horizon again, it seems to me as if the whole estuary is made up of such layers. As a child, I spent my weekends and school holidays staring at the horizon from the rolling deck of my parents' boat, curious as to why, if you could sail anywhere, it would be on this smelly, featureless stretch of water. Once a teenager, dragged unwillingly on night-time excursions to the Netherlands, I would sulk on the foredeck, dropping angry tears into the miraculous phosphorescence that bloomed under the boat's bow. Returning now after an absence of years, I want to be able to recapture that grim fury, but it won't come. I can only stare at the sky.

Estuary opens at the Museum of London this evening, 17 May, and runs until 27 October

An image of the Maunsell Red Sands forts from William Raban’s "Thames Film".

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. Its socialist pitch counted for little in a country that remains ideologically closer to England than thought. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is yet further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.