Plastic’s not fantastic

A rustling and puckered moment at a convenience store somewhere in the switchback of streets skirting Edinburgh's Castle Rock: I have placed a hand of bananas, a half-litre bottle of Volvic and three Mars bars on the counter; the man behind it has taken my £10 note and furnished me with change. Now there is an uncomfortable hiatus as we eye each other, until I venture tentatively: "Um, aren't you going to ask if I want a plastic bag?"

“Oh, yeah, sorry," he says, pulling one out from the slick sphincter at his elbow - for him, this must just be a little glitch in his repetitive weal, but I eye him wonderingly because this is the first time in years that I haven't been presented with a plastic bag as a fait accompli, as something integral to the purchase of an item as small as a box of matches or one already itself bagged. Moreover, it's also the first time in years that I've actually wanted a plastic bag.

Brand new bag

Is it just me, or does anyone else find this experience deranging? You walk into a shop, pull a plastic bag from a roll and tear it off, fill it with apples, take this to the counter and, without speaking, the shopkeeper sheathes this bag in a second. It's been a while now since, like Malcolm X refusing pork in the penitentiary, I took the debagging leap of faith. "No, no," I say when they try to bag the bag, "I don't need a bag for this because it's already in a bag." Or I say: "No, I don't need a bag for this because it's really small and I can put it in my pocket." Or I say: "Please,
no bag, because see . . ." - I lift my hand above the level of the counter - "I am already carrying a bag and I can put this thing in it."

Needless to say, these rational appeals to bag-pushers are met, at best, with indifference and, at worst, with the quizzical expressions bestowed on someone eccentric but harmless. If only I could leave it there - but I can't. "Are you not aware," I ask them as I tuck my purchases away, "that plastic bags break down in the sea into innumerable little pellets known as nurdles and that the ocean currents carry these myriad nurdles around
the world until they all come together in a vast patch of pollution in the northern Pacific that's already the size of Texas - and growing by the day? Does it not appal you, the thought of mile upon mile of waves colloidal with non-degraded plastic, beneath which heave the dead links of the entire food chain? You should feel responsible for this and, instead of unthinkingly dispensing these bags that are suffocating Gaia, you should refuse to hand them out, because they are evil."

If I've managed to retain any sympathy during this little rant, the word "evil" usually puts paid to it. No matter how massed they may be, ascribing moral characteristics to objects - unless they happen to be illegal drugs - is self-evidently schizoid thinking.

It wasn't until I began using the "e" word with reference to plastic bags that I realised quite what a behaviourist quagmire psychotics have to wade through every day. For the minute someone looks at you as if you're mad, it automatically calls forth the response: "You think I'm mad, don't you?" And the second these words are out of your mouth, the self-diagnosis will be confirmed by all that hear them.

Inner Spacey

It isn't the environmental argument about plastic bags that I find so compelling; it's more the aesthetic one. There is something insanely ugly about a culture that not only manufactures so much baggage, but has come to regard its provision as integral to the most marginal commerce. Plastic bags are thus, it seems, an appropriate garnish for the endlessly moveable feast of our consumerism.

So who exactly is mad here - the plastic bag refusenik or the capacious bagocracy? In Edinburgh, I needed my plastic bag because I was bagless and wanted to climb Arthur's Seat with some provisions for me and my two younger sons. Forty-five minutes after I left the shop, we were indeed on top of the volcanic plug, swigging the Volvic and looking north to the Firth of Forth across the sun-gilded city. I handed a Mars bar and a banana to each of the boys. The voided bag swelled in the wind and tugged against my fingers.

I dunno, it looked so blue, so beautiful and so clearly longed to go west . . . to America. I released it and watched as it waltzed up into the sky. Sometimes I feel mad but, on good days, I'm just a little bit Kevin Spacey.

Will Self's latest book, "Walking to Hollywood", is published by Bloomsbury (£17.99)

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 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide