Vote for Little Britain?

Simon Hooper visits Haltemprice and Howden where David Davis has forced a by-election on civil liber

It's not hard finding David Davis. There he is as I drive through Willerby, standing outside his campaign headquarters, taking advantage of a sunny break between the early morning Yorkshire showers to do his first television interview of the day.

A few minutes later, having warmly greeted the day's visiting Conservative bigwigs, former shadow cabinet colleagues George Osborne and Michael Gove, Davis can barely be restrained from his electorate any longer.

"Howden team this way!" he cries as he strides out of the door, sleeves already rolled up and displaying commendable eagerness for the frontine leafleting and door-stepping that is the main business of by-election canvassing.

This of course has been no ordinary by-election. Since Davis resigned from parliament and the Conservative front bench on 12 June to launch his one-man crusade for civil liberties, he has been both ridiculed as an eccentric political stuntman and feted as that rarest of beasts, a principled independent thinker uncowed by the Westminster spin machine.

With less than two days left of the campaign, both arguments still hold and neither the electorate here in Haltemprice and Howden nor the media seem able to make up their minds which David Davis they prefer.

In many ways, Davis has made his point already. Having attracted a broad spectrum of support from the likes of Tony Benn, Bob Geldof, Martin Bell, Bob Marshall-Andrews and Shami Chakrabarti – who have all ventured north in solidarity with his cause – Davis pretty much won the argument when Labour declined to stand a candidate against him over the issue of 42 days.

Catching up with him later in the day in Howden's picturesque market square, he concedes disappointment that Labour failed to rise to his challenge. "The Prime Minister tells us it's vital to national security and yet they won't defend it? It's pathetic and cowardly, both morally, intellectually and politically," Davis tells newstatesman.com.

But the big battle now, as Davis admits, is turnout – something which may well determine whether he returns to Westminster with his heavyweight reputation enhanced or eroded. This campaign has had the feel of an American primary with issues of national importance being discussed at a local level, something that Davis himself has encouraged. "They are being asked to speak for Britain. This is a referendum," he says.

Yet many on the street express bemusement and reluctance at their involuntary conscription as foot soldiers in the fight for civil liberties. Davis admits that some have not cared for the subtleties of the 42-day debate, equating "terrorist suspects" with "terrorists".

Some say they are more concerned by economic issues and express disapproval at the costs of an "unnecessary" by-election.

And others are just plain rude. "I don't care what he thinks or what he does," says a man in a Howden cafe. "I think he's a dickhead."

Davis' cause has not been aided either by the vapour trail of candidates running in his wake – a 25-strong list ranging from serious-minded opponents such as the Greens' Shan Oakes, the anti-rape campaigner Jill Saward and political reformers such as David Pinder of the New Party to Miss Great Britain, the Monster Raving Looney Party and the Church of the Militant Elvis Party.

Then there is David Icke, whose supporters accuse Davis of banning their candidate from public events and seem to have set out to ambush him wherever he goes. It is an event that has rendered a rich vein of British sature from Monty Python to the League of Gentlemen largely redundant, at times feeling less like a referendum for Britain than a referendum for Little Britain.

But former independent MP Martin Bell for one believes it is a process that has strengthened politics rather than trivialised it, describing the by-election as "a little festival of democracy."

"Anybody has a right, so long as they are a citizen of good standing, to stand for the House of Commons and I think it's admirable that 25 people should do so," Bell told newstatesman.com.

"I suppose what really drives me to come up here is that here is a man who puts his principles before his career and that is so unusual in politics. I accept the fact that people are probably more exercised about the price of petrol than they are about their civil liberties but civil liberties still matter. I think David will come out of this hugely strengthened as a politician."

Bell later takes the stage alongside Davis and filmmaker Chris Atkins at a well-attended village hall event in Eastrington. It is an idyllic summer's evening amid this rolling countyside with a gentle game of cricket forming an elegiac backdrop in the late evening light.

The last Englishman to fight a battle for Anglo-Saxon liberties over this terrain was King Harold, who defeated Harald Hardrada's Viking invaders not so far from here at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. Every good school boy and girl knows what happened next.

But David Davis insists he is gearing up for more battles ahead. "This by-election has lasted 10 days. We will be talking about these issues in 10 years," he tells his audience. But will those constituents turn out to back his cause on Thursday?

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain