Brown's Scottish play

For 50 years, Scotland was unshakeably Labour. But a string of party blunders has lost it - and the

For someone so intelligent, it was a pretty dumb way to lose your job. The Sorbonne-educated Wendy Alexander was feted as the brightest and the best the Scottish Labour Party had to offer. Yet she was forced to resign as leader because of her failure to register a few hundred pounds' worth of donations to a leadership election campaign that never actually happened. The Scottish Labour Party has an almost North Korean pre dilection for uncontested elections, and Alexander was elected leader last August unopposed.

This really looks like carelessness. Alexander is the second Scottish Labour leader to resign over an expenses scandal in the short life of the Scottish Parliament. The Labour first minister Henry McLeish was forced to resign in 2001 over his failure to declare funds raised by subletting his Fife constituency office. He said it was a "muddle not a fiddle" - but went anyway.

Perhaps Scottish Labour politicians have some genetic propensity to resign. But with the Nat ionalists in government, and the Tories getting their act together with the Clarke report on the constitution, Labour can no longer afford to indulge its addiction to defenestration.

In May 2007, Labour gave up its 50-year hegemony over Scottish politics when it lost the Holyrood election and allowed Alex Salmond to form the first Scottish National Party (SNP) administration in Scottish history. Mind you, at first Labour insisted that coming second by only one seat represented a great moral victory. Gordon Brown wanted his party to remain in office by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but they wouldn't play.

Alexander's historic mission was to wake the party up to the reality of defeat, to lead Labour out of its male-dominated, post-industrial west Scotland ghetto and into the modern age of new Labour diversity. A protégée of the PM, and sister to Douglas Alexander, the UK Development Sec retary, she seemed to have everything going for her - even widespread respect in the often curmudgeonly Scottish press.

However, she took a rather unexpected turn soon after she was installed and began arguing for a referendum on independence - the policy of the SNP. Labour has steadfastly opposed a referendum on the grounds that it would endanger the integrity of the Union. Her logic was that there is still a majority in Scotland for staying in the UK and that by calling Salmond's bluff, they could deliver a stunning blow to the fledgling Nationalist government. Brown didn't buy it.

He still didn't buy it in May when Alexander went ahead and announced the new policy anyway, to the fury of the Scottish Labour group of MPs in Westminster. When challenged by David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, Brown denied that his Scottish leader had actually endorsed the policy - which she manifestly had. She told me a week before her departure that she regarded "giving Scots the right to choose" as one of her greatest achievements in office. The others were setting up the Calman Commission on constitutional change and pre paring the intellectual case for more tax powers for Holyrood. David Cairns, Labour's Scottish Office minister, has dismissed these as preoccupations of the "McChattering classes".

Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Labour MPs didn't exactly leap to Alexander's defence when the Scottish Parliament's standards committee moved to suspend her for one day for failing to register campaign donations within the required 30 days. A faintly ridiculous misdemeanour, and a token punishment. She could have remained in office, as the verdict had to be ratified by the full parliament in the autumn. But she had clearly decided that she'd had enough, and most of her party agreed.

Anyway, as we know, Scottish Labour leaders have a low resignation threshold. Alexander herself had resigned once before, in 2002, when she was a Scottish Executive minister and fell out with her civil servants. It's what they do.

These Scottish antics may seem risible, but Alexander's departure is a severe blow to Brown, already shattered by Crewe and Nantwich and humiliated by the BNP in Henley. After Alexander's fall, no seat in Scotland is safe. The SNP is now expected to win the ultra-safe Glasgow East by-election, caused by the resig nation (another one) of the veteran Labour MP David Marshall, even though it requires a 22 per cent swing.

The Tories are determined to curb the voting rights of Scottish MPs at Westminster, but soon they may not have to bother. Even in its darkest days in the 1980s, Labour could always depend on Scotland to deliver a block of MPs - it's why so many cabinet members are Scots. Brown has depended on his loyal contingent of Scots to secure his majority in the Commons, but not, perhaps, for very much longer.

With a lacklustre Labour front bench in Holyrood and no inspiring replacement for Alexander, Labour is looking into a Scottish abyss. There is now no credible challenge to the immensely popular SNP government. Labour, through its incompetence and infirmity of purpose, has handed Scotland to Alex Salmond on a plate and hastened the break-up of Britain.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood

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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