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Here was peculiar grace

The Indian elite blame Pakistan for the Mumbai attacks. They congratulate themselves on their restra

Through the Seventies and much of the Eighties my father used to travel to and in India. He worked in fashion and the clothing business, in “the rag trade”. Sometimes he would call from Bombay, Madras or Calcutta, and it would be hard to hear exactly what he was saying, with his voice a wavering echo on an indistinct international telephone line. On several occasions he stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel in south Bombay, and once, when he was back at home, he showed me pictures of the hotel, with its grand dome and position next to the Gateway to India monument, like a Moorish fortress overlooking the Arabian Sea.

For me, the Taj hotel came to represent all the mystery and possibility of India as well as that part of my father's life that took him away from home so often, the part that was unknowable, unreachable. Now, because of the attacks of 26 November 2008 by Lashkar-e-Toiba militants on Mumbai, in which as many as 170 people died, the Taj hotel has become one of the most iconic buildings of our new globalisation, a symbol of corporate prestige and power and yet also of profound vulnerability.

I was at the Taj on 15 January when the Foreign Secretary David Miliband gave a widely reported revisionist speech in which he outlined the British government's new position on what it had once called the "war on terror", a belligerent phrase that, according to Miliband, had served as a "call to arms, an attempt to build solidarity by portraying a fight against a single shared enemy. But I believe that the foundation for solidarity between peoples and nations should not be based on who we are against, but instead on the idea of who we are and the values we share."

Miliband was using the ambiguous space created by the US presidential transition to make a statement in support of what he believed would be a new era of multilateralism. Meanwhile, privately, he continued to agonise over Israel's murderous assault on the civilians of Gaza.

Before the speech, we met staff who had been working at the hotel on the day of the attacks and learned more about some of those who died. We were told about a police constable who, as Miliband put it in his speech, had acted "as a human shield to save the lives of others". Later, I could not stop thinking of this man, Constable Omble, the human shield. He had stepped into the line of fire, wilfully taking the bullets from the militants' guns, a man prepared to die so that others might live. Here was something beyond bravery. Here was peculiar grace.

Earlier in the week I was in Delhi, and there I attended a private lunch at the British High Commission, a stately white-painted colonial-era house with a garden large enough in which to cut a cricket square. The guests were former Indian ambassadors and high commissioners, as well as retired military leaders. They were hawkish and their message to the Foreign Secretary was unequivocal: Pakistan was to blame for the Mumbai attacks. So far, they said, India had shown "restraint", but for how much longer? There would soon be a general election in India; the people were hurt and wanted revenge. "These were commando-style attacks," I was told by one retired general. "These people were highly trained and motivated. They must have had support at the highest level in Pakistan."

Miliband's response was that he had seen evidence to suggest the attacks came from within Pakistan, but that they were "not directed" by the Pakistan government. (That may be so, but they were surely directed by rogue factions in Pakistan's military and Inter-Services Intelligence, the notorious ISI.) Again and again, this was his response to the question of Pakistan's culpability in the attacks, whether he was addressing students during a televised debate or sitting alongside his Indian equivalent, the foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, at a press conference.

On my last day in India I visited my friend Soumya Bhattacharya, editor of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai, at his home in the western suburb of Bandra. In the aftermath of the November attacks he had written in the New Statesman of the resilience and spirit of the people of Mumbai, digressing to explain how Bandra, on the western seaboard, and so popular with the new rich of Bollywood and India’s internet entrepreneurs, had come to symbolise all the restless energy and mercantile spirit of India’s greatest city. We sat in the bright sitting room of his rented flat – even he cannot afford to buy because property prices in Bandra are out of control – drinking a Tiger Hills Sauvignon blanc, from the vineyards of Nashik, about 100 miles from Mumbai.

Soumya speaks Bengali at home to his wife and young daughter. The driver who brought me to his flat was a Muslim from Madras whose first language was Tamil. Soumya's flat is owned by an Urdu-speaker from the Punjab. The plurality, openness and diversity of this improbable nation of 1.1 billion people, 28 states and several hundred languages - this is what is most often mentioned when Indians, with pride, contrast their successful democracy with the failing state of Pakistan.

On several occasions, at private meetings and on public platforms, Miliband spoke of how the partnership between Britain and India was "now one of equals". He said this at a meeting with Mukherjee, who nodded in agreement. Very soon, however, the relationship will be once more one of inequality - or of unequals - if it is not so already, with Britain knocking at the door of the Indian mansion, humbly seeking entry in its role as the junior and more impecunious partner.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?

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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