“The strikes won’t beat us!” screamed the headline of last night’s London Evening Standard, 70 years after the first German bombs fell on London. As hundreds of thousands of city workers wrestled on to heaving buses and trains, conservative press outlets were co-opting a patriotic narrative about British defiance in the face of adversity — this time in the form of organised labour rather than imminent Nazi invasion. We stood up to the Kaiser, we stood up to Hitler, and by George we’re going to stand up on a crowded bus to work!
We all know Londoners are tough, but summoning the spirit of the Blitz to counteract the quotidian annoyance of transport strikes is rather pushing the envelope. What next, sounding “The Last Post” when they run out of tuna baguettes in Pret A Manger? At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, there is really no equivalence, apart from the natty uniforms, between the Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Third Reich.
The strikers are inconveniencing ordinary Londoners not because they want to bring the country to its knees, but to take a stand over avoidable job losses and failures in Transport for London’s safety programme. Union leaders say that near-disasters have occurred in the tunnels on several occasions this year, and that these may well have been caused by cutbacks in spending as part of the “failed experiment” on prospects for privatising London Underground. When you understand that this strike is about protecting workers and protecting commuters, the fury over a few difficult journeys in to work begins to look a little myopic.
Many of those interviewed by the Standard and other papers were furious about the possible effect on their own jobs, saying that an interrupted commute doesn’t help when they are already worn out, overworked and living in fear of reduncancy and lost contracts. If these people had strong unions to go to themselves, if we lived in a culture of solidarity where workers were respected and protected on the job, they might be less likely to see other working people as the enemy when they stand up for their rights. It is entirely to the credit of the candidates for the Labour leadership that none of them has come out to condemn the strikes, despite being prompted to do so by the tabloids.
The Blitz spirit is also being appropriated to shore up the mythology of the looming cuts to public services. As a guest on Sky News tonight, I was privileged to watch a segment of the Murdoch station’s Hard Times feature being filmed. Yet again, the story seemed to be all about how the British will cope: are we going to let the hard times get us down, or are we going to hold our heads high like true Englishmen and weather the storm uncomplainingly?
These are the wrong questions to pose. Yes, of course Londoners are tough, and living in this city at the moment does feel a little like being under siege: everyone is making do and struggling to hang on to a sense of normality, and there are mawkishly retro Blitz-era inspirational posters on the walls of every hipster house party I go to.
However, adopting a bunker mentality and vowing that disaffected workers or choppy economic waters “won’t beat us” is the wrong attitude. Tthe British will survive the coming cuts — we’ve survived a lot worse in the past. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept them as inevitable. The country isn’t being invaded by hostile forces totally outside government control. This regressive Budget has been imposed by the coalition forcibly, for reasons that are as much to do with ideology as economic necessity. Ordinary folk are being primed to make do and mend our way through the coming austerity, but there are alternatives.
This week the French are striking in their millions in protest at a proposed pensions cut that looks like peanuts, compared to the chunks due to be ripped out of the British welfare state next year. We might do well to heed the example of our former allies and exchange our bunker mentality for a little more spirit of ’68.
Read Laurie Penny’s weekly column in the New Statesman magazine.