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3 May 2017

In the battle between cabbies and Uber, I don’t want to be on either side

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

By Peter Wilby

The French, true to form, have found an -ism to describe the forces that propelled Brexit in the UK, ­Donald Trump in the US and Marine Le Pen in France: dégagisme, which may roughly be translated as “clear-out-ism”.

The term originated during the Tunisian revolution in 2011: a mildly encouraging precedent, because Tunisia alone emerged from the Arab spring with some (albeit shaky) foundations for liberal democracy. A Belgian collective later issued a manifesto. This year, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the most successful left-wing candidate in the French presidential election, revived the term.

Dégagisme means telling established politicians to leave without saying who or what should take their place. “It is not a question of taking power but of dislodging the person who holds it, of emptying the place it occupies,” explains the Belgian manifesto. We should “assume the risk of emptiness . . .
see what happens with this void”. This, it seems to me, perfectly captures the mood in which Britons voted to leave the EU without regard to the consequences; Americans voted for Trump despite his lack of coherent, practical policies; Labour members twice supported Jeremy Corbyn despite his evident unfitness for office; and more than half the voters in France backed candidates who lacked support from any conventional political party and would struggle to govern if they won. It is, as the Belgian manifesto puts it, “a time of high but rich uncertainty”.

Holiday, celebrate

Dégagisme is an example of how French ­politics often highlights interesting ideas. Here in Britain, not so much. The void that is Jeremy Corbyn began the election campaign by promising four more bank holidays, possibly the most ridiculous policy idea since John Major’s cones hotline. I support increasing workers’ holiday entitlements – but at a time of their choosing, not according to state diktats. What is the point of millions of people descending simultaneously on seaside resorts and National Trust properties, fretting over which shops will be open and watching even more brain-numbing TV programmes than normal?

Bank holidays were invented in the mid-Victorian era to fit the needs of mass production. Northern industrial towns once had “wakes weeks” when everything closed and the workers headed en masse to Blackpool, Scarborough or Skegness. No doubt Corbyn would like to revive them.

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Taxing problems

Like Edward Heath asking, “Who rules Britain?” during the miners’ strike of 1974, Theresa May has launched a single-issue campaign. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong issue. As I have argued before, Brexit will make less difference than either side thinks: the world will still be run by multinational corporations while employer demand will determine migration levels. Far more important is how to rescue our public services and restore the tax base. The NHS is close to collapse and so is the social care system. Some 42,000 children are taught in classes of 36 or more, and the number is rising. Roads are crumbling, libraries closing.

We don’t need a “progressive alliance” to pester candidates about supporting a soft Brexit. We need one that will invite prospective MPs of all parties to support taxes that generate sufficient revenue to meet the minimum needs of schools, hospitals, prisons, the police and other services. By 2022,
I fear, it will be too late.

Driving competition

Uber, the firm that allows you to summon taxis through a mobile phone app, is the current fashionable hate target, as Amazon was not long ago. Its drivers make a pittance and it offers little job security, while it has been accused of avoiding chunks of UK tax through offshore devices. I never use Uber and screamed, “No!” when a friend started to summon the firm as we stood in high winds and pouring rain with not a licensed taxi in sight. That’s when I began to feel conflicted. As a user of London’s publicly regulated “black cabs” for more than 50 years, I find it hard not to welcome this rapaciously capitalist intruder. Most London “cabbies” seemed, until recently, to be white males eager to give you their racist and sexist opinions. They were rarely available when you most needed them and, if you wanted to travel far from areas frequented by the filthy rich, would say, “Sorry, guv, going home for lunch.” Nor would they take credit cards. If the service has improved, it is largely thanks to unregulated competition.

The battle between Uber and the cabbies is like another I lived through, between Rupert Murdoch and the old newspaper print unions: another white, male cartel. I don’t want to be on either side.

Bus-stop banality

Donald Trump has a gift for banality. Following the terrorist attack in the Champs Élysées, he said: “Again, it is happening . . .
It’s a very, very terrible thing that’s going on in the world today . . . What can you say? It just never ends.” That is what people say at bus stops. From the US president, it’s an improvement on insulting Muslims and issuing threats that he can’t carry out.

Musical roots

To Darcus Howe’s funeral service at All Saints Church, Notting Hill. The former NS columnist and fighter for black rights was admired by many for his defiance of authority. It began at an early age, recalled his colleague on Race Today magazine Farrukh Dhondy. “Do you know whose arse will be on the end of this ruler?” asked his teacher in Trinidad. “That depends on which way it’s pointing,” replied the young Howe. What moved me most was “Amazing Grace”, played by a steel band and passionately sung by the mostly black mourners. Yet why this hymn, written by a man who spent much of his life as a slave trader, became a civil rights anthem remains as much a mystery to me as why “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, an African-American spiritual, was adopted by England’s rugby union supporters. 

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On