Thursday, 14 August 2008

New Labour Pains


An early memory is of my father dancing solo around our council-house kitchen when the Labour Party won Election following the “Second World” (as we called it) War.

My mother remained sceptical and reserved, not especially because she was far-sighted enough to see failure on the horizon, but as the heir to rural Conservatism: for her, that was bred in the bone. Dad, a bus conductor, had become a passionate trades’ unionist, and an elected representative to the Transport and General Workers’ Union, a most powerful Movement of its day. (Remember that Union?) Nonetheless, his prime belief was not in what eventually made those early Labour Governments wearisome - the walk-outs over tea-breaks, the restrictive practices - but in the passionate hopes and freedoms (almost, you could say, spiritual freedoms) that were indeed at the heart of the Labour Movement, and that had received glorious expression, from William Blake to Shelley to E.P.Thompson. (Though my father knew nothing of them, and Thompson’s masterpiece, “The Making Of The English Working Class” was still unwritten.) Not only fair pay, bread, and healthy living - rather than typhoid in the kitchen and roses around the door - but also access to libraries, to truly mind-enlarging travel, and to “further” education.

I benefited immediately by being one of the earliest “eleven plus” pupils, passing an examination to go to a Grammar School. This was more a victory and a justification for my father than I realised at the time. To me it was an imprisonment in a quasi public-school, with a house system, a grim Beak, mostly-unwelcoming teachers wearing chalk-dusty gowns, giving out desultory teaching that inhibited me and drove me (for the sake of the vocation that I did not at the time realise that I had) to private, secretive reading of public-library books, or to truancy and trespass in the countryside.

So, in a sense, I experienced as a boy, one small strand of the failures that eroded the great Labour Party hope. The resistance to it … in my experience, aggrieved teachers who truly wanted traditional public-school pupils, not housing-estate ones; in the bigger experience, there was a reluctance to share power and this led to squabbles that undermined industry. The result, rightly or wrongly, was to make a Labour England seem a rather mean and squalid, ineffective affair, so that a majority was glad to see the back of it. This made it an easy enough target, in the end, for the bright lights of unethical greed that marked its final defeat by Free-Market Thatcherism.

I have never been active in any political sense, naturally adopting I think the stance that “poetry changes nothing”, (as W.H. Auden wrote) or that, at best, poets are “unacknowledged legislators” (as Shelley claimed). Nonetheless, the paternal and Thompsonian ideals have been there, working away. Not grievance politics, but spiritual ones, you might say. (In fact .. and incidentally .. when some time ago I came across the Abbot’s directives to monks entering the Order at Bolton Priory, it seemed stunningly similar to an early Socialist manifesto, though with God placed at the head of the table, rather than a Marxist-atheist panacea).

Yet, approximately half a century after witnessing my father prancing around the kitchen table as the Labour successes were announced over the wireless, I found myself excited enough to be doing approximately the same thing …. in my case, staying up through the night with friends and a bottle or two of wine, as television announced the victories that swept New Labour and Tony Blair to power. It seemed that my father’s Party and hopes had recovered. All we majority voters were united to an unusual degree, I think, in what we wanted, believed in, and now expected. Hope springs eternal.

I forgot myself. Even though I have never been a properly committed political person, I do have ideals that I want my representatives to represent, and I had now forgotten that I had been suspicious of Blair as soon as he surfaced to general view. He seemed too plausible altogether, like a Jehovah’s Witness, I thought, with his suit and his smile; though the most worrying bit had been when Lady Thatcher commented that "the country would be safe in his hands". (HER country. Hers is not mine.) The comment was shut down very quickly ... equally worrying! What Labour parliamentary-prospect would want her approval? (Especially if it is "true".)
However, partly because the previous governments had turned out such a disgrace, partly because of the hubris of the times and of my friends, I was carried away. On the recommendation of a good friend more politically alert than I, I forgot my intuitive scruples and voted in support of Tony Blair’s party. The idea put to me was that a Labour Party has to begin cautiously, but once in power, can shift in influence. So I with jubilation equal to that of the crowds on the streets watched his walk to Downing Street. He had that massive majority that meant he could do anything, and we believed he would effect what we had voted for.
Betrayal seemed to happen from the start. What he did with his great victory was to immediately get into bed with the most right-wing Republican government that the USA has seen perhaps ever, and sell our country to it .... semi-secretly, eventually indicted by many for lying to this country and its parliament in support of Republican America (and for which many believe he should be arraigned for war crimes), to the extent of leading us into the War. "We" were almost the only, certainly the most committed and enthusiastic, and mendacious support. That was the first betrayal. Tony Blair has protested time and again that his conscience is clear and he always did what he thought was best for the country. I don’t doubt it … but wasn’t that excuse, also Hitler’s? It seems that he has continued to destroy ideals, and line his pockets. He was a brilliant parliamentarian, too. (Like Margaret Thatcher.) and I wish they both were on my side.

What has happened since is the continuation of the same notion as his of what the Labour Party is for and what it is about. Changing Blair for Brown for someone else from the same source will change nothing, fundamentally. A game of musical chairs.

Yet I think that in the present "economic climate" there's a golden opportunity for Socialism. Massive tax on the profiteering Companies, to be redistributed to the suffering poor - suffering in terms of the NHS, schools, social services, social housing, "fuel poverty". Re-nationalise all those services that the French Government seems to deal with so well (Health service, nuclear power, railways et al) Without much compensation, I'd say .... the privatising companies have had a killing already. And stop bleeding our wealth to fund foreign escapades in support of capitalism.

Such a programme would make the Labour Party electable again .... as nothing else will, because everyone can see that all else is hypocrisy. Of course, it won't happen. As a friend who is nearer the heart of these things writes (being an editor at a national newspaper): “sadly there is no chance of going back - the global capitalist genie is out of the bottle.” One knows that systems that appear absolute in what we arrogantly refer to as the “known world” -- the medieval system, for instance, or the Classical - can and do change, but only when the time is right. As if, one might say, the current of time is only partly under human control; or maybe not at all. The kindest way of regarding New Labour is to give it credit for perceiving this. The times are not right, and immediate wealth is all. (One can hardly add “security” …. we are surely less secure because of their policies.) This does not excuse the perceived hypocrisy. Nor does it tell us why more or less every other country - France, Germany, Italy, the Scandinavian ones - did not feel the same needs.

Our economy is now dependent on supporting those US ventures, and we'd probably end up poorer otherwise. All our contemporary thinking is Capitalist, and that is universal. This understanding was the real rationale behind the invention of New Labour, and not blather about “education, education, education.”

It seems many years now since, from the Thatcher years onwards, wise heads lamented the disappearance of socially radical authors and poets. One often heard it from, confused, saddened, older radicals in the nineteen-nineties. Where in our heads did they go to, John Arden, David Mercer, Trevor Griffiths? There are few of their like being listened to now.

So, I wrote this poem following a gathering of old friends in 2005. Do you remember the “bird flu epidemic” scare? Do you recall the casuistry about torture and “rendition” at that time?

After lunch a group of us sat around,
old Socialists, Luke, Valerie, Barry and Ann.
An autumn evening pulled in its shroud
as we finished our roasted, honeyed lamb,
talked of grandchildren, of houses in France,
of imported wine and unseasonable grapes,
of our normal (at seventy) cluster of aches,
of friends shared from the old dream-bed
of the Sixties, some alive and some dead,
yet not once did we mention politics.
No “Liar Blair!” no “Hypocrite!” Yet
all over again, only half-noticed, our chaps
go over the top and attack
not to “Land Of Hope And Glory” perhaps
but to “The Star Spangled Banner” in Iraq.
Torture’s admissible in England now!
The dusk is scattered with homing wings.
Governments everywhere are stockpiling
drugs against what the wild birds bring
and we fear that they carry our death.