Inside Story

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A country of the mind

The tendency to press reality into a heritage mould traps England in political aspic, says David Hayes

David Hayes 18 September 2011 2314 words

The death of the leader of the 1381 “peasants’ revolt,” Wat Tyler, depicted in the Gruuthuse manuscript of Froissart's Chroniques (c. 1475).

A MIX of orchestration and spontaneity gives much of English middle-class sociability its characteristic texture. Each season offers respite from the pressing obligations of everyday life in the form of a national event-cycle marinated in familiarity yet flexible enough to accommodate new arrivals and rituals which (again in very English fashion) gradually acquire the patina of timeless “heritage.”

In the June–August summer months, and with many regional and local variations, this means school holidays, exam results and (now) gap years or adventure trips; the Wimbledon tennis championships, test cricket and (now) the start of premier-league soccer; the Royal Ascot and other horse-race meetings and (now) pop-rock concerts in the gaps; the Proms classical concerts in London and (now) the Glastonbury music and Hay-on-Wye literary festivals. Once in a generation, there may even be a royal wedding – or an Olympic Games.

Around such markers of comforting tradition, amid the captivating uncertainties of the weather, aided by the copious quantities of alcohol that are obligatory at every English social gathering, and against a backdrop of enjoyable “silly-season” trivia in the media, the rituals of spectatorship and participation (and, now, ubiquitous sponsorship) cluster: an enduring parade of the generations in what amounts to an extended reprieve from familiar routine.

But at regular intervals, at the outer edge, comes a commotion and… CRASH! A brick shatters the facade of this serene world and forces those inside to take cover. From their cowering position they glimpse the masked outsider responsible for the outrage, and shiver. Shaken, angry, a little chastened, they take stock of the damage and compete to condemn the intruder’s violent act. Then, as order is restored and confidence returns, the survivors start to peer cautiously into the gloom and to ask with a slightly embarrassed intensity: why did that happen, what is its message, and what must we do to avoid it recurring?

AS ADMITTED caricature rather than social portrait, this is a recurrent sequence in English public life. Each dramatic social explosion – the latest being the four-day bonanza of rioting, looting and arson that scarred parts of London and other English cities on 6–10 August – seems to acquire this emblematic character: an imaginary collision between two worlds as separate as it is possible to be while nonetheless belonging to the same society and nation. For a moment, the spark raises the promise of genuine illumination, discovery, surprise, even mind-changing. Then, just as suddenly, it expires in the chloroformed cosiness of the comfort zone.

The familiarity in the sequence casts a wide arc. For an invariable trope of the media-processed political sociology that follows social disturbance in England is to see the act of the shadowy intruder as itself part of (and thus validated by) another hallowed national tradition: the English riot. Almost overnight, the threat to civilisation becomes the semi-noble descendant of 1381 (the “peasants’ revolt”), 1936 (the “battle of Cable Street”) and the urban eruptions of the 1980s and 1990s. In the latter cases, cue the popular-music soundtrack of the time, round up the oral testimonies, sprinkle with a bit of light learning, and the assimilation is all but complete.

The connections can be interesting and relevant in their own terms. But history is also being used here politically, as an instrument to evade the present: a deeply conservative act. The fact that the left is as eager as the right to engage in this closure is part of modern England’s predicament. For the inner logic of much of the left’s share of this off-the-shelf historicisation, its radical sheen and formal claims notwithstanding, is an echo of its adversaries: “nothing has changed – and nothing must be allowed to change.”

Can a country so quick and eager to remember also be a land of forgetting? The theme was suggested in my earlier post-riot reflection in Inside Story, which looked at the tendency of political right and left to filter such complex events through a pre-existing lens. The resulting entrenchment of division cancelled (or so I argued) the space where a sense of the public interest should be. That space could begin to be filled by a reinvigorated political sense of English national identity.

A far broader agenda will occupy the political season now opening in Britain – marked, as every autumn, by conferences of the leading parties, followed by the reconvening of parliament. As the agenda unfolds, the questions asked by those chastened observers peering into the gloom will not go away.

THE COALITION government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – formed after the election of May 2010 under the respective party leaders, David Cameron and Nick Clegg – is approaching the period that tends to shape the fate of British governments. The priorities are daunting: a static economy in which inflation is high (4.5 per cent in August) and unemployment rising (2.5 million in August), sweeping changes to England’s health service and education systems, media reform in the wake of the phone-tapping scandal surrounding a Rupert Murdoch–owned tabloid newspaper, measures to separate banks’ retail and trading arms, a new planning framework to encourage building in rural areas, and proposals to reduce the number and equalise the population of Britain’s parliamentary constituencies (a remapping that is expected to benefit the Conservatives and cost its rivals).

But the overriding objective of the government’s founding agreement remains: to reduce the budget deficit and national debt significantly within the five years of the government’s life, and to guarantee this result both by substantial reductions in public spending and by the economic growth its business-friendly policies would encourage. It is not working, and in spades.

There is a paradox here: the absence of progress on this core policy has yet to inflict serious damage on the government. There are three ostensible reasons for this. In the relatively early stages of its term, the government can still draw applause for the argument it relentlessly advanced – and effectively won – in 2010, which blamed the previous Labour administration for the debt (and thus the spending cuts). It is still relatively cohesive at its centre, despite a series of policy u-turns (over jail sentences, forest sales and cuts in school sports, for example) and Cameron’s trademark insouciance. And it faces in the Labour Party an opposition which since its electoral defeat has not yet found any of the things it needs to mount a realistic challenge (let alone to have a good chance of winning): an inner poise, a political strategy or a confident public narrative.

True, Labour is leading by a few percentage points in most current opinion polls, and a precipitous decline in support for the Lib Dems, the coalition’s junior partner, may shake the political calculus – giving hope to Conservatives who dream of the overall majority that Cameron conspicuously failed to win, and to Labourites who envisage a partnership with a Lib Dem party restored by failure to centre-left sanity. But there is little evidence of real momentum being built.

The former energy minister, Ed Miliband, who won the leadership in a contest with his elder brother (and the favourite) David, is an earnest and steady presence who has performed better than many expected, including in the gladiatorial parliamentary contests that many British people profess to loathe. He too is in the early stages of a route-march. The touch of boldness evident in his initial challenge has been echoed in, for example, his criticism of the Murdoch empire a shade before that became fashionable; and in his refusal, in a speech on 13 September to trade-union representatives at their annual conference in London, to voice unquestioned support for strikes and mobilisations this autumn against the public-sector squeeze.

Again, paradox. A flat economy at a time of immense public and private debt (with little help from international trading conditions); great stress on households from rising prices (including ever steeper utility bills) and, in many cases, the threat or fact of unemployment; static or falling house prices and a seizure in mortgage-lending, which in Britain’s unbalanced property market curb mobility and press the rental sector; soaring travel costs; existing and impending cuts in public facilities and subsidies (including libraries, and programs for the elderly, vulnerable, and younger students) – these are realities that now face millions of British people, many of whom are additionally coping with an overhang of problems from the bubble years.

So far, however, these difficult conditions have not translated into very great opposition to the government and its policies or into protests deep enough to threaten its legitimacy. It’s not that the government has made itself secure enough to be sure of serving a full term, exactly; it’s more that the idea of its replacement is still so remote as to make it appear at present impregnable.

There is, admittedly, enough evidence around for a different view, and no lack of proponents of it. The vigorous student protest wave that began in November 2010 was widely heralded as the harbinger of a more widespread popular resistance. (Its share of alarming incidents included an impromptu assault on a Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and his consort Camilla through central London on their way to the theatre – a quintessential “masked outsider” moment.) A large union demonstration in June 2011 picked up the baton, albeit carrying it more sedately.

Some analyses of the August disturbances with wide currency on the political left see these as part of the same cycle: an underclass uprising of regrettable violence that nonetheless expressed valid social resentments against an unequal and unjust economic and social order. The instinct to heritage-ise even the recent past is palpable.

More widely, the return after thirteen years of a Conservative-led government imposing a politics of austerity, led by privileged cherubs with a touch of public-school swagger (and sexism), protecting the forces – namely banks and bankers – held more responsible even than Labour for the financial implosion (and despised for it), and governing amid a wider crisis of financial capitalism in, at least, Europe: all this seems more than fertile ground for an efflorescence of political-intellectual critique. This is indeed apparent in a host of new books, journals, websites and campaigns that are seeking to articulate and mobilise a radical challenge to both government and the “neo-liberal” economic model.

The political energy is impressive and the wider sentiment it draws on undeniable. A measure of the attraction of the radical case as well as of (more generally) current intellectual fluidity is that leading journalists of the right, the grandiloquent populist Peter Oborne and the disdainful establishmentarian Charles Moore (both of the Daily Telegraph, the latter Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer), have in very different ways given it succour.

Compelling as it is to many, however, the new radicalism – in none of its variants – is yet to compute politically. The mismatch between language and ambition is one signal here. (“Neo-liberalism” has become the most overused and thus vacuous word in the political lexicon, the equivalent of “the system” in the 1970s, “capitalism” in the 1980s and “globalisation” in the 1990s.) The lack of any unified strategy, admittedly a natural concomitant of many diverse and decentred movements, is another. The often hostile stance towards the Labour Party, the only plausible Britain-wide vehicle of a centre-left political agenda (post-devolution Scotland and Wales have opened different political spaces and opportunities), is – if wholly legitimate politically – the same self-imposed handicap as it has been to many left-wing forces in the past. Perhaps most fatally, the problem of agency has not begun to be solved, as reflected in successive fixations over a relatively short period with groups (students, activist networks, rioters) or forces (social media) invested with the potential to make a short-circuit.

EVEN BEYOND these strictly political limitations, the radical argument (and even the broader anti-government one) faces the larger long-term problem of making often very convincing analysis part of a compelling vision of a better society that can win majority support. The scale of the task matches the gulf between different social worlds revealed by the August riots.

To take an example, a substantial body of work advances the proposition that England is becoming a more profoundly unequal and divided country whose social chasms – of income and wealth, livelihoods and life-chances, informal standards and deep values – are corrosive of everyone’s quality of life.

This case is elaborated in the work of the epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson (The Spirit Level, with Kate Pickett), the economist Will Hutton, and most trenchantly in the media by the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. These and other writers, by mapping the harmful impact of extreme differentials across society – from health to housing, education to work – fuel the perennial search for a comprehensive politics of inequality that (some real achievements aside) bypassed the New Labour governments of 1997–2010.

The approach is persuasive, even more so when it is supplemented by evidence from the other side: of (for example) the cascade of international super-wealth into merely rich London’s property-market, and consequent relocation that in turn has effects on those much lower on the scale. Seen from this height, conviviality looks even less sustainable, the foundations of a progressive (or even ameliorative) social-democratic politics even more elusive.

The age of easy answers in politics is over. All the more reason to refuse them, and to think hard about what kind of change is possible and what kind of strategy is best able to deliver it. In this respect, there is in England a strong sense of political displacement. Is there the imagination to move, and to make heritage history? •

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Mosques, Tunis (1932), by William H. Johnson. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Mosques, Tunis (1932), by William H. Johnson. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation