writing and thinking

Month: May 2017

The past is another country

Sometimes it feels like I live in a foreign country. I speak the same language as my neighbours but I don’t understand them anymore. I used to believe that, despite our differences, people in Britain shared a similar past, culture and values but increasingly I find that I am wrong.

The past creates us, just as we create it in the stories we choose to tell ourselves of ourselves. It leaves its impression on who we are. The country I grew up in was proud of its humane responses to the privations of past times – its system of universal health care, social assistance and the sanctuary it offered to refugees. It seemed self-evidently right that anyone could consult a doctor or seek the assistance of a midwife when the time came without having to worry about the cost; that if you should fall on hard times you should be entitled to assistance and not depend on the charity of others; that the welcome we extend to others defines us as a civilised society.

For my grandparents the NHS was the pinnacle of human achievement, far beyond moon landings or any such frivolous endeavours. Charity was for them a dirty word, the power to give or withhold support based on religious, moral or political prejudices. With good reason people who had experienced poverty spat on the notion. Charity was the means of maintaining “proper” relations between the affluent and the poor. The country that I grew up in was vaguely ashamed of its imperial past, the part it played in subjugating and impoverishing vast areas of the globe. We stopped celebrating Empire Day in 1958 and instead espoused notions of Common Wealth.

I used to think this perspective was universally held, shared across the whole of the United Kingdom, even if its unity, excluding Northern Ireland for example, was always somewhat exaggerated. This was the Britain promoted by its official myth maker the BBC, whose project has always been to define a national audience in its image. Yet we learned last week with the leaking of Labour’s draft manifesto, and more so with the publication yesterday of the official text, that this version of the past has been outlawed. The popular press, by which I mean that section of the media with a continuing fondness for Empire and a contempt for foreigners, affected outrage at policy proposals that would drag us back to the neanderthal 1970s.

Instead, the new official history of contemporary Britain provides for universal lip service to the notion of health care free at the point of demand, lip service is still universally free. Poor people are to rely on charity in the event that they should wish to eat, or feed their children, and women who have been raped must apply to the government for the means to bring any resulting children into the world. The Home Office focuses its resources on splitting up long established families in Britain and forcibly returning young women fleeing forced marriages and the fear of violence or murder to their place of peril. This sense of Britain, this ideal of political unity, is the one that was widely endorsed at local elections this month and seems set to be endorsed again in June.

It would be easy to attribute the birth of this callous Britain to the Thatcher government of 1979 when the post war consensus broke down, except that it was Thatcher who opened the doors to the free movement of people within the EU as a means of suppressing wage inflation. A convincing case could be made, as Tom Crewe does, for the 1997 election when New Labour began its long walk away from its working-class roots, disenfranchising its former heartlands, when John Prescott announced that “we are all middle class now”. But it is austerity that has promoted mean spiritedness to political orthodoxy and the BBC continues to play its part as cheerleader in chief, still perpetuating uncritically the austerity con, as presenter Nick Robinson demonstrated again in his interview with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell yesterday. This is the BBC which will defend to its dying breath its freedom to speak on behalf of middle class Britain and strike fear into its heart with talk of redistributive tax policies, “red in tooth and claw”.

Once it was possible to take some shallow comfort in the fact that there was a border between me and my estranged countrymen, that political and philosophical differences could be explained at least in part by physical distances, and, in truth, London has always been a place apart. Now it seems increasing numbers in Scotland are prepared to forget the past and buy into a Britain which represents the antithesis of those older values. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that I don’t belong here. I think that’s why 45 per cent of those who voted “Yes” in the 2104 independence referendum voted in favour of independence. That’s why I think there will be another referendum. I understand that the majority in 2014 did not necessarily endorse neoliberal capitalism, red in tooth and claw. But I hope to god those who see June’s ballot as an opportunity to vote against a further referendum realise that that is precisely what they are voting for.


In a former life I offered advice to policy-makers on the presentation of their plans; how to clarify the story they wanted to tell, what sort of criticism they might expect and how best to respond to challenges to their proposals. My then boss would always urge me to make my advice “trenchant”. He loved that word; the very sound of it carried the punch he wanted to convey. It means sharp, effective, cutting to the heart of the matter. Continue reading

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