Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

‘The world that I knew, it has vanished and gone,’ sang Eliza Carthy during Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl, a special concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic this week that marked the centennial of the songwriter and Communist activist’s birth. It was a marvellous evening of passionate songs of politics and love which caused me to reflect on the significance of MacColl’s songs in our changed times. Continue reading “Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl”

Election day: Everybody knows

Election day: Everybody knows

Election day. Some words from Leonard, who always lets in the light:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

BRITAIN-POVERTY-ECONOMY A beggar asks for alms along a pedestria The Super Rich 2014

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

Leonard Cohen

Bill Brand: glimpses of the past that have relevance still

Bill Brand: glimpses of the past that have relevance still

Through the long, hot summer of 1976, for eleven weeks, I was gripped by Bill Brand, a TV series written by left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths and broadcast on ITV in prime-time. Regarded at the time as a brilliant example of how radical ideas could be presented in popular television drama, as the years went by I often recalled the series and hoped to be able to see it again. But the story of how Bill Brand (played by Jack Shepherd), an FE college lecturer from a working-class background, and former member of the Trotskyite International Socialists, is elected as a Labour MP seemed to have forever dissolved into the ether.

Bill Brand logo
Bill Brand series title

Until, that is, I discovered just recently that Bill Brand had been released on DVD.  Now, at last, I had the opportunity to watch the series again and see how it had stood up to the passing years: Britain’s changed political landscape, and the altered conventions of modern television drama.

Remarkably well is my conclusion after watching the whole thing again. Obviously, some aspects of the production are at odds with the more anodyne way TV drama tends to work these days. Instead, viewing Bill Brand plunged me forcibly back into the 1970s, perhaps Britain’s most deeply politicised decade.

Bill Brand polling day
Bill Brand: polling day

Griffiths places politics centre stage throughout. While Brand wins his seat in a by-election, faces up to party discipline imposed by the party whips, supports industrial action including a factory occupation, deals with unhappy traditionalists in his constituency, attend the annual conference, and participates in a Labour leadership election, he also has an increasingly fraught private life: his marriage is on the rocks and he’s having a bumpy relationship with an ardent feminist activist Alex, played by Cherie Lunghi.

Bill Brand and his wife
Bill Brand: Brand (Jack Shepherd) with his wife Miriam (Lynn Farleigh)

While there have been any number of TV series that have used politics as a backdrop for personal drama and conflict, what’s unusual about Bill Brand is that it’s the politics itself that constitutes the drama, with the dramatic episodes concerning Brand’s own family, marriage and sexual relationship serving to underline key questions of politics.  Griffith’s achievement was to make this exploration of political issues – democracy and party discipline, socialism and the Labour Party, feminism and traditional gender roles, terrorism and civil liberties – both engaging and challenging.

What I like about Griffiths’ approach is that he doesn’t insist on answers to these questions: he has his characters articulate differing positions and argue them out – including the standpoint of the Labour leadership which he’s obviously hostile towards – but leaves viewers to make up their own minds.

Griffiths treats the viewer as intelligent and curious, prepared to listen to arguments and have scenes extend well beyond what is now assumed to be the limited attention-span of the average viewer.  What TV dramatist today would demand that we observe the minutiae of agreeing a composite resolution in a pre-conference Labour party meeting? Or fifteen minutes of detailed discussion in a parliamentary Select Committee? There is no musical soundtrack, and scenes unfold slowly and are given as much space as they need in which arguments can be developed. Indeed, the series is a hothouse of political argument: instructive, but at the same time engaging.

But the strongest feeling I had while watching Bill Brand was one of deja vu: for the debate that Trevor Griffiths sought to provoke back in 1976 is one that is still highly relevant today: is the Labour Party still a vehicle for socialist values and radical political change?  These were serious questions in the 1970s, deeply familiar to Griffiths who had spent some time as a member of the local Labour party in Stockport before leaving, disillusioned. And his drama is firmly rooted in the crises that challenged the 1974 Labour government during the time he was writing the script, some of them having a distinctly familiar feel today.  Moreover, his dramatisation of developments in the Labour Party at the time, now appears remarkably prescient of the bitter struggle between left and right that tore the party apart in the next decade, ultimately leading to the triumph of New Labour under Tony Blair.

Trevor Griffiths
Trevor Griffiths

When Bill Brand was broadcast, Trevor Griffiths was regarded as one of Britain’s most politically incisive television dramatists, who had combined work for television with a highly regarded theatre career because he wanted to reach the maximum possible audience with drama that encouraged the audience to consider issues from a perspective rooted in socialist values. Griffiths grew up in East Manchester.  While his brother left school at 15 to work in a factory, Griffiths was one of those working-class children who, as a result of the Butler Education Act of 1944, was able to go to grammar school and then to Manchester University, where he studied English.

After university Griffiths became a teacher, first in a school and then in a local Further Education college. By the late 1950s he was politically involved in CND and the New Left, and chaired the Manchester Left Club, a discussion group which included historians such as Edward Thompson and John Saville. By 1962 he was a member of the Labour Party and wrote for their local paper, Labour’s Northern Voice. But, disillusioned by the Labour government of Harold Wilson, he left the party in 1965.

By this time Griffiths, now working for the BBC in Leeds as an education liaison officer, was turning to the idea of exploring political issues through drama. This was the period in which producers of BBC TV’s Wednesday Play championed new writers to reflect on the radical social changes taking place in Britain, particularly as seen through the prism of working-class experience, and Griffiths was commissioned by Tony Garnett to write for the weekly drama slot (a script was written, though never produced). He did eventually achieve a screening on BBC TV in 1974 when All Good Men was broadcast in the Play for Today slot, during the three day week imposed by the Heath government in response to the mine-workers’ overtime ban; with TV channels forced to close down by 10:30 pm, this meant that the play had to be cut significantly. Thematically, the play pre-figured Bill Brand.

I remember seeing his 1970 play Occupations (a Royal Shakespeare Company production that must have toured) which, against the background of the factory occupations in 1920s northern Italy, explored the distinctive revolutionary ideas of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. This was the period in which Michael Billington, the Guardian theatre critic, cited Griffiths as ‘the godfather of British political theatre’ and ‘our foremost socialist dramatist’. In 1979, we watched a memorable TV adaptation of his play Comedians, set in a Manchester evening class for aspiring working-class comedians, which asked searching questions about comedy, such as: Is there more to comedy than making people laugh? Should comedians appeal to the lowest common denominator in their audience? And – crucially – should comedy be about entertainment, or about the truth?  I would love to see it again. In 1988, as part of a BBC TV commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the events of May 1968, we saw The Party, his 1971 play that was a forerunner to Bill Brand in that it offered a devastating critique of the failure of the British Left to radically transform society.

In his plays, and in Bill Brand, Griffiths is never a political propagandist or polemicist. His own approach to drama was as an advocate of what he defined as ‘critical realism’: burrowing beneath the ‘materialism of detail’ – the surface appearance of things – to reveal the ‘materialism of forces’, the ‘deep structure’ of a society determined by differences of power between , classes, genders and ethnic groups. Speaking of Bill Brand, Griffiths observed:

People are not stretched to follow it in terms of its narrative structure or character development. That’s important because what will be stretching them is the detail of the lives of the characters, what they’re talking about. That’s a phenomenal amount of stuff to grapple with.

The genesis of the series occurred when Trevor Griffiths met ITV drama producer Stella Richman on the night of the general election in February 1974. in a close parallel with the expected outcome of the 2015 election, the result led to no party gaining an overall majority. For the first time since 1931 a minority government took office, led by Labour leader Harold Wilson.

Stella Richman had seen The National Theatre production of The Party, and was receptive to Griffiths’ proposal of a series about a newly-elected Labour MP. For the next two years, as struggles within the Labour government and in the wider working class movement intensified, Griffiths researched and wrote the scripts. The series was accepted by Verity Lambert at Thames Television who had recently been appointed head of Drama there by Jeremy Isaacs (who would later manage Channel Four during its a initially more socially-conscious phase).

The background to Bill Brand is the political turmoil that tore through Britain in the 1970s, a period in which the political consensus that had held in British politics since the 1940s began to crumble, marked by a political culture far removed from that of 2015. The minority Labour government of 1974 came to power in an election fought against the background of a national miners strike, power cuts, the three-day week, and Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath’s challenge: ‘Who Governs Britain?’

After the second election of 1974, Labour was returned with a slim majority, but by 1977, following defeats in by-elections, the narrow Labour majority had been eliminated. To stay in office, Labour agreed to the Lib-Lab pact which lasted for only 16 months. In 1976, Harold Wilson had resigned as prime minister, due to ill-health. He had been replaced by James Callaghan who, after the collapse of the Lib-Lab pact remained in office as head of a minority government, managing to stay in power through deals with the Ulster Unionists and Scottish Nationalists (Here we go again!).

The deeper background to all this was recession and inflation brought about by the oil price rise imposed by Arab producing nations following western support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war. Rapid prices rises led to increased trade union militancy, with the Labour government attempting to restrain wage rises by the Social Contract, an informal agreement with the trade union leadership. Divisions within the labour movement, fuelled by increased socialist agitation, led ultimately to the wave of strikes that spread across Britain during late 1978/early 1979 in what was dubbed the ‘winter of discontent’, as wages were frozen and inflation soared into double figures. In May 1979, Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence precipitating a general election won by the Conservatives – led by Margaret Thatcher.

There were certain parallels between Britain then and Greece now. With the pound plummeting, the Chancellor Denis Healey proposed significant cuts in public expenditure designed to curb inflation and stabilise the pound. Then, in March 1976 the pound fell below the two dollar mark for the first time ever and Britain was gripped by its worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Healey secured loans from the IMF on the promise of cuts in public spending, and conditional upon allowing IMF inspectors in to examine the government’s books and oversee the implementation of cuts totalling £3,000 million. Hospital wards closed, schools went without basic teaching materials, social services were dramatically hit.  For those on the left, public services had been savaged by a Labour government at the behest of international capitalism. Denis Healey responded that ‘the government must live with the judgements of that mar­ket, whether they like it or not.’

In the midst of economic turmoil, these were also years during which the war in Northern Ireland came to Britain with the IRA bombing campaign. The first anti-terrorism legislation was introduced, and Irish people in Britain faced hostility on the streets and in workplaces, as well as restrictions on their civil rights. These were years, too, in which issues of feminism and gay rights began to challenge the traditional, male-dominated world of left groups and trade unions.

Bill Brand encapsulated all of these questions and tensions. In a powerful speech in the Commons, Brand breaks party discipline and opposes the renewal of the anti-terrorism legislation (back then, it had to be renewed annually), highlighting how the legislation is affecting his Irish constituents and wrongly being used to target the Irish community. We see his family home being targeted by fascists and defended by trade unionists. In the 1970s this was not unusual.

Throughout the series, there are reminders of how rich – and influential – left politics were in the 1970s, a time of struggles and campaigns around unemployment, Ireland, sexual politics, Chile and anti-fascism. Griffiths later remarked:

What I was trying to say throughout the series was that the traditions of the labour movement were inadequate to take the struggle further, and that we had to discover new traditions or revive even older ones. And that we had to seek connective tissue between electoral party politics, which still has a mystifying mass appeal, and extra-parliamentary socialist activity.

As a newly-elected left-wing MP, Bill Brand wrestles with these issues, both as a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party subject to the party whip, but also in his struggle to represent his constituents – striking textile workers occupying their mill as globalisation threatens the entire industry with closure, women demanding the right to decide for themselves whether they should seek an abortion, and an Irish community subject to harassment. One of the ways in which Bill Brand succeeds is in its portrayal of personal relationships, which are never divorced from the historical and political context of a society being fractured by social changes which, Griffiths suggests, demand new alternatives in attitudes, behaviour and social organisation.

Bill Brand and Alex
Bill Brand (Jack Shepherd) and partner Alex (Cherie Lunghi)

In the opening episode of Bill Brand, the eponymous character wins a by-election when a Labour governs with a small majority. Like me, and like Trevor Griffiths, Brand has benefited from the 1944 Education Act and the achievements of the post-war Labour government that have enabled the son of a chemical process plant worker to attend university on a full grant and become a Liberal Studies lecturer in a Further Education college where he has worked for fourteen years.  He has only recently left the International Socialists to join the Labour Party, hoping to change the party’s traditional conservatism from within.

You were never like us, even as a little lad. Allus had your head stuck in a book somewhere. I never told you … I worried about you sometimes, how you’d end up, with all that learning … Do summat good, won’t you?

Bill has a brother whose life has turned out differently: a shirt cutter in the textile industry, he has been made redundant as the industry, facing competition from cheap labour in India and elsewhere, goes into decline.

Bill’s parents as well as his constituency agent Alf Jowett other prominent figures in the local party and trade union leadership belong to an older, more conservative generation (Jowett grumbles about Bill’s lack of punctuality, long hair, and blue suit).  However, Griffiths never condemns figures such as Jowett, seeing them as representative of a different historical context who are due respect, whilst portraying them as being slow to respond to a world that is changing. Party loyalty is crucial, and expressions of socialist belief frowned upon. On election day, when Bill suggests that the electoral process ‘ruthlessly reduces what we do to its most fundamentally trivial elements’, Jowett replies, ‘You’ll be all right. Once you settle down.’

But Bill isn’t ready to settle down. To a Radio Manchester interviewer on the night of his by-election victory, he asserts:

I’m a socialist. I actually believe in public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. I actually believe in workers’ control over work, community control over the environment. I actually believe that the real wealth of any society is its people. All of them, not just the well-off, the educated and the crafty. Which I suppose make me a democrat too.

He may call himself a socialist, but to his wife Miriam, Bill is a ‘selfish, egotistical, uncaring swine of a man’ who has been unfaithful with Alex (Cherie Lunghi), a feminist colleague at the FE college.  She wants a divorce.

The scenes which follow the breakdown in Bill’s marriage, and his relationship with Alex might, on first impressions, fit easily in a conventional soap.  But Griffiths probes deeper into the sexual politics of the time. At first it seems that Bill has a satisfying relationship with Alex, but she soon discerns a puritanical and controlling streak in his personality. Later, as she calls an end to their relationship during a cottage retreat, Alex announces her desire for an independent life: ‘You make me feel married. I’m not a partner, or a comrade. I’m a surrogate wife.’

In one episode Bill listens to a talk given by Alex to a group of gay men in which she insists that their aims cannot be separated from other forms of political oppression. In another scene, Bill meets a Catholic doctor who has refused one of his constituents, an abandoned working-class woman with four children, her right to an abortion. Griffiths later introduces an understated contrast when Bill discovers that fellow left-wing MP Winnie Scoular has had an abortion – which she had no difficulty obtaining. Here, Griffiths suggests, are two women from very different social circumstances who experience the politics of sexual relationships in very different ways because of their class.

Alongside these questions, Griffiths presents a detailed and convincing picture of the MP’s life: in parliament, in his constituency, in committee meetings, the Whip’s office, the tearoom, and at the Labour Party conference. He explained at the time:

We’re investigating the stuff, the actual tissue and texture, of the social democratic processes within a major party. About which people know next to nothing.

As Brand settles into the parliamentary routine, he discovers that his notion of an MP’s responsibilities is very different from that of the party whips. He meets both Tory and Labour MPs who talk of being ‘lobby fodder’, and the House of Commons resembling a ‘damned assembly line’. The Labour Chief Whip Cedric Maddocks, an ex-docker, tells him: ‘The government has a right to your loyalty. Total. Unquestioning, if necessary.’

Maddocks begins by disciplining Brand (in a nice touch, we see that on the wall of the Chief Whip’s office there is a photograph of a flock of sheep), but they end up working together when the Home Secretary John Venables, a Roy Jenkins figure, makes a bid for the leadership after the Prime Minister (a cameo appearance by Arthur Lowe) resigns in an echo of Harold Wilson’s resignation. For Brand, opposing Venables in the leadership contest is instinctual; for Maddocks it’s because he fears the PLP will split over Venables’ right-wing policies. Venables wins and becomes the new Prime Minister.

Brand’s convictions mean that he cannot accept the imposed constraints on his backbench role. Though he shares a house occupied by MPs who are members of the Journal group (clearly, a reference to the left-wing Labour Tribune group), when Bill votes against a government bill designed to reduce social and welfare services, he condemns the group for being forced into supporting the party line. After being disciplined by the Chief Whip he returns to his constituency to face censure by the Executive Committee of the local party for refusing to support the government.

In one episode, Brand lends his support to textile workers who are occupying a factory in his constituency in protest against its planned closure and demanding a cap on cheap imports which threaten their jobs. Rather than cool down the situation, as government ministers had hoped he would, Brand expresses his solidarity with the workers, calling for the nationalisation of the textile industry. The story makes the front page of a right-wing Sunday newspaper.

In 2015, factory occupations and demands for nationalisation seem outlandish. But this was not so at the time the series was broadcast. I, too, had been a member of the International Socialists in the early 1970s (leaving eventually over an issue that went under ‘the personal is political’ in the rubric of the time).  While a member, one of the major events with which we were involved was the workers’ occupation of the Fisher-Bendix factory in Kirkby, just outside Liverpool.

Worker occupations were in the air. In 1969 the BBC had transmitted the Ken Loach play, The Big Flame, which portrayed an occupation of the Liverpool docks (it gave its name to a Merseyside far-left splinter group). For many trade unionists and those on the far left, the factory occupation had emerged as a realistic industrial strategy for opposing the Conservative government’s ‘lame ducks’ policy – the determination that, rather than continuing to prop up ailing businesses with financial support, the government would refuse aid, even if it led to redundancies.

For viewers watching Bill Brand in the summer of 1976, the victorious work-in by workers following the closure of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow in 1971 would have been fresh in their minds.  In 1972 the factory occupation tactic featured in over 50 disputes in the engineering industry, including that one at the Fisher-Bendix washing machine factory in Kirkby.

By 1974, with the change of government, Tony Benn was Secretary of State for Industry, and involved in helping to set up worker cooperatives at Fisher-Bendix, as well as the BSA-Triumph factory at Meriden where the workforce had also evicted the management and carried on producing motorcycles. In 1975, while Griffiths was preparing the script for Bill Brand, workers at Imperial Typewriters in Hull occupied the factory, barricading the gates and displaying a sign that announced ‘Tony is with us’.

The relationship between an elected MP committed to socialist values and the struggles taking place outside Parliament constitutes a key theme of the series. The failure of the factory occupation in his constituency to preserve jobs from global competition will continue to haunt Brand, as will the question about which is more likely to advance the cause of socialism: manoeuvres at Westminster or extra-parliamentary campaigns.

Bill Brand and David Last
Bill Brand and David Last

This question is explored through the positions taken by the Journal group, and in particular through the figure of David Last, loosely based on Michael Foot, who has joined the Cabinet as Minister of Employment in the hope of changing things from within. Last encourages Brand to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary, an offer which Brand initially rejects.

One notable aspect of the scenes at Westminster is the appearance of Nigel Hawthorne playing a senior civil servant, the character he would replicate in Yes Minister four years later.

The scenes at the Labour Party Conference are also convincing and demonstrate Griffiths’ understanding of the detail and inner workings of the annual conference. Brand hopes to get his radical resolution proposing the nationalisation of the textile industry accepted for debate on the Conference floor, but is defeated when his resolution is shelved by the manoeuvring of a trade union leader in a compositing committee. Later that evening, in their hotel room, Bill and his agent Alf Jowett, review the day’s events over a whiskey or two.  Alf reveals his own dissatisfaction with how little he feels he has achieved:

Twenty years of struggling and arguing and wheedling and bullying and hustling and chiselling and promising and welching and offering and not delivering.

Brand experiences another setback when, in the committee stage of the bill to extend temporary measures introduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for detention without trial, he makes a passionate but futile speech condemning what he regards as an unholy alliance between Labour and the Tories to pass oppressive legislation drawn up by Home Secretary Venables. With Alex a few hours later, he bemoans the illusory nature of Parliamentary struggle and his own feelings of political inadequacy:

A Labour government kept in power by the likes of me, is currently fulfilling – yet again – its historic role as the supreme agent of international capitalism in Britain. And all the classic features of that process re-emerge: chronic large-scale unemployment, massive sustained cutbacks coupled with the steady, sheltered recovery of profits in the private sector. The definition of the left ends with a Labour government which they must then keep in power at all costs.

Bill returns to his constituency to face his executive committee’s anger at his principled stand, subsequently vilified in the right-wing press, and compromised after an IRA bomb attack in Manchester (oddly prescient, that one). Later, when Bill expresses anger at the reaction of his constituency party members, Alf responds by quoting Gorky:

You’ve gotta stay in touch. You can’t run all the time. So that people can see where you’re going. Do you know what Gorky said when he arrived at some godforsaken spot in outer Russia to lecture the peasants on socialism? He said, ‘Is this the rabble on which we are to build a revolution?’ Well, the answer’s yes Mr Gorky, yes Mr Brand. Because without them there is no revolution. We’re all you’ve got, comrade.

Eventually, Brand decides, despite reservations, to accept the position as David Last’s PPS and to assist him in his bid for the leadership. (Interestingly, this comes after Bill has read Last’s biography of Tom Mann; in 1975 Michael Foot had published his magisterial biography of Aneurin Bevan.) Last convinces Bill that his commitment is sincere: ‘All my political life I’ve worked to shift this party to the left. In two days we have a chance to move it further than it’s moved in fifty years or more. Is that a chance we have the right to pass up?’

The contest between the right-winger Venables and David Last representing the left is prescient of the 1980 leadership battle between Michael Foot and Denis Healey.  Except that in 1981 Foot won, while David Last loses. However, though Foot won in 1980, within a few months the party split when Roy Jenkins and others left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party. Maybe there’s a closer parallel with September 1981, when  Tony Benn stood against Denis Healey for Deputy Leader. Healey won by a margin of less than 1%. I have a vivid recollection of that result: ill with a stomach bug, I had my head over the toilet bowl, retching, as I heard the news of the result on the radio.

Following Last’s defeat, and with Venables outlining his plans at Cabinet for a ‘Brave New World’ that will fully embrace right-wing revisionism, Brand is becomes even more convinced that it is no longer from within Parliament that pressure for socialism can be brought to bear, but from outside through grassroots movements.  In the final episode he attends a fund-raising football match for the Right to Work campaign and meets an old university friend (Jonathan Pryce) who is now involved in agitprop theatre productions.

Bill Brand with his constituency agent
Bill Brand with his constituency agent, Alf Jowett

The penultimate scene of this episode occurs in his agent’s office. On the radio reports are coming in of demonstrations  and mass arrests in Chile. Alf tells Bill has seen figures like Venables attempt to take over the Labour Party before:

They can’t win because reality’s not on their side. They think capitalism’s like a coat of paint, like a veneer, and underneath is the structure. But capitalism is the structure. The reality. And it splits us up, sets us against each other and against ourselves, in classes, in thought, in life-styles, in aspirations and all the rest of it. And it breeds resistance, in every worker who goes down the road, in every tenant evicted, in every man and woman denied the chance to be human.

Bill suggests that Alf should book the theatre group. He returns to his house where he watches the group rehearse a sketch dealing with sexual politics and female oppression in which the actors debate the validity of their tactics and how they can reach a working-class audience. Among the group is a refugee from Chile. In the final scene Bill speaks to her and learns that she intends to return ‘When we have won.’ The struggle for socialist values – for cultural and political alternatives – Griffiths seems suggest, will continue in many different contexts.

Throughout the series, Griffiths has given expression to different points of view within the Labour Party and the trade unions, and in the end leaves the viewers to make up their own minds. The writing has been sharp, truthful, often funny and sometimes moving. Griffiths has revealed his deep understanding of the social, political and cultural issues he has explored in the series. Remarkably, it remains relevant in many ways forty years on.

Today, trade unions and the left in the Labour party are a mere shadow of what they were in the 1970s. During the Blair-Brown years as New Labour, the party enthusiastically embraced the tenets of neo-liberalism, accepting profit and privatisation as being compatible with social justice.

Someone (I can’t at the moment remember who) once said that only an inch divides Labour from the Tories, ‘but in that inch we survive’. For a long time that argument seemed to hold up, but now there is growing disillusionment with the lack of vision in the Labour party and the sense that ‘they are all the same’. Turnout in elections continues to fall steadily.

Recently, in the London Review of Books, in ‘Bye Bye Labour’, Richard Seymour summed up the crisis of Labour in these words:

Labour has accepted Conservative precepts. The private sector knows, and grows, best. The City is untouchable: it may be chastised, but never seriously confronted. Unemployment is a form of dependency, best dealt with through market discipline. Competition is the law of all social and economic life, and it is the role of the state to encourage it and to secure public participation in it. And the British state, and its military commitments, are sacrosanct.

The reasons for Labour’s decline are, he writes, fairly clear:

In Labour’s case, the collapse of its representative link with its base also has specific causes. The social basis of Labourism is the labour movement, and it is in retreat. Union membership has halved since 1980. The co-operative movement has shrivelled and the Methodist halls are no longer filled; the broader labour movement no longer produces a steady stream of orators and organisers. Even so, the accelerated rot of recent years is a product of New Labour’s period in office. The Blairites had argued that mass recruitment of new members would anchor the party to the mainstream, while a centrist governing strategy would help bind middle-class voters to progressive ideas. In fact, membership fell to the lowest levels in the party’s history after 13 years of Labour government, and the loss of five million working-class votes between 1997 and 2010 resulted in Labour’s lowest share of the vote since 1918.

Seymour’s prognosis for the Labour party if it remains committed to some form of moderated austerity, is bleak:

The party is trapped in a spiral of self-destruction, which James Doran, a Labour activist, has called ‘Pasokification’. Greece’s dominant centre-left party implemented austerity and its vote collapsed from 43.9 per cent in 2009 to 4.7 per cent in 2015 – but Pasok’s fate is only an extreme form of the implosion threatening most European social democratic parties, from the German Social Democrats to the French Socialists. […]

If it wins, Labour will be forced to implement an austerity agenda which, while not enough to satisfy Conservative voters, will turn its own remaining voters off in droves. That would be a defeat of a different order. For a vision of that future, one need only look across the Channel, at François Hollande sinking and sinking in the polls, and the Front National on the rise.

Having just watched Bill Brand, it’s clear we’ve been here before.  What will happen this time? We’ll soon see.

Addendum: two hours later

I’ve just read this, in Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters. He’s writing about Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens, who ‘know the longing in his heart’:

But his men, like the poem, no better, and they tie him tighter to his ship.  They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, on the longing for that heroised, antique world, because, as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted: you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present … Don’t be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer.


Some extracts

See also

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

A revival of David Hare’s 1993 play, The Absence of War, seemed an enticing prospect. A drama portraying the Labour Party as lost in ideological confusion, drained of vitality, and unable to mobilise public support or present a vision or values in any compelling way promised to be highly relevant in present circumstances.

But at the Liverpool Playhouse the other night I found Headlong’s revival an uninspiring disappointment. The production seemed drained of energy, suffering from lifeless acting and direction which did little to overcome a script that suffered from flatness of dialogue and shallowness of characterisation.  It was as airless as the meeting rooms in which most of the action took place and the arguments that were batted back and forth in them.

The play is inhabited exclusively by members of the political class who appear to have no sense of the country that lies beyond Westminster.  In that, at least, the play speaks to the present mood. But it makes for lifeless drama. Maybe we’ve been spoiled in the interim since it was first staged by having been exposed to the visceral machinations of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It.

The Absence of War 1
The Absence of War: the political class

The Absence of War first came to the stage in 1993, when it was interpreted as a fictionalised account of Labour’s doomed 1992 election campaign, which ended with John Major still in No 10, followed by Neil Kinnock’s resignation as party leader. Kinnock was replaced by John Smith who died from a heart attack after less than two years as leader. The leadership election of July 1994 was won by Tony Blair, who inaugurated the New Labour project.  David Hare has said of his play that it is about the roots of New Labour.

In 2015, with Labour again intent on ousting a Tory Prime Minister, this production of The Absence of War is on a tour that will finish two days after the election. Hare has pointed up the relevance of his play:

Yet again the Labour Party has got itself into a situation where it daren’t speak, and once again they seem to have in Ed Miliband a leader who can’t seem to connect with the majority of people. They’ve had to buy into the Tory agenda, and support an economic agenda, but they’ve also had to try and deal with the things that stem from old Labour Party ideals, like the NHS.

Back in 1992, David Hare was friends with  Neil Kinnock, who gave the playwright privileged access to Labour’s 1992 campaign. Hare attended Labour rallies and press conferences, and private meetings involving Kinnock and, among others, Roy Hattersley (Shadow Home Secretary), Gerald Kaufman (Shadow Foreign Secretary), and strategists Philip Gould and Patricia Hewitt.

Just as Kinnock’s closest advisers pressured him to jettison the direct, passionate language that had won him a following, fearful that he might not stay ‘on message’, so in his play David Hare has the party leader George Jones’s advisers insist that ‘George… learns his lines and he sticks to them’.

The party has brought in a new publicity advisor, Lindsay Fontaine, a member of the party for two months, who comes from the world of advertising and focus groups. In one of her first briefings she reports that 70% of voters believe that the Labour Party ‘no longer stands for anything distinctive’. Later Lindsay suggests that George reverts to his old barn-storming style of speaking without notes at an election rally.

George begins with a Bevan-style attack on the wealthy, and continues, ‘My socialism is concrete.  It is real. It is to do with helping people’, before faltering, wordless, and reverting to notes.

This terribly awkward scene might have been brought off more successfully with better acting, though I doubt it.  In The Cambridge Companion to David Hare, Richard Boon emphasises the importance of this scene:

The importance of this moment in the play is considerable, as George is granted one last chance to summon common socialist inspiration; however, his stammering, along with the drift of the audience, indicates that the old language will not work.  It suggests that there will be no going back, but only forward into a future where new ideas and language must be fashioned.’

The Absence of War 2
The Absence of War: rallying the vote

In the end, George stands as the personification of the Labour Party and all its troubles – its disjointed message, its squabbling and back-biting, its lack of confidence and conviction.  As Boon goes on to observe:

George’s defeat is more than a personal disappointment; it signifies a historical marking point – the death of a viable socialist alternative.

No wonder, then, that Hare’s portrait of a Kinnock-type Labour leader resulted in a furious response from Kinnock and others in the party leadership who felt the playwright had betrayed the trust placed in him. As the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington observed:

Although Hare took pains to differentiate his hero, George Jones, from Labour leader Neil Kinnock by making him a London-born bachelor, it seemed like a careful smokescreen. In the event, Jones loses the election because his spontaneous warmth and wit are smothered by spin doctors, he lacks forensic incisiveness and his shadow chancellor reveals Labour’s tax-raising proposals.

In this Headlong production, director Jeremy Herrin has cast a Yorkshireman, Reece Dinsdale, to play the Labour leader as Sheffield born and bred, creating further distance from Kinnock.

In 1994, David Hare responded to the criticism he had received from the Labour Party with an article in the Independent:

The decision of the Labour Party in the Eighties, for all the best tactical reasons, to give ground to an apparently triumphant Tory party and to remodel itself as a paragon of sobriety, has not only left the electorate wondering why they should vote for the imitation when they might as well vote for the original; it has left a Labour Party terrified of controversy, terrified of internal argument, and in my own tiny corner of interest, terrified of a play that asks what has happened to its own ability to give voice to its great passion for social justice.

The irony of the reaction to this play has been that the reaction is itself a demonstration of the play’s thesis: the Labour Party has become convinced that for its own electability it must not let people in on the arguments it is having with itself. Loyalty to the leadership involves loyalty to pretending that the questions the play raises are not important at all. Whereas clergy, lawyers and police all welcomed open discussion of their professions, it is only the political class which is threatened by a dialogue it does not control. What this says to me about the state of British political life is deeply dismaying.

Since then, of course, matters have only got worse – New Labour, the Iraq War, the MP’s expenses scandal, and an ever-deepening divide between voters and the polticos who inhabit the Westminster bubble.

Hare’s play does, therefore, deal with some very pertinent issues.  And it is not all bad.  At the moment I am a waverer, torn between voting Labour because, as someone once remarked ‘there may be less than an inch between Labour and the Tories, but in that inch we survive’ – and casting in my lot with the Greens as a desperate wake-up call. Hare’s play touches on the sort of messages that political advisers reckon will win over floating voters like me.

The general election has just been called, and the Labour leader, George Jones, is confronted by his staff with the long-planned daily schedule:

Tuesday, health; Wednesday, education; Thursday, health; Friday, health.

‘Lord, do we ever do anything else?’ Jones wails. ‘Health is the lever,’ his chief of staff replies. ‘Health is the knife that’s going to detach voters from their primary loyalties and get them churning.’

In an echo of that scene, on the same day that I saw the play, Ed Miliband launched Labour’s election campaign with the announcement that an incoming Labour government would impose a profits cap on private health companies operating in the NHS. The vacuous bubble-speak of the apparatchiks was still present though:

We say: Britain can do better than this. The health service going backwards and the threat of deeper cuts still to come. The Tories say: this as good as it gets. We say: Britain can do better than this.

Good, but could have been better. Why have any private companies inside the NHS at all?

This example highlights a problem about which Hare’s play offered an early warning: as Labour tacked to the right, steered by focus groups and consultants, the party threw its founding values overboard. In the case of the NHS, where we are now is largely the result of New Labour’s mission to inject private market forces into an organisation whose founding values represented the rejection of any link between profit and the care of the sick.

Gyuri Sarossy as Malcolm Pryce, Reece Dinsdale as George Jones, Barry McCarthy as Bryden Thomas
Reece Dinsdale (centre) as Labour leader George Jones

A central problem with Hare’s thesis is that it isolates a very real problem about how politics is conducted (focus groups, tight messaging and spin) from the deep social and economic changes that have eroded the traditional support base of the Labour Party. The only hint of this comes in the prologue scene in which James Harkness, George Jones’ Glaswegian minder, comments on the disappearance of the industries, working class communities and trade unions that gave birth and heart to the Labour party.

Another weakness is that there is no mention of Thatcher, as Dominic Cavendish pointed out in his review for the Telegraph. (Should it be necessary to go to that source for a perceptive remark?) For Thatcher represents the forces which have swung the wrecking ball through the communities that once endorsed Labour, to which Labour’s response has been to concede acres of political ground to neo-liberalism. In the play George describes the party as ‘the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people’s lives for the good’. If Hare – and the Labour Party itself – had tackled the question of Thatcher’s legacy more decisively, George Jones’ line would might ring more true.

The overarching theme of The Absence of War is the demise of socialist politics, a study of the Labour Party ‘in a state of fracture and fatigue, a ghost of its former self’, in the words of Richard Boon. The key to the play’s title refers comes in the two Armistice Day scenes at the Cenotaph that frame the drama. Hare’s point seems to be that the generation of politicians who came to the fore in the 1990s, having never fought in a war, feels untested, and unproven – reduced to battling among themselves, unable to recapture the memory of a nation bound by common sacrifice and mutual purpose (a view very similar to that of the Ken Loach film, The Spirit of 45).

This view is expressed by George Jones’ minder, James Harkness, in these words:

‘I have a theory. People of my age, we did not fight in a war.  If you fight in a war, you have some sense of personal worth. So now we seek it by keeping busy. We work and hope we will feel we do good.

Hare seems to pose the question: what can unite  people in a common purpose once again, in the absence of war? One voice in the play recognises that while the Tories are united by money and profit, the Labour party are unable to find common unity of purpose, led by politicians who can no longer relate to the general public.

The staging of this production places great emphasis on the communication technology of the period: political news flickers on Ceefax, Labour MPs are kept on message through pagers, and everyone wields chunky mobile phones.  For this is a study of the onset of the micro-management of the political message that has become so commonplace in today’s political landscape.

‘Shouldn’t there be something on the economy’, asks the leader’s press secretary about an upcoming speech. ‘No’, says her boss. ‘What he mustn’t do is… remind people that when he’s elected he’s going to be in charge of their money.’ While in another scene someone says, ‘Never use the word ‘equality’. The preferred word is fairness.’

In the Guardian, theatre critic Michael Billington wrote:

One thing Hare got absolutely right, aside from Labour’s urge to become more like the Tories to make themselves electable, was the extent to which modern politics is governed by carefully controlled images. George’s tragedy is that, in private, he is articulate, funny and authoritative but is forced to suppress his real self in order to look prime ministerial. A process that Hare detected in 1992 has got even worse since.

However, it’s unclear what alternative Hare visualises – whether in terms of a revivified Labour Party united behind a positive and distinctive message, or some new political formation emerging from beyond the confines of the party. His position remains unclear in this interview in Scotland’s The Herald this month :

The big difference between when the play first appeared and what’s happened twenty years later is the contempt for politicians that exists now. That came out of the expenses scandal, and when Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind are caught on camera saying the things they said that just exacerbates feeling towards politicians. When the play came out politicians were still felt to represent society at large, and you certainly can’t say that of Rifkind and Straw.

I think one of the things the play is about now is history. It begins and ends at the Cenotaph, and the industries and the profound need that the Labour Party was founded on no longer exist, so if the industries don’t exist, do the sentiments behind it? If the Labour Party is made up of people who’ve been to university and sip Cappuccinos, how can they share the same values which the party was founded on? Where is the common experience?

Other writers of David Hare’s generation have dramatised such questions about the Labour Party. Coincidentally, I’ve just begun watching Trevor Griffith’s 1976 TV series Bill Brand. I have always wanted to see Griffith’s drama again, and recently it surfaced on DVD. Griffiths explores many of the same questions as David Hare, depicting the election of a young left-wing Labour MP to parliament, where he encounters the full weight of party discipline and struggles to maintain his ideals.  I’m only four episodes in, but so far – despite some inevitable dating – the depth of characterisation, the quality of the writing, and the seriousness of Griffith’s interrogation of the issues knocks Hare’s play for six.

In The State in Capitalist Society, written in 1969, Ed’s dad, Ralph Miliband wrote:

In an epoch when so much is made of democracy, equality, social mobility, classlessness and the rest, it has remained a basic fact of life in advanced capitalist countries that the vast majority of men and women in these countries has been governed, represented, administered, judged, and commanded in war by people drawn from other, economically superior and relatively distant classes.

Ralph Miliband’s argument in that book and his earlier Parliamentary Socialism, was that historically the Labour leadership had always subordinated socialism to the dictates of parliamentary politics.  As a result, Labour had come to stand for social reform rather than socialism. Specifically, this meant that Labour always failed to challenge the power of the ruling class:

The ‘dominant class’ is not a figure of speech: it denotes a very real and formidable concentration of power, a close partnership of capital and the capitalist state, a combined force of class power and state power, armed with vast resources, and determined to use them to the full, in conjunction with its allies abroad, to prevent an effective challenge to its power. The new revisionism does not seem to me to take this power seriously enough: most of the relevant literature is remarkably short on the factual acknowledgement and analysis of its nature and meaning, and its implications for a realistic socialist strategy.

Whenever there was a possibility of more extensive change through extra-parliamentary action, the party always deliberately damped it down. Trevor Griffiths dramatised this in Bill Brand, as did Jim Allen in his 1969 Wednesday Play, The Big Flame (directed by Ken Loach), which foreshadowed Britain’s massive industrial unrest of 1973-4 and the clash between workers and the state in the miners’ strike of 1984.

In The Absence of War, labour leader George Jones insists that ‘the Labour Party is the only practical instrument that exists…for changing people’s lives.’ But these days, far more people are involved in extra-parliamentary action than are members of the Labour Party, or any political party.  Whether it’s working-class Londoners resisting expulsion from their homes by international property dealers, anti-fracking protesters, climate change activists, or anti-cuts campaigners – all are examples of engagement in political action at the same time as people turn away from party politics.

In 2013, trade union leader Len McCluskey delivered the annual Ralph Miliband lecture at the London School of Economics in which he said:

Let’s not pretend that we are ‘one nation’, or that we will become one without the conflict that Ralph Miliband placed at the heart of politics. […] We cannot create common interests across a society that is now more unequal than for generations simply by wishing for it.

In The Absence of War there’s a particularly desperate gag that draws a belly-laugh from the audience.  After his defeat at the election, George Jones suggests that their best chance is to join the Tory party and ‘fuck it up’.

We filed out of the theatre to  D:Ream’s ‘Things can only get better’, the song that heralded the arrival of New Labour and the intensification of the processes identified by Hare in his play.

See also

Leviathan: politics, religion, and vodka (lots)

Leviathan: politics, religion, and vodka (lots)

Leviathan, the latest film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, opens with waves beating upon a barren shore where rocks as old as the earth face an implacable, slate-grey sea.

Tracking inland across barren wastes to an insistent Phillip Glass score, the camera encounters signs of human imprint on this unforgiving landscape: power lines, the hulks of wrecked and abandoned boats, a settlement of worn clap-board houses.
Here an old wooden house stands on a bluff overlooking the bleak shore. In the grey light of dawn, a window lights up and a man emerges. This is Nikolai whose family has lived in this house for generations. Now his world is falling apart: despite enlisting the services of a lawyer from Moscow to resist plans by the local mayor to seize his property for redevelopment, he must move out, along with his wife, Lilya and teen-age son, Roma.

Aleksei Serebryakov as Nikolai in Leviathan, Zvyagintsev’s film.
Aleksei Serebryakov as Kolya in Leviathan

Leviathan is the story of an individual who tries, and fails, to resist the might of a monstrous state, personified in the portrait of Putin that we glimpse on the wall of the mayor’s office. Oddly, perhaps, the film was made, as the opening credits tell us, with support from the Russian Ministry of Culture. In the past year it has accumulated several awards, including winning best screenplay at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and being nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film.  I have just caught up with it on DVD.

Although Zvyagintsev insists that the ideas at the heart of his film ‘are relevant everywhere’, he admits that ‘of course it’s a film about Russia. It’s a very Russian film.’ The setting is the edge of the Kola Peninsula, in north-western Russia (nearest town – Murmansk) where the land runs out, leaving nothing but the vast wastes of the Barents Sea. Literally the edge of the world. (By curious coincidence, we’ve recently been watching Fortitude, the thriller commissioned by Sky Atlantic that is set in another frozen landscape of the far north – the island of Svalbard that lies in the far north of the Barents Sea.)

Leviathan: boy and skeleton

The title of Zvyagintsev ‘s film might refer to the whales that inhabit the Barents Sea, or to their great skeletons, one of which Kolya’s son ponders on the local beach. It most probably refers also (as it does in Thomas Hobbes’s book of the same name) to the monstrous forces of government against which men like Kolya struggle fruitlessly. While the town’s Orthodox priest, in whom Kolya seeks guidance, offers him the solace of Job and his stoical resignation: ‘man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.’

The film certainly evokes Hobbes’ notion of freedom surrendered by people for the apparent security of an authoritarian regime, and Kolya endures trial and tribulation, losing everything (whereas God rewards Job’s loyalty during his travails by restoring his health and doubling his original wealth). But these references are subtly placed in a film that in some ways is reminiscent of one by Ken Loach, both in its unsparing observation of class differences, corruption, and men whose brutish lives revolve around hard labour and drink.

Aleksei Serebryakov plays Kolya, a rugged car mechanic whose land is coveted by the local mayor, an obese, vodka-swilling thug who, Kolya suspects, wants to build a luxury mansion on the spot (he’s wrong; it’s something even more insidious). Using his influence with the local police and courts, the mayor has secured an eviction order and a pitifully small compensation payout.  The film opens with the a Kafkaesque ritual of Kolya’s appeal being overruled and the judge reading her lengthy verdict in a mindless rapid monotone.

Mayor and Putin
Putin and the mayor

The intertwining of politics and religion is a central theme in Leviathan. Zvyagintsev pointedly positions  Vadim, the corrupt mayor, in the national hierarchy headed by Putin (whose portrait looms over Vadim’s office) whilst hinting that not much has changed since the days of Communism as the camera lingers on a statue of Lenin that still stands in front of the courthouse. At the same time, Vadim and his strongmen are bolstered by the mutually beneficial support of the Russian Orthodox Church. To underline the point, in one scene we catch a glimpse of Pussy Riot on a TV flickering in the corner of a room.

Taking pot shots at old leaders

But the most indelible memory this film leaves is of the vodka drinking: lots of it. There’s hardly a scene in which someone, or everyone isn’t knocking back the stuff in fearsome quantities, whilst matters are disputed, scores are settled and discontent simmers. The drinking gives rise to the film’s funniest line: ‘Are you O.K. to drive?’ a woman asks her husband. ‘I’m a traffic cop, aren’t I?’ he retorts.

Leviathan vodka
Vodka – lots of it

This is the second film of Zvyagintsev’s that I have seen.  I vaguely remember his debut feature, The Return, released in 2003, an ominous film about a man who returns to his family after an unexplained absence of twelve years, filling his two teenage sons with confusion and alarm.

Leviathan ends with the sight of a digger destroying Kolya’s house, slicing away at furniture and walls, before the camera makes the same journey of the opening minutes, but now in reverse – from the wasteland of man out to the empty shore where the waves continue to smash against eroded rocks. It’s as if Zvyagintsev is suggesting that everything – from rocks to nation-states – crumbles to dust in the end.


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The eurozone: ‘this machine from hell’

The eurozone: ‘this machine from hell’

There was a rather silly documentary hidden away on BBC4 on night last week all about the crisis facing Europe. Called The Great European Disaster Movie and set in a not too-distant future after the collapse of the EU, it featured an archaeologist (played by Angus Deayton) on a flight to Berlin beset by a menacing storm, explaining to a little girl what the European Union had been. These unconvincing sequences were intercut with case studies of individuals in 2015, in different member states, affected by the present crisis.

Podemos demo filling the Puerta del Sol. Madrid, January 31, 2015.
Podemos demo filling the Puerta del Sol. Madrid, January 31, 2015

In his latest column for the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash argues from a similar position, but in a much more reasoned manner. His fears for the future of the EU are worth paying attention to because, as he wrote in a column at the start of the Greek crisis back in 2011, ‘for all my adult life, I have been what in England is called a pro-European or Europhile’. My own experience has been similar; as I wrote here in 2012:

Through the 1990s and into the new century, I taught European Studies, and in that heady decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the launch of the euro, I accompanied young students on educational trips to Brussels and beyond, visiting the European Parliament and other EU institutions, absorbing the lessons of the past at the First World war sites of northern France and Belgium, and encountering the signs of Europe’s 20th century nightmare in other places.  With those ghosts at our shoulders, it felt intoxicating to be able to cross frontiers unchecked, sailing past boarded-up border posts, carrying bright new euro notes and coins that could be spent anywhere.

But, I continued three years ago, today there are no illusions:  ‘Across Europe, the EU has been transformed in the minds of voters everywhere into an undemocratic regime of bureaucrats imposing spartanism on the less fortunate in the name of the rich and the powerful.’ But, should we hold on to the original dream of an ‘ever-closer union’ – or, let it die with the neo-liberal ‘machine from hell’ that is the eurozone (as characterised by a senior German official, quoted by Garton-Ash)?

In today’s article, Timothy Garton-Ash begins by quoting Angela Merkel: ‘If the euro fails, Europe fails’. His analysis is more cautious:

There is a much higher chance that it will grind along like a badly designed Kazakh tractor, producing slower growth, fewer jobs and more human suffering than the same countries would have experienced without monetary union. However, the misery will be unevenly distributed between debtor and creditor countries, struggling south and still prospering north.

Garton-Ash is surely correct when he writes:

The structural problem here is that the monetary area is European but the democratic politics are still national. It is not that there is nothing that could be done, if the politics allowed it.

It’s obvious that Timothy Garton-Ash is no fan of the eurozone, thinking its hasty establishment in the 1990s was a mistake. The eurozone could be saved, he suggests, in a way that didn’t grind the faces of the Greeks, Spaniards or Irish by agreeing the kind of fiscal transfers from richer states to poorer ones that you have inside a proper federal union such as the United States. But, ‘in creating a monetary union without a fiscal or political one, Europeans put the cart before the horse – and now the horse is not ready to get in front of the cart’.

Tzsipras election victory
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras celebrating victory in the Greek general election

‘We don’t change policies depending on elections.’

The problem lies with what, for years now, has been termed in the text books the ‘democratic deficit’.  The EU is, in Garton-Ash’s words, ‘a paternalistic, top-down’ version of European integration – now challenged by the Syriza victory in Greece, and the likely triumph of Podemos in Spain’s election later this year. Garton-Ash highlights the attitude problem among the technocrats and politicians imbued with neo-liberal ideology who run the EU today with an alarming quote:

Given the choice between democracy and a paternalistic, top-down, Euro-Leninist version of European integration, I will choose democracy every time. The Finnish vice president of the European commission, Jyrki Katainen, responded to Syriza’s election victory by saying, ‘We don’t change policies depending on elections.’ Oh yes you bloody well do. It’s called democracy and it’s Europe’s greatest political invention. The trouble is that the structural problems of the eurozone require a transnational European democratic solidarity of fellow citizens which does not exist between different nationalities in the eurozone, and is not in prospect any time soon.

This is exactly the problem I identified the last time there was a Greek crisis, in February 2012:

Imagine that this is us: scrutineers from the European Union move permanently into our government departments; international financial institutions insist that our constitution is rewritten to make servicing our government debt the priority; those institutions stump up a fund to bail out our public debt, but pay the money into an escrow account, releasing  funds only under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank, and on condition that key public services are privatised, wages and pensions slashed and conditions of service torn up.

This is what Greeks are waking up to this morning, now that the eurozone finance ministers have agreed the rescue deal for their country’s debt bailout.  It means that Greece is now ‘independent in name only’, colonised and policed by the richer members of the eurozone.

So here we are, the can kicked another three years down the road. How much longer can this go on?  Quite a while, suggests Garton-Ash:

And so we will struggle on, torn between national politics and European policies, while the monetary union that was meant to unite Europe pulls it apart. But the torture will be slow. In the countries that are suffering most from this “machine from hell”, as one senior German official has described the eurozone, there is still a passionate determination to stay “in Europe”.

It’s a powerful article, albeit that it ends rather limply:

What then? My heart does not like what my head is telling me. But it is still up to us, and there is still time to reverse the trend. Can Europe’s 89ers – the generation born around and after 1989 – generate the political imagination and will that our current politics are failing to produce?

Not that I blame him: to be pro-European today is to cling on desperately to a dream. A decade or more ago, there seemed to be a strong case for arguing that the supranational structures of the EU were the only way that national or local populations could retain sovereignty over their territorial affairs and interests, under pressure from the forces of globalization (large multi-national firms, outsourcing of labour, mass migration, ecological disaster, climate change and so on).  That case is still valid today as nation-states increasingly fail to protect their citizens from the depredations of globalisation – more so in the current global recession.  National governments are failing to effectively regulate financial systems, protect the environment, or narrow the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak.

But now, in response to the impact of austerity policies, citizens are shifting towards the view that the only way that their interests can be protected is to bring decision-making back home (see: Scotland, Catalonia, the French Front National, UKIP). It’s a seductive banner, but can we retreat into our own little enclaves and still be able to tackle the problems created by the global muscle of powerful banks and multinationals?

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Austerity Britain: the way we were

Austerity Britain: the way we were

I’ve embarked upon the history of my time.  David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain is the first in a planned history of post-war Britain that begins on VE Day in 1945 and will finally close in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1948, so Kynaston’s remarkable project almost exactly mirrors the years of my birth, schooling, university student life, and entry into the workforce as a college teacher in the 1970s. Kynaston is a contemporary, born in 1951, the year in which this first volume ends.

Reading Austerity Britain is quite different to reading more conventional histories of a particular period.  Although Kynaston deals with the full range of topics you might expect from a social or political history, he is less concerned with the political manoeuvrings between or within parties than with trying to capture the feel of daily life as experienced by individuals of all social classes, drawing upon sources, many of which give voice to the anonymous majority who go unrecorded by the histories. Continue reading “Austerity Britain: the way we were”