Saturday, May 09, 2015

Our New Jerusalem

I grew up in Tory Britain, and it wasn't pleasant. Mainly, it was the lack of hope. The sense that whatever you did or aspired to the rug would be pulled from under you at some point. I went to sixth form in 1983, when all my classmates went straight onto the dole, into youth training schemes (which would seen be pulled) or joined the army. By the time I came out of University in 1988, the brief London-centric boom had petered out, and I found myself unemployed and stuck back with my parents. The "new world" that some Tory apologists talk about, of coffee shops, and immaculate high streets and whatever else had yet to be born, yet if you'd have gone anywhere else in Europe you'd have found a more civilised civic centre. It was only that summer that the restrictions on pub opening hours - a legacy from World War One - were relaxed. I got a job, but not the one I wanted, but it was a well paid one, and I was encouraged to buy a house, with a 5% deposit. When I moved, the economy had come crashing down for a third time in my brief adult life, this time with negative equity and interests rates in double figures. That was Tory Britain....

...but I was young, and in retrospect I'd have been better dropping out more than I did. Trying to get on proved difficult - they were always meddling. I though about teaching in F.E. but that was the year that the Tories had made colleges private entities, and as a result there was hardly a job to be found, so the course I'd got a place on I dropped out of. I stuck in jobs I didn't enjoy, because the fear of finding anything else was still there. It was only after Labour came into power in 1997 that I felt suitably confident about the future to change tack. It wasn't necessarily easy. I'd grown up with "inflation" being seen as the enemy (in much the same way as "the deficit" is the tale they tell us now) above all enemies, but both Labour and Tories colluded in "house price inflation" being somehow okay. I'd never planned to join the public sector - under the Tories it seemed a masochistic game - but I then worked in Universities, the voluntary sector, and finally for the council. Working hard, contributing to other people's well-being - helping the economy (I worked partially in business support) - yet come 2010 and the coalition, the good was undone with a frightening speed.

Labour had diverted funds to the most in need parts of the country but rather than embed it by looking at how local authorities were funded had connived a technocratic solution (New Labour's technocrats have a lot to answer for) which meant that come 2010 this extra money could be wiped out with a swipe of a pen, alongside the Regional Development Agencies and a load of quangos. My "quango" was part of a local authority so it survied a little longer, but then Eric Pickles came along with his over-enthusiastic axe. The last five years I've hardly had a six month period of stability even though my job has continued to be funded, as one cut after another has come down from the centre. Labour had also invested in buildings - schools, arts centres, health centres - after the massive neglect that we'd seen up to 1997, but what use is a building without things going on inside it? Yet after the disastrous flatlining in the economy in the first years of the coalition, more money for infrastructure and business support starting coming through again. The same people who'd gone freelance after being let go by the quangos probably got jobs back in the new quangos. In the name of "efficiency" central government red tape seems to have got more, rather than less, both in work and home life, as inefficient electronic systems replace inefficient people based ones. But just as Tesco's share price has fallen off a cliff as people fall out of love with its soulless offerings, British productivity and investment has gone pear shaped as the tightening of both private and public sector means that we all have to self-service everything these days.

For the Tories are the management class spoofed by John Cleese, and I've yet to see an example where anything actually works better under the Tories; whether run by the private sector or the public sector. So its both the death of hope, and their sheer meddling day-to-day incompetence that makes me shudder at the next five years. In a modern, connected sophisticated country, 90% of activity goes on without government intervention - they have power over the big things (macroeconomics, financial regulations) and the small things (sanctions or benefits that can ruin or improve an individual's life). The rest is up to us - and in the eighties when it seemed that Thatcher and her kind were in power for ever, there was at least the understanding that having made us unemployed she'd not want to see us starving (unlike her followers), and that we could do good for each other; by living our lives, by making art, and when the opportunity came (poll tax riots) making it very difficult for the powers-that-be who had long ago lost any right over our citizenship.

And so, having not stayed up much past the exit poll, as I'd an eye hospital appointment the next day (thought I'd better go before I was told to bring my cheque book), I woke to the worst-case scenario, of  Conservative majority in a divided country. I can't say I was entirely surprised, not because of any lack of decency on Milliband's part (though the technocratic nature of the campaign and the Whitehall-bubble nature of the leader can't have helped), because its the world I grew up in - of fear, not hope. I was younger then and I could sublimate my hope into other places: art, love, music, travel; now I'm wary to embrace a decade or more of anti-Tory action, even though I'll be watching to see if the demonisation of public sector workers continues, but I don't see a contradiction in looking after myself, whilst looking out for others. Labour needs to focus on the makers, the creators, the future builders, and find new ways to deliver on that hope. After all, Tory Britain is one of contradiction. Their obsession with home ownership has led to a massive decline in a property owning democracy; their talk about rebalancing the economy is merely shoving money into London-based investors' pockets.

So I've had my little wobble of woe, following Thursday's debacle.Someone needs to make the case for Europe - surely the thing which will split the Tory party asunder either this time or next - and the Union. A Flemish friend in Belgian, a country with deeper rifts between two regions (who don't even speak the same language), said that there are two things that keep the country together: Brussels and the Royal Family. Scotland hardly needs London when it has Edinburgh, and the Commonwealth example means there's no real barrier to keeping the Queen even if they ditch her constitution. Elsewhere in Europe, Catalan and Basque areas of Spain are autonomous in so many ways, yet like Scotland would be fearful of being adrift from Europe, even if they want some kind of break from Spain itself. The anti-European fear is of a federal Europe - yet it looks increasingly likely that they will need to find some way of making a federal UK possible.

Read the Tory manifesto and its full of uncosted promises (oh, the irony!) from millions of new apprenticeships, to discounts to buy Housing Association homes, to 7-day doctors' surgeries (when they couldn't even manage Andy Burnham's modest plan to allow you to register with any surgery of your choice - they only had 5 years after all!), without mentioning where they will get 12 billion cuts from. Yet I've already heard on social media that the things they are immediately trying to slip through are cuts to support for disabled people to get into work and the possibility of repealing the fox hunt ban. Such red meat to right wingers will probably be the price they have to pay to get through a deal with Scotland that is palatable to both sides.

In my own little world, hand-wringing at the incompetence and cruelties of Tory Britain is commonplace, and its our default position up North, without a Tory councillor to be seen for miles. Because they offered nothing more than repeats from the Thatcher playbook, because they never want to get their hands dirty enough to actually run anything properly, and because they still only represent 37% of the voters, never mind the population, we are better than them, we are more than them, we will outlive them, we will outthink. In the gaps that they leave through their cruelty, neglect and most of all their insouciance and incompetence we build our new cities, our new communities, our new Jerusalem.

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