Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The triumph of conviction – or the defeat of it?

Torydactyl – Gerald Scarfe, 1989
Way back in something that, right now, feels like the very dim and distant past, I lived in Lancaster.

My tertiary education had come to nothing after I was thrown off my course following a back injury.

Caused by the idiocy and ego of a lecturer, it had seen me signed off by my family GP for a week longer than the Easter holiday.

I was struggling to sleep and in fairly constant pain, but even a doctor’s letter was not enough to save me. I was told not to return for the second year of the course.

Oh well: such is life. Feeling somewhat damaged by the entire experience, and with ambition in tatters, I settled down to the process of getting a job. I didn’t really care what that job was – I was ready to do anything.

But this was the 1980s and the culture of suspicion at ‘over-qualified’ applicants was in full swing. A clutch of O’ and A’ levels, combined with a dubious record of just one year on a degree course, and with only my own explanation as to why it had been terminated, it was hardly easy finding a job.

I ended up selling advertising for a local free sheet, subsequently losing that job because I wouldn’t lie in order to sell ads. Fortunately, my parents were still in the area, since the employer would not respond to requests for an explanation of the nature of my dismissal and, therefore, it was classed as a sacking, with the loss of benefits for six weeks.

I remember the young man dealing with my case: sympathetic – not least because there were rumours around about the employer – but no evidence meant that he had no power to do anything to help me.

It was some consolation that, not that long after, the rag in question went under.

I managed to inveigle myself some work at a little café in Morecambe, but that could never last once the social decided that I should be earning more than I was for what I did, even though the café owner could have paid me no more.

Other jobs followed – first, at another free sheet, selling yet more advertising, from which I was headhunted by a little start-up company selling coffee machines to offices and workplaces.

I would make the appointments – he would go off to give a demonstration and convert them into sales. Except that, as one potential customer (who later employed me themselves) explained, he tried hard London selling on northerners. The product was good, but that approach put people off.

Who do you imagine paid the price?

The job I mentioned above turned out to be running a printing and stationary shop, with responsibilities for orders (plus a bit of ad selling for diaries on the side), dealing with customers, opening and shutting up, looking after the contents of the till etc. For £60 a week, gross.

Having been convinced that it was the way forward, I had bought a little two-up, two down. That went, and I ended up on the sofa of a friend in Morecambe, before leaving the area altogether and heading to Reading, where my parents then lived.

For 18 months, it was a daily commute into London to do sales jobs, sometimes barely earning enough to pay the train fare. I am not a natural salesperson, simply because I lack any killer instinct, but sales jobs were readily available.

And then it was suggested that I should apply to the Morning Star to sell adverts – a job I won easily and which, at the time, seemed to me, with a proper contract and an annual salary of (just) over £10K, to be quite incredible.

It was where, faced with a perennial shortage of resources, my knowledge of theatre came into its own as a critic, and where my love of football was transferred into sports reporting.

In other words, it was my training ground as a journalist.

But if you’re wondering what the reason is for this CV, it’s a spot of context.

I was fortunate in that, when my house was repossessed and I moved south, I could. I had no dependents; no ties other than friendships. My parents were able to put me up within commuting distance of London. Many others were not so lucky.

At the beginning of the 1980s, I had no real politics: my father had given me a membership of the Young Conservatives and sent me out to leaflet for the party; it was a time in which I readily believed that Tony Benn was evil incarnate and Ronald Reagan would stop any impending nuclear war: my politics had been chosen for me every bit as much as my religion had been at birth.

The change, then, was simply because of my own experience and the experiences of those around me – the attitudes that changed with those changing times.

When I first started working in London, I was homesick – a feeling hardly helped by seeing the ‘go home northerners’ t-shirts that were around at the time.

And the thing is, I look around now, and I wonder what was really achieved by the sacrifices of so many people on the altar of low inflation; a sacrifice, we were told, that was “a price worth paying”, by people who would not, of course, ever pay it themselves.

If John Stuart Mill was right in propounding the view that the proper course of action is one that maximises the happiness of people and reduces suffering, then did the politicians of that era do that in the long term?

I don’t think so.

It had been decided that this country was going to be dragged down the same neo-liberal path that was being marked out for the US; a path designed by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.

A path that, having failed more than once before, was somehow supposed to miraculously work at last. ‘This time’, the approach seemed to be, ‘trickle down will, err, actually trickle down’.

Or perhaps, being more cynical, it was simply an excuse by those obsessed with shrinking the state.

It was a process helped in the UK by Rupert Murdoch and his stable of newspapers, and later by others, as they pushed a message that, for instance, our nationalised industries were a mess – not because successive governments had taken money out of them instead of investing in them, but because of those dreadful trade unions.

Thus were our utilities privatised – rapidly ending up not in the hands of a mass of private individuals, but in the hands of large companies, many of which were not British, and all of which have, in the years since, embarked on an unending hiking of prices.

And they were helped too by the destruction of British mining – with many pits that still had plentiful supplies of coal being closed and allowed to fall into disrepair, if not actively blasted shut with explosives.

It is difficult, even now, to imagine how these acts could not be seen as close to treasonous: to destroy – or at least wilfully reduce – the country’s capacity to power itself, making it increasingly reliant on others. Harold Macmillan, the Tory grandee, said almost that, when he characterised these privatisations as ‘selling the family silver’.

Much the same can be said of food security. And it is equally no coincidence that the 1980s saw the real start of the rise of the major supermarkets from a position of complimenting small, independent businesses to one of treading them into the ground, reducing choice in the process.

The propaganda machine told the nation that everyone needed to own their own home. Councils were instructed to sell their social housing, but were forbidden from using the monies generated to replace those homes.

Therein lies a core reason for our continued housing shortage, for the massive rise in the cost of housing and the sort of irresponsible behaviour by the banks (100-year mortgages etc) that helped to lead right up to our present mess.

Together with the rises in utility bills, the rising cost of housing has helped to raise the cost of living massively over the last 30 years, at the same time as a reduction in household incomes for all but a few at the top.

In keeping with the ideology of the times, the mere mention of rent controls, which other countries seem quite comfortable to use, seems to suggest to some the onset of communism.

Deregulation took place to help facilitate not simply the growth of the UK as a financial hub, as a part of the service sector that was to replace the industries that could, in the bright new neo-liberal world, be allowed to die, so that manufacturing could be undertaken in the developing world.

But deregulation also helped the retail revolution. Shopping malls grew up everywhere – the new cathedrals for 24/7 worship, helped by changes to the laws on Sunday trading – laws that were changed not on the grounds that it would help big employers open more and for longer, but on the basis that being legally able to buy porn on a Sunday, but not a Bible, was indicative of the sort of inconsistencies that needed sorting out.

And so the country was launched on a consumer boom, fuelled by the cheap credit that was now being made available.

Behaviour that had once being seen, derisively, as ‘keeping up with the Jones’, now became ‘aspirational’ and almost a patriotic duty. Greed became good. Community less so.

Across the road from where Manchester City’s stadium now is, there is a vast derelict piece of land. It used to be the site of many engineering firms, employing many men in skilled manual jobs that paid a decent wage. But with the 1980s it died. Those jobs have never been replaced.

It was the same everywhere. In Glasgow, the history of shipbuilding on the Clyde all but ended. Many of the men who had crafted great vessels found alternative labour as taxi drivers. They are still driving the city’s cabs to this day and, if you engage one in conversation, it won’t be long before your hear their views of what happened to that industry and, with it, the jobs that gave them a decent living and dignity.

By the time that Margaret Thatcher wept as she left Downing Street, old people were dying on trolleys in hospital corridors. MRSA and c-diff rates had blossomed as private companies, trying to make money out of hospital cleaning services, had axed half the staff.

School buildings leaked. High unemployment had become the norm – and even then its true level was hidden by the start of a practice of foisting people onto disability benefits and thus off the unemployment figures. Yet it meant that government was operating a huge deficit to keep all those people out of work – and the funds from North Sea Gas were used not to invest in the country, but to further the deindustrialisation.

‘Care in the community’ had seen much proper care for those with mental illnesses cut.

Cardboard cities grew up as the number of homeless grew.

The Belgrano was sunk outside the exclusion zone and the Falklands rescued – but veterans from that conflict found no help when they left the forces.

Section 28 demonised LGBT people – for a suprisingly large number of conservatives, the small state can never be allowed to be so small that it cannot interfere in the relationships of individual, consenting adults.

It was a time when Pinochet could be lauded and befriended, and Mandela condemned as a terrorist.

Using stories of hooliganism, football fans were to be the guinea pigs for the ID cards that the governments wanted to roll out for the whole of society.

And at Orgreave and Hillsborough, at Wapping and elsewhere, the police did the dirty work for a government that gave no impression of being interested in maximising the happiness of people and reducing suffering.

It has been said that Margaret Thatcher was a ‘conviction politician’ and that this is to be applauded. So it should.

Shortly after she had been elected leader of the Conservative Party, various Westminster hacks, seeing the writing on the way, attempted an exercise in fawning.

Surrounding her in the lobby, they tried a tactic of rubbishing Denis Skinner, Labour’s ‘Beast of Bolsover’, in the hope of impressing her.

She was not so easily won over, though, and pointed out that Skinner, like herself, was a politician of conviction – and while one didn’t have to agree with everything he said, one should respect that.

During her final appearance in the House of Commons, many years later, it was clear as she and Denis Skinner exchanged banter, that there was a mutual respect.

And looking at mainstream politics these days, convictions seem in short supply.

But conviction, when it becomes so certain and so set in stone that it cannot listen to anything else, let alone contemplate that there may be a different approach – and the lady was not for turning – then it becomes not conviction, but fanaticism.

I was fortunate. Eventually, I was able to find work that I could do well, and find the opportunities to do that work. It was, nonetheless, a lengthy struggle. Others were nowhere near as lucky.

And in so much since, through the years of Major, Blair, Brown and now Cameron, it is possible to detect the hand of Margaret Thatcher.

Indeed, she reportedly claimed that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair.

Oh, she didn’t do it all on her own, but she did browbeat the people around her into accepting what she wanted. She purged her Cabinet regularly to keep dissent to a minimum.

But what we see now – the demonisation of the poor, of the disabled, of anyone on benefits – is a part of her legacy.

Her divisive impact on the country continues and has been seen again so clearly in the days since the news of her death was released.

A death that was peaceful, in a bed at the Ritz – the sort of death that she helped deny to many others.

Her spectre will continue to haunt this country for some time yet. Perhaps, indeed, her very fanaticism is part of the reason that conviction in politics seems so unfashionable these days.

In the meantime, there is the decision to award her a funeral with full military honours – something not accorded a former prime minister since Churchill’s demise.

To do this for such a divisive figure is an extraordinary mark of arrogance, and contempt for those who suffered – and add to that that the knowledge that it will cost an estimated £10m, at a time when libraries are being closed, vital health care rationed (cataract surgery now being treated as though it were a cosmetic treatment) and foodbanks are on the rise, and so much of it a continuation of her convictions and the processes that she set in motion.

Parliament has been called back early from the Easter recess, with seven and a half hours set aside for politicians to try to outdo each other in obsequious displays over the departed baroness – a far, far longer time than allotted on previous such occasions and all at additional cost to the taxpayer.

There are calls to show ‘respect’; to remember that she was a frail, old lady suffering from dementia; that she was a mother – and a grandmother.

To remember, in short, so many things that never, when she held the reins of power, seemed to bother her overly much. To remember the things that many of those now demanding ‘respect’ are far from careful to remember themselves on many occasions.

Well, I didn’t dance at the news; I didn’t break open the Champagne or play ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’.

But neither I will shed any crocodile tears for someone whose only sobs were not for those who suffered as a result of her convictions, but for herself and her own loss of power.

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