You’d have to have a heart of stone not to chuckle a little bit at Andrew Mitchell’s contriving to catastrophically lose a battle that I for one had thought he’d won months ago, or at least at the Judge’s ruling that PC Rowland – the rozzer at the gate – was “not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper”. In other words, the Judge reckoned that Rowland couldn’t have made up the word ‘pleb’ because he was, well, too much of a pleb. Snob!
I remember reading Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island some years ago and becoming impatient with his continuous whining about how all British towns looked the same because they all had the same chain shops. ‘These towns do not exist purely as museums for your passing entertainment,’ I told Bryson, tetchily, ‘People actually have to live in them, and they like being able to go to Marks and Spencer. Deal with it, yeah?’
But in the last few years as a frequently travelling man o’business, I fear I’ve often fallen into Bryson’s line of thinking. It’s probably impossible not to when travel is enforced. The big cities are fine and so are very rural places. It’s the towns and the small cities wot grind you down. Very well, there are a few gradations within the type. At the top end you’ve got your medieval cathedral cities with their Eastgates and wonky inns: yer Yorks, yer Chesters, yer Winchesters, yer Salisburys, yer Exeters. Plenty of history, architecture and so on, but even they all muddle in the memory. Those places ensure that their M&S and Tesco Metro display their logos in gold lettering on black, to make them less crass and more heritagey. And in the middle of the High Street there’ll be a boutique markety thing where a kooky young lady is selling kooky plump ornamental farm animals and another one is selling vintage dresses. And the ring road has all the big stores and the town centre has sprouted one of the tasteful pre-packed red brick and glass malls containing a Nandos, a Gourmet Burger Kitchen, a Giraffe and a couple of Costas. And this has created the space for little independent blackboard-and-brown-sofa coffee shops down the sidestreets, all of which are the same, and left the 1980s-built indoor shopping precinct a forlorn graveyard for WH Smiths, Superdrug and the ghost of Woolworths.
I was in Ipswich the other day, possibly my last ever business trip. I was talking to a pleasant, arrogant man called Jason who despite being in his early fifties was as fidgety as a toddler. Couldn’t even sit straight in his chair; he rode it side-saddle and kept laughing at his own jokes. His laughs were expressed kinetically rather than vocally: they started with a wobble in his shoulders then rippled down his body to his feet, which stamped a little jig on the floor, and back up to his neck to toss his head in an equine snort and whinny.
I looked at this man and thought: Ipswich, what’s the bloody point? With its Corn Exchange and middling football team. It was bitterly cold outside. There was a statue of the cartoonist Giles. There was a terrific fish stall, mackerel straight from the North Sea: beautiful things they were, slopped in a corpse pile, dead eyes staring at naught. The fishmonger waved his arms around them and in a Suffolky-Cockney yodel implored passing Poles to make a purchase. Behind the market stalls was a line of white Transit vans, one of them with a St George’s Cross flag in the window. OMG!
Funny how the drift towards dullness in politics has ended up making politics quite interesting again. It sloshes and swirls and you never know how things will pan out. Little events like the Thornberry Tweet pop up and reveal themselves as landmarks.
Thornberrygate is all part of the continuing legacy of Tony Blair, whose place in British history becomes ever more strange and fascinating. His pushing of Labour away from its northern working-class roots towards centre-ground soft leftism made the party electable because middle class southerners could vote for him. This success in turn forced the Conservatives into Cameroonism, creating space on the right for the rise of UKIP, so UKIP seemed a Tory problem. But now UKIP is a Labour problem because the generation of Labour frontbenchers created by Blairism are middle-class southerners with nothing in common with the party’s northern working-class roots, and the northern working-class ‘leftism’ of trade union nostalgia and anti-Thatcher tribalism is a completely different beast to the metropolitan ‘leftism’ of identity politics and ‘issues around diversity’.
What do any of the Notting Hill-accented, PPE-graduating career politicians of the Labour front bench have in common with the constituents of the northern seats into which they’re occasionally beamed like visitors from the USS Enterprise? Blinking aliens grinning awkwardly on the platform on election night as the dumb tribal votes are weighed (turnout shrinking every time), hugging their alien wives as they wait impatiently for the mothership to beam them back to the safety of London. Sweet Fanny Adams, is what.
At a televised party conference a couple of years ago I remember an Old Labour man summarising Ed Miliband’s Mili-socialism with the complaint: “It’s all out of a book, isn’t it?” Yes, it is. The Thornberry Tweet came from Rochester not the north but because it encapsulated the Two Labours divide, and because Miliband is paranoid about that, he had a panic attack and brilliantly turned it into a proper crisis.
Post-Blair MiliLabour was recently described by Tim Stanley as:
the party of students and their professors, of NHS bureaucrats, welfare workers, actors, Marxist intellectuals, teachers who don’t believe in teaching, and male potters who get their kicks by dressing up as women and calling themselves artists. In short, Labour is bourgeois.
The question is whether UKIP have the gall to do to Labour in the north what the SNP are doing to Labour in Scotland. They would just need to: (1) acquire some high-profile Lancastrian spokespeople, preferably local ex-Labour councillors; (2) talk up the NHS a lot; (3) never, ever mention any kind of admiration for Margaret Thatcher; and (4) stop talking about Europe.
Driving a white van and hanging three St George’s Crosses from your house do not necessarily signify that you’re a proper old tattooed skinhead Sun-reading, UKIP-voting fascist, though let’s face it, they’re pretty decent indicators of that. Nor is such even representative of the working class; merely of a particular tribe within the working class. Thornberry was not being snobbish, I suspect, just bafflingly inane. It was her own justification – claiming that she’d never seen anything like it before – that was most damning. You’d expect a Japanese tourist to tweet such a commonplace English sight back to her friends in bemusement and hilarity, perhaps along with snaps of a fish ‘n’ chip shop and a pub called The Red Lion, but a Labour politician?
My own neighbourhood – the St George/Redfield area of Bristol – makes for an interesting case study of some of the tribes of the working-class. At the Kingswood end you’ve got your white van men. I could show Emily Thornberry a dozen houses with England flags permanently on display within a three minute stroll, dear me she’d probably break her iPhone. At the Easton end are your Somalis, albeit thirteen fewer than there were last week. In the middle, along Church Road, are your Jamaicans, your Poles, your Romanians, and your white Crustafarians.
These last four groups mix quite well when the Crusties organise community events such as the Redfest music festival and the Christmas lantern parade, bulked out by middle class types like me who couldn’t afford to buy a house in Redland. The lantern parade was on Saturday, we took the girls along. They successfully completed the treasure hunt and put their forms in the elves’ sack. After the parade we all crowded around at the bottom of St George’s Park while a cider-drinking gobshite dressed as Rudolph bellowed that they would now draw the winner of the free Christmas tree. He dipped his hand into the sack. Mrs Brit and I observed that we sincerely hoped we didn’t win – the last thing we needed was to have to lug a tree home and anyway we much prefer plastic. Still, there were loads of entries so we should be safe enough. Inevitably, Rudolph drew out E’s form. I took her up to the front and after much cheering and congratulating and ceremonial handing over of the tree, I announced that I was re-donating it, to more cheers. As I elbowed my way back to my family, carrying E aloft, Rudolph dipped his hand in once more. I need hardly tell you that he drew out C’s form. ‘How many Nixons are there?’ he roared.
It’s funny to recall that when Ed Miliband was running for the Labour leadership his campaign team used the slogan: ‘Ed Miliband – he speaks human.’
What does he speak? A grisly mix of business jargon, scripted soundbite and artificial emoting. Mind you, what is human these days? On Masterchef: The Professionals – a cooking competition for earnest young men who get terribly worked up about sauces – I caught this mighty utterance: “You were a soft quinoa away from an absolute triumph!”
I presume that’s an entirely original combination of words. The odd thing was it that it was uttered by Gregg Wallace, a grinning bald geezer who manages to give off a whiff of eau-de-white van even while saying things about soft quinoa. He used to annoy me, but what the hell, with his ‘three Gs in Gregg’ and his barrow boy voice and his violent assaults and his third wife Heidi who is 17 years his junior and who he met 2009 after she asked him a question about celery and pollock on Twitter and to whom he is now divorced, at least he’s his own man in England’s neverending pointless class war. Pip pip!