In Rhyl, a working-class pleasure resort, they have erected a new development between the esplanade and sea. It is called ‘New Drift Park’. The connection between the town and the sea has now been intruded upon. Concrete now sits where once the view was unencumbered. This barrier serves as a metaphor for modern Britain. There’s some blockage that wasn’t there before. New Drift Park is modernity grafted onto tradition. It has left us untethered. We are drifting.
The genius of Joe Hayman’s British Voices is that it allows Britons to speak for themselves. Hayman traveled across the land – an epic journey from Romford in Essex to the south-west, Shetlands, Midlands and Northern Ireland taking in Wales and Rhyl along the way – speaking to over a thousand people in the process. It is a beautiful work. The author – or perhaps interlocutor is more apt – steps back, puts his own voice on fade and lets people speak for themselves. Their voices are resonant and recognizable.
Anyone who has spent any time looking at polls, speaking with people on the doorstep, listening at family weddings and the like will appreciate the authenticity of these voices. Hayman helps us to understand Britain’s modern predicament as a result- a nation of uncertainty, anxiety and, yes, drift.
Different political perspectives have different ways of interpreting and understanding this reality. The left tends to emphasize inequality and class division. The right looks to culture, morality and the decay of traditional values. Sometimes the narrative switches over as in blue Labour and Red Tory but the starting point is the most instructive aspect of those philosophies. However, the only constant is change and this is experienced through the prisms of class, cultural identity, religious conviction, and community belonging.
Just say that tomorrow Canterbury cathedral vanished. What would be the consequence of that? As a nation we’d feel a sense of bewilderment and severance. A piece of who we are, our history would vanish. The loss would be cultural. For the people of Canterbury, their very understanding of their place in the world, a stability of identity and local pride would be forsaken. The local economy would suffer considerably as tourism to the town dried up. So it has been in communities such as Longbridge in Birmingham, Stoke in Staffordshire, Glasgow, Dagenham and Burnley. Their industrial prowess was their cathedral: the loss is economic and cultural. Both the right and the left have a point.
Change both empowers and disempowers. Hayman’s book tracks the upwardly mobile – the wired-up millennials, entrepreneurial immigrant communities, and the formerly downtrodden Catholic population of Northern Ireland. And he tracks the losers from change – the white working-class of Glasgow with almost a despair of life manifested in a life-decaying diet of saturated fat and alcohol, loyalist working-class communities in Belfast, and those for whom the 1960s was moral nightmare despite their relative affluence.
Often the voices plead victimhood. Compassion shines through everywhere nonetheless. So many desire an anchor to stop the drift. The less human and social capital at your disposal, the more likely you are to be swallowed by the ocean’s currents. In that sense class absolutely matters. But it’s much more complex than that: it’s about ethnicity, nationhood, religion, sexuality, urban, town, country, technological adaptability, community and values too. Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins, is as change adverse as the trade unionist, Bob Crowe. Yet their class-consciousness could hardly be further apart.
And actually we can choose to find a way of coping with change and division – keeping calm and carrying on. Eric Noi, who runs a boxing and personal development center in Oldham gets it about right:
“If we don’t understand something, we fear it; we’re hardwired that way from when we lived in caves. And that has been exploited by extremists on both sides.”
And when there is vacuum of leadership then extremists are able to exploit divides, separating people and communities even further. There’s always a charlatan ready to step into void – George Galloway with his populism of the outsider in one direction and Nick Griffin with his radicalization of the alienated in the other. Hayman spots the disdain in which mainstream politics is held. Daniel Trilling’s Bloody Nasty People looks at how Nick Griffin and the BNP were able to exploit disdain and anxiety – with violence silhouetting his every footstep.
Eric Noi’s boxing club is dealing with the fallout from the BNP’s years of agitation in Oldham exploiting a horrendous attack on a D-day veteran in 2001. Trilling’s account excavates the culture, intellectual sources, organisation, strategy and history of the modern extreme far right in Britain. It is a superb account and demonstrates vividly how the mainstream can play into the hands of those who seek to fan hatred and division.
His narrative of how a community in London’s docklands falls apart as their cathedral- the docks- was symbolically replaced with the glistening financial Babylon, Canary Wharf, is prescient. Where the BNP treads, violence follows and Tower Hamlets in the 1990s was no different. The complicity and culpability of the mainstream parties is striking. As sectarianism rises, it is difficult not to think back to the weakness of the SDLP and UUP in Northern Ireland in holding back Sinn Fein and the DUP respectively. The centre cannot hold as ethnic and cultural communities divide and entrench; the charlatans provoke it in every possible way they can.
However rudimentary it may have been, the BNP provided both a class and cultural narrative. The Conservative party increasingly surrendered their cultural concerns to worship of the free market throughout the 1980s. Labour was stuck in class frame. It then also accepted the logic of global free markets. As for the Liberal Democrats, it depended where and when one encountered them and on which day. Where should those who were anxious about cultural and economic change turn? Often they turned away altogether but sometimes they reached for the far right. While the working-class skew of the BNP vote is significant, it can’t be ignored that 30% or so of their support was professional and middle class. This is not simply class refracted through the prism of race, culture and identity.
If there is a criticism of Trilling’s book, it’s that it leans slightly in the direction of supposing class to be ‘real’ and identity to be ‘imagined’. The imagined is real and vice versa. Telling people they are experiencing a kind of distorted class-consciousness is unlikely to get very far. He describes the political and media establishment coming late to the party but engaging on the grounds of race which he describes as a ‘distortion.’ He is absolutely right though that the mainstream was both complicit and negligent when it came to engaging with both communities fearing change – both economic and cultural – and the national dialogue surrounding it.
In the penultimate paragraph, a UAF activist explains to an EDL demonstrator that there’s ‘no point people having a go at one another because of their skin colour or religion when the real division is between rich and poor.’ While there may some degree of truth in this, it is difficult to see how replacing one enmity really moves things forward.
Surely Eric Noi’s boxing club is a better way forward? And while Britain tries to work out which divide it should aggravate and politicize, the drift remains. Isn’t the point to remove the concrete barriers between town and sea? And to do what we can to protect our cathedrals? Beyond that, isn’t the crying need for leadership – local and national? For someone in the mainstream to get the complexity of anxieties that infect modern Britain? To speak with authenticity and to acknowledge mutual suspicion and fear? Above all though, isn’t it time for Britain to find a way to stop the drift and come to terms with what has happened to it over the last few decades? Hayman’s book illustrates the need. Trilling’s book is a warning of how it can go horribly wrong. Both are essential contributions to the national debate.
This review was first published on Labour Uncut.