And The There Were None

It has finally happened: the last deep pit has closed. Somewhat inevitably given the history of the coal industry its closure was bitter and its closure was political; government policies were directly responsible and the government refused to save it. Probably they are delighted as the Tories always did hate the coal industry and its radical workforce and hated it even more after the NUM helped to topple the Heath government in 1974.

Contrary to some media reports the closure of Kellingley Colliery does not actually mean that British coal production has ceased (there are opencast mines up and down the country and still something of a drift mining industry in South Wales) although it does mean that the last remnant of the old industry is gone.

Mixed feelings are sometimes the right feelings, and that is how we should feel about the coal industry. Environmental issues aside, it was horrible to work in and over the centuries it killed a staggeringly high proportion of its workforce – not through pit disasters as horrific as they were, but through pneumoconiosis – and yet it also provided secure, skilled and relatively well paid employment for generations. And did so because of the efforts of the miners themselves. The old pit communities had rich cultural lives and were essential to the development of trade unionism and socialist politics in this country.

A sad day.

Not knowing the country in which they live

A by-election earlier this month saw the Labour Party hold an overwhelmingly working class constituency in the North of England with a substantial majority. This came as a great surprise to most political commentators, who had managed to convince themselves that a very different result was likely: a very close result and perhaps even a UKIP win. Given the first sentence of this post you might well wonder how this could be possible – surely anyone with a basic knowledge of British politics would be dismissive of the idea that Labour would have much trouble in a by-election in Oldham West whilst in opposition absent a really, really bad local scandal? – and you would be right to wonder given that political knowledge is what most of the people in question are employed to provide. After giving the matter a small amount of thought, I have come up with an explanation: most British political commentators, journalists and so-called ‘experts’ do not actually know or understand the country in which they live in at all well. I shall demonstrate this with a few choice examples.

Let us begin with one of the most absurd examples. Rafael Behr – who I strongly suspect would have difficulty finding Oldham on a map – claimed that Labour is in crisis in Northern England (a curious assertion given Labour’s continued electoral domination in the region in the General Election: but why let pesky facts get in the way of grand narrative, eh?) because the people of the North believe that Labour has become “poncified”. I have never heard this word before in my life and probably neither have you. I suspect that no one in Oldham has ever used it either and certainly did not when speaking to Behr. In fact almost all of the top hits for the term on google either link or reference Behr’s article. Presumably Behr used the (can we call it a word?) because he assumes that’s what Northerners think, because apparently they are all obsessed with manliness (even the women) and say ‘ponce’ at least three times every hour. This means that they obviously prefer UKIP to Labour because Farage drinks vast quantities of beer and is therefore not a ponce. This is lazy stereotyping (presumably every other voter in Oldham also owns a whippet?) masquerading as serious analysis and is utterly contemptible.

I’m not quite done with Behr yet, as he also claims that:

If defeat is averted, it will be down to McMahon’s local record and support in the constituency’s south Asian population. Around a fifth of the electorate is of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, and Labour canvassers say their vote is holding up best in areas where that community is concentrated. Local elections in May point to a stronger turnout in those wards.

Pity that the general tendency in Oldham is for voters from Asian ethnic backgrounds to vote at about the same rate as the rest of the population (there are also substantial differences in the voting habits of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, who do not live in the same parts of the town and who certainly don’t view themselves as forming one solid block of the population), and it would in any case be impossible to win a 70% white constituency without winning the votes of a lot of white people, but why let facts get in the way of poisonous pseudo-psephology? Once again we see the fruits of ignorance paraded around as if they were facts.

Did someone say ‘poisonous pseudo-psephology’? Enter arch bullshit meister Ian Warren! I won’t focus too much on the statistical ‘analysis’ upon which this article of his was based as it has been discredited enough by the election results themselves, but on some of the commentary that he attached to it:

Unfortunately for Labour, both these white working-class groups have reasons to despise Jeremy Corbyn, which is what they are expressing on doorstep after doorstep. Blue-collar households think he’s soft on immigration and welfare and a republican pacifist. Disaffected voters either don’t know who he is, in which case he’s “just another politician”, or hear him speaking about socialism and solidarity and wonder what he’s blathering on about. Both groups will know full well what his and John McDonnell’s views on the IRA are. Both groups aren’t shy in hanging St George’s flags from their windows, as Emily Thornberry might note.

This bizarre screed has little relationship with the reality of working class political attitudes in Oldham or elsewhere – though doubtless tells us a great deal about Warren’s views – and on reading it for the first time I was perplexed that it was published; surely baseless rants have no place in ‘analytical’ articles? Alas the answer here is fairly clear: the relevant people at the Grauniad probably think that Warren was writing an accurate summary of the views of White Working Class people in The North (who are apparently are not individuals but a vast hive mind) rather than writing pernicious rubbish. Isn’t that a depressing thought? Similar assumptions can be found in this absurd chin-stroking thinkpiece from The Economist, whic probably deserves to win a prize for comical overanalysis.

Of course an awful lot of pre-poll nonsense about the by-election was written from another perspective entirely, one that wanted to see evidence of a structural crisis for Labour in Northern England because this would be great news for the Tories. A good example of that can be found here. I may be wrong and engaging in gross stereotyping of my own but I suspect that Sebastian Payne is not terribly familiar with working class Northerners and their political priorities.

How to conclude? Perhaps by noting that it is not actually that hard to familiarise yourself with places that you have no personal connection to, but that in order to do this it generally helps to avoid assumping that crude stereotypes are the wellspring of all useful knowledge.

Denis Healey

There is always a temptation when the last figure of a particular era in any field dies to assert that they were the last of their kind; that people of their sort (in that field at least) no longer exist and that things are all so very different now. There can be no room for such mawkish faux-reflection in the case of the now (alas) late Denis Healey, as there have seldom been political figures as entirely unique and as thoroughly themselves as him. Politics may well have had more ‘personalities’ in the Post War era than it does today, but it was never exactly overflowing with sharp-tongued intellectuals with a propensity for the theatrical (this is a man who sometimes played the piano – whilst pulling silly faces – at election rallies), ecclectic interests outside politics and a total disregard for the artificial chumminess that has often characterised British public life. And on top of that he was actually good at his job. The only comparable figure who comes to mind, Paul Keating, was of a later generation and from another country.

And let us not forget those eyebrows. Let us never forget those eyebrows.

Grim fact of the week

I recently read that during the Napoleonic wars attempts were made in parts of Continental Europe – then under a British naval blockade which restricted (amongst other things) the supply of sugar from the West Indies – to extract sugar from Sycamore trees on the basis that the Sycamore is, after all, a form of maple. Horrifying.

“Thou dead Elme”

In the late 18th century the elm – a tree historically associated with mortality* – acquired a new symbolic significance as the tree of revolution. As is often the way with such things this largely occurred via a historical accident (it happened that the great tree on Boston Common that was the focus for much political radicalism in the 1760s and 1770s was an elm), but in this instance there was another factor as well: many species of elm clone themselves via suckers and grow with great speed. Thus not only would propagation have been unusually easy, but it came with an added dose of symbolism for free: see how fast this Tree of Liberty grows, see how it ever works to replenish itself, so shall it also be for the revolutionary cause. The association between the elm and revolutionary politics was particularly strong in France, where arbres de la liberté were planted with great enthusiasm across the country and where these defiant acts of public gardening were frequently depicted in revolutionary propaganda.

Of course as everyone knows, the elm’s association with mortality returned with a tragic vengeance in the 1970s as a new and unusually virulent strain of Dutch Elm Disease – Ophiostoma novo-ulmi – appeared. This strain of DED was (is) particularly lethal to those elm species that clone themselves via suckers, and so large field elms of all kinds have largely vanished from the European landscape. What strikes me as curious is that this strain of DED emerged at more or less the same time at which many of the political traditions that venerated late 18th century radicalism began to fall into difficulties (to the point of outright decay and eventual collapse in the case of Marxism) from which, like the elms, they have not yet emerged. This is, of course, all entirely coincidental, but then such is often the way with symbolism. With this in mind, it may be useful to remember two things. The first is that the ancient relationship between mankind and the evolution of the elm continues to this day as attempts are made to create disease resistant cultivars. The second is that while DED kills mature trees with a merciless efficiency, it does not actually kill the roots and so the suckers continue to rise.

*A point made by the much missed Oliver Rackham, who used it as evidence for his (now widely accepted) claim that Dutch Elm Disease was not new:

“And for many centuries elm has been the tree of death – not merely as a hackneyed symbol like coffin-boards or funerary cypresses. Dead trees in literature are surprisingly often elms. The other diseases of elm rarely kill it; indeed from 1300 to 1850, when trees were more systemically used than they are now and there were fewer road-works and no agricultural chemicals, any dead tree would have been unusual. Why did St Martin and St Zenobius work the miracles of bringing dead elms back to life? Why was Falstaff addressed as “though dead Elme?” The young dead trees common in Italian paintings and drawings from 1450 to 1530 – what are they if not elms blasted with Elm Disease? Why was it possible in the eighteenth century to insure one’s elms against death? Elm was evidently well known to be the tree that specially shared man’s fragile tenure of life, and it is difficult to suggest any other explanation other than Elm Disease.”

Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside, (London, 1986), p. 243.

The answer was ‘no’

At the General Election of 1959 the Labour Party suffered an unexpectedly emphatic defeat: it had been hoped that the election might be won, but instead the Conservatives were returned with a majority of one hundred seats. The mood in the Party afterwards was dark. In 1960 a market research specialist and an academic joined forces to write a book with the provocative title Must Labour Lose? It would not be unfair to summarise its conclusions as ‘yes – unless the Party changes radically’. The next General Election was that of 1964, which Labour under Harold Wilson narrowly won. About the only way in which Wilson could be reasonably accused of changing the Labour Party at all (let alone radically) was to introduce to it a (regrettably temporary) enthusiasm for sophisticated Madison Avenue style advertising, which is presumably not exactly what the authors of Must Labour Lose had in mind.