People in England’s northern towns and cities are scared. Their fears stoked by xenophobic right-wing media, they hate Europe, and they hate migrants. But, most of all, they hate the way they are being squeezed into poverty by a post-industrial society that has turned dreams into nightmares and replaced hope with despair. Tony Sutton returns to South Shields, a place he once called home.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has committed herself to a scheme to arrest the economic decline of the north of England. However, the plan, originally proposed by George Osborne, who was axed as Chancellor of the Exchequer after the exit of David Cameron as PM following June 2016’s Brexit vote, is still in a state of incoherence, doubletalk and indecision.
Nothing has yet been agreed, other than the setting up of a think tank – the Northern Powerhouse Partnership – by Osborne, who raised few hopes for speedy action when he said at its mid-September launch: “Trying to turn around 100 years of relative economic decline is not going to happen overnight.” Then he hopped off to the US to take care of his own economic decline, pocketing £500,000 for a few speeches to bankers and hedge fund managers on the financial snout-troughing circuit.
I was in the north, at South Shields, on Tyneside, just before Osborne’s announcement, and I was shocked at the way the town had degenerated since I worked for daily and Sunday newspapers there and at Newcastle upon Tyne, 11 miles to the west. Forty years ago, South Shields was part of a regional powerhouse and didn’t yet need the transformative magical thinking that is now being spouted by May and Osborne. In the 1970s, the town of 75,000 boasted high-paying jobs in shipbuilding and coal mining. Its last-remaining slums had been demolished, major roads were being built and new factories developed. And King Street, South Shields’ main thoroughfare, reflected that prosperity. What could go possibly go wrong? Lots, as it happens.
The rot set in when Margaret Thatcher arrived in Downing Street late in the decade. Her war on unions, especially the mine workers, together with economic policies that encouraged the offshoring of jobs, saw the collapse of Tyneside’s major industries. Eleven years of Tony Blair’s neoliberalism, from 1997 to 2007, continued Thatcher’s work, the area hitting rock-bottom at the end of the 20th-century when South Shields had the highest unemployment rate in Britain.
Thatcher’s political philosophy – “There is no such thing as society,” she had famously claimed in a 1987 interview with a women’s magazine – began a process that led to the elimination of secure, well-paying jobs and their replacement by humiliating zero-hour contracts with one-step-above-poverty wages. This decades-long economic decline played a key part in the rise of the far-right political party Ukip, which took advantage of the increased social turmoil that was not being addressed by the Labour Party, traditionally the champion of Britain’s working class. Encouraged by xenophobic right-wing media, Ukip declared war on migrants, blaming them – along with the European Union – for stealing jobs and robbing British workers of income, housing and benefits. Then David Cameron, newly-elected as Prime Minister, honoured an election pledge to hold a referendum earlier this year on whether or not to stay inside the Europe Union, and the result was a narrow, unexpected, victory for the Brexiteers, a greatly divided land., and then the speedy exit of Cameron as prime minister.
South Shields was one of the “deprived” areas that voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit, much to the dismay of bewildered southern-based liberal commentators who couldn’t understand why, in light of all the European cash being injected into northern development zones, their residents would vote “against their best interests.”
Brendan O’Neill, writing in the Spectator, explained:
Britain’s poor and workless have risen up. And in doing so they didn’t just give the EU and its British backers the bloodiest of bloody noses. They also brought crashing down the Blairite myth of a post-class, Third Way Blighty, where the old ideological divide between rich and poor did not exist, since we were all supposed to be ‘stakeholders’ in society.
This peasants’ revolt has sent shockwaves through the elite…and they’re now frantically trying to work out why it happened. They’ve come up with two answers – one fuelled by rage, the other by something worse: pity. The ragers say the plebs voted Leave because they’re a bit racist and got hoodwinked by the shiny, xenophobic demagoguery of the likes of Nigel Farage.
This idea – that the poor are easy prey for demagogues – is the same claptrap the Chartists had to put up with in the 1840s. Their snooty critics frequently told them that, since the poor do not have a ‘ripened wisdom’ they are ‘more exposed than any other class…to be converted to the vicious ends of faction.’ Now, the metropolitan set once again accuse the little people of exactly the same thing.
O’Neill was right. The pre-Thatcher ’60s generation knew their basic dreams would almost certainly see fruition: job-for-life security and regular pay rises would elevate their families into comfort, if not outright prosperity. That was the social contract developed after the end of World War II: Work hard and contribute to society, then society will take care of you. That contract died when Thatcher broke the miners’ union in 1984-85. After that, it was everyone for himself.
On the face of it, today’s political turmoil in Britain has little to do with Thatcher and her successors: It’s about Brexit and immigrants and the average Briton’s deep hatred of Europe, isn’t it? But dig a little deeper and the link becomes more apparent. The real fight is about dignity, security and fear. It’s about a need for lasting, well-paid careers instead of the dumbed-down servility of short-term jobs in the service industry. It’s about the right to affordable housing, instead of having to pay exorbitant rents to slumlords. But, most of all, it’s about a future that offers hope, not despair.
A quick stroll down South Shields’s King Street will give the most-jaundiced observer an indication of the troubled times in which many Britons live. Once a bustling thoroughfare that furnished the dreams of an affluent society, the broad boulevard is now a nightmare of austerity. Many storefronts are empty, their windows displaying stark “For Sale” and “To Let” notices. The businesses that remain are mainly charity outlets, betting shops and pound stores for cash-strapped customers, while those that cater for the wealthier have decamped to big-box citadels elsewhere. Welcome to the shabby new face of Main Street, Brexitland.
This scenario – a nation of distinct, economically-divided societies – is not unique to Tyneside, but is evident across the north of England. And on mainland Europe, where disillusioned residents of Greece, Spain and Italy are also witnessing the collapse of the old world order, as they slide towards poverty in a new Fourth World. Weary of the lies and false promises of their money-grubbing politicians and the hoggish corporations they serve, the people are now sending a stark warning to their political masters in London and Brussels: “If you don’t help us, we’ll suffer more. And, if that happens, we’ll take you down with us.”