In turbulent times

History shows us that tumultuous times bring change. Now is not the moment for the left to despair.

James Marriot
20 May 2015

These are days of turbulent politics, however as the smoke clears from the electoral battlefield it is easy imagine that little has changed. Because the media and the polls were so certain that we were facing the novelty of another hung parliament and complex negotiations to form another coalition, it can seem that a return to a majority government is a return to the status quo before 2010. Because a Labour government supported by the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens seemed possible and with it a glimpse of a different social and economic policy, it can seem that the return of George Osborne to the Treasury indicates that nothing has changed. Or rather the only thing that has altered is that the Cameron government will now pursue its brand of austerity with renewed vigour and confidence and that this will have a terrifying impact on the NHS, all public services and the most vulnerable in our society.

These observations are not incorrect, but perhaps they hide deeper changes. This was the most turbulent election in a generation. Not only was it the most unpredictable, with the views of so much of the electorate being missread by the army of the pollsters, but that electorate also proved exceptionally undeferential. On the night in May 1997 when Michael Portillo was not re-elected, it was seen as the iconic moment of Labour’s landslide, because the unseating of a senior politician or cabinet minister has been so rare in British elections. After the 2015 election the battlefield is strewn with ministers and shadow ministers including Vince Cable, Ed Balls, and Douglas Alexander. There has been a remarkable rejection of much of the political class by swathes of the population on these isles.

This is best illustrated by the destruction of the Labour Party in Scotland and the amazing victory of the SNP, which also reveals how the United Kingdom is relentlessly breaking up. The voting map of the election not only represents the separation of Scotland from England and Wales. But it also shows the sharp division between the cities supporting a Labour Party that they were assured was more Left wing than at any time since the 1980s, and the country swinging behind a Conservative Party that has become increasingly Right wing in the past three years. The new Prime Minister talks of wanting to be a ‘One Nation’ leader, but that nation has not been so divided for a generation.

In the 1959 election the three main parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal, won 99.1% of the popular vote between them. By 2005 that share had fallen slightly to 89.6%. But this year the tri-party bloc only gained 75.2% of the vote. Just under a quarter of those who voted (only 66.1% of those eligible), voted for parties outside the main three, outside the political establishment. A combined number of 5.1 million people voted for the Greens and UKIP, and only gained two seats in Westminster. Despite the renewed calls for a shift to PR, there is understandable pessimism about such a change being supported by the Conservatives, as it’s not in their interests. Furthermore there is anxiety that the Tories will push through boundary changes that will entrench their majority in future elections. However, on account of both these issues the House of Commons will increasingly fail to deliver on its most fundamental promise - to attempt to represent the people.

The disfunction of the Parliamentary structures echoes the fact that in the past five years the social tensions in this country have become increasingly extreme. It seems clear that we face several more years of turbulence as the Conservative government attempts to implement its policies. So what kind of moment is this, what is the scale of the shifts that are underway, and is something new beginning to arise?

As individuals and societies we may experience our passage through time as chaotic; any sense of a rationale or guiding hand is inconceivable. However this does not prevent us from attempting to put order into what has happened. We generate biographies and narrate our autobiographies out of a desire to perceive some logic in the past. We research histories and write commentaries in an attempt to draw out patterns. The stories we create are only one version of events, but they can assist us in the reading of the present and influence our role in the making of the future - in being part of an agency of change.

Who, or what, are the agents of change in the current times? It is relatively easy for us to describe these agents in the past, but in the thick of the present it is hard to pick them out. Preconception frames perception. I have preformed ideas of what those agents might look like, but historical images blinker my vision, making it harder for me to observe what is actually underway, and making me feel that the agents of the change I desire are too weak to bring it about. However, just because I cannot see something does not mean it does not exist: it means that I should look harder, search deeper in to how the coming years might unfold.

In trying to think about the next two decades, reflecting on the past seventy-five years can be instructive. Can we make a pattern out of a century of experience in Britain that can guide our thinking?

Reflecting on the histories of earlier generations of my family has given me a different way of exploring these questions. Realising how deeply their lives were affected by moments of epochal change makes the idea of change both more tangible and more personal.

Before and after the war

Morgan James, my partner Jane’s great-uncle, was born in 1902 in Taibach, on the edge of Port Talbot, and, like his father, he worked in the coal mines from the age of fourteen. He was involved in industrial action during the General Strike in 1926. Unemployment in the years that followed drove him to emigrate to America in search of work, with his friend Thomas Howell David. In November 1928, both were certified as ‘Qualified Miners’ in the Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania. Morgan applied for US citizenship, but his hope of building a new life was destroyed by a rock fall in Buttonwood No 20 Mine on 24 May 1934, which fractured his pelvis. He was bed-bound for months. Morgan’s mother and brother journeyed to Pennsylvania to bring him home, and he settled back in Taibach, badly disabled, selling toys that he made in a shed at the end of the garden.

My father, Richard Marriott, was born in Bishops Stortford, Essex, in 1930. His father worked in Lloyds Bank in the City, but when he was commissioned into the war effort the family moved to Otley near Leeds. Richard was sent to the boys’ private school, Horris Hill, and in the last year of the war he won a scholarship to become a pupil at Eton College near Windsor. After school he won a further state-sponsored scholarship to Oxford University, and then did National Service in the Rifle Brigade. His desire was to run a bookshop, but lacking financial security, he started work in the City. From 1963 he was employed in Mullens & Co, the stockbroking firm that provided the link between the Bank of England and the gilt-edged market in the Stock Exchange. The senior partner of the firm was the government broker, raising money for the Treasury by overseeing the issuing of debt.

At four o’clock on Saturday 7th September 1940 Colin Perry was bicycling over Chipstead Hill, south of Croydon. He heard planes and looked up: ‘It was the most amazing, impressive, riveting sight. Directly above me were literally hundreds of planes, Germans! The sky full of them. Bombers hemmed in with fighters, like bees around their queen.’ Seconds later the docks were ablaze.
Mass Observation, September 1940

On this day, the day of the first bombing raid of the Blitz, Morgan, 38, was in his workshop in Taibach, South Wales. Richard, 10, was in class at Horris Hill School, Newbury, Southern England.

An acute, externally-driven, event can through its impact catalyse a major social transformation, during the process of which a number of agents of change can bring about the formation of a new settlement. A shock can provide an opportunity for a different sort of politics to come to the fore. The aerial raids on London, hard on the heels of the retreat from Dunkirk, were one such shock. The smoke billowed around St Paul’s. The heart of the British Empire was aflame.

The Labour Party is a Socialist Party and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain - free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited; its material resources organised in the service of the British people.
Labour Party manifesto, June 1945

Morgan died long before I was able to ask him for his memories of the 1945 election. But I don’t find it hard to imagine how he felt. Victory over Germany had been achieved, but Swansea and areas of Port Talbot had been devastated by bombing. After the war what needed to be built was not only a new infrastructure, but also a new social structure. Across Britain whole sets of social movements arose over issues such as housing, and on the back of these Attlee’s Labour government rode to power. What Labour offered was a ‘New Jerusalem’, with national ownership of the coal mines, the steelworks and the railways; a programme to construct social housing and schools; and a plan to found a National Health Service. These actions were part of the battle against ‘want’ that helped create the welfare state.

Morgan, still disabled from the accident in Pennsylvania, would clearly be a beneficiary of the NHS. So, in the months leading up to the July 1945 election, it is likely that he was driven not only by the hope offered by the Labour Party, but also by his fear of any return to the life of Port Talbot before the war: a life of mass unemployment and poor health provision.

In May 1951, just over a decade after the Blitz, the Festival of Britain opened on a stretch of Lambeth docklands that had been laid waste by aerial bombardment. The area became the South Bank. This celebration of a new country, through publicly funded culture, organised by the state and taking place at the heart of the capital, helped to define the era that was being constructed, to create a new sense of what the country should be, a new ‘common sense’, a new social settlement.

The building of this settlement did not take place without a fight. There was fierce resistance from some doctors against the formation of the NHS. The owners of the coal mines made sure they were well compensated in the nationalisation of what was a declining industry. And the Festival of Britain was itself a site of that struggle. Churchill, then leader of the opposition, referred to the forthcoming project as ‘three-dimensional Socialist propaganda’. When he won the 1951 election, one of his first acts was to have the Festival site dismantled. But by the mid-1950s the agency of the labour movement that had helped change the old establishment now lay at the heart of the new settlement. The civil service, the media, industry, elements of the City and - by the time of Macmillan - parts of the Conservative Party had been forced to accept a social democratic view of the world. Parts of the previous establishment, however, such as the crown and private education, continued to co- exist, largely unchanged, with this new order.

The 1970s and 1980s

"The Arab oil nations announced an eye-watering price rise of 70%. In the storm that followed no country was safe. Almost overnight Britain’s motorists faced the prospect of spiralling prices and crippling shortages ... For people who’d grown up after the Second World War, rising living standards had been a fact of life, one of the cornerstones of this affluent society had been cheap motoring for all, and now that was gone." Dominic Sandbrook, The 70s, BBC 2

The agents of change behind the Oil Crisis of 1973-4 were multiple, ranging from anti-colonial movements in the Middle East to the boards of multinational oil corporations. However the shock that was delivered to the West was acute. This accelerated economic and social shifts that had already begun, generating a series of dramatic events: the London stock market crash of 1971; and the Heath government’s attempt to close a swathe of coal mines, followed by successful industrial action by the National Union of Mineworkers.

The oil crisis contributed to rapid inflation in Britain. By October 1976 the economic situation was so severe that Labour Chancellor Denis Healey went to the International Monetary Fund in Washington and negotiated a $3.9 billion loan. In return he agreed to £2.5 billion of public spending cuts, and to generate income through the sell-off of a tranche of the UK government’s 68 per cent holding in British Petroleum. With hindsight we can see this sale of an asset that had been owned by the British state since 1914 as the ‘first privatisation’, a starting gun for the neoliberal era that would come into its own during the forthcoming Reagan and Thatcher governments.

"No one who has lived in this country during the last five years can fail to be aware of how the balance of our society has been increasingly tilted in favour of the State at the expense of individual freedom. This election may be the last chance we have to reverse that process, to restore the balance of power in favour of the people. It is therefore the most crucial election since the war.

Together with the threat to freedom there has been a feeling of helplessness, that we are a once great nation that has somehow fallen behind and that it is too late now to turn things round. I don’t accept that. I believe we not only can, we must. This manifesto points the way." Margaret Thatcher, Foreword to Conservative Party Manifesto 1979

For many, what the Conservative Party offered in 1979 was hope - a hope of moving beyond the crises luridly described in the media during the 1978-9 ‘Winter of Discontent’. A lifting of the perceived threat of the left of the Labour Party. To some degree this is what Richard felt. The previous eight years, working as a stockbroker in the City of London, had been bruising; he had lived with occassional anxiety that the value of his share portfolio would be eaten away by inflation, a market crash or high taxation.

Just a decade on from the oil crisis, in March 1985, Thatcher celebrated the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers. The union at the heart of the labour movement had been crushed: the armoury of the state - the police, the army, MI5, the media - had all been mobilised against the ‘enemy within’. The years since the early 1970s had been ones of intense social struggle. At several points it had looked as if the political programme embodied by Thatcher would fail in its bid for ascendency. In 1981, before the Falklands War, it had been widely assumed that the Conservative government would fall before completing its full term. But by 1985 the social democratic settlement of the post-war period was in retreat. A new ‘common sense’ was being built and with it a new establishment. A neoliberal worldview was shared between the Conservative government, finance, business, the media and parts of the civil service. And this was a worldview that later framed the understanding of much of New Labour.

After the crash

"Lehman’s bankruptcy will forever be synonymous with the financial crisis’, says Paul Hickey, of Bespoke Investment Group. ‘We are on a bumpy journey to a new destination’, says Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of Pimco. ‘The new destination will look much different than where we came from."
Adam Shell, USA Today

It is, of course, simpler to impose a pattern on events that happened seventy-five years ago or thirty years ago, than on those that occurred seventy-nine months ago. It is easy to feel today that the consequences of the crash triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank on 15 September 2008 have passed, that the system has righted itself, and that the current establishment - which has included the Liberal Democrats and large parts of the Labour Party - is still neoliberal. It is easy to believe that ‘austerity’ is a continuation of what has been happening for over three decades, only with greater severity.

Since 2008 inequality has risen steeply, whilst median wage levels have stagnated or fallen. The number of those living below the poverty line has increased dramatically, as has the number of families depending upon food banks, the number of evictions due to inability to pay rent, and the number of households whose electricity or gas has been disconnected. Meanwhile there has been a rapid rise in the tally of companies long considered to be ‘British’ that are now owned by capital concerns based overseas. And the roll call of billionaires who have made their wealth in foreign states but taken up residence in London - thus joining the British ‘rich list’ - is becoming ever longer.

On 16 January 2015, NASA announced that the previous year had been the hottest on record, and that the ten warmest years have all been since 1998. In September 2014 scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research established that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting at an unprecedented rate. Two months earlier, a team at Duke University in North Carolina reported that the rate of extinction of species was 1000 times faster than had previously been estimated. Their central concern was that this rate of loss, together with climate change, would lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems.

Many of these details you will be familiar with. Coming one by one they can induce the fatalism described at the start of this essay, but gathered together they reveal trends that indicate that something novel is underway. That the pace of climate change has altered and begun to generate its own set of crises. That ‘austerity’ is a kind of hyper-neoliberalism that puts society under such stress that movements of resistance, agents of change, gain enormous strength - as we are seeing in Greece, Spain and Scotland. In the latter, the SNP have gained a level of power which might enable them to explore possibilities beyond neoliberalism.

Shifting settlements

A shift from one settlement to the next does not take place without a struggle between agents of change. This may or may not include a physical struggle, as between trade unionists and the police during the miners’ strike and at Wapping; but it certainly entails a battle of wills, a battle of confidences.

By the 1940s, the establishment that had been incumbent in Britain since the end of the first world war had lost its sense of direction. Its picture of the world had been worn thin by the impacts of the Wall Street Crash and Depression. The cost of domestic labour had risen. Crippling death duties, following on from the loss of male heirs on the Western Front, had led to the sale of many landed estates. Meanwhile the revolution in Eire had forced the Anglo-Irish section of the British ruling class to abandon much of its property and culture. By the outbreak of the second world war there was a pervading sense in the establishment that ‘the old order’ was dying.

This sense of fatalism, this loss of confidence, met the full force of the rising labour movement in Britain. The vision and determination that had inspired the revolutions and revolts at the end of the first world war - of which the 1926 General Strike can be seen as a part - was coursing through the hearts and minds of those who were educating a new generation in socialist ideas, particularly amongst the troops during the second world war. This generation was determined to build a new settlement on returning home.

A similar pattern can be seen in the 1970s. The immense challenges to the British economy, particularly from changing global forces, sapped the confidence of the social democratic establishment. From the 1960s agents of change such as the women’s movement were pressurising the status quo from the left, whilst it was under siege from the right as a result of a resurgence of the ideas that would eventually become the policies of the section of the Conservative Party that gathered around the figurehead of Thatcher.

In the 1920s the labour movement was arguing for political changes that at the time seemed outrageous and unrealisable, such as the nationalisation of mines and the imposition of high levels of taxation on the land holdings and capital of the wealthy. By the late 1940s these ideas were in the process of being implemented and becoming the new ‘common sense’. In the 1960s right-wing think tanks were proposing similarly outrageous ideas, such as the removal of exchange controls on capital, the privatisation of the Central Electricity Generating Board and Post Office Telecommunications, and a radical reduction in the top levels of income tax. By the late 1980s these concepts had been realised and had become the new ‘common sense’. Ideas which at one point were considered to be far on the outside became the pillars of a new settlement.


The days we are currently living through are a time of turbulence, which may be perceived as an echo of the 1940s and the 1970s. We have seen that the experience of Morgan and Richard during those periods was one of a heightened tension between fear and hope; and that the transition between one settlement and the next can be driven by a tension between those who have confidence and those who lack it.

My partner Jane and I were both aged 17 in May 1979 - too young to vote in the election that brought in the Conservative government. We were born into the cradle of the welfare state that had helped our parents to differing degrees, and it is likely that without it we would never have met. Over the past thirty years we have witnessed the destruction of the structures of security that others struggled to create between the 1920s and 1960s, and which made possible the intertwining of our families. Indeed it was opposition to that destruction, and the ecological crisis, that led us both to work in Platform. In the present turbulence what are our fears and hopes?

There are two distinct strands of fear, like intertwined snakes, each as lethal as the other. One is that the stability of the ecological systems, upon which all life depends, is fatally threatened. That the exponential rise in carbon dioxide emissions is changing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere and radically altering the climate, driving storms and floods, droughts and heatwaves - phenomena that are evident even in the temperate climes of the Thames Valley. The other is that the gulf of inequality between those who have and those who have not is growing ever wider. That so many of the people amongst whom Jane and I live, in city and village, are relentlessly being driven into a realm of silence - a world of unemployment or poverty wages, and of disintegrating hospitals and unaffordable healthcare.

Amidst the current turbulence the neoliberal establishment may be losing its strength. Outwardly Conservative politicians and financiers seem ever more confident, emboldened by the strength of their electoral victory. But the panic that spread through Westminster and business in September 2014 when it looked as though Scotland would vote for independence was striking. Just one YouGov poll could reveal how fragile that confidence was. The seemingly unstoppable rise of a left/green movement, which forms part of the bedrock of the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru, appears to leave the establishment unable to prevent the disintegration of the nation state over which it has ruled. A substantial section of the population of the UK wishes for its break up or at least a radical reorganisation along federal lines. At the same time there is deep division over the position of Britain in relation to the European Union. The threat of UKIP as a political force is felt acutely by the Labour and Conservative parties, and the issue creates great fissures in the media and in the civil service. In the finance sector the investment banks are divided against hedge funds on the issue of ‘Brexit’.

At this point, when the establishment lacks a sense of coherent direction and comes under attack from confident social movements on both the right and the left/ green, can the hopes of people like Jane and myself be catalysed by the boldest of visions? By ideas once considered far on the outside but that can now approach our present challenges and opportunities at the appropriate scale and with the requisite audacity? Are there grounds for hope that a new settlement can be brought into being that places a central emphasis on addressing ecological destruction and freeing us from the threat of inevitable environmental decline? And that such a settlement could at the same time address through collective action the injustice and insecurity experienced by so many of our fellow citizens, freeing us from the burden of fear and want. It is through tackling these two strands of fear, entwined together like lovers, that the possibility of a new settlement resides. The realisation of this desire for a new settlement, step by step, is a common task, and gives us shared purpose, together with colleagues in Platform and other friends. The development of a new ‘common sense’ will be the heart of a new settlement.

A new settlement

Perhaps in 2045 I will be able to look back and see that 2015 provided a pivot point in my life and Jane’s. Both for Morgan and Richard there was a moment, which in retrospect could be seen as defining, where the challenges that had not been effectively met by their generation, and their parents’ generation began to be faced. Maybe the years of turbulence that we are currently living through will come to be seen as the point at which we decisively addressed the combined challenge of preventing ecological destruction whilst assisting in the building of social security.

The founding document of the welfare state, the Beveridge Report of 1942, talked of the struggle to overcome not ‘poverty’ but ‘want’. This goal was recognised as being desirable, but perhaps essentially unachievable. Yet, because it was desirable, concrete steps towards it needed to be taken in the present, such as the building of social housing and the establishment of the NHS. We can apply the same principles in relation to ecological destruction, on issues like climate change. Overcoming climate change, particularly through the actions of the citizens of one country, is both desirable and essentially unachievable. Yet because it is desirable concrete steps towards it need to be taken in the present - steps such as the complete closure of the fossil fuel industry, the provision of a highly energy-efficient housing stock and the creation of a renewable energy system held in common. A set of such steps is outlined in Platform’s contribution to the Kilburn Manifesto, ‘Energy Beyond Neoliberalism’.

The coal industry, although a source of near lethal employment for Morgan, was also the economic basis of much of his social security, especially after the establishment of the welfare state. It was the economic base for parts of Jane’s family. The oil & gas industry provided a key source of profit in the City, in which Richard spent his working life, and the revenues to the UK Exchequer from North Sea oil underpinned the Thatcher government’s social transformation, which increased the wealth of parts of my family. It is these two industries, coal and oil & gas, that now need to be dismantled in order to free us from the effects of destroying the earth’s atmosphere. And this needs to be done whilst increasing democratically controlled social provision, not diminishing it. This is a particular set of challenges that was not addressed by Morgan or Richard’s generation, but is beginning to be met by Jane’s and mine, and the generations that follow us.

Of course lines such as ‘the complete closure of the fossil fuel industry’ and ‘the provision of a highly energy efficient housing stock’ are easily written. Of course these things will not be achieved without a substantial and sustained struggle. As with the challenges of the 1940s-50s and 1970s-80s, the realisation of a new settlement requires a battle against entrenched power. A struggle is currently underway against the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry, the Carbon Web. This is a complex that includes banks, government departments, cultural institutions and more. It is not bounded by national borders, and its existence in the UK is inseparable from its presence in the USA and elsewhere. Our challenge is a challenge to a substantial part of international capital - it is already a hard fight and it is likely to become more so. But we won’t change dominant common sense if we don’t take up the challenge.

Many of the conversations and arguments I’ve had over the past months have revolved around friends expressing both desperation about the present times and a sense of fatalism, a feeling that change is not possible. For many friends on the Left the results of the election have deepened the mood of doom and fear.  But it seems clear, even from a brief exploration of the past seven decades, that dramatic change is not only possible, but in fact happens fairly regularly. The British do undertake ‘that sort of thing’. There is a radical change taking place in Britain now - the only question is about the direction in which that change will take us. It is not inevitable that the direction is towards the Right, as Scotland and the cities have shown. We can, indeed we will, ensure that this moment of flux will give birth to a new settlement based on ecology, justice and greater equality.

This essay is adapted from a piece in Soundings - Issue 5, ‘Dare to Win’ - with thanks especially to Doreen Massey, Jane Trowell, Mika Minio-Palluello & Sally Davison.

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