I unplugged from the BBC in 2001. I’d already lost faith in newspaper journalism so for a while I kept up to date through word-of-mouth snippets and comments made in unrelated magazine articles. Now I get my news from the internet, but it felt like old times to find last week’s most eye-catching piece of current affairs in an unexpected place. According to the restaurant review in the Spectator magazine, the Post War Consensus is, finally, dead.
Only now? I had thought monetarism killed it off back in 1979. But Tanya Gold’s lament for the remnants, tucked between descriptions of a Westminster restaurant and the tender lamb it serves, stuck in my mind.
Post war, cross-party agreement on Keynesian economics, nationalisation, the NHS and the welfare state certainly crumbled under Margaret Thatcher. But consensus itself didn’t go away. During the Blair years a distant observer saw a House of Commons filled with identikit men and women courting big business, the middle-class and the European Union. The trouble is, the people they no longer represented slowly gave up voting. By 2015, more than fifty percent of people with low levels of education in working-class jobs – traditional Labour voters – did not bother with the ballot box.
Today’s progressivism binds all parties more strongly than ever. But a different kind of consensus, one beyond politics, is dying. A broad, social cohesion forged during World War II has been undergoing erosion on a grand scale, and now, like the white cliffs of the English south coast, great chunks of it are falling off into the sea.
Here might be a good place to bring in George Orwell. He’s very fashionable: whoever bags George gets to point and crow: “You’re Big Brother!” I like Orwell’s writing during the war, especially on the Home Guard. When he says: “The social shake-up among men of all classes who have now been forced into close intimacy for a considerable time has done a lot of good,” I realise that rich and poor in pre-war Britain had trouble picturing the other half as quite human. Suddenly the different social classes had to share air raid shelters, guard duty and – albeit to differing degrees – hardship, and they couldn’t help but notice their similarities. Alas, waves of division started lapping at the cliff base of the new-found national unity as soon as the war ended, if indeed, they’d ever stopped.
Now the gap between rich and poor has grown again, as promised by Thatcher, along with increased wealth for all. Yes, today’s poor are relatively wealthy. We have the welfare system and reasonable employment. Even beggars have mobile phones. But we’ve lost two vital things. Political representation. And – it.
Beneath the smooth turf of post war wealth, the national unity is crumbling. The sense that we were all in it together, even if we didn’t like or trust each other as much as our grandparents did, has gone. The political system which, if deeply flawed, represented each sector of society, is no more. Now those of us whose labour was in demand 10 years ago struggle, not only to compete with migrant workers, but also to find a political party that cares. Can UKIP grow – in maturity, not size – enough to represent the unrepresented?
The big question. Who will UKIP let in? Me, I’m pleased to say. But what if I lived in a different part of the country? What if I my concerns were not about wage competition, but about radical Islam in my neighbourhood? What if, with no political representation, my only way to voice them so far had been in street demonstrations? With the EDL?
Both the EDL and UKIP get called ‘racist’ constantly. One lot wear Adidas and t-shirts (the ‘Great Unwashed’); the other lot wear leather lace ups and tweed jackets (the ‘Not-very-recently-dry-cleaned’). I didn’t meet any racists at Conference. And I didn’t meet any at the last Tommy Robinson rally in Whitehall, either. Yet one lot have political representation and the other lot don’t. And remember, this isn’t about admitting EDL members to UKIP. It’s about welcoming those who have turned their backs on the movement.
There’s no need to aggrandise anyone by making special allowances; the party can quietly drop its current restrictions and leave it at that. Evict anyone who turns out to be racist/actually a Nazi/whatever afterwards.
British cross-party political consensus is alive and well. What is dying is the national understanding that the other half of society is as human and as decent – if not dressed or educated at the same expense – as your half, and like you wants to live in a civil, safe society. And that goes both ways.
What will happen to this country if the relatively poor are left without political representation? How should I know? I’m only a cleaning lady. But here’s one vision of the future… On a sea still choppy after a storm, the bride Britannia sails away on the good ship Supranational to renew her wedding vows with Europe. Left behind on a narrow strand, a sadly diminished UKIP and a tiny huddle of ex-EDL members glare stubbornly into their respective distances with their backs to each other, deaf to the groaning cliff face, as above them chalky white chunks detach and fall…