Changing trains in Doncaster, I had time to spare. I sat in the tearoom for a while. A man came up to me and began insulting me not very coherently. It was the time of the miners’ strike, a time of tension and anger and betrayal. But why pick on me? He guessed certain things about me that he didn’t like. Yes, I was working on arts programmes for a group of local BBC radio station. This was supplemented by lecturing in adult education. I was one among many, but to a striking miner I was privileged. It was privilege that he was fighting against. So I was the enemy.
That was all wrong from my point of view. I had left an easier life to live and work in a mining community. It was my second attempt. Before then I had tried and failed to teach the children of Cornish tin miners. I found myself confronted by the problems of poverty and isolation. There were children in homes without bathrooms, children for whom London was remote and unknown.
‘It’s all right for you Oxford and Cambridge types,’ a colleague in the Midlands college said. I explained that my degree was from a college of higher education in Bath. But the point was lost on him. It was southern and genteel. That was what he meant. I could have protested that there were mines close by in the Somerset coalfield. It was a reality rarely acknowledged. South is posh. North is gritty. Everybody knows that.
The divisions within society are distorted by an amalgam of selective fact and prejudicial myth. There is some truth in the divisions, and the striking miner had every right to feel resentment, not against me but against a social ethic that had discarded him. Everything he knew was being destroyed out of political motives disguised as economic necessity. A gradual transformation could have been possible. The preferred method of a reactionary government was to provoke anger and then to use that anger as the justification for repressive methods.
When you provoke someone beyond endurance they will snap eventually and they are sure to lash out wildly. They will hit out in desperation at the nearest available target. They will say things they don’t mean, and do things their better selves might caution against. You cannot starve someone, taunt them with delicious food which is out of their reach, and then expect them to respond with calm, reasonable words and well-mannered grace.
It was true in the miners’ strike, and it is true now. The anger is projected not at monopoly capital and corporate power. They are distant and abstract. The machinations of money and power require informed analysis to be understood. It is easier to understand dark skins and/or foreign accents. They are there in plain sight, a walking target for irrational reaction.
The reaction has been a long time coming. This government has done nothing to correct prejudice. It has fuelled it by scapegoating workers so poor their wages need additional benefits, by scapegoating those incapacitated in body or mind, and by scapegoating migrant workers whose contributions have proved invaluable.
Citizen is set against citizen, worker against worker. And it’s all said to be the fault of liberal attitudes and meddlesome and alien ideas.
This divisive and reactionary government has succeeded not by stealth but by brazen appeals to prejudice. The prejudice is there every day, reported but unchallenged. It is convenient for corporate power, media power and their political facilitators to allow the prejudice to go unchecked. The anger is directed not at the American cafÃ© but at the Polish bakery. The anger is directed not at the Hollywood billionaire but at the scrape-a-living artist. To turn against European culture in favour of American populism is to play into the hands of our manipulators.
Of course the government is going to change in some way. It may collapse at any time now. The situation is volatile. But changing trains may or may not mean travelling in a different direction. A resolute and effective trajectory is possible, but there are formidable obstacles to creating cohesive approaches to the social narrative. There are powerful interests seeking to retain conveniently bitter divisions. Power elites do not welcome questioning of their role in society. A degree of resentment by uninformed and insular communities obstructs the radical questioning that yields the radical answers.
Diversionary tactics abound. In the guise of liberal tolerance questions of personal identity are given coverage that questions of broad social movement are denied.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall