A Party From Your Parent’s Day
After a long, gin-soaked Friday night the grind of the proceeding week had almost been forgotten. At four in the morning, with the sweat of the dance-floor hanging off me and lurid ideas spawning about possible combinations from the fridge, I was probably not the most receptive to fuel for my next blog. Inspiration chooses its moments.
There’s that brilliant Peter Kay sketch when he talks about getting into a taxi and can’t resist getting into the conversation with the driver. I seem to have embraced this when taking the 5 minute journey from the centre of Cardiff to my place in Splott, always starting the conversation with the classic “busy night mate?” before comfortably going through the motions.
On this particular occasion, I ended up sat in the taxi outside my house for about 10 minutes trying to understand why my driver was going to vote for the BNP at the next election.
I never got my driver’s name, but for the sake of this blog I’m going to refer to him as Geoff. I think (although, due to the 20 or so units, I can’t be sure) the conversation was sparked by me saying how quickly Cardiff seemed to be changing and my own city, Sheffield, was going through a similar thing.
As we drew up by my house, Geoff told me he had grown up “just round the corner” and now lived in Ely. His Dad had worked at the East Moors steelworks in Splott and was made redundant when it closed in the late 70’s. “He’s still waiting for his pension,” he said. He told me about the Miner’s Strike: “These men, who were fighting for their way of life, were painted as yobs and criminals.”
Despite his father’s experiences, Geoff himself had worked in the steel factory run by ASW until it went into receivership in 2002. “I went into work one morning, the boss called me to the office and there was a cheque on the table for £16,000. They told me it was mine if I accepted voluntary redundancy. It was very difficult not to, I had kids at home that needed feeding and we all knew the place was going down the tubes. Turns out it was about half of what I was owed, but I took it.
“Labour’s done nothing to help me. I’m never going to get what I earnt. My Dad is almost 70 and he’s still working. I’m probably going to be stuck doing this until about the same time,” he said, cuffing the steering wheel with the flat of his hand as he did so.
I asked him about the Splott of his upbringing, and he told me of the sense of community that was held together by the shared identity and shared destiny that the steelworks provided. He talked of the way this community fragmented when the steel industry died, and of the social and demographic transformation that has gone on since.
Finally, he told me that he’d received a knock on his door from a couple of guy’s canvassing for BNP votes. They said they stood for a Britain that existed in our parent’s day.
So there it was. This amenable, personable guy not only felt intimidated by the sheer force of change that had swept through his community, it wasn’t just that the BNP provided him with a sense of belonging (although these stereotypes were to an extent accurate with my driver), it was that he felt betrayed and dismissed by successive centrist Governments.
Geoff argued well, and the anger and the sense of helplessness at how he and his family had been treated by men in Westminister was almost tangible. He gripped the steering wheel and didn’t take his eyes off the road whilst he spoke, as if he was talking to himself. Deep scars that may have scabbed over, but hadn’t healed.
I thanked him for the conversation, went inside and switched my laptop on, and what was the leading article on the Guardian’s website? The rise of the BNP is politicians fault.
In response to the leaked BNP membership list (my erstwhile colleague Sean expands on this on his own blog) which showed that people from all over Britain and from a broad range of professions signed up to the BNP, Cabinet Minister Hazel Blears wrote a forthright piece investigating the causes of the BNP’s rise to uncomfortable relevance:
“We must recognise that where the BNP wins votes, it is often a result of local political failure. Estates that have been ignored for decades; voters taken for granted; local services that have failed; white skilled working-class voters who feel politicians live on a different planet. In such a political vacuum, the BNP steps in with offers of grass-cutting, a listening ear, and easy answers to complex problems…Shouting Nazi is not the answer.“
I grew up in a suburb in Sheffield and I went to the local comprehensive school. Each member of my family works in some capacity in the public services. After I graduated from University I went back to Sheffield and, without a lot of consideration, found myself working with people with learning disabilities. As a result, the left is a very natural place for me to occupy.
There is also, from my reasonably sanitised point of view, a defined distinction between the left and right wing. I find opposing Thatcherism (and, by extension, any Conservative government) about as difficult as drinking beer. But, to Geoff, the distinction between left and right have ceased to have, or maybe never had, any meaning.
Do you know what the worst thing about talking to Geoff was? I could see exactly where he was coming from.
To conclude, I want to show a clip from a wonderful film which, as cinema has the tendency to do, illustrates what I’m attempting to say far more articulately than I ever could. This Is England, by Shane Meadows; if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to. I just wish that, late that Friday night, I’d had the presence of mind to recommend it to Geoff.