Category Archives: working class

Another place with “too much history”

Yesterday to Durham and The Big Meeting (133rd iteration).

The Lady in my Life and myself are there, dead in front of the microphones, and about four rows back. The last time I went was mid-1960s, and the main speaker was Harold Wilson. There were still coal-mines working then. Durham’s very last was Monkwearmouth, where the last shift was worked on 10th December 1993. The site, today, is the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s home ground.

In 1937 George Orwell was factually stating the importance of coal:

Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’ — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.

Eighty years on, 21st April 2017, Britain went a day without coal, while the lights stayed on.

There have been no active coal-mines, and no coal-miners in the County Palatine this quarter-century. But the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Big Meetin’, goes on, and this year was bigger and brassier than ever.

Durham has too much history for its own good. That’s an expression I have seen applied to Ireland, to the island of Cyprus and to Naples in recent times. It has degrees of truth in every case. In Durham, though, the history is close enough to touch:

… the miners who died in the many pit disasters of the Durham coalfields.

They number thousands, including 164 at Seaham in 1880 and 168 at Stanley in 1909, and are commemorated by a memorial in Durham Cathedral, a spectacular Romanesque landmark that this autumn celebrates the 25th anniversary of its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the historic city. Next to the memorial to the victims of pit disasters is a book of remembrance that the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, was at pains to point out to me. “Here’s one 15 years of age,” he said. “J E Scott. Died at Shotton [in 1953]. This is a really poignant place.”

The Dean talked of “the big meeting”, the annual miners’ gala in July when the former mining communities pour through the city behind their colliery banners and wind their way up to the cathedral for the miners’ service. “It’s a kind of echo of the Middle Ages when people would flock into this place and believe they were part of something bigger than they were,” said the Dean.

Any rail journey takes one past acres of rough scrub that not too long ago were coal-tips. Railway yards and sidings stretch far, far further than any conceivable modern need. Few villages lack what once was (and may still be marked as) the Miners’ Welfare hall. In the streets and pubs one brushes past ageing faces and limbs, marked with the blue of coal-dust tattooed under the skin.

Scott and Scot

Yesterday, then, to Durham’s Racecourse. The site stretches past the Wear river-bank, and to its other side the massive ridge (as above):

Well yet I love thy mix’d and massive piles,
Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot …

For sixty-odd years that tag has come to my mind, and mouth, every time I have seen an image or the reality of Durham’s great, looming cathedral. I somehow knew it was Walter Scott. That may be because anything so romantic had to derive from the same source that gave us swash-and-buckle, the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and even Tony Curtis’s fictional “Yonda lies the castle of my fodder“. Precisely locating the reference isn’t quite that easy. To save others the sweat, it is found in Canto Third of Harold the Dauntless of 1817.

For contemporary tastes, Scott’s romantic world contains too much “hied me home” or

Wrinkled his brows grew, and hoary his hair

That’s unfair in this case, because the 1817 poem is prefaced by a more-cynical Scott. He deplores O tempora! O mores, as Cicero did Against Catiline: —

Ennui! — or, as our mothers call’d thee, Spleen!
To thee we owe full many a rare device;
Thine is the sheaf of painted cards, I ween,
The rolling billiard-ball, the rattling dice,
The turning-lathe for framing gimcrack nice;
The amateur’s blotch’d pallet thou mayst claim,
Retort, and air-pump, threatening frogs and mice,
(Murders disguised by philosophic name,)
And much of trifling grave, and much of buxom game.

At the moment, the imposing central tower of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham has scaffolding all round, and wears a square white cook’s bonnet.

The proceedings

When we finally came to the speechifying, even that have to be after a brass-band rendering of “The Miner’s Hymn”, Gresford:

The story behind that is told here:

Written by a former miner, Robert Saint, to commemorate the Gresford pit disaster in 1934 it has been played at mining events ever since; most notably at the famous Durham Miners’ Gala.

What is too easily forgotten is that, in the days of working pits, the attendees at the Gala would have held silence to that every year and recalled the death-toll.

My first teaching job was in a boys’ grammar school in the County Durham. Male teachers in an all-male (with one brave exception) staff-room constitute a cynical lot. So, morning break, 21st October 1966, was eerily quiet. The news was coming through of the Aberfan disaster and the immolation of Pantglas Primary school. By no coincidence, Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door (originally intended as a BBC radio play) went on stage in April 1968:

A few years back I was at the packed Richmond Theatre for Sam West’s revival (lightly trimmed by Lee Hall). The same evocative, eye-pricking power was there. All the way from Thomas Hepburn and Peter Lee.

It’s the same tradition as Abide With Me before the Cup Final. It’s very much the mood of “those no longer with us”. But for industrial workers, especially in the heaviest industries, it’s also “those taken from us because of managerial mistakes and incompetence”.

This year the Miner’s Hymn had added plangency:

Not just an Elf

There is a message here; and it’s the box that most of the speakers at the Big Meeting ticked.

Disasters like Gresford in 1934, Aberfan in 1966 and the Grenfell Tower this year are “accidents-waiting-to-happen”. They derive from decisions taken, or studiously ignored, by bureaucratic processes beyond the control of us ordinary folk. What we have to protect us, to some extent, are Health and Safety Regulations. That is, of course, if they are policed and enforced.

Even then there are arrogant twazzles who mock them:

“We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There’d be no contradiction with that,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

“We could say, if it’s good enough in India, it’s good enough for here. There’s nothing to stop that.

“We could take it a very long way. American emission standards are fine – probably in some cases higher. 

“I accept that we’re not going to allow dangerous toys to come in from China, we don’t want to see those kind of risks. But there’s a very long way you can go.”

The MP’s comments came in the context of a discussion about trade deals with other countries following Brexit.

Said twazzle now fancies himself to chair the highly-important Treasury select committee, and stamp Asian labour practices, and US water standards on post-Brexit Britain.

Too much history? Or not enough yet?

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It was on a Wednesday morning that the gas-man came to call

Apart from the day of the week, Flanders and Swann nailed it:

Here at Redfellow Cottage, the boiler ceased working. All seemed to be well, lights winking appropriately, except the damn thing wouldn’t ignite.

Send for the expert.

Nine a.m. sharp, he and his mate are on the job.

The problem stemmed from the roofers. They had dislodged débris from above, which had somehow penetrated the vent, and a fragment was preventing the boiler fan from rotating. Use of a fine bristle (actually, one of those jobs that clear out sinks) and all seems well, if not considerably improved.

What can go wrong next?

[Yes, the painter-decorator is hard at work downstairs. Doesn’t bode well.]

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Obedience to government gone mad

The BBC website has this headline:

Labour ‘would axe spare room subsidy’ says Jackie Baillie

That logically means a Labour government would persist in the iniquitous policy of fining tenants for their accommodation.

In fact, as the story seems to say, the exact opposite is the case. A Labour government would recognise the tax on a spare room is vicious and distorts how we run social housing in all kinds of ways:

A UK Labour government would abolish the spare room subsidy, the party’s Scottish welfare spokeswoman has said.

Jackie Baillie told BBC Radio Scotland an announcement on the issue would be made soon.

Labour’s policy on cuts to housing benefit for people with unused spare rooms has not yet been clearly set out.

Ms Baillie’s comments came ahead of two rallies in Glasgow against the new subsidy, which critics have labelled the “bedroom tax”.

Speaking on the Good Morning Scotland programme, she said: “We are very clear. Labour rejected this approach when it was put to them in government, for social landlords. We have campaigned for its abolition.

“Yes we will abolish it. My understanding is that you can expect an announcement relatively soon.”

Suddenly we see that the BBC, in accepting the Grant Shapps spin for the headline, has generated a total hames of any meaning.

The Northern Drift

What interest Malcolm is how even the most conservative (and you can have that with or with out a capital “C”) media are recognising just how bad an imposition the bedroom tax is.

Twice in the last few days, the Yorkshire Post (and they don’t come much more conservative than that) has had a bite out of the tax.

The first Malcolm saw was a screaming headline:

Bedroom tax ‘will tear rural societies apart’

The explanation of that make considerable sense:

The desperate shortage of affordable housing in villages and hamlets throughout Yorkshire and rural England means low-paid workers and families will be forced to uproot from their communities and move many miles to find what the Government now deems to be appropriate-sized homes, according to Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE).

Housing experts, charity bosses and senior backbench MPs in Yorkshire all backed the report, and called on the Government to offer an exemption for people living rural areas from the controversial withdrawal of what Ministers term the “spare room subsidy”.

“The ‘bedroom tax’ takes no account of the challenges rural tenants face,” said ACRE chief executive Janice Banks. “It is yet another example of the ‘rural penalty’ paid by countryside communities.”

That decodes into something far, far worse than any Tory propagandist has been prepared to admit. Even if the bedroom tax could work in Hackney, it simply cannot do so in Hampsthwaite, Hebden or Horsehouse. If the aim is to price the tenant out of oversized accommodation, where else is there nearby for them to go? The small flat or one-up, one-down cottage no longer exists — and where it does, it probably sports a second-homer’s Volvo or Range Rover at weekends.

Back to the Yorkshire Post, and we find a later story, which refers to the urban tenant’s problems:

Families affected by the so-called “bedroom tax” and other welfare reforms could be forced to wait more than 10 years for a suitable home, a council has warned.

The same Yorkshire authority, which has to slash £48m from its budget over the next two years, is also facing a potential shortfall in rentpayments of £2.8m a year as the true impact of austerity and the Government’s welfare reforms is laid bare.

Of those tenants not previously in arrears prior to the introduction of the bedroom tax, or under-occupancy penalty – which sees cuts to housing benefit for tenants deemed to have spare rooms – less than half (45 per cent) in Hull, have paid the 14 to 25 per cent contribution they have lost.

The Labour-led city council – which has now received more than 53,000 calls to a benefits advice hotline set up in April – is also warning of increased homelessness and says that even basic services may be cut or disappear all together.

About 4,500 working age tenants in the city are affected by the bedroom tax, while 3,000 households live in overcrowded council accommodation, and 2,600 are “under-occupying” and require a one-bedroom property.

A different context, but essentially the same story: whence goes the tenant penalised for that extra room? We simply have not, and do not build the required homes. The speculative builder provides for the aspiring family — which means a surplus of three-bedders for sale in burgeoning new estates. The dispossessed (and often elderly) tenants would need property close to amenities, transport and their roots — which amounts to the home they have occupied for years, even decades.

Rabid lunacy

Lest anyone feel the Yorkshire Post has gained a grasp on realities, there’s always its frothing commentator, Bill Carmichael (the clothed-capped Mini-Me of Littlejohn) to reassure the saloon-bar closet fascist:

We are well into September now and the silly season should be over, but some news organisations are still running daft stories that normally only see the light of day in the dog days of August.

Take the front page splash in the left-wing Guardian this week about a UN inspector who has demanded our government scrap the so-called “bedroom tax” because it infringes the human rights of tenants.

This was deemed more important than the threat of World War III in the Middle East, or the meltdown of Barack Obama’s credibility in the US, or the TUC conference at home.

The BBC’s flagship Today programme, which does little more these days than read out stories from the Guardian, repeated the tale almost word for word.

So who is this UN special rapporteur on housing who has made these devastating criticisms? Step forward Raquel Rolnik, an academic and former housing minister from Brazil and a leading member of the far left Workers’ Party, which allies itself to the brutal communist dictatorship in Cuba.

How many clichés, political and journalistic, there? Let me count the daze!

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Filed under broken society, Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., politics, prejudice, Tories., working class, Yorkshire

Last Rights

That was the week [*] that was,
It’s over so let it go.

 [*] Actually it’s been ten days — or an aching void of tooth-grinding boredom for anyone not committed to an asylum, the Daily Mail, the Times world-view, or the Tory Party. Though those four possibilities may merely be variations on a theme.

Anyway, let’s relish the unpaid viewing:

No need to stick around beyond the first two minutes, unless one is a media-archaeologist. Just relish the delights of Millicent Martin at her devastating best.

Two final Malcolmian thoughts:

1. Pity the Goldthorpe counter-event didn’t get more coverage:

Britain mourned, the old banners were hoisted up in Goldthorpe and the miners went on the march.

At 2pm today, after waiting for a separate funeral in the South Yorkshire town to come to an end, an estimated 1000 former pit workers started a procession through the streets in protest at Baroness Thatcher.

An effigy of the former Prime Minister was placed in a coffin with the word ‘SCAB’ written in flowers on the side. It was then placed on a cart and towed by two horses towards the site of the former Goldthorpe colliary, which closed in 1994. A bagpiper led the way and the miners marched behind, some holding placards, most clutching cans of beer.

The entire town appeared to have turned out to join in the protest and chanted ”ere we go’ and ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, down, down, down’ as they walked. Banners from the original miners’ strike were waved on proud display.

“We have waited 28 years for this,” said David Fallon, a former hydraulics fitter at Goldthorpe colliery, who worked at the site for fifteen years and was wearing his former pit tie – complete with the white rose of Yorkshire.

All credit to the Daily Telegraph for that: a good deed in a naughty world. The intent was, presumably, to shock Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

What Disgusted will have missed is the whole event is not pure anger — though that would be well justified across the South Yorks coalfields. It’s more a first-class example of South (formerly West — don’t fret on it) Yorkshire humour. Just remember to wear a respectable association tie, with a white rose. Since Dear Old Dad originated just down the road from Goldthorpe,  Malcolm knows the mood well. It was likely a bloke from Goldthorpe or environs who addressed the Great Len Hutton, having scored a double century, with “Ah hopes ta see thee do better in t’ second innings.” Such a type is one who looks out of the window on 23rd June and observes how the evenings are drawing in.

2. Malcolm was touched by the dignitaries from the United States who made it all the way to St Paul’s:

Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn will lead a House delegation to Britain to attend the funeral of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday.

Announced by House Speaker John Boehner’s office Monday, the trip marks a culmination of Republican accolades for Thatcher following her death last week. Thatcher’s conservative policies and close relationship with President Reagan won her widespread support within the GOP.

“Margaret Thatcher was one of the greatest champions freedom has ever known, and her funeral gives Americans and friends around the world an opportunity to pay final respects,” Boehner said in a statement.

The delegation also includes Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and George Holding (R-N.C.).

Yes: that truly is Michele Bachmann, [t]he only person dumber than Sarah Palin. As for Marsha Wedgeworth Blackburn, she is doubly distinguished —

  • four times awarded 100% rating by the American Conservative Union: i.e. off the normal political spectrum, and impervious to reason. To be fair, she is now down to 87½% , and only the 40th most conservative member of the House as rated bt the National Journal.


Malcolm explains his concern with such trivia because it gives cause for recalling Simon Hoggart’s Sketch of the occasion in today’s Guardian. It is juicily headed:

Politicians reassure themselves of their importance at Lady Thatcher’s funeral

No wonder Gordon Brown looked happy as the great and the good gathered to say farewell

It concludes with the pungent:

A scattering of celebrities, just on the right side of “who on Earth?” Jeremy Clarkson, Joan Collins, Jeffrey Archer, even Michael Fabricant MP, his lustrous hair-style topping for once dimmed by the dazzling lights of St Paul’s. And Alex Salmond, who acknowledges his gratitude; her decision to start the loathed poll tax in Scotland was a huge impetus towards the notion of national independence.

 A disappointing turnout from abroad, good in numbers if low in fame. But then this was about British politics rather than international diplomacy. From America, Henry Kissinger, Newt Gingrich – surely she would have found him deeply distasteful? – and former vice-president Dick Cheney, whose poor health over eight years meant, in Garry Trudeau’s words, that George W was “only a heartbeat from the presidency”. But neither Bush nor Clinton and no Carter. It was hard to ignore the niggle that she was, perhaps, more world famous in Britain than she was in the rest of the world.


Dave Brown is being properly recognised as a star political cartoonist — this for the Independent on Wednesday:


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Divided loyalties: being Hiberno-English

A long while since (5th September 2008, since you didn’t ask), Malcolm put up a post on being Anglo-Irish. For some reason, that still attracts a fair number of “hits”. This, then, may be the logical  counter-part.

J’ai deux amours

Josephine Baker famously had two loves:

J’ai deux amours
Mon pays et Paris.

If Freda McDonald — barely two generations from slavery — had a hard life, growing up in St Louis, she found fame, fortune and a distinguished personal history as Josephine Baker in her adopted France.

Therein lies the rub

In this 21st century, many of us have two identities: one on the birth certificate, and one in the life we live. There’s little particularly “new” in this:

  • Arthur Wellesley got himself born in what is now the Merrion Hotel, Dublin — but is the archetypal English Iron Duke;
  • David Lloyd-George arrived in the world in the Manchester suburbs, but is forever “the Welsh Wizard”;
  • Éamon de Valera originated in New York, but re-made an Ireland in his own image;

— and so on.

Malcolm’s eldest has a surfeit of air-miles and is quadri-lingual in English and American, Tottenham and Noo Joisey. Even daughter number 2, the Earth Mother, manages to switch effortlessly between south Saxon RP and narrow-vowelled Anglian North Yorkshire.

Your nationalism quiz




at its fullest fluffy Murdochian populism, was rattling on:

A new version of the Life in the United Kingdom handbook, published yesterday, aims to prepare would-be Britons for the citizenship test. The guide focuses on history, tradition and what it means to be British and has ditched more mundane sections on the practicalities of life in the UK …

The 180-page guide, costing £12.99 is unashamedly patriotic, with a red, white and blue cover and pictures of the Queen and of crowds waving the Union flag at the Last Night of the Proms and on the Mall. Sir Winston Churchill is pictured alongside quotes from his wartime speeches but only two post-war prime ministers receive separate biographies: Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

The new edition finds a place for Monty Python, Morcambe and Wise and Torvill and Dean, but migrants will also be expected to know about important figures of English literature including Sir Kingsley Amis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K.Rowling.

Pass the sick-bag, Alice.

On the other hand, the side-bar was a Commentary by Matthew Syed, and it went a way to re-entering normality. Syed refers back to background:

My father arrived on these shores in 1966 as a Muslim, Pakistani, and harbouring deep suspicions about British cultural assumptions. Almost half a century later, he is a monarchist, Radio 4 aficionado and just about the most patriotic Brit I know. With the exception of his Christianity, to which he converted, Britishness is perhaps the most important and cherished affiliation of his life.

My maternal grandfather, who died last week at 98, lived a very different life to my father. Born in the Rhondda Valley at the outset of the Great War, he worked down the pits from 14 then spent a lifetime serving others, first at a home for deprived children and then as warden of an old people’s home. the one thing he shared with dad was a deep love of nation, but he interpreted Britishness in a fundamentally different way.

Not deep. Not philosophical. But neither, reading between the lines of that Times piece, is Life in the United Kingdom [£12.99 at all good bookshops, or around £7.99 if you’re Brit enough to order on-line — a nationality test in itself]. Syed scores by being domestic, humane, direct, down to earth — even dignified, in the best sense. All the good things the official line seems to miss.

For an example, today’s Clare in the Community (Harry Venning’s unfailingly reliable weekly cartoon for the Guardian‘s Society section) is an instant education in ‘Britishness’, and — unlike the nostrums in Life in the United Kingdom — transcends the regional cultural divides that Syed glosses in that final phrase above:

Clare in the community cartoon

What are little boys made of?

Everyone differs: we are an unregimented, frequently-bolshie and mutually-incompatible lot, each with our peculiar passions. What is it that makes Malcolm’s academic and professorial Little Brother traipse out fortnightly to stand with perhaps 5,000 other stalwarts and watch Notts County? The heterogeneousness is an essential part of belonging anywhere on this archipelago.

Unlike Syed, Malcolm was denied personal knowledge of either of his grandfathers: one tends his plot eternally in Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No. 2; the other died of miner’s lung around the time the (first) Great Slump arrived. Did either of those have a deep love of nation, an overwhelming sense of being “British”?

As for the royalist thing, Malcolm recalls (and can date) 15th February, 1952. He doesn’t remember the funeral of George VI — apart from the oddest early-adopter, television hadn’t penetrated north Norfolk. He does know it was a day of national mourning, and so a Friday off school. Dear Old Dad spent much of the day double-digging the long vegetable garden, and none too chuffed. When pre-adolescent Malcolm murmured a triteness about it being “Sad about the King”, the parental snort was followed by “Why, what did he ever do for me?”

Was that the germ of a young republican?

Two loves? Well, two affections.

For Malcolm neither north Norfolk nor dirty Dublin quite amount to “‘loves”. The former has changed, not wholly for the better, over the years as the have-yotties and weekenders made the coast a transplant of Camden Town — Hampstead-by-the-Sea is further south, at Southwold. Dublin has changed even more, though there remain vestiges of the old scruffiness. West Cork has gone the way of the gentrified English coast. Once away from the “gold coast”, the rest of County Down is not wholly spoiled — but could one transplant and enjoy living there?

Despite all the confusions, that double pull recurs and endures. After all, when GCE English History and English Literature immediately leads into the Irish Leaving Certificate, a cultural trauma persists for life.

Par eux toujours,
Mon coeur est ravi.

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Down with your benefits!

Be careful what you wish for!

Let us hope that the Great British Public wake up, and realise what is being legislated in their name.

  • Why is the the cost of benefits currently exceeding the Government’s plans? Surely, it cannot be because the wholeConDem scenario has gone whoopsie?

Now consider todays’s  Second reading of the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill:

  • The Resolution Foundation has calculated that 68 per cent of households affected by the measures are in work.
  • The Institute for Fiscal Studies show that all the measures announced in the Autumn Statement, including those in the Bill, will mean a single-earner family with children on average will be £534 worse off by 2015.
  • The Bill does not include anything to remedy the deficiencies in the Government’s work programme or the slipped timetable for universal credit.
  • Should there be a comprehensive plan to reduce the benefits bill?
  • Should it include measures to create economic growth and help the 129,400 adults over the age of 25 out of work for 24 months or more?
  • Should the Bill should introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee, to give long-term unemployed adults a job they would have to take up or lose benefits? This could be funded by limiting tax relief on pension contributions for people earning over £150,000 to 20 per cent.
  • Is the Bill unfair, at a time when  the rich are receiving a further bunce, and an additional rate of income tax is being reduced? This will result in those earning over a million pounds per year receiving an average tax cut of over £100,000 a year.

Most of that is taken, verbatim, from the Labour amendment to Iain Duncan Smith’s Make Labour Look Like the Party for Skiving Fat Slobs bill  [© Andrew Rawnsley].

Malcolm confidently predicts that, outside a small circle of friends (the Barclay brothers and their Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, the Murdoch lie-machine), this little Osborne ploy may quickly go sour. It will certainly poison the whole North/South division of British society, and may even do for the devolution debate what Thatcher’s Poll Tax did for the rise of the SNP.

But then, by 2015, the Tory Party may well have ceased to exist outside the plush leafy suburbs and the county areas with equestrian properties.


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When constabulary duty’s to be done, to be done …

… A policeman’s lot is not a happy one, happy one.

— William Schwenck Gilbert for The Pirates of Penzance.

  • The picture (right) is the baritone Walter Passmore of the original production.
  • The song was a favourite among London coppers, at least down to the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm heard it from his own (ex-PC) father’s lips.

Now that the dust settles on the dismal Plebgate business, now that Andrew Mitchell, a former UN peacemaker,  can polish his bike in peace, there’s still the odd bit of gristle to be chewed.

As we saw in yesterday’s Sindy, John Rentoul has come over all fair-minded:

I thought Cameron made a mistake in not insisting that Mitchell step down straight away. Which is not the same as saying that I thought Mitchell deserved to resign. Indeed, I thought he was more sinned against than sinning. Being told that it is “policy” to wheel your bicycle through the pedestrian gate is monstrous anti-cyclist discrimination (and jobsworthism of the highest order). Losing your temper and swearing at a police officer is a sin, obviously, but it may not be a crime. The Court of Appeal quashed a conviction last year, ruling that police officers are used to hearing the f-word, which is “rather commonplace”, and that it was unlikely to cause them “harassment, alarm or distress”. It was the police who, in breach of their rules, gave the story to The Sun.

OK … yawn … let’s move on …

Well, perhaps not. Put aside the “rather commonplace” adverbial reinforcer, and what are we still left with?

So, let’s play it again:

“You guys are supposed to [ … ] help us.”

Consider who are “you” and who are “us”

“You” are, most immediately, the security at the Downing Street gates. In Mitchell’s mind they are there mainly to open the main gates to let him pass through: that is the beginning and end of this little demonstration of why we’re “not all in this together”.

The police officers see their role a trifle differently, indeed from a more elevated level. They are there to keep the peace, to maintain security, and to protect the entire citizenry, who may include elected politicians.

Beyond the immediate police detachment, Mitchell may be claiming ownership and the dedicated aid and assistance of the entire Metropolitan Police, and by further extension of the police service nationally. At which, Malcolm mutters, “Up to a point, Lord Copper.

We have been here before

Just how far political (i.e. Thatcherite) intervention went in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy may be just about arguable. We do know that Thatcher herself was closeted with South Yorkshire police chief a day or so before 164 police statements were re-written to fit the “official” script.

And now:

A Nottinghamshire MP is to call for an inquiry into alleged manipulation of evidence by South Yorkshire Police during the miners’ strike.

John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said claims made in a BBC Inside Out programme relating to the so-called Battle of Orgreave must be examined.

The claims, that junior officers were told what to write in their statements, were “very convincing”, said Mr Mann.

South Yorkshire Police said it would consider whether a review was needed.

What we know is that the cases against arrested miners were built on false evidence, as after Hillsborough:

… a barrister specialising in criminal trials, Mark George QC, analysed 40 police officers’ Orgreave statements, and found that many contained identical descriptions of alleged disorder by the miners. To prove the offence of riot, the prosecution has to establish a scene of general disorder within which a defendant committed a particular act, for example throwing a stone, which would otherwise carry a much lesser charge.

George found that 34 officers’ statements, supposed to have been compiled separately, used the identical phrase: “Periodically there was missile throwing from the back of the pickets.”

One paragraph, of four full sentences, was identical word for word in 22 separate statements. It described an alleged charge by miners, including the phrase: “There was however a continual barrage of missiles.”

Michael Mansfield QC, who defended three of the acquitted miners, described South Yorkshire police’s evidence then as “the biggest frame-up ever”.

One case, against Bryan Moreland, spectacularly collapsed when a Home Office graphologist went on oath to declare the police officer’s signature was a fabrication. Moreover:

[Chief Constable] Wright did not accept any fault at all in the Orgreave operation and prosecutions. But he acknowledged unapologetically that there was a deliberate effort to convict miners of riot and unlawful assembly, which carried potentially long, even life, prison sentences. In a report to the police committee dated 25 September 1985, Wright set out the details of the operation to deal, he said, with escalating violence in picketing at the Orgreave coking plant, which miners have always argued was exaggerated.

“The chief constable decided that the usual charge of disorderly conduct, contrary to the Public Order Act, was inadequate and that, where appropriate, charges of unlawful assembly and riot should be preferred,” Wright wrote in his report.

We’ll be back to continue that in a moment. So far, the bottom line seems to be: in Thatcher’s day, the police — at least those of the South Yorkshire force — were  supposed to [ … ] help us. We have that on the authority of the Baroness herself:

There are those who are using violence and intimidation to impose their will on others who do not want it. They are failing because of two things.

First, because of the magnificent police force well trained for carrying out their duties bravely and impartially (loud cheers).

And secondly, because the overwhelming majority of people in this country are honourable, decent and law abiding and want the law to be upheld and will not be intimidated, and I pay tribute to the courage of those who have gone into work through these picket lines, to the courage of those at Ravenscraig and Scunthorpe for not going to be intimidated out of their jobs and out of their future. Ladies and Gentlemen we need the support of everyone in this battle which goes to the very heart of our society. The rule of law must prevail over the rule of the mob.

Which should all be read with implicit and emphatic first-person pronouns: My impartiality. My police. My intimidation. My law. My rules. To get her cheering audience, Thatcher had to make that speech at Banbury Cattle Market, in one of the safest Tory seats in the country.

Any blame for all this politicising of the police goes right (far right) to the top. The poor bloody constabulary were told, even ordered to submit their notebooks for editing by Chekisty and commissars. That is no obscene exaggeration: it was the way things were done in South Yorkshire under Chief Constable Wright (and so we continue from that earlier quotation):

He set up a dedicated unit to target the miners: “A chief superintendent well experienced in CID work was appointed and directed by the chief constable to organise the collection and collation of evidence, and the preparation of prosecution files whenever the scale and nature of events at Orgreave so required.”

On 18 June 1984, the day of the most notorious confrontation, when police were filmed attacking miners then claimed they were attacked first, Wright recorded: “The evidence-gathering team comprised one detective inspector, one detective sergeant, and four detective constables.” It has never been revealed who these officers or the more senior commanding officers were, nor if any were then involved in what has been labelled the black propaganda unit which conducted the campaign to falsely blame the Liverpool supporters for the Hillsborough disaster.

For the record, at that time young Andrew Mitchell was girding his loins and polishing his bicycle clips to become a devoutly Thatcherite Tory MP for the Gedling constituency of Greater Nottingham, not a million miles from the core territory of the strike-breakers.

And now for “us”

If  ‘You guys are supposed to [ … ] help us’, let us consider the precise definition of us in this context.

At first sight it might be the us of the government. Yet that doesn’t quite comprehend Mitchell’s position. After all, the Chief Whip  is the one senior occupant of Downing Street who is there primarily as the Gauleiter of the majority parliamentary party. Cue wikipedia:

In British politics, the Chief Whip of the governing party in the House of Commons is usually appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury so that the incumbent, who represents the whips in general, has a seat and a voice in the Cabinet. By virtue of holding the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, the Government Chief Whip has an official residence at 12 Downing Street. However, the Chief Whip’s office is currently located at 9 Downing Street.

To be clear, we do not have a ‘governing party’ in this parliament. We are saddled with a coalition. There are two Deputy Chief Whips, of whom one is Alistair Carmichael of the LibDems, who does not have bicycling access to Downing Street. When the Chief Whip speaks in the Commons (and, by tradition, such occasions are few and far between), it is specifically in a party-political context.

So Chief Whip Mitchell (as was) was a Conservative Party official demanding obedience from his subservient lesser-beings. Whether the term he used was “plebs” or “plods”, he was claiming l’état, c’est moi.

That is far, far more damaging than any fucking adverb.

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