Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Twenty Summers Of Division

It had been twenty summers since I had last experienced a late June and early July in England. They stressed that it had been hot the week before. I enjoyed the drizzle and the moderate temperatures. They were a surprisingly welcome change to Mallorca.

That last summer was 1997. The spring had heralded a new beginning. England and Britain had an optimism. The glorious weather of 1 May had taken the people to the polls. On 2 May, equally glorious, the people knew that Tony Blair was prime minister. There was joy in the land. Oh how it was to evaporate. The about turn on freedom of information, an early victim of Blairism, was an indication that a pup may have been sold to the public.

Blair, the consummate actor, was to overplay his hand during the service, but he had previously captured the mood. Late in that summer, I had put on Five Live as I habitually did in the morning. Peter Allen was presenting, when Peter Allen wouldn't normally have been. It soon became apparent why. Blair did at least appreciate what Diana meant to the people.

That was twenty years ago. In fact, the last time I was in England (in winter) was seven years ago. It was the last time I had actually left Mallorca. I realised this because of the expiry date on my European health card: the acquisition of a replacement was to prove to be less straightforward than I had remembered the process having been. I now have the replacement, but I travelled without it.

At the time I left England, there was a growing disappointment with Blair. The policies of David Blunkett had been making me uneasy as well. There were mutterings of police state. In my part of west London, there were the signs of some form of breakdown. This was heavily multicultural London. I knew Caribbeans, Asians, Irish, Poles, Lithuanians. There was occasional tension but generally there was harmony. Coexistence had been good. But by 1998, I had begun to wonder.

It was saddening. The Poles, for instance, were long embedded in local society. They had been since the Second World War. When Diana's body was brought to England, it was to RAF Northolt, the one-time base for Polish airmen, with the Polish War Memorial close by. It was a time, in the late 1990s, that predated the outright hysteria of the right in targeting other cultures. Yet one could feel the seeds of the discontent. I was to later discover, while in Germany three years later, how these seeds were being organised. Farage was just one name in a crafted strategic approach that was quite different to the blatant and simplistic thuggery of the National Front or BNP.

I returned, albeit briefly, to the green fields and woods of the northern Home Counties. This is an area where rock musicians live in discreet tranquility, unmolested by neighbours or prying eyes. Everyone seems to drive an Audi, including the twentysomethings. Apparently it's all due to highly favourable leasing arrangements. It is an area largely unaffected by the sickness of England.

Before going, there had been a radio discussion. A German journalist, resident in England for years who works for a German paper, had used the word sickness. She had suggested that there aren't quite the same extreme societal divisions in Germany as there are in England. It was Grenfell to which she was referring and not to terrorism, of which Germany has had its own sickening fill.

Theresa May isn't Blair. She failed to capture the public mood. Grenfell was and is symptomatic of social failure, hastened - it has to be admitted - by the over ambitions of the European project. This ambitiousness - so much expansion, so rapidly - was the root cause of Brexit. Immigration was just one element, but one that lay at the heart of the far-right's strategy that had initially been developed in the late 1990s: a time when it was not paid sufficient attention in exposing. The egghead fascists, Holocaust deniers and others of the late '90s were the progenitors of Steve Bannon: all they lacked then was the technology.

It was, in a way, reassuring to, for instance, be served at the easyJet check-in at Luton Airport by a lady wearing a hijab. What has happened in recent years is a denial of the one-time harmony of west London and of other parts of England. This denial is understandable, but to fully understand it, one has to make reference to the process initiated in the late '90s. The far-right was in it for the long-term.

There was an almost reluctance to talk about Brexit. There were those who had voted to leave but who now questioned why they had done so. The frightening wealth of the northern Home Counties notwithstanding, there was nevertheless an underlying sense of uncertainties. Brexit is only cause. But then, the thinking would be very different elsewhere, including North Kensington. Division. It has been twenty summers in the making.

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