“Brexit” is the buzzword running through the country. Against Europe, which is injecting migrants into the veins of the island. Against “the other”, the antagonist, the enemy. The external factor that allows a general and widespread shedding of responsibility. The first stage of a journey of The Devils at the end of the British night, while elections are approaching, together with the coldest and darkest winter.
The winter of our discontent, recalling us of Shakespeare, is ready to fall on the United Kingdom. A land that emerged four hundred million years ago which at the time physically detached itself from the European continent is now preparing to do so again, politically.
“Brexit” is the buzzword running through the country. Against the Europe of austerity and subsidiarity, against the Europe that takes more money than what is given back, against the Europe that injects migrants into the veins of the island and devastates the welfare state.
Europe is “the other” of these elections. The antagonist, the enemy. The external factor that allows a general and widespread shedding of responsibility.
In the last ten years, the episodes of malnutrition certified by the public health service have risen from 3,000 to 9,000, the free meals distributed by food collections from 40,000 to 1,600,000 every year. A country devastated by the Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s neoliberal policies. Well, nope, by Europe and migrants. It was them: it was the others.
In his “The Road To Wigan Pier”, a trip to the mining towns of Northern England to tell the story of the fetid misery in which the working class of the 1930s survived, George Orwell, in a rare moment of tenderness, uses a very powerful metaphor, that of a few crows copulating in the few patches of mud that break the huge expanses of ice.
Today, not even that anymore. In the UK, schools and hospitals, shops and libraries are being closed. You eat poorly and badly, you just drink. You don’t even fuck anymore. There’s no hope. Births have fallen by ten percent in the last five years.
In Hartlepool, a small port town in the Northeast, Reg Smythe, the creator of Andy Capp — a wonderful character who moved only to bridge the gap between the sofa at home and the pub — was born and lived. One of the most violent attacks on the society of capitalist alienation ever appeared on a comic strip.
But the new Andy Capps now only hate the other Andy Capps.
Nick was a DJ for almost 30 years. “Mostly ‘60s, ‘70s music, a little dance. No techno. Now I still do it, but a lot less, I take care of my seven grandchildren and go on sunny vacations with my wife as often as I can.”
“Even though we’re a working class community, we’ve always had a good time here in Hartlepool, but now walking around has become dangerous. Too many immigrants. Mainly from Asia and Eastern Europe.”
The owner of The Harbour View, a lively local restaurant, quite full unlike the list of mangers and chains and fast food restaurants that crowd the desolate marina, is called Darab. He is an Asian immigrant, and a great supporter of Brexit. Like any good immigrant embedded in the economic and social fabric of the city, the thing he hates the most are immigrants.
“There are two types of immigrants, political and economic ones: the former must be helped and encouraged, the latter must not. This is a very generous country, it gives you housing, work, public health, so many people come to take it, but they don’t give anything back. I’m not racist of course, but they should be helped at home.”
We are always strangers to someone.
Hartlepool is a hell of a town. They invented populism here, even before populism existed. During the Napoleonic Wars they hanged a monkey, the only survivor of the shipwreck of a French ship, because it was wearing the jacket of the enemy army. It was interrogated, tried and hung.
Two centuries later, when the city decided for the direct election of the Mayor, the winner was the mascot of the local football team: a monkey. The next term of office was still its. In the end, the city council changed the law and stopped the direct election. Now, it is the first municipality led by the Brexit Party.
From the “monkey mayor” to the mayor of the most right-wing party on the island, born on the ashes of the Ukip. Here, where at the referendum the leave had a 70% support, the Brexit Party has a good chance to elect its first MP, Richard Tice, a billionaire who comes from the rich South and is the number two of the party, after Nigel Farage.
“Since the socialist utopia was declared impossible by everyone, first of all by the socialist parties themselves, the British working class has tried to find its lost identity on what little was left: the place, the accent, the family, the ethnicity,” Paul Mason, journalist at The Guardian, wrote in the collective book “The Great Regression”.
Travor stands motionless in front of the lowered shutter of the ticket office at the Hartlepool Stadium. He used to vote Labour, now he doesn’t give a shit. All he wants is for Hartlepool Fc, that of the mascot who twice became mayor, to be promoted in the fourth series.
Depression, when mixed with alcohol, leads to fascism.
Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Leeds, Blackburn, Burnley, Bradford, Wigan, Blackpool, the winter of discontent spreads to small and medium-sized towns in the north of England and brings hatred, resentment, widespread racism. Everywhere.
Ismail is Turkish, he has been in Middlesbrough for seventeen years, and points out that he has always worked and paid taxes. “There’s widespread racism everywhere, people are starting to look at you badly in the street.”
Steven is white, he works in the Leeds market, he will vote Tory as he wants to leave Europe: “We need a system to regulate immigration. There aren’t too many of them now, but there will be. Immigrants are lowering the cost of labour and our wages.”
Sheila is 76, from Bradford, and she votes Tory. “I’m worried about my granddaughters. When I had cancer, they treated me very well. Today, you have to wait six months to see the doctor.” Middlesbrough, Leeds, Bradford, once they were all Labour. And maybe they will still be so, after the election. But the smell of shit is everywhere.
Daniel Trilling, expert of the British extreme right-wing and editor of the magazine “New Humanist”, is right to recall that Brexit is not the exclusive product of the impoverished, white trash working class. One risks falling into the short-sighted stereotype of the rust belt electing Trump. Just as the American president is a product of the stars-and-stripes financial aristocracy, so Brexit is funded by billionaires on both sides of the ocean.
But something’s broken. After the devastations of Thatcherism and Blairism, the end of the Western development model has left rubble everywhere. They are visible on every corner. Among vomit and puddles of piss, on the homeless people’s blankets, in the frightened glances of migrants who band together because going around alone is scary.
“The towns of the North are worse off than they were a hundred years ago (when Orwell described them in the worst possible way, — ed.). Instead of reinventing their economies, they have had to ‘replicate’ them — swapping coal mines for call centres and dockyards for distribution sheds, for example.
These cities tend to have created more jobs than they have lost in recent decades, but they have generally been in lower-skilled work. More alienating. They are lower paid and less secure. People have lost hope,” Paul Swinney and Andrew Carter from the Centre for Cities wrote.
High streets — the main shopping streets that characterise the villages and small and medium-sized towns of the country — have turned into ghost towns, according to The Daily Telegraph, a conservative newspaper. But no one is reminded that the problem is the failure of the capitalist system.
No, the blame is always on the other, the different, the outsider. The election campaign is all about nurturing these fears. On suspicion and fear of “the other”.
“I’m disgusted by Tories, who want to privatise everything. They receive donations from billionaires and hide them in tax havens, then show up as patriotic. Unfortunately, the lies put out by the leave campaign — like the extra £50 billion we would have for public health, which is widely refuted — are also well regarded on the left,” Alysha, an 18-year-old political science student at Leeds Beckett University, said.
The taxi driver, the DJ, the pensioner, the cab driver, the football fan, the former policeman, the street vendor at the market, they are all complaining about the devastation of public health. “We wait weeks for an appointment, months for an operation.” But it’s not the fault of neoliberalism, of privatisation. No, it’s the immigrants’ fault.
Ronnie is unemployed. “I used to vote Labour, but no longer. There are too many immigrants. They took away my job, my welfare. They’ve given me a house in Oldham, Manchester suburbs, which is rubbish, full of people from Poland, smoking crack and cocaine from dusk till dawn. But I’m sick, I’m being treated, I come to Manchester to get my meds.” He asks for a cigarette, then wraps his arms around his coat. “The medication, you know? The illegal ones they sell over the station here.” That makes perfect sense.
I hate immigrants who do drugs. I’m here to buy drugs. Neoliberalism has destroyed the health care system and welfare, I vote for a neoliberal party that promises me that without immigrants it will all be the same as before. Not that Bolshevik Corbyn, who wants to tax the rich to rebuild public health from scratch.
In the winter of our discontent, it’s a free-for-all. Any kind of social bond, any kind of solidarity within the British northeast’s working class has been broken. The war of the poor has become the war among the poor.
“The most impressive thing about families like the Brookers is that they repeat the same thing over and over again. They give you the idea that they’re not people, but a kind of ghosts who perform the exact same replica every night,” George Orwell wrote in The road to Wigan pier.
A century later, in a pub in Bradford, in front of the televisions broadcasting Champions League matches, in a city with the highest rates of poverty, unemployment and youth malnutrition in all England, a plethora of white faces, devastated by life and alcohol, silently watch xenon and neon gases light up the pixels on the screens.
Like every night, again and again. A compulsion to repeat, without any point of reference. Without any hope. On Thursday, December 12, we vote against immigrants and against Europe. The winter of our discontent is ready to fall on the United Kingdom.
Andy Capp has not only stopped fighting, he has stopped dreaming.