My earliest political memories are of the late 1970s. I was at primary school, Jim Callaghan was in Downing Street and half the country was on strike. Uncollected rubbish piled up on the streets and bodies were left unburied. Not that I saw any of this directly — not in deepest Kent. However, I was watching the news, eager to understand what the grown-ups were talking so seriously about.
Often, I got the wrong end of the stick. For instance, I thought that the “Government” and the “Opposition” were the names of the main political parties. I guess that means I must have understood the concept of a political party, but that’s not so surprising: at school, where our playground was basically a field, we literally built rival camps in it.
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By the time I went to secondary school, the details of Westminster’s rival camps became clearer to me — as did which side I “belonged” to.
Everything counts in large amounts, but few things were big in the world I grew up in. It was a small town life of little platoons. Its people stood on their own two feet, without rising to any great height.
We liked it that way and Margaret Thatcher gave the impression that she liked us. Whether or not we liked her — and feelings were mixed — she communicated a value system that made sense. Even the leftiest of our teachers espoused the virtues of hard work and personal responsibility, thus inadvertently echoing the Thatcherite message.
And then I went to university, in Sheffield: the naïve Kentish lad transplanted to a big northern city. It didn’t take me long to realise that Thatcherism wasn’t working for everyone. Back home, “de-industrialisation” was a word in a textbook (or at least would have been had our textbooks been remotely up-to-date). Now I saw it with my own eyes.
Not that Sheffield has ever conformed to the stereotypes. Standard depictions of the city, in films like The Full Monty, only tell part of the story. Yes, there was (and is) real deprivation, but also neighbourhoods that put the leafiest of southern suburbs to shame.
Of course, nothing in life is ever simple — including my “political awakening”. I’m not about to recount a tale of dramatic transformation. I didn’t abandon my shire conservatism and become a doctrinaire socialist.
Rather, it gradually dawned on me that the mantra of “market good, state bad” was just as absurd as its opposite. When I arrived in Sheffield, the buses had just been deregulated and privatised. For the sake of creating competition (on the most profitable routes, of course), the overall system was mucked up (with consequences across the North that last to this day). Local people were furious, not just because of the degraded services, but also because they’d been disrespected — the changes having been imposed by an ideologically-blinkered government.
From my first week as a student, I was put off Left-wing politics by the newspaper-selling Trotskyites on campus. How could these fanatics be so committed to their inhumanly abstract, utterly impractical theories? Couldn’t they see how their ideas would blow up on contact with the real world? Then again, was the Conservative government (busily rolling-out the Poll Tax at the time) so very different?
The doubts grew in my mind; and yet I was still captive to the binary politics of the era. Yes, Thatcher was fallible. But who’d liberated the Falklands, seen-off the union barons and stood up to Communism?
People who think that politics is polarised now should have been around in the 1980s. There was no room for nuance, just one titanic struggle: East-versus-West, Left-versus-Right, Red-versus-Blue. But with the start of a new decade, everything changed. The Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet bloc collapsed. It was the end of an era at home, too. Margaret Thatcher was pushed out and the old simplicities went with her.
By that time, I was living neither in halls nor in a student house, but in lodgings. That had the benefit of taking me out of the university bubble, and the Sheffield people I got to know were nothing like the middle class lefties on campus. Both groups detested Maggie, of course, but that’s all they had in common. I couldn’t know it at the time, but the Remain-versus-Leave cleavage that would surface decades later was there all along.
Student politics taught me that the Right was an incoherent category too. What did I have in common with the campus libertarians for whom the individual was everything and the community nothing?
So, by the time I graduated, the Left-versus-Right model of politics was broken — at least in my own mind. The trouble is that I had nothing to replace it with. I was a science student; I didn’t have any labels for the political ideas I was looking for. In fact, terms like Blue Labour, Red Tory and post-liberalism hadn’t even entered the conversation.
So it was a long time before I could even name the politics I believed in. And yet, like a lot of indefinable qualities, you know it when you see it.
A revelation of the visual kind, one spring day when I was revising for my A-Levels, is probably the closest experience to a political awakening I ever had.
Adults try to prepare teenagers for all sorts of “changes”, but they don’t tell you about the awakening of one’s aesthetic sensibilities. I know that sounds pretentious, but it’s when you suddenly notice beauty in the world — and not just the human variety. Suddenly, you see nature not just as a big green thing to mess around in, but as full of wonder.
I don’t suppose it’s the same for everyone, but for me, looking out the window one day and being struck by that wonder was a profound experience. It made me view our built environment in a different way, too. Having been bored by architecture as a child, as a young adult it became a source of joy… and also dismay.
Why, I wondered, had we made such a mess of our towns and cities? Why such needless, pointless ugliness? Why would a rich country build dysfunctional places for people to live in? Who was responsible for this disaster?
The answer was staring me in the face. Some of the monstrous carbuncles had been built by the state and others by the market. Both were responsible. Both had imposed their will without listening to local people. And whether it was done in the name of progress or profit, the outcome was the same.
Some would say these are just matters of taste. I say they’re deeply political — because the same dehumanising arrogance is at work in all spheres: economical, social, environmental and cultural.
That’s why I’ve long lost patience with the partisans of both the market and the state. There is so much that matters more than either — and that is vulnerable to both.