Saturday, 2 April 2016

States of Mind

A few emails take issue with the suggestion I could realistically, or even reasonably, identify as working-class. I take the point, and I would have agreed with it before I went to university.

The Irish, the West Indians and the East African Asians all tell the story of getting on the boat or the plane to England as third generation schoolteachers or what have you, but getting off to find themselves classified as unskilled labour.

Thus did they become Labour stalwarts in, especially, urban and industrial Britain, as well as far stauncher Catholics, or members of the black churches (with which, in the sense of Pentecostalism or of being of black foundation, they had not necessarily been associated at all in the Caribbean), or Hindus, or Muslims, or Sikhs.

Similarly, on the day that I went up to university, I woke up believing implicitly that I was a bourgeois, almost a kulak. But by the time that I went to bed in the early hours of the following morning, it had been made clear to me in no uncertain terms that I was no such thing.

It most emphatically continued to be so. Thus did I spend several years as, for good or ill, an impeccably middle-class person at home, but as a character from When The Boat Comes In for the other half of the year.

Although I was already an active member of the Labour Party, a whole other story, I had never had the slightest conception of myself as working-class, for which no one who genuinely was so could ever have taken me, then as now.

Well, I was working-class there, expected to be a comic turn (while I was picking up a Parish Council seat and two school governorships in my very early twenties at home), and referred to as "Other Ranks" in my hearing by people of my own age and whose background was exactly the same as mine except, crucially, that they had grown up in the South.

Old Durham hands will say that I should have been on the Hill. Having worked there since, I think that they are probably right. But I am not entirely sure.

In any case, this was one of the two or three defining experiences of my life, and it has probably shaped my thought more than anything else.

Conor Cruise O'Brien held that, while Partition in itself had not been desirable, nevertheless there were fundamentally "two states" in Ireland, a Unionist one and a Nationalist one, each heavily concentrated in certain areas, but both existing throughout the island, and by no means necessarily coterminous with any sectarian divide.

It seems a pity that he set his face so squarely against the Good Friday Agreement, which accepted that thesis in its entirety, and which gave the only ever formal recognition to it.

Unionists and Nationalists, as such, were and are guaranteed certain powers and positions, while majorities of those identifying as each and both were and are necessary for further constitutional change. It is all there, in black and white.

There are now two states in Scotland, a Unionist one and a Nationalist one.

There may be so in Wales, or an English-speaking one and a Welsh-speaking one, or a Labour one and a Not Labour one, or a Tory one and a Not Tory one, or all of those things.

And in England, there are very definitely two states, a Tory one and a Not Tory one.

Like all of the foregoing, each of those is heavily concentrated in certain areas while nevertheless existing throughout the country.

Each of them is found in everything from the most urban to the most rural areas. And each of them contains its own entire class system from top to bottom, more or less incomprehensible to the other's.

The divide between the two states is, if anything, even more pronounced in England than it is anywhere else.

The Tory England of Sajid Javid can travel to New South Wales instead of Old South Wales because it does not know the difference.

It can be sincerely indifferent as to whether or not this country still had a steel industry, so long as we still had the Falkland Islands.

Where is the point of contact between that and the other state in England, or almost, if almost, any of the states elsewhere? There is none.

But Tory England is firmly in charge.

I lived through the first Blair term in a microcosm of what the United Kingdom as a whole has now become. I do not recommend it.


  1. Your mate Brendan O'Neill wrote this when Conor Cruise O'Brien died:

    It is disingenuous to paint O’Brien as an intellectual eccentric, a quirky outsider, little more than an academic poseur who was also known as ‘Camera Crews O’Brien’ because he loved the limelight.

    Because the fact is that O’Brien’s misanthropic outlook on Irish history, his core belief that there were ‘two states’ in Ireland (one nationalist, one Unionist) that might descend into civil war and barbarism if their individual integrity was not respected, is now utterly mainstream, and indeed is the governing principle of modern Ireland and Anglo-Irish affairs.

    It might not be going too far to label O’Brien the Grandfather of the Peace Process.

    The rash-inducing reaction to O’Brien’s death amongst liberal observers has been brought about not because they disagree with him, but because this shrill denouncer of all things republican reminds them of a deeply uncomfortable fact: that the contemporary, liberal-sounding celebration of Ireland’s ‘two traditions’, which justifies the Partition of Ireland anew, has its origins in unadulterated elite disgust for the Irish people’s temerity to demand liberty and independence; in other words, in the outlook of people like Conor Cruise O’Brien.

    1. It's a good article. But the logic of the Cruiser's position was still support for the Good Friday Agreement. As Brendan argues, until nearly the end of this. A very odd twist, that.