Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Scots referendum shows the way to a society where everyone gets a seat on the train.

Last week getting onto a train back from Birmingham I turned the wrong way and entered the first class coach by mistake; not a smart move.

You can imagine the scene; there I am gawping with surprise at seeing so many unoccupied seats, whilst the air fills with a polite murmur of distaste. I say, poor show what; the fellow looks like he bought his furniture, hardly the sort of person we want in first class.

Being someone what knows his place and pausing only to give my forelock a good tug I trotted off back to cattle class pronto, there to spend the rest of the journey crammed in nose to armpit with my fellow plebs.

There’s something else what I know too, that the rolling shambles of our train service proves that TUC chief Frances O’Grady was onto something when she said Britain was at risk of becoming a ‘Downton Abbey’ society. The only point where I disagree is that there is no risk about it, we’re already one; and always have been.

Quite a few people reading this will probably be snorting derisively right now, what lefty rubbish, they’ll say. Ours is a ‘classless society’, as proclaimed by John Major of all people, a Tory prime minister who also happened to come from humble origins.

It is, at best a convenient myth, one that my experience aboard that train helps to explode.

Trains, or rather the waves of workers who arrive at a London railway station aboard them every morning form one of the key metaphors in George Orwell’s famous essay about the class system. First come the cheery tabloid reading artisans, then the fussy little clerks clutching copies of the Daily Express and last of all the governing classes with copies of the Times and the Daily Telegraph that were ironed for them by their butler.

The image has always seemed a little too rosy to me, although I’m willing to cut Orwell some slack since he was writing during a war when we really were all in it together, if only in the interests of survival. Personally I favour the far bleaker vision of the class system put forward by Owen Jones, the closest thing our age has to George Orwell. The class war is raging more fiercely than ever and the working and middle classes are losing on every front.

The train has the power to be the ultimate democratic mode of transport and yet we have made out of opportunity a dispiriting shambles where legroom is sold like a class A drug. Last month I joined a protest outside Stoke station against the latest sky high hike in train fares, not one of the people we approached refused to take the postcards we were handing out.

This wasn’t the ‘angry mob’ stereo-typing says would support our protest, these were the sort of people governments of all stripes have courted for the past thirty years. A left wing cause like renationalising the railways resonating with Middle England, surely that’s impossible; don’t you believe it.

At long last the penny has dropped, or it’s starting to anyway, and the people in what used to be the middle class are starting to see they have common cause with those one rung below. The opposition between the striving and the skiving looks ever more like a convenient fiction dreamed up by the political elite.

Both groups have been sold a pup, the aspiration they are goaded into striving for is really just racking up ever more debt in a mad race to keep up with the Jonses, rather than progressing through the force of their efforts they’re splashing like mad to keep their heads above water. As they do so they’re haunted by the fear their kids will likely drown anyway.

The reason we got into this sorry mess is quite simple, the elite long ago learnt that an indebted populace is easy to control because it is too busy worrying how to make ends meet to pay attention to what they’re up to and are endlessly open to falling for the oldest trick in the political play book; divide and rule.

Up to date it has worked because there hasn’t seemed to be an alternative, now there is and it has given our complacent political elite the biggest shock of their comfortable little lives and it had been provided by the campaign around the Scottish independence referendum. The extent to which they have been rattled was demonstrated last week when the three party leaders abandoned the weekly playground squabble of PMQ’s to head north to campaign for a no vote, an exercise that couldn’t have been more absurd had they made the trip in a clown car.

What has scared the political elite so much isn’t the prospect of Scotland becoming independent, all politicians are pragmatists at heart and are adept at rolling with the punches thrown by events, is that the campaign has created a political discourse that is the opposite of the one they usually have with the British public. Their usual tactics of smothering debate with a mix of threats, cheap sentiment and vague promises has fallen flat; they’re in a blue funk and don’t know what to do.

This is because either by accident or design a potentially dull constitutional issue has been turned into a debate over what it means to be Scottish and what sort of shared future the people of the country want. Not surprisingly the market driven, everyone for themself model of the past thirty years is running a distant second to having an open and egalitarian society on Scandinavian lines; who’d have thought it? Not a bunch of professional politicians with firsts in PPE from Oxbridge apparently.

This campaign has engaged the Scottish public in a way that nothing since maybe the 1945 general election has, whatever the result tomorrow things will never be the same again. Even if the Better Together campaign wins the day for the status quo by a narrow margin the people who have held power for centuries will no longer be at ease in the old dispensation.

All of a sudden the idea that where Scotland leads the English regions could follow no longer seems like a woolly notion for bearded men wearing home knitted jumpers. Handled properly it could be our chance to have a meaningful debate about how we make the sort of society where everyone gets a seat on the train into a reality.

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