There could hardly have been a more fitting venue for an evening with Alastair Campbell than in the shadow of the London Eye on the Thames.
There could hardly have been a more fitting venue for an evening with Alastair Campbell than in the shadow of the London Eye on the Thames.
The wheel is an emblem of new Labour: a construction of great promise that rises above Westminster and Buckingham Palace, gleaming and victorious but with a hint of Cool Britannia.
From up there, it is still possible to look down with bated breath on to one of the most beautiful, glamorous and stimulating metropolises in the world. However, seven years after the first great election victory, most of the passengers of new Labour are already beyond the zenith. The wheel has carried on turning and in August last year Alastair Campbell alighted. He has been earning some serious money ever since.
Campbell was the one who pulled all the strings. Ministers had to have press interviews approved by him. Wherever he was he put his feet on the table. He was the most powerful media adviser ever to have worked at No 10. And, astonishingly, the most lousy.
Some time ago, the Government's audience decided that it was not telling the truth. They react to Tony Blair's defiant public appearances - and continually shifting explanations on the Iraq war - with increasing annoyance. With new debts and the possibility of tax increases even the harsh daily business of government is becoming more unpleasant. The party for new Labour ended some time ago. But for Campbell it is clearly just beginning.
In the Royal Festival Hall 2,500paid to see him. He is large and wiry, has short hair and a hoarse voice. He provided a strange white noise, two hours long. What did he say? Something about football, nothing that was remotely connected to a political vision. It is as if the fact that new Labour ousted the Conservatives seven years ago is enough.
For the right questions Campbell hands out t-shirts that he wore during the London marathon. He laughs at the question: "What advice would you give to an aspiring porn writer?" a reference to his erstwhile job. The whole evening is one big smile until a woman jumps up and shouts: "You lying bastard, you sit there and..." She doesn't get any further; she is speechless.
She throws her hands in the air in despair and leaves. The stage show can be derailed by neither provocation nor argument. It is a performance purged of conviction and gutted of politics. It is the empty revolution of a wheel, the vulgar technology of power.
The English Patient
Anthony Daniels cites the example of Paris, where the mob was confined to satellite towns and a few tanks were enough to block off access roads. "Only in case of crisis: but the crisis will soon be upon us," he says emphatically. The world is threatened, not by terror but by trash.
In Birmingham there is no escape from these "brutal and brutalising" faces. The same goes for the drinkers and pitbull owners, the work-shy and junk food-chomping charity shop mums on the front cover of The Spectator in which Daniels gives his reasons for moving to France. The essay, which he writes under the nom de guerre of the misanthropic Theodore Dalrymple, is called "Flight from barbarity".
Daniels' mother is a German-Jewish immigrant and his father is a communist. He is the same generation as Campbell, but he belongs to the other side, to the vanquished. He listens to classical music. He has no television. He despises football.
New Labour is for Daniels nothing more than dumbing down, a mush of the middle ground, the indifference of the "big social tent", monitored by a cynical intelligensia and a constantly expanding bureaucracy: He knows exactly what he is writing about. His spends his days with the sediment of British society as a psychiatrist in a city hospital and in a Birmingham prison.
If Campbell is the prole who has worked his way into the salons, then Daniels is the bourgeois with both feet in hell. He knows the dark side of new Labour slogans and it looks like this: the hospitals are understaffed and the prisons overcrowded. Despite the billions invested in the crumbling health system there is a lack of doctors. Drunken brawls, especially at weekends, have reached epidemic proportions. The island today has more delinquents, more queuing patients, more gymslip mums than ever.
Although the country is experiencing the strongest economic boom since the 1950s there is a growing cultural disquiet. Almost a million Britons are off sick due to depression or stress. Productivity is lower than in France or Germany. England's soul is sick, Daniels says. On this particular evening he is giving a lecture to a group of psychiatrists. To the chagrin of the nice hostess employed by a pharmaceutical company, he explains why he considers her pills to be a swindle. People should just get a grip, he says. He gives an example - the woman who has five children from two men and lives with a third who beats her. She wants pills for depression. Daniels advises her to consider her promiscuity and to split from her violent boyfriend.
Daniels bemoans immorality and rampant emotional incontinence. Every day feelings are exposed in the redtop press and on television. To him the symbolic event was the hysterical bow before Diana "this absolutely worthless and trivial person". After her death Tony Blair talked with a quivering voice of the "People's Princess" while the Queen was criticised for her reserve. The Queen, according to Daniels, deserves better subjects.
At midnight the doctor takes his Yorkshire terrier Ramses for a walk. Ramses walks nervously towards the church and the shadow of a memorial honouring the war dead; he stands and sniffs. A condom! Daniels pulls on the lead. Signs of neglect are everywhere, even in the salubrious district of Edgbaston. "You see what I mean?" The enemy approaches. It's time to escape.
The scene is the platform at Hammersmith station, west London. Stranded people, waiting patiently, in dark coats, motionless as if in a Magritte painting, heads turned towards loudspeakers, listen to the announcement."We apologise for the late service on the District Line. .... The next train is not for Ealing, but for Richmond ... Ignore the screens ... Look at the train ... it might be for Richmond; to be honest, I don't know myself ... better look it up for yourselves ..." And then there is a crackling noise, which sounds very desperate and very final.
This is the poetry of everyday London. There is an acceptance of fate in people's faces, unrequited love, anger. We invented the damned trains, why don't they work any more? Does anything work any more? Only in England can a play about trains provoke tears and reviews written with clenched fists. The first line in David Hare's Permanent Way, at the Cottesloe theatre, is a sigh: "Oh, Britain..." According to the reviews, trains are "a paradigm for the morally rotten, materially run-down state of our nation". But what great theatres!
The Great Strike
Grass has grown over the Cortonwood pit in Yorkshire. The warehouses and DIY superstores on top of the mine seem to have been parachuted from a helicopter. Even seemingly old pubs built from stone, such as the St George and the Dragon, are not more than three years old. At least the region is recovering.
"We were standing here", says Jim Graham. A barrel and a worn-out sofa were on the picket line, "OUR 1984". It came 20 years ago and was the last great class struggle in the world. It brought about the end of the industrial age of the 19th century, once and for all, and cleared the way for the service economy of the 21st century.
Britain had the world's first well-organised working-class movement and then it got rid of it. While the Soviet bloc still lay in communist hibernation and the old Federal Republic under Helmut Kohl, with his catastrophic talent for persistence, gave away subsidies like free beer, Maggie Thatcher closed the pits and declared the future had begun. For over a year the miners were on strike, at 153 pits. Then they were beaten, and nothing was as it used to be.
The Thachter revolution has removed the nation's core and turned workers into dispensable workers who can be easily given the sack. "We were someone, once," says Graham, on the way back from the convenience store where he was spending his pension. "We were a community."
The majority have moved away. Many have died. And he is now killing time in this store, between dog food, crossword puzzles, Nescafé, lottery tickets and sweets. Especially the latter: the shop makes its money from kids who want stuff to suck. "I'm not proud selling sweets instead of swinging the hammer," says Jim, whose muscled, Celtic physique hardly fits behind the counter. But what can you be proud of these days?
Recently, one of the "scabs" came in to the shop: a strike-breaker. Jim's eyes flash for a second. "I recognised him immediately, even after 20 years." Jim shouted to the guy: "Piss off, or I'll break every bone in your body." A man has his pride. He was probably also embarrassed to been seen here, with a well-thumbed Mills and Boon on the counter.
In their tight-knit, conservative world, christenings, family parties and funerals, all those took place under the banner of the union of the pit. If teenagers rioted in Barnsley, you spoke to a fellow comrade, and he sorted it out. These days the kids are without direction, and nobody cares. There were no jobs for 10 years, and we got used to living on the dole. "A whole generation, gone."
Perhaps one has to think of those people who were on the Spectator cover, with pit bull terriers and beer cans? In that case, Maggie Thatcher's Tory revolution would have finished off traditional England and helped to bring about a loss of inhibition, which would be a devilish historical punchline.
An Expensive Town
The flat is in a great location, in the city centre, opposite Harrods, with its ornate consume grottos, which you can't see, because the flat faces the back yard. It doesn't take long to look around. The flat is 5.8 metre squared, and it costs €186,000.
There is a cupboard in the hall , with a battery of cleaning products inside. "These come with it," says Edward, the estate agent. There is a shower! The fridge, lilac and neon, holds a bottle of bubbly. A small one. The construction which the television set sits on is a "waste of space", Edward reckons, pronouncing the word as if it were the worst insult he knows. He would replace it. "With a flat screen." You could unroll a mattress from wall to wall and sleep on it. That's all. "But you've got your own flat in town."
More than 70 per cent of British people live in property they own. Mortgages and credit payments are cheaper than paying rent, and therefore you buy and trade smaller flats for bigger ones, taking out a higher mortgage, climbing one step after the other up the "property ladder". The high point is to have a little house in France - almost 40 per cent of foreign-owned property in France is in British hands.
Because there is very little new-build on the island, prices go up all the time. Last year alone they rose by 15 per cent. And because their properties are worth a considerable amount on paper, the British take out more money on credit, as they consider themselves rich. Today they owe on average 130 per cent of their annual salary. But many, in the back of their minds, are uneasy, because everybody believes that the property bubble will burst at some point.
For Edward it has long been too expensive for him to take even the first step on the property ladder. He lives out of town, with his wife's family. He sends his 9-year-old daughter to a public school for around €10.000, his sole luxury. "That should be tax-deductible." But it isn't.
On the contrary, taxes are going up. Council tax alone, which covers public services like refuse collection, schools, and social services, has risen by more than 50 per cent under new Labour. I am finished with new Labour, says Edward bitterly. "New Labour is a waste of space."
The Battle for Europe
Happy the country that has produced a culture of contradiction - Speakers' Corner as well as 20 different daily newspapers, and the polemic psychiatrist, who lays into his clients in a politically incorrect way. In this culture, you don't spend time being offended, you look for a better line to take and hit back.
London's shrine to debating is the Royal Geographical Society, which meets to debate motions such as "Let's get rid of Scotland" or "GM food is good for us." Tonight the debate is called "A European constitution - A Set-back For Democracy". There was a test vote before the debate started. The overwhelming majority of the audience supported the motion.
The combatants meet beforehand in a panelled side-room for snacks and wine, below an old Chinese map. The diplomat and the Labour MP, the left-wing constitutional expert and the right-wing columnist. There is a locker room atmosphere. They loosen up, nod towards each other and promise with a smile not to take any prisoners.
And then blood is spilt. Then it is argued convincingly, that Europe is - alternatively - a bureaucratic nightmare and England an island of the blessed. And the other way round, that the English are a small, narrow-minded people full of undigested beliefs left over from the Empire, and that only Europe could function as a modern heavy-weight partner for the transatlantic superpower.
The audience cheers on the speakers, by applauding, and by posing questions. In the final vote, Europe has narrowed the gap. But it has lost nevertheless. As Blair now knows, you can't win elections with Europe on the island. The eurosceptics, however, had a new battle cry: "Morecambe Bay".
Death in Cockle Bay
The Labour MP Geraldine Smith stands on the beach in Morecambe Bay and says: "I can't see this any more." She pulls her coat closer around her shoulders and glances for the last time at the flower arrangements and joss sticks and the sacrificial bowl with rice and fish. Geraldine has tears in her beautiful, sea-green eyes. The day before, Buddhist priests spoke to the souls of the 20 cockle-pickers who were drowned in the grey waters.
They had been driven out there at night by slave traders to the tricky cockle banks, ignoring warnings. Then the tide had come back in quickly through the channels and had cut them off. One of the unfortunate cockle-pickers had a mobile phone. He called his family in the Chinese province of Fujian one last time, from a moonless cold night in the Irish Sea. "The water is getting higher," he said. "We will drown."
The cockle banks were estimated to be worth £10 million, when they were opened last year. There was a lot of money to be made out there, and immediately the caravans started arriving, from Blackpool, from Liverpool, even from Manchester. And then gangs of illegal Chinese arrived, and fights started to drive them away. Because their cockle sacks kept on getting oil poured on them, the gangmasters decided to send them out at night, for £1 per sack.
Geraldine Smith got the first hints about the Chinese illegals a couple of months ago. She asked for official help. Nothing happened. And now the country talks about nothing else, but the discussion has a bizarre twist, because Morecambe Bay is not so much the place of a human catastrophe, but the neuralgic point of the island, a port of invasion for illegals, which arouses fears of immigration and asylum-seekers and finally of the open borders of an enlarged European Union. The tabloids called a national emergency.
Morecambe Bay has seen better days. The bingo halls and fish and chip shops along the promenade are mostly closed. The little houses behind them were rented out to tourists 15 years ago. Then tourism broke down. Now the people who live there are on welfare. And Chinese. And junkies. Morecambe Bay is the home of the most lost souls of the British economic miracle.
Geraldine is a "Blair babe", one of the young MPs who won the seat for new Labour in 1997. The Conservative contestant came from the wealthy Guinness family. She once wanted to change the world, she says. Now it is only Morecambe Bay. Even during weekend she is in her office, or in the supermarket, holding surgeries.
She lives alone, in the West End, next to a Chinese restaurant. She is friends with the proprietors. That's where she is having dinner. Later, she goes home and listens to David Bowie's Heroes. "We could be heroes, just for one day."
She wears a little golden cross over her black jumper. Her family, she says, came over from Belfast during the 1970s, because it had become too dangerous there for Catholics. She knows all too well why people leave and start again somewhere else. And there is this picture in her mind she will never forget, when a burning bed flew out of her neighbour's house.
That, she says, is probably one of Blair's lasting successes - the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which got the warring parties in Northern Island round the table. But she is no longer sure about the rest of Blair's record.
No one in the party is quite sure presently. She has voted in favour of the Iraq war, in an act of loyalty for Blair and trusting completely in his judgement. "Had I then known what I know today ..." She leaves the sentence uncompleted, the words blowing in the wind.
It is getting harder to sell new Labour policies in the provinces. She will continue picking arguments with the bureaucrats in London and fighting for legislation aimed at tackling gangmasters. And then she will try to ease people's fears about immigrants, and EU enlargement. She will fight the Nazis from the BNP, who over at Burnley are already on the city council. Geraldine Smith, the little backbencher of the Labour Party, is a hero. There she stands at the beach, shivering, after giving another interview to the BBC. Nowhere else is England so much of an island, at this moment, so romantic and beautiful, strong and endangered.
Two years ago, Geraldine says, a Spanish ship appeared in the mist out there and cleared the whole cockle bank. "The Armada," she says and laughs. Then the sun breaks through the clouds, and beyond the bay, behind the sandbanks, the houses of Grange-over-Sands shine in the light. Like a golden fortress, arisen from the sea. Britannia.Reuse content