It seems an age ago that Dennis Skinner unleashed one of the most lethal of all Parliamentary put-downs. Reginald Maudling, the urbane and corpulent former Tory Chancellor, was inveighing against the uncompetitiveness of the British workforce, declaring: "It takes a German one and a half days to build a car, whereas it takes his British equivalent more than three days". At this point, Skinner heckled: "An' 'ow long would it tek you, fats?"
Collapse, as they say, of stout party. Maudling died 30 years ago this month, but Dennis Skinner still sits on the Labour benches, his sharp wit scarcely blunted by the passing of the years. It was hearing Lord Mandelson on the Today programme criticise the strikers demonstrating against allegedly "unfair" foreign labour at the Lindsey oil refinery that made me think back to that choice example of Parliamentary abuse.
The thing is that while Mandelson is a wonderfully smooth advocate of the policies of globalisation, one has the sense that he is not the sort of figure who would ever convince a single member of the industrial working class of anything. Yet, sitting as he is in the well-mannered House of Lords, the Business Secretary is shielded from any demotic heckling from the studiously proletarian Dennis Skinner – or indeed the genial brutality of his Tory shadow, Kenneth Clarke.
Instead, the nation has had to make do with the extra-Parliamentary equivalent of Dennis Skinner, the BBC's John Humphrys, putting the case of the wildcat strikers against imported foreign labour. Mandelson was up to the task, accusing Humphrys, inter alia, of fomenting "xenophobia".
Outraged as the Today presenter was – or pretended to be – by this, Lord Mandelson was right not to shrink from using that term. One of the Italian workers brought in to the refinery by the contracting firm IREM, told a newspaper: "Every time we want to go out into the town we have to run a real gauntlet of hate and there have been real problems in the towns with the locals." It's hard to know for sure, but it would seem unlikely that this sort of behaviour would have taken place if the "incomers" were workers from another part of Britain, rather than overseas.
The BNP have seized on this dispute with particular relish, circulating posters declaring: "British Jobs for British Workers. It's time to strike back. When we say it, we mean it!" This is a reference, obviously, to the Prime Minister's address to the 2007 Labour Party conference, in which he spoke of "drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers." The difference between Gordon Brown and us, say the BNP, is that he doesn't mean it: we do.
This was, indeed, a BNP catchphrase long before Gordon Brown uttered those words, and the Prime Minister was criticised at the time by David Cameron for borrowing the campaigning slogan of the ultra-nationalist party. Although it was foolish – at best – of Mr Brown, to use that phrase, I don't share the widespread view that he was attempting to steal the clothes of the BNP, which is seen as a growing threat by Labour candidates in some urban seats.
It stems instead from a much more personal concern of Mr Brown – that he appears as a Scottish outsider in what is still, fundamentally, an English nation. The rise in the fortunes of the Scottish National Party, leading to a future vote on secession, had only added to Mr Brown's sense of insecurity, as the prospect seemed to increase of his being entirely disenfranchised from Westminster.
To counter this, Mr Brown obsessively cloaked his every utterance with the Union Flag, and issued edicts that there should be a Bank Holiday – and even an entire museum – to celebrate "Britishness". Indeed, that first speech of his to the Labour party conference as leader contained over 50 mentions of the words "British" or "Britishness". It was not racist, but it was desperately embarrassing to witness.
The Prime Minister can legitimately point out to the demonstrators at the refineries that the foreign workforces are not being paid at rates which undercut those hitherto paid to British workers on similar contracts; it is also the case that the Italian labourers shipped in by IREM are part of that company's permanent workforce, rather than unemployed casuals swept up off the streets of Naples.
Mr Brown is also being reasonable in pointing out that the freedom of movement for labour within the European Union has been a great boon for anyone in this country who has any skill which can be exported. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, these pleas for reason are drowned out by the deafening chorus that he is a hypocrite, promising "British jobs for British workers" which he knows cannot be guaranteed without seceding from the European Union.
He is fortunate in one respect only, which is that the official trade union movement in this country has been wedded to the European Single Market ever since Jacques Delors addressed the TUC conference during the reign of Margaret Thatcher and told the brothers that they shouldn't worry about what the Conservative Government might do to labour law: the EU would guarantee them the rights they sought, backed by a European Court which would take precedence over merely British law. He was as good as his word.
There is, in any case, a strongly internationalist streak within the Left, which stems directly from the writings of Karl Marx. Thus this week's statement from Socialist Resistance, the newspaper produced by British supporters of the Fourth International, roundly criticises the British demonstrators calling for the Italian labourers to "Go back to Italy". "The demands of the strikers themselves imply that Italian workers at IREM should be sacked and replaced by British workers and that jobs in Britain should be ring-fenced against workers from outside. This is seriously wrong – where would it leave British workers working under similar conditions in other European countries?"
This plea for solidarity with foreign labour – are we not all brothers? – has always been a difficult sell to a purely domestic audience. Benito Mussolini's great insight was to realise this: he created fascism by merging the unsuccessful socialism of his early career with the virulent nationalism which had been anathema to his former colleagues. This is why fascism has long been seen as a heresy of socialism; it was hardly coincidental that Adolf Hitler's movement was called the National Socialist German Workers' Party – Nazi for short.
It would be over-dramatic to see the BNP's attempts to become the political leaders of the anti-foreign wildcat strikers as the spark that will ignite a revival of fascism; but there is equally no doubt that a worldwide recession – which could only be magnified by a descent into protectionism – is fertile ground for the mutant socialists sometimes described as the "far right". Lord Mandelson would understand this threat very well: hard is it might now be to imagine, he was once a member of the Young Communist League.Reuse content