I was given this as a present (thanks, Tracy!) a couple of years ago and immediately relished the anticipation of reading it, although it has had to wait more than its fair share of time sitting on my to-read shelf. It ought not to have: it’s clear that Maconie is as much of a fan of Newcastle as I – and I mean here the city, not the Toon. At 17, applying for several of what were then called polys, I arrived in Newcastle and, in an echo of Maconie’s opening paragraphs here, sweeping over the King Edward Bridge with the city spread out before and below me, I was sold on the prospect of living and studying here long before I ever got anywhere near the campus.
Not only that, I was a sand dancer for a while – although that’s not a term I recognised until Maconie’s earlier book, Pies and Prejudice. In the summer of 1984, I had a job working in the South Shields branch office of the Northern Rock, alongside David, Carol, Jean, Lesley, Alison, Anne-Marie (whose maternity cover I was) and June, whose husband was a striking miner up at Westoe Colliery. In almost daily conversations about the strike, I came to realise for the first time the value of taking collective action for something you believed in – June was herself the embodiment of the notion that the miners’ strike was fought equally by strong families as much as by strong miners.
My route into Shields on the metro from my Tyneside flat along Sunderland Road in Gateshead (bulldozed into a new development some time ago, I note) took me through Jarrow (if I was lucky, sharing the ride alongside Elizabeth, who also worked in Shields three doors up at the Newcastle Building Society and whose stop was Jarrow. The Rock – in those days still a building society prior to its transformation by rapacious gold-diggers into a risk-taking ‘proper’ financial institution – is no longer there, of course, but the Newcastle, which remains a building society, has relocated further down Fowler Street, and expanded, while Virgin Money, which took over parts of the Rock, now seems to occupy the place, and the footprint, formerly vacated by the Newcastle).
In October 1986, three months after graduating and newly installed in work on Teesside, I found myself back in ‘Jarra’ and listening to the general secretary of GMB, John Edmonds, at the fiftieth celebration issue yet another apology for the failure of the labour and trade union movements to offer better moral, practical and indeed financial support to the marchers, ahead of the departure the following day (IIRC) of the 1986 version of the Jarrow march. As he invited one of the few remaining 1936 marchers to join him on the stage, there was a small shuffle behind and just to the right of me – and up stepped a man whose name I can’t quite remember, but who might possibly have been Jimmy Foggon. I was standing feet away (and in front of) a living legend, himself (and again) just a part of the crowd. This might have been for personal reasons, but I found it very odd.
The reasons for the lack of solidarity from the organised labour and trade union movements for the 1936 marchers are fairly well explored in Maconie’s book, although his aim here is not to provide a history of the march, of which there are several also referenced here. It would of course not be possible for one man walking alone (and sometimes taking buses and taxis) to recreate the collective endeavours of 200 men – the logistics of keeping that many men on the road for three weeks are clearly considerable; and we should not lose sight that one of the strengths of the original march was its collective nature. However, by following the same route, and on the same days in October, Maconie’s aim was to take the temperature of post-Brexit referendum Britain in a series of conversations with the people he encountered en route. As a sociologist, and a wry but clear-sighted commentator on the foibles of modern day living, Maconie is well equipped for the task even if, on occasion, he appears a little lost and somewhat lonely – an observer rather than a participant – and even though the politics will not be for everyone (on the left, but equally certainly no fan of Jeremy Corbyn).
It was a surprise to see for how many of those he meets that the 1936 march was not a total blank: a relative success for the teaching of relatively recent social (and labour) history, I feel, as well as the presence of the march in the collective consciousness. However, Maconie’s biggest achievement in bringing this book to life is its reminder that we have been here before: the cry of the working class to be heard, and for good quality, skilled jobs – frequently at the forefront of analysts and Brexit apologists – is not a new phenomenon. Capitalism in crisis, bringing devastation to towns dependent for work and a living on a single source (or a series of chained sources), can be seen not just in the outcome of the 2016 vote and in the miners’ strike, as well as in the loss of steel industry jobs in Consett and Corby and Motherwell and Port Talbot and Redcar, and with new jobs frequently being low-skilled, low paid and insecure; it is certainly also there in the decision of 200 men from Jarrow to walk to London carrying their petition about the closure of the shipyard and the need for more work to save the town. And being ultimately fobbed off. That we are still having the same debates eighty-plus years on is evidently a reflection of the continual failure of neoliberal economics based on the laws of the market, alongside its continual success in the perpetual selling of promises and in the trading of lies to the working class by rich elites. The answer to all that is reasonably clear – and there is a message there too for labour organisations.
That Brexit will also lead to job losses amongst the working class is also clear: the cry to be heard is likely to lead to the cry for further investment in working class communities and no-one, ordinary voter or elected representative, ought to be trusting the promises of this government on that. But it is the greatest tragedy that those who responded to the lies of the Leave campaign are those who are likely to lose most from it, while those elites who teased it and led it are those who will be among those who profit the most. It is the outcomes of that which probably need to be feared more than the question of ‘undermining democracy’ by the simple expedient of asking people whether, three years on, the bright future outside the EU sold to them and for which they voted back in 2016 is indeed still what they want or whether they now see it for what it is: a mirage, or a chimera.
Maconie concludes with a fairly rosy passage on the liars and the bullies, the loudmouths and the puritans, the pub bores and the ineffectual commissars not being the best of us and, while that’s true, it’s also true that our public discourse has chosen to put the views of these same groups in an elevated position. The referendum itself, the way it was conducted and its aftermath in naturalising the telling of lies and in the trashing of political standards and discourse, as the Article 50 process speeds towards its irrevocable conclusion, will continue to reverberate not least in terms of a decision over whether the Scottish working class, which is fundamentally pro-EU, will continue to align itself with an English working class which is anti-EU stemming, at least in part, from an unresolved and boorish English nationalism* or, instead, with the working class on the rest of the continent. Inevitably, there are many in Scotland who will see the establishment of a hard border on the island of Britain, to the north of Carlisle and Berwick, as A Good Thing.
The more telling passage in Maconie’s journey perhaps came a little earlier, however, when Maconie, an Italophile, discovers that Bedford has a population of 15-20,000 Italians – around one-fifth to one-quarter of the population – originally as a result of the brickworks needing labour in the 1950s in the literal reconstruction of Britain and many Italian men from the Mezzogiorno needing work. They were given four-year contracts with the right to stay at the end and many did – though many also returned home for personal reasons. During that time, their continued presence would have been at the whim of the brickworks managers and, despite tough living and working conditions, workers would have needed to keep their noses clean or lose the right to stay – a post-Brexit future based on a return to the past and to the exploitation of migrant labour for which no trade unionist can be in favour but with which we continue to be ill-equipped to deal. We can note that Bedford probably voted for Brexit in around the same proportion as the UK as a whole and a little higher than in the rest of the south-east (c. 53%). Building solidarity among the working class continues, it seems, to be a long-term project, as much now as in 2016, and as in 1956, and as in 1936.
*text in italics originally included in the draft mapped out in my head but which then failed to make it on to the page.