Peter is one of my oldest school friends, from a working class family and now running a stoneworking firm in the town where we grew up, wanting a party that represents working class interests and not sure what that is, but “with a little piece of red in my heart”.
His good question: is there an inherent difference in political values between the North and the South? My answer a little abstract, his more grounded, but both saying: yes, there is.
Mine, if I had asked it more concisely: are the stories that flood the media about people cheating a system representative of that system?
I’ve known Peter for 40 years. He was one of the first friends I made when I moved to Ripon, aged 5 and a bit. I remember my 9th birthday, just him and me and another friend Paul, playing out in the fields behind my house. When we went to secondary school we three were in different forms so distanced a little. When we started going to the pub, Peter would often have a pint with me and my granddad whenever he was in town, talking sport.
When we left school, I went to Edinburgh via Australia but Peter stayed in Ripon. He got a job as a stonemason, repairing the roof of Ripon Cathedral – I’d marvelled that this might be never-ending, fixing the edges of a building that has stood for a thousand years so that it might stand a thousand more.
He’s still in Ripon, working for the same firm who do stonework for every English Heritage site in the north of England – castles and abbeys as well as cathedrals, what an immense job – but now as a manager. We’d reconnected via Facebook. He delighted me by coming to see Jimmy Stewart… when I played the Hub in Leeds (thank you Slung Low) in 2012, the first time I’d seen him in 15 years. I wrote to him to ask if he’d be up for #agoodquestion, and we arranged a time to sit down together over the phone with a cup of tea in each of our respective offices. We both spend more of our time now facilitating and producing the work of our companies than being out making. Peter misses the basic satisfaction of being able to say to himself ‘I built that wall’.
It’s essentially a building site he runs, while doing some damn fine building work. And a lot of his crew are vocally UKIP. They’ve got a Polish lad working with them, and he’s respected, but that doesn’t seem to affect the Farage supporters. The only newspaper Peter sees regularly is the Daily Mail, “the Daily Fascist”, because that floats around the site. Peter also gets his news via TV headlines and watching Newsnight, although he feels there’s a bit of a BBC London-centric agenda. He talks about a benefit culture and Benefit Street, people queuing up for handouts, and that Labour has been ‘too namby-pamby’ on controlling immigration. He sees Farage as proposing control, agency over our borders. “There’s half a million people over here who have gone missing”. I make the possibly smart-dumb point that in a population of 60 million people, half a million is less than 1%; speaking as an ex-psychologist, you accept that margin of uncertainty or error in a significant/effective result in an experiment. And it’s people leaving the country too – I talk about our old schoolfriend Lisa, who went round the world and never left New Zealand. But a bigger point, which becomes part of my good question later: no system will work perfectly, there will always be ways to play it, for some people to cheat – does that necessarily mean the system, whether welfare or immigration, is broken?
Peter had asked me by email: who do you think of our current political parties represents the working class? Labour, I suppose, I say but I’m sure that’s historical association as much as anything, I wouldn’t pretend to know the answer to this now. What about you, I ask? None of the above. We grew up with Thatcher, toppling the unions. and selling off the council houses which turned a lot of the working class around him from red to blue. But Peter says there’s always a bit of him that is a socialist at heart, and says it boils down to this: when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got to work harder and you’ll share for the common good – but if you’ve got things, you’ll fight to hang onto them.
In the nineties, Peter worked in Doncaster for a while. He talks about how the mines there had been smashed by Thatcher to break the unions. A lot of the ex-miners were struggling, they couldn’t get over the impact of the strike – if you’d ever crossed the picket lines, you were written off for life as a scab – and the loss of a job for life, what it means psychologically not to get paid every week, to slip down your own sense of a pecking order. But there hadn’t been a plan to replace these heavy industries with new industry, just pure Tory ideology to break one union, break them all. There were 100 car and motorbike manufacturers in the Midlands once, and now it’s all been wiped out. While you could buy a Japanese car in the seventies and it would be a rust-bucket, but they patiently improved their industries to dominance. There has never been an effective Buy British mentality, the way the French protect their home industries. And now, how can any home industry compete with China?
Another question he’d asked in advance was whether the parties should be forced to be transparent about the alliances and coalitions they would be happy to make in the likelihood of a hung parliament. I don’t know that advance transparency is possible without turning into an even wilder game of political Diplomacy. In the wake of a hung parliament, the SNP will be key, we agree. We talk about Scotland and how much closer it is to the North of England than the North to London. Peter’s old friend John had reckoned the Scots were closer to the Scandinavians, geographically and socially. Migration affects the north and south differently, Peter reckons, more are likely to settle around London because that’s where the work is seen to be. We need people here to work, he’d open the borders more to achieve that as long as we can maintain control.
Now we think about our good questions.
What’s your take on Mr Farage? asks Peter. I’m not sure that’s the best question he can ask me but I go for it anyway. I think Farage is a clown in the performative sense. He plays the role of outsider to the establishment while being a consummate insider. He projects himself as the voice of common sense but – just like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party – talking poisonous nonsense designed to play on the fears of people who feel precarious, disengaged and disregarded by ‘the system’.
My question, thinking aloud and overwrought in the asking. You’d talked about stories of people cheating a system that you’ve picked up from the Daily Fail, but do you reckon that this is ever more than a tiny minority? These stories of a few cheating individuals are more compelling as stories than the greater majority of people playing by the rules to get the support they need. Humans don’t read systems very well. Is our judgement therefore being distorted? I haven’t left him much space to do more than agree that could be true,
Peter asks another. You’ve been 20-odd years down South now, do you think there’s a difference in political values with the North? And do you think you’ll ever come back? That’s a good question. As well as all the obvious establishment biases the South has, I wonder if there’s something in the scale of the metropolis of London that atomises any sense of locality and community for those like me who haven’t grown up there, but have come for work. I’m not sure if what I sometimes miss is being in a smaller city or being in the North, and if that has impact on my experience of politics. For Peter, it’s all about industry and the working class: I’ll always have a piece of red in my heart, my family were from Sunderland and you went underground or you went to the water. I’m thinking too abstract, I reckon. Don’t think too hard, says Peter, you’ve always been a thinker, even when you were a kid. Go with the flow. I laugh. Always been a thinker, I’ll take that.
Time to go. It’s been a lovely conversation, above all, with an old friend. Next time, it will be up north with beer.