Farewell To The Streets Of London – A Soliloquy
Farewell To The Streets Of London – A Soliloquy
By Malcolm Aitken
Born and raised in Upper Hutt, I’m moving back to New Zealand from London in a couple of weeks. I first came to Britain almost eight and a half years ago (1995) and I’ve spent the majority of my time since in this simultaneously interesting yet cynical, overpriced, polluted dog-eat-dog megatropolis. You can probably tell I’ve had enough of London for now, even if it provides a great springboard to continental Europe-$NZ25 return flights to Barcelona (I kid not)…ohhh go on then…count me in…and I’ve had loads of fun here. Anyway, I’ve collected together a few observations about life in the UK, how things have changed politically and socially and some thoughts about where Britain’s headed.
Back in the mid 1990s when I was fresh off the plane and adjusting to the severity of my first London winter, the Tories were still in power. John ‘grey man’ Major (c’mon having an affair with Edwina Currie doesn’t sound that exciting does it)…presided over a party very much divided on further European integration. Sound familiar? The last gasps of the Tories’ 18-year rule were not a pretty sight. For some Brits Major never did fill the shoes of his predecessor, that arch-conservative union basher and privateer extraordinaire, Margaret Thatcher. For many he was boring but nowhere near as rabid, or perhaps more or less the same thing with ‘nicer’ packaging. Major to me represented an older, straight-laced, more institutional England: The Queen, the Bank of England, pin stripes and bowler hats, cups of tea, the vicar and the local bobby on his bicycle, the clunk of leather against willow on the village green on Sunday afternoons.
Being fair to the guy, he represented a more compassionate conservatism than Thatcher, the high priestess of devil take the hindmost capitalism. He was a political Middle of the Roader of a sort (is that why he got run over?) His moderate Toryism is like a blend of One Nation conservatism and modern multiculturalism. John Major, incidentally, has a reputation for not tolerating prejudice, racism particularly. An interesting position for a man whose cherished political party is riddled with old school British chauvinists for whom non-white people are acceptable as long as they’re ‘decent and hard working and proud to be British’, ‘the French’ are arrogant whatevers and ‘the Germans’, well…Attitudes are changing however.
The hard graft that made the Good Friday agreement possible was kick started by Major, an often over-looked fact. Overall, however, the Conservatives in the latter stages of their tenure were as bereft of new ideas as Tony Blair was brimming with them when he took office… I would say the Labour Party, but Blair pretty much is the party these days.
Anyway, with May 1997 came a Labour landslide and a jubilant Blair kissing babies and doing high fives with proles through the gates of Downing Street. This was the coronation of King Tony, the PM for ‘Generation Next’; Cool Britannia was on the horizon, when Tony Blair met the Gallagher brothers and politics became ‘sexy’. The cobwebs had been swept aside; it was out with the old and in with the, erm…nearly identical dressed up as something radically different. The notoriously arrogant Peter Mandelson and ‘spin doctor’ Alistair Campbell set up their Ministry of Misinformation and it was hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go.
One thing Labour’s done that’s benefited many Brits on a real, material level is bringing in a minimum wage. In lower paid parts of the UK this has meant an easier and better life for millions of people.
Devolution’s been a good thing too. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly has allowed some real change. Education fees for example: Scots don’t have to pay at Uni. This week’s walkout from the Queen’s speech at the Scottish parliament by socialist and nationalist MPs and talk of independence one day gives me a lot of hope too. Protest can now be heard and has to be listened to.
On the environment front, Blair’s Government’s hardly given green concerns the priority that it promised…but there has been some meaningful progress on renewable energy (2020 target of 20 percent of energy being renewable well on target)… One day hopefully renewable energy will be taken seriously in the UK like in Austria, where about three quarters of energy comes from renewable sources. Like in New Zealand there are many hopeful signs though. Incidentally, climate change hasn’t been as obvious in Blighty as in Kiwiland, but from what I’ve heard and read, the climate’s really gone haywire at home. Here, we’ve had seriously flooding across the UK repeatedly over the years and it was the warmest summer on record in Scotland when I first lived there in 1995. Oh, and forget the darling buds of May; it’s more like February!
Although I was living in Greece at the time, it’s obvious Princess Diana’s death in July 1997 was gigantic in terms of public opinion. My mother died in a car accident, and I felt sorry for the lads, William and Harry, on a personal level. But the obsequiousness and silly behaviour that inevitably accompanies royal weddings and deaths is depressing. People spoke about her in the same breath as Mother Theresa and acted as though they knew her. Like a lot of republicans, it’s not so much the royal family as individuals that annoys me, it’s more this belief system that means people get all in a lather about the minutiae of William’s university years and possible secret girlfriends, but don’t say or do anything meaningful in response to their Prime Minister having apparently participated in an illegal war.
Polls suggest younger Britons are less loyal to the crown than their parents, let alone grandparents. I hope the deference that’s inextricably linked with support for the royals will continue to fade and more people will read history less selectively…and stop putting their imagined ‘Great’ empire on a pedestal. Some great old traditions continue in England in 2003-such as an underlying respect for other people’s opinions and freedom of speech…and an appreciation of diversity and ‘differentness’ exemplified in the oft lampooned but treasured English Eccentric. These old English ideas, for example, are great but historically rooted nationalistic vanity still distorts many Brits’ view of the world.
Then there’s September 11. This was not just a turning point in US politics, but the ensuing revving up of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between Washington and London has taken on huge importance here with miles of column inches of coverage in the national newspapers and hundreds of hours of television coverage over Afghanistan and Iraq. The huge differences regarding conduct of the War On Terrorism have meant more clear, blue water than usual between Britain and her European partners.
The majority of Brits like people across the western world were disgusted and frightened by the events of that fateful Tuesday in September 2001. However, the flimsy pretexts for invading Afghanistan and the huge division in European and world opinion about attacking Iraq combined with Bush and Blair’s bloody minded intolerance of dissent…have caused a huge backlash. Incidentally, what’s that I hear the once supposedly deeply concerned Laura Bush and Cherie Blair saying about the plight of women in Afghanistan these days…um, a deafening NOTHING…
The UK I’m about to leave, like the one I came to, is very much at a crossroads over Europe. Although Blair’s liable to portray anyone who’s not as pro-Euro as he is as antiquated and not stakeholding as well they could in his vision of a New Britain under New Labour, opposition to the Euro is huge and of course it’s not just for ‘old-fashioned’ nationalist reasons but linked with understandable concerns about democracy being diluted even further in Britain. (However ‘out of touch’ someone’s ideas are though, if they’re popular Tony’s likely to give them the ‘there, there’ pat on the shoulder routine…and then ignore them-ask the million plus protesters who gathered in central London to challenge the war on Iraq).
The rueful arrogance of the Blair Government in dismissing the call for a UK referendum on recent EU proposals including an EU president and the rudiments of a common foreign policy, is only matched by King Tony’s bare-faced rejection of an independent investigation into whether the primary reason given for attacking Iraq was valid: the alleged presence of WMDs (Weapons in the Mind of Dubya?) This week Tony Blair’s also found himself under heavy fire from former cabinet minister Clare Short for supposedly settling on a date for the war in advance and those WMDs are proving mighty allusive. Not good.
Tony Blair’s obnoxious aspects aside, living in Britain’s been good, it’s been real…and it’ll be funny observing it from a distance. Although New Zealand’s got it on some scale, I’m going to miss London’s renowned multiculturalism…I’ve sat on buses near my flat in central west suburban London (half an hour’s walk to Oxford Street) and heard French, Italian, Greek and Arabic and very little English. This produces a tantalizing range of cuisine, intriguing market stalls jammed with all sorts of ‘exotic’ foods and parts of town such as beautiful Little Venice, canal side in west London, Brick Lane in East London, where the streets signs are in Urdu as well as English, and a grocer shop near me which is modeled on those in back street Athens.
Some predictions…Charles won’t become King…William will. The Euro may be brought in here, but it won’t be for 10 years, minimum. Labour will push for a yes vote in any referendum after saying ‘yes, but not yet’ reacting to the release of the Treasury’s analysis of whether the economic tests have been met yet: the report’s due for release on Monday 9th June. The Tories, who won’t make it back into power until about 2012, will campaign hard and get some political mileage out of a no vote campaign. Within the next few years there will be a sizable terrorist attack on London unless the so-called Road Map brings meaningful results, perhaps even if it does. These attacks on London will cause thousands of casualties, maybe tens of thousands or worse. The authorities will not be prepared.
Well, on a more than slightly lighter note, I’m looking forward to returning to the land of Mallowpuffs and more bearable winters in Wellington or Auckland. Yeah, I’m also looking forward to living somewhere with nowhere near the entrenched class system Britain and much of Europe has. However: mindless celebrity worshipping saddo that I am, I may get annoyed with not catching the latest Eastenders.