There are two big news stories in the UK today. One is the closure of the Port Talbot steelworks, following a decision by its Indian owners, Tata, and due mainly to the flood of cheaper Chinese steel into the UK and other markets. The other is the death of the veteran comedian Ronnie Corbett.
They could hardly be more different stories, but I think they are in a certain way linked. The closure of Port Talbot is expressive of the consequences of neo-liberal privatization and globalization. British Steel was privatised in 1988, one of a wave of privatizations under the second Thatcher government, and was subsequently merged with the Dutch group Corus, taken over by Tata in 2007. In recent months the influx of cheaper Chinese steel (a consequence of the slowdown in China) has rendered Port Talbot’s steel uncompetitive.
The fallout of that has exposed many ironies. Some insist that steel must continue to be produced in the UK because of its strategic importance to the defence industry. Here, as in Thatcherism, the tensions of free market and nationalist ideology are evident. Others, arguing for Brexit, complain that the EU has not prevented Chinese steel-dumping. The irony here is that those same people routinely argue against EU ‘meddling’ and yet are now bemoaning the lack of it. A further irony is that the lack of EU action derives from being blocked by the UK government, yet Brexiters say that they are in favour of decisions being made by the UK government, and that the UK has no influence on EU policy. A further irony – or, really, a re-run of the first - is that most Brexiters are free market liberals and yet in their desire to trash the EU they bemoan its lack of protectionism.
What, then, of the death of Ronnie Corbett (a resident of my home town, Croydon, by the way)? Well, the connection for me is that Corbett’s popularity was greatest in the heyday of 1970s broadcasting when he appeared in The Two Ronnies which routinely had audiences of 20 million people. That collective experience was all of a piece with the pre-neo-liberal world of nationalization and of the limited choice (of, in this case, TV channels) to which neo-liberals so vehemently object.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about Jonathan Coe’s novels and in particular about his sense of nostalgia, quoting the passage in his 2015 novel Number 11:
“Roger was convinced … that life was better, simpler, easier, in the past … it wasn’t just a hankering for childhood. It was bigger than that. It was to do with what the country was like … in the sixties and seventies …. For Roger it was about welfarism, and having a safety net, and above all … not being weighed down by choice all the time … he loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf. Not all of them. Just some. Just enough so that you were free to live other parts of your life the way that you wanted.” (Coe, 2015: 176)
In an earlier (2001) novel, The Rotters’ Club, the central character Benjamin Trotter reflects on watching The Morecombe and Wise Show, which, like The Two Ronnies, attracted mass audiences in the 1970s. I don’t have the book to hand, but the gist of the passage was about Benjamin’s awareness that all over the country millions of people were watching the same show, and that he was part of a collective experience as he sat watching it with his family. Indeed I can remember myself how discussing these kind of shows the day after was the common, shared experience in schools and, I imagine, workplaces in the 1970s.
So what I am suggesting is that there was a relationship between a variety of forms of commonality at that time, ranging from shared ownership of industry to shared cultural experience. Some of that was, surely, nostalgic even at the time: shows like Morecombe and Wise and The Two Ronnies were the lineal and in some cases literal descendants of the music hall and seaside pier traditions of Victorian Britain.
If the two stories are connected, then so are the responses. A significant segment of the Brexit vote (and especially the older demographic from which it derives much of its support) is nostalgic for the days of British economic dominance but also for those shared cultural experiences and, probably, even the peculiarly British tradition of the music hall. I actually share some aspects of that nostalgia but I also recognize that it is not enough. And in particular, I can see that its sentimentality makes easy fodder for a Brexit campaign led not by those who want to protect Britain from the forces of globalization and neo-liberalism but by those whose most fervent dream is for their greater and more untrammelled application. In that dream, any number of workers and strategically important industries will be sacrificed; and as for The Two Ronnies well those who want it can subscribe to a pay-to-view channel or buy the DVD, right?