Graham Williamson reports on how the COVID-19 phase of the culture wars in Middlesborough are an endless re-run of the 1940s.

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We are, it is said, at war. The full commemorative tea set of metaphors has been brought out to persuade us that the fight against COVID-19 is this era’s Blitz. The anxiety, though, comes not just from the crisis but its potential aftermath. Boris Johnson now coyly refers to austerity as “the A word”, but that unspeakable road ahead is still one his party finds ideologically acceptable. 

Here in Middlesbrough, we haven’t recovered from the last dose of austerity. Nobody here looks forward to seeing their town mentioned in the national press, unless they get a perverse kick out of cataloguing things we’re worst in the country for. 

Here’s one. On 1 March, Professor Sir Michael Marmot released his Health Equity in England report, which revealed that, for the first time in a century, Middlesbrough’s life expectancy was moving backwards – and quickly. From 2011 to 2016, the average Middlesbrough man saw 1.3 years shaved off how long he could expect to stay alive.

This was partly ascribed to deaths from substance abuse and suicide among forty-somethings. But, poverty has slower methods of killing, ones which are particularly lethal coupled with the Coronavirus. 

Insecure work – never knowing if next month will bring you enough money to live on – saps the heart and immune system, as well as the spirit. Poverty makes newborn babies underweight and adults – fed on cheap, low-quality food – overweight. It forces families into overcrowded houses with damp walls and insufficient heating. These are all time-bombs that go off during a public health crisis. It is why the Centre for Progressive Policy put the area as number one on its list of at-risk areas.

If this is a war, a noticeable minority act like it is a phony one. Cleveland Police have been called out to 20-person barbecues and mass VE day parties. Our independent mayor Andy Preston blamed the BBC for giving the impression that lockdown would be relaxed on VE day – an impression not dispelled by Preston’s decision to re-open parks that very same day.

The rest of us know who’s really to blame: the Idiots. They are not a unified group and share few interests other than idiocy and ruining it for the rest of us. Idiocy is so vague, it can provide a shared enemy even in times as divided as these. 

Britain’s current culture wars are essentially a duel between competing visions of the 1940s: military glory versus the welfare state, an endless re-run of Churchill versus Attlee.

The comments sections of local news sites have been full of condemnation for them, which is fair. But something about the insatiability of the idiot discourse disturbs me. Even the most catastrophic failure of Government now causes little more than a sigh, but the Idiots never fail to provoke fury. Somehow, we’ve come to expect more from ordinary people than elected officials.

The idiots’ apparent nihilism, refusing to protect even their own lives, is another symptom of the same underlying condition behind our mortality rates. If you live in a place where the economy basically functions, the world now looks frightening and strange – busy streets deserted, shop fronts now impassive metal masks. If you live in a poor area, this is what things look like all the time. 

So our new normal is basically the old normal, which can breed a dangerous complacency. A VE Day party was held on the Grove Hill near my house, an estate traduced as “the Beirut of Britain” in the early 1990s and slowly demolished over the following decades. The people living there have seen nothing improve under John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May or Boris Johnson. Why should they listen to the Government now?

But it also expresses of a longing for community, the same need which drives the ‘Clap for Carers’ ritual. In Middlesbrough, it verges on folk art, with NHS murals on garden walls and home-made banners being driven past the hospital. 

There’s a particular breed of columnist who interprets everything that happens outside Wapping as “moral panic” or “virtue signalling”. Clap for Carers lends itself well to that boilerplate. The left resent the perceived insincerity of Conservative voters applauding nurses, the right tried and failed to hijack it with ‘Clap for Boris’.

I love it. It’s the first time I’ve seen my street, the residents of which can be transient, insular, isolated by age or illness, all outside doing the same thing. There are some parts of this country where the streets do not hold tea parties for the latest royal baby; Clap for Carers is our social bonding. 

But it doesn’t allay my fears about what comes next. In the race to deal with the pandemic’s economic fall-out, the Netherlands are using Kate Raworth’s “doughnut” model. Britain merely has a hole, specifically in our understanding of recent history. 

Even The Guardian keeps discussing deficit spending by mentioning Gordon Brown, then Rishi Sunak and, in between, nothing. It is as if the facts of the last decade – brutal spending restrictions that failed so badly that they massively increased borrowing, produced feeble growth and failed every other test Cameron and George Osborne set themselves – is so incomprehensible to the commentariat, that their memories rejected it. 

Yes, austerity is unpopular, but unpopularity is too generous a fate. It’s actually pseudo-science. In 2010, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff published a paper claiming that economic growth collapses once debt exceeds 90% of GDP. It came at exactly the right time to justify austerity measures across the Eurozone, but no one could reproduce its findings. 

It emerged that the 90% figure was the result of a spreadsheet error. To their credit, Reinhart and Rogoff withdrew their conclusion. The politicians who used their work did not. An Excel typo robbed my townspeople of more than a year of life. But that wasn’t widely enough reported, so austerity is still seen as merely a harsh medicine – unpleasant, but still effective. 

It could, then, be re-sold to the public. The idiots are unpopular enough to be pressed into rhetorical service, just as the last age of austerity was blamed on their ancestors, the Scroungers. Or they could be reclaimed, like the DeVos-funded anti-lockdown protests in America, as the real patriots.

Local newspaper comments about VE day parties weren’t all condemnatory. One man said he was proud to join in, that the parties were about freedom and patriotism. “All you lot,” he said, “go to the hospital to applaud every Thursday. Why couldn’t the estates have their celebration?”

Britain’s current culture wars are essentially a duel between competing visions of the 1940s: military glory versus the welfare state, an endless re-run of Winston Churchill versus Clement Attlee. Should the need arrive, this will be the populist right’s gloss on our current moment: council-estate patriots being scorned for celebrating VE Day, while the middle-classes meekly applaud their socialist healthcare. 

It is divisive, mean-spirited and above all untrue. But there’s a war on, and we all know what the first casualty of those is.


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