NATIONAL GRIDS (2002)

'The rich are always traitors!'

The effort of spitting this out made Tom dissolve into a fit of uncontrollable coughing. My fault really. I was in London for a couple of days and by chance heard that he was ill in a hospital not far from where I was staying. Dangerously ill', as the BBC would have said. Tom March had never been what I'd call a close friend – but I'd known him a very long time and it seemed churlish not to go and see him for a few minutes.

The diatribe had been triggered by a book I'd bought earlier in the day. Revising the revisionists, the author was revisiting the whole 'guilty men of appeasement' bit and related aspects of the social and political history of Britain in and around the start of World War II – 'This last one' as my old neighbour used to say back in the '70s. Tom spotted it and asked me what its 'line' was.

I mentioned Tom's comment when I had a drink the following evening with a couple of old friends from back when I was active in the union – both now retired like me. 'Typical Tom March! Absolute drivel, of course' was Laura's reaction, and we listened respectfully – she had been a history professor, after all, – as she reminded us that, proportionately, the casualty rates in both world wars had been higher among the sons of the landed classes than any others.

'But that's not who Tom would have had in mind'. Keith risked an interruption. You had to be brave to have been a union official all through the Thatcher years. 'Like Karl Marx himself, (married an aristocrat, didn't he?) Tom probably has a bit of a soft spot for the landed gentry. He'd be thinking of the nouveaux fleeing to the States as soon as war loomed, and the awful bourgeoisie generally, cowardly rootless cosmopolitans to a… what d'you say instead of 'man'? 'Person' sounds feeble and I don't think 'Man/woman' is much better.'

And that sort of got us on to a long and rambling discussion, gently fuelled by further pints from the bar, about 'radical and Left-wing patriotism' and from there to nations and nationalism more generally and eventually – as is inevitable during this year of 2007 – to the 'Great Britain Question'. But not before we'd all exchanged our favourite Tom March anecdotes.

Tom had been the one interesting character among the Communist faction. Their habitual tactic of almost unconditional support for whatever the National Executive proposed – if only to strengthen their hand in what they were really there for – round 12,987 of the great Stalinists v Trotskyists world historical struggle – left few opportunities for distinctiveness let alone flamboyance. But Tom somehow managed it.

'I remember standing with Tom and various others once when we were at Scarborough for the annual conference. 1975 or thereabouts. The afternoon conference session had finished and we were standing outside the hotel up on the cliffs watching a bunch from the SWP writing 'Rank and File, Rules, O.K?' in huge letters in the sand. (What a cheek they had when you think about it - calling their front organisation ' rank and file' when what minuscule support they had came from the more rarefied and gently-nurtured section of the membership!).' Keith paused to take a long swallow of bitter. 'Course, what they'd neglected to notice was that the tide was coming in - within minutes their handiwork was completely washed away. We all laughed – but Tom obviously thought it was the funniest thing since Hitler shot himself. He just roared and roared and couldn't stop. Seemed to think the whole episode highly symbolic and significant too.'

'What I remember best,' said Laura, is that time – it would be even earlier than the Scarborough conference where the Anti-Apartheid movement was campaigning against Barclays because of their heavy involvement in South Africa. The union still had an account with them and there was tremendous pressure to move it to another bank. The Treasurer – can't remember now what his name was - tried to argue that all the other banks were also tainted with what could be interpreted as support for the racist regime. Assailed by strident and self-righteous delegates, in desperation he said ''Tell me a bank that is not involved to some extent in South Africa and I'll move our account there tomorrow.' 'Narodny Bank, Moscow!' yells Tom. Brought the house down. I suppose they thought he was joking. He was out for a laugh, but he wasn't joking. Tom had two patriotism then – his own country and the Soviet Union.'

'But not necessarily in that order.' said Keith.

'But it wasn't the 'actually existing' Soviet Union, was it? It never was with old Stalinophiles like Tom. It was the great and worthy one that only ever existed in their heads. Talk about 'imagined communities'. But no one wanted to pursue that interesting idea of mine. Perhaps it wasn't, after all.

'There's a long history of radical and socialist patriotism - both here and elsewhere' resumed Laura. 'Think of Colonel Rainborough at the Putney debates on the rights of freeborn Englishmen, or the Jacobin defenders of the republic one and indivisible, or Mazzini and Garibaldi…'

'Or the Left-wing patriots of the Resistance, the Partisans… and even, I suppose, the USSR's 'Great Patriotic War' added Keith.

'Or,' I wasn't going to be outdone, 'Robert Blatchford, the most influential socialist journalist ever in Britain 'who shocks some of his comrades by supporting the Boer War and many others by supporting the Great War.'

'I've been thinking about what you said about Tom and the rootless cosmopolitans, Keith' said Laura – ignoring my amateur excursion into history. 'The rich are not necessarily traitors but they are – necessarily – the ones with most opportunity for treachery. Whether it was an English baron with estates also in Gascony, or a Scottish one with lands in England - like Robert the Bruce, or in our time the fat cats running the globalised multinationals, the rich have a choice. The poor – the 'people' generally don't. They have nowhere to escape to. They have to be patriots. So you could argue that the greatest patriots are precisely those who have a choice and choose to throw their lot in with their country. There's no virtue in not taking an escape route if you haven't got one.'

'But isn't it funny, said Keith. “How the countries with the most powerful national myths often have less to be proud of than others who are regarded – and even regard themselves – as a sort of second or third class nation.'

'This is "my years in Canada," again, Keith. Isn't it?' :Laura had probably heard all this before, but I hadn't so that gave Keith his excuse. He told us how he'd gone to see the son-et-lumiere at the Parliament building in Ottawa. The light effects had been pretty, but the son was vacuous; – the oral equivalent of watching paint dry.

'Think what the Americans would have made of it!'

Yet, he argued, the Canadians had a better story to tell. Similar standard of living but greater civilisation. Far less genocide of native peoples; much more real respect for cultural diversity, less barmy religion; far less barmy gun culture and gun laws. No civil war – less racism – active, Ku Klux Klan type racism at least – and so on. I was half expecting him to go into the 'Molson rant' – but he'd either forgotten the script or he restrained himself. Finished instead by saying if military heroics were what were needed there were plenty of Canadian ones commemorated in France and Belgium. The ridge at Paschendaele that they struggled through a sea of mud to capture, or the much higher Vimy Ridge near Arras. And no one in Normandy - whether in Dieppe or down by the D-Day beaches thought Canadians feeble or unserious.

Mention of Belgium got us off on another tack. 'Do you remember,' asked Keith,' all that allegedly funny stuff about naming 5 famous Belgians - was it 5, doesn't matter anyway- back in the '90s. Belgium's got its problems, God knows, what with Flemish and Walloon separatism. I remember someone from Antwerp I met saying that the only ones who were really committed to Belgium were the German-speakers in the Eastern Cantons. But for heavens sake, there's no shortage of famous Belgians. For starters there's the bloke who invented the saxophone and made Lester Young, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane possible. Then there's Magritte – and what about those French national icons Maigret and Tintin? Simenon came from Liege'

'Or Luik, as the Flemings call it” interrupted Laura to demonstrate that Keith was not alone in his grasp of Belgian detail.

'Or Luttich, as the Germans insist on calling it' I said, not to be outdone.

'And Hergé was another Belgian,' continued Keith resisting the temptation of being sidetracked into the well-known parlour game of alternative Belgian place – names – Antwerpen/Anvers, Mechelen/Malines, Ieper/Ypres, Mons/Namen, and so on.

'And that's not even mentioning Eddy Merckx. No one has ever dissented from the sub-title of his biography "The greatest cyclist of the twentieth century" ' – more than 500 professional victories including 5 Tours de France, the same number of Giros D'Italia, one Tour of Spain, 3 world championships to name just the most important.'

'All that and more from a country that has only existed as a state since 1830. If you work by the same rules Britain can't claim Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton. Dowland or Purcell. If we allow ourselves those then the Belgians can claim Rubens and many another Flemish artist back to the times when they were part of the Burgundian empire or later the Holy Roman Empire. No shortage of prominent Belgians at the court of Charles V – you know the one that is supposed to have spoken Spanish to his confessor, French to his ministers, Italian to his mistress … and German to his horse.'

'And today, no doubt, said Laura, 'He'd speak English to his stockbroker. Well, there was a true internationalist for you!'

We all agreed that the whole complex of national identity, belonging, patriotism and nationalism was strange and ultimately impossible to satisfactorily disentangle – for more than five minutes, anyway. Laura recalled one of her students about twenty years ago who'd confided that he had been a member of the National Front in his early teens. He'd put all that behind him but he wanted to try and explain the earlier appeal. 'You see, ' he'd told her, 'As far as Britain was concerned I was a real Communist. I was against any kind of privilege or inequality. But at the same time I wanted Britain to be on top of the rest of the world – superior to everyone else.'

After that we were soon onto more immediate questions. The unexpected resurgence of the SNP, the probability that the UK would survive the tercentenary of the Act of Union of 1707 – but probably only just. My attention drifted. I was still half listening to what the others were saying, but all this talk of annual conferences – I must have been to more than 20 of them – took me back to the one I remembered best of all - which had nothing to do with Tom.

Not all that much to do with the conference itself really, except that I got on the train at Newcastle with a bunch of delegates. We were still discussing some of the issues we'd been debating - and squabbling over. What we had in common was that we were all part of the 'opposition'. Not a consistent and permanent opposition like the Trots, but good-natured critics of our elders who still made up most of the union leadership. They seemed to us over-cautious, often dim and hopelessly fuddy-duddy. In this context anyway we still thought of ourselves as the 'younger generation' – well, I'm sure I did.

The train was crowded and we found ourselves packed into a carriage with this fresh-faced young chap who seemed about 12 – well 15 or 16 anyway. One of our lot, conscious of how tiresome it is to be surrounded by people loudly discussing their esoteric concerns, drew him into the conversation. He explained who we were and what we were doing.

The young lad reciprocated. He was in the Navy, he said - on his way to join his ship at Portsmouth. I felt a cold chill run down my back. It was 1982; his ship must be going to re-enforce the Task Force for the Falklands, That shut off our previous argument about the tactics used in the pay settlement debate immediately. For the rest of the way to London we talked about what he was doing. No-one, I remember, got onto any reservations they had about Maggie Thatcher's War – and we all had some – we just stuck to the practicalities – especially as they affected our new acquaintance who didn't seem old enough to me to be on the train by himself – never mind sailing into a battle zone as a legitimate target for the Argentineans. At some point one of us asked him what his job was on the ship, expecting I guess he'd say swabbing the deck and making tea for the captain. 'I'm on the anti-aircraft guns. I'm the one who fires them.' I got on that train an extended adolescent; a few hours later I got off a sadder and wiser middle-aged man.

Meanwhile Laura was saying that all the factors that Linda Colley had identified as 'forging' the British nation had virtually disappeared – Protestantism, Empire, military and industrial success, the fear of the hostile 'them'.

'Course, the Europhobes are trying to hold the union together by setting up 'Europe' or 'Brussels' as the evil empire, but no-one can really be as frightened of Prodi – or even Neil Kinnock – not like our forerunners were of the Spanish Inquisition, Napoleon or Hitler.'

'But it's odd how it takes some people' said Keith. 'Three years ago, I was in a hotel near Caen around the time of the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings. At a nearby table was this very old man - obviously a Battle of Normandy survivor. I listened in to the conversation and I'm not sure but I think he might have been one of those real heroes who landed by glider at Pegasus Bridge with Major Howard. Anyway, as I listened, I heard him talking about how he'd done this and that for the UK Independence Party. That sort of shocked and baffled me. My commitment to Europe has been dead easy. As the governor of Vermont – the one that nearly got the Democratic nomination -said back in 2002, in half a century Europe has transformed itself from being the centre of most of the trouble in the world to being the most stable continent. My commitment is easy. How can you make a greater commitment to Europe than by risking your life to liberate it from the Nazis? And then turn into a loony Europhobe?'

----------------

All this came back to me – in a fragmentary sort of way – this evening when I saw in the paper that Radio Four was doing a series of special programmes on the Euro referendum campaign. I switched on. Someone – I recognised his voice but couldn't quite place him was in the midst of an 'independent -of -any -party- or -campaign -group- personal - think- piece.' Who the devil was he – novelist and social commentator (and raconteur and wit, no doubt)? Buggered if I could remember. Old age creeping on – or all those brain cells slain by alcohol.

'Whatever we decide to vote in the referendum,' he was saying, ' what we shouldn't do is to see the single currency – or the European Union in general – as somehow a threat to our national identity. When you get down to it the question is whether the degree of control we shall lose is or is not compensated by the lesser degree of vulnerability to speculators and global finance generally. I know what I think. Not much use having nominal independence if all your decisions are pre-determined by the market. What would have happened to the franc five years ago when it looked like LePen might just get himself elected as President?

'But whether you accept that or not, you shouldn't see this debate as a question of national survival. One way or another we shall survive. Even if the UK and the British identity become redundant as so many people are now predicting, we'll still have our identities as English, Welsh or Scottish. And – dead or alive – the British identity is not something to be ashamed of. There are awful episodes in our history – like in everyone else's. But there are aspects that can be celebrated too. That's very obvious on the cultural side – but on the political side too. If much injustice was involved with the British Empire, at least we wound it up fairly decently and amicably. There were mistakes – but no Dien Bien Phu, no equivalent of the Algerian war. If the British invented the concentration camp in the South African War, it was not comparable to Nazi extermination camps or the gulags. And it was an Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, who was the first to blow the whistle on what was happening. If there were Opium Wars in the nineteenth century to shame us, we can take some satisfaction that the Royal Navy also spent so much time and effort suppressing the slave trade. '

'We rightly stood alone against the Nazis in 1940. Our Health Service and welfare state generally may not be the envy of the world nowadays, but it did set a good precedent for others at the time. We have far too much racism - but probably a lot less than most other comparable countries in Western Europe, North America or Australasia. All of us have either been born here - and decided to stay or at least not made very strenuous efforts to escape, or we've come here because we wanted to. Doing either commits you to the state and the society whether you realise it or not. There are injustices, inefficiencies and stupidities we should get rid of - same as in other countries. There are things in our past – and our present – to be ashamed of. They need to be acknowledged frankly. Same everywhere, yet again. But there are also the things we can regard with at least a modicum of satisfaction and even pride. Whatever the outcome of the referendum next week, we can – we should – I think we must – build on that.'

That was how it ended. I still hadn't remembered whom the voice belonged to. The announcer would tell me in a moment. But it didn't matter, really. He'd crystallised it for me.

'Right on!' I muttered, in my quaint old-fashioned twentieth century way.

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