Friday, 13 January 2012

High Speed 2 and England's eternal conflict

When I was a child a stone's throw from the current site of Ebbsfleet International station, there were vain hopes that the Channel Tunnel rail link would be ready by the time the Tunnel itself was completed, and thus avoid the 13-year tragedy/farce of one of Europe's greatest trains being forced to crawl along congested Victorian lines (hopefully it would also have avoided the unnecessary demolition of Waterloo's Windsor station, but I don't expect anyone else reading this to care about that particularly). There were many reasons why this did not happen - most of them connected to the chronic underfunding and deliberate government destabilising of the then still-nationalised British Rail, which effectively rendered any major, long-term project impossible - but part of it had to do with the staunch, virulent hostility of many residents of Kent to its construction. There is something quite frightening about old news footage of the protests against the link - the attitudes that had been stirred up clearly went considerably beyond reasonable environmental concerns, and into a whole other, more unsettling territory.

The instructive thing about this hysteria is that many of the same people had seen no problem whatsoever with the building of the M20, and any number of other projects which had diluted Kent as they had always dreamt it, but - crucially - had no direct connections to the political red rag of Europe. Even beyond the fact that most would have been Tory voters who had absorbed Thatcher's rhetoric about public transport being for "losers", there was a deeper political subtext to the pettiness and insularity of the opposition. What, eventually, became High Speed 1 was opposed in Tory heartlands not because of where it was going through, but because of where it was going to - a place from which these people had cherished an (almost entirely mythological) vision of separateness and isolation. Anything which brought this scary, hostile land across the Channel closer to them was a threat. Supposed concerns about its effects on the landscapes it would go through were just that; a flag of convenience, a quick and easy cover.

Exactly the same rhetorical smokescreen is currently being revived over High Speed 2. I don't think the shrill shire-Tory voices really care, in most cases, about the areas they object to the line going through (because if they did, why didn't they object when those areas were ruined for other reasons and other purposes years ago?). What they do feel, much more profoundly, is a deep-rooted antipathy towards the areas it is going to. Lord Astor gave the game away with his conspiratorial suggestions in The Spectator, redolent of the language we heard from Tories at the turn of the century when they had pretty much given up capitalism for the Blairite duration and reverted to pre-industrial nativism, that "northern Labour MPs" actively enjoyed seeing the Chilterns built over, out of an antipathy for the region's lingering quasi-feudal ways, that they took pleasure out of seeing a Tory heartland defiled (his suggestion that the internet should be used as a method of contact instead is an unintentional sick joke when we remember how, in the days of foot-and-mouth pyres and Countryside Marches, people like him were suggesting that its very existence was a dangerous socialist plot). In some cases, he may be right. But if anyone in the Labour Party thinks in such tribal terms, it is only a response to equally tribal thinking on the other side.

Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds (Glasgow is suddenly an entirely separate issue, one I will get to in my next post here), the cities that High Speed 2 would bring closer to London, are the cities the Industrial Revolution - and, indeed, the original railways - built. They are the fervent, ever-faster-beating hearts of mercantile capitalism - and thus, by their very nature, a threat to the assumed social prevalence and superiority of the aristocracy. Right from the moment they became great centres of commerce and industry, they challenged aristocratic values with a vibrancy and vitality which, in many ways, proved irresistible. Except when it came to the final challenge, it didn't; the extreme national constitutional stability (in so many ways more of a hindrance than a help) which is the result of an accident of geographical location ensured that the traditional ruling class retained a residual stake in national affairs, the result of an uneasy trade-off with the capitalist class who had made those cities great (and also built the railways, very much against the will of the landed gentry; the railways turned thriving, comparatively advanced regional centres that rejected them into quaint feudal relics just as assuredly as they turned Swindon and Crewe from villages into the heartbeat of an empire of industry). England's eternal conflict was never really resolved, merely put on the backburner in the vain hope that everyone pretending to get along could make people forget about it (just as had happened after Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy), and that is the real division in everyone's lives, a division that has - in its own uncanny, second-hand ways - permeated tensions in our own time such as that between prog and punk, or between the BBC and ITV in the '70s. It's always there, somewhere, all the stronger for the attempts of several lifetimes to pretend it is just an insignificant, trivial difference (you don't try so hard to hide something unless you're profoundly affected by it in the first place).

The harsh fact is that to acknowledge the vital importance of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds at all, to recognise that their much greater populations (certainly when combined with their de facto suburbs/extensions) gives them a greater deserved stake in the national debate, a bigger deserved slice of the pie, than the quasi-feudal shire hangovers that mercantile capitalism's great compromise gifted a status beyond their true significance, is to undermine and threaten the place in national life that the aristocracy had the extraordinary luck to retain even in the birthplace of mercantile capitalism (but did not cling on to in many countries where it was a relatively late adoption). Despite the resurgence of the monarchy and the various well-documented cultural phenomena which have set the tone for the Cameron era, the aristocracy and their hangers-on still feel a deep sense of cultural uncertainty which may superficially appear to be left over from the Blair era, but is in fact the legacy of industrialisation itself (a clear line of descent; remember how Blair spoke openly about seeing the whole era of left-right politics, now a bigger part of the national debate than they have been for two decades, as an accidental island of history, and about his own aim being to restore the connection between social and economic liberalism that was lost in the early 20th Century, and to recast the Tories not as capitalists but as feudal reactionaries against his own position as a modern-day Whig; Blair, more even than Thatcher, was a far truer descendant of those who built the Industrial Revolution, as opposed to the upper class who resisted it or the working class it created, than any prominent figure in the politics of the mid-20th Century).

Those who object to High Speed 2 on their doorsteps are really, underneath, objecting to their own children having a greater identification with the modern-day version of mercantile capitalism as expressed by the popular culture of the cities it will serve (not least because they are increasingly able to price the people who actually live in the Midlands and North out of those cities' universities) than they have with Julian Fellowes. They may also resent Cameron's support - presumably out of a residual One Nation Conservatism - for High Speed 2 as a means of breaching the North-South divide; even a slight desire on Cameron's part to apologise for the increased divisions even within England that he must know his own government is creating is politically suspect for them, and almost makes him some kind of class traitor. For them, the Midlands and North, and specifically their great cities, are best kept at as great a distance as possible because they embody a way of existence that they have to resist for their own lives to make sense. To paraphrase Auberon Waugh during the GB75 years, they don't want to get into other people's lives so much as keep those other people out of their own lives - and High Speed 2, with its symbolic ties to the other England with which their own England never had a final, decisive conflict, so much as an endless, unanswered question and savage war of peace for command of the country, never quite fought to the finish and thus never truly won by either side, is the epitome of what they want to keep out the most. Never forget that the areas most closely affected by both high-speed lines have been among the few to retain grammar schools this side of the '70s.

I support High Speed 2 above all else because of its symbolism, because of its sense of rebirth, because of its linking us with the rest of Europe, because of its modernity, because of its giving a whole new lease of life to the cities that built the modern world. This, rather than anything more technical and practical, is also entirely why those who oppose it are against it. There really aren't any other positions. Not here. Not in England.