It’s lovely to see the former geographical entity Lindsey back in the headlines, a fleeting visit from a ghost from the past. Lindsey was one of the three subdivisions of the great county of Lincolnshire, if you remember, along with landlocked Kesteven and dank, flat, blustery Holland. It was abolished in 1974, simply swept away — the bit in the news became part of something called Humberside, but with a Doncaster postcode, neither one thing nor the other.
Ghosts from the past: I swear, on my evening news this week, I saw at Lindsey a picket standing on a picket line beside a brazier in the swirling snow, shouting things at scabs — all things which one imagined had been made illegal by the end of the 1970s, except for the scabs of course. Then there was the language of the picket interviewed: he referred to the gastarbeiten, the foreigners taken on by the oil company Total and to whom the pickets strenuously objected, as ‘Eyeties and Portuguese’. I haven’t heard anyone being called an Eyetie for 30 years either. You could feel the union man groping for a derogatory phrase for the Portuguese but the trouble is that back in the 1970s we didn’t feel the need to call the Portuguese anything, we just ignored them. So he had to call them ‘Portuguese’ which I daresay he thought damning enough by itself.
Total’s Lindsey oil refinery is situated next to a town called North Killingholme, which is a few miles from the important deep-water port of Immingham beside the Humber. There was a sympathy strike outside the old ICI Wilton chemical plant on Teesside, more pickets and braziers, and also at Grangemouth in Scotland. These are not very pretty places, to be honest. That plant in Teesside for example, was once the site of the biggest chemical works in Europe and just two miles from what was formerly the biggest steelworks in Europe. There was a residential area nearby, under a baleful thing called ‘Warner’s Chimney’, which was named the most polluted square mile of housing in Europe. All these superlatives. The Tees, along with the Rother (the Yorkshire one, not that effete southern dribble), was one of the most polluted rivers in Europe; fall in and your skin would slough off, the rumour had it.
At one point, in the late 1960s, Teesside produced more than one fifth of Britain’s total GDP and it was proudly claimed that Middlesbrough was second on the list of places to be nuked by the Russkies on account of its industry and skilled workforce. The quid pro quo for people living within this chemical haze, beside the steel furnaces, nestled among the glue factories (where, very briefly, I once worked) was that there would always be skilled labour required; you live in this s**t, we’ll make sure you’re employed. But the unspoken contract was always broken, always. British Steel is now only a tiny fraction of what it once was, owned by the Indians; and hundred of jobs along the Rother and the Tees were cut last week.
These places are grimy and maybe grim — not for nothing are Middlesbrough’s football supporters known as the Smog Monsters — because they are among the very last towns in Britain where we still make stuff — and the skilled workforce is being told to get on its bike once again, this time by a Labour government. That sticks in the craw a little.
At Lindsey, Total — a French firm — has taken on 100 (soon to be joined by a further 300) Italian and Portuguese contractors who are housed on a barge floating on the water at Grimsby. The contract is worth an estimated £200 million. Lord Mandelson warned the strikers against ‘xenophobia’ and insisted that the British workers had not been discriminated against. It usually takes ages to discover that what Peter Mandelson tells you is false in some way, and usually it requires government inquiries and even police involvement and maybe a resignation or two. But on this occasion he was proved to be demonstrably wrong within the hour, which saved us all a lot of time. A spokesman for Total said that the work being carried out was specialised and needed a close-knit workforce which could converse in a common language, i.e. Italian.
Now, that strikes me as being almost the definition of discrimination. Can you imagine a British firm barring, say, Asian workers from its shop floor because it wished to have a close-knit workforce which conversed in a common language? Can you imagine the furore?
Nobody has really picked up this point, the double standards involved. And yet it strikes me that it is at the heart of the matter, unvoiced or otherwise. No group in society has been more egregiously discriminated against, these last 20 years or so, than the white working class; in housing, education, employment. And whenever they dare to voice a complaint the response is always the same: that’s disgusting, typical xenophobia or racism. So not only are they done down, they are also deprived of the opportunity to protest about it.
This particular protest has been a long time coming, largely because many of the jobs from which the English white working class have been evicted recently are not heavily unionised and, in any case, the unions are not the force they once were. But your Polish plumber who charges much less than your English plumber (because he is prepared, in the short-term, to live six to a room) and your Ukrainian cleaner and your Bulgarian electrician, gleefully welcomed to these shores by the better-off among us for the cheap labour they provide, have caused anger and resentment among those they have displaced.
So too did the notion, put about by the government, that the incomers were economically crucial to the country; they were not remotely so. Most have in any case left or are on the verge of leaving — and my guess is that there will be a final net cost to the taxpayer of those glorious seven or eight years when you could get your sink unblocked for 20 quid.
The sense of grievance has been building for many years, which is perhaps why the strike at Lindsey was so quickly picked up in those remaining blue-collar enclaves scattered along the rim of our islands; 12 further sympathy strikes now, including one at Sellafield, and still counting.
It is a sense of grievance made all the worse by the doling out of vast sums of taxpayers’ money to the very people who created the credit crunch — the financial institutions. Public money must not be used to prop up failing industries, blue-collar workers were told in great earnestness for 25 years. But what other businesses have failed quite so spectacularly as Northern Rock, the Bradford and Bingley, and the Royal Bank of Scotland? There was no money forthcoming from the government to retain those jobs at Corus, was there?
We are not comparing like with like, of course; and I am not arguing that the money should not have been poured into the banks (although I would rather the government took direct control of them). To be sure the sense of grievance is sometimes inchoate and even incoherent; but it is real enough and rooted in a basic truth, which is that the British blue-collar worker is always last in the queue, at the bottom of the pile. And you have to say, Gordon Brown’s pledge of ‘British jobs for British workers’ has not noticeably improved the mood down on those picket lines. I wonder what Gordon meant by that? Nothing whatsoever, one assumes. I suppose it was just a nice, easy cliché to churn out for a soundbite, a meaningless statement which has subsequently come back and bitten him. Good.
Add to all that an instinctive mistrust of the European Union on the part of almost every British worker — a nd all the ducks are lined up.
The strikers at Lindsey are not habitually idle, overpaid or nihilistically militant, all those epithets we used to sling at strikers back in the bad old days. In a sense their action is redolent less of the feverish and wacko militancy of the late 1970s and early 1980s than of an earlier time still — the dockers’ and meat porters’ strikes of the 1950s and 1960s when, as now, the unions acted to protect the notion of British jobs for British workers against mass immigration from the West Indies and, a little later, South Asia and West Africa. They were called xenophobes then, if you remember, and reviled to the extent that in the end the trade unions detached themselves from such protests.
There will be a cost to the taxpayer of those Italian and Portuguese workers now beavering away on Humberside; unemployment benefit to be paid out somewhere to a British worker, taxes lost, less of a trickle-down to the local economy as the Italians hunker down in their hulk at Grimsby. I suspect we are the only major EU nation who would let it happen — can you imagine the French government countenancing such a thing? Quite clearly the process which resulted in the Italians getting the jobs was not transparent; as the excellent David Green of Civitas has said, the jobs should have been advertised locally and the local workforce allowed to compete freely. Green is no blue-collar leftie sentimentalist like myself, but a gung-ho, anti-protectionist free-trader.
Right now, the government is sticking up for a foreign-owned oil company against the grievances of the British workers: no change there, then. And it is waving the BNP in the face of those who would dare to repeat the refrain ‘British jobs for British workers’, despite the fact that it was the Prime Minister himself who first uttered the statement. With one or two honourable exceptions, the Labour party has pitted itself against the very people it was set up to protect. It seems to sense not the remotest smidgeon of irony in this.
But then, as I say, it’s par for the course. Indeed, has there ever been a government which has shown such contempt for the British working class? Good God, even Thatcher allowed them their traditional pastimes of smoking and drinking — and she sent them off to rather fewer futile and illegal wars, too. If you were from the English white working class, would you ever even consider voting Labour again? I suspect you’d vote for almost anyone but. And you’d be right.