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Friday, 29 July 2011

A reply to the Guardian writer, Martin Kettle...

Dear Martin Kettle –

I read your article (The Guardian comment and Debate; Thursday 28th July 2011) about your father. I hadn’t realised the connection between you and Arnold. I owe Arnold my education, as do many working class people like me. Let me explain why.

I was brought up in Northern Ireland. I was from a working class “unionist” family – unionist with a small u. My families reading didn’t really go beyond the Belfast Telegraph and the tabloid press. I did not pass my 11 plus, so attended the very working class “Intermediate” school in which all the social problems of the area were brought together in one building (those who could pay and those from a middle class background with enough time and money to fill their children’s lives with books and experiences ensured their children went to the local Grammar School).

I seem to disagree with you on a number of points – and you can thank your father for this. During my time in Banbridge High School, (a school I gained few qualifications from as every day was a day of struggle for survival and when this is the case, education comes a poor second) I stole a chink of light. One day as a 15 year old in 1980, in the school library I came across a book called, “Karl Marx, Founder of Modern Communism” a Pathfinder Biography written by Arnold Kettle.

Stolen - Arnold's Karl.
I don’t recall why I was in the library – but I obviously had some time on my hands as I read chunks from the book. Now as someone from unionist Northern Ireland, Marx and Marxism was equated by the right wing unionist Parties with the evils of the IRA. Socialism; socialists; communism and communists were evil red book carrying bombers (and I remember a teacher in my school saying just that!). Political working class representation was zero in the unionist/protestant communities with the exception of the reactionary DUP. As I read, it felt as if light was shining through the grey, working class monotony and violence. Through what I read that day – and subsequently when I stole the book (I remember feeling I would be fingered as a terrorist sympathiser if I took the book out officially!) I was able to apply a rudimentary lens to the events going on around me and the working class area and Province I lived in. I was also able to understand better, the changes going on with the closure of factories, destruction of manufacturing and the miners strike across the water. And with the help of the then fairer tax system and the benefits that society gained from that, I was able to leave the factory I was working in and re-educate myself and go to university (how many of the Digby-Jones working teenagers would be able to extricate themselves from low-paid jobs and pay for accommodation, food, fuel and college/University fees in the future Cameronian UK plc?)

There are a number of things I think you should reconsider in your article and your view on the past. Although I never supported the Soviet Union, I could see why it was seen as something to support during your fathers time. Until the mid-sixties, the Soviet system seemed to be pulling itself away from the dreadful Stalinist era (the Communist Party’s support for the Stalinist show trials was not a great time in it’s history to say the least). In fact Kruschev’s socialist new dawn seemed to be a threat to capitalism. Of course there was a terrible cost in lives of “dissidents” and those who challenged the managerial system – including Kruschev’s own career/reputation.

Perhaps the emergence of the Soviet managerial elite should ring alarm bells when people praise a “meritocracy?” A meritocracy for whom? The off-spring of the middle class? I don’t think your father was wrong to look to the good, or the perceived good in the Soviet system as something for us to aspire to. I think the aspiration of a fair “communist” or socialist society, however we decide those systems are ran (or are labelled), is a much better aspiration compared to the universally unfair and presently obvious unstable capitalist system. I believe your praise and support of Blair and Cameron are no more than praise for their smiles rather than their policies- and this is where your father had a better approach than you. Through my lens of experience of working class community and life, and through the political lens inspired by your father’s book, I am on the side your father thought he was on. He looked to the aspiration of equality and the sharing of resources as a citadel. He saw fair education and equal exposure to life opportunities as a need. He saw that hierarchy and elitism as not something to tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and aspire to climb, but as something to level. He believed in I suppose, in what Richard Wilkinson writes about in “The Spirit Level” – a more equal society that shares resources and ensures daily struggle for food and fuel is not necessary. He believed in reforming our way to a society free of poverty, injustice, economic exploitation, war and competition for the scraps trickled down from the owner’s tables. A society free from the struggle facing more and more people in today’s post capitalist credit bubble Cameron/Clegg robbery.

Perhaps where you differ from your father is your divergence from New Labour regarding the wars. I believe your father would have taken the same stance within the Communist Party, but different from you in that if the majority within the Party EC had have voted for, he would have, quite wrongly, stayed quiet. Perhaps the anti-war Blairites/New Labourites should have been more vociferous. At the same time your father would not have criticised Harry Pollitt/Palm Dutt/ Ken Gill, just as you don’t criticise your friend Tony or his new friend, David.

Finally, I believe your father had the big picture correct. He believed that resources and power and working time should be shared. Socialism – or a system nodding towards a socialist system WAS working. 1976 is a time when our society was more equal. It was a time when Labour policy was more about egalitarian income and less about keeping people bouncing along at the bottom while the rich “claimed” more of the pie – a time when Gini coefficient was at its lowest and health outcomes and “happiness” were measured at their optimum in the past century. These were policies influenced by Communist Party members in the unions (people through the 60s and 70s such as John Tocher, George Wake, Dick Etheridge and Cyril Morton (AEU) Mick McGahey, Arthur True and Sammy Moore (NUM) Lou Lewis (UCATT) and Max Morris (NUT). Ken Gill, Hugh Scanlon and here in Dunbartonshire, Jimmy Reid) and therefore connections with the Labour Party decision makers.

The Communist Party made a difference, and had rattled the upper echelons of the hierarchy so much, they launched the denigration of working class society/community/organisation now known as Thatcherism upon us. The working class, thanks to the Tories in the 80s and 90s, and subsequently the Blairites, no longer have representation close to power. Now we have the Chipping Norton set taking over from the previous public school led Government and with every passing week, more and more people fall into the politically unrepresented, demonised and undervalued poor working class lower end of the hierarchy. A world of debt and struggle, insulted and denigrated by ignorance and prejudice led by the Chav bating Murdoch/Rothermere/Black owned press.

I would like to thank your father, posthumously, for perhaps being the spark to my becoming a mature student and the Communist Party’s role in influencing a now lost Labour Party in creating a society back in the 70s and 80s in which there was hope.

Your father was right. Blair, Thatcher and Cameron/Clegg are wrong in destroying hope in order to make the rich even richer at the working peoples expense. We need more like your father, and less of the Cameron’s, Osborne’s and Blair’s of this world.

Sincerely etc.

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