David Carr: Like lions after slumber, is England waking up to political engagement?

CommonSpace columnist David Carr gives a personal impression of a shift in political mood in England

MY political development as a young, English adult was through a confluence of the causes of the day. CND. The miners’ strike, anti-apartheid. Some of the best gigs I went to - and I went to some damned good gigs - were benefits for the miners, the ANC, the Sandanistas. There were ideas in the air about gay rights, about socialism. There was engagement.

But the Tories kept winning. I moved to Scotland. Tony Blair offered eventual, momentary half-hope, but it was soon dashed. My formative values never left me any more than they left my English friends - there just wasn’t much we could do with them.

Years later I, now a Scot, took part in the great political conversation of indyref. Indyref engaged Scotland. It taught us how to do politics - starting with social media but moving - crucially - onto the face-to-face conversations that make a difference. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive - even to be middle aged was very heaven.

It all exploded with the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. My social media channels came alive, and all sorts of unexpected friends - not formerly overtly political - were joining the Labour party to vote for him.

So I was now the guy boring all my English friends with political Facebook posts. They wished me well - mostly - but it was our business. They had no real reason to engage. I wasn’t seeing much from them beyond the odd NHS Action Party post.

That started to change after the General Election, however, when Labour was defeated - somewhat surprisingly when polls were predicting a hung parliament - by the Tories. While I was, perhaps tastelessly, celebrating the Scottish results, my English friends were heartbroken over what we were all in for over the next five years. 

And then it all exploded with the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. My social media channels came alive, and all sorts of unexpected friends - not formerly overtly political - were joining the Labour party to vote for him. As I did.

Since then it’s never stopped. Those same friends who I bombarded at indyref are now posting about politics regularly, and this is transferring into real life. I am seeing reports of huge anti-austerity, anti-Trident and 'Cameron resign' protests, some of which my friends have attended. I’m seeing more and more about Brexit, and friends also tell me of casual conversations.

Those same friends who I bombarded at indyref are now posting about politics regularly, and this is transferring into real life.

For a more tangible example of what this engagement is doing, outwith the self-selecting circle of my friends - look at the English election results, pretty decent for Labour, despite in-fighting and a dirty campaign.

There are still reasons to doubt that Corbyn will succeed, his main problem being the Labour party. I have written sceptically myself, but at the very least Labour has put forward some exciting ideas about socialist transformation - and got people talking.

I don’t want to make this about Scotland - but an argument goes that England votes Tory. One plank of the indy argument is that this is an irreconcilable difference north of the border where Scotland - the conceit goes - has always led the way in progressive politics. We can recite the litany from Keir Hardie to John MacLean to Jimmy Reid. We can reel off our activism from Faslane to the poll tax, just as the English have their Atlee and their Benn and Greenham Common and Molesworth. And it was English rioting that defeated the poll tax - beware Scottish exceptionalism.

Again, my social media will not be representative. But I am detecting that for those in Scotland, independence is now the main issue. ideas like socialism are at worst vote losers or, at best, will have to wait for independence.  

One post from a long-term SNP member Facebook friend suggested that our strategy for independence should be "boring baby steps towards social democracy", adding that it would help that England is drifting further towards the Tories. 

I am seeing reports of huge anti-austerity, anti-Trident and 'Cameron resign' protests, some of which my friends have attended.

I have a quibble with this sort of gradualism towards gradualism anyway, but I struggle to see it as a differentiating argument for independence if Labour - a Labour of the left, a Labour that takes more than boring baby steps - succeeds in England.

Moving past the recent elections, the political conversations continue, north and south, as the EU referendum nears. As Chris Bambery writes in CommonSpace, English politics is more exciting than Scotland's right now

I absolutely acknowledge that I cannot judge the overall English mood. I don’t stay there and my circle of friends may be unrepresentative. I’m told debates are highly polarised, but I have nice friends so I don’t get the Ukip stuff on my timeline.

I asked my English friends for thoughts for this piece. My go-to guy for the latest Corbyn posts replied: "It’ll be a pretty small piece." He sees engagement confined to Facebook posts - but with the odd mass rally, which is how the indy movement grew, isn’t it? Others report casual conversations, especially around Brexit, but also other issues.

There are reasons to be hopeful. I hear of people turning up en masse to support the junior doctors’ strike - described by Owen Jones as "a miners' strike moment" - a fight which Jeremy Hunt picked but which he seems to be losing. Look what the miners’ strike did for political engagement.

I hear of people turning up en masse to support the junior doctors’ strike - described by Owen Jones as "a miners' strike moment" - a fight which Jeremy Hunt picked but which he seems to be losing.

And Corbyn is still there, strengthened by the recent local elections in England. There are few, surely, in the indy movement who can wish the Corbyn project ill - even if its failure might precipitate independence. There are many issues that English and Scots voters have in common and on which we can work together. 

And outwith the Yes movement we have much in common with ordinary, decent, Scottish Labour voters - many of whom support Corbyn.

But I’m making this about Scotland again.

In England, people are talking - through social media, in casual conversation - about the problems of the day. They are signing petitions, supporting strikes, attending demos and voting. That can never be a bad thing.

They’re engaging. When people engage, they start to win.

Is this all anecdotal? Maybe. But if 50-something mortgage holders in Hertfordshire are joining Labour to vote for Corbyn, surely that says something. 

The CommonSpace opinion section is an open platform for anyone who wants to voice their views and does not represent the editorial position of CommonSpace itself. If you'd like to have a piece published, email CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty at angela@common.scot

Picture courtesy of David Carr