The 2024 British Election: Big Change Ain’t Gonna Come

Photograph Source: Simon Dawson – OGL 3

Yeah, yeah, I know the Tories are out, Labour won big time and Keir Starmer is the new PM and at home at 10 Downing Street. Starmer called for “Change.” That’s what voters clearly wanted after years and years of disastrous Conservative Party rule that saw a widening gap between haves and have nots and an economic crisis that might be beyond repair unless something decisive is done and done quickly. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.

Yes, change is in the air, but don’t expect anything revolutionary. England hasn’t had a real revolution since the 17th century, when King Charles I was beheaded and Oliver Cromwell became the “Lord Protector” who did everything but protect the Irish, the Catholics, the Royalists, and supporters of the Crown.

I arrived in England in 1964 to begin a three-year course of study at the redbrick University of Manchester, in a working class town where as one English woman explained to me, “Where there’s muck there’s brass.” (Where there are poor people there are rich people).

Almost all of my friends were Irish, Scottish and Welsh. The English were and still are elusive. No wonder that Doris Lessing who was born in Persia in 1919 and who was raised in Southern Rhodesia and didn’t arrive in England until 1949, wrote a book called In Pursuit of the English. I pursued them for years, drank beer and tea with them, cheered for Manchester United and Arsenal, learned English slang and spoke some Cockney.

In the fall of 1964, when Harold Wilson became the Labour Party PM some of my new-found friends predicted a revolution. That was wishful thinking. England is an evolutionary kind of place, where change happens slowly and over the course of centuries. No wonder Charles Darwin, with his theory of evolution, was English.

In the three years I lived in Manchester, heated my digs with coal, learned to live with rain, rain, rain, and learned to love fish and chips there was no revolution and nothing remotely resembling anything revolutionary, though there was Carnaby Street in London, Mary Quant fashion and the beginnings of the rock ‘n’ roll rebellion that would roil the US. The boys in the bands were very effective at cultural approbation; stealing from and recycling the blues.

In England in the mid-1960s,there was racism and there were racists. Black babies were described by whites as “pickiness,” brown thread, English sales girls said, was “nigger brown” and Robertson’s Jams offered a “Golly” or “gollywog”—a stereotypical Black cartoon figure— on all jars that sold in stores. “Paki Bashing”– attacks on Pakistan immigrants — was a favorite pastime of rowdy racist youth, and workers in some Manchester unions went on strike to protest against Pakistani immigrants who wanted to join the unions. In movie theaters when “God Save the Queen” played on loudspeakers, audience members stood at attention. I was not so inclined.

“Reform U.K.,” the insurgent anti-immigration party, which just won more than four million votes, is nothing new in English politics. Brit racism goes back centuries and is deep seated. Hell, the Brits even look down at the French and the Italians, though they’ll vacation on the French Riviera and on Italian beaches.

As a Yank in England from 1964 to 1967, I didn’t expect a revolution and might not have joined it either, though on holiday in Italy I joined demonstrations against the War in Vietnam and paid a call on the Cuban Embassy in Rome to wish the Cubans a Happy Anniversary on their revolution and to smoke cigars and drink rum. I had to cross the channel to celebrate anything that smelled as sweet as Cuban tobacco.

I was happy to return to England where I could enjoy a “proper” breakfast which meant eggs, bacon, beans, toast and tea and not the skimpy continental breakfasts of café au lait and a buttered tartine. I’ve been back to England again and again over the last several decades, You can take the boy out of England but not England out of the boy. Still, I’ll never love the Tories and I’ll never learn to love the British Crown.

Labour may not be what the British working class needs and really wants, but Labour is better than the Conservatives any day or night of the week, including Guy Fawkes Night, when lads and lassies built bonfires and celebrated the Gunpowder Plot when Guy Fawkes and his comrades planned and failed to blow up the House of Lords. For three years running, I never failed to attend.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.