Cillian Murphy as the shellshocked squaddie in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017).  Photo: Warner Bros Cillian Murphy as the shellshocked squaddie in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). Photo: Warner Bros

When it comes to social division, socialists need to keep their eyes on the prize – class, argues Lindsey German  

It’s axiomatic to Marxists that part of the way the capitalists maintain their rule is by creating and enhancing divisions between those they rule over. After all, if the vast majority of the exploited and oppressed could get together, there is no way that those who control the wealth would continue to do so. These divisions are, of course, on grounds of gender, race and nation, but there are much more. There are divisions between employed and unemployed, different skills and grades of workers, those in owner occupied or social housing. All of these divisions are intended to demonstrate to working people that they have interests which set them against each other, rather than allowing them to unite against a common enemy.

One division which is being talked up a lot, sometimes by people who should really know a bit better, is that between young and old. The argument has been fuelled by Brexit and by the recent election results, both of which are being interpreted as the old voting selfishly against the interests of the young.

The most recent, and particularly unwelcome, contribution to this debate is from Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Lib Dems, and a wealthy pro-business politician, who claims that the old have comprehensively shafted the young. I think it’s worth deconstructing this a bit. Some of the old have definitely shafted the young. In this, I would include Cable, whose party helped form a government which made university tuition fees the most expensive in the world. It also presided over the worst housing crisis since the Second World War and it introduced laws that allowed further deregulation of work and employment. But that isn’t true for most over 65s, many of whom are themselves in poverty and whose state pensions are among the poorest in Europe.

While the majority of older people voted Conservative in the last election, there are many older people who support Corbyn and it’s a fact that the backbone of many trade unions are older workers. It is true that a minority have good pensions, and are owner occupiers who no longer pay mortgages, but they are not in this position at the expense of younger people. In fact, it is the other way round. Successive governments have allowed worsening conditions to develop for younger generations quite deliberately to deny them the opportunities their parents and grandparents had. So selling off council houses and deregulating private renting has led to higher rents and house prices, scrapping final salary pension schemes has worsened pensions, and job security has been undermined.

Don’t blame old workers for that. And don’t insult them by thinking that they don’t want a better life for the young. There are for sure divisions between attitudes, interests, lifestyles between young and old. But what Cable is trying to do is to create material divisions for his own particular ends.

These include his desperation to reverse the referendum vote last year. He is part of an alliance with Blairite MPs like Chuka Umunna and Tories like Anna Soubry, who will do everything they can to stop Brexit. This isn’t to help workers in Britain, still less to deliver real rights for migrants. It is to continue with the free trade, deregulation and privatisation which marks the EU and its single market. They all fear that a Corbyn government will be able to put forward policies which challenge this agenda, and demands renationalisation of key industries. And they fear that even more than the bungled Tory Brexit at present on offer.

A new militancy

There are a lot of strikes going on at the moment. Serco workers in London hospitals, BA mixed fleet air crew, Bank of England workers, Picturehouse employees, Birmingham bin workers, to name only a few. There are also ongoing rail disputes. This week it was also announced that SOAS cleaners had won their very long running dispute and will from next year have full in house employment conditions. These strikes may not be statistically significant but they are very politically significant.

They represent a mood of militancy also epitomised by the Corbyn surge, often involving young workers and of course migrant workers who face racism and discrimination. They also, as was the case with the SOAS cleaners, bring traditions of organising and militancy from their home countries.

The strikes are also significant in that they are, very often, more than one-day strikes, and therefore have the potential to hit employers harder, and to garner wider support from fellow workers and the public. This in itself is a change compared with disputes of recent years which have tended to be one day and are probably, at least in part, the unintended consequences of government legislation, which has made balloting for strikes even harder and so made it more practical to go for longer strikes when ballots are won.

In all cases, they need solidarity in the face of employer, government and media onslaughts. But the direction of travel is clear. And it is the right one.

The flight on the beaches

I caught up with the film Dunkirk last week. I thought it was a fantastic film, really gripping and with a strongly anti-war message. The acting was superb, from Tom Hardy as the pilot, to Mark Rylance as the owner of a small pleasure boat crossing from Weymouth to Dunkirk, and even Kenneth Branagh channelling John Mills as the naval officer. But I was disappointed with the ending, which was almost like an odd bolt on to the main film, with Churchill speeches and the lot.

This didn’t spoil the film, which I would urge everyone to see. The overall message is one of the misery of war, and the reality behind the narrative of bravery and heroics. The British army does not come out of it well, both in terms of the fiasco of Dunkirk and their treatment of their allies, the French. The film also conveys the sense of what a major disaster Dunkirk was, with a whole army trapped on beaches, under constant bombardment from the enemy, and even when on rescue ships in danger of being bombed or torpedoed. A total of 338,226 allied soldiers – 222,658 British -were rescued.

This is rather different from the impression those of my generation got when the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was invoked to conjure up patriotism and strength in adversity. The reality of this massive defeat, which was followed rapidly by the fall of France, was rarely spelt out. But defeat it certainly was, with many killed and with much equipment abandoned.

Nor was the mood one of gritty patriotism. As the British soldiers sit on a train to London, following their evacuation in the film, one says that people will spit on them in the streets. We then see civilians handing them beer bottles and applauding at the next station. Fair enough. But after Dunkirk, people in Britain were depressed and terrified at possible invasion. I have a terrific book called Listening to Britain which is about home intelligence reports (the government essentially spied on people in pubs, shops etc and did reports on their morale) from May to September 1940. It makes fascinating reading: in early June there were rumours of great hostility to the RAF from returning soldiers, hostility to Belgian refugees, and reports from Lord Haw Haw’s Nazi broadcasts.

After Dunkirk. France fell and Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. People feared imminent invasion and bombing, many joined the Home Guard, and there was a sense that more should be done to defend Britain. A report from Leeds said people were demanding that the whole nation should be armed. Another from Nottingham said that women wanted to be armed with rifles and hand grenades. There was also a huge amount of criticism of ex-prime minister Chamberlain and the ‘old gang’, and a real distrust of government and officialdom.

Working people often took matters into their own hands, for example in one estate in Stockwell creating their own air raid shelters. The summer of 1940 saw Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and then from early September the relentless bombing of London which went on for nine months with only one day’s respite, and the bombing of many other cities. Despite Churchill’s rhetoric, there was little preparation or defence of civilians from this bombing and it was increasingly the case that the civilian population played a key role in defending itself. I would have liked something more of this reality at the end of the film.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.