We Need to Talk About Towns

A week or before the US presidential election, I visited Youngstown in eastern Ohio. On a deserted street corner, across from a bail bondsman and a boarded up shop, an elderly white man explained why he was voting for Donald Trump. “This town used to be something. Now it’s nothing,” he told me. “You guys had Brexit, now it’s our turn.”

Trump’s was a victory for the town against the city. The sprawling metropolises on both coasts were, as ever, solidly blue on November 8. It was places like Youngstown – a city that has seen its population more than half amid four decades of relentless deindustrialization – that swung the race for the White House.

Much has been made about the similarities between Trump and Brexit: white working class alienation; the anger at globalization; the distrust of experts. There’s undoubtedly something in all of this. But the most glaring connection is where these two unlikely victories were forged: in towns and small cities of our former industrial heartlands.

Burnley, Bolton, Hull, Grimsby. The names are familiar from June 23. In many British towns, the pride and purpose of industry – the very thing that called these towns into being in the first place – has been replaced by call centres and low rent chain stores.

Youngstown’s municipal government has started to demolish entire city blocks. In Hartlepool, over 27 per cent of shops were vacant last year. Some 70 per cent of the town’s residents voted for Brexit.

Empty retail units and urban blight did not cause voters to flock to Farage or Trump, but they are a symptom of the problem.

Glasgow, where I live, has barely half as many inhabitants now as they had at their peaks in the middle of the 20th century. The ‘Second City of Empire’ has, to an extent, developed a service-sector economy to compensate. The expensive apartment complexes that look out onto what was once the busiest ship-building docks in the world have spawned restaurants, bars and shopping centres.

But the myriad smaller industrial towns peppered across central Scotland have continued their decline. The most dependable source of employment – the public sector – has been decimated by almost a decade of austerity.

The problem for our towns is not just economic, it is cultural too. Town living is not cool.

City burghers have all the cultural capital, the flat whites and art house cinemas. The country, the rural, has its place as the opposite of the insatiable urban. But what of the town? Who wants to live in what the Americans condescendingly call ‘flyover country’? Certainly not many of the media who, like me, grew up in towns and have little desire to ever return to them.

The turn to Brexit, and to Trump, is not just a primal scream against the metropolitan elite. Globalisation has not been the win-win game that some of its supporters had claimed it would be. It may have lifted millions out of poverty and triggered the emergence of a middle class in developing countries, but it has wrecked a huge price on the working class here.

The shift of manufacturing jobs to cheaper parts of the world decimated once self sufficient industrial communities. The jobs that came to replace them were often low paid, precarious and seen as emasculating by a generation of men raised on tales of life in the pits and the steel mills.

Ten of the twelve most struggling cities in Britain are in northern England, according to research released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year. Rochdale fared worst in the survey. The response from local politicians? Shoot the messenger.

The JRF data was “outdated” and “does not show what is happening in Rochdale right now” said council chief executive Steve Rumbelow.

In reality, the picture is all too familiar. Most workers in the UK and the US have seen their real wages stagnate and even fall for decades. Employment opportunities have dried up in many areas, and job and social insecurity have spiked. And it’s likely to get worse.

In November, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that by 2021, real wages in the UK – pay adjusted for inflation – will still not have recovered to their 2008 level before the global financial crisis hit. That’s 14 years of zero wage growth in the UK.

So what’s the answer for our towns? The message from the Brexiters and Trump is simple: jobs. Strip out cheap foreign labour. Erect trade barriers. Do whatever it takes, even restarting the coal mines of West Virginia or bribing Nissan to stay in Sunderland.

But here’s the bad news: jobs won’t save our towns. If anything, they are about to witness even more unemployment in the years to come.

Having seen the industrial working class hollowed out by de-industrialisation, the skilled middle-classes are set to follow. Automation is a word on few politicians’ lips, but it should be. We are at the start of a massive information technology-fuelled disruption that will change the fundamental basis on which our world is ordered.

Mechanical improvements meant thousands of layoffs our factories over the past forty years. Soon it will be the same in our offices. Who needs accountants when, as happened in the US in 2014, 48 million people used online tax preparation software rather than professional help? What is the future of teaching when more people sign up for Harvard’s online courses in a single year than attended the actual university in its almost four centuries in existence?

The future will require skilled workers – in tech, in finance, even in the media – but few, if any, of these jobs will be located in towns that are often sited by historical accident, not on the confluence of rivers or roads but near deposits of long-exhausted raw materials.

We are not the only country faced with the problem of places that no longer have a clear function. Russia has nearly 20,000 ghost towns, mostly in the freezing north. In many instances. Moscow wrote off large chunks of the local population’s mortgage debt to encourage them to move. Would any British politician ever propose a similar scheme?

Our leaders will need to start thinking along such radical lines. With no prospect of paid work for all some form of guaranteed state supplement will need to be introduced. Such a “basic” or “citizen’s income” would need to be enough not just to survive on but to live the fulfilling lives on which social stability rests.

But even this is no panacea. As automation increases, the tax take will decrease as the numbers in work fall. Public money would need to be found. The only feasible option is an effective, global effort on tax avoidance.

This problem is not new. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown realised that, for many workers, wages were so low that they could not afford to live. But their solution – tax credits – did nothing to address the inequalities unleashed by globalization, where low wage workers could end up paying more tax than the massive corporations that employed them on insecure contracts.

No wonder places like Oldham, with its 365 mills all now empty, backed Brexit so enthusiastically. No wonder a once solid union city like Youngstown swung behind Trump. Neither have the answers to our towns’ problems, but unless we start to grapple with them soon that won’t even matter. It will already be too late.

This piece originally appeared in the New European, December 2016.

 

—————

Shame in the Shetlands

Shetlanders are fond of saying that their nearest train station is the Norwegian city of Bergen, such is the islands’ distance from the British mainland. Perched on a rocky outcrop surrounded by the wild, oil-rich North Sea, the U.K.’s most northerly archipelago has a very distinctive history and identity.

But windswept Shetland — population circa 25,000 — has not escaped the political gale that blew across Scotland and the rest of Britain in the wake of last year’s defeated independence referendum.

In May’s general election, Shetland and Orkney was one of only three Scottish constituencies not to return a Scottish National Party MP. Incumbent Liberal Democrat Alastair Carmichael held on, by less than a thousand votes, as the SNP took 56 seats across Scotland.

The former Scottish secretary’s political future — and the future of his party in their last Scottish redoubt — now hangs in the balance.

Carmichael is under investigation by Westminster’s parliamentary standards commissioner after he admitted to approving the leak of a Whitehall memo suggesting SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told a French diplomat she would like to see David Cameron remain as Prime Minister ahead of the general election. He had previously denied any involvement.

Recently passed legislation that allows the recall of MPs is not yet in force, but, if the commissioner finds against him, Carmichael’s position could become politically untenable. At the same time, a separate public petition crowd-funded over £55,000 to launch a legal challenge against the Lib Dem’s election victory. An Edinburgh court is expected to hear the case in September. Either outcome could result in a by-election.

Such political skullduggery is almost unheard of in the Shetland Islands.

“It’s not a particularly political place. People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things,” says former BBC journalist Tom Morton over coffee in a busy café near the harbor at Lerwick, the Shetlands’ largest town.

Liberals have dominated Shetland politics for more than half a century. Jo Grimond, who first became MP in 1950, is still revered for brokering a deal with international oil companies in the early 1970s that saw the construction of a massive refinery at Sullom Voe under unusually favorable terms for the local community. Almost overnight, the impoverished fishing community was transformed into a prosperous mini-state with local control over its own oil fund.

“People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things” — Tom Morton, former BBC journalist.

But the Liberal Democrats hemorrhaged support in May, and the Carmichael affair has sparked indignation among many in Shetland. More than once I was told that the MP had “brought shame” on the islands — not by leaking the “Frenchgate” memo, but by lying about it.

“The ordinary Liberals feel betrayed by what he did because they trusted him,” says Shetlander Mary Blance.

Even Tavish Scott, the sitting Liberal Democrat member of the devolved Scottish parliament for Shetland, admits that voters feel let down. But Scottish nationalists went over the top in their campaign to oust the MP, he says, adding: “I think it will rebound on the SNP.”

Scott and his party hope so — Shetland is one of just two Lib Dem constituencies to have survived the SNP tsunami in the 2011 Scottish elections. Polls suggest the nationalists could win almost every seat in Scotland next year. With the Lib Dems currently polling in the low single digits, the party needs all the support it can muster.

* * *
On a blustery summer’s evening on Lerwick harbor, a brass band decked out in British Legion livery plays to a small crowd. The event commemorates more than 250 men who left the islands a century ago to fight in World War I. Many never returned.

As the band plays, a Shetland flag swirls in the breeze. The ubiquitous standard — the colors of the Scottish saltire in the form of a Nordic cross — reflects the islands’ own complex ties.

The islands were under Norwegian control for centuries. In 1468, the King of Denmark pawned Shetland, along with Orkney, to Scotland as part of a dowry for a royal marriage. The Danes never managed to repay the debt.

The Act of Union brought the Shetlands into the United Kingdom, but traces of the Viking heritage remain: St Magnus, St Olaf and King Harald are among the names of Lerwick’s pretty Victorian streets. Udal law, an ancient Norse legal system, still holds sway in the Shetlands’ courts. Solid Scandinavian-style timber houses are dotted across the islands.

With such a rich history, identity is a particularly thorny issue, says Shetlands-born writer Malachy Tallack.

“Most people would say they are Shetland first. Most people would say they are Scottish too, and probably British. There is no contradiction.”

Although a short-lived movement for greater autonomy emerged after the discovery of oil, the Shetlands have long been stony soil for Scottish nationalism. In 1979, the Shetlands voted against Scottish devolution. In the 2010 general election, the SNP finished a massive 41.4 percent behind the Lib Dems here.

But Shetlanders’ antipathy towards the nationalists seems to be softening.

Last September, the pro-independence vote was lower in Shetland than the national average but, at more than 36 percent, was still significant, says Tallack. “Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found 5 to 10 percent who would have voted yes.”

Since the referendum, the SNP’s membership in Shetland has risen more than five-fold.

“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room” — Ella Gordon, textile maker.
Often accused of centralizing power, the Scottish nationalist government in Edinburgh has set out a new agenda for the islands, promising more local powers and appointing Scotland’s first dedicated islands’ minister. This approach is proving popular in Shetland, says Mike MacKenzie, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands.

“In the past they have felt neglected by the Scottish government (and) by the SNP. That has changed,” says MacKenzie. “I’ve been warmly received. That’s partly the natural island hospitality but also we’ve been taking a pretty good message to the island.”

Shetland News journalist Neil Riddell agrees. “People always say, ‘We are as remote from Edinburgh as we are from London,’ but that isn’t strictly true. We have much more access to Scottish ministers. Before devolution there was just one U.K. minister for the whole of Scotland.”

Ostensibly Shetland has done well from the union. Oil has paid for a road network that is the envy of rural Scotland. Even small hamlets have heated swimming pools and leisure centers. Lerwick boasts both a state-of-the-art performance space and a museum that rivals those of many larger nations.

Meanwhile, a massive gas plant is being built at Sullom Voe. Many of the workers live in huge, static ocean-liners moored in Lerwick and Scalloway.

Some Shetlanders, however, question whether this so-called “second oil boom” is benefiting their community. Beyond the bar owners and the hoteliers, there is little sign of oil money trickling down. House prices have risen sharply, and a new generation of locals find themselves forced to leave.

“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room. A friend of mine was renting a one bedroom flat for £900 a month,” says Ella Gordon. The 24-year-old textile-maker lives with her parents.

Most of her friends now live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, hundreds of miles, and an expensive day’s journey, away. “Growing up in the 90s we had it so good. We could do anything we wanted. Now it’s like life is going backwards.”