Scot­land’s daily fo­rum for com­ment, analysis and new ideas

Sail­ing into Scot­land this week, Sting’s The Last Ship is a stark il­lus­tra­tion of what west and to lose, writes Joyce Mcmil­lan

The Scotsman - - News Digest -

On stage at the Fes­ti­val The­atre in Ed­in­burgh, a com­pany of 18 ac­tors play­ing English work­ing­class peo­ple gather to belt out their fi­nal num­ber, a reprise of a mighty an­them called When The Last Ship Sails.

They gaze straight into the au­di­ence, as if invit­ing us to rush on stage and join them in their strug­gle; their voices are the voices of Ty­ne­side, not so many miles south of Ed­in­burgh, and as the show daz­zles to its dream-like con­clu­sion, with gi­ant images of a great ship called Utopia thun­der­ing down the slip­way to the sea, the young nar­ra­tor rolls out a litany of re­sis­tance to “the world as it is”, rang­ing from Up­per Clyde Ship­builders in the 1970s, to Park­land, Florida, this year.

The show, of course, is Sting’s 2014 mu­si­cal The Last Ship, now given a com­plete new script and pro­duc­tion by Lorne Camp­bell, the young Scot­tish artis­tic di­rec­tor of New­cas­tle’s North­ern Stage. The story is based on Sting’s ex­pe­ri­ence of grow­ing up in a ship­build­ing com­mu­nity on the Tyne; and it’s set in the piv­otal decade of the 1980s, when Bri­tain’s ship­build­ing in­dus­try was all but wiped out by the fierce free-mar­ket ide­ol­ogy of Mar­garet Thatcher’s gov­ern­ment.

The ship­yard at the cen­tre of the story is about to close, in a flurry of cru­elly dis­mis­sive lan­guage – “dis­pens­able”, “not vi­able” – from the gov­ern­ment; but the peo­ple, led by a re­spected fore­man played with passion by Joe Mc­gann, sense some­thing pro­foundly wrong with a world-view that dis­misses them, their com­mu­nity and their skills as some­how com­pletely worth­less. So they fight, oc­cu­py­ing the yard, com­plet­ing the ship; and although any stu­dent of his­tory knows that they lost in the end, the show’s end­ing trans­forms their strug­gle into a great sym­bol of re­sis­tance none­the­less.

It’s not un­usual for Bri­tish film and fic­tion to re­visit the Eight­ies, of course; it was a dra­matic decade. Yet there was some­thing about the phys­i­cal pres­ence of this army of Ty­ne­side ac­tors on stage in Ed­in­burgh – and the ecstatic, vi­sion­ary qual­ity of the fi­nal scene – that made me think hard, for a mo­ment, about the al­ter­na­tive Bri­tish fu­ture that was lost dur­ing that decade; the one where the ties that united work­ing-class peo­ple across these is­lands were not crushed and pushed to the mar­gins of pol­i­tics, where trade unions re­mained a power in the land, and where the Labour Party con­tin­ued to rep­re­sent the in­ter­ests of or­di­nary work­ers, rather than ditch­ing them to flirt with the bankers who brought us the 2008 crash.

I was think­ing, in other words, of a Bri­tain of 2018 that might have looked more like a sen­si­ble Nordic so­cial democ­racy; and less like a de­luded and bit­terly di­vided ex-im­pe­rial power about to shoot it­self in both feet by leav­ing the Euro­pean Union, and pre­par­ing to sell off the last of its fam­ily sil­ver – in­clud­ing the NHS – in a des­per­ate quest for new trade deals with the big beasts of global com­merce.

For the truth is that the con­sti­tu­tional im­passe in which we now find our­selves – with West­min­ster MPS held hostage by the EU ref­er­en­dum re­sult, and al­most half of Scots ready to give up on the Union al­to­gether – can all be traced back to that cru­cial decade, when the com­plex in­sti­tu­tions and ideals of sol­i­dar­ity that bound post­war Bri­tain to­gether be­gan to be talked down, sneered at, and grad­u­ally dis­man­tled by an in­creas­ingly “rad­i­calised” Con­ser­va­tive Party, never suf­fi­ciently op­posed by New Labour.

Those who were not in­ter­ested in such ra­bid cash-driven in­di­vid­u­al­ism, and wanted a pol­i­tics bet­ter balanced be­tween the in­di­vid­ual and the col­lec­tive, even­tu­ally be­gan to have no op­tion but to look to other lev­els of gov­ern­ment – no­tably to the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar idea of Scot­tish de­vo­lu­tion – to ful­fil those so­cial-demo­cratic as­pi­ra­tions. And it is be­cause they fail to grasp this pro­found el­e­ment of tra­di­tional left-right pol­i­tics in Scot­land’s grad­ual move to­wards greater self-gov­ern­ment, that many out­side ob­servers of the last 30 years of Scot­tish pol­i­tics so often com­pletely mis­read them.

In the ef­fort to es­cape from ex­treme ne­olib­eral eco­nom­ics, Scots turned first to the par­ties of de­vo­lu­tion, and then, when New Labour moved too far to the right, to the SNP, which Alex Salmond had de­ci­sively placed on the cen­tre left. And to­day, with a bizarre group of wealthy Brexit ex­trem­ists ex­ert­ing what seems an un­due in­flu­ence on Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s pre­car­i­ous UK gov­ern­ment, even some on the cen­tre-right are be­gin­ning to pon­der whether Scot­land should not go it alone, rather than be dragged down by this lat­est and most ex­treme right-wing scam, for which, once again, we did not vote.

So let it be said, loud and clear, that Scot­land stands where it does this week – with two-thirds of its West­min­ster MPS march­ing from the Com­mons cham­ber in protest at the UK gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to the Scot­tish di­men­sion of Brexit – not be­cause of some out­break of blue face­paint­ing or ir­ra­tional pa­tri­otic sen­ti­ment (in­deed, sur­veys have shown that Scot­land’s sense of “Scot­tish­ness” has been in slight de­cline dur­ing this pe­riod), but sim­ply be­cause, over the years, the UK has be­come too rightwing to sus­tain the in­sti­tu­tions and poli­cies that held it to­gether.

Scot­tish vot­ers, in a large ma­jor­ity, do not want Brexit, do not want huge in­come in­equal­i­ties, would pre­fer to see pub­lic ser­vices like the NHS in pub­lic hands, and do not want an ide­ol­ogy that val­ues peo­ple only for what they own and what they earn, and not at all for what they do or cre­ate, and how they care for those more vul­ner­a­ble than them­selves. They share those val­ues with mil­lions of vot­ers in Eng­land whose voices seem barely to have been heard, these last 30 years.

The Last Ship in Ed­in­burgh (and in Glas­gow next week) comes as a sharp, liv­ing re­minder that the fu­ture of the UK may fi­nally de­pend on whether that voice of sol­i­dar­ity and com­mon sense can once again make it­self fully heard in English pol­i­tics; or is to re­main marginalised and out­voted for ever, while the Brex­i­teers do their worst, and Scot­land fi­nally de­cides to sling its hook, and set a course of its own.

0 The Last Ship is based on Sting’s ex­pe­ri­ence of grow­ing up in a ship­build­ing com­mu­nity on the Tyne

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.