“Libraries gave us power / Then work came and made us free” – has there ever, in the entire history of popular music, been a more powerful opening line? If you think so, please put your answer on a stamped, self-addressed envelope and send it to the usual address.
Those opening lines pretty much give you an undiminished insight into the world of the Manics, as they are affectionately known by us paid-up members of the Taffia. The opening line of the song ‘Libraries gave us power’ was inspired by the inscription at the top of the former library in Newport, approximately 15 miles from the band’s home town of Blackwood, in the former mining colonies of South Wales: ‘Knowledge is Power’. The next line, ‘Then work came and made us free’, refers to “Arbeit macht frei” which was the German slogan that featured above the gates of Nazi concentration camps.
Powerful stuff, eh?
Read those opening lyrics again, and take in the full power of what they are attempting to communicate:
Libraries gave us power
Then work came and made us free
What price now for a shallow piece of dignity
I wish I had a bottle
Right here in my dirty face to wear the scars
To show from where I came
Some might suggest that this is a song that rages against the dying of the light (ah… sorry, couldn’t help the Welsh literary reference there). It is a song full of working class rage against a system that seems designed to keep the working class at the bottom of society. Watch the video and see all the references to the various class divisions that litter our society, from the Proms or Ascot to football hooliganism and holidays to Majorca. It is a song that simultaneously celebrates working class culture whilst condemning it at the same time. If you come from my background, it is one of “our” songs.
Remember the context in which this song was released: it was the final days of John Major’s conservative government, before Tony Blair swept to power on a wave of optimism in response to the increasing revulsion at the “sleaze” scandals that were plaguing the government week in week out. The Tories had been in continuous government since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory in the 1979 election that followed devastating years of industrial unrest in what has become known as the “winter of discontent”. Maggie went it with an agenda to break apart the grip that the unions had upon the country, and to recreate the country in line with her often quoted “grocer’s daughter” worldview on free market economics. With the benefit of hindsight, we can easily see how something needed to be done to create a newer, more free flowing economic approach that was less dominated by union influence (or even interference, depending upon your political viewpoint). What is harder to forget, if you witnessed it at the time, was the devastation that was wrecked upon communities and families that had relied upon one industry.
I know because I taught in one of those schools in one of those communities. I know because I was a form tutor to one of the students from one of those families in one of those communities. I know because I went to the funeral. Maybe, one day, I will feel able to tell you the story. One day.
It is often said that Labour government’s always ruin the economy whilst Conservative governments always ruin public service. After the Tories dispensed (or should that say “stabbed in the back” despite her successive electoral victories) with Maggie in 1990, John Major attempted to exert control over an increasingly divided Conservative party (over Europe of all things… didn’t take long to get that one resolved, eh?) that cut deeper and deeper into the budgets of schools and hospitals and other public services, such as libraries. I know because, in 1996 as budget cuts hit schools, I was made redundant from my first permanent teaching post in the small ex-mining community of Cymer Afan.
As the school’s only drama specialist, the school simply decided to cut drama out of the curriculum. We were a tiny school compared with the school that I now teach in, with only somewhere in the region of 400 students. There was no sixth form. So they only needed to worry about the impact upon my year 10 GCSE class who had already started on their exam course. The school’s senior leadership team simply told year 9 students who had wanted to take Drama to choose something else. An English teacher would take over my GCSE Drama class – problem solved. Now, if you are an English teacher please do not take offense at what I am going to say – I would never presume that my Drama qualifications would enable me to teach English at examination level, so I hope that this particular English teacher quickly realised that there is a world of difference between understanding drama texts from an English language perspective compared with teaching the full range of skills involved in developing fully rounded performers – but at the same time I hope those students didn’t get their chances of getting great GCSE grades fucked up for economic and political reasons outside of their control.
When I was made redundant, I was devastated. I was only in my third year of teaching when I was informed that I (and another member of staff) was going to be made redundant. I was a dedicated, committed, passionate new drama teacher who was totally enthralled by the possibility of opening these young people to the potential of a new life in the performing arts. After all, it was an arts education that had taken me out of a life of relative poverty into university and subsequently into teaching and then the world of work. I was now in the position of being married, with my eldest son having recently been born and also having signed the contract for our very first home. Yes, that is always a good time to discover that you are going to be dismissed from your job. I felt like I had done everything that society said I should do as a good working class boy: I had worked my arse off to get good qualifications, and a great job, and build myself a secure place in the world. Now I felt like I was going to lose it all. The rug was well and truly pulled from underneath my feet.
However, I don’t want this to become a eulogy to redundancy – I’m okay. I recovered from the problems that it caused, eventually, but it took longer than expected. I have also never felt totally secure because I am well aware that everything could be taken away from me again – and it is totally outside of my control. That is what continues to scare the living shit out of me.
Please look around you at what is going on in the country now, and I believe you will see history repeating… at least as far as the impact upon public service of a hardline Tory government that is on a mission to carve a place in history is concerned. Schools are cutting subjects like drama and dance out of the curriculum again… now! Schools are being forced into making teaching staff redundant due to lack of funding again… now! Pupils are having their life choices restricted either by deliberate action or lack of opportunity again… now! It is happening again now, and it is only going to get worse as the government follows through on idealistic dogma about reducing spending and cutting taxation regardless of the impact upon countless lives. Would it be cynical to suggest that politicians (regardless of their political affiliation) don’t care about the people they are supposed to represent? Would it be cynical to suggest that power is only interest in protecting the continuation of power? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just too cynical?
We don’t talk about love we only want to get drunk
And we are not allowed to spend
As we are told that this is the end
I was brought up in a Welsh working class family, at a time when being a Welsh working class family meant essentially being a Labour voter. Being Labour meant that, as a working class family, you would be protected as they were the party of industry, supported by the unions, who invested in our public services. Then Margaret Thatcher pulled the cleverest trick in political history. She persuaded the working classes to have ambition and aspiration – ambition to buy their council houses, ambition to send their children to “better” schools, ambition to pay less taxes so they could afford private health care, ambition to buy shares in privatised companies, ambition to buy clothes from designer labels, ambition to become even more ambitious.
However, whilst Maggie was slowly building a new society by destroying the fundamental socialist principle of community and replacing it with the new neo-conservative religion of individualism, the old systems of mutual support were still in place for long enough to provide with the means to go to university, to get my degree and then my post-graduate certificate in education to enable me to become a qualified teacher of drama. I am utterly convinced that the money that I received in grants (for it was back in the day of grants rather than loans) has been repaid many times over in the additional taxes that I have paid back to the government as a result of earning higher wages. I believe in paying my taxes for the good of the community that provides services like health care, education, emergency services and our armed forces. I cannot imagine what the world would be like if all these things were put in the hands of private companies who are primarily interested in the generation of profit rather than the protection of people.
Where did Maggie’s brave new world lead us? On the one hand it would be difficult to argue against the wealth that was generated through the new focus upon entrepreneurship and privatisation. However, those of us who worked in public service found ourselves desperate to undo the years of Tory neglect – and we found ourselves falling completely for Blair and his New Labour project, riding on the wave of optimism that our public services would be rescued again. Yes, Labour did great things for our public services but in ways that showed a somewhat disguised conservative agenda. If people believe that the creeping privatisation of the NHS started with David Cameron, they are wrong. It started with Blair. If people believe that the dismantling of the comprehensive state school system started with Cameron, they are wrong again. It started with Blair. Blair introduced the joint Public-Private Finance Initiatives which have left NHS Trusts which crippling debts to repay. Blair introduced the system of academies which allowed business orientated companies to take over “failing” schools despite having no experience in education. Let’s not even start on Iraq.
This country has been drifting in a right-wing direction ever since 1979 with very little drift back to the centre ground even when supposed left-wing governments failed to pull us back to a balance in the centre of politics. The result of this is the increasingly xenophobic language that accompanied the so-called (and, in my humble opinion, generally fucking non-existent) debate into the pros and cons of the Brexit referendum, and the increasingly disturbing tactics of organisations such as UKIP and Britain First to lay the blame for the economic problems of this country firmly at the feet of immigrants and refugees. The result of this is the increasingly potential break-up of the United Kingdom as Scotland finds itself isolated from the rest of the country having voted to Remain in the EU, whilst the rest of the country seems to head further to the right than ever before.
Yes, I blame Labour for failing to stand up for what many will see as old fashioned values. Many will argue that Jeremy Corbyn clearly embodies the spirit of these ideals. Sadly, I don’t believe that the rest of the country believes in things like the importance of community anymore because that requires empathy, compromise and sacrifice. I think this country has been propelled by the power of selfish uncontrolled capitalism for too long now.
So what do I hear now when I listen to “A Design For Life”? I still hear that working class rage – who believes in us? Who is here to support us? When do we get our fair share that we have been promised for so long? Why should we continue to believe in this bullshit of “we’re all in this together” when quite clearly we are not? However, I also recognise the sounds of regret. Maybe if the working classes had spend less time with their faces in bottles, maybe they would have demanded that we live in fairer society than allowing our society to be divided and conquered whilst being diverted by big screen TVs and computer game systems. Is that really what we sold our society for? A fucking PlayStation?
Libraries gave us power. Remember that when we have no more libraries.