Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – reviews

Big Society? More like Battered Society. Melissa Benn on two books that expose the ‘war on the weakest’ in Cameron’s Britain

36In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era as Britain’s finest moment destroyed a half-century or more later by neo­liberal economics and unrestrained finance capital.

Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.

Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933”.

Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.) All hope of greater equality or genuine democracy is now being swept away, here and in the US, by greedy corporations, the heedless tax-evading rich and near-corrupt governments, who “act like acolytes from a cult who worship profits over common sense”. This has returned the UK to the landscape of his childhood, in which “food poverty, like a tidal flood, has begun to encroach upon both city and suburban dwellers”.

In one particularly depressing scene, he describes being picked up at the airport, on a return visit to Yorkshire, by a distant cousin who takes him on a tour of Halifax, where Smith spent his later childhood. As they drive the roads in drizzling rain, jet-lagged Smith is made gloomy by the dire economic plight of the town and his cousin’s Ukip-style rantings about immigrants.

Smith’s book may be more overtly political and emotional, but O’Hara’s lucid account of a year-long trip around austerity Britain left me reeling and somehow more ashamed. A reasonably well-informed citizen will have most of the jigsaw pieces to hand: the mean-spirited “bedroom tax”; the increased number of food banks; the dramatic reduction in local government budgets and public sector jobs; the punitive sanctions on job seekers in a labour market short even of insecure, poorly paid work; a battery of new tests for disabled people; and the erosion of legal aid.

O’Hara clarifies this jumble of privations in several significant ways. She never loses sight of human beings, too easily buried beneath the rubble of official acronyms and policy speak. There is a chapter devoted to the emotional fallout of austerity: the loss of identity, self-hatred, multiple suicide attempts and sheer hopelessness of those marooned without income or work – or any future prospect of either.

Petty applications of new benefit rules mean claimants risk losing already meagre sums for four weeks, 13 weeks or, “if it happens a third time”, for as long as three years. One job seeker tells O’Hara: “You’re five minutes late for your appointment, you show the adviser your watch, which is running late, but you still get sanctioned for a month.” Another says: “It’s Christmas Day and you don’t fill in your job search evidence form to show that you’ve looked for all the new jobs that are advertised on Christmas Day. You are sanctioned. Merry Christmas.” The devastation wreaked on the disabled, thousands of whom face up to six separate welfare cuts by 2015, has been, says the usually understated O’Hara, “jaw-dropping”.

By the end, she makes a convincing case that the coalition has in effect prosecuted a callous four-year “war on the weakest” in our society. You can’t help but share in her icy judgments of Cameron, Osborne, Gove and co, and particularly the hapless work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who didn’t even turn up for the parliamentary debate on the bedroom tax in November 2013. Tory high jinks during that same debate, with one MP pretending to nod off and another making jokes about the name of the tax, suggested too many MPs have become out of touch with common decency, let alone with vast parts of the country.

O’Hara also helpfully dissects the ways in which a Benefits Street-style political narrative has made welfare so much more publicly unpopular. Alarmist references to the size of the benefits bill fail to make clear that the figure also includes pensions and subsidies for the working poor; the extent of welfare fraud is vastly overstated; the much publicised, and apparently reasonable, “cap” of £26,000 punishes large families and saves relatively little money in overall terms; government press releases make continual use of emotive phrases such as “dependence”, “entrenched” and “addiction”.

Without robust enough challenge from either the compliant Liberal Democrats or the official opposition, the state has been slashed. Meanwhile, the official narrative has subtly shifted from deficit-cutting necessity and “We’re all in it together”, to a leaner, meaner state – oh, and let’s kick out the Romanian hordes.

What’s keeping people afloat are the remnants of the state and the real Big, but now Battered, Society: what’s left of voluntary and community action, and the numerous activist campaigns that have sprung up in recent years. Even so, such is the level of distrust and anger among large parts of the population, O’Hara warns, that a rerun of the 2011 riots is entirely possible.

Both books, but particularly O’Hara’s, should be required reading for every MP, peer, councillor, civil servant and commentator. The fury and sense of powerlessness that so many people feel at government policy beam out of every page.

Man-Made: Why So Few Women Are in Positions of Power by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds – review

In the topsy-turvy world of British politics, with Labour seeking the centre ground and the Conservative party projecting itself as the party of the workers, Man-Made feels heaven sent. With an unerring lucidity, it lays out the multiple ways that inequality continues to frustrate the aspirations of half the population. Given that its female interviewees include the chief executives of the Association of Drainage Authorities and Yorkshire Water, the vice president of (environmental) Upstream BP and the chair of the Civil Aviation Authority, as well as a range of top lawyers, journalists, arts administrators and politicians including Harriet Harman, this book not only covers the centre ground but all that runs beneath, or flies above, it.

Tutchell and Edmond’s starting point is the gross imbalance of power in contemporary Britain, with women still heavily outnumbered at the top of public, corporate and political life. (The exceptions are primary school headships and chairs of magistrates.) The dismal figures on women’s representation are the direct consequence of three decades of stagnation since the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination acts, the implementation of which has been “patchy, uncertain and incomplete”.

The Conservatives place their faith in voluntary action, particularly in relation to the low number of women on company boards, and, while more women are elected to parliament and appointed to senior ministerial positions (particularly in the runup to general elections), we have achieved nothing like the near parity of the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales, which have also, incidentally, promoted strong female leaders.

Man-Made is a mix of tough empiricism, sound analysis and human storytelling. Through its extensive interviews (admission of interest here – I am quoted on a couple of occasions) the authors pick their way through the minefield of contemporary working life. How depressing to be reminded of the many pitfalls that still exist from the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures around dress (“avoid dowdiness, flamboyance and sexiness”) and behaviour (a strong woman is still considered a hard bitch; a more consensual female dismissed as weak) to the kind of shocking sexual discrimination that seems particularly rampant in Britain’s orchestras, of all places. It is interesting to learn that the informality of the new media companies masks some very old practices and prejudices.

Beware of wearing black and white, successful women are still advised, or you will at some point be asked to refill an empty glass or find a coat draped over your arm. Not so funny is the story of astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who made the momentous discovery of the first pulsar only to see her male supervisor win a Nobel prize, or the FT journalist who found her less experienced male replacement offered £10,000 a year more.

Secrecy about colleagues’ pay feeds one kind of discrimination but there is a fascinating section on what would emerge if we calculated pay differently. Factor in overtime, the pay of part-time workers and the salaries of high-earning men, and the currently “wide” gender pay gap becomes a chasm. With every child, a woman’s income reduces by 13% and the UK has among the lowest rates of maternity pay in Europe.

Is there a secret to success for women? Not really. There is often an encouraging father in the background but a supportive significant other is much more vital. For high-achieving women, the double shift is not the only challenge; some men just can’t hack a more successful partner. Virtually the sole common denominator among all those interviewed is a university degree (and often additional qualifications) but how important will this remain in an age of mass higher education?

Some interviewees call themselves feminists; a few quail at the term. A number have children but it is the second child, apparently, that proves the toughest hurdle. Most of those interviewed put their success down to luck. The authors disagree but do conclude that the “defining characteristic” of almost all they spoke to is “an extraordinary modesty”. Is it intolerably English of me to find this cheering?

The book includes several road-tested proposals for change. They include pay transparency, paid work breaks for both men and women (either to retrain or reproduce), tougher equal rights accountability within companies and the establishment of clear targets to achieve parity of men and women, whether in the House of Lords or on company boards. This last proposal draws on important lessons from Norway, which has, since 2008, required all boards to have 40% female representation. Man-Made is politically important, because it embodies, and makes vital use of, the hard slog on gender equality of many campaigners and researchers over decades.

It is obvious that our daughters and granddaughters simply cannot wait for equality to evolve naturally. It won’t. So, as the authors of this impressive book note towards the end, “We either fix the women or we fix the system.” Given that the women have shown themselves to be infinitely more creative, flexible, ingenious, reliable, productive and loyal than the system, there is really no contest.

Finding vindication: on the intertwined lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon has managed to produce that rare thing, a work of genuinely popular history.

Romantic Outlaws: the Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon
Hutchinson, 649pp, £25

This ingeniously constructed double biography tells the story of a mother and a ­daughter, two writers, who did not know each other. Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died of septicaemia ten days after giving birth to Mary Godwin, later best known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Very different in character and interests – Wollstonecraft was more political, Shelley more scholarly – both women demanded a rare romantic and intellectual freedom that cost them dearly but pushed the boundaries of possibility for later generations.

Wollstonecraft was probably the greater pioneer of the two. Born the second of seven children to a drunken bully of a father and a passive mother, she felt keenly the absence of formal education for herself and her sisters, an injustice that inspired works such as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and Vindication. A resourceful woman, she not only earned her own living from a young age but cared for her younger sisters for long periods of time.

Godwin had potentially more stable beginnings, as a daughter of Wollstonecraft’s grieving husband, the philosopher William Godwin, the author of Enquiry ­Concerning Political Justice. Thanks to her father, the young Mary received a better education than did many of her male peers. Yet her dead and already notorious mother haunted her. Throughout her life, she read and reread Wollstonecraft’s work and she and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley often met and talked at her mother’s grave in St Pancras. They may even, Gordon speculates, have first made love there. Gordon later suggests that Frankenstein is best interpreted as a story of the horrors that follow when a mother’s love is absent.

The profound perils of sex, romance and motherhood resonate throughout these pages. Wollstonecraft travelled alone to revolutionary Paris, at first enthralled and later horrified and threatened by Robespierre’s reign of terror. Here, she fell in love with a charismatic American adventurer, Gilbert Imlay, and became pregnant with her first daughter, Fanny. As a lone mother, she was a social outcast but went on to publish perhaps one of her greatest works, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Her daughter also suffered as both a lover and a mother. After she eloped with Shelley, aged 16, William Godwin mysteriously cut her off for many years, despite constantly appealing to Shelley for funds. The young couple lived in a kind of personal and artistic idyll in Italy for several years but the deaths of three of their four children precipitated spells of disabling depression in Mary and sparked Percy’s serial infatuations with other women. Mary’s stepsister Claire, who had a daughter with Byron, whose cruel treatment led to the child’s early death, wrote at the end of her life that the great Romantic experiment in free love had benefited only the men and crushed the women.

Both women’s stories are full of enriching paradox. Wollstonecraft, an ardent advocate of independence and freedom, was often a dependent and desperate lover but was able, eventually, to find happiness with Godwin, whom Gordon portrays as pernickety but passionate, brave but rather unkind. Mary Shelley was a highly gifted writer but, after her husband’s premature death by drowning a large part of her life was devoted to consolidating his literary reputation. Both women endured lengthy periods of depression, yet somehow always found a way to carry on writing.

Neither woman’s literary achievements were recognised during the 19th century, such was the whiff of personal scandal that still clung to their names. Wollstonecraft was not helped by Godwin’s decision, possibly for financial reasons, to rush out an ill-judged, partial and overly personal memoir of her soon after her death. And it was not until Muriel Spark’s critical biography of Mary Shelley, first published in 1951, claiming her as the founder of modern science fiction and a greater novelist than had been previously recognised, that interest in her writing revived. Second-wave feminist scholars finally rehabilitated the work and life of Wollstonecraft.

Charlotte Gordon has managed to produce that rare thing, a work of genuinely popular history. Her weaving together of the two lives – alternating short chronological slices, so that mother and daughter age together despite the decades that separate them – works beautifully.

More subtly, the book demonstrates the highly complex threads of political and personal inheritance at work in this poignant relationship. Mary Shelley was the daughter of two extraordinary people but she was also a remarkable and distinctive woman in her own right, inheriting her parents’ unusual drive and political values.

Her elder sister, Fanny – Wollstonecraft’s daughter by Imlay – tragically committed suicide at the age of 22. It is Mary Shelley’s bravery, emotional authenticity and commitment to her intellect, rather than any interest in status, social respectability or second-hand grandeur, that saved her again and again.