There used to be a song called Selling England By The Pound. I think, although obviously I’m too young to know, that inter alia it was about devaluation, the scheme Harold Wilson came up with in the 1960s, artificially lowering the foreign exchange value of sterling to make exports cheaper in the countries they were supposed to be exported to. Since the great days of selling cheap Birmingham crap to natives in Africa, British overseas trade had depended on being cheap, the cheaper the better.
I don’t know whether it was because it was difficult to get investment money for new equipment, or the fact that if you mechanise first you’re stuck with the oldest machinery while everyone else is buying the newer stuff, a sense that if it’s not bust don’t fix it or as a country we’ve never, in my experience, valued real skills.
Sure, we had a couple of films about the man who invented the Spitfire. Anyone remember his name? Or his colostomy bag? The man who invented radar then? Or the hovercraft? Henry Hudson, the railway king? Any general other then Butcher Haig, or RAF officer other than Bomber Harris, or any naval officer after Nelson, really? Dyson. We know him. He moved his factory from Betjeman’s Malmesbury to China. Because it was cheaper, obviously.
Riding the rails
I knew a girl once whose great grandfather was a railway engineer. He designed steam engines, some of his in their time quite literally the fastest things on earth. I had another friend whose grandfather had driven the same engines. They never met. The first one, with her double-barrelled name and her genuine Hon. title put me right when I talked about the nobility of doing real jobs, of being covered in coal dust and sweat, understanding and cajoling these pulsing machines.
“No, he despised people like that,” she told me. Designing these things was a huge mental challenge. Rarely hard work. Just don’t ask him to bother about the grimy proles who had to work the things.
And then we had a war that got millions of grimy proles so fed-up with being asked to die for something they weren’t a part of that they voted Churchill, the nation’s saviour, into oblivion. Then we had Peter Sellers playing the archetypal trades unionist Fred Kite,
or we were told we did, and then a Prime Minister the swooning papers called SuperMac, as if we ever really needed reminding who was in charge when things were real. The Americans had JFK. We got the landed-gentry First World War officer with his massive shooting estate and TV sketch moustache, then the equally fatuous double act, Wilson and Benn.
So far as Benn was concerned it was never really the end of the peer show; he renounced the title to get into the Commons, but obviously kept the money that went with it. Equally obviously, his son is in Parliament now. As for Wilson, the man who famously sported a pipe when there were cameras about and a cigar when they weren’t, the man who was either so stupid or such a brazen liar that he couldn’t see anything wrong with going on TV one week to announce that devaluation would not affect “the pound in your pocket” and then the very next week, just before Simon Dee, going back on the telly to say actually, thinking about it, it would.
Unlike Simon Dee Harold Wilson wasn’t accompanied by a white E-type Jaguar and a mini-skirted dolly bird; he’d obviously had very, very bad PR advice about that. It would probably have been easier for people to hear the real message if it went along the lines of “I’ve pissed it all up the wall on fast cars and easy chicks, yes, me, personally,” instead of the truth: “Either I’m stupid or I think you are.”
Is it relevant now? It’s nearly all sold, after all. Just a few bits of the NHS left and the rail network, but that’s so crap that the taxpayer has to pay for that so that modern rail barons aren’t burdened with any of the bad bits of privatisation, like social investment, or common responsibility. But the same song still sings out: The health service is safe with us. We must defend our interests, whatever they are, however often they change. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the House of Saud. Immigrants are bad. People on benefits crashed the economy. It was Labour’s fault.
As before the real message stays the same: “Either I’m stupid or I think you are.” And while people don’t vote it doesn’t really matter which one of those is true.