The real Essex man is misunderstood. He was once a pioneer, the government bulldozed his dreamsby Derek Beaven / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Suddenly, in the 1980s, there was “Essex man,” with his dog and opinions. More, there was “Basildon man,” the walking swingometer-the instant Thatcherite who determined elections. And in the recent Labour landslide there was still an Essex story. What’s going on? Did some miasma rise up 20 years ago from the Essex marshes that made working people want to bite the party that fed them? And Basildon in particular-one of the ring of new towns around the capital, part of the brilliant solution to the devastation of the Blitz and the clearance of the East End slums-surely Basildon should have stayed left wing to the last. It has always been a conundrum. The demographic answers are complex. But there are reasons why south Essex is special, hidden by the bricks and mortar of the new town itself.
They go back to land ownership and another Labour landslide. In 1945, the English electorate went politely pink-pinker than at any moment before or since. “We’ll make Winston Churchill smoke a packet of Weights a day”-so the marching song urged. Plenty of returning soldiers and their patient, or not so patient, wives felt that the Soviet Union had been our worthiest wartime ally. If the English would never countenance revolution, still the various socialistic, methodistic and reformist strains that made up the new administration saw to it that the break with the past was truly astonishing. Fifty years on, we still don’t have to pay our GPs. We can still expect our children to go to school, in decent shoes, without rotten teeth or bent bones. They will never starve. In fact, a crack at university is their absolute birthright. Most will find work, will own cars and houses. Never in history has the state been more provident.
So it should be. Nor was the postwar New Jerusalem a nanny state. The green and pleasant land was a military culture with its sword still firmly in its hand; its new ethic was not domestic pampering but fairness for the ranks. Who can argue with that? Its ideological tool was state ownership of heavy industry-nationalisation. But it was over land that some members of Attlee’s administration really did see red. Property was theft. Land meant the old order. The election that removed the much-loved Churchill never cost him his cigars, but effectively it cost his class-the landed class-the privilege of centuries. So it was…