Whenever I see an exhibition or documentary about the Roman Empire, a question springs to mind: when it was over, did the people of Rome know it? After all, “the end” in their case didn’t mean the sun didn’t stop rising and setting, nor did it imply the spring would not arrive after winter, indeed, the city of Rome carried on. Yes, the Senate and the Emperor were gone, but perhaps to many Romans this seemed like a temporary inconvenience, a rest stop on an otherwise long, paved highway of history. One wonders when it finally sank in that it was all over; was it when a Barbarian King was crowned? Or was it when the last soldier of Justinian slouched off? When did the Romans realise that the glory days were gone for good, and what did they do?
Perhaps they never accepted that the days of the empire were over; after all, one of Mussolini’s party pieces was to say he was going to revive the “glory of Rome”. If the desire is not completely dead, we can take comfort from the fact that this instinct has obviously evolved into the harmless outlet of a desire to dominate world soccer.
The psychology of endings remains fascinating, however. What do people do when they realise their time has passed, their situation is untenable, and that the world is moving on, more or less happily without them?
The latest case study comes from Glasgow East; this is a place that is largely consumed with endings. It is post-industrial, so it has more than passing acquaintance with economic demise. It is also plagued with unemployment, drugs and low standards of living. The survivors of all sorts of conclusions have landed in that particular place, clinging on to a shoal of existence while the riptides of globalisation, neglect and incompetence continue in their attempts to wash them away.
It is perhaps ironic that the Labour Party may have met its end in such a place; theoretically, it is a political movement devoted to those least well off, intended to protect precisely the constituency that Glasgow East represents. The voters, however, reached out above the rushing waters that subsume them, and pulled the Labour Party down into the deep. The Scottish National Party has a newly minted MP, and today’s photos of Gordon Brown indicate he’s looking particularly grey and grim.
I should mention that I don’t have a particular personal interest in this by-election; the Scottish Green candidate only got 232 votes and lost her deposit. I am not surprised. This is a constituency where Labour votes aren’t counted, they’re weighed, and thus the focus was always going to be on Labour and the SNP, their closest opponent. Furthermore, let’s be honest, Green parties in general tend to have a disproportionate number of Phds and MDs in their membership; as if to prove the point, the Green candidate in Glasgow East was Dr. Eileen Duke. The obvious gap in education may have created an automatic divide between the candidate and this constituency’s electorate.
So it is with some distance that I speak of “the end”. The end of Gordon Brown’s career? Yes, certainly. If he has any normal psychological impulses, he must be looking in the rear view mirror of his career rather than looking forward. Had he called an election shortly after his selection as Labour leader, it is likely he would have won, and his position would be far more secure. He may recollect how long he coveted the role of Prime Minister, how long he argued for it, how long he waited. Upon achieving his desire, however, he was left in the unenviable position of a child on Christmas morning who discovers anticipation of a gift was far more satisfying than receiving it.
Perhaps this is also the end of the Labour Party. Few are saying this; at best, we hear whispers of an electoral wipeout on the scale of the Tories’ demolition in 1997, a disaster which David Cameron has proven is redeemable. However, there is a whiff of decay, a hint of rot at the core of the Labour movement, which proceeds from the question, “Whom does Labour represent?”
The original Labour party was created to serve the interests of working people, in particular those who toiled in coal mines and factories for low wages. Their goal was to create a more equitable society in which these individuals received a greater share of the wealth that was generated by their efforts. In an era that not only is becoming post-industrial, but must become even more post-industrial for the sake of the environment, this seems like an anachronism.
To be sure, Labour has tried to adapt. Tony Blair watered down enough of their message to make Labour palatable to the “aspiring classes”, and not to spook those who had “made it”. However, the need to maintain this centrist position meant that Labour stood for nothing much, except a bit more spending, and a different management style. As our present difficulties suggest, this strategy has failed. Ideas do matter; the post-ideological approach of the Labour Party has left it politically bankrupt and bereft.
it is also bankrupt in a literal sense: as the BBC explained last night, in 2004, Â£4 out of every Â£10 that Labour received in donations was from the unions. This proportion has more than doubled. The unions may have sufficient leverage to bend Labour to their will; this is not always a good thing, particularly when it comes to forseeable tensions between the desire for economic expansion and the needs of the environment. Furthermore, a thoroughly union controlled Labour Party is an easy target for the revitalised Conservatives, who can frighten the wider public into thinking that the 1970’s have returned with a vengeance.
There is no public indication that Labour understands their present plight. BBC News this morning has brought forth a shabby procession of minor ministers stating that it was the fault of the faltering global economy, and high oil prices: i.e., it’s to do with factors for which they cannot be blamed. No doubt, Gordon Brown will trot out the tired line that he is continuing to make the “right long term decisions for the good of the country”. The optimists, like Roy Hattersley, probably will continue to state that the situation is retrievable. The Romans likely felt the same way when Romulus Augustulus was ushered out of the imperial palace by the Barbarian chieftain Odoacer for the last time. After all, the sun still rises and sets, the trees grow leaves in the spring, the world still turns, and the circular nature of life means that surely their time will come again. Perhaps?