In March 2015, Conrad Clitheroe of Woodley, Stockport, was arrested and jailed in Dubai on charges of espionage. He was a plane spotter, spending his holidays with his mates Gary and Neil who shared his hobby of looking for rare aircraft.
As Conrad lived in the constituency of Hazel Grove, at the prosperous south east of Greater Manchester, where I live and am a Labour activist – I was prospective parliamentary candidate in May 2015 – and because a good pal of mine’s band played at his wedding – I did what I could to help get him home.
This story has a happy ending so I will skip to the end – Conrad, 54, was released without charge and into the arms of his distraught wife, Valerie, after eight fraught weeks in jail. But here is the point I want to make. Some of my colleagues looked at me a little strangely. ‘Plane spotters? Really?’
The more I thought about it at the time, it became clear to me there was something so lovably English about Conrad’s hobby. Something of the character of the people that we English have – these hobbyists, these obsessives and thrill seekers that we do not know much about until they get locked up in Dubai. People whose concerns are not particularly political either.
What I have done in a new book – Labour’s Identity Crisis – England and the Politics of Patriotism – is look at where our cultural politics are and where it places us in relation to the people we seek to represent.
As Matt Rudd says in his book The English: A Field Guide, we English are a ‘warm and friendly and funny’ people for all of our eccentricities. Quirky and spirited, but often misunderstood and misrepresented as narrow and atomised.
Earlier, George Orwell said in that most profound and stirring political essay of my teenage political formation, The Lion and the Unicorn, ‘we are,’ he says, ‘a nation of flower lovers … stamp collectors, pigeon fanciers and amateur carpenters.’ But he also tied that love of national habits and characteristics to radical expressions of justice, tolerance and fairness, not of a static preserved heritage, but a growing one. ‘Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it. We must grow greater or grow less.’
Right in the thick of that Englishness is a profound mistrust of another tribe of strange people who spend their leisure time in an unusual and misunderstood way. Collecting data door to door about how the rest of the public intend to vote; writing leaflets, attending meetings and obsessively talking about politics and government.
If you take the time to get to know your community you can learn a lot. Already this year I have spent time talking to allotment holders, music obsessives, choirmasters, canal barge dwellers, professional gamblers and all manner of niche and small business people. You start to get a sense about what it is that really matters to people beyond the basic stuff about whether they will have a job, their kids will be educated and whether the state will look after them when they are ill.
Occasionally, as we found during the election, the innocent pursuit of the collection of aircraft photos in a faraway land requires the support and action of our strange tribe. Knowledge of the routes to power, the confidence to doggedly pursue bureaucracy, and a sense of whose responsibility it is to get an innocent man out of a foreign jail. Or rather, knowing someone who can.
And here is a big challenge. How can we ever gain consent while we are at odds with the things that are important in the lives of the people we seek to represent? That we seem so strange. Because at the most basic level, if we have a culture of the other, then we lose. If we cannot relate to, and communicate with, and empathise, and offer something to enhance what people do to make their lives better, then we will not even get close to being trusted to operate the levers of power.
Michael Taylor is former parliamentary candidate for Hazel Grove and vice-chair of Hazel Grove constituency Labour party. He tweets @MarpleLeaf
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