Soon a For Sale board will appear outside the 1930’s house where I grew up in Coventry. It’s difficult to know how to value a home. To my father, who died last year, the house was his legacy to my sister and I. Sitting in the back room after tea once a week, we would watch as he opened a little red tin and divided his weekly pay-packet from the tractor factory where he worked in to different compartments: building society, bills, food, clothes, holiday. Occasionally, when he was on strike, the little tin lay empty but it triumphed in the end: he clocked in and out of the factory and the bills were paid. The house is now ours. Almost.
Leave its bay-window behind, walk for fifteen minutes and you confront the architectural scars of the City Centre - what remains of a great medieval metropolis shattered when two-thirds of its buildings disappeared in the blitz, stitched bluntly back together with 1950’s modernist bravado. It’s difficult to know how to value a city. This blend of old and new was once thrilling to those who flooded in to work in the booming factories. After the horrors of two world wars, it represented a dignified post-war settlement. “The principle of Liberalism is trust in the people, qualified by prudence, “, the great Liberal Prime-Minister Gladstone offered in 1885. In Coventry, the decent liberal values of hard-work and egalitarianism finally rose, phoenix-like, from the indecent ashes of war. Almost.
While my Dad was counting his pennies, I’d either be doing my homework or day-dreaming. It’s difficult to know how to value a culture. I read the Daily Mirror. I read the New Statesman. I read poetry. I knew from family history the tyranny of the English oppression of the Irish, the English oppression of its own working-class. “Get yourself an education, then you can go and clean toilets”, was the puzzling mantra from my Irish maternal line. My Mum was, indeed, a cleaner. Her money added a few nicer touches to the house. My Dad was wary about all this aspiration. Working wasn’t about gaining materially, it was about buying a life safe from both the authorities and the vagaries of market forces. He sensed it could all disappear so easily. Yet I believed in an inevitable political and social progress. We had peace and democracy. My sister and I would be the first in our family to study at university. Children, fulfilling work, sexual freedom, economic independence. I had it all, as would my daughters. Almost.
As the For Sale board goes up, I have to wonder. What do we own in the end, those of us whose parents were allowed the promise of a better life while it was convenient to offer it to them? Those whose grandparents were shovelled in to a mass grave when Coventry was bombed? This city is worth little now that its industry has gone and the semi-detached houses even less. My progress allowed me a place as a senior editor at The Sunday Times for many years but now I am redundant, I know how fragile that was. I was not entitled.
For Sale boards dot our collective consciousness: we, who thought we owned the benefits of houses, hospitals, schools and universities, are invited to sell up before things get even worse but someone else is benefitting from what we are giving away. My place in the world appeared to come from the top-down: governments embracing liberal values ensured the likes of us were given the security of the welfare state, pensions and work. In fact, it came from the bottom-up: men and women fighting for generations for the right to a decent wage and the vote.
Liberalism has to be more than a luxury bestowed with largesse. It is freedom from debt and bondage. It is guaranteed by the people, not the market or the state. In our little semi, it tasted sweet. Now my children must buy debt simply to be educated. Is some kind of bondage to a floundering economic next? Their legacy, should they choose it, is the knowledge that neither austerity nor progress are inevitable and that everything must be fought for. As early as 1839, the workers who published The Chartist Circular in Glasgow stated this: “For a nation to love liberty, it is sufficient that she knows it; and to be free, it is sufficient that she wills it. “
Let’s pause for a moment and relish those thoughts, before we sell anything else.
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