When I was eighteen or so I was an apprentice, training to become a telephone engineer in what was then the GPO later to become British Telecom. Yes, I worked for a nationalised industry, one of the biggest in the UK at the time employing some quarter of a million people.
On my first day I cycled to a specified depot to begin my first chunk of work experience with an overhead gang, whatever that was. I arrived dead on the dot of 7.30 as instructed, but was surprised to find no one else there. Gradually people began to trickle in and I was allocated to a particular gang. This gang’s main task was to erect telephone poles and string wires between them, but, as five of us set off in the big lorry, we headed instead to a particular cafe where puzzlingly we had breakfast. I had already eaten mine at home; I had a lot to learn.
The gang had a foreman whose main task, it seemed to me, was to ensure that we were always at least three miles away from the depot at lunch time. Why? Because then we could claim subsistence money! Tea breaks and lunch breaks were strictly adhered to. The gang members read their newspapers and I read the New Musical Express and the Melody Maker (I’m not sure why). There was little discussion and politics was rarely mentioned.
I experienced the various activities of the telephone company and, along the way, became a convinced public servant. We had an important role: the dependable working of the telephone system was vital to the country as a whole and we were the people who made it all work – no one else was allowed to do so. The fact that some engineers did ‘moonlighting’ using the skills taught them by the GPO and sometimes using the materials supplied by the GPO puzzled me. Why would they do that?
I progressed, even went to university to obtain a Master of Science degree and there became an ardent socialist, anti-apartheid protestor and so on. What did I know? I knew that apartheid was evil and still believe it to be so – though I did not understand the complexities of the issue at that time. I knew socialism was the answer and refused to let my zeal be dampened by regular news of its cruel imposition in the Soviet Union and China. That, I thought was not really socialism, those countries forced a certain belief system onto its people, my sort of socialism – for some reason that I never did figure out - would not do that.
What did I really know? Not a lot really. The sociology students really knew about politics and their answer was of course: socialism. Now, looking back, I wonder what any of us did know at that early age. At least I had experienced work and workers at work, though for all of that I still became an idealist. I knew that the council estates of Britain were not ripe for revolution, though many on the left at my university believed they were. The Angry Brigade was active there and they were all for taking up arms and leading the workers against the establishment. But, even then, I knew that people just wanted to get on with their lives, I just would not admit it. My idealistic fuel began to peter out in my early thirties as I too learned to get on with my life rather than attempting to alter that of others.
I hated Thatcher of course. Hated her for denationalising us and then taking away our monopoly. We public servants were doing our best, it was not our fault that it could take up to a year to supply a new telephone line, that’s just how it was. And what would happen to our beloved telephone system once the Johnny-cum-latelys started undercutting us? And what would happen to our jobs?
Actually, in the end, I lost mine. Cut off from the mothership at last by that so feared event –redundancy - I set up on my own and did quite well. This was the last stage in developing my political maturity, I then knew what it was like to be entirely dependent on my own efforts for the income to feed, clothe and bring up a maturing family. It was scary, but also exhilarating and educational. I had no holiday pay, sick leave, union representation, or personnel department – and I was acutely aware of the money being taken off me in personal and corporation tax, and not too keen on Gordon Brown giving my money to babies.
Perhaps young people of today are better educated and more politically aware than we were at their age, though that is not my experience. They are as prone as ever to idealism: many want an ideal to follow and are not too fussy about the creed or personalities that lead them. It is often argued that the young should be given a stronger voice in the big decisions that we face today because it is their future. That is a facile argument. Maturity does bring wisdom to most people, and experiencing the hard knocks of life does not make older people selfish: they are as concerned about the world that their off-spring will inhabit as they are about their own declining years.
In my own constituency of Oxford there are something like 45,000 students, such a body of young people can materially and unreasonably affect the political leaning and character of our representatives in parliament, yet they themselves will not be in Oxford to experience that. They will be getting on with their lives elsewhere, and hopefully gaining the experience to understand that money does not grow on trees, that it has to come from somewhere. And perhaps also to appreciate the crude reality of the alternative lyrics to the socialist anthem, the Red Flag.
The working class can kiss my arse,
I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.