Joyce McMillan: Sting musical shows peril of Brexit

The Last Ship - Edinburgh Festival Theatre
The Last Ship - Edinburgh Festival Theatre
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On stage at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, a company of 18 actors playing English working-class people gather to belt out their final number, a reprise of a mighty anthem called When The Last Ship Sails.

They gaze straight into the audience, as if inviting us to rush on stage and join them in their struggle; their voices are the voices of Tyneside, not so many miles south of Edinburgh, and as the show dazzles to its dream-like conclusion, with giant images of a great ship called Utopia thundering down the slipway to the sea, the young narrator rolls out a litany of resistance to “the world as it is”, ranging from Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in the 1970s, to Parkland, Florida, this year.

The show, of course, is Sting’s 2014 musical The Last Ship, now given a complete new script and production by Lorne Campbell, the young Scottish artistic director of Newcastle’s Northern Stage. The story is based on Sting’s own experience of growing up in a shipbuilding community on the Tyne; and it’s set in the pivotal decade of the 1980s, when Britain’s shipbuilding industry was all but wiped out by the fierce free-market ideology of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

The shipyard at the centre of the story is about to close, in a flurry of cruelly dismissive language - “dispensable”, “not viable” - from the government; but the people, led by a respected foreman played with passion by Joe McGann, sense something profoundly wrong with a world-view that dismisses them, their community and their skills as somehow completely worthless. So they fight, occupying the yard, completing the ship; and although any student of history knows that they lost in the end, the show’s ending transforms their struggle into a great symbol of resistance, nonetheless.

It’s not unusual for British film and fiction to revisit the Eighties, of course; it was a dramatic decade. Yet there was something about the physical presence of this living army of Tyneside actors on stage in Edinburgh - and the ecstatic, visionary quality of the final scene - that made me think hard, for a moment, about the alternative British future that was lost during that decade; the one where the ties that united working-class people across these islands were not crushed and pushed to the margins of politics, where trade unions remained a power in the land, and where the Labour party continued to represent the interests of ordinary workers, rather than ditching them to flirt with the bankers who brought us the 2008 crash.

I was thinking, in other words, of a Britain of 2018 that might have looked more like a sensible Nordic social democracy; and less like a deluded and bitterly divided ex-imperial power about to shoot itself in both feet by leaving the European Union, and preparing to sell off the last of its family silver - including the NHS - in a desperate quest for new trade deals with the big beasts of global commerce.

For the truth is that the constitutional impasse in which we now find ourselves - with Westminster MPs held hostage by the EU referendum result, and almost half of Scots ready to give up on the Union altogether - can all be traced back to that crucial decade, when the complex institutions and ideals of solidarity that bound postwar Britain together began to be talked down, sneered at, and gradually dismantled by an increasingly “radicalised” Conservative Party, never sufficiently opposed by New Labour.

Those who were not interested in such rabid cash-driven individualism, and wanted a politics better balanced between the individual and the collective, eventually began to have no option but to look to other levels of government - notably to the increasingly popular idea of Scottish devolution - to fulfil those social-democratic aspirations. And it is because they fail to grasp this profound element of traditional left-right politics in Scotland’s gradual move towards greater self-government, that many outside observers of the last 30 years of Scottish politics so often completely misread them.

In the effort to escape from extreme neoliberal economics, Scots turned first to the parties of devolution, and then, when New Labour moved too far to the right, to the SNP, which Alex Salmond had decisively placed on the centre left. And today, with a bizarre group of wealthy Brexit extremists exerting what seems an undue influence on Theresa May’s precarious UK government, even some on the centre-right are beginning to ponder whether Scotland should not go it alone, rather than be dragged down by this latest and most extreme right-wing scam, for which, once again, we did not vote.

So let it be said, loud and clear, that Scotland stands where it does this week - with two-thirds of its Westminster MPs marching from the Commons chamber in protest at the UK government’s approach to the Scottish dimension of Brexit - not because of some outbreak of blue face-painting or irrational patriotic sentiment (indeed, surveys have shown that Scotland’s sense of “Scottishness” has been in slight decline during this period), but simply because, over the years, the UK has become too right-wing to sustain the institutions and policies that held it together.

Scottish voters, in a large majority, do not want Brexit, do not want huge income inequalities, would prefer to see public services like the NHS in public hands, and do not want an ideology that values people only for what they own and what they earn, and not at all for what they do or create, and how they care for those more vulnerable than themselves. They share those values with millions of voters in England whose voices seem barely to have been heard, these last 30 years. And The Last Ship in Edinburgh (and in Glasgow next week) comes as a sharp, living reminder that the future of the UK may finally depend on whether that voice of solidarity and common sense can once again make itself fully heard in English politics; or is to remain marginalised and outvoted for ever, while the Brexiteers do their worst, and Scotland finally decides to sling its hook, and set a course of its own.