Bleak House

2
323

Kenneth Roy

The day before the Budget, we received a job application from one of the hundreds of people being made redundant at the Johnnie Walker plant here in Kilmarnock. The closure of the Diageo plant is no longer national news; this is a slow lingering death, lacking in spectacle, but its effect on the area is no less profound for the phased nature of the company’s withdrawal….

Kenneth Roy

The day before the Budget, we received a job application from one of the hundreds of people being made redundant at the Johnnie Walker plant here in Kilmarnock. The closure of the Diageo plant is no longer national news; this is a slow lingering death, lacking in spectacle, but its effect on the area is no less profound for the phased nature of the company’s withdrawal. By the end of the year, the last major private employer in the district will finally have gone. Leaving what? It’s a good question.
     Two and a half years ago, the charity I help to run might have considered hiring one of the ex-Diageo people. I’m looking at the letter of application. A person of devotion and loyalty, computer-literate, obviously conscientious, with some editorial skills – yes, two and a half years ago, with confidence high and business booming, we might have thought of employing such a person. It would be a brave employer who would consider doing so now. After yesterday, I am not feeling brave.
     What will happen to this person? I expect she will end up on George Osborne’s dole queue, perhaps as one of the long-term unemployed so cruelly stereotyped by the right-wing press this morning as ‘the welfare scroungers about to get a good licking’. Of course, in the new Britain which has just been revealed to us, there is no guarantee that the journalists who write this sort of vile stuff will not themselves end up on George Osborne’s dole queue, finding out what it means to get a good licking. I am tempted to hope so.

The most depressing thing about yesterday’s hatchet job was the dire lack of any ideas for stimulating employment. A shaving of corporation tax, a small gesture on employers’ nic – if Mr Osborne and his Liberal Democratic friends seriously believe that such tokenism will do anything to irrigate the wasteland of post-industrial Britain, they ought to come to Kilmarnock and witness the reality of the situation.
     At the heart of much of today’s media reaction – or the populist, saving Britain bilge which passes for it – there is a simplistic illusion that cutting Whitehall spending by 25% over the next four years will reduce the bloated public sector of popular imagination, roll back the boundaries of the state, and produce a leaner, fitter economy. But the public sector is not an island unto itself. The effect of Mr Osborne’s drastic measures will be keenly and widely felt in the private sector too, by the thousands of companies dependent to some degree, or completely, on government work. When the contracts start drying up, there will be more than civil servants forming an orderly line outside the job centre. There will be a remarkable cross-section.
     Oh for a vision. I hate to use a bad word in civilised company, but Mrs Thatcher – there, I’ve done it. When the milk snatcher came to power, and I was running a small business – I seem to have been running small businesses for ever – the new prime minister made very sure that people like me were written to, communicated with, encouraged, cajoled. Every few months a new entreaty would arrive, some fresh incentive to hire staff. It was not unknown to receive phone calls from government sales people, pleading with me to take someone on and outlining the latest attractive terms. For a while there was a fine scheme for unemployed graduates administered by a long-defunct government agency known as the Manpower Services Commission. I remember it as always extremely proactive in its support for small employers. Anxious not to get on the wrong side of Mrs Thatcher, I did take on two of the unemployed graduates. One is still here.
     I continue to get letters from the UK government. They are less frequent and more demanding. They tend to want taxes of various kinds. In the last eight years, since we moved to these offices in the stricken town of Kilmarnock, I will tell you how many letters and phone calls I have received telling me of this employment incentive or another. The answer is none. There are two possible explanations. Either I am out of favour and the government no longer wishes to involve me in its exciting schemes for generating jobs. Or there are no schemes worth promoting anyway. I tend to favour the latter theory.
     Oh for a vision. Where is Mr Osborne’s vision? He has none. It is a simple thing to wield an axe. Ideas are more elusive than axes. For example, they do not grow on trees, always assuming that the trees aren’t being chopped down like everything else.

Diageo goes. Leaving what?, I asked at the start of this piece. Leaving, as it happens, East Ayrshire Council, a good and forward-looking local authority, as the only significant employer in Kilmarnock. Sometimes, then, it is not the bloated public sector of popular imagination. Sometimes, it’s the only show in town. Sometimes, lacking political vision, we have to be grateful for it.
     I wonder, I really do wonder, how Scotland will respond to the events of yesterday. The next major test of political opinion, barring the unexpected collapse of the UK coalition and an autumn general election, will be the Scottish parliamentary election next May. By then, no doubt, Mr Osborne’s dole queue will have lengthened and we will have endured a winter of industrial discontent. What will the Scots do? They may, with their familiar caution, return to the ample bosom of the Labour Party. Or, suffocating in the bleak house of austerity Britain, they may take a deep breath and attempt a moonlight flit to independence. It begins to feel like a fairly reasonable medium-term bet.
     Meanwhile, I have a letter to write. Expressing the usual regrets, I will wish her well in her job search.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.