Chris Harman


Prescott’s broken voice

(11 December 1999)

In my view, Socialist Worker, No.1676, 11 December 1999.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

RIGHT WING commentators love nothing so much as to pour derision on John Prescott’s inability to speak in coherent sentences. The snob Tory historian David Starkey summed up their attitude on Question Time last week. Prescott, he claimed, showed what horrors followed if any working class person was allowed to escape from the fate decreed for them in the old selective school system. Starkey destroyed his own argument by sinking into incoherence in the face of a hostile audience reaction. But he had already showed that for an alleged historian he has a very short memory.

Ten years ago no one would have accused John Prescott of incoherence. He was the shadow minister Neil Kinnock wanted to sack, but could not. Why? Because day after day he tore apart public school and Oxbridge educated Tory ministers over transport issues. He savaged them after the King’s Cross fire, the Clapham rail disaster, the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

A quarter of a century before that he had written a pamphlet, Not Wanted on Voyage. It was a clear and devastating defence of the 1966 seafarers’ strike against the employers and the then Labour government of Harold Wilson. No one could have accused it of being incoherent. Prescott was at that stage a living example of how people treated as rubbish by the education system could develop their own capacities through collective struggle. In his case, this involved participation as a ship’s steward in an unofficial and illegal strike.

You can in fact date precisely when the decay into incoherence set in. It was in September 1993. The Labour leadership was desperate to convince the Labour Party conference to agree to weaken the influence of local union branches over the choice of election candidates. Clear and well reasoned argument was not going to convince the ordinary union delegates to increase the influence of the cliques of managers and spin doctors.

Fudge and bluster in a northern accent was needed to conceal what was really happening. Prescott provided it. He’s gone on providing it ever since. His role has been to persuade working class Labour supporters that the government is taking account of their concerns.

There are no coherent arguments for giving control of the tube to the big business interests you blamed for the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, for encouraging the contracting-out you blamed the Clapham crash on, or for privatising air traffic control after denouncing it in opposition. Nor is there any coherent argument for pledging to take action over the greenhouse effect and then agreeing with motor industry bosses to provide road space for 30 percent more cars.

The inability of “Two Jags” to speak straight sentences does not come from his once being working class. It’s caused by trying to face two ways at once. As such it is in the same league as the incoherence of well-educated lawyer Robin Cook’s talk of an “ethical foreign policy”.

One other figure has provoked the wrath of David Starkey and his ilk in the past week. They are horrified that Martin McGuinness has become Northern Ireland minister of education. Not only was he once in the IRA but, damn it, he failed his 11-plus too. Yet no one could accuse Martin of incoherence – yet. The problem with him being minister of education in Belfast is not his background. It is that he is in a government half of whose members are unashamed Tories of the Unionist variety. And many of the other half have an almost Blairite enthusiasm for “enterprise”. Let’s hope Martin does not start doing a Prescott act of his own.

Last updated on 9 December 2009