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The British Leyland Concerto

Stuart Whipps' exhibition about the 1970s British car industry reconstructs the trappings of post-war working class life, and offers ideas of how to go beyond it.

The Mini was a perfect object of British post-war consumerism. Small but not cramped, unfussy but not dull, cheap but not trashy, it fitted perfectly the self-image of a working and lower-middle class that had emerged out of austerity into a period of increasing real wages and welfare state protections. Slightly more stolid and bulbous than European counterparts like the Citröen 2CV and Fiat 500, it signified a combination of modernity and deep ordinariness. When the car became a ‘Swinging London’ cliché, driven by aristocrats, models and kitchen-sink film stars, it was only fulfilling its role exemplifying the ambivalent glory of the Wilson years.

After the merger that formed British Leyland in January 1968, most British Minis were built at the former Austin plant in Longbridge, south of Birmingham. Dominating the local area, the factory and Leyland were the target of endless jokes in the right-wing press. Despite boasting best-selling product lines, the firm struggled to make a profit. Management was slow-moving and aimless and the company went bankrupt in 1975 before being nationalised. Their two major works, at Longbridge and Cowley, east of Oxford, were thoroughly unionised and militant. The Longbridge senior steward, Derek Robinson, had been a CPGB member since 1951 and the series of strikes and slowdowns over management practices under his watch in the 1970s severely affected throughput at the plant. They also gave Leyland workers enormous power: their wages effectively set going rates for skilled work in Birmingham. 

Robinson became the archetypal trade union villain of the Murdoch and Northcliffe tabloids: ‘Red Robbo’, autodidactic and uninterested in bourgeois virtues, immoderate and spiteful, a Svengali controlling workers who just wanted the meagre spoils of compromise. His sacking in 1979, amidst a conflict over plans to restructure the company and close a number of factories, was a turning-point in the New Right’s ideological assault on the post-war settlement. When an episode of Fawlty Towers broadcast the same year included an outburst from Basil about striking auto workers – “The taxpayers pay them millions each year so they can go on strike. It’s called socialism” – it was Longbridge he was referring to. If the post-financial crisis revival of welfare state aesthetics views the post-war period as a seamless commodity to be flogged off, then Longbridge forms the unsightly blemish on its surface: the reminder of the dull, everyday social antagonisms of a class compromise.

That scene, in which John Cleese takes a kipper breakfast in to a dead guest, provides the title of Stuart Whipps’ long-running installation project The Kipper and the Corpse. The work started in 2014 when Whipps bought a decrepit 1979 Mini with the aim of restoring it. When it was shown in earlier iterations, the chassis was still bare and rusted in places. In the latest version, which opened for five days at Ikon in Birmingham in September, the Mini was fully refurbished, painted a slightly queasy rust brown. On either side sat tables of archive material about the Longbridge factory and Whipps’ photographs taken after the plant’s closure in 2005. The project forces questions not only about what precisely was lost in Thatcherism’s victory, but what the uses, for workers and artists in the present, are of the memory of the pre-neoliberal world. 

That nostalgia has unfolded in a number of forms. The pointedly vague yearning, concentrated among the professional middle class, for the aesthetics of a paternalistic and bureaucratic “public modernism”, found in inter- and post-war institutions like the BBC, London Transport and the early NHS. There’s the continual retrospective gaze of the left on the institutions of the welfare state proper, and the effects of Keynesian policies on low post-war unemployment rates and high real wages in industrial centres. But this in turn has had a number of differing emphases, from the racist euphemism of working-class “community” in Blue Labour to encomia (some committed and rigorous, others glib cash-ins) to council housing and brutalist architecture. To one side of this is the lineage that Mark Fisher described as “popular modernism”, which he found both in the more rebarbative side of state-funded post-war culture and in post-punk. 

More commonplace and difficult still is the industry devoted to the everyday material culture and built environment of the period, visible from revival of Sainsburys’ ‘classic’ own-label designs to classic car expos. Whipps slyly describes the exhibition as an “exposition” – early versions of the project took place at expos for Mini owners and restorers, and the Ikon show encourages visitors to marvel at how solid and immaculate the Mini now is. An admiration for the commodities of the post-war consensus, in the context of a contemporary design culture characterised by mixtures of zany eclecticism, fake organicism and authentocratic solidity, declares itself the least ideological of reactions. By placing the historical commodity at the centre of the show, not only does this commercialised relation to the past reveal itself that object to be deeply political.

The retrospective turn in British culture has been redoubled by a long historical defeat that fractions of the Labour Party are only just starting to contest on a large scale. Any number of left-leaning pop-history books and contemporary art projects claim to ‘excavate’ forgotten parts of the record, while numbing a historical sense already oversated by the flood of the recent past. A productive relationship to the pre-Thatcherite past would involve not only an admission of this glut, but a recognition  of its gaps and contradictions, its moments of cryptic ambiguity. If the British left mourns for the post-war period’s sense of security (a council house for every family and a Mini in every garage), then where does the dark trajectory of Longbridge belong? Whipps’ project and its limits prompt difficult answers.

The recent rash of archival and scholarly work that addresses the period between the end of World War II and 1979 has tended to a narrow band of moods and stances. At one end, the neo-Bevanite sentimentalism of Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ‘45 (2013) or Paul Kelly’s How We Used To Live (2014). At the other end, in phenomena like the This Brutal House blog and the coffee-table book Modernist Estates (2013) – a curatorial admiration, what we might call “Instagram modernism”. While the former turns to elegy, a ponderous redemption of a lost past, the latter takes the post-war world as merely the choicest of available consumer styles. Whipps’ tone at Ikon and in previous archival projects – which includes works on the brutalist architect John Madin and the design of the Thamesmead Estate – strays outside this range, combining a deadpan documentary quality with comic bitterness.

The photographs on the tables, of dusty interiors and isolated tools, read like parodies of Instagram modernism: the vertically integrated corporation with its mahogany-panelled boardroom and changing-room with blue metal lockers contains a potential for strange aesthetic form, as hooks and engine components resemble sculptures by Brâncuşi or David Smith. Meanwhile the Mini itself – surprisingly compact, with fresh tires and shiny mirrors – beams out from ads promising a “Cheap Thrill”. In one sense, it functions as a kind of embodied memory, linked to a whole lifeworld that preceded the imposition of neoliberalism in Britain: jobs for life, a single factory you worked in everyday, free healthcare, increased purchasing power. Mark Fisher, in the writing that coalesced into Capitalist Realism, emphasised that part of the neoliberal programme was the destruction of every security that world possessed, to make the limited gains of the working-class discredited and unthinkable. 

But at first glance here, past and present commingle with the easy self-possession and integrity of products on a shelf. Under the photographs, spreads from The Sun and Express in 1979 provide the poisonous context. Ads for holidays, spirits and cars sit alongside hit pieces on ‘Red Robbo’ and speculations about the sex lives of forgotten newscasters. A Sun cartoon from the period shows Leyland workers reading in bed in the factory, one asking “‘Ere! How did that car get on the assembly line?”, as others clock in behind them, dressed in antique nightshirts. John Berger remarks that the characteristic affect of advertising, envy for the glamour of commodities, is the core feeling of a “society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way”. That comes vividly off the pages: capital animates both an always-deferred promise of a better life through consumption and resentment towards   working class social and economic power, personified in the shop steward.

This juxtaposition of modernism and the most vulgar class warfare moves in two directions. By estranging everyday tools into modernist forms, Whipps not only laughs at the fetishisation of post-war design but hints at its contradictory class politics. The rarefied aesthetic object turns out to be something an engineer wouldn’t look twice at. In the version of the show presented at Norwich in 2016, engine components sat on newspaper spreads under a re-upholstered seat from the Mini – flat, alien discs that open onto cartoon views of idle factories and bleak high-rises. 

Disinterring modernism’s machine aesthetic from the shell of the Mini, Whipps hints that the utopian kernels of post-war modernism never existed in pristine form, but were joined to the chaotic planning and raw mundanity of Longbridge – the workers’ suburbs of nearby Rubery and Barnt Green were probably more typical of British industrial experience than inner cities. They were coupled to the production of mediocrity – Basil Fawlty, the enraged petit-bourgeois, thrashing the Mini’s outer shell, is the loveliest example of this – just as totally as they were to the enormous extraction of carbon and cheap energy. The opposition that theorist Marshall Berman described, by which industrial modernisation and its gains repeatedly annihilated every settled and known lifeworld was never precisely true. Industrial capitalism also produced a new ordinariness and boredom, and the recovery of its utopias need more than just the wishful thinking of those who would relabel the Barbican Estate or Chamberlain Gardens as the land of milk and honey.

Whipps’ method hints at another issue. The categories of dignity, skill and ‘honest’ work defined the mainstream of the post-war labour movement and have largely set the terms of Corbynism’s labour policy. This is particularly true of the “green industrial revolution” recently promised by Corbyn, John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey. Much-needed work on infrastructure and renewable energy technology is supposed to be everything that work in the call centres and Amazon warehouses of ex-factory towns isn’t: decently-paid, secure, specific, meaningful. (Anyone who’s worked customer service jobs can tell you they require very definite skills, but ones whose exercise feels like the opposite of accomplishment.) 

In the light of memory such notions of honesty and skill appear not as the object of nostalgic longing, ready to be reanimated, but as partial and ideological categories. Quotes from interviews with Leyland workers included in the show at Ikon drive home that for all its benefits, the job was hellish. On the assembly line they were bored by repetitive work and static schedules. Different teams “hated each others’ guts”. Unlike the firms that composed it, Leyland was never a paternalistic company: the workers only got as much as they did through the unrelenting pressure of shop stewards. (Mimeographed minutes of bargaining meetings emphasise how much wrangling and menace even small improvements in conditions required.) 

This struggle of ‘workers against work’ was a focus of Mark Fisher’s late writings, in which he suggested that neoliberalism had gained the upper hand by capturing these desires for freedom, which the mainstream of the major unions couldn’t countenance. The demand for flexibility and creativity comes down to us in the parodic form of zero hours contracts. ‘Red Robbo’ was an ambiguous figure here. Beloved by Longbridge workers, he was more radical than the union bosses, advocating for workers’ “participation” in running the plant, on the basis that they, not the clipboard-wielders at Leyland, were the ones with the skills needed to build the cars. But his support for “participation” was aimed at making Leyland a more viable company rather than seizing control from management. 

Two videos in Whipps’ show point to the contradictions of “skilled work”. In one, Basil Fawlty says of Leyland workers: “If they don’t like making cars, why don’t they get themselves another bloody job, designing cathedrals or composing violin concertos? The British Leyland concerto – in four movements, all of them slow, with a four-hour tea break in between.” Why indeed? Skill is precisely not “transferable”, as the Jobcentre lingo has it. 20th century proletarian life was defined by that opposition, in which the “skilled” union-protected jobs that permitted survival prevented other kinds of skill from forming. 

In the second video, to the right as you enter the second gallery at Ikon, Keith Woodfield, a former Leyland engineer, is shown stripping and rebuilding the Mini’s engine and gearbox, shot in static profile. Whipps originally conceived the project as one of throwing himself into something he had no idea how to do, gaining expertise from Woodfield and other Leyland employees. This could be thought of as a form of “reskilling” to counterpoint the “deskilling” that art critic John Roberts has identified in the analogical growth of conceptual art and deindustrialisation since the 1970s. But the portrait of Woodfield’s labours is much more ambivalent. The world of commodities could only take the form it does because of a workforce’s skills. But skill, even as it distributed splinters of agency among the organised working-class, could only flow from the determination of a world where production is organised in the form of commodities. And the line between skilled and unskilled work, so rigorously enforced by the old union bureaucracies, has shown itself to be mostly arbitrary when entire sectors and their traditions of work can be junked overnight. 

The movements of Woodfield’s hands have the deep grace of a familiarity so total that only the smallest and most committed of gestures is necessary. They have something of the beauty of hieroglyphs, but they aren’t meaningless. Rather, their meanings persist at a distance from them, only thinkable in the circuit between car culture, labour struggles, laughable utopias and historical dereliction Whipps establishes. They seem, at moments, to be conducting their own, very minimal, symphony. That they aren’t – that instead all that their exercise of skill produces is an obsolete commodity – is something Whipps’ installation emphasises. They move, on loop, possessed of an ordinary dignity detached from a deindustrialised present. The only future that could embody the dream those hands hold would be one that moves through the struggles of labour to a truly productive stillness – what Walter Benjamin called “dialectics at a standstill”, the arrest that is the temporality of revolution. To redeem the class suffering that the post-war world looked briefly able to assuage would require the making of a lifeworld where its categories – commodities, cars, ‘skill’ – no longer mattered. To invert the old phrase of Marx: the realisation of the pre-1979 world could happen only through its abolition.