People are fond of gazing back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. I remember reading somewhere that no one ‘does’ nostalgia like the British. I love the 70s, I Love The 80s and Dominic Sandbrook’s lightweight, but subtly ideological history series The 70s always present the past as the ideal time in which to live. In Sandbrook’s case, the blemishes, lumps and bumps that define eras and epochs are simply burnished or given a right-wing twist. “Thatcher arrived to save the country from the unions” was the unspoken message at the end of Sandbrook’s series, which ignored the fact that management ineptitude and a chronic lack of investment was mostly culpable for Britain’s economic and industrial decline. In the case of the I Love… series, talking heads from showbusiness were interviewed on camera to talk about how wonderful Kickers and Kappa tracksuits were. “I really loved Kickers and you had to wear the key ring that came with them” opined one talking head. Just great. As I sat watching I Love 1980 on BBC2, it struck me how much about that year wasn’t mentioned. It was as if the people forced onto the dole queues by the Thatcher government never existed and the St Paul’s riots in Bristol never happened. This was an age of social and political turmoil. Thatcher was determined to destroy what remained of Britain’s countercultures- the permissive society she called it – and she had no time for those who disagreed with her.
Sure there were some good things about the 1970s but the decade wasn’t entirely good. This is, after all, the decade that saw the end of the post-war consensus. This is the decade that witnessed the rise in extreme right-wing activity on our streets, when people of colour were randomly attacked by neo-Nazis for merely going about their business. The National Front were emboldened by electoral gains they’d made in the local elections. Its splinter, the National Party, won two seats on Blackburn council in 1976. One of the reasons why punk arrived at the moment it did was because there was a need for an antidote to the near endless stream of cultural nostalgia. Everywhere you looked, there was some romanticized reminder of the past, whether it was on The Black and White Minstrel Show or in the pop charts with bands like The Rubettes and Mud rehashing the 1950s with songs like Sugar Baby Love and Tiger Feet respectively. Nostalgia was in Britain’s pop cultural driving seat in a car that had one wheel stuck in the ditch. Britain could not move forward because cultural magnates were too busy gazing longingly into their collective navel.
The toxic sludge of nostalgia that was current in British mainstream culture and political discourse in the 1970s seeped into the thoughts of some of Britain’s prominent rock stars. In June 1976, David Bowie returned to London and gave a press conference to waiting journalists at Victoria Station. Standing in an open top Mercedes, he appeared to give a Nazi salute and was whisked away, flanked by outriders. In a later interview, Bowie told a journalist that
“Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger.”
A couple of months later a drunken Eric Clapton addressed a stunned Birmingham audience with this message:
“[I think] Enoch’s right … we should send them all back. Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”
Roger Daltrey and Rod Stewart were just as vocal as Clapton. For the millions of kids who bought their records and wanted nothing to do with the views they espoused, this was a slap in the face and a kick in the teeth. Clapton, in particular, had made a living by playing the blues, an African-American musical form. Ironically, Clapton had recorded a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff two years earlier. This was a point that was picked up by Red Saunders and Roger Huddle, who responded to Clapton and Bowie’s musings by writing an open letter to Britain’s music press. The letter read:
When we read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, we nearly puked. Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music… P. S. Who shot the Sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!
Rock Against Racism, formed in response to this letter, was the most successful cultural intervention in living memory. It successfully brought together left-wing politics and youth culture, and marginalized the right-wing elements in rock music and beyond. While it is tempting to think of Live Aid and even Red Wedge in similar terms, we must remember that RAR was a rank and file movement that began with a simple letter to the music press. Red Wedge, for example, was founded to attract votes to the Neil Kinnock-led Labour Party. Live Aid, however, can be read in two ways: first, it was a naive project that responded to a news item on the Ethiopian famine, which had been created by the Eritrean separatist war against Ethiopia. This part of the story was ignored. Much of the aid sent to Ethiopia was diverted to warlords. Second, it was a vehicle to revive the fading career of Bob Geldof. Yes, I’m a cynic but take a look at Make Poverty History and tell me how that has succeeded in eradicating poverty. Poverty can only be eradicated by destroying the current capitalist system, not by liberal hand-wringing and buying cucumber sandwiches at premium prices (a fraction of the profit made on these sandwiches goes towards buying a bucket). Make Poverty History temporarily assuaged liberal guilt and nothing more.
Since the global economic crisis of 2007/8 and the installation of a deeply unpopular Tory-led coalition government in this country, a number of political initiatives have been launched to counter the government’s austerity policies. There’s the Occupy movement and UK Uncut to name but two. What has been missing from these political movements is culture. If you have a Left idea, then you need something cultural to go along with it (qv. Roland Muldoon). For most of the political parties, be they mainstream or fringe, the idea of culture often takes second place (if it happens at all) to their respective ideologies and if culture appears within these parties, it is used as a means to have a laugh and unwind after a hard day of selling the party’s papers on the street, but not as means to contribute to real structural change. This kind of culture that speaks only to a small group of people. The Conservative Party has never made any real use of culture because they’re too concerned with the past: their idea of culture is stately homes, old bones, statues of war heroes, and possibly the West End theatre of Cameron-Macintosh. Culture is a living thing that’s been created by ordinary people. It was revealing that, instead of creating a Ministry of Culture, John Major created something called The Department for National Heritage in 1994. He may as well have called it The Department for Mausoleums and Tombstones.
The situation that we currently face is dire and, in some ways, it is similar to what we faced in the 1970s. The need for a cultural intervention in Britain is now greater than ever. The rise of UKIP, the appearance of street groups like the English Defence League and Britain First are a cause for concern. Over the decades, the far-right has modified its language and now wishes to be seen as respectable. Yet the sentiments in Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech are never far from the surface. Powell himself was never subjected to rehabilitation, though his legions of admirers (some of whom weren’t even born when he made the speech) continue to claim that he was “right”. The normalization of racist, sexist and disablist discourses in the media are partly due to the rise of UKIP and are uttered under the rubric of free speech (or I speak and you shut up). The coalition government’s policies blame the economic crisis on – in no particular order – benefits claimants, the disabled, single parents, immigration etc. You name it, they blame it. People like Katie Hopkins, who have no formal qualifications in the subjects on which they pontificate, are granted hours of airtime and are rarely, if ever, challenged on their repugnant views. Bullying and deliberate cruelty have become the new lingua franca of mass entertainment and the government alike. The phrase “political correctness” is used pejoratively to marginalize anyone who defends tolerance and fights for equality. This must be challenged at the cultural level as well as the political level.
We should not let Labour off the hook. When Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, he claimed that he wanted to see the kind of patriotism he saw in the United States. Three years later, he gave a speech that contained the phrase “British jobs for British workers”. These words could easily have come from the mouths of Nigel Farage or Tory MP, Peter Bone. Instead, they came from a Labour Prime Minister, who was desperate to appeal to floating voters whose political sympathies were defaulted to the Right. In doing this, Brown unleashed powerful forces that he could not control. Let’s not forget that during the Wilson-Callaghan years the Labour government failed to deal with the rise of the far-right and hid itself inside its Downing Street bunker, oblivious to what was happening on the outside. Callaghan had already called time on the post-war consensus when he applied for an International Monetary Fund loan in 1976 to deal with the Sterling crisis, which was precipitated by the Heath administration’s massive balance of trade deficit. The conditions of this loan led to massive public sector cuts and helped to pave the way for Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Once she had won, Thatcher then draped herself in the Union Jack and repeated the phrase much beloved of nationalists and bigots everywhere: the country is “swamped with immigrants”. These days the words used are “mass migration”. The old right-wing cliché that the country is “full” has also been resurrected. The NF may have been marginalized as a political force, but their anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric lingers in the speech of UKIP and others.
The leadership of today’s Labour Party is just as bad as their predecessors, because they have failed to learn the lessons of their past. In the aftermath of the local and European elections, Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet kept repeating the line “We got it wrong on immigration”. This plays into the hands of ethno-nationalists and, of course, UKIP, and shows us that the Labour Party’s leadership is too scared to say anything positive about immigrants and immigration for fear of a press backlash. If we go back to the beginning of the current economic crisis, Labour’s political enemies, the Tories and UKIP, couldn’t claim that Labour was “soft on crime”, so they attacked the party on a different front: immigration. Since 2007/8, there has been a steady stream of anti-immigrant stories in the media in which all immigrants are misleadingly referred to as “migrants”. However, many of us living in the United Kingdom are migrants. If you move home within a city or town, you are a migrant. If you move from Stoke-on-Trent to take up a job in Manchester, you are an economic migrant. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey claims that most people are against immigrants and immigration, with a many more people claiming that immigrants come to this country to take advantage of our benefits system. Yet there is no concrete proof that people come here to live on a measly £72.40 a week. Benefits are more generous in other European countries, so why would anyone want to come here just to claim benefits? If you point this out to the average immigrant-hater, they have no argument. What the British Social Attitudes Survey actually tells us is that people are quite prepared to believe the lies and scare stories that come from the press and the self-appointed experts of Migration Watch UK . Perhaps worst of all, the data from this survey could be used to bolster the Right’s claims that immigration is bad for the country and immigrants are taking British people’s jobs. The Tory-led coalition’s ‘reforms’ are killing people and making many more homeless. They are pitting worker against worker and neighbour against neighbour.
Not a week passes by without some minister or other, repeating the phrase “hardworking families” and smearing those who are out of work. Television also plays its part in these attacks with the near-endless stream of poverty porn that oozes from our screens. Benefits Street, On Benefits and Proud and Filthy Rich and Hungry are a few examples of the media’s bandwagon-hopping tendency to demonize and stigmatize benefits claimants. The latter programme was actually shown as part of the BBC’s Sport Relief season. People’s poverty should not be a cheap source of entertainment; a sort of two minutes hate for bullies and self-styled ‘hard workers’.
Like the 70s, there is a great deal of nostalgia present in mainstream political discourse. When the Tories came to power in 2010, Michael Gove wrote of his affection for the Victorian age. The party itself repeated 19th century mantra of ‘self-help’ and resurrected the phrase “deserving and undeserving poor”. Ethno-nationalists gorge themselves stupid on nostalgia. They’re constantly dreaming of a Britain that existed in fairy stories. UKIP, for example, wants a return to the 1950s and grammar schools, which it claims are essential for social mobility. Yet during the 1950s, social mobility was fairly limited. Moreover, people knew their place. Confusingly, UKIP also wants a return to the 19th century, but their idea of the 19th century is one without the poverty, disease and high infant mortality rates, which proceeded hand-in-glove with the ‘classical’ liberalism that is much loved by today’s Right. ‘Classical’ liberalism is also loved by American neo-confederates, who never tire of telling people that slavery “wasn’t that bad”. It was under a classical liberal economic system that the Irish Potato Famine took place. The mantra then was “it’s God’s will”. For the Right believes that inequality is “natural” – a God-given.
The Tories have always hated the comprehensive education system and want a return to the old system that effectively excluded anyone without the material means to pay for a decent education. In our current education system, by rote learning is threatening to supplant the teaching of critical thinking skills. This is particularly the case in Higher Education, where the former polytechnics (or post-1992 universities) are cutting courses and expunging those courses that include the teaching of critical thinking skills from their curriculum. The government likes people who can’t ask questions, because people who don’t ask questions are easier to manipulate. This the neoliberal idea of education: to train people to be mindless consumers, who question nothing and are unaware or refuse to believe that they’re being oppressed. This is what Gramsci calls “contradictory consciousness” and what Bourdieu refers to as “illusio“. The message from the top seems to be “You will love us while we kick the shit out of you. It’s for your own good”.
Neoliberalism, apart from creating false economies on a grand scale, forces people see themselves as consumers; customers of a particular service. Healthcare and education, for example, are reified; magically transformed into commodities. Neoliberalism produces illusions: illusions of freedom, illusions of wealth, illusions of choice. Neoliberalism exists to defend the power of the already wealthy and powerful. It pretends to be meritocratic, but in reality it diverts ever more power to the same people who have controlled things for centuries. Neoliberalism is nothing but feudalism in a Savile Row suit carrying a smartphone. If we aren’t careful we will find ourselves in a technologically advanced version of the Middle Ages, where ignorance and superstition rule unchallenged and trump reason and evidence-based solutions every time. We want a modern country that isn’t afraid to look forward. Nostalgia is a comfort blanket for those who fear what the future might hold.
Recently the government has insisted that schools teach “British values”. Aside from being a woolly, ill-defined concept on two levels, this is nothing less that a rush to inculcate forms of nationalist thinking in our children, and risks unleashing dangerous forces that cannot be controlled. For the Right, British history is marked by the dates of battles between royal houses and the births, lives and deaths of monarchs and their acolytes. Britishness only came about with the 1800 Act of Union that brought Ireland into the realm against its will. Moreover, Britishness (like any form of national identity) is entirely constructed from a selection of myths and half-truths. You create your own history.
We know what we’re against: we’re against neoliberalism, inequality, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, anti-Ziganism, anti-Semitism, corporate greed, slum landlords, inflated travel costs, lazy grasping MPs, war, etc. Therefore, we need to define what we’re for. We are for the 99%, because the current form of capitalism helps to enrich greedy people and sustain a hatred of Others. We must create culture for the 99% that addresses social and political concerns rather than tug on people’s emotions like the bourgeois theatre that dominates London’s West End, or the Hollywood movies that place style over substance. Much of today’s art doesn’t seek to engage with people’s lived experiences, instead it speaks only to itself. It is self-indulgent drivel. The artist must reject the dead space of the bourgeois art gallery, which demands disinterest and contemplation instead of engagement, and use the street as their palette and exhibition space instead.
We should adopt RAR as our model but include all forms of art and culture. Much to the anti-immigrant parties’ disgust, Britain is a multi-cultural country and that is not going to change. All the multi-coloured cultural strands of this country need to be brought together under one umbrella in celebration of our diversity and in opposition to a cultural industry that is run for the benefit of accountants and media moguls, and says nothing about life as it is lived. We want artists of all kinds to take part in a new grassroots cultural movement for the 99%. Painters, sculptors, musicians, DJs, comedians, dancers, poets, rappers, writers, actors, jugglers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, clowns and others that I haven’t mentioned. We must create cultural artefacts that look forward, not backwards.
History is a teacher, but nostalgia will teach you nothing that you don’t already know. In the words of Johnny Thunders, “you can’t put your arms around a memory”. That’s true, but you can embrace the challenge of the future.
We are the many, they are few. Culture for the 99%!