If you’re an easily suggestible sort, the last few weeks’ flurry of alarmist headlines on strikes, snow, and student riots might lead you to think of London as the convulsing epicentre of the end of the world as we know it. In fact, it’s still perfectly possible to work and play on the streets of the capital without detecting any signs of the collapse of civilisation, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Last Thursday night, the British government voted narrowly to increase tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year. Attempts to protest this outside Parliament were marked by heavy and provocative policing which resulted in 55 injuries and 34 arrests.
I’ve written elsewhere about the use of confrontational and violent tactics when policing demonstrations, and the way in which police behaviour is invariably whitewashed by the mainstream media. This current craze for kettling protestors for hours in adverse weather conditions, denying them water, toilet facilities and medical assistance, is an absurd thing to do, especially as a pre-emptive measure. What such a containment strategy does is to build up physical and psychological pressure on both sides, increasing the likelihood of a violent outcome.
Now of course, the thing to do in this position is not to let your side be presented as a bunch of undirected thugs – because given the slightest scrap of opportunity, that is how any protest will be presented. All recent demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful to the point of passive – there were tens of thousands of demonstrators who weren’t photographed bleeding, bruised or swinging from the Cenotaph exactly like a daft posh kid out for a jolly. But this remarkable but unremarked majority never makes for a good story. Responses have ranged from handwringing to hanging’s-too-good-for-’em. It’s worth noting, I think, that much of the iconic outrage over Thursday is based not on damage to human beings but on disrespect displayed for symbols – the Cenotaph, the Churchill statue – which are held to represent a supposedly sacrosanct Britishness, but which are decreasingly powerful in meaning.
Historically speaking, Britons are a bolshy but ultimately non-revolutionary lot. In my nearly three decades I have tangled with the state over the Miners’ Strike, the Poll Tax, the Criminal Justice Bill and the occupation of Iraq. But the last few student protests – volatile, sprawling and leaderless – put me more in mind of the carnivalesque anticapitalist shindigs that kicked off around the turn of this century. It’s possible to go even further back in time: the last time comparable damage was done to a Royal vehicle was in 1795, when the King’s coach, travelling to Parliament, was struck by a stone. The previous years, in the turbulent wake of the French Revolution, had been marked by growing pressure for reform by the majority of the population excluded from political influence. The government’s response to movements for popular democracy was swift and repressive, and it took decades of popular and constitutional struggle before such principles were grudgingly assimilated. Over the following centuries, however, the access to and influence of the non-elite in the running of the country has been gradually eroded, forcing protest to find extraparliamentary expression for lack of a workable constitutional channel.
Last week’s protest held a tangible rejection of Parliament and party – and rightly so, given that this particular debate is one on which one governing party first grubbed among students for votes and then completely reversed its apparently principled stand. (The other governing party has spent its first few months in power behaving with what seems to be such calculated, welfare-state-slashing, pantomime villainy that I’d be unsurprised to learn of an underground lair beneath Conservative Central Office where they sit around stroking white cats.)
Protest is perfectly understandable when you’ve been visibly and cynically sold down the river and then told to grow up. And breakdown is occurring not only between citizen and state, but between dissatisfied citizen and historical outlets for that dissatisfaction. The Labour party is heartbreakingly timid and cowed as a voice of opposition, and the trade union movement, pace the RMT and TSSA, appear to be biding their time until the weather warms up. There are increasingly few open doors. The anger on London’s side-streets last week was a stymied, frustrated and exasperated indiscriminate howl, borne of a wish to be heard that, losing faith in the mechanisms of democracy, is finding itself forced right back to first principles.
Well, nuff ranting. Back in the 1790s, another far sillier show of disrespect towards King and state involved a performance of Shakespeare. At the end of it, audiences drowned out the traditional singing of God Save the King by bellowing the French revolutionary anthem Ca Ira over the top of it. Social discontent in the 1970s found expression in punk, political opposition in the 80s had some of the century’s best tunes, and even the 90s had Pulp. As Suzanne Moore notes, there’s been no comparable emergent soundtrack for 21st century protest, apart perhaps from Paul Mason’s (dubiously-dubbed) Dubstep Rebellion, the uprising of under-18s hit by the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance. Interesting times.
Here’s eleven songs NOT to brick passing Daimlers by. Feel free to add your own.
The King Blues, What if Punk Never Happened
The King Blues are almost painfully earnest. Not that that’s a bad thing.
The Libertines, Hooray for the Twenty-first Century
The best post-proletarian elegy since The Uses of Literacy.
Blind Alfred Reed, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
Written in 1929. It’s always good to get some perspective.
The Specials, Ghost Town
Manic Street Preachers, Charles Windsor
Grizzled cover of McCarthy’s jangly dystopian vision. I mean, it could’ve been worse, Charles.
Akira the Don and Whylout? – Boom!
Potted analysis of inner-London unrest set to an excellently vandalised Elastica (or is it Wire?) riff.
Super Furry Animals – The Man Don’t Give a Fuck
Out-of-focus ideology / Keeps the masses from majority
The Indelicates – The Recession Song
From back when the Crash was still the Credit Crunch, a gleeful dance around the debris.
Crass – Owe Us a Living
Social philosophy to a machine-gun backbeat. No chance of getting it to Christmas Number One this year?