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No platform for Billy Bragg

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There is politics in any kind of collective cultural gathering, which is why attempts to repress youth and/or working-class culture continue to rain down from those with power, to those without it – just as they always have done, just as they did at Peterloo.

Dan Hancox
22 July 2013

BBC2's flagship Culture Show returned on Wednesday with this programme presented by Miranda Sawyer, promising a history of Peterloo, protest, political art, and Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy. There were some interesting bits about actress Maxine Peake's staged performance of the poem, and then a detour to a slightly silly-looking, if bold theatrical attempt to connect the massacre at Peterloo and Manchester's rave culture in the late 1980s. “Both scared the establishment”, Sawyer says, correctly. It was all going fine, until this moment:

“Rave failed to become my generation's political movement, but music has of course always given protest a voice...”

The first clause is heartbreaking in its wrongheadedness: did Sawyer expect the formation of a political party, some kind of Aceiiiiiiiid Coalition? For the barest of introductions to rave and politics, read Thatcher's War On Acid House, and this run-down of the notorious (and fiercely protested!) 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which criminalised gatherings of 100 people or more, remarkably similar to the clampdown after Peterloo.

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A print depicting the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819. Wikimedia/J Evans and sons. Public domain.

The next section of the programme was as depressing as it was inevitable: cut to Billy Bragg performing Days Like These on Wogan in the 1980s, and a voiceover recounting those halcyon days of Red Wedge and the miner's strike, that 1917-like moment of unalloyed revolutionary potential when it seemed like Ben Elton, Paul Weller and Lenny Henry could change the world. It's the kind of wistful navel-gazing that reminds me of this Lee and Herring comedy sketch, satirising the smug self-satisfaction and interminable clip shows honouring the 1980s alternative comedy movement. Now Bragg is better and smarter than that (and for the record, I like some of his songs, too), but since the onset of the current crisis, barely a month has passed without him being asked on the BBC or in The Guardian, “where's this generation's Red Wedge?”, or “where's this generation's answer to Ghost Town?”

These are fatuous questions: why not inquire as to the whereabouts of this generation's answer to Rio by Duran Duran? Guess what – it's a different generation, it produces different culture.

Because The Culture Show is supposed to be about how contemporary culture reflects contemporary society, in her interview with (55-year-old folk singer) Bragg, Miranda Sawyer holds the current generation of protesters up for comparison with Red Wedge, and dismisses them with the same, wearisome line I've heard a thousand times before: “People like the Occupy movement, they don't know what they're asking for, they just know they don't like it”.

I've said this so many times now I'm bored of saying it nicely: “they don't even know what they want” is trite, kneejerk dinner-party nonsense of the first order. But to take the statement on Sawyer's terms: if the protest movement was so robust in the 1980s, and its goals so bright and clear – and so powerfully expressed in pop culture – what exactly did that achieve? Either artistically or politically? Politically, Red Wedge knew what they wanted – a Labour victory in 1987. That went well. And artistically? The fact is there are old-school protest songs in the mould of Red Wedge still coming out today, about Cameron's government: and they're almost uniformly terrible.

The simple version, as Sawyer tells it, is the 1980s had politics (hooray), and now we don't (boo) – and this on the BBC's flagship intellectual programme. I probably shouldn't care, but I spent six months editing openDemocracy's ourBeeb project, reminding people that we are all paying for this supposedly democratic expression of our collective selves.

Bragg proceeds to explain to Sawyer that Paul Weller was the Percy Shelley of his day, and then commiserates that it's hard for modern songwriters, because “they've not been through something like the miners' strike. That was such a catalyst for political participation, for artists of all kinds.”

They're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man

This consecration-via-clipshow of a narrowly-conceived set of artefacts in the history of contentious politics and culture was inevitable, I suppose: a result of the generation who were young, vigorous and had a voice in the 1980s achieving positions of power in the media (behind the scenes as much as anything else), and using it to remember their youth as it suits them. Cut to a car on fire in Brixton and play 'Ghost Town' or The Clash; cut to a video of a miners' picket and play Bragg; you know the rest.

I'm doing an event at the ICA this Wednesday entitled The Trouble With Counter-Culture, in which we'll be talking about the contemporary lack of a discernible youth counter-culture, in the mould of the 1960s – or later punk, or acid house (or Red Wedge). Would we want or need this kind of counter-culture anymore, even if it were possible? Seeing 2013 only through the filter of the youth culture of 1983, 1973, or 1963 is pretty obviously flawed to me.

There is politics in any kind of collective cultural gathering, which is why attempts to repress youth and/or working-class culture continue to rain down from those with power, to those without it – just as they always have done, just as they did at Peterloo. This is why the Criminal Justice Act banned gatherings with music featuring “repetitive beats” in 1994, it's why the Met tried to shut down most black music in London using the notorious Form 696 in the 2000s, it's why kettling and police brutality were commonplace in response to the 2010 school and student protests and their blatantly political soundtrack, it's why Cameron's government responded to 30,000 people rioting on the streets of England by telling the judiciary to break all the rules, and it's why extraordinary pre-arrests have become the norm in the policing of the various royal and Olympic circuses of recent years.

Bragg's cultural coterie had their moment before 1989's End of History; an era so different that the Labour Party they shared office space with still had socialism embedded in Clause Four. As long as the Red Wedge generation are still hogging the airwaves with their reminiscences, they'll keep asking the same questions – and they'll keep asking them to each other.

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Flickr/Jon Pinder. Some rights reserved.

And that's fine – hegemonic culture has never stopped the people it alienates from making great art in the past, it's not stopping them doing so now, and it won't stop them in the future. It'd just be nice, I guess, if the architects of this 1980s protest heritage industry realised that they are now part of that hegemonic culture.

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