England, Scotland and the inadequacy of charts alone

The argument that Scottish independence would greatly damage the acceptance of the music and culture often euphemistically called “urban” in England is exhibit A for the case that mere charts, mere lists of self-selecting, fairly narrow popularity, are not enough in themselves.  Music in this style is invariably less popular in Scotland in terms of pure sales (and now, presumably, streams), sometimes very markedly and conspicuously so (the general rule is that artists of the black Atlantic sell less well unless they do Eurodance-style songs, hence why Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” was a Scottish number one without topping the UK charts, and that acts from mainland Europe sell better unless their songs have an “urban” flavour, hence Oliver Heldens’ “Gecko (Overdrive)” bucking the trend by failing to replicate its UK number one status in Scotland).  There are many reasons why this might be: a less multiracial and multicultural demographic even in urban Scotland, less pressure to like it for post-colonial reasons among people outside its core audience because Leftism stuck to its pre-68 self there and so could remain a mass, socially conservative phenomenon (if ’68 had never happened, I don’t think I personally would ever have taken to it, half a lifetime ago), a general sense where whatever is small-town music in England (currently, the David Guetta continuum, seemingly on the racks but now with its umpteenth new wind) is big-city music in Scotland, whereas Scottish small towns and villages, to some extent, actually are what their English equivalents are fondly, delusionally imagined to be by the Dorset Echo and its ilk, in terms of not being wholly dependant on global mass culture.  But surely, those who take popularity polls in isolation would say, if it is less popular in Scotland, then Scotland being in a separate state would strengthen its cultural share in England, push it further up the charts by removing the sales of sceptics, give it a measurable demographic boost?  This, I fear, is a classic example of ignoring the wider social context which charts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (and it rarely has been in recent times), by their nature leave out.

Charts can often shine a light on the world around them, of course; the Rolling Stones’ 2005 album A Bigger Bang (the one with “Sweet Neocon”, an unexpectedly accurate dissection of the dilemma an entire generation found itself in by this point, just in the slipstream of Katrina) narrowly missed the long, late years of TPL by literally a handful of copies, the difference made entirely by its low sales in Northern Ireland which may reflect the fact that, out of the generation that would still have been interested in what the Stones might have come up with by then, a disproportionate number in Northern Ireland (of both traditions) prefer folk and/or country over rock.  Marcello Carlin has already written about a similar situation in Scotland being a reason why there was never a “Clydebeat” to compare with Merseybeat and indeed what happened in London, when Glasgow was one of the very few other places to have comparable access to black American music through being an Atlantic port, but in that 2005 situation where Northern Ireland kept an album out of TPL (and also prevented the same act having number one albums consisting wholly of new recordings over a span of over forty years, something which has never in fact come to pass) there is another intriguing element; the album that stayed at number one in the UK because it stayed at number one in Northern Ireland, just on the brink of the “heir to Blair” speech, was James Blunt’s Back to Bedlam.  The fact that this was just after the IRA had finally announced an end to its armed campaign … the idea of people from strongly Catholic or nationalist backgrounds buying an album by an Old Harrovian with a background in the British Army at such a moment, in terms of pop’s reflecting the shifts around it, is almost too carmodic to be believed.

But that is a context that everyone gets and understands; it was impossible to live in Britain for most of modern history and not get some grasp of it, however it was filtered.  One thing which is, conversely, hardly being discussed at all in the wider talk about the possible effects of Scottish independence hinges on an important difference: that between London as seat of feudal-turned-neoliberal power, and London as centre of global pop-cultural hybridisation.  The two are entirely distinct, two Londons fundamentally at odds with each other, but some Scottish independence supporters don’t appear to know the difference, as has been shown by the regrettable blurring of the edges between criticism of London dominance couched in terms of the global plutocracy and financial elite (which, always assuming it doesn’t blur over into “hidden hand” anti-Semitism, I could support wholeheartedly other than for reasons which, I know, will come over as selfish to many I’d like to love) and criticism of London dominance couched in terms of cultural fear of diversity (the other, less admirable face of Scottish nationalism which some on the English Left still don’t want to admit exists).  They are two entirely different Scottish nationalisms, and if there is a Yes vote they will rapidly fall out and hate each other as viscerally as they are now linking arms enthusiastically; they have utterly oppositional visions of an independent Scotland, which even the absence of ’68 as a divisive factor splitting the Left could not hold together if Scotland had to fend for itself.

But if you add the two Londons which feed into the two anti-Londons, and think of the fact that only in London, north-west England and north-east England (pretty much the regions with the least stereotypically “English” identities) did Labour beat UKIP in the European elections within England, you can imagine a little-discussed counterpart to the well-discussed idea of secessionist movements in northern England aiming to join Scotland; a kind of London nationalism (actively encouraged, as nationalisms often are, by one of its great enemies, in this case Peter Hitchens) opposed to the rest of the south of England, which it has often resented for living off the city’s wealth yet dismissing its diversity, taking but not giving back, and to some extent opposed both to the residual elements of feudal power in that city and its recent takeover by the global super-rich.  Like the good bits of Scottish nationalism – in a sentence, those which attack “London” as a concept for its elite rather than its mass – it would have many positive and admirable elements for those who could be truly part of it.

But that very exclusivity and exclusion – all a knock-on effect from other secessionist movements – would make me seriously worried for how my own life might end up.  Even in an age of always-on global media, when it would obviously be wholly impossible to block “urban” streams and confine my life to what those of a feudal bent would consider “appropriate”, there would still be other practical restrictions (not in terms of what could be heard on a superficial level, of course, but in terms of identities and freedoms that could be taken on, absorbed on a meaningful level which affects your judgement and understanding of the world around you), deeper resentments and fears which a barely-reformed feudal state perversely holds in and controls, renders milder and less obstructive than they might be otherwise.  In present circumstances, it is comparatively easy for me to be culturally metropolitan while still riding horses and walking on the cliffs.  If surrounded by a regressive, reflective nationalism defined against multiple others/Others, it might not be so.  Where is all this leading?  To the point that the acceptance of “urban” pop and the wider culture in England, at least in such parts of it as I live in, is dependant on multiple outside factors which have no direct connection to pop and its casual consumption or to the wider social concept of youth ritual, and that if you remove the safety valve of a place where it appears to be less widely accepted among pop’s core audience, you can open the floodgates for resentment from an “outside” audience being stronger in a place where those most intimately close to pop are more orientated towards it.

To simplify, there have always been two main approaches to pop and its place in modern history; that shaped wholly by Gambo/Rice Bros, Alan Freeman (but not his rock shows), Simon Bates, Dale Winton, Tony Blackburn und so weiter (including, for a long time as it was taking shape, the child molester), and that defined principally by John Peel and the post-punk culture which has now been struggling for the best part of twenty years to cope with its offspring suddenly being mainstreamed (which was in fact, when it happened in my teenage years, the development that led me to hip-hop).  The former has, of course, been deeply shaken and traumatised by the revelations and trials of the last two years; the latter hasn’t been immune either – even if Roy Harper isn’t found guilty, the ’68 generation / PIE connections will leave their own stain – but still feels empowered and vindicated by the discrediting of those it always saw as a State safety valve for pop and youth ritual (it would be interesting to see if such self-aggrandisement among soixante-huitards could survive a guilty verdict in the Roy Harper trial; one possible effect of such a verdict might be to reverse the rapprochement with “pre-77 Peel” which has gained strength among his post-punk audience in recent times).

The former has ignored the wider context surrounding the lists and names and numbers it treats as gospel truth; the latter has, to some extent, ignored the wider context within which its cults existed, and universalised its own experiences (a post-68, and especially post-77, dichotomy which perhaps can be most accurately described as “turning the Mirror into the Mail“).  What I have tried to do, over something like fifteen years now (fumblingly and with half-knowledge, if that, at the beginning) is to bring the two together; describe both the context of the charts and the charts of the context.  To come at Guinness with the perspective of the cult-studs academic – to flesh out the mass consciousness with the legacy of Raymond Williams and all who followed him – and simultaneously to use data so often trivialised by anoraks, and sometimes dismissed as unnecessary and implicitly Tory by the CCCS graduates, to shine a light on the context in which cult-studs developed and formed itself.  The separation of these knowledges so institutionalised by the wider class-based feudalism and tribalism of, at least, England, and especially the division between those who absolutely need strict divisions between the two parts of their lives (people educated at the “old” universities are quite often worse for this than those with no advanced education at all), and those educated in the newer, broader traditions has created a deep, profound distrust of each area of knowledge in the “other” field; a belief among exponents of both that knowing the other is a betrayal, a compromise, a sell-out.  I was given that world; I didn’t make it.  All I’ve ever tried to do, not necessarily all that well until recently, is bring the knowledges and understandings together, to know what people governed by fear – whoever and whatever that fear is of – will have trained themselves not to know.  And if I’ve failed, I can at least say that the institutionalisation of those fears is such that it might not be entirely my fault.

The thing most ignored by those who take charts in total isolation – whether they’re presented by Alan Freeman or Jameela Jamil, Tom Browne or Marvin Humes – is that the most important people in the wider context of each wave of pop and its tolerance and acceptance aren’t the people who choose to listen to it, but the people who don’t, the people whose choices are, precisely, not reflected in the charts from week to week.  And they are the reason – especially in England – why separating a place where a music and its surrounding culture are less popular won’t necessarily improve its fortunes in every respect in the place that is left behind.  And should anyone doubt what I have written above – and the reasons why people who want to live as I want to live in such a place as I want to live like it have to oppose Scottish independence, however ruefully and regretfully and even if it is with the same sadness we feel when we reconcile our huge admiration for the principles on which the Open University was built and the social good it has done with the fact that Tom O’Carroll and Peter Righton worked for it – they might ask themselves a question that only has one answer: why, when they do not have a vote on the matter and would ostensibly (so we are repeatedly told) not be directly affected by it, do Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton – people who have dreamt for decades of eliminating all hybridised modern culture from England – support Scottish independence?

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Michael Gove, the Hierarchy of Art Forms and the Murdoch connection

When I read about the overwhelmingly scathing response from what might best be called liberal-intellectual circles to Michael Gove’s removal of certain books from the GCSE curriculum, my immediate thought was that a certain set of people very much including Gove – that part of the Right which is set in equal terms against both F.R. Leavis and Stuart Hall, most prominently heard for the last three decades at The Times and The Sunday Times – owed the rest of us a deep and profound apology.  For years they had been painting liberal-intellectual Leftists not only as anti-American bigots, but as “the real nationalists”, “the real racists”, “the real xenophobes” (rather as Baroness Warsi, with all the anti-Muslim bigotry in the world potentially to confront in the Tory tabloids, cites Polly Toynbee as the worst example in the British press of such prejudice).  They had interpreted the way people on “our” side pick up on the way certain people unswervingly accept “billion” to mean a thousand million (a de-Europeanising change), but would regard driving in kilometres as a mortal sin, actually to be worse than the most xenophobic Sun headline or Daily Mail smear campaign (they were by no means universally supportive of the Mail, but when they criticised that paper it was largely over its streak of Old Tory realism in foreign affairs).  Gove himself wrote just such an article in The Times just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  But now they actually have power, here they were playing the conservative nationalist card of which they had previously seen themselves as the antithesis, a reinvention of their movement, and here were liberal-intellectual Leftists defending the artistic and cultural endeavour of a country which, a decade ago, “they” had accused “us” of imagining to be populated entirely by 30-stone rednecks, even on its coasts.

The sick joke of all this is, of course, that the media empire with which Gove’s entire career is indelibly and inexorably bound up is responsible for spreading far more of the stuff that pre-Thatcher conservatives would have roundly disapproved of (but which Gove’s ilk actually need to strengthen the separatism of responsibilities and interests which they instinctively depend on) than even the most relativist academic ever could.  For people like Gove, a theory or position making logical sense is an active pejorative, an active point against it, but the only conservative position which actually could hold up in practice what he expects his older supporters to imagine he believes (whereas in fact he does not believe it even in theory) is what could be called English Gaullism, opposed in about equal parts to the deregulated market and to socialism.  This never became a mass theory in England, and what foothold it had was effectively destroyed by Thatcherism (this applies as much to the anti-Blairite Left as to the active Right and to Blairites: whatever The Sun may imagine of him, Tom Watson does not support the IBA model of broadcasting any more than Rupert Murdoch himself does), but there were isolated moments in the past when it could have become dominant: the New Elizabethanism killed by Suez was (appropriately, considering the French connection) very close to it, and it could easily have thrived had Edward Heath won a second term (especially if the victory of a more consensual approach had killed Selsdonomics, or anything close to them, in the long term).  When Auberon Waugh opposed Murdoch from the Right, English Gaullism was his starting point.  A Scottish variant of this theory is not entirely unrepresented within the modern SNP.  But Gove has denounced and distanced himself from his homeland, aware that it can more easily see through his position, logic and consistency not being so instantly dehumanised there.

The idea of placing restrictions on the deregulated market so as to preserve the idea of “cultural standards” would be by no means off the scale within the mainstream of French conservatism, which is why it fits so perfectly into that “alternative 1974” counterfactual.  It has its own deep and profound faults, of course: it is possible (though I simply don’t know enough about current French politics to judge) that the drift of the mainstream French Right towards something closer to “Anglo-Saxon” neoliberalism under Sarkozy might have been a factor in the recent success of the Front National (who are not natural allies of UKIP, who they would regard both as mid-Atlantic neoliberal imposters and as straight-down-the-line rosbif thugs: despite the whiff of “fascism can only happen with those unstable, shifty continentals” that comes from him as from pretty much everyone in the Mail titles, Hitchens Minor isn’t wrong when he says the two parties come from wholly different traditions and starting points).  I propose it purely and simply as someone who recognises that, in many ways, Stalinism is closer to Mailism than it is to Trotskyism, and that Murdochism is in turn closer to Trotskyism than it is to Mailism, and who would like to see a realignment that actually reflects the fact that the Cold War has ended (Putin’s essential position is, in Owen Hatherley’s words, pre-Soviet, and many of his Western admirers see in modern Russia the Mayberrys or Walmington-on-Seas for which they imagined they were fighting the Soviet Union, not realising that the West had changed behind their backs), rather than as someone who particularly admires it himself (indeed, the libertarian, anti-State streak in English conservatism might be the saviour of myself and those who think like me in the event of Scottish independence).

There have been occasions when the anti-elitist streak in the Murdoch press has rendered it preferable to its rivals on the Right; compare The Times‘ admirable reporting of the St Paul’s School / Colet Court abuse allegations with The Spectator‘s odious response.  But its support for pop culture As Long As It Knows Its Place has made it curiously appealing – as a sort of ally of convenience – to those of the Left for whom any form of pop which isn’t “Tutti Frutti” is a straight road to an ELP triple live album, as if much of the most stimulating rock music ever made in Britain never existed (which, for the music press many of them grew up on, it might as well not have done – you might find more references to Tales from Topographic Oceans as a ubiquitous swear word in one issue of NME from that period than references to Peter Hammill or maybe even Robert Wyatt over several years’ worth of it).  More than twenty years ago, the Murdoch papers were running articles ostensibly “purely” about pop culture (there is never such a thing, in any sense), but in reality codifying a deeper political agenda, whose legacy is now running directly through the terror vandalism being directed at British education.  When I think of the virtual disappearance of the German language as a subject of study in many British schools, I think of a Caitlin Moran article which appeared in The Sunday Times in November 1992 mocking the idea of pop music even existing outside the Anglosphere and invoking pop and rock’s legacy to promote the concept of the world outside the Anglosphere as unknowable and untouchable, which at the time would have been dismissed as juvenile nonsense by anyone associated with any curriculum or exam board, but which would have been an active inspiration, cheered to the echo, for many now controlling such organisations, quite possibly including Gove himself.

Let me take a particular example from my own past (and let me also remember that, when deeply frustrated in 1996 with the apparent absence of a genuinely new cultural dichotomy at the very top of British society even a third of a century after Beatlemania, I actively assumed that such a dichotomy would have to be better than the one that came before it; I was deeply and profoundly wrong).  Ten years ago, I got into serious trouble for suggesting that someone I had encountered who expressed disquiet at the idea of hearing grime in Norfolk, even if he had been thinking in terms of the integrity and subcultural strength of the music, was invoking a dangerous crossover with the far-right.  I probably shouldn’t have compared his position directly to that of the BNP – it would have been better to invoke a less emotive and extreme comparison such as the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph – but I still find such a vision troubling.  In isolation, it fits well within the politics of that time, where I was trying virtually single-handedly to transcend the division of “progressive cities vs. quasi-fascist countryside” – the dichotomy of foot-and-mouth, the Countryside Marches, the pro-hunting invasion of the House of Commons, Mumford and Sons as unimaginable as the Rolling Stones in 1958 – and found, aghast, that vast numbers of my fellow Leftists, people I’d have liked to love, were perfectly happy to play the exact same games as the Right, unashamedly and unabashedly playing along with people they affected to despise.  They needed an enemy, and were only really happy and content as long as they could be sure that everyone in Norfolk or Dorset was their enemy; when they found people in those places who wanted to be their friends, they were unsettled, challenged, even disturbed and frightened.  If they couldn’t pigeonhole everyone in a particular place as their enemy, they could not manage the world around them so easily – because within the context of grime itself, they were merely cultural managers attempting to push its creators in directions many of them actively did not want to take – and then where would they have been?

But years later it got really interesting.  I was told that the person with whom I had fallen out (who shall remain nameless here) had in fact been working for the News of the World at the time, and suddenly everything fell into place: as an extreme souixante-huitard who had no real understanding of older socialist ideas, working for Murdoch would have been the ultimate snob-baiting gesture, the ultimate two fingers (or, perhaps, just one finger) to the paternalism which the New Left had once defined itself against (this is why some who have their roots in the New Left would feel torn on Murdoch’s power this century: they would worry themselves – I think mistakenly, but understandably in that generation – that if he went, much as they would applaud it on purely political grounds, the elitism and hierarchy they had once kicked against would have to come back).  Moreover, because he was offended (even if for different reasons) by the same kind of thing that long-standing Times and Sunday Times readers are also offended by, he also wouldn’t have taken exception to the stuff they cynically throw in to appease the people who have been reading The Times since it still had small ads on the front page.  While he would no doubt affect to despise Michael Gove now, the underlying politics of the Murdoch organisation were not only no threat to him, he actually felt closer to them than he did to quite a number of Left-wing ideas (if we must persist with Cold War language).

What all this has been getting to is that large swathes of the British Left, while they are right to despise Gove and his policies and ideas, do not really understand where they come from; do not in fact understand the whole drift and direction of British politics and culture in most of my lifetime (and a significant chunk of theirs), and so inadvertently play into Gove’s hands.  The root cause of Gove’s position is this: he resents John Steinbeck or Harper Lee not because they are “vulgar, jumped-up colonials” but because he seems them effectively as “the wrong kind of Americans” (if they were firmly in either the pre-FDR or post-Reagan lineages he’d have nothing like the problem that an earlier generation of conservatives in this country would have had).  More specifically, Gove wants a strict separation, an absolute and unbridgeable delineation, between what young people experience and absorb in their lives outside school and what they learn about within it.  Far from feeling threatened by “it’s only pop culture, it’s just a bit of a laugh” (an approach which cannot but make us think of the moment when the Rolling Stones definitively lose the compelling, multi-layered power they had once had and become straight, unequivocal predictors of neoliberalism), Gove actively applauds and celebrates such an approach.  What is imagined to be “anti-establishment” – even “anti-Gove” – by a certain axis of the pop-cultural Left is actually welcomed by Gove because it shores up the financial and commercial security of his career’s sponsors and bankrollers.  The ongoing, tragic and regrettable misreading of punk which has long become its own kind of orthodoxy has now become an active hindrance to any critique of the ruling class.

That certain exams are dismissed as “too easy” when in fact they contain far more multi-layered ideas than Gove’s hierarchical approach would ever allow or countenance is entirely orchestrated to push the right Mail/Telegraph buttons: Gove in fact (in common with many others who affect to believe otherwise) knows full well that these exams (the best example probably being Communication and Culture) offer a precise challenge to many aspects of the lives and assumptions that young people have inherited, challenges he does not want them to take or be diverted by.  Young people are bombarded with a vast array of culture which they will not, in most cases, have the inherited parental knowledge fully to understand the meaning of (and will often, of course, have understandably rejected it if they do); if their education gives them the informed eye with which to view the wider culture which dominates the rest of their lives, they are that much less likely to give their money to the bulwarks of the capitalist system (very much including those whose dominance is confined to the internet era, should anyone doubt this) for which Gove is a mere placeman, a mere messenger boy when he should be an agent of destruction if he understood the full implications of his public neofeudalism (which I don’t think he does; he simply says whatever sounds best to perpetuate the Spectacle).  If their education has perpetuated and re-institutionalised the high/low divide, the “low” part of young people’s lives will most likely simply be a strengthening of global commerce in all its forms.  If their education has been run on wholly different principles, there is a much greater chance – the germ, at least, will be there – that their mass-cultural interests will lean much more towards those marginalised within global capitalism, those who pose an active threat to its perpetuation of inequality and divisions, those who are using the forms of mass entertainment to critique the methods by which it is consumed and sold, and therefore will make them, and their children, less likely to support the likes of Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and Gove in the long term.

I repeat: Gove doesn’t want education to ignore mass culture because he thinks mass culture is worthless trash, he wants education to ignore mass culture so that he and his ilk can more easily control and manipulate mass culture, which he thinks is great in a disgusting kind of way, that same balance of revulsion at the ugliness of the lumpenproletariat with a sort of vicarious pleasure – well, at least it’s On Its Level, at least it’s not threatening our bank balances like all those Marxist dramatists before Maggie Sorted Out The Beeb used to do – that same combination of vicarious pseudo-offence at populism with gleeful celebration of its reinforcement of their own ownership of the levers of control, which has become the default mode of many Telegraph bloggers and makes “noblesse oblige” seem the most progressive thing in the world by comparison.  Gove and his cohorts also stand to benefit massively from the perpetuation of successive generations – by now grandchildren, they hope even great-grandchildren – of neo-Claptons, my term for those principally from the middle class, and/or the small towns and shires, who take from the music and culture of the black Atlantic without giving back, and rapidly slip back into ignorance of where it came from because they have not had the educational background to contextualise it.  A strict high/low divide between what is studied and the rest of young people’s lives will make it harder for the feeling so many young people have for this music – even if that feeling in itself does not last – to be channelled into a serious break from the prejudices (whether purely racist, as perhaps in “conservative Labour veering towards UKIP” strongholds such as Rotherham, or more classist as in Gove’s own constituency in Surrey) they may have been surrounded by, and much easier for them to return to fear and insularity in the way so many sec-mod castoffs did, largely through no fault of their own, so soon after first hearing Motown.  If that tendency in British society did not exist, Gove – who, despite his current rhetoric, wouldn’t be where he is if he were a genuine paternalist – wouldn’t have a market, and neither would the entire Murdoch organisation which had given him a career long before he entered front-line politics, the career where he cleverly thought ahead long-term, in terms of how to fill the gap once the Blair illusion ended, and built his current career.

And still we have people who think “dumb rock music” will shake Gove’s private universe to its foundations, and affect to despise Gove while actually feeling threatened by the same fields of academic study – seeing them as a kind of theft, the act of dangerous interlopers merely with “middle-class” as an insult rather than “Marxist” as in Gove’s case – as he himself does!  The unfortunate truth is that a certain part of British Leftist thought is running well behind the Right’s curve on this front (I once, almost unbelievably, encountered someone on the John Peel mailing list who insisted that Cameron could not really like pop or rock music because he was so clearly of the Right: by those criteria Tony Benn in 1981 – and I can bet the person concerned supported Benn at that time – would have had to be a fascist).  Just as this part of the British Left have for years denied and refuted the fact that pop and rock music originating in the Anglosphere, and especially in Britain, have long been treated far better and with far more overall respect in the media, especially radio, of mainland Europe – have in fact seen such an approach as “posh” and “poncy”, a betrayal of the music’s “authenticity” – and just as they pretend to be “anti-establishment” while in fact actively joining in with prejudice and resentment against the one area of music which is still despised by the British establishment, they are actively pretending that Gove feels threatened by their own no-theory approach when, in fact, he loves it because it enables him to divide and conquer with far greater ease and security.  The same streak in The Guardian – a paper which still has a lot of very good things hidden in it – which thinks bad grammar or its style guide’s officious discouragement of “Hallowe’en”, “encyclopaedia” and “dreamt” (while citing Arctic Monkeys as if anyone in the present government seriously worries about them) are, like, really really rebellious, that Gove worries himself about such things every bit as much as he worries about post-structuralism and encoding and decoding infesting the academic lives of vulnerable lumpenproles.

Much the same can be said about the enforced budget cuts on the pop/youth side of the BBC which, having already appealed to populist resentment at the funding of an entire TV channel, have now resulted in the dismissal of three more 1Xtra specialists.  The inequity between the treatment of Radio 1 & 1Xtra and the ringfenced budgets of Radios 3 & 4 are clearly intended to make the latter stations’ core audiences think that the current government cares about and is concerned with their interests, that it supports their idea of fixed standards as against the passing fancies of the young.  But if the latter (or at least the conservative parts of the latter; what has made Radios 3 & 4 so singular is that they are, just as their precursors were fifty or sixty years ago, the only real place where the Guardian and Telegraph tendencies of the English bourgeoisie and intellectual elite come together, the only media outlets which really have to balance out the concerns and priorities of both) believe that, they are kidding themselves.  Gove and his ilk not only gleefully encourage the forces which really erode the old fixed standards (and which actually are the uncritical, unquestioning purveyors and promoters of mass culture which they wrongly and crudely accuse all post-68 academics of being), but they actively want such people to triumph because it would strengthen their own bosses’, their own business connections’, profit margins.  They are publicly speaking in the language of “no Paul Morley on Radio 4” diehards while viciously and vicariously laughing at them behind their backs in private.  In its way, it is a crude exploitation of snobbery, so much more cynical and harmful even than the real, putatively English Gaullist thing would be.

Nothing I have said in this probably wildly overlong piece will be news to those who have followed what has really been going on over the past two decades: huge numbers of people, on all sides, backing up people who stand for everything they don’t (whether hierarchical conservative traditionalists with Murdoch, or large swathes of a despairing, fragmented British Left with Islamists), first-past-the-post preventing any realignment beyond populist reactionary moaning, a general tone of cynicism and nihilism and negative doom-politics from all ends.  But in the case of Gove specifically, and the broader position of the present government more generally, I feel the case is more specific, more direct, nastier, more urgent.  I could as easily have written the C-word 3906 times and left it at that.  But that would have been the coward’s way out.  Just as much as was the case in 2012, this is still an emergency.  We are, frustratingly, further from a clear way out than we were then.  In England, we do not have our fate wholly in our own hands.  But we need to know what we are up against, and we need to know what it actually stands for and what it actually means, not what it suits some people’s delusionary self-image to pretend it stands for and means.  Whether 1945 socialists or souixante-huitards, we will be betraying ourselves, and history, if we do not unite.  Michael Gove, in The Times in December 2001, said that those who went on to the beaches on D-Day with the intention of creating a better society once the war was won would always, eternally, be less British than those who used it to perpetuate what he was proud to call “ancient pettinesses”.  Combine that with the current extreme manifestations of forked-tongue politics and you have something lethal and corrosive such as we have scarcely seen before.  If anyone in any of the diverging, and often actively hateful towards each other, traditions of the British Left ever doubts whether or not they should vote Labour next year, especially if its task has suddenly been made harder, they should read this piece, and think on.  Time will judge us very harshly indeed if we ignore what stands before us now.

The unquiet ghost of the anti-Beatles Left

To sense a tendency of thought surviving as an intellectual force, in one sense despite itself and despite history and in another sense because of itself and because of history, you have to know that it existed in the first place.  And most people today don’t know that the anti-Beatles Left ever existed at all; their caricatured conception of the 1960s allows only for antipathy towards mass culture as a statement of working-class expression and intent coming exclusively from harrumphing old colonels, the Henley Regatta rather than the Durham Miners’ Gala.  Even Paul Johnson’s The Menace of Beatlism – briefly well-known in the 1990s, if only for the light it shed on how the redefinition of the Left pushed some of its leading thinkers to the Right (and also, it must be said, for the way New Labour’s very existence had completely refuted its final conclusion, that the people listening to pop and rock music would never hold positions of high office) – has fallen from public view; its 50th anniversary at the end of February was pretty much universally ignored.

Which is a shame, because it sheds some kind of light on quite a lot of stuff being written today, which has been hopefully attempting to rehabilitate ideas and judgements on mass culture once rendered obsolete by Trotskyism and an intellectual wave ridden in the 1980s by Marxism Today, certain aspects of the NME, the Monthly Film Bulletin (though never, for one second, Sight & Sound until its 1991 Year Zero) and the TV magazine Primetime, but which have almost been forcibly reawakened in response to the embrace of pure, unfettered neoliberalism by those very former Trotskyists in government.  And however ludicrous much of it appears to be now, it very definitely reflects the true complexity of thought in 1964 Britain, where much resentment of pop culture came from Leftists who felt it was eroding the unity of the working class, its strength against exploitation and abuse.  Frederick Wragg, the retired colonel who returned his medals in protest at the Beatles’ MBEs in 1965, had been a Labour supporter (he amended his will to remove a substantial bequest he had made to the party).  Things were much more complicated than they appeared to be, for many NME-raised sub-Marxists, before the Blair conundrum clouded everything again.

Which brings me to the following article published last weekend in The Observerhttp://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/mar/08/how-football-lost-touch-young-fans (I have to link this way because, ludicrously, WordPress apparently does not allow me to put in proper links without paying, and if anyone knows otherwise I’d be delighted: I felt, as I usually do whenever I have the desire to start doing this again, that I needed to use a platform such as I hadn’t used before, to create the sense of a wholly new start, untainted by a dubious, flawed past).  Let no-one doubt that I have a considerable sympathy with many of Adrian Tempany’s arguments.  I agree with much of what he has to say about neoliberalism and its alienating social effects, and I wish – as he does – that English football could, in the parallel world I have so often envisaged in my mind, have moved away from the squalor and deprivation of its crisis years (football’s problems at the time were so completely bound up with the broader class-war scenario of that era that they cannot really be separated – and hence depoliticised – as they so often are) without falling into the hands of plutocrats and an exploitative overclass.  Like him, I wish, in short, that England had been Germany.  Obviously the unhealed wounds of class divisions, and the impossibility here of a genuine year-zero moment even in 1945 compared to its absolute necessity there, would have made it much harder, but it needn’t have been impossible.

It’s just that …

(And these are the most painful words in the world: the same “it’s just that” that, for me, was some sort of problem with the late Tony Benn, the conundrum and dilemma of whose life is of course central to these arguments; I have some lengthy thoughts on that subject but I am not sure if I want to make them public yet, it still feels too soon and too raw, but this piece has emerged in my head, as I have written it, as some sort of cypher.)

For a start, there are the general thoughts on the 1970s which have a considerable resonance and meaning for a significant part of the British working-class experience (much of the “Britain falling apart” rhetoric was basically “the ruling class is falling apart”, equating one class with the entire nation; when Max Hastings says that the Falklands War saved Britain he does, of course, mean that it saved his class, and damn everyone else), yet still do not tell the whole story.  Let it be rendered clear that I hold no brief and have no great love for Dominic Sandbrook, who I suspect is Tempany’s main target; I am not contented or satisfied with the set of social and economic norms that Sandbrook is so clearly wholly at ease with.  But the central point of Sandbrook’s work – that individualistic consumerism wasn’t invented in one afternoon in 1979 or even 1983, but had been bubbling away and building up as a force in British life for many years beforehand – is, in itself, far truer than it isn’t.  You don’t have to agree with the conclusions he uses these facts to arrive at to recognise that, in isolation, they are facts, any more than you have to agree with the conclusions reached for ideological reasons (whether far-Left, far-Right, or – these days – often both at the same time) based on the facts of war crimes, or imperial abuses of power, to recognise that the facts themselves are incontrovertible.

The “play to win with Gola” ads shown at the beginning and end of – irony of ironies – The Big Match ad breaks in 1977, presented in such a way as to resemble sponsorship bumpers today, or the consecutive ads in a summer 1976 break exhorting their audience to take home Carling Black Label (and thus break with the collective unity of pre-Sky pubs, or the handed-down social rituals of ale) or to buy Elseve Balsam because they were worth it, make this eminently clear.  There is never an unchanging idyll shattered in one second by forces of aggressive, anti-social media and politics (whether this moment is made out to be 1964, as with Peter Hitchens and other writers dimly recalled from the Daily Mail I absorbed in young-fogey childhood, 1979 as with Tempany, or both as with David Lindsay).  There is rather an unending battle of ideas, and sometimes (as very largely happened in this case) the forces that won it won almost despite themselves, or through fortuitous accidents of history.  But they were only able to win in the first place because the forces that gave birth to them had been building up for a long time, and for multiple reasons.  And this is before I even think of the significant numbers of people – many of Tempany’s own generation, many with (usually undiagnosed) conditions very similar to mine – who lived through something close to a living hell precisely because they were “abnormal”, precisely because they could not fit instantly into those collectivist norms.  You do not have to believe in all the conspiracy theories about What Happened In North Wales, or all the stuff that gets mixed up with it, to know that such a wilful “no such thing as a paedophile” vision ignores what a measurable number of people went through, and it isn’t neoliberal to point it out (no, this doesn’t mean that everything is perfect now in the treatment of people born with conditions which bring on social isolation – I know from direct personal experience that it, obviously, isn’t.  Why do certain people assume that criticism of one state of affairs amounts to absolute praise of another?).

There is a definite tendency on much of the Left to prefer being in opposition, to wallow in melancholy because in some ways it is easier to control emotionally, easier to take what pass for simple pleasures out of, than the inherently problematic position of being in power, which by its nature requires compromises with people who would rather you did not exist as a social and cultural force at all.  It is relevant to Stewart Lee’s piece, a few pages away from Tempany’s in the print edition of The Observer, which evokes very much the same dystopia of England After Britain – a permanent, thousand-year UKIP reich, institutionalised fascism in Hush Puppies – which I myself have been playing with since 2008.  But he and I must both be aware that this is not the most likely outcome, even if Scotland does secede; the institutionalised inertia in England which prevents any meaningful social progress, and makes even neoliberalism seem progressive by comparison, would also be likely to prevent something quite as extreme as that, even if it did dress itself up in the clothes and language of moderation.  It is just that there is something within us which … doesn’t quite want it exactly, but almost sees it as inevitable, takes a perverse enjoyment in active sadism.  Or thinks that those who don’t think like us deserve it, and we ourselves are powerless to change it.  The glamour of defeat, the glory of obliteration.

There are two ways to respond to having been marginalised for three decades and having all the odds of power stacked against you: either you retreat into yearning and anti-modernism – seeing the whole of mass culture as it exists now as a conspiracy against your outlook on life, thus dooming yourself to absolute defeat before you start – or you become proactive, attempting to reclaim that same hated modernity as something that can work in your favour, something that can strengthen you against them, rather than the other way round.  In the mid-1970s, many on the Right would have preferred the former approach, which would have rendered them impotent against the strength of popular culture as a working-class movement, and it took a lot of harsh, aggressive persuasion to lead them towards the latter approach which eventually redefined Britain, and much of the rest of the world, in its own image.  If the Left are now in the same position as the Right then, Tempany’s approach is – I deeply regret to say, because I want to agree with him, or at least I want to want to agree with him – very much the equivalent of the former approach, and thus hopeless for any kind of broader socio-cultural recovery of the Left; it is, very specifically, redolent of those anti-Beatles Leftists of half a century ago, people who – however well they meant – were arguably the broad Right’s long-term best friends (especially if we identify that broad Right with the Rolling Stones).

There is a definite tone of antipathy when Tempany refers to global “communities of interest” and their power among the young, but what was the driving force behind the Beatles, in the end, but an early example of global communities of interest, young working-class people bypassing the insularity of their physical environment to form alliances with those suffering comparable oppression abroad?  The English working class today are suffering enough discrimination as it is: why should they not build bridges with others suffering in similar ways in other environments?  Obviously it isn’t always anything like this in practice, but quite often it is, and lines of descent through the generations, and the absolute bonds of families and their cultural inheritances, were being challenged by the global community of interest – such as such things could exist then – that exploded into Beatlemania at a time when neoliberalism was, if anything, beyond the absolute margins of acceptable ideology.

Tempany puts great stress on young people learning and absorbing social norms, and having strong bonds with their fathers (and in the context of English football as it once was it is, very specifically, fathers).  No doubt there is much to be said for togetherness as a social force; no doubt some kind of mutual generational understanding is needed to avoid absolute social implosion; no doubt we don’t have enough of it at the moment.  But I would not regard young people as even remotely close to the main offenders on this front, and is it not also healthy for each generation to find its own means of self-definition, its own social norms and rituals and behaviours, outside the control of their predecessors?  The commercial exploitation of youth ritual over a long period has, of course, clouded these issues and made it harder to see where they came from in the first place, but “Rebel”, “My Different” or “German Whip” are, in their own way, every bit as much statements of defiance, even if recorded in an almost unimaginably harsher (at least in terms of job security, etc.) social environment, as the great Animals singles were half a century ago.  And the latter were routinely dismissed by people of Tempany’s political ilk at the time, precisely because they did not represent an entrance to the social norms of the adult world, as mere passing “entertainment” compared to passed-through-generations “culture” (of which more below).  The instinctive emotional need and desire of the young to find their own forms of identification, separate from all previous generations, was not simply created by the specific social separations of post-1979 Britain; when Eric Burdon sang “it’s my life”, he had no desire for it simply to be passed from national corporatists to global billionaires, any more than Ghetts, Rascals or Meridian Dan want to remain under the control of those same billionaires.

And what, also, of the large number of young people in places such as the one I live in, who may find themselves leaning towards outsiderdom and radicalism but who can find no deep basis for it in their own physical environment, certainly not as there is in English football’s traditional heartlands?  They – and even though I’m in my thirties, I still feel to some extent that I can say “us”, because I feel that “they” are more of an “us” than the demographic “us” I am aligned with by the forces of capitalism and plutocracy – have no option but to find global communities of interest.  Should they be dismissed as illegitimate because they involve individual acts of consumption and transaction made outside the control of a physical community and one’s elders, as though all such acts were as in hock to the ruling class as One Direction fandom?

Also redolent of the Paul Johnson Left – which very quickly found that it could no longer be the Left, and which attempts (understandable, of course, in the post-Blair context) are now being made to resurrect – is the opposition to “entertainment”, the use of the word as some kind of pejorative; “culture” good, “entertainment” bad.  However admirable the roots of such rhetoric are, they did lasting damage to the Left in the 1960s and beyond by making it appear (however unfairly) to oppose working-class cultural self-determination (this was, of course, the root of the late Stuart Hall’s challenges to many of his comrades, especially – one suspects – Bennites); had “entertainment” not been a sort of swearword among the Old Left, the Right might not have been able to promote themselves as the movement of mass consumerism (which itself required a considerable effort and a breakout of old assumptions for them) so successfully.

Tempany’s antipathy towards “entertainment”, as with his other rhetoric, was once used to promote the notion that Motown or Trojan could never truly be “culture”, could only ever be a false-consciousness distraction from the struggle; well-meant and heartfelt it obviously was, but it laid the foundation stone for those who already seemed irrelevantly old to Tempany as a child to abandon the struggle as something they could never fully participate in, because they feared they would be seen as an illegitimate, bought-out presence.  The Old Left’s division of “culture” and “entertainment” played a significant role in leaving an entire generation with no real home but a rootless, individualistic form of Toryism; Tempany should be aware of the risks of alienating another generation in a similar way.  This is especially regrettable because Motown and Trojan were culture, in the truest and deepest sense (the use of that word in roots reggae, while it may have its roots in reclamation of the language and imposed models of the imperial ruling class, seems loaded and meaningful in other ways as well); why cannot the forms being developed by young people within the internet era, outside the control or awareness or grasp of their parents, also be recognised as culture rather than passive, one-way Cowellism?  Blairism wasn’t the sole and inevitable end point of the New Left; it could have finished up in many other places, there were many other directions open for it to be taken in.

(a propos the challenge – however oblique, and however little so many people of that generation really understood it – that the “1964 moment” posed to racist and isolationist tendencies among the British working class itself – “every brother ain’t a brother”, to take a line from the most comparable American context, which would pejoratively have used the N-word to refer to British working-class racists, as a symbol of subservience and fear among any oppressed class – I note that Tempany does not, in that piece at least, mention the ugly racism so common in football grounds here in the period he writes about.  No doubt he does in the fuller content of the book he has written.  But I think its absence from the Observer piece might give something away, at least about what kind of Leftist Tempany is.)

It is the age-old dilemma of the Left, of course; even if (for example) Sky Sports is obviously built on neoliberalism and brutal divide-and-rule politics (the more internationalist BT Sport wouldn’t be quite the same thing, for all that it only exists because Sky does), should it be considered accidentally progressive, progressive by default on Marx’s model of 19th Century mercantile capitalism, if it opens people up to new territories beyond the scope of what may often be narrow and restrictive physical communities, or should it still be condemned for other, deeper reasons?  There is no one definitive answer; there is no absolute final conclusion that can close down debate forever, and nor should there be.  But ultimately, when I write a piece such as this, I cannot but think of Akala’s response to Sun and Daily Mail readers, UKIP supporters and their ilk who talk of “wanting their country back” – the brutally simple, knife-like (in that respect on a par even with Chuck D’s very best lines) “it never was yours”.  That might not fit into the narrative of romantic, nostalgic socialism whose resurgence is of course wholly understandable – the Blair government must have made all those within the Left who had seen Trotskyists as alien, bourgeois intruders feel some sort of vindication – but in the end, and especially in the case of football, it is the truth.  In the place and time Tempany remembers so fondly, the clubs were controlled by what Paul Weller, frustrated at some deep level that the striking miners could never love him as he loved them, aptly referred to as “every small town institution” – and you did not have to be remotely, or even putatively, neoliberal to feel yourself “chained and shackled by the dirt” of small-time capitalism, forever penny-pinching and undercutting new ideas.

If we had been Germany, we would have been so much more democratic in the first place that a bigger, glossier form of anti-democracy wouldn’t have seemed the only way out.  But – in the end – our history, and the wars we thought we’d won, prevented us from being Germany, and it is not the fault of the English working class who live now that we could not be so.  It is not the fault of those who know nothing but neoliberalism that they very largely choose global “communities of interest”.  You can only respond to – and, somehow, cope with – the situations that exist within your own personal experience.  The young people who are suffering from this vengeful, hateful government, wilfully denying them any kind of future (and yes, I know the 1977 ironies that scream out of that sentence), cannot be blamed for their disconnection from their elders: I know I have used this analogy before, but they were given this world, they didn’t make it.  And if their chosen ways out of it are different from those their elders might have regarded as most legitimate, that is not in itself neoliberal or anti-social.

Ultimately, it is with the greatest sadness of my life that I cannot fully agree with Adrian Tempany.  I’d love nothing more than to agree with every word of the piece that inspired this one, as a cypher and a cover for a million other pieces I could have written in a million different places and times.  It is simply my experience of life – and the things I have learned and absorbed – which mean I cannot.  I mean Adrian Tempany no ill-will or ill-thought.  It is just that, in the end, there have to be other ways.  Without them, the evolution and development of humanity – and especially of working-class culture – would cease altogether.  Yes, there are always exploitative forces overlooking them seeking to turn them into pure consumerism, pure genuflection to those who are “waiting to exploit their lives away”.  But that does not mean that is all they are.  Keep your eyes focused on plutocracy and its divide-and-rule tactics, especially as manifested in the Premier League.  Keep your razor-sharp focus on those forces, and give them the hate they deserve.  But don’t lump working-class self-determination, especially among young people, with it.  Firm up your hatred for the abuses of the modern world.  But don’t hate that entire world along with it.  Otherwise you might – through no fault of your own, and without knowing it – end up a sad ghost of yourself, surrounded by “newspaper cuttings of your glory days”.  And nobody with Tempany’s strong socialist convictions should ever end up that way.

Ultimately, it’s not any of our faults.  It’s the problem of England.  And, in the end, that’s why I’m still writing this.  Maybe I’ll hide in the summer, absent myself from this sort of environment of rhetoric, this sort of exchange of ideas.  But whatever happens, I’ll still be here after September.  Somebody has to fill this gap, and it might as well be me.