Agitprop goes ambient on the Velvet tour: As a cyberpunk circus sets out to raise political awareness, Alix Sharkey asks whether young Britons really want to mix raves and revolution

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIS WEEK saw the launch of Velvet Revolution, a rave-style revue that has just embarked on a two-month national tour, in an effort to agitate, educate and organise young Britons into an effective political force. The Velvet Revolution tour will feature some of the techno- rave scene's best sound systems, bands and DJs, along with hi-tech video and lighting effects, 'interactive' theatre, and various other forms of entertainment.

More importantly, this cyberpunk circus will also provide a platform for guest speakers, who will attempt to whip up and channel an increasing sense of outrage against the imminent Criminal Justice Bill, which reaches the statute book in November.

'For a long time it's been felt that young people weren't particularly focused on political issues,' says Sean Sweeney, one of the tour's organisers. 'But the Criminal Justice Bill has changed all that. Out of the blue Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has done us all a favour and presented us with an issue that unites people in defence of their civil rights.'

Sweeney is a leading member of Activ-88, the youth arm of Charter 88, a pressure group established in 1988 to campaign for constitutional reform. Among its central tenets are a Bill of Rights, freedom of information, electoral, parliamentary and judicial reform, and a written constitution. Activ-88, the force behind Velvet Revolution, was established this year 'to provide an information base, act as a voice for youth issues and encourage participation and demand for a healthy democracy'.

Like the poll tax before it, says Sweeney, the Criminal Justice Bill has provoked widespread dissent at grassroots level, and given otherwise disparate social groups a common cause. Anti-roads campaigners, ramblers and hikers, women's groups, ravers, travellers, squatters, the unemployed, environmentalists, trades unions, CND, and civil and animal rights activists are just some of those involved in Activ-88's campaign, with more joining up all the time.

Though nothing bar an act of God will prevent the Criminal Justice Bill becoming law next month, Activ-88's strategy is to use feeling against the Bill as a first step to generating direct political action that would culminate in constitutional reform. 'Beyond focusing anti-CJB feeling,' says Sweeney, 'the emphasis of the tour is to try and explain its link to wider issues, like our lack of a Bill of Rights, and the whole question of the way we are governed.'

But can entertainment and politics share an ambient room? Can an agitprop revue show galvanise youth culture, infuse it with political awareness, and then convert that energy into effective action? The Anti-Nazi League was instrumental in countering neo-fascist activity during the late Seventies, but there are ominous precedents: the Labour Party's attempt to capture the youth vote in the mid- Eighties with its ill-fated Red Wedge campaign led by Ben Elton and Billy Bragg ended up with egg all over its face.

'The objective of Red Wedge was to get Thatcher out and Kinnock in,' says Sweeney. 'Now there is a genuine desire for absolute and total change. Our aims are political and constitutional reform. We are not interested in the old two-party adversarial system.

'The Labour Party doesn't dare talk about the CJB because they want to appear tough on law and order. And if Tony Blair criticised it, then Tory MPs would be screaming about the loony left.'

Among the principal groups on the Velvet Revolution tour will be the DIY sound system, a Nottingham-based collective whose one- off rave parties have achieved legendary status over the past three years. One of its prime movers, Harry (he refuses to give his last name), says DIY has raised pounds 20,000 so far this year, to pay for anti-CJB pamphlets and information sheets that are handed out at their events.

Another civil rights group, the Freedom Network, will also be on hand to offer its growing resources, including a computer database of groups with similar interests, and advise on the most effective forms of direct action against the CJB. The Freedom Network activist Petunia (again no last name) thinks organised resistance will win the day. 'We won't stop when this Bill goes through. It is unworkable, and we'll prove it. We can't wait around any more for politicians to sort it out.'

Avril Mair, the 24-year-old editor of i-D, believes the demise of angry, committed youth has been exaggerated. Any moment now, she says, the storm will break, and the Velvet Revolution may be the first roll of thunder.

'This government is trying to criminalise young people who reject the crumbling culture of their elders in favour of something that looks to the future. Networks are being established and links forged that will change the future of this country.'

Since most of the tour venues are student union halls, the Velvet Revolution may only be an exercise in preaching to the converted. But Mair disagrees. 'It's a fallacy that students are politically aware. Half of them only want to get a degree and a nice job.'

But the big question remains unanswered: is this generation prepared to have a good time and get involved in the grubby business of activism?

Perhaps the lessons of another era can provide a clue. In his book Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, Jay Stevens describes how, as late as 1965, American teenagers were being written off in Time magazine as a generation of apolitical, docile consumers. Within 16 months, of course, the United States was reeling from the shock of the hippy explosion. And history, as even twentysomethings can tell you, has a tendency to repeat itself.