Get the banners ready. Man the barricades. Cancel police leave. We are less than a week into the first true-blue government for almost two decades and already we’re heading towards a battle of ideologies that can lead only to civil disorder and a riven society.
That’s not going to happen, of course; the days when we got angry – really, properly angry – are consigned to the past. Take to the streets and demonstrate against an injustice? What? And run the risk of being kettled for an afternoon? Much better to stay at home and express your feelings behind a hashtag.
Yet, after a long period when politics coalesced around a centrist agenda and dissenters were despatched to the extremes, there are signs that a more contentious, divisive discourse is emerging. It’s not that I’m hankering for a time when sirens filled the night sky and the streets ran with blood, but I do welcome anything that makes politics more interesting and increases public engagement. We have a government of the right – ending workers’ right to strike, curbing free speech, wanting to crush the BBC, that sort of thing – and already the battalions of the left, represented in the first instance by the cultural establishment, are ranging against them.
In turn, the forces of conservatism (oh, all right then, the Daily Mail) cite hypocrisy; and there’s no doubt that, when it comes to a genuine expression of hardship and injustice, some of our leading (i.e. most privileged) arts figures may not be the most convincing spokespeople. At the Baftas last weekend, there were several references to the iniquities of the election result, with the assumption that the audience in their black ties and evening gowns would be in accord.
“At least that’s one vote that went right this week,” said one recipient of a gong, while Jessica Hynes, a star of the brilliant W1A, used her acceptance speech to attack benefits reform and “the cuts that are coming in state education”. It had a slightly hollow ring given the surroundings but it was a provocation: an invitation to think about the relationship between government policy and real people’s lives. Likewise John Snow’s tribute to Margaret Thatcher, who was in No 10 when Channel 4 was born, and which was not in the least sarcastic. It drew sharp intakes of breath from the gathering.
Two days later, I was at the 10th-anniversary performance of Billy Elliot, a magnificently staged, unashamedly political piece of musical drama that recalls a time when Mrs Thatcher “put 200,000 men out of work”. Before the show, its writer Lee Hall addressed the audience and suggested that, with a rampantly Tory government, we were heading back to the bad old days of the 1980s. And then the play started and we were plunged into a time anyone under 30 wouldn’t recognise. People were angry. Workers and the state were pitted against each other. Communities were rent asunder. Disillusion stalked the land.
I remember that time well; it’s just not like that today and – I hope – never will be again. Nevertheless, we should thankful to anyone who reminds us that there are still battles to fight.Reuse content