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Bread, circuses and tea towels can’t stifle dissent, says Laurie Penny

The case for disrupting the royal wedding.

Civil society may be dissolving, governments are in crisis across Europe and significant parts of the inhabited world are either under water or on fire, but it'll all be fine as long as nobody disrupts the royal wedding. The opposition leader, Ed Miliband, has joined the chorus of hand-wringers pleading with students and the trade unions not to start any funny business while the prince and his bride walk up the aisle.

On the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Miliband said that the notion of as yet unplanned strikes during the wedding or the Olympics would be "absolutely the wrong thing for the trade unions to do". Distancing himself from organised labour, the Labour leader's advice to the public was clear: stay home, be quiet and watch it all on television.

Over the next two and a half years, a full calendar of bread and circuses has been scheduled to keep the British public happy and obedient while the government puts its economic shock doctrine into effect. This year, it's the Wedding of Mass Distraction; next year it's the Diamond Jubilee and after that the Olympics. The timing is a gift for any government attempting to push through punitive and unpopular reforms - the chance to smother dissent with a dampened commemorative tea towel of pomp and circumstance. This is the highest function of what Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle: not just to distract popular attention from the machinations of government, but artificially to invoke the imagery of a national consensus that doesn't exist. In David Cameron's Britain, respect for the popular mandate is in no way important. All that matters
is the iconography of public ritual, just enough to make everybody shut up and shout hurrah.

Real war memorial

Precisely the same logic of baseless deference is at play when the press condemns student protesters who swing from war memorials during anti-cuts marches. While everyone gets worked up about a few kids harmlessly tampering with symbols of wartime sacrifice, the greatest war memorial of all - the welfare state - is being ripped to shreds.

Universal health care, universal education, out-of-work benefits, voter enfranchisement and respect for women's unpaid labour were all legacies of public consensus after the two world wars; all are directly threatened by the brutal programme of cuts about to be enacted by this government. As far as regards respect for the fallen, Cameron may as well have burned down the Cenotaph and replaced it with vending machines and a flashing sign reading “Big Society".

Venerating the static symbols of Britain's uncomfortably bloodstained imperial traditions requires much less compassion, and much less effort, than preserving the living institution bequeathed to us by former generations. Give the public a ceremony and a huge parade, the theory goes, and general complaisance will follow. This time, though, our leaders are beginning to worry that it might not be enough.

Ed Miliband horrified the labour movement by declaring that strikes are "a sign of failure" and that the way one challenges a dissembling government is “at the ballot box". This may have been the case once, but when democracy is subsumed within the simulacra of choice - when voting only gives power to a government that U-turns on all of its significant promises and implements an austerity programme for which it has no mandate - the time has come to challenge the iconography of obedience.

This is exactly why the possibility of disrupting the stultifying public pageantry of the royal wedding must remain on the table. Do we want to be part of a culture that sits in front of the TV, whining while the big decisions are made for us and cheering on cue? Or do we want to be part of a culture that stakes a claim, stands firm and answers back to injustice?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle