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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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Brawl MP Eric Joyce: Don’t blame me for Brexit just because I headbutted a Tory

The former Labour politician described Corbyn's politics as "quite literally bonkers".

Disgraced former MP Eric Joyce has insisted he’s not to blame for, well, everything that’s happened in British politics since he started a brawl in a House of Commons bar.

The butterfly effect theory runs that if Joyce had not kicked off in Stranger’s Bar one night in 2012, then the nation would look very different indeed.

The fracas, in which Joyce headbutted Tory Stuart Andrew and lamped his own party whip Phil Wilson, led to him giving up his Falkirk seat and quitting the Labour party.

That led to the infamous Falkirk selection fight which saw accusations that the contest was rigged by the unions and the Labour left.

As a result Ed Miliband drew up new rules for Labour membership, which included the option of paying just a few pounds to join and vote in leadership elections.

That allowed thousands to get involved in the 2015 leadership election and make Jeremy Corbyn leader. Corbyn’s ineffective campaigning and failure to deliver the Labour vote at the Brexit referendum is blamed by some for the Leave victory. And as a result of that Nicola Sturgeon is champing at the bit for another independence referendum and this week Theresa May called an early general election to essentially set up a five-year Brexit parliament.

“It’s quite a nice theory,” admits Joyce. “And on one level it’s factually true. But much as I like to self-aggrandise myself, if it hadn’t been Falkirk it would have been somewhere else.

“People were saying to me that the left were making a big push in Paisley to get rid of Douglas Alexander, then my thing came along and they made their stand in Falkirk rather than Paisley.

“Until that point I’d had running battles with the left, but I battered them down every year.”

After Joyce left Labour, Karie Murphy, now a key figure in Corbyn’s office and inner circle and close to Unite boss Len McCluskey, tried to win the nomination to replace him. But questions were raised about the role of Unite in the process and it was claimed that locals had been signed up to the party without their consent. As the scandal grew, then-Labour leader Miliband announced his fateful reforms to party membership in an effort to draw a line under it. (Labour later cleared Unite of any wrongdoing). 

Joyce told me: “Ed was very weak with the left and he had this terrible gullibility. If it hadn’t had been Falkirk the same issues would have surfaced somewhere else.”

He has largely kept his head down since stepping down from Parliament two years ago, other than the occasional blog on the state of the Labour party or the issue of Scottish independence – which he now supports. He’s canned plans for an autobiography but claims he’s adapted some episodes from his life for a thriller instead.

However, in this rare intervention he’s scathing about Corbyn and also about the moderate Labour MPs who oppose him.

He said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are quite literally bonkers.

“When I was an MP I took a lot of interest in Africa. I used to do quite a lot of stuff with Jeremy, he was really engaged and he just stayed behind the scenes focusing on his constituency and his issues. Then occasionally he’d make these bonkers speeches and I’d stay away.”

But he claims the current crop of MPs don’t have the skills to deal with the Corbynista tide.

The former soldier explained: “When I got selected I treated it like a campaign, I located in the constituency, contacted everyone, eventually I got selected, and when the left put their head above the parapet I knocked them down.

“A lot of current MPs got where they are by patronage, they’ve not had to fight battles, they’ve been special advisers. And when it came to Corbyn they weren’t able to carry their local party.

“Politics is all about numbers and organising. And while the Blairite bits of Labour write articles for Progress and tweet, the left just go and get the numbers.”

No longer a member, but describing himself as a Labour supporter, Joyce, an MP for 15 years from 2000, is gloomy about his former party’s prospects.

“It’s hard to see Labour in power before 2025, if ever," he said. "There was no coup, Labour had a nervous breakdown.”

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast.

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