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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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11 things I feel more sorry about than Cornwall losing money after Brexit

The Leave-voting region wanted reassurances that funding wouldn't dry up after Brexit. 

Eight months after 56.5 per cent of Cornish residents voted Leave, the region received some unwelcome news. 

Those who helped to tip the country towards Brexit no doubt did so in the knowledge that £60m of annual EU funding would have to be sacrificed. But the council hoped the government could reassure the region by making up for it in domestic funding.

Instead, in the latest funding round of "growth deal" investment, the Department for Communities and Local Government awarded the region £18m. It is the last round of such funding, and councillors are worried about what the future holds. 

According to the Independent, Julian German, Cornwall Council’s member for the economy, complained that: “The current process forces Cornwall to compete for investment with more affluent places such as London, Birmingham, Bristol, and the South East.”

It’s possible to feel sorry for Cornwall. But only up to a point. Here are some of the people and places I feel more sorry for:

  1. EU nationals in the UK, who face the fear of deportation after Brexit.
  2. British expats abroad who didn’t get to vote because they had been abroad 15 years, even though the result will affect them forever.
  3. Anyone with a stake in the Northern Irish peace process.
  4. The Highlands and Islands, a rural region of Scotland just as reliant on EU funding as Cornwall, and which voted to stay in the EU.
  5. Academics who rely on EU funding.
  6. Black and minority ethnic groups who have experienced a post-Brexit rise in hate crime.
  7. Millennials who voted to stay in the EU and will have to live the longest with the consequences of leaving.
  8. Children, who didn’t even get to vote. 
  9. Anyone who voted Remain and now dreads dinner with their family.
  10. Scots who voted No in 2014 in order to stay in the EU.
  11. The Labour party. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.