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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

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader. Getty
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Can Jeremy Corbyn win the 2017 general election?

Does the Labour leader have a chance of becoming prime minister?

 

After less than two years as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn is leading the party into a snap general election. This isn’t the first vote of national significance since his election, however, since he was in office during the 2016 EU referendum.

It’s also not his first serious challenge: after the Brexit vote, his MPs voted “no confidence” in him and Owen Smith challenged him for the leadership. Corbyn saw off that threat to his position convincingly, so can he pull out another electoral triumph and become prime minister?

Can Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister? The polls

Since May 2015, the Conservative Party has consistently led in the polls. The latest polls gives Labour ratings in the mid-20s, while the Conservatives are on the mid-40s – numbers which, if borne out at the polls, would give Labour its worst result since 1935.

But should we believe the general election polls? Glen O’Hara, professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University, points out that the polls have been wrong before, and could be overstating Labour’s collapse. However, a 20-point gap is far outside the margin of error. A Corbyn win would be an unprecedented upset.

Can Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister? Electoral record

At the 2016 local elections, Labour did not gain any councils and lost 18 seats and 4% of the vote. James Schneider, the co-founder of Momentum who is now Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, said this showed Labour was on the right trajectory, but it’s a disappointment for an opposition to make no gains. And at the Copeland by-election this February, Labour lost the seat to the Tories – the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Can  Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister? The verdict

Jeremy Corbyn’s path to power would be one of the greatest surprises in British politics. But unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. It would take some extraordinary events, but it could happen. Check out the latest odds to see how the markets rate his chances.

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