On the day of the wedding, this country is undergoing a profound identity crisis.
"It's generally felt that this is a time for serious politics," says the young man in black, as police carry a battering ram and chainsaw past the smashed-in windows of his former home. "The Royal Wedding is not serious politics. It's a joke."
This is England in 2011: as the country gears up for the Wedding of Mass Distraction, police up and down the country have been bursting into squatted social centres and private homes, arresting anyone whom they suspect of having connections with the anti-cuts movement, on the pretext of preventing disorder at the happy event -- sometimes seizing known protestors on the street or from their cars.
"It's a bit elaborate," said one supporter outside the Ratstar squat in Camberwell. "The police stormed the place at half past seven saying they were looking for stolen goods, but there aren't any here, we're doing nothing illegal. Now they've arrested eight people, and they won't let us take the dogs away."
"Perhaps they're looking for leads, " his friend laughs, without humour. The police have, indeed, very little premise for these raids: different warrants are being used for every squat and social centre they burst into. No concrete evidence of conspiracy to disrupt the wedding has been found: despite the British press devoting weeks of coverage to these 'pre-arrests,' and despite rampant speculation over the evil plots these dangerous radicals might be concocting to spoil the day, most actual anarchists in the UK couldn't care less about one faceless aristocrat marrying another. All that money and publicity poured into smearing the protest movement may have been better spent had Scotland Yard sent a handwritten note to every known dissident with the legend "come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough". The protestors, however, are refusing to play.
The excuse being used for the raid on the Camberwell squat is section 8 of the police and criminal evidence act 1984 -- or so the officer in charge tells me, but seconds later he dashes back to tell me that no, it's actually section 26 of the theft act. "It's nothing to do with the demonstrations," he confirms. "We search these places all the time. No, this has nothing specific to do with the demonstrations last year."
"It's to do with the student demonstrations last year," says officer U4570, nodding and smiling a few feet down the road. "We're investigating stuff that happened this year and last year -- the demonstrations." Eventually, two or three officers admit that yes, the timing is to do with the Royal Wedding, saying, 'We've got to protect people." Despite protests from neighbours, eventually all the occupants of Ratstar are arrested and the royal couple can rest safe in the knowledge that they are being protected from cooking workshops and mother-and-toddler yoga sessions.
As squatters and anti-cuts protesters were being dragged out of their homes all over the country, pupils at my old Alma Mater, Brighton College --an exclusive private school on the coast -- were celebrating Britannia Day. The entire school gathered on the north lawns for a picnic to mark the happy occasion of the marriage of one terrifying proto-royal automaton to another. Patriotic red, white and blue dress was mandatory*, as was the case at many schools this week. So was participation in the college's first ever flashmob.
Yes, that's right. Flash dance events are apparently the done thing among the youth these days, and everyone wants to be down with the kids, particularly if they're trying to train them to run the country -- so Brighton College decided that it, too, should have a flashmob. The college had arranged special hip-hop dance instructors to teach its pupils some groovy moves, and on a given signal, every proud member of the school, from the Master and prefects to the lowliest fourth-former, began to gyrate embarrassingly to the strains of "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas. In the rehearsal video, which was distributed among pupils to make sure everyone got the steps exactly right, two serious girls in leotards jive and thrust in an enormous private dance studio with studied, joyless grace. It is, without question, the whitest thing I have ever seen.
This is a nation and a people undergoing a profound disturbance of identity. A few streets away from the Brittania Day celebrations, as the power of
flash dance was employed to celebrate the Empire, more squat raids were taking place in Brighton. News was coming in about another, conveniently timed swoop on student protesters connected with last year's anti-fees demonstrations. Since many of the men and women arrested and detained over the past few days have been known to the police for months, and few new charges have been upheld, the timing seems curious. The effect created is a narrative whereby the police are on one side, bravely protecting the royal family, the union jack, bunting, teacakes and traditional flag-waving deference, and on the other side is a mysterious army of dangerous yobs who deserve to be arrested for any crimes they might possibly be thinking about committing. We have become a country where protesters are "pre-arrested" before they have a chance to make a fuss.
Some of the charges seemed spiteful to the point of poking fun. Among those charged with Violent Disorder for actions on 9 December was Alfie Meadows -- the shy 20-year-old student who, on that same day, was beaten so badly during a police charge that he was left comatose and bleeding into his brain. The sentencing guidelines for Violent Disorder note that "it is not only the precise nature of the individual acts, but also the fact that individuals have taken part [in a protest]'. If there's a rowdy demo and you happen to be there, you can now be criminalised. "We can protect you, William and Kate," ran the London Evening Standard headline that morning.
Back outside the Ratstar squat, plain-clothes police officers with spotter cards moved in and began seizing people from the crowd, arresting them on unspecified charges related to the TUC demonstration on 26 March. The assembled supporters scattered: I had seen enough, and got on a bus back through central London.
On Regent Street, I walked home under parade of enormous union Jacks decked out with military precision. Every shop window was festooned with
more flags, congratulatory dioramas of clothes and accessories celebrating the coming royal union. Groups of revellers dressed in shiny plastic Union Jack hats were hurrying towards Westminster Abbey to secure their prime spots. Having just seen several people arrested for crimes they had not yet committed, I felt like I was in a scene from the film V for Vendetta, and recalled Chancellor Sutler's barking mantra: England Prevails.
Last night, mounted police charged on residents in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, another hotbed of carrot-growing alternative living. This morning, as dignitaries and delegates gather from across the world to congratulate Wills and Kate, Westminster is a sea of flags. The story is a simple one of patriotism clashing with anarchism, and on both sides, the story feels forced. The real indifference of the protest movement to the wedding is mirrored by the real indifference of the majority of the population: a ComRes poll last week found that 70 per cent say they either don't care or aren't excited.
Most of us, while enjoying a day off, are disinterested in the lassitudes of this fairy-tale farce, the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, the cargo-cult pretence of Business as Usual in Britain. Most of our real lives are about to get a lot worse, as the public sector is decimated, as unemployment continues to rise and the economy slides towards another crisis. Most of us are under no illusion of a happy-ever-after, and not just because we remember what happened to Diana. We know that something is deeply wrong with this country.
So this is England, on 29 April, 2011. The marriage of the heir to an archaic and largely powerless royal dynasty is celebrated with pomp and circumstance, while dissent of any kind is suppressed on the smallest pretext, or none. If you step outside the system, if you refuse to stand and shout hurrah, if you question the narrative of easy privilege, if you offer an alternative or try to live one, you are a dangerous freak and you will be punished. The poor get poorer. The rich get richer. And England Prevails.
**My littlest sister, who still studies at Brighton College, attended the festivities decked out in solemn black, accessorised with our Nanna's funeral veil, in mourning for British democracy. The kids are all right.