The grime revival shows unrest in urban society as a whole. Photo: Flickr/kevin
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The resurgence of grime music exposes a new form of political disillusionment

Young people are still frustrated – but the genre's revival shows a universal urban discontent.

In the words of Paul Mason, it’s (still) kicking off everywhere. This frank diagnosis is applicable at every level of British society’s layer cake. At the top, in the rarefied atmosphere of pre-election Westminster, the incumbent 2.5 party system has been pulled apart. Electorate faith wanes. And after scandals such as the HSBC tax avoidance debacle, in which a government trade minister appointed in 2010 once headed the bank, it's hardly surprising. The message is clear: politicians play by a different set of rules to everyone else.

From the tabloid press to Russell Brand to Thomas Piketty to everyone on Twitter, people are trying to make sense of our times. But beneath these manifestations of discontent, does the melancholy trickle down into Britain’s young cultural subterranea?

The reawakened popularity of grime – a musical genre born out of the deprived boroughs of east London in the early noughties – can offer insight into the mindset of urban young people and their place in the landscape of 21st-century disillusionment.

Grime was conceived shortly after the millennium. The New Labour government had introduced ASBOs and increased CCTV surveillance in its bid to be “tough on the causes of crime”, while elsewhere embracing big business, preaching a third-way, trickle-down economics. This pairing of policy – seen by some as a mix of harsh panopticism with neoliberal overconfidence – resulted in an inequality best symbolised, as Dan Hancox has pointed out, by the juxtaposed architecture of east London: Canary Wharf versus the high-rise council estates of Bow E3.

This claustrophobia incubated the birth of a raw sound. Grime is the reaction of neglected youths peering up at the exclusive, unobtainable futurism of the city from positions of poverty. Doused in anti-establishment slang, typical lyrics relay the gritty aspects of an underclass preoccupied with park bench apathy, gang warfare and drug dealing. It is a middle finger up at disingenuous "hug-a-hoodie" conservatism – a patronising philosophy that in essence still plagues politicians in their failed attempts to connect with the sceptical young voter.

Where in 2002/3 it started as an organic social reaction, grime’s role as a unified voice of the oppressed became gradually less coherent. Despite a slowly accumulating nucleus of underground loyalists, the commercial success of a few artists brought a softened sound to the mainstream. In this respect, some aspects of the genre’s evolution are comparable to post-Olympics east London: gentrified and unrecognisable.

And yet last year there were claims of grime’s return. It isn’t that it went away, but an unprecedented chord of wider media appreciation has now been struck. The sound has spread to Bristol and Birmingham, while a moody instrumental style develops alongside the new generation of angry, punchy MCs. This versatility means music fans at large – the technologically empowered Spotify generation – are listening, not just the teenagers at the back of the nightbus. Unlike ever before, a Shoreditch art gallery is a reasonable venue for a grime show. The squeezed middle, seeking cultural expression, is starting to understand grime’s raw charm.

After all, the coalition government’s policy of austerity has affected multiple levels of the electorate. As the 2011 riots hinted, urban young people in particular are still frustrated. Not interested in voting and thus ignored by election manifesto policy; facing housing crises and zero-hour contracts; locked out of the top city jobs and positions of influence in pop culture unless born into the privately schooled 7 per cent: a voice of expression has to come from somewhere. And this time around, with post-financial crisis awareness, more people – not solely the black working class of east London – share grime’s persistent despair about the unjust trappings of British society.

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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