Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Michael Foot

has died at the age of 96.

The harsh truth is that the circumstances where he became Labour leader should never have come about: the ideal scenario, as I have said so often, would have been for Heath to win in February 1974 (which he was several different whiskers away from doing), Tory moderation to be vindicated and neoliberalism within the party held back, and Labour to reform but crucially without going neoliberal, ready to govern the country in the 1980s, perhaps with Shirley Williams becoming the first female PM in about 1979. Among many other things, this would most likely have prevented Murdoch from rising to his current dominance, because he built his empire largely on working-class readers in the second half of the '70s shifting from the Daily Mirror to The Sun because they felt alienated and no longer really represented by the unions, and had the unions not been given the chance to take the piss, many fewer people would have felt the Mirror no longer spoke for them.

Foot made the best of the worst possible situation - it has often been said that he was imposed on a disintegrating party partially by centrists who wanted an excuse to form the SDP, wilfully unaware that the first-past-the-post system made such a breakaway effectively unworkable. It is a great tragedy of British history that Labour was so divided at a pre-Falklands moment when it was enjoying massive public support - in contrast to Thatcher's early unpopularity - and could still have fundamentally reset the national agenda, had it been united. I would not have wished his situation - leading Labour just at the time when his strengths (intellectual debate and public meetings) had decisively declined in importance, and the crude tabloidisation of the British political sphere was really beginning to change everything - on my worst enemy.

For all the faults of time and chance which led to 1983, he was a great man on every possible level. It is one of those rare deaths, like that of Robin Davies, that - however many times you'd imagined it - leaves you feeling more spiritually alone, isolated and bereft than you'd ever thought possible. If I feel separated from something I know so well I find it hard to believe I never really experienced it, I cannot begin to imagine how those who lived through the battles where he was constantly so prominent are feeling. Many may feel a sense of victory, but at least as many will, I think, feel that bit more alone than they did a week ago. Sometimes, the passing of time affects us most when its effects have been held back the longest.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Beware the ides of March

(Revised January 2012 to add links to two YouTube uploads of Living for Kicks in full: one is here; the other is here)

50 years ago tonight - the same spring Blue Streak was cancelled and the Times gave up the imperial ghost, while Lonnie retrenched to the old CockErNee world having already created a new one, Cliff opined the new suburban pseudo-perfection and Max sang "I've got words for Elvis P" knowing that they would remain forever unheard - Britain's post-imperial humiliation was manifested on ITV, its single biggest platform at that moment, on two fronts. Barcelona's utter humiliation of Wolves, in the very same Molineux mud where only half a decade before they had been proclaimed the de facto world champion club side, exposed the old ways of English football for the antiquated facade they had become, and after a brief break for the news (really not a break at all, then) Daniel Farson's Living for Kicks exposed - with an almost unique sympathy for mainstream media at the time - the frustration and alienation of the first generation of clearly-definable teenagers, caught in a decrepit political state where exhaustion was everywhere in denial.

25 years ago this week, the old working class as a definable political or social force - and the whole idea of a Britain where everyone was somehow working towards shared ends within the public sphere - finally died as the miners succumbed, and "Material Girl" hit the Top 5 as the first song after Newsbeat (Bob Stanley carmodised that only 5 years later, by the way).

It may be that the historians of a quarter- or half-century from now will look back on early March 2010 with the same ominous sense of a turning point - the beginning of the end of the public sphere in British broadcasting, the moment the BBC lost what remained of its nerve out of sheer fear of a government that hadn't even been elected yet - and backed out of its universal role, finally allowed the pseudo-choice and pseudo-freedom of market brutalism to dictate everything. Maybe I am being too bleak in my assessment. But on a night when BBC Four - BBC Four, for heaven's sake - showed programmes about animals in TV and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo - it is hard to resist the temptation that the BBC almost has a death wish, has lost its nerve, has lost all confidence to speak up for itself and what it ought to be out of sheer paranoia that it may be completely dismantled if it shouts too loud. Maybe Birt should have taken the "Himalayan Option" after all. We may not have had So Solid mixed in with Britney or whatever, but at least we wouldn't have risked losing everything once the Tories regrouped. Maybe we might see a return to "purer" public service principles. But I fear we won't, because 6Music and the Asian Network - unlike the suspiciously untouched BBC3, Cash in the Attic or Holby City - represent the epitome, duly updated and redefined, of what public service broadcasting should be about. They could never be provided by the market and are exactly what needs to be retained. While there may well be a case for spending less on US imports (but, I would venture, more on European ones) and less on sports rights (some events certainly should always be on free TV, but it would be wrong to alienate non-sports-loving licence payers any more than at present) there is no case at all for removing services like these. There is an ugly set of reactions being played to here - a desire to further increase NuTory control of British pop (and who can seriously dispute that 1Xtra would be the next target?), to further atomise the British population so as to strengthen elite power in the guise of FAKE "democratisation", to decisively separate Britain from its European neighbours and effectively complete pseudo-American "restructuring", and to isolate and silence all non-white voices and influences, to create by stealth the pure white state many Tories still secretly dream of.

As the reliably excellent Andy Beckett states in the Guardian, it was only Birt's reforms - which fatally compromised the old independent public service spirit, and may only have postponed the evil day - which managed to save the BBC last time. There are many in the Tory party who still feel let down by his skilful politicking of 16 years ago, who wish he hadn't come up with sufficient internal marketisation and a shift in priorities towards global sales and formatting to convince their leaders that a PBS/NPR ghetto wasn't the only way, and they are if anything more dominant in the party than they were then, as the old guard who felt a psychological tie to Reithian values have almost all retired and are now dying off. There is a determination, as there was with Bush over Iraq, to complete unfinished business.

The relevance of what happened 25 years ago should be obvious. But I think a look back at Living for Kicks is just as telling, because those teenagers - probably now mostly dreading a further fall in what is already Europe's lowest state pension - were dreaming of some kind of escape from the post-war state, some kind of shift towards the privatisation of the mind which for them wrongly equated with freedom. That was the "element of sadness, a wistful hankering after better things" that Farson mentioned at the programme's end. Seeing how the majority were probably only ever after the main chance and their own interests - obviously there were left-wing idealists, and one such speaks at length in Living for Kicks, but that was in Brighton, an unusual, bohemian-London-like place even back then, and even there they didn't seem like the majority - it is safe to say that they eventually got their way. But I know many of them regret it, and the way it has left their descendants in many important ways less genuinely free - in the senses that truly matter, not how much you can watch on YouTube or how much you can say on Twitter - than ever. They were indeed trapped in many ways, but the escape route they chose was fatally immune to exploitation by economic forces who pretend to care for everyone but in fact care for no-one. I will mention without comment that one of the newspaper front pages that appears in Living for Kicks is from the Daily Herald.

Meanwhile, all I can recommend is a well-worded and thoughtful (hysteria will simply strengthen our enemies) email to, or similarly expressing your views here. We may never get another chance to say it.