Monday, 30 July 2012

Why the Daily Mail and the Tory Right hate and fear the Olympics opening ceremony

Is there still, nigh-on half a century after Enoch Powell and Peter Griffiths, something in the water in the West Midlands (which begat Aidan Burley)?  Am I wrong in fearing that anyone I hear with the accent (which in itself, unlike seemingly everyone else from the rest of the country, I rather like) has moved here for all the wrong reasons?

But my very existence shows how dangerous the Mail's hysterical (the hysteria of those facing and fearing defeat and comeuppance, as I will come round to later) attacks on the opening ceremony actually are.  I'm white.  I've lived more than half my life in Dorset.  I like grime.  I like it because I find it far more relevant to my life than Official British Music (whether that is classical or rock).  I am sure that Paul Dacre would have me and many others hanged as race traitors, but that is the truth.  This isn't 1963-style fogeyism.  Nor is it simply considering rap to be a new and unfamiliar form, as it might once have been (Burley is only 18 months older than me; British acts like the Cookie Crew and MC Tunes were having crossover hits when he was a kid; when "Rapper's Delight" charted, he'd have been in the cradle).

This isn't about music or the way music sounds; this is politics, pure and simple, and it has its roots in the defining territory of left-right politics ever since "we all agreed" on economic matters (Hitchens Minor's objection to the very inclusion of suffragettes - suffragettes! - is, even in Mail land, too far gone to be worth discussing; Burley's assumptions unfortunately aren't).  Burley's belief that Dizzee Rascal "didn't belong" is simply a result of the fact that it contravened the right-wing idea that Britishness is a multi-tiered thing - that some people who know no country but this are less British than others, that national belonging is not something equal to all those born and brought up here but something tightly graded and classified and separated.

The same philosophy dictates - actually for arbitrary reasons which are dressed up as though they were objective and final - that a form of music which has been hybridised and mixed in with other forms here for thirty years in a way that would never have been possible anywhere else (certainly not in the US) must still be considered less British than other forms which are equally imported and, quite often, more second-hand in the process.  There are plenty of other people and forms which do not get anything like this opprobrium whose claim to absolute, unalterable belonging here is just as subjective as that of Dizzee or the form of rap generally.

This has been the main factor separating Left and Right since the drawn-out collapse of traditional socialism (really a twenty-year process between roughly the mid-70s and mid-90s); the Left, broadly, believe that everything said or done in Britain is equally British, and that all people born and brought up here are equally British, whereas the Right believe, broadly, that there are levels and degrees of Britishness and that certain people and things need to stay in some kind of notional quarantine for longer before they can be seen as the equals of other people and things.  Sometimes the Left can go too far; some parts of the Left, out of a well-meaning desire to avoid seeming paternalistic or dominant, have failed to stand up for the victims of sexism and homophobia among British Muslims, and I don't defend that for one moment.  But even when Leftists allow cultural sensitivity to stop them standing up for people in minority groups who are treated badly, at least their intent was not to discriminate, even if it was misjudged.  Even when they go against their own principles over sexism or homophobia - and sometimes they do, and to their credit many who once did now admit that - it has been because they regard Britishness as a cake of which everyone living here has an equal share.  That is a far more noble mistake or misjudgement than anything made by Aidan Burley.

The main reason why the Mail and its fellow travellers have disliked the ceremony so much is that it fatally weakens their own politics. For decades, they have made fertile political capital out of the politics of "either-or" and "us-and-them" and ridiculous "if-you-want-this-you-must-want-that" assumptions and equations; if you like Elgar you can't like Dizzee and vice versa, if you think diversity is broadly a good thing you must think everyone who lives outside a major city is a fascist, if you support the NHS you must want ice cream vans nationalised.  Having seen the success of their American counterparts fuelled by the "culture-wars" narrative, they had worked out that they could achieve comparable success if they thought in similar terms, as the principal dividing line between them and the Left now that the latter had abandoned traditional economic goals.  And despite the universality of the BBC offering a residually common narrative which simply doesn't exist in the US (which of course is precisely why they want it carved up; had the Tories of 1986-1994 succeeded in reducing the BBC to a Telegraph letters page version of PBS and NPR, Dizzee would never have escaped his ghetto), they have had a good deal of success with it.

But then all of a sudden the Olympic opening ceremony comes along, and millions of people sense - instinctively - that it isn't either-or or us-and-them.  You can like and respect and respond to both Elgar and Dizzee, both the romantic national myth of the countryside and the achievements of the Industrial Revolution, both the older traditions cherished by the Right and the post-war developments cherished by the Left.  On Friday night, miraculously, it suddenly all seemed to be part of one narrative, part of a shared national story.  Millions of people - many of them the very people the Right think of as natural allies in a culture-wars narrative - had seen Dizzee and weren't frightened.  They recognised that this music isn't a break from the narrative of our history but a continuation of it.

And suddenly a disproportionately powerful minority - along with, much worse, their lumpenprole footsoldiers - get frightened.  They know that their power and success - at dividing and conquering - depends on one sort of working class seeing another sort of working class as alien, Not Like Them.  They know that if the Middle England millions think of Dizzee as part of the same culture as them, part of the same narrative rather than something outside it, that fatally weakens their dominance, their ability to set the national narrative in terms of who or what "fits" or "belongs".  They know that the Olympics' very ethos is wholly opposed to theirs - and they know that its application to Britain exposes their reading of our history as a partial and politicised one.

So really the success and popularity of, and national coming-together over, the Olympics opening ceremony suggests that millions of people who the Mail and the Tory Right thought were loyal footsoldiers in the culture wars might actually hold a far more open and broader view, a far less narrow and exclusive one, of what it is to be part of this country.  And a certain set of people cannot face that, as they know it might mark the end of their ability to set the agenda. It's exactly the same as the retrenchment to fear and nativism that has gripped the US Republicans since the moment Obama got in, and which lies behind their terrifying attempts effectively to fix the election through disenfranchising his most likely supporters.  It would have been far more surprising if people like Burley hadn't been so upset.  Twenty years ago nobody like Dizzee would have been there at all, because multi-tier Britishness was still far more dominant across the board.  The frustration of people like Burley is really the frustration of the impotent, those who know - secretly - that their short-term victories in culture-wars gesture-politics hide a deeper, long-term defeat.  And we know how that kind of frustration tends to come out ...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Robin,

    Sorry to bother you like this. I was hoping to email you about Nigel Kneale and M.R. James for a book I'm currently assembling.

    My email address is at this page -

    If you contact me via there, I'll email you right back.