Saturday, 16 May 2009

The politics of Eurovision and why last night was a mirage

Something that has frequently been forgotten after the humiliation of 2003 and the repeated disastrous finishes for the UK in the subsequent five years is that the UK did exceptionally well - third place, no less - in the 2002 version.  The song was, like this year's entry, a crushingly uninteresting ballad, but it had the good fortune to happen at a time when the UK was still benefitting from the massive wave of global sympathy that the US had received eight months earlier.  At that moment, it was widely seen in continental Europe as distasteful, or even an appeasement by implication of Islamic extremism, to criticise cultural influences from the Anglo-Saxon world, and future historians will undoubtedly be astounded that it took less than a year for Bush to so comprehensively piss that advantage away - for all that the rules were different as long as the Soviet Union existed, no previous president could have managed such a perverse achievement.

Undoubtedly the UK tried harder this year - Lloyd Webber's very obvious participation, the less conspicuous but commercially vital involvement of Diane Warren, and (crucially, and repeatedly mentioned by Graham Norton) Jade Ewen's unprecedented TV appearances throughout the continent.  Obviously the return of juries played some role.  But I don't agree with Norton that political voting has been marginalised.  As British troops leave Iraq, and as Europe settles into a much friendlier, more enthusiastic relationship with the US under Obama, the UK is far cleaner by association than it was in the previous six contests (and most of Europe knows better than us who really runs the UK).  It should make the best of this.  Its newfound cleanliness will be instantly lost overnight should - as the past week has made so much more likely - the BNP win seats in the European Parliament.  And if, as is likely, the UK goes to Oslo next year having just elected to power a party still deeply bound up with the most venal Europhobia, and which only this week has been talking about aligning itself with the most extreme and fundamentalist right-wing groups on the fringes of the European Parliament, its chances of another top five finish will be practically non-existent.  Indeed I believe that the long-term ramifications of the 2010 general election will include England's - as opposed to the by-then-defunct UK's - withdrawal from Eurovision, along with all other pan-European institutions.  I may be wrong.  But I think those who care about the ESC should cherish this moment.  It won't last.

What are the aims ...

... of those who have instigated the parliamentary expenses scandal?

I maintain that their long-term intent is to pass England into the ipso facto ownership and control of the United States - to have it literally ruled from Washington, with a puppet government holding no genuine power.  I say "England" advisedly: they would ideally impose such a fate on the entire UK, and they would not be happy if Scotland became a "glaring gap" in NATO's defences, but they have come to accept that Scotland and Wales would never accept complete control from Washington and, on the principle that selling most of their territory would be better than selling none of it, have come to accept that the partition of the UK would be necessary for the achievement of their aims.  To bring this about, they have to reduce English confidence in Westminster to the point where significant numbers in England would regard it as so rotten, so irredeemably corrupt, as to be worth abandoning altogether and replacing with a mere rubber stamp, while at the same time further increasing public feeling in Scotland, and to a lesser extent (at least for now) in Wales, that it is such a discredited, lumbering old monolith that they can get by perfectly well without it.  This past week, they have achieved far greater success in these aims than they could ever have hoped for.

But in the short term the effects of the past week's revelations will be manifested in revulsion against the entire "Westminster mafia", in a belief that anyone who isn't implicated in this universal (and clearly deliberately exaggerated) corruption must be, in some way, preferable. Including, I fear, a British National Party which almost certainly feels it has gained more than anyone else from the scandals - when Nick Griffin says his party is "unquestionably now part of the mainstream", he speaks with the self-satisfaction of someone who knows he's on the brink of some kind of victory, even if only by default, that the mainstream is now so hated that absolutely anyone who isn't part of it, however vile their views would have been considered previously, is to be admired simply because of who they're not.  This is what we are left with when Blair's post-politics - the abolition of politics, almost - completely collapses - all reasoned arguments, proper debates, were silenced on the assumption that post-politics would last forever.  It hasn't, but its legacy is that there is no true politics on any side left to replace it, and that (combined with the Tories' alienation of the ex-industrial North and Midlands in the 1980s, which has killed off what used to be a strong "respectable working class" / lower-middle-class Conservative vote among owner-occupiers in those areas, which is the main area - not the largely non-voting underclass - in which the BNP has built a support base) is why the BNP has got where it has.

Griffin predicted in 1997 that the coming New Labour years would see UKIP becoming the main party of protest votes in the shires, with the BNP - if he succeeded in taking control of it - gaining a similar role in the former industrial areas.  The accuracy of this prediction, which many would have complacently dismissed at the time, alone shows how much he understands and how strong his sense of where the wind is blowing is - far beyond any other far-right leader probably in British history (Mosley had the knack for a few years, but lost it rapidly in his own self-absorption - Griffin seems to understand realpolitik in a way no other British far-right leader ever has, which only increases his danger).  The most worrying thing is that the two parties of reaction - popular not for who they are but for who they are not - seem to be growing strength, not weakening, as New Labour dies.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Saturday, 9 May 2009

The impermanence of images

18 years ago Craig Brown - at that point as good a younger wet Tory as Murdoch ever allowed in - commented in The Sunday Times about the ubiquity at that point of The Rubbish In Leicester Square.  As he pointed out, it was ever-present largely because it could be used as an instant, universally-understood signifier of the events which led to the collapse of British socialism and union power, the way it had charged over the top when the times were good and created the climate where much of the working class were willing to "vote Tory this time" as another Murdoch paper had told them (the most ubiquitous then-current image of the early 1990s - The McDonald's In Red Square - similarly reached its status because it was obviously the most instant shorthand imaginable for the collapse of communism and the triumph of American-led global capitalism).

But that was not the sole reason for the footage's constant appearance in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Until 1992/3, the 1970s were very widely viewed rather as the 1980s were during the Britpop era, as a time of horrific, empty pop-cultural nadir and worn-out politics which deserved to be destroyed (not that the worn-out politics of the 1980s ever actually were destroyed, alas, but Britpop - as we know - saw a mass delusion that they would and could be). There was also a continuing mass media desire, in the run-up to the 1992 election, to convince floating voters that the Labour Party was still essentially unchanged from what it had been in the 1970s, that if they were foolish enough to put it in power we'd see a return to strikes and shortages, and some (especially in the right-wing press, where images of early 1979 were often shown, and allusions to the period made, for no particular reason) may have thought that the more we saw these images, the more likely we'd be to give the Tories another chance. They may well have had some effect.  But very soon after the 1992 election the purely pop-cultural "70s revival" saw in a rewritten history where such things were now a boring diversion, and parallel to this the mass media in the mid-1990s became fervently determined to get New Labour into power, which meant hiding any signs of what the party had once been and how it had lost power in its earlier incarnation.  The Rubbish In Leicester Square began to fade in prominence.

Now the 1980s were the new dark age, both pop-culturally and (hypocritically) politically, and the most powerful and visceral images of the miners' strike, up to and including Orgreave, were more frequently shown, as a sort of reminder of everything we had escaped (although it was, as we know, a misleading fool's paradise).  This situation would remain for the last few years of the century, when '80s pop-cultural revivalism was still a contentious issue.  Nine years after Craig Brown commented on the ubiquity of The Rubbish In Leicester Square, I observed on a mailing list that it was now seen if anything less often, because of the dominant simplified pop-driven view of the '70s into which it simply couldn't fit (and also, of course, because Blair still ruled absolutely supreme at that moment).  But the worm was soon to turn, and nine further years on it has now not so much turned as rotated many grotesque times over.

The Rubbish In Leicester Square is now, decisively, back - back because the narrative of our times is that a Labour government is useless, played-out, exhausted, and probably sending us economically back to the 1970s while it's at it.  Tellingly, and fitting perfectly with this narrative, the 25th anniversary of the miners' strike this year has been notably played down.  There was some tokenistic coverage on BBC Four, but BBC2 and Channel 4 certainly did not repeat their strong 20th anniversary coverage for the 25th. It is hard to deny that this is not purely because pop-cultural '80s revivalism is now so big (it was already dominant five years ago), but in fact largely because the mass media generally, as was not the case in 2004, are now either determined to get the Tories back in power or sort of accepting that it probably won't be all that bad, and therefore the vast tensions and polarisations of the 1980s simply have to be hidden from retrospective view, with anything that doesn't fit into instant nostalgia being removed for the same reasons that led to the general disappearance of The Rubbish In Leicester Square a decade ago.  The only real sequel to The Rubbish In Leicester Square - that yuppie-in-braces-and-brick-sized-mobile-phone shot which had it not been for digitisation would probably have gone black and white with the overuse that probably began at some point in the mid-1990s - continues its recurrence, but now with a much less condemnatory and often almost celebratory tone than it originally had.

What does this tell us?  It tells us that time, and politics, are a vicious circle of amnesia.  But sometimes they really do get better, and sometimes they really do get worse.  I fear we are in for the latter.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Ahead of the game

Sometimes, of course, I'm caught out.  Like when I cited two particular grime MCs in the early days of this blog who have since had crossover hits which in three out of four cases (I'll still stand up for "Take Me Back") are excruciating or worse (Elton John is by far the most bearable bit of the new "Tiny Dancer", and even he, even when he first recorded that, was just another shell in the end).

But more often, I actually think, I can lead the way in terms of inventive thought.  In 2004, I was posting extensively in various places - few of which I'd particularly want to revisit now - about the way those who had historically been part of the traditional elite had jumped on to pop music in the 1980s, and that this had had long-term ramifications for both pop and the society it exists in. Anyone could say that now and nobody would bat an eyelid.  But I was saying it before even I, let alone anyone else, had heard of David Cameron.

That is why I fear my current predictions may be correct.  To a substantial extent, I think I foresaw Cameron, and what he would mean for whatever his territory may eventually be, before he rose without trace in a way nobody else I have read did.  I hope I am not doing the same for future developments now.  But I fear I am.

Why Chelsea fans cannot have it both ways

The general consensus this week has been that Barcelona's frankly hilarious injury-time equaliser against Chelsea was the result of a UEFA conspiracy to prevent an all-English final. And I dare say it probably was.  I dare say Michel Platini really does feel that the Premier League is becoming too dominant on the European stage. But - and here is where I nail my colours unreservedly to a flag which will probably see me lynched into exile within the next 24 hours - I do not see what is wrong with this.

I do not defend corruption in sport (though I suspect that it is far too deeply-rooted in many sports for many reasons to ever be eliminated), and I do not defend what has now been proven to be corrupt refereeing which prevented Liverpool from reaching the European Cup final in 1965 and prevented an all-British European Cup final and an all-English UEFA Cup final 25 years ago this year. But it should be remembered that two of the above three incidents involved clubs from Italy (probably the only other European country, at least out of the long-established multi-party democracies, to be as institutionally corrupt as England and the only one to be in as dispiriting a political state at the moment) and that, in the case of the 1984 incidents, they had a point.  At that moment 34 years of development towards equality of opportunity and the erosion of squalor, want and bigotry - Britain was at its most economically equal in 1977, and its quality of life peaked in 1978 - were being systematically wrecked, and north and south were being set against each other as never since the Great Depression, leading directly to our present predicament where Chelsea/Man U pointscoring takes the place of serious debate and engagement between people who - I regret to say - genuinely despise each other, let alone everyone else. What was wrong with symbolically standing up for the European social model at the precise moment that Britain was abandoning it? The following year it became obvious what the cultural ingraining of suspicion of "foreigners" (while still taking an entire culture from a different sort of foreigner) had led to (while the Heysel Stadium was undoubtedly outmoded, this should never have been the excuse for Euro-bashing it became in the British press, least of all at a time when, as had been brutally exposed at Bradford 18 days earlier, almost all British football stadia were also largely unchanged from the days of Luke Haines' carrot-cabbage winters).  I have genuine sympathy for the likes of Oxford, Luton and Wimbledon - none of whom will be in the Football League next season - whose fans could reasonably have been trusted to behave themselves and who were denied unrepeatable European campaigns by the ruling.  My own team, Crystal Palace, suffered the same fate after finishing third in 1991, when the ban had been lifted but only the top two qualified, and although I doubt whether we would achieved much, simply playing in the UEFA Cup would have made us seem more fulfilled.  But the post-Heysel ban wasn't a conspiracy. It was the only way UEFA could possibly have reacted to the perversion of England itself by the creed which turns the north-west Europeans against their own.

Chelsea fans need to realise that they are spoilt.  Their culture is (regrettably) the dominant one that is being promoted at the expense of the native cultures throughout the world.  They have it all their own way.  They do not know how it feels to be under genuine threat from rapacious neoliberalism, to have the social and economic model they cherish continually attacked by the dominant ideology of the day (those of us who cling to the European social model in Britain do know how that feels, but Chelsea's current support base seem to be the children of neoliberalism, they literally do not know or understand anything else).

Most of their fellow Europeans, and especially the French, know all too well how that feels. They want a multipolar world, and for that I applaud them.  They also feel, quite justifiably, that pan-European competitions should not be put out of the reach of those who are committed to the European project by money and power which emanates from directions which symbolise England's disdain for it. Perhaps The Sun is actually right when it screams that a dummy page on UEFA's website on Wednesday afternoon predicted almost exactly the outcome.  But it ought to wonder precisely why that is, and ask itself whether its own pro-NAFTA propaganda, and its obvious connections with the forces that have taken the Premier League to its current financial level, is the real reason why football at this level has become so intensely politicised.  Most importantly of all, it speaks with forked tongue when it attacks the death threats which have shockingly been directed at the referee.  It has itself created that mindset over four decades by encouraging the working class to pathetically hate each other, or "foreigners", or the "nanny state", because the collectivised unity which was that close to achieving genuine, lasting change was genuinely scaring those who had taken power for granted (and who, in most cases, would ironically lose that power to deregulated global capitalism).  If The Sun in its current form had never existed, death threats directed at football referees would be utterly unthinkable in this country. 

I will no doubt being accused of being a "hater".  Wrong.  I don't hate English football, or Chelsea, or Manchester United, or Liverpool, in themselves - what I do hate is the process by which the Europe I love is being turned into a playground for big business and consumerism, the range and diversity of interests and tastes in England is being slowly narrowed down to Blairmurdochcamerongoodyboylewhoeveritisthisweek (and, again, who can blame UEFA for wanting to make a symbolic stand against the encroachment of this closing of the public mind into the continent?), both pop culture and high culture in England - and, through its influence, the rest of Europe - lose their fascination and thrill through becoming incompetent imitations of each other.  And I think Chelsea fans in particular should look at themselves, look at their tastes in music, food, drink, newspapers, television und so weiter, and ask themselves how they look to anyone not bound up in the irrational hysteria the Murdoch media have created around football since they took it over.  Ask themselves whether they might perhaps look decidedly hypocritical and humbug-ridden when they moan about all things European and yet expect complete and permanent dominance of the UEFA competitions without ever giving anything back.  Ask themselves why it always has to be their fellow Europeans who have to change while they must never themselves change or absorb anything outside their experience that has not been presented to them by a tiny clique of media controllers.  Ask themselves how much longer they can expect to have it both ways. As will probably happen to England itself sooner rather than later, the reckoning may well come before too long.

I am not actually saying that English football should be exiled to CONCACAF, but this would be the logical conclusion of the Murdochian nightmare of England, one which I insist he still desperately wants to see come true before he dies.  It is curious how you will never get a Sun-reading, Sky-watching, rock/rap (depending on age)-listening, fast-food-eating, Coke-drinking follower of Chelsea, or whoever, to call for England to move from UEFA to CONCACAF, even though every other aspect of their vision would fit perfectly with such a conclusion.  No, they expect to take everything away from Europe and give nothing back.  They read newspapers riddled with hatred for their fellow Europeans and expect nothing but love in return.  English football has got where it is financially purely because of one man who would have us out of the EU and straight into NAFTA if he could and still they wonder why there is antipathy on the continent to English dominance and why they are even now so hated.  I say again: they cannot expect to have it both ways.  Not while they issue death threats against referees, and not while they hurl abuse at "foreigners" while barely knowing anything about their own history, culture and literature.

It is time that those empowered by 40 years of Murdoch and by the self-hatred of both the Left and the traditional Right started realising how things appear when the boot is on the other foot. It is time they stopped attempting to build a surrogate Empire in their own back yard.  Let us create a Europe of equals.  And if it has to be without England (Scotland and Wales could still be in) let that be.

I do have a long piece on the ramifications of Hillsborough in my head which I didn't feel like posting at the time of the actual anniversary.  Hopefully I will this weekend.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The best piece I've seen so far on Newcastle United

by David Conn in the Guardian

As I sort of predicted in January 2008, Newcastle's demise is running ever further in parallel with that of New Labour, aptly enough because both were, essentially, the same thing.  Both were projects built on reinventing something which had seemed dead in the 1980s, killed off by Thatcherism and the collapse of British industry.  Both attempted to use American and/or neoliberal techniques - the strategies of marketing generally, the presentation of American football specifically - to regenerate something local, culturally specific and rooted in history which was dying on its feet.  Both were an ingenious hybrid of social and market values, either post-Thatcherite, post-Cold War reformed social democracy for a new era or reheated Thatcherism with a human face depending on how kind you were to the mechanisms which had brought them into being. Both only made sense for as long as the long boom continued.  Both are now being very, very publicly exposed as having been built on a lie, or at least on exceedingly weak foundations.  And both, if they lose power this year or next, might never get it back.