It’s not 1981 all over again

There might be more cynicism about this royal wedding than Charles and Diana’s – but what’s good about that?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics

The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton has invited countless comparisons with the last big royal wedding, of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, in 1981. Yet what is most striking is the contrast between the political eras of today and 30 years ago – and hence between reactions to the two weddings. There is less of a national consensus of enthusiasm for this week’s wedding, and more sniping about it. But what’s good about that, when there is far less of a mood of political opposition in society?

The events of 1981 stick in my memory, because that was the year I first got involved in revolutionary politics as a student at Manchester University. The first political event I attended was a dayschool organised by the Revolutionary Communist Party, held on the bank holiday for the royal wedding in a dingy community centre in Moss Side where I lived.

1981 was a year of political upheaval and social conflict. Britain was deep in recession, and Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was overseeing drastic cuts in the old nationalised industries, sparking fierce resistance. Thatcher had already had to see off the striking steel workers, but at the start of 1981 she was forced to back down by the threat of a miners’ strike. While the Tories waited their chance to deal with the miners, they had other conflicts to deal with.

In April, Brixton in south London burned in the worst British riots in memory, a backlash of fury among mainly black youth against sustained police racism. It was followed in the summer of 1981 by riots sparked by police brutality in several other inner cities, most notably Toxteth in Liverpool, Chapeltown in Leeds – and Moss Side, Manchester. A few weeks before the royal wedding, the police station in Moss Side was besieged and we watched police vans speeding up and down Princess Road, with Manchester’s finest riot cops banging their sticks on the sides and giving their own version of the left’s anti-Thatcher chant: ‘Niggers, niggers, niggers – out, out, out!’ These were riots to make the recent ructions in Oxford Street look like child’s play, and they were met with the full force of state repression backed by a media campaign against the ‘mindless violence’ of black youth.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the Thatcher government was maintaining its hard line in the face of a prison hunger strike by republicans, demanding that they be recognised as Irish political prisoners rather than treated as British criminals. The leader of the hunger strike, jailed IRA member Bobby Sands, was elected as a Westminster MP in April 1981, and died in May. More than 100,000 attended his funeral. The hunger strikes raised the stakes further in the Irish War and put pressure on the British state at home and around the world.

In domestic British politics, the pressures of 1981 brought a split in the Labour Party, with leading right-wing figures leaving to form the Social Democratic Party, which soon formed an alliance with the Liberals. With Labour left veteran Michael Foot leading the party, the left’s modern hero, Tony Benn, came within a whisker of winning the deputy leadership from Denis Healey. Elsewhere in the world of 1981, political divisions took more violent forms. New US president Ronald Reagan was shot, but still had the leaders of the striking air traffic controllers carted off in chains; Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists; there were state massacres of oppositionists in Latin America, martial law in Poland, and a failed coup in Spain, where national guardsmen stormed parliament; the Israeli air force destroyed Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi nuclear reactor (worth recalling for those who think Israeli foreign policy is more forceful than ever today); and the US air force shot down two of Gaddafi’s Libyan jets (which is more than they have managed in the current war).

In the middle of all this, in July 1981, there occurred the wedding of Charles and Diana. So how do the reactions compare this time around? As Frank Furedi argues elsewhere on spiked, there was certainly more popular enthusiasm for waving the flag and celebrating the royal wedding in 1981, reflecting a powerful patriotic consensus across large sections of society. Only months later Thatcher was to mobilise the latent nationalism in British society for the Falklands War against Argentina. The success of the ‘Falklands Factor’ in British politics demonstrates a clear contrast with today, when wars seem more likely to divide than unite our fragmented society and it is impossible to imagine a Tony Blair or Gordon Brown winning an election with the ‘Afghan factor’, let alone Cameron mobilising a ‘Libya facta’. Of course there will be crowds cheering the happy couple for the cameras this week, and the more fawning sections of the media will strive to present the image of a nation united. But it is clearly not the same as 1981 (which itself was not quite the same as the carnival of patriotic reaction that marked the queen’s silver jubilee of 1977, despite the Sex Pistols’ best efforts).

However, if there is less political support for the establishment today than 30 years ago, and less deference to British traditions, there is also less coherent political opposition to the British state and the new ruling elites. This creates an odd paradox. On the one hand there appear to be fewer street parties planned than in 1981, polls suggest many people are unmoved by the wedding, there has been a lot of criticism among liberal commentators and there is even a panic about protests on the day.

Yet what does this ‘royal wedding-trashing’ really amount to? In the absence of any wider mood of rebellion, it looks like little more than cynicism and personalised sniping about the marriage of two posh young people. That seems a sad excuse for political opposition to the status quo.

As Brendan O’Neill has observed elsewhere, how come most of these sudden celebrity republican converts who declare themselves ‘appalled’ by the wedding circus have never seen fit to protest against the monarchy before? The fact that our head of state is still a hereditary monarch, and that the crown prerogative still invests huge and unaccountable powers in ‘Her Majesty’s government’, are important issues in an alleged democracy. Yet they have not been live issues for much of the commentariat before. Now that there is a royal wedding, however, the twitterati are suddenly up in arms. Why?

It is enough to make some of us old republicans suspect that their complaint is not really about the royals at all. What these liberal observers truly loathe today are the supposedly gullible masses who they fear will all be converted to Tory royalism by a glimpse of a regal wedding dress. They have as low an opinion of the public as do the peddlers of royal souvenir tat, if not lower. So they will declare the wedding to be ‘Not in my name!’, then go off to their smug little ‘alternative’ parties to toast one another on how sensible and smart they are, and defer to the opinions of the new aristocracy such as Lord (Stephen) Fry of Twitter.

But what difference will any of that make? None of this non-political cynicism has even managed to turn the monarchy into an issue of public debate. Instead it is just personalised sniping about the gaucheness of it all, as we might have seen around the wedding of Posh and Becks. It is alternative feelgood therapy for elitist liberals, and as thin as the feelgood factor provided for others by the royal pageant itself.

Back in 1981 there were certainly ‘Stuff the royal wedding’ parties and concerts, a sort of last gasp of punk culture. But the wedding itself was not the focus of public debate. Nor did it distract from the real burning issues of the moment. We had better things to argue about.

For example, that first political meeting I went to in Moss Side on royal wedding day, where the smoke of the riots had barely blown away, was not about the royal wedding. It was taking advantage of the bank holiday to talk about something important – the Irish War and the prison hunger strikes then going on. There might have been the odd excellent Marxist joke about the monarchy and some references to the different meaning of flying a Union Flag in Manchester and Northern Ireland, but that was about it. The day was devoted to a political argument about how and why to build opposition to the British state’s war in Ireland, followed by a drink-up in an Irish pub to the tune of diddly-dee music.

Thus began my life as a revolutionary Marxist in the torrid political world of 1981. Later that summer I joined a march from Manchester to Blackpool to lobby the TUC conference to support the hunger strikers’ demand for political status (some hope there). Later in 1981 I joined the RCP, a small but perfectly formed party feared and loathed by much of the mainstream left for our insistence on the primacy of theory and ideas, our belief in the need for political leadership rather than radical cheerleading, and our uncompromising opposition to the British state and all of its agents, most notable among which was the Labour Party. In the years that followed this was to lead me to become editor of the weekly newspaper, the next step, then of Living Marxism magazine, then of the relaunched LM, and finally (after LM was forced to close following an infamous libel trial) to become the launch editor of spiked. None of this had anything to do with the coincidence of a royal wedding happening at the same time as the important events of 1981. It just did not matter in the greater scheme of things.

Today there are plenty of pundits and comics lining up to have a shrill pop at the royal wedding, and there is panicky talk of putting a thousand riot cops on standby to cope with any protests by those anarchists or Islamists seeking a bit of publicity and for whom appearing outrageous is an end in itself. But despite the widespread uncertainty over celebrating the royal wedding, these currents have no more purchase upon public opinion than did the revolutionary left of 1981 – and far less to offer in political terms.

How has it come to this, that people who think of themselves as clever and serious critics should imagine that being cynical about somebody else’s wedding is the height of radical political action? The short answer is that ‘our’ side was defeated in the big battles that followed 1981. The ruling class may have lost its authority, coherence and grip on the public – but only after the left and the labour movement had lost the key battles of that era, and become politically exhausted. So it is that those who think of themselves as radical critics now sneer at such a superficial symbol of the state as a royal wedding in an abbey, while continuing to put their faith in the supposedly benevolent powers of that same state, armed with the anti-democratic Crown prerogative, everywhere from London to Libya.

The signs of defeats to come were there in 1981 of course. While the world was in flames around them, many on the left in Britain devoted their energies to working within the committee rooms of the Labour Party and trade unions, and the chambers of the British state. Thus we watched them getting absurdly excited about the symbolic campaign to make Benn Labour deputy, or celebrating Arthur Scargill’s ascension to the presidency of the miners’ union, or Ken Livingstone’s seizure of power at the Greater London Council. There was relatively little in the way of a left movement outside of those stultifying bureaucratic structures, no capacity to build opposition to the Irish War or solidarity with inner-city communities under police siege. Little wonder they proved ill-equipped to cope with Thatcher’s Falklands factor and that defeat in the political battles of the 1980s followed, leaving the left exhausted and easy prey for the New Labour clique.

Now at a time of recession and social crisis we are left with no political alternative beyond droning Ed Miliband’s own brand of austerity, and a debate about the Alternative Vote system in which neither side seems even aware of the need for some alternative politics that might be worth voting for.

So no, it is not 1981 all over again. The radical-sounding attacks on a posh young couple reflect rather the degradation of politics and what it means to challenge the powers-that-be over the past 30 years (just as, we might note in passing, the recent attacks by IRA dissidents reflect the degradation of the republican struggle). There is certainly no need to feel nostalgic for the grim days of 1981. But it is worth seeing how we got from there to here if we are to create something more meaningful in the shape of politics for the future.

Listen, I bow to nobody in my longstanding militant democratic republicanism – abolish the monarchy now, off with their heads (at least from the stamps and money), hang the last prince with the guts of the last media apologist, etc. But frankly you can stuff the overdone cynicism about a royal wedding, and the pretence that it is a radical political act to take the piss out of a middle-class princess. I had rather more respect for those ‘mindless’ rioters of 1981. At least they were trying to stand up to the power of the state, not carping about the cost of the dress it was wearing or the vulgar tackiness of its souvenir tea towels.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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