It’s not 1977 all over again
Behind the Diamond Jubilee hoopla, both the British monarchy and ‘punk’ anti-monarchism are shadows of their former selves.
Is it, various observers have been asking, 1977 all over again? After all, they point out, we have a major national celebration of a royal jubilee, against the background of financial and economic crisis, a shaky coalition government, and signs of social unrest – just like it was back then. Meanwhile, assorted old punks are all over the media reminiscing about the anarchic spirit of ’77, and somebody has even been campaigning to get the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ to No.1 as a protest against the hype and expense involved in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
The answer inevitably is no, it’s not. Partly because what happened in 1977 was not quite the way it’s remembered. And because both sides of the monarchy question today are mere shadows of what they were then. Despite the Queen’s apparent personal popularity, the monarchy as an institution is an empty shell of its former self. As for the overblown reputation of ‘punk’ anti-monarchism, 35 years later that appears to have been robbed of everything except its contempt for the ‘sheep-like’ masses.
Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 was one of the final great parades of traditional British nationalism. It represented a last gasp of the spirit of the Empire, like the ghost of VE Day returned to Britain for a moment. There were 4,000 street parties in London alone, where people had a right old knees-up despite having to endure the horror of kegs of flat Watney’s Red Barrel beer (you try telling that to young people today, etc). Union flags flew just about everywhere around the country (this was before the national emblem was replaced by the Cross of St George, symbol of the England football team) and a million genuine patriots lined the capital’s streets for the Queen’s big parade. Even many of us teenagers who couldn’t give a toss about the Queen looked in at the obligatory street party for a free drink.
Behind those images of national unity, however, Britain was a deeply divided society in 1977. The permanent political crisis that left the minority Labour government hanging on only with the support of the Liberal Party reflected the stalemate between the forces of left and right in British society (both of which still existed as real political movements in those Cold War times).
With Britain’s ageing industrial base in desperate straits and the pound no better off, the Labour government was going cap-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund for handouts and trying to impose wage restraint on its trade-union allies. Only days after the Silver Jubilee celebration, around 11,000 pickets and protesters clashed with 4,000 police outside the Grunwick’s photo-processing works in west London, in support of workers – many of them Asian women – on strike for the jobs. Arthur Scargill brought the Yorkshire miners to Grunwick’s on a day trip to show solidarity. On the other side, the right-wing National Association for Freedom (founded by Norris McWhirter of Guinness Book of Records fame after his brother Ross was shot dead by an IRA unit for putting a bounty on their heads) organised scab deliveries to try to break the strike. Elsewhere the far-right National Front was gaining support, while tensions between black youth and the police were starting to boil over in cities from London to Leeds.
Yet for all of this political turmoil and conflict, there was no republican movement in Britain in 1977, no political opposition to the monarchy worth worrying about. The strength of the mass trade-union movement on economic matters had always been undermined by its political weakness, and the lack of any independent view on broader political issues from wars abroad to racism at home.
A tendency towards parochial nationalism was the British left’s weakest spot. The Labour Party had a long record as flag-waving colonialists. Even the new anti-racist movement of the Seventies tried to fight nationalism with nationalism, presenting the National Front as un-British, alien ‘Nazis’. In the early Eighties this weakness was to prove Labour’s downfall when Margaret Thatcher mobilised the nationalist ‘Falklands Factor’ to wipe it out at the polls. In 1977 the patriotic politics of the labour movement, exemplified in the royal toadying that had long symbolised the subservience of Labour leaders to the status quo, meant there was no question of criticising the monarchy amid the huge celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The only place in the UK where the jubilee was marked by angry protests was on the streets of nationalist areas in Northern Ireland, who greeted Her Majesty as the ‘Queen of Death’.
Against that background it is important not to get too carried away about the punk backlash against the jubilee. As Jon Savage notes in his cultural history of that moment, England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, the Seventies punk scene began very much as an ‘elitist’ posture of a style-conscious few against the mainstream rather than a mass youth movement. Punk took off more widely largely through the publicity gained by the manufactured ‘OUTRAGE!’ in the mainstream media, particularly after the Sex Pistols’ notorious two-minute appearance on the ITV magazine show Today in December 1976. (Younger readers who want a glimpse of a lost world where calling a TV presenter a ‘fucking rotter’ at teatime could be treated as a crime against humanity can watch it on YouTube.)
Once the media had turned it into a national phenomenon, however, punk did capture the imagination of a sizeable part of a bored generation who were desperate for something to happen in moribund Britain. Punk became a reaction against both the abysmal music clogging the charts of the mid-Seventies and a national culture that appeared stuck in the past. As Siouxsie Sioux, an early Pistols fan who became one of the more boring ‘new wave’ singers, later put it: ‘We hated old people, always going on about the war: “Hitler, we showed him!”’ It was as the ultimate shock tactic fuck-you gesture to that outlook that some early punks wore swastikas, rather than out of Nazi sympathies.
So it was inevitable that punk would get caught up in the national obsession with the Silver Jubilee, especially once the Sex Pistols released their classic anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ (originally titled ‘No Future’). Johnny Rotten’s electrifying rendition of lines such as ‘God Save the Queen / The fascist regime /… She ain’t no human being / There is no future / In England’s dreaming’ became, not the voice of republicanism, but a sort of ersatz substitute for a non-existent anti-monarchy movement.
There was little more sign of this sentiment than the Pistols’ record sales and some kids walking round with ‘Stuff the Jubilee’ badges. But the forces of the establishment decided to treat this dissent from the compulsory national consensus as if it were an armed uprising. ‘God Save the Queen’ was banned by the BBC on the grounds of ‘extreme bad taste’, and commercial radio stations were ordered not to play it under a rule which barred anything ‘against good taste or decency, likely to encourage or incite crime, or lead to disorder’. Major retail outlets refused to sell it. And there really is evidence that the authorities conspired to keep it from reaching No.1 in jubilee week.
The media heaped opprobrium on the Pistols’ heads. One Labour MP announced that ‘if pop music is going to be used to destroy our established institutions, then it ought to be destroyed first’. When the Sex Pistols played on a boat down the Thames on jubilee night (accompanied by such rebels as Virgin boss Richard Branson), they were pulled over by police and several supporters and their manager Malcolm McLaren were arrested and given a kicking. The Sunday Mirror ran the headline ‘PUNISH THE PUNKS’ and Johnny Rotten was attacked with razors and a machete by a gang chanting ‘We love our Queen, you bastard’. He recalled: ‘Normally I’d say they were National Front, but a third of them were black.’
And that was about it, a media war of stunts and poses with some real-life spin-offs rather than a political struggle over the jubilee. Compared to the anodyne discussions and events around the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee, however, 1977 might look to some like a civil war.
The Queen might go on and on, but the British monarchy ain’t what it used to be. As a regal national institution it is a shadow of its former self. This time the Union flags are mostly corporate advertising rather than a spontaneous display of popular support. There is blanket media coverage of course; there will be big crowds at the London events and some people will enjoy street parties (and there’s nothing wrong with any excuse for a party these days). But public interest in royal events is now more like an extension of celebrity culture (see the Royal wedding: why hate Will’n’Kate?), or just another momentary Shared National Experience (like watching England in a football tournament), rather than an expression of traditional political nationalism. The lack of support for Britain’s foreign wars today, and the moves towards a referendum on Scottish independence, give a truer reflection of the public shrug towards the symbols of the United Kingdom.
If the displays of national unity around this jubilee are more shallow and superficial than in 1977, it is striking that there is no longer any great political divide behind those images, either. Instead of the left-right battles of the Seventies we live in an age of widespread political indifference. The political stalemate at the last election and coalition government reflect, not a meaningful political divide, but the fact that few support any of the politics-free parties. One reason the Queen enjoys high personal ratings is because she is seen as different to the untrustworthy ranks of politicians. For the same reason, the political class remains desperate for her to go on and on for another 60 years as the one remaining symbol of the glory and authority of the past.
And what of the other side? There is no more of an active mass republican movement in Britain today than there was 35 years ago. If the left could not muster much opposition to the monarchy at the peak of its powers, it is hardly likely to do so now. Moreover there is no equivalent of the punk youth movement to fill the gap today, even if with only a momentary scream of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ across the media.
There have been a fair few old punks coming out of the woodwork around the jubilee. Some, like the designer Vivienne Westwood, declare that they now love the Queen. Others insist that they still hold with the values of 1977 and all that. Yet stripped of the youthful energy and anger, all that seems to remain of the spirit of punk is the elitist worldview it began with – a disdain for the ‘sheep’ of the masses who allegedly follow the mainstream media and are ‘brainwashed’ monarchists. It is worth remembering that the line in the Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ that says ‘They made you a moron / Potential H-bomb’ is not directed at Her Majesty, but at the millions of her subjects.
Even the much-loved queen of the punk journalists Julie Burchill complains that ‘being a monarchist has never been more mindlessly popular in my lifetime as it is now’, and that ‘never are the peasants more revolting than when tugging their forelocks – with such enthusiasm you’d think they were teenage foreskins – to their self-appointed betters’.
Another columnist of our Seventies generation complains about the stupid gullibility of the public in similar terms: ‘Monarchy works through infantilised emotion: Oh look here is the Queen! In yellow! In a hat! Here is Prince Philip being charmingly racist! Doesn’t it make your heart burst?’ Because the British people have been taken in like children, she gloomily concludes, ‘It’s no longer 1977, I realise, and we are one nation under the Tory groove. Or grind.’
Yet there is no outburst of mindless monarchism or infantilised national emotion around this jubilee. It looks more like a display of lukewarm affection for the oldest celebrity in town underpinned by an outburst of political indifference about the monarchy, even among those who might take advantage of any decent weather to go to a street party or watch the fireworks over the long weekend.
The Sex Pistols rather summed it up I thought, albeit slightly differently than they had in 1977. First it was reported that the group had refused an invitation to play at the big jubilee concert – the fact that they had been invited at all speaking volumes about the PR-obsessed royal machine today. Then John Lydon/Rotten declared that he wanted nothing to do with those trying to get ‘God Save the Queen’ to No.1, in the same way they got Rage Against the Machine to beat the X-Factor winner a couple of years ago. Neither really with them, nor against them.
No future? Of course there is. But we need some political vision of what it might be to get people excited about it. And nobody will find that in monarchy, miserabilism, or nostalgia for 1977.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)