John Harris

Journalist & Author

Which artist will dare break this deathly cultural silence? | John Harris

In the 80s, even Wham! supported the miners. But tomorrow’s strike has yet to find any expression in the wider culture

Thursday’s strikes loom, and underneath the inevitable theatrics from both sides, there’s a sense of an achingly familiar problem: trade unions stoked up and ready for action, leaders talking in terms of a long march through the autumn and beyond, but no real sense that their case has even begun to cut through to the public. But nobody should be under any illusions about how crucial the coming months will be.

Note the words of one unnamed union official in Monday’s FT: “If there is a confrontation it will potentially decide the future of trade unions in the UK.” The last time anyone could say that it was 1984, and the defeat of the miners was about to open the way for just about every domestic upheaval Britain has experienced since.

Hats off to the J30 network for trying to build a bridge between the public sector unions and their wider supporters; it’s good to hear, too, that the TUC has been talking to UK Uncut. But as well as the more clueless aspects of their tactics (witness Unison’s Dave Prentis making a deeply clever appeal to middle Britain by citing such great popular touchstones as the general strike of 1926), the unions are held back by a bigger difficulty: the failure of the watershed moment into which we’re being pushed to find any expression in the wider culture.

The thought occurred to me again last weekend, when a tour of Glastonbury led to a depressing revelation. Though you could hear voices of protest in the far-flung Green Fields and from the stage curated by Billy Bragg, the rest of the site was as it would have been during the boom years.

As far as I could tell, on any of the main stages, not a single musician had anything to say about the cuts, banks, tuition fees, or Britain’s entanglements abroad. When Art Uncut’s attempt to bring the issue of tax avoidance to the Pyramid stage was met with a pretty brutal response, the silence from musicians was similarly overwhelming: to pipe up, it seemed, would threaten the weekend’s mixture of blood-pumping hedonism and balmy reassurance.

On this evidence we have a culture that either squeals with the joy of escapism or fuzzily yearns for tomorrow: it has lost the inclination to shout about the here and how. Even on the rare occasions when the real world does intrude it means almost nothing: witness the jump-cut footage of the Arab spring U2 incorporated into a rendition of their hit, Sunday Bloody Sunday – as usual, dissent and revolt remodelled as blank spectacle.

For any aspect of politics to decisively make it into the popular consciousness, at least some high-profile people beyond the usual suspects need to talk about it – particularly in an age when politicians are held in such low esteem. Were there more noise about the government’s quest to shrink the state and the injustice of many millions paying for the recklessness of a few, campaigning against those things might acquire some traction. But no: far too many of the voices that make up our culture have arrived at their own mixed-up version of the telescopic philanthropy Dickens sent up in Bleak House. Rather than averting their eyes from the problems on their doorstep in favour of “the left bank of the Niger”, their focus does occasionally fall on domestic matters, but never the ones most deserving of their attention.

Of late we have heard from Judi Dench, Mike Leigh, Kathy Burke and good old Sting about the allegedly pressing need to liberalise the drug laws. The campaign to replace our miserable electoral system with a slightly less miserable alternative brought out Eddie Izzard, Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter, and more. Even when the famous and well-intentioned do talk about austerity, their priorities seem skewed, to say the least. Droves of authors have queued up to protest against the closure of libraries. In opposition to arts cuts, there have been noises off from the likes of Helen Mirren, Victoria Wood, Julie Walters, Kenneth Branagh, Maxine Peake, Jeremy Irons and Michael Sheen. An end to subsidised Shakespeare and free access to The Gruffalo, and they all go bananas. But what of benefit caps, or the iniquitous treatment being meted out to the disabled? If you’re outside the theatre’n'books paradigm, they’re not going near you.

Comparing modern realities with those of 25 years ago is a mug’s game, and the specialism of a certain kind of fortysomething. But that’s me, so what the hell: when the original Thatcherites were going about their work you could not move for benefit concerts, petitions handed in to Number 10 by star-studded entourages and interviews full of real ire. Strange but true: the striking miners were supported by Wham!, who pitched up at a benefit concert and declared their support for coal rather than dole by miming to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Katherine Hamnett reminded Thatcher of her opposition to nuclear weapons by wearing a huge “58% don’t want Pershing” T-shirt in the prime minister’s presence at Downing Street. These were the days of Hanif Kureishi and David Hare, Alexei Sayle and a long-lost Trotyskist trio called The Redskins. I have to say, I miss them.

Some 750,000 on strike and playing for unbelievably high stakes, a government pledged to complete unfinished Tory business – and still, a deathly cultural quiet. To explain the strange calm by citing the end of ideology is the cliched option, but that seems far too easy. Better to be more judgmental and talk about simple decadence, and a culture which has crashed out backstage – lost, and literally out of it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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