When I was recently interviewed by the author Rick Moody I found myself digging back through my memories of the UK and my time during the punk rock years of 1976 through roughly 1981. It wasn't a nostalgic exercise; the oft used colloquialism "it's grim up North" was more of an astute observation than a simple quip. Things that came to mind during the interview exercise were the coal miners standoff against a para-military police force, the right wing government of Prime Minister Thatcher privatizing our public companies to enrich her friends in the City of London, (our Wall St,) and the overall upheaval, the convulsing of society that came with that.
So here we are again in 2011.
The last time Britain saw widespread rioting, in the 1980s, street violence came after a long and failed political struggle against the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which suppressed trade unions and decimated social services.- Richard Sennet and Saskia Sassen.
History repeats itself, especially when memories are short. Here's a paragraph from me in the aforementioned interview with Rick Moody:
It’s worth pointing out that Gang of Four began when the Labour party was still in power under the hapless leader James Callaghan, with Margaret Thatcher taking the reins in 1979, eight months after the release of Entertainment! So it’s not as if we were in opposition to the Conservative party at the time, and we certainly didn’t write songs that had a political party agenda. We were openly supportive of the striking coal miners, we supported the Rock Against Racism movement, we were openly Feminist (“It’s Her Factory”) and so on, but really is that any different than simply being coined “liberal” or being a left-leaning Democrat in the USA today?
Just after we released our debut album, The Clash released London Calling - The album's subject matter was social displacement, unemployment, racial conflict and politics with a small p.
This time in London there is no Punk rock revolution swirling around the rioters providing a musical soundtrack to their nihilism. Here's Richard Sennet and Saskia Sassen again:
In attempting to carry out reform, the government appears incompetent; it has lost legitimacy. This has prompted some people living on Kingsland Road to become vigilantes. “We have to do things for ourselves,” a 16-year-old in Hackney told The Guardian, convinced that the authorities did not care about, or know how to protect, communities like his.
A street of shuttered shops, locked playgrounds and closed clinics, a street patrolled by citizens armed with knives and bats, is not a place to build a life.
Americans ought to ponder this aspect of Britain’s trauma. After all, London is one of the world’s wealthiest cities, but large sections of it are impoverished. New York is not so different.
The American right today is obsessed with cutting government spending. In many ways, Mr. Cameron’s austerity program is the Tea Party’s dream come true. But Britain is now grappling with the consequences of those cuts, which have led to the neglect and exclusion of many vulnerable, disaffected young people who are acting out violently and irresponsibly — driven by rage rather than an explicit political agenda.
And they point out that if the radical right and the Tea Party insist on attempting to fix economic problems and social ills by reducing the size of government the consequences of those decisions and actions will be enormous for the USA:
Britain’s current crisis should cause us to reflect on the fact that a smaller government can actually increase communal fear and diminish our quality of life. Is that a fate America wishes upon itself?
Are we all ok with that?