As a culture, Britain has always been rather good with straddling paradox. In this case, the paradox is a country in which dissent is part of its tradition, where in most countries dissent is considered the antithesis of tradition. But Britain has always stuck out a bit.
Whether it be clinging on to right hand drive, inches and miles, separate hot and cold taps or voting for Tony Blair two years after the Iraq war, Britain has always handled awkward things quietly and with the infamous stiff upper lip.
This tradition of dissent can be found in Chaucer and Shakespeare. It is also found in William Blake whose poem ‘And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time’ forms the basis of England’s most patriotic song, Jerusalem. The poem laments that England’s virginal bucolic beauty had been raped by the presence of ‘dark satanic mills’. It’s rather unique that a patriotic song should be an overtly critical, descanting piece of poetry.
This trend continued in the 20th century. In many ways Britain’s biggest cultural export of the second half of the 20th century was The Beatles. The Beatles were anti-establishment in more ways than one. The George Harrison song ‘Taxman’ was deeply critical of arcane tax laws, ‘Back In The USSR’ mocked Cold War hysteria with a Boy Boys like list of the exciting sites and pretty girls in the Soviet Union. Consider John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, more or less a bite sized melodic version of the Communist Manifesto.
But the Beatles weren’t alone. Consider The Kinks whose 1969 album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, both mocked and lamented the slow decline of traditional British social institutions. In Tommy The Who criticised the pervasive culture of covering up sex crimes against children, something which in 1969 was barely mentioned. Radical bookshops and galleries like the Paul McCartney backed Indica were popping up left and right, in 1960s Britain.
The trend continued in the 1970s with Pink Floyd’s creative genius Roger Waters referring to Margaret Thatcher as a ‘bus stop rat bag’ and ‘fucked up old hag’ on the 1977 album Animals. Pink Floyd’s next album The Wall criticised everything from the British education system to treatment of veterans and their families, creeping fascism and war hungry political leaders. Far from being censored or shoved into obscurity, Pink Floyd were one of the most popular bands of their era and beyond.
Even into the 1980s musical bands like Killing Joke, UB40, and The Specials mercilessly criticised Thatcherite policies. Later in the decade, popular musician Sting wrote a song ‘Russians’ where he challenged the far-right notion that Russian lives are worth less than those in the west.
But how far have things fallen and how fast! Today, most contemporary British pop music and art is rather bland and inconsequential. Not only is it less artistically valid, but any political descent or social criticism is widely absent. I’m not saying such things do not exist, they most certainly do. The difference is that today they are not allowed anywhere near the British mainstream. Everyone knows The Beatles and Pink Floyd, but today dissenting voices are not given the time of day by any mainstream outlets.
It’s rather surreal that the Britain of 2016 feels more artistically repressive than the America of Reagan which hounded and tried to censor the work of Frank Zappa. But this may be where things are headed.
However, just as Yeltsin, Gaidar and Chubais learnt in the 1990s in Russia. Politicians who attempt to violently destroy an organic culture, will find that the people will turn their backs on them. Dissent, subversive humour and protest are inherent parts of British culture…they are perversely conservative in a place like Britain. No wonder than that the most important Conservative Prime Minister of the 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli, once called the Conservative party ‘an organised hypocrisy’.