It's an alternative England
It’s an alternative England
Grab it, share it, it’s yours
Alter your native land
They say they're a part of you
And that's not true you know
They say they've got control of you
And that's a lie you know
They say you will never be
Free free free….
…in an alternative England.
What I want to do in this post is bring together two different things and suggest that they are connected. One of the things is a current political argument. The other is a piece of recent history.
The political argument is by Anthony Barnett. https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/anthony-barnett/it-s-england-s-brexit It is a rich and complex argument but at its heart is the suggestion that what is driving demands for the UK to leave the EU is a collapse in the equation British = English. The roots of this breakdown lie in the creation of devolved governments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Before devolution, English people took it for granted that the parliament in London was their parliament. Since devolution the realisation has slowly dawned that it is a British rather than an English parliament. However, since the creation of an English parliament would effectively lead to the break-up of the UK, no major political party has proposed one.
Anthony Barnett’s key argument is that what Ukip and the Brexiteers have managed to do is shift the focus of English anxieties about the post-devolution settlement on to the EU. In other words if there was a more powerful English parliament then worries about the leakage of power from the British (UK, Westminster) parliament to the EU would be diminished. So that buried beneath the noise of the EU referendum debates is a demand for radical democracy.
Buried in the mix is the fear that if encourage to surface, English ‘nationalism’ would be right-wing and reactionary. That Englishness is regressive while Britishness (in England) is progressive.
Barnett argues against this depressing understanding of Englishness. This leads on to ’Festivalized- Music, Politics and Alternative Culture’ by Ian Abrahams and Bridget Wishart. This is an account of the free festival movement 1970-1992, a movement which was primarily an English phenomenon. Buy it here
Connecting Anthony Barnett’s article with Festivalized has the effect of opening up a different perspective on ‘Englishness’. What Festivalized, along with George McKay’s ‘Cultures of Resistance’ (1996), highlights is that the alternative (or counter) culture which emerged in the UK in the sixties gave hundreds of thousands of young English people the opportunity to create a new identity, to invent a post-British (Empire) form of Englishness.
This developed via the free festival movement in the 1970s but was then heavily suppressed during the 1980s and 1990s. The repression had the effect of eliminating a radically alternative England and reinforcing reactionary and regressive England. Or more correctly, made it increasingly difficult to sustain an alternative Englishness.
|The Beanfield, 1 June 1985|
The mix of ‘music, politics and alternative culture’ is vividly described in ‘Festivalized’ through the first-hand accounts by 40 participants. One of the people interviewed for the book was Steve Lake of Zounds and (pp.107-110) Steve mentions The Mob -‘a punk band from Yeovil’ - as one of the groups which crossed over between punk and the free festivals/ the free-festivals and punk. In the 1980s I shared a punk housing co-op house with members of the Mob and briefly ran their ‘All the Madmen’ record company. A few years ago now Mark Wilson of the Mob rang me to say All the Madmen was going to be revived. This is part of what I wrote for the AtM website
Punk did not end when the Sex Pistols split up in 1978. It carried on into the 1980s, given a new edge by the impact of Thatcher’s government on a generation of young people. It really felt that we had ‘No Future’…Radicalised by harsh reality, punks realised that they had to work together and co-operate just to survive. A practical example of this was the creation of punk housing co-ops like the Islington based Black Sheep Co-op which the Mob and other punk bands helped to finance through benefit gigs. The Mob also worked to renovate houses for the co-op which (along with Andy Palmer of Crass and members of other punk bands) they later lived in. All the Madmen was based in a Black Sheep Co-op house for two years before relocating to another housing co-op (originally a squat) house at Brougham Road in Hackney.
Even if most histories of punk forget this hidden history, those involved have not. Against the competitive individualism which has become the norm over the past 30 years, we have held fast to the values of co-operation and mutual aid. But holding fast to a memory of what once was is not enough. Now another generation of young people are faced with a government which offers them ‘no future’.
The revival of All the Madmen as a collective on its own cannot undo the damage done by 30 years of neo-liberalism, but what it can do is offer this generation of young people inspiration in place of despair. The teenagers who created All the Madmen refused to accept that they had no future. Instead they chose to create their own future. And so the seeds of progress were not stubbed out but survived to flower again.
I had been aware of the alternative/ counter culture and the free-festivals movement ever since discovering Hawkwind as a teenager in 1972. However, it was not until I lived in London (1979-1997) that I became participant rather than an observer. I never went to Stonehenge free festival, but my (future) wife did and after the Battle of the Beanfield in June 1985 she became active member of the Stonehenge festival campaign.
I moved back to rural Scotland in 1997 and as my English/ London accent faded away so I slipped back into a more Scottish identity. Then came the 2012-14 Scottish independence referendum campaign. I was involved in this as a member of the local (Dumfries and Galloway) Radical Independence Campaign.
I gave talks and wrote for RIC, some of which involved going back into local history when, during the seventeenth century, south-west Scotland had been the heartland of political and religious opposition to the Stuart kings Charles I, Charles II and James II/ VII. The now obscure but at the time locally influential Reverend Samuel Rutherford wrote a book in 1647 attacking the belief held by Charles I that kings have an absolute god given/divine right to rule. I dug out these radical roots to counter the version of Scottish nationalism which see the Jacobite rebellions which ended so brutally at Culloden in 1746 as part of a centuries old struggle to free Scotland from English domination/ rule.
My argument was that Stuart absolutism and hence the Jacobite interpretation of Scottish history was part of the problem not the solution. Or, as I put it in 2013 “We are engaged not in a struggle for national liberation, but a struggle to complete a revolution which will finally establish a democratic state in the former United Kingdom.”
This sentiment connects with Anthony Barnett’s article but I went on to reflect on why I intended to vote Yes on 14 September 2014. This led me to realise that I would not be voting Yes so that Scotland would become independent. I would be voting Yes in the expectation that the resulting break up of the UK would empower the surviving and embattled remnants of England’s alternative culture. Out of the ruins of Empire they could then help create a new English identity.
Three years ago I went on to say:
Sometimes the political is personal. I’m not thinking of Scotland any more. People living in Scotland will have their chance to negate the negation and say Yes to a future. No, now I am thinking of England, the England where I lived for 20 years. So many places I have known, from Hackney’s grimy streets to the wheat fields of Wiltshire, from the factories I worked in to the sprawling chaos of a free festival. So many people, passionate, caring, angry, wonderful people. The friendships forged in those years have endured and so has the shared commitment to a future beyond ‘no future’. Another England is possible.From http://greengalloway.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/all-crimes-are-paid.html
On the day, Project Fear prevailed and Scotland did not choose independence. But, as Anthony Barnett argues, the UK’s structural tensions and contradictions have not gone away. Instead they return via the EU referendum and -whatever the outcome -the reconfiguration, the reshaping of English identity which has provoked the referendum will continue, although Barnett does conclude by saying “In the long term, great danger lies with a vote to Remain, if it is followed by a suffocating sigh of relief that prevents the English from resolving their democratic identity.”
Common to all was the implicit dissolution of a British identity which had developed with industrial and imperial expansion in the nineteenth century. But while ‘straight’ (= mainstream in counterculture speak) accounts like Anthony Barnett’s of what has happened since the seventies include the significant political and economic changes, the cultural revolution documented in ‘Festivalized’ is not.
Perhaps alternative England is just not very important. And yet…
during the Scottish independence referendum campaign, when British and Scottish identities and nationalisms fought fiercely against each other, the strongest pull I felt was towards my experiences of an alternative England.
As if the cumulative impact of so many senseless acts of beauty means that England already has the dream of an alternative future it must now possess in order to actually live it.