Business, Economics and Jobs

London Underground: Ring the bloody Sex Pistols


Editor's note: London Underground is a regular column written by London journalist and writer Barry Neild on life in the world's most global city.

LONDON – When I was younger, there always seemed to be a riot going on. London was calling to the faraway towns and to a soundtrack of angry punk music, the disaffected swarmed into the capital to be baton-charged by police on horseback — and perhaps do some shopping.

Things kicked up a gear in 1990 when riots succeeded in toppling Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's deeply unpopular "Poll Tax," and it seemed that civil disruption and electric guitars were the only tools capable of halting a wholesale shake-up of British society.

With such righteous anger apparently hardwired into my country's DNA, it seems a trifle embarrassing that brutal austerity measures announced on Oct. 20 have failed to muster more than a few handfuls of grumbling protesters.

Meanwhile, over in France, the entire nation has been brought to a standstill by strikes and violent demonstrations against government plans to increase the retirement age by two years to 62 — a concession Brits made long ago with barely a raised eyebrow.

It's not as if we haven't been provoked. Government cuts amounting to $131 billion are likely to have far-reaching implications for all of us, particularly, say opponents, poorer folk who are presumably far more likely to riot than the wealthy.

So what's going on? Where are the passionate young men and women willing to hurl abuse (and lumps of masonry) in angry defiance of the heartless establishment? As our French cousins shake their fists in Gallic fury are we Brits simply going to shuffle home and make a cup of tea?

And where are the rabble-rousing guitar heroes and their three-chord calls to arms? It's true the U.K. music scene isn't what it used to be, but it's a sorry day when France's abysmal pop and rock stars carry more clout than their British counterparts.

I'm not suggesting street violence is a good thing. The concept of civil disobedience is always more appealing than the reality, especially now that I own my own collection of masonry lumps in the shape of a small London apartment.

Even in 1990, when I headed to London (on free buses provided by student union organizers) to help protest the Poll Tax, I was far less enthusiastic about entering the battlefield that erupted in Trafalgar Square to vent my anger than I was about sneaking off to a pub to quench my thirst.

It has to be said, however, that as a barometer of willingness to call political masters to account, nothing registers quite like a riot. So are the French just much more eager to take to the streets, or have the British simply become more compliant?

“It is often reported that the French are culturally inclined to go on strike and have a riot, where as the British tend to show a stiff upper lip,” said Edward Vallance, an academic whose book “ A Radical History of Britain” examines my country’ s penchant for popular revolt.

“Historically, that’s not the case at all. There are many examples of very serious rioting in British history both over economic, political and religious issues.”

Vallance points to the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 which left more than 300 dead, 500 injured and much of the center of London in ruins. It was, he said, just one of many examples in a long and — depending how you look at it — healthy tradition of displaying public outrage.

According to Vallance, tougher laws governing trade unions in the U.K. are partly to blame for our current inaction, as are cultural differences with the French, which frankly paint them in a much better light than the British.

“In the 1980s the British moved into an evaluation of quality of life in terms of purchasing power. In a French context there’ s still a sense in which quality of life is marked out by things like number of working hours, amount of holiday time and retirement age.”

Obviously, a lot of this is the fault of the previous Labour government which ushered in a new age of
prosperity for all, but built it flimsily over a yawning chasm of debt.

We now know cuts are inevitable. And because most people blame Labour for this (48 percent according to one poll), no matter how unpopular their budget-slashing measures are, the current Conservative-led government is less likely to attract a riot.

Music could also have a calming effect. Wheras the 1970s, 80s and 90s were boom years for politically-minded acts, with the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Billy Bragg all targeting authority with their firebrand lyrics, today’ s charts, filled with apolitical rap and Simon Cowell-generated froth, are hardly the soundtrack to revolution.

Economic austerity ahead could change all this.

“During the crippling recession of the 1970s the concept of DIY [do it yourself] was revitalized by punk,” John Doran, a journalist for influential music magazine NME, wrote recently.

“In 1976 the fanzine Sideburns printed an incendiary cover with the immortal call to arms: ‘ This is a chord … this is another … this is a third … now form a band.’ This revolutionary fervor is once again in the air.”

Vallance also predicts the possibility of a riot. He said another reason the French are in the streets and the British are not is that “although we’ ve been given the bad news, the real impact of these cuts has not been felt.”

He added: “At the moment we’ re not quite there. We’re seeing the odd demonstration, but things aren’ t yet biting.”

All together now: “London calling to the faraway towns....”

Other London Underground columns:

Touring Churchill's secret bunker

Inside Buckingham Palace: Are you worthy?

Video: London on two wheels

UK: Battle of the beers