Monday, June 28, 2021

Is there a Future in England's Dreaming?

There's a notable interview with Elton John in The Guardian, in which he lambasts the Conservative Government's apparent neglect of the performing arts during the negotiations around Brexit. According to Elton:

"People like me can afford to go to Europe because we can get people to fill in the forms and get visas done, but what makes me crazy is that the entertainment business brings in £111bn a year to this country and we were just tossed away. The fishing industry – which they still fucked up – brings in £1.4bn. And I’m all for the fishermen, but we’re talking about more than a hundred billion pounds of difference here, and we weren’t even thought about! 'Oh well, the arts: they don’t matter.'"

Now I think that Elton is a little mistaken about what is going on here, because I strongly suspect that the Government are tanking the arts quite deliberately. And, if they are, it demonstrates that the Tories are belatedly exhibiting some political nous. The first and most obvious point is that the British culture industry is generally very strongly anti-Tory, and in funding the arts what the Conservatives have actually been doing is feeding their enemy, and indeed shoring up one of the most implacable cadres that oppose them. For purely opportunist reasons it would suit the Tories to torpedo the culture industry no matter how much revenue it brings into the country, and it amazes me that they have taken this long to apparently figure this out.

However, there is an added benefit for the Conservatives in hobbling the arts, and which I referred to at length in a previous essay. This is that the culture industry, and popular culture in particular, have since the 1950's been one of the primary motors of British national demoralisation. This has not necessarily been ideological in character, but rather derives from the only future that most contemporary artists find Imagine-able - the peaceful world-utopia where there is nothing to kill or die for, and above us only sky. In opposition to this, the state and society that has been inherited from the past can only be viewed as outmoded and oppressive. Naive optimism and jaded cynicism are the two sides of the same nihilist coin, and this is why Give Peace A Chance and Holidays In The Sun are both essentially the same song. As a consequence, popular culture and especially popular music have tended to portray Britain, not inaccurately, as a spent and decaying former imperial power, lost in illusions of former glory, and internally riven with divisions based on race, class, and much else besides. Just spend five minutes perusing John Harris's Twitter feed, and you will get the picture.

This outlook has never been seriously challenged by the British state itself, mainly because most politicians, including even Conservative ones, basically agreed with it. When the Sex Pistols snarled that "there is no future in England's dreaming", or when The Waterboys trilled that "Old England is dying" they were, despite their apparent outsider status, merely reiterating the common sense of the ruling class. Unfortunately for Britain's creative artists, the one politician who now appears to stridently disagree is the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. In a recent interview (of sorts) in The Atlantic, Johnson was prompted to hold forth on the subject of the author John le Carré, as follows:

'He told me he’d taken a completely different lesson from the novelist. To Johnson, le CarrĂ© had exposed not the fakery of the British ruling class, but its endemic passivity, and acceptance of decline. “I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at school,” he said. “It presented to me this miserable picture of these Foreign Office bureaucrats … For me, they were the problem.” Johnson told me this was exactly what he was determined to fight.

"You lump me together with various other people—and you say we are all products of these decadent institutions and this culture, an inadequate and despairing establishment. That’s not me!" He said he was trying "to recapture some of the energy and optimism that this country used to have."'

Now it could indeed be the case that the likes of Roger Waters, Joe Strummer and Thom Yorke are absolutely correct, and that Britain, or at least England, is definitively clapped out and cannot be revived. It may also be the case that any attempt at national renewal is wrong in principle and that it is through international collaboration and transnationalism that the future beckons. It is nonetheless definitively the case that if anybody was to attempt a serious project for national renewal, the very first obstacles that would need to be swept aside are the creative artists and performers. This is why the arts and creative industries will need to ready themselves to meet, for the very first time, a government that will be happy, and perhaps even eager, to see their demise.

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