Our Post-Brexit nation is different now - regardless of your vote, your optimism or pessimism, your anger or delight; it’s different. And while this isn't the forum to try and resolve differences or provide a single truth, the turmoil might just unleash the thing that wakes up this sleepy, suburban, self-satisfied island we call home.
So strap in, and let's go…
We’re in England, early 1970s. Before straight bananas. When we went in to the sprawling conundrum we’ve just voted to leave. Britain is a different place to the one you see today. Berni Inn and their gammon and pineapple based delights were a restaurant treat. One of not many. We had candles in the house to be able to see during the periodic power cuts. A working week had distilled down to three whole days - not through a science fiction leisure explosion, instead through strikes halting coal supply to power stations. And we still owed the US a staggering sum in repayment for their contribution to sorting out the last time Europe broke ranks and descended into nationalism. Saturday night TV was a selection of barmy quiz shows, one-trick impressionists, Marti Caine and racist sitcoms. Irony didn’t exist because Alf Garnett was held up as a right-wing icon. Things were nationalised. Who knows if that was good or bad, but it gave the 1980s Conservatives some cake to throw the masses.
Northern Ireland was a mess. It was being torn apart by Dublin and Westminster. We lived with the risk of bombs from not that far away, detonated by people who looked a lot like us, went to school in places like us, and listened to the same music as us. Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘Alternative Ulster’ summed it up pretty well: ‘They say they're a part of you, but that's not true you know. They say they've got control of you, and that's a lie you know’
But more on that later.
And of course for everything that seemed bad, there really was a lot of good stuff - Fawlty Towers, the soaring and Dan Dare-ish Post Office Tower, going abroad on holiday, James Hunt. In a few years, we’d be rightly proud of the Concorde project, a beautiful Anglo/French dream that somehow became a reality. It used to fly over leafy South West London and we would smile at the sonic boom - no doubt already preparing later suburban outrage at the thought of many more mundane planes overhead.
And amid this Britain, this torn apart, class-ridden, stubborn, proud, clever, streetwise, bankrupt, decaying, post-industrial country - we had a thing we did universally well. We did music. Well…we had done it well in the 1960s, then we started the 70’s pretty well. Then we kind of tailed off into public schoolboy ‘progressive’ meanderings, posturing and hirsute heavy rock and a tinselly version of the authentically vibrant glam-rock. I really don’t need to hear Wizzard or Mud ever again. If you watched Vinyl on HBO, you’ll get a time-travel glimpse into the lack of life in early 1970’s music. And what the arrival of something more exciting did to that malaise.
Before we get to that, fast-forward please to 2001. Can you think of a real, issue-based, ANGRY protest song since then? We’ve had things to be angry about - Iraq, 9/11, 7/7, industrial unrest, Iraq again, MP expenses. And yet nothing seems to have filtered through the treacle-y sludge wail-or-bling fest that is the music we routinely hear. How can this be? Everyone listens to Capital Radio, but it seems no-one’s listened to Capital Radio by The Clash.
Back to 1976. The bad things I listed above were pretty bad. And out of that came anger. And out of that came action. I’m not talking about middle-class liberals showing how street they were by going on marches and housing Chilean refugees - laudable though that certainly is. I mean getting angry, 1980s miners strike angry. Make a difference angry. Desperate angry.
Aside from those involved in mainstream politicking, it can be argued that there are two more impactful ways in which this feeling burst out. In later 1970s UK, one route was punk rock. Song after song from disaffected youth; noisy, snarling, sometimes incoherent, always visceral. It didn’t really matter who you were. Nor where you came from. It was about what you believed in - which in itself didn’t have to be anything to do with the traditional political landscape. The rallying cry was ‘no future’ in a swipe at (and from) the rather glum Tory admission that really, that’s what Britain faced. There were punks. And there were also Mods. Rockers. Tribes. Arguments. Anger.
Then there was another way. The National Front emerged in 1967, and by 1976 had over 14,000 members, but spoke for a much larger, highly disaffected group who wanted someone, something to blame. If you’re feeling that this sounds like the UK we see through our twitching curtains in these post-Brexit weeks, you’d be right. A milder version now perhaps, venting mainly through social media, but still, it’s impossible to ignore the unpleasant undertones of actual violence and ignorant and threatening racism.
These two forces; let’s call them music and nationalism, soon came to blows. It got angry. A movement called Rock against Racism began in 1976 primarily from outrage at the growth of the National Front, and it brought over 100,000 people of all backgrounds and colours to Victoria Park in 1978 for a gig I was neither old or cool enough to attend. The energy from those years between 1976 and 1979 revitalised the music scene, and spilled over into more fields and lives than a movement which lasted barely three years had any right to. Too many bands to mention are the forerunners and inspirers of many of today’s artists, but the anger-driven meaning and relevance to events seems to have evaporated. Even the mild-mannered Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello had recent historical events and the personal experience of a visit to Belfast at its core. Not a song that Westlife have ever covered to my knowledge.
So while the economics, diplomacy and deals will take care of themselves, the issues that drove the anger against immigrants are still there; simmering, festering, and the Brexit vote will do nothing to take that pan off the boil.
The thing is, we’re all now living in a period of self-inflicted instability. The grown-up question we’d all like answered is whether we’ll all disappear into a post EU black hole and return to the austere and candle-lit 1970’s. No-one knows the answer to this one, and frankly it wasn’t a very important part of the decision-making of the 72% who voted. It can’t have been, because the facts were in short supply. Anyone who saw the Channel 4 report from Barnsley couldn’t avoid the conclusion that it was a simple, single issue vote; less immigrants please, we’re British. No matter where they were from, why they were coming - just less of them. So economics were subsumed into an argument coloured by ‘a better life’ - and for the most deprived this equated to having someone and something to blame. Cue ‘the immigrants’, and therefore the EU for letting it all happen.
But as Brexit’s ears burn amid angry, trolling internet debates, the everyday world goes on. Shops open, hair gets cut, photocopiers whirr. And really, regardless of how you voted, it’s the simple things which matter:
We need confidence. Are we confident that we can be a nation that works in a post-EU world? To do so, we’ll have to make new friends and build new relationships as well as rebuild a few we’re arrogantly pooh-poohing.
And we need ability: which means a whole new set of skills and making the most of the ones we have. Berlin’s tech sector is already inviting British digital talent, so we remain a skilled and creative nation. But not just new ones at the expense of traditional or manual skills. We still need to build things as well as simply dream them up.
Crucially, we need honesty: with ourselves, recognising the mess of a country we have right now, not accusing the other side of being either weak or ignorant for saying it how it is. As the late, great Joe Strummer said: ‘without people, you're nothing’.
And of course a bit of well-directed and positive anger. ‘Anger is an energy’wailed Public Image Ltd the last time we needed some. Anger shatters NIMBY comfort and apathy, it clears the view through rose-tinted and blinkered spectacles. And we need to hear it through our radios once again.