Sometimes, anniversaries come as a shock to the system. Yep, it’s 35 years this week that the Clash released their first single:
White riot – I wanna riotIt wasn’t the first Brit punk 45 – that was the Damned’s “New Rose” in October 1976, which was followed by the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” and several others – but it was the decisive one, for me at least. I’d been ready for punk for some time: my record collection had expanded since 1975 from the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zep and the Who to include the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Dr Feelgood, Patti Smith and the Ramones. But it was “White Riot” that made me cut my hair and ditch the flares.
White riot – a riot of my own
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
And it was a long, long time ago. Since then, I’ve been to university, worked, done sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, worked, done more sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, worked – and now I’m in my fifties. But I don’t think I’ve really grown up, at least in the way that my parents grew up.
Sure, I’m wiser than I was, or at least I hope I am. I’ve been married and divorced. I don’t live in a junkie squat or a squalid bedsit any more. I own a slowly increasing percentage of a bijou two-up, two-down in fashionable Ipswich with gas central heating. I’ve got lots of books and DVDs and CDs, and state-of-the-art computer kit on which I can produce a magazine or a website or a feature film in my own home. I’ve no kids. So far, the current wave of austerity hasn’t hit me, though I worry about the next six months.
A smug, middle-aged, middle-class git, you might justifiably think. In my own mind, however, I’m still pretty much where I was 35 years ago when I cut my hair and ditched the flares. The music will never die, for starters. I still despise going straight. And the politics of the era still resound, much more than you’d think.
Back then, I was a revolutionary leftist – an anarchist by 1977, though in the previous two years I’d been through Trotskyism and Maoism, as teenagers did back then. Today I’m not a revolutionary, and haven’t been for nearly 30 years. That, though, is more about facing reality than any big change of heart. Sometime after the 1983 general election I twigged that the British working class wasn’t going to start a revolution and that you couldn’t be taken seriously playing Citizen Smith for real.
But when I joined the Labour Party in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t as an entryist but because I'd come to believe that boring old social democracy was the only credible alternative to the privatising class-war lunacy of the Thatcher government. As Richard Neville almost put it, it might have been only a potential inch of difference, but it was an inch in which we might be able to live.
The thing is, I haven’t really moved on politically since then, and nor has most of my generation. I grudgingly accepted Neil Kinnock’s policy review after the 1987 general election, and even more grudgingly swallowed Labour’s rightward shift under John Smith and Tony Blair after 1992.
Since then, Labour has left me colder and colder. New Labour was a success as a marketing strategy but the 1997-2010 government did little that has lasted apart from devolution. I’m still a party member, mainly because Labour makes a difference in local government, but I don’t believe the bollocks that comes from the party leadership. I want a return to Kinnockism circa 1988. So do most other party members and a large number of supporters.
Now, however, the kids have taken over. Last week’s New Statesman carried a long essay by Alwyn W Turner – a byline I didn’t recognise, but that’s my fault – looking at the failure of my generation to make any impact on mainstream politics in Britain. The New Labour crew were all born 1945-55, the new Tory and Lib Dem boys in 1965-79 … and it’s New Labour’s sidekicks, the researchers and spin-doctors for Blair and Brown, all born 1965-79, who now lead Labour.
They’re too young for the Clash. They look to focus groups and nothing else. Their problem, and ours.