UK Uncut's 'Great British Street Party': kitsch nationalism?
As if last year had not been enough, 2012 is to be awash with examples of pomp and pageantry; from the Queen’s jubilee celebrations to the Olympics and Paralympics – as well as the run up to these events. Britain is to celebrate itself and its achievements all year round and will certainly not be reserved about it. However, in reality, there is little to celebrate: government plans to sail the National Health Service towards privatisation have been signed off by parliament, welfare caps and cuts to disability benefits have begun to take effect, the criminalisation of squatting has passed into law and will soon mean many homeless find their attempts to find shelter criminalised, unemployment has continued to rise and is currently at 2.67 million and the economy may well be back in recession.
So perhaps then UK Uncut are trying to highlight the absurdity of this juxtaposed celebration and deprivation through their latest action ‘Great British Street Parties’, which appeals to the aesthetic and mode of celebration of 1948 – the year the NHS, welfare and even generalised squatting became realities for Britain. Here it seems UK Uncut seeks to draw attention to all that we are losing through this government’s efforts, or perhaps more accurately: that the working class is losing the very concessions they fought and won after World War II. But of course, this is in itself a fallacy. Claims that the working class fought for and won these basic provisions is historically not the case at all; there was no homogenous Labour movement that coordinated industrial action even close to that seen in 1926 and whilst many were just back from war, there was no risk to the ruling elites of a violent uprising.
Instead the reality facing the Beveridge government was a class that suffered greatly from illness with no ability to pay for care – apart from the occasional availability of voluntary hospitals – and thus not able to fill the jobs needed to get the British economy growing. In fact, plans to universalise the war-time emergency hospital service after its demobilisation had been in place since 1944. Similarly, plans for the beginnings of welfare provision as we understand it today were first drawn up in the Beveridge report of 1942, which along with eliminating ‘Disease’ and ‘Want’, also set its eyes on ‘Idleness’. So we see that rather than being a victory of the working class, a welfare state was a gift given to them in order to keep Britain working.
Admittedly, UK Uncut are not celebrating the achievements of that year in particular, just what the future looked like in 1948 compared to the bleak future we face now. But with the benefit of hindsight we understand that whilst welfare may have been positive in improving material conditions for the working class right up until the present day, it has also played its role against them ensuring that capitalism stayed unthreatened and arguably pacified any meaningful resistance, allowing for the inevitable destruction of welfare institutions now in 2012. The future may have looked good in 1948, but we now know otherwise.
The historical inaccuracy of what UK Uncut is proposing isn’t the most concerning part of this action however, but rather the appeal to a nationalist aesthetic. Shows of pageantry and calls to celebrate ‘Great Britain’ at events such as the Diamond Jubilee or Olympics are often thinly veiled attempts to supplant solidarity of a dissenting nature with one based around a blind allegiance to the nation. For example, it is entirely convenient for the coalition government to utilize the Olympics to label the bosses of unions – and by extension union members themselves – as ‘unpatriotic’ for threatening industrial action. This is unsurprising as both right-wing and nominally left-wing governments often appeal to patriotism to stifle dissent, but that UK Uncut seems to have joined in with mainstream politics’ nationalist consensus is highly concerning.
This is perhaps most evident when you consider the ‘all in this together’ mantra used since the global financial crisis to foster a sense of homogeneity and getting on with things as we supposedly move towards recovery. UK Uncut and its activists originally set out to illustrate precisely that we are not ‘all in this together’ at the current moment, but now seem to suggest in the call-out for their latest national day of action that “Britain back then really was ‘all in this together’”. This falsely hints towards the existence of a golden era where capitalism worked; falsely, because in reality this never existed – it is but a national myth. Beyond this however and apart from the hopefully obvious factors of gender, race and sexuality that would mean exclusion from any notion of ‘together’ at all, let alone in 1948, the mantra is no truer of then than now: whilst a Keynesian economics prevailed in the post-war period, the working class were clearly, as always, the exploited class.
UK Uncut finishes their call-out by suggesting “The future’s not what it used to be – let’s get it back”, but we have already surpassed much of the wildest and most dystopian ideas in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four of what a future may look like. This, incidentally, was written in 1948, the year we are supposed to believe gave the British so much to look forward to. In reality, 1948 played its historical role in getting us to where we are now. This is something no amount of nostalgia and kitsch nationalism will change, but when we have so much to fight for why would we look back anyway? The criticism of UK Uncut’s ‘Great British Street Parties’ is not that it is activism in the guise celebration, but that it is celebration in the guise of nationalism, supported by a fictitious history. This can be all too tempting as a form of popular activism, but in reality is dangerous and simply plays into the hands of exactly what we seek to oppose.
Wail Qasim is a London student of Politics and Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. He blogs at isthisday.com