Thursday, November 01, 2007

Today has been cancelled

This is an interesting stunt by the Tories, who, whilst secretly breathing a sigh of relief that they aren't facing a fourth meltdown (and, even if not meltdown, at least mild disinterest/apathy) in the polls today, are making as much political capital as they can from Gordon Brown's discomfort over the unneccessary hyping of a possible autumn poll.

Now it's a clever ad, but I just wonder if it's something of a miscalculation? The graphics have clear echoes of wartime/postwar austerity; the poster reads like a quasi-situationist detournement of goverment public information propagada from the mid-20th century ; the lack of anything other than text just underpins the authoritarianism of the message. The whole tone of the poster conjures up a grim view of the state of the country which is at odds, to me at least, with the contradiction and complexity of the current social and economic situation. Yes there are considerable economic uncertainties at the moment; yes, globalisation is fuelling increased (im)migration; but to suggest that the remedy can be provided by a Big Brother type of government and that we are faced with a kind of 'wartime crisis' seems entirely misguided to me.

And as for the list of policy one-liners at the bottom of the poster, is this what Britain's electorate (other than the rabid Daily Mail-reading tendency who'll vote Tory anyway) really wants?

- Stopping NHS cuts and the closure of District General Hospitals*
[*deconstruct that as a phrase - completely conjours up images of the 1940s NHS]
- Teaching by ability and more discipline in schools
- National Citizen Service for every school-leaver
- Proper immigration controls and a new Border Police Force
- A vote on the EU constitution
- Ending the early release of prisoners

It all adds up to a pretty bleak view of the challenges facing the country - which certainly play on the sense of anxiety and moral panic about the country's place in the world in uncertain times - indeed, it plays on the whole notion of "Britishness", where the so-called "Blitz spirit" - embodied in that great propaganda poster keep calm and carry on still, perhaps, defines something of the country's national identity...

It strikes me that 'Border Control' - in the sense of trying to capture and define the terms of political discourse - is a good metaphor for what is happening between Labour and the Tories here. Both are falling back far too readily on authoritarian 'solutions' which will actually just stoke the contradictions in such rhetoric even more. Authoritarianism and fundamentalism resolve their internal tensions through an appeal to naturalized 'truths' and 'common sense' approaches. I don't detect a political language here from the Tories (or Labour) that can really reconcile: individual liberty/freedom and centralised state planning; a strong sense of 'nationhood' and the complexity of social identities in a globalised world; enforced 'standards' from the centre and the desire to enable 'personalisation' and local autonomy/flexibility in public services. None of these tensions can be resolved through authoritarianism. But both Labour and the Tories seem to be competing for the same narrow ideological territory (a shift to the right?)...

I went to the Cold War exhibition at RAF Cosford the other week, which is scary in its own way too. Perhaps it's an attempt by liberal thinkers in the military/industrial complex to demystify and make accessible some of the military thinking of the 1948 - 1989 years. It is most notable for having actual ('decommissioned') nuclear missiles and bombs on display and borrows heavily from postwar media material, attempting to put all the military machines - and the mad doctrines that fuelled them - into more of a social, cultural and ideological context than is customary in displays of military hardware. At one level it's impressive in its transparency; at another there are a whole set of assumptions about the morality of putting such terrifying stuff on display that need to be unpicked; but it's certainly provocative, for a former CND activist such as myself, to face some of the demons of the nuclear state head on.

There was something rather chilling and terrifying about watching small kids running around in the cavernous hangar, in amongst the relics of Britain's nuclear present, whilst mothers with pushchairs looked on in a slightly bored fashion at earnest looking clean cut men with short haircuts avidly tossing around their opinions about the power of the thrust accellerators and megaton ratings of the missiles, all of which have names like "Blue Steel" and "Thor".

So is this part of a return to a discourse of austerity and authoritarianism? The return of the 1940s and 1950s? Nuclear family values? There are some parallels, but as I've tracked elsewhere, I think the 1970s are a more useful source of zeitgeist fuel for the current situation, especially as the metaphor of ecological crisis is so potent right now.


Blimey, the plot/intertextuality thickens. Here's a home-made YouTube video of Helen Shapiro's 1969 recording of the song 'Today has been cancelled."
More retro-nostalgia for a more 'innocent'/vanilla popular culture of cold war Britain...?