Monday, 1 September 2014

They sickens you

Apropos of nothing, here's a 1992 Steve Bell cartoon which I have long loved (click to enlarge).

He drew it for the Guardian two days after the 1992 election in which John Major (John Major!) won a majority with far fewer MPs but the largest popular vote in British electoral history. Gramsci must have been turning in his grave… The cartoon exactly captures the shocked numbness I felt after the result. The poll tax was the worst imposition on the public since the Peasant's Revolt, and caused a widespread insurrection, and yet the bloody Labour Party couldn't scrape a victory against the party that instituted it.

The image references a Russian socialist cartoon from 1900, and an American version from 1911, after which it became a favourite on the left:

I remember the '92 election horribly clearly. I spent the Easter holiday in Rheims, on a desperate attempt to learn enough spoken French to scrape through the A-level. The sojourn consisted of horribly embarrassing exchanges with a family who had little interest in helping a withdrawn and incompetent visitor. It didn't help, either, that the le pére of the house was a gendarme who would wave his gun about muttering about les negres every time a black person's face appeared on the television which lived on the dining table. Two weeks of this, interspersed with classes in town in which my fellow learners muttered darkly about the prospects of a Labour victory (the apocalypse, apparently). Couldn't talk to the French because the non-racists were too busy laughing – and rightly so – at my shamefully bad French, couldn't talk to the British lot because they were vile Tory scum. 

I thought differently, having been accused of being a 'bloody Guardian reader' by my headmaster. I wasn't, but rapidly became one. I also joined the youth wing of Militant too, mostly for the annoyance factor. Getting the papers delivered to school guaranteed a weekly row which I quietly enjoyed. Not that it made much difference: several sixth-formers drove around the nearest council estate when the election result became clear, waving banknotes out of the window at the poor. Occasionally I Google people with whom I was at school, in the hope that they're dead, or in prison. One appeared on Newsnight recently talking about charity work, which must have required a massive personality transplant. Could be worse: my older colleagues with Oxbridge degrees know pretty much all the current political establishment. Ugh. 

I was just depressed. As a teenage Trot I knew that Kinnochio was a disastrous capitalist running-dog, but it was pretty obvious that we were in for many more years of corruption, poverty, misery and war. And I was right: 1992 was the first year I noticed the emergence of one T. Blair as shadow home secretary, already attacking people like Goebbels for not being tough enough on lawnorder… So it went. Having decided that a population which voted for Major must actually want economic deprivation, nuclear holocaust, the Daily Mail and all the other awful things of that period, the Labour Party decided to double down on the Tory model. Goodbye civil liberties, goodbye the public good, goodbye cohesive communities looking out for each other, goodbye diplomacy, goodbye civic society… Hello lobbying, wars, league tables, personal enrichment, corporate mega-greed, ATOS and pervasive surveillance. 

People occasionally ask me things like 'when did you get so gloomy'?, and the answer is 1992, when I started reading newspapers and paying attention. Anyway, I'm not cynical. Cynics stop caring. I'm depressed about everything that's happening because I do still care. 

There was one good thing about that trip to France. Sneaking into a bar underage (as if they cared) I saw my first music video. It was dark brown and angry and insistent – and a whole new world opened up.

Apologies for being so grumpy today. I've actually had a lovely time, working on my Foucault-Doctor Who-Trek paper with my co-writer, who managed not to tear my work up in disgust. Quite a result!


Historian on the Edge said...

I still have that Steve Bell cartoon somewhere, cut out of the Guardian, and remeber the gloom of that otherwise sunny day in '92. I also know someone who had that original American version framed and his living room wall. He just sent his eldest off to private school. Says it all, really.

Anonymous said...

"The Peasant's Revolt"? No wonder he didn't get anywhere.