London Calling & This is England: two perspectives to understand Brexit

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4 May 1979-11 July 2016: two historical dates for the recent history of the United Kingdom. In these two days, respectively, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May have become Prime Minister, the only two women who reached that role in history. In the middle of this time window, another two important dates in order to understand politics and motivations which took them to the Government: 2 April 1982 and 23 June 2016, which are, respectively, the beginning of the Falklands war and the Brexit referendum which decided for the exclusion of the United Kingdom from the European Union. There is a connection that links these two women and the events related to them: they are both conservatives, and they have both based their election campaign on the opposition to Europe and on the political and social isolation of Britain, they won thanks to mostly older and peripheral layers of the population.

The statistics are self-explainatory: in Brexit referendum, 64% of the young people aged between 18 and 24 voted “remain”, while the 58% of the elderly (65+ years old) people voted “leave”.


The generation that lived under the Thatcher’s Government has therefore demonstrated its tendency towards nationalistic and populistic vote, just like during the Iron Lady government, when they were forced into a needless war (which unfortunately is so rarely mentioned compared to, let’s say, Vietnam) aimed to control the Falkland Islands in order to restore their national pride. Thatcher’s own words at the end of the war are emblematic: “we have ceased to be a nation in decline”.

The aftermaths of the ’80s are still influencing nowadays British politics. The ’80s were really problematic, buried by poverty and by the struggles between differnt ethnic groups and classes. There are two artworks that help understanding better the atmosphere of that decade: one is an album, a direct daughter of those years, the other one is a recent movie of 2006: The Clash’s London Calling and Shane Meadows’s This is England.

They are both expressions of the difficulties of proletariat, which suffered heavily Thatcher’s neocapitalistic reforms that dismembered Welfare: liberalizing the private sector from State’s interference, encouraging the free enterprise, lightening the tax burden on the wealthy ones, while recovering the moral values of the Victorian age that were lost during the cultural revolution of the ‘ 50s and ’60s. The Thatcher’s reforms on one hand rose the country’s economic situation, and on the other generated incredible social disorders, with the lower classes and ethnic minorities who suffered a real ghettoization.

In these ghettos, though, they had the strength to react. It was born a true counterculture, and The Clash, with their iconic album on 1979, are the best representatives: the values of British punk rock, young anarchists who rebel against their fathers, is mixed with reggae and ska, African American cultures marginalized by society. The message of subversion to the power widens of an inclusive meaning. In Guns of Brixton Paul Simonon sings:

“You can crush us 
You can bruise us 
But you’ll have to answer to 
Oh the guns of Brixton “

The bassist talks about the situation of Brixton neighbourhood, one of the most degraded London areas, a distric that symbolizes the Social State dismantling. But those classes, hit so hard by the State, now are ready to react, both legally and illegally (Joe Strummer spent himself many nights in jail). And above all, with the force of a music, a Revolution rock:

“Everybody smash up your seats and rock to this brand new beat 
This here music mash up the nation 
This here music causes a sensation “

A music that aggregates: many abuses were suffered, but as he sings in I’m not down: you have to find the strength to stand up and defend your rights:

“I’ve been beat up 
I’ve been thrown out 
But I’m not down 
I’m not down 
I’ve been shown up 
But I’ve grown up 
And I’m not down 
I’m not down “

A strong need for aggregation is also the basis of the movie This is England. In the English suburbs of the early ’80s we meet Shaun, a young boy who has lost his father in the Falklands war. He translates his personal problems in an exterior grumpyness that prevents an healthy social relationship with its peers. Quite by accident, however, he will find a group of skinheads older than him, that finally will make him feeling at ease, in a real family.

We have the opportunity to watch from inside a subculture that is often not fully understood: the group does not consist of violent neo-fascists, but of young guys with leftist tendencies, with different cultures (skinhead, rude boy, new romantic) united by the desire of revenge and the music they listen to, obviously reggae and ska. The skinhead culture is often misunderstood with the naziskin one, mostly for a similar dress code (the classic Dr. Martens, Fred Perry jackets and polos and shaved head), but it is actually the exact opposite. As in London Calling, the influence of Afroamerican music and culture leads to an aggregate message: youth belonging to the middle class, left alone by the State reforms, living with ethnical groups marginalized from the rest of society. They don’t see the enemy in another marginalised social layer. They see it in the State that has allowed everything, just like The Clash.

The rupture of balance will start with Combo, an old member of the group that once released from prison has experienced a marked right-wing politicization of its ideals. Combo will work on Shaun’s insecurities and on his anger, managing to bring him in its own group of neo-fascists. The passage from aggregation to hate is also symbolized by the change of the soundtrack, which passes from the live reggae of Toots and the Maystals to the melancholic and dreamy piano of Ludovico Einaudi: from the joy of living, of being finally part of something, to the sad awareness of a degradation of his actions, a growing alienation from the rest of society.

In this way we see two faces of rebellion, of social disadvantage: the aggregation of all minorities on the one hand and the emergence of a community that uses xenofobia to assert their rights. So the anger towards the social system of Combo finds in the physical violence the only means of expression: the hate towards the State translates into hate towards ethnicities who are guilty to have “stolen” a not better specified job. In this sense, the scene where the skinhead beat up Milky, a rude boy guilty only of his ethnicity and of having a simpler life than Combo’s one, is emblematic. This event is a real cold shower for Shaun, who sees his new father figure being destroyed by his own hands, he sees vanishing every landmark: the England that Combo much acclaimed has first killed his father by sending him into war, and then has beaten to death his friend for ideals. For this the last scene, in which the boy throws the english flag into the sea with the notes of a wonderful cover by Clayhill of The Smiths’s Please, Please, Please let me get what I want in the background, becomes a symbol of an entire generation, which do not recognizes in his own country and is completely disoriented.

As mentioned at the start of the article, this is the generation where the never-dormant nationalistic feelings emerged during the last referendum for Brexit. The generation that has learned to hate power and institutions, without finding a healthy politic reaction  (besides populism). In fact, many social battles ended in the wrong way during that period, most notably the disastrous strike of miners turned off by Margaret Thatcher, a defeat that have shown the difficulty of the left politics in solving social problems, giving space to the right nationalistic ones: a racial hate which is simply the image of the abuse suffered from the upper social layer.

A real chain of abuse has led to the populist vote of Brexit, which cannot be limited to economic or financial factors. A populistic vote inherited by social disaster raised by Thatcher on today’s youth, whose political lack of interest is really worrisome (only 20% of them voted on the referendum). So the message left by Joe Strummer in the iconic London Caling, is now more relevant than ever:

“London calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared and battle come down 
London calling to the underworld 
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls “


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