One of my New Year Resolutions is to try to do some different things on the next wave – to try to mix up the content a bit. And oddly, the death of the former Conservative Home Secretary Leon Brittan gives me exactly this opportunity. I’ll remember him this way, through a poem by Pat Condell that I read in 1985 and came to mind the moment I heard the news that Brittan had died.
We’re backing Brittan
by Pat Condell
more prisons! restrain! incarcerate!
protect us from people who don’t pay their rates
from vagabonds, vagrants, dogs who foul the pavement
& anyone scrounging on the welfare state
from prostitutes, shoplifters, single parents
people who leave food on the side of their plate
who squeeze the toothpaste in the middle
steal from clotheslines & beg on the street
protect us from anyone who answers back
when stopped on suspicion of being black
save us from drug users, self-abusers
anyone who spits or shows their tits
drunks who shout and throw themselves about
Greenham women, pickets, yobs and louts
& anyone who doesn’t like the future we face
a place for everyone & everyone in their place
The poem was published in Hard Lines 2, a Faber anthology of “new prose and poetry” chosen by Ian Dury, Pete Townshend, Alan Bleasdale and Fanny Dubes, in a brief moment when poetry was about to become the new rock and roll. There are no biographies of contributors in the book, but I’m as sure as I can be that the author is this Pat Condell.
When the book was published, Brittan was Home Secretary, and came across badly; he looked like the face of the nasty party. Condell’s poem captures exactly the tone of 1980s Conservatism, with its vindictiveness, its mean spirit and grim social illiberalism.
As it happens, the obituaries suggest that he was a little more liberal than he let on. Or not: he was Home Secretary during the miners’ strike, and encouraged the militaristic policing strategy that was used throughout the strike.
And his judgment was poor. He argued for a change in the law so that the killers of police men and women could be executed, in the wave of hysteria that followed the death of Yvonne Fletcher, but lost the Commons’ vote heavily. And he bullied the BBC – although he was doing Margaret’s bidding here – into banning the Real Lives documentary about Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein and Gregory Campbell of the DUP, and was astonished when journalists struck for a day in protest (including me, working at ITN. As a colleague told a Spanish news crew filming the picket line at the Wells Street building. “There is no news today so there is news tomorrow.”)
The 1980s was the age when “politics as performance” was invented – political discourse shifted from policy to representation – and Brittan’s performance as Home Secretary, captured viscerally in Condell’s poem, can be read as a prototype of today’s (vindictive, mean-spirited) Conservative Party. A place for everyone, and everyone in their place. No wonder David Cameron was so generous with his tribute.
The image of Leon Brittan at the top of the post is from the Foresign and Commonwealth Office via Wikipedia. and is published here under an Open Government Licence.