If you travel in many countries, you’ll often find streets, bridges and squares named after calendar dates. Countries that have been through revolutionary upheavals tend to have key dates in their histories when everything changed – July 4th probably being the most famous.
We British don’t have such key dates in our modern history. Britain is unusual in that our revolutionary changes tend to be consensual, non-violent and gradual. We’re a nation capable of compromise, which can be frustrating, but makes us one of the world’s most stable societies. Following World War 2, the Labour government introduced the national health service, the welfare state, and began dismantling the Empire, with little other than grumbling from the powers that be. In the 60s, 70s and late-80s, we underwent social revolutions where successive generations used music, sex and drugs to challenge the previous generations’ attitudes. Despite stuffy politicians and media, we are among the most libertarian societies when it comes to sexual attitudes and drug use.
While our revolutionary neighbour and old rival, France, has stagnated back into conservatism, racial segregation and authoritarianism, The British people have thrown off the religious establishment, broadened free speech, and integrated immigrants who have changed our society (and for the better, despite what some conservatives will claim).
So because of the remarkably consensual nature of our society, Britain doesn’t have a calendar date to remember any specific moment when we stepped forward. Perhaps yesterday changed that.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher began courting the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. She began a trend; no leader of any major party has dared fear the wrath of Murdoch or his tabloid papers (specifically, The Sun and the News of the World) for over 20 years. In that time, Murdoch’s power has only grown – party leaders go to him on bended knee for his support at election time. When David Cameron became PM last year, Murdoch was the first visitor to Downing Street.
It turns out that the Metropolitan police have also been corrupted, with some/many working illegally for Murdoch’s interests.
Furthermore, our politicians and journalists have been painfully aware (as we now discover) of Murdoch’s ability to trash an individual’s reputation and career; so many have kept quiet for fear of retribution. When the Guardian began its brave investigation into phone hacking, it’s reported (audio link) that Rebekah Brooks (now CEO of News International) was asked how the story would end. She replied “With Alan Rusbridger [Guardian Editor] on his knees, begging for mercy”. This was more than a media empire – it was a power structure that could subvert both police and parliament. And yet we all watched as its tentacles began to spread everywhere, strangling our democracy and free speech.
And out of the blue, as a result of the phone-hacking investigation, last Thursday Rupert Murdoch announced the closure of the News of the World, one of Britain’s best-selling newspapers, in an attempt to stop the damage from spreading across his empire. Then yesterday, 13th July 2011 became a revolutionary moment: Labour’s newish leader, Ed Miliband tabled a parliamentary motion opposing Murdoch’s total takeover of BSkyB, Britain’s largest broadcaster. Amazingly, the Conservatives and other parties were forced to back the motion. And then Murdoch announced he’d be dropping his bid. By the afternoon, American politicians were calling for inquiries into the activities of NewsCorp, Murdoch’s US arm.
In the past day, I’ve heard Conservative politicians speak out for the first time against the way their party had become the political wing of Murdoch’s empire (one recent example: government attempts to cut prison populations were shelved after The Sun went on the attack against them). Of course we can be cynical; why didn’t anybody speak up before? The answer is often that our elected leaders are cowards, corrupt, or both – there are few we can be truly proud of. But cynicism can cloud the enormity of what just happened. Our elected parliament got off its knees and asserted itself. However little we like our elected leaders, they’re the best thing we have – certainly they represent us better than police chiefs and CEOs do. Parliamentary and police investigations are underway. Tectonic plates shifted yesterday, and only time will tell where that leads us – there are many revelations yet to come.
Difficult as it is, and however implicated some of our leaders are, this is a time to be non-partisan, at least for the moment. For the first time perhaps since the 1940s, our parliamentary democracy has flexed its muscles. Viva July 13! A very British revolution.