It may seem idle to imagine an unsatisfying future under a left-wing Labour government, in a country currently misgoverned by an alarmingly inept clique of gentleman idlers, but bear with me. It’s 2025, and the railways and water companies have been renationalised, benefit sanctions ended, and councils are building houses again. Growth is creeping back up.
That would seem a good outcome under any sane measure. Yet all of this could happen, and the worst things about Britain could feel much the same. We could still be a country where the market is the measure of everything, where public space is relentlessly privatised, where houses are tiny, where the media is cruel, where youth are criminalised, and migration policy is brutal. Everything could change, and everything could stay the same.
If you think that sounds extravagant, look around you. Network Rail, unlike the track operators, is nationalised, and yet the railway stations it has rebuilt, from Newport to New Street, are shabby malls covered in pigeon spikes and CCTV. Some local authorities are building council houses now, but go to the suburbs of Birmingham to find new local authority housing as mean and bland as any Barratt Homes. If you’ve set foot in a ‘Jobcentre Plus’, or in most NHS hospitals, you’ll know well that crushingly depressing feel of the part-privatised remnants of the welfare state, spaces that resemble cheaply furnished anterooms for a slow apocalypse.
There is, in Britain, an ingrained culture of petty nastiness and penny-pinching enforced from town halls to the Home Office, and from Grenfell to Windrush, we can see its effects. To create a society where the public good, the social, really matters, takes more than a change in ownership: it takes a change in culture.
‘Counter-culture’ is a term which now evokes paranoid hippies in squats, but the idea is much more important than that. Seemingly mundane things like the co-operatives of nineteenth century industrial towns, the miners’ welfare organisations of South Wales that inspired the NHS, or the grandly public housing projects of 1930s Leeds, actually have much in common with the communal living experiments and the feminist, gay rights, and Black Power groups of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. The aim was not only to build institutions, but to change the way we think about ourselves and the world, the way we act towards each other, and the way we live in a society. Sometimes the pioneers were cultish, and sometimes their ideas have become so accepted that their radicalism has been forgotten, but their projects have hugely enriched our experience. And they did it without waiting for ‘the revolution’, or even for the next election victory.
The Tribune Culture section aims to contribute to the development of a counter-cultural way of thinking and acting. Not because we believe in a ‘correct’ style, or in badges of identity and affiliation, nor because we want to set up self-congratulatory cliques, but because we believe that there is more to society than the cash nexus. In this section, a team of writers on art, architecture, and the city; on cinema, music, and mental health; on history, literature, and on the forgotten futures we’ve lost along the way, will try to explore what is wrong with ‘culture’ as it currently exists, and ways of making a new one.
We have a mass socialist movement in Britain today, and that’s a titanic achievement — one that would have seemed preposterous only five years ago. Without culture, though, it will remain shallow, easily brushed away by a change at the top.