Alex Niven is a writer, blogger, and academic from Northumberland. He also edits the Oxonian Review. In an interview with William Farrell he discusses his first book Folk Opposition, which explores the left’s relationship with anti-establishment populism in British culture.
What’s wrong with contemporary folk culture and what do you mean by ‘Folk Opposition’?
Well I guess it was a slightly opportunistic term, a way of tying together different concepts. Primarily, it is an attempt to rethink contemporary folk culture that seems to me to be part of this new Tory ascendency. Nu-folk acts like Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Emmy the Great and so on I think are musically terrible. But more than that they are part of an elitist cooption of the culture and the accoutrements of the grass roots in a way that seems very suspicious to me. One of the strategies elites use in inoculating dissent and protest is to nullify cultural means of expression. One of the things nu-folk represents – though I don’t think these bands are doing this consciously – is the social ramification of this tendency. I grew up playing traditional music in the north-east and there was a government funded organisation called Folkworks, which was responsible for lots of genuinely grass roots activities in the 1990s. ‘Authenticity’ and ‘traditional’ are problematic terms, but to me traditional folk music is groups like The Unthanks, who I knew as part of this Folkworks project.
Also I wanted to point out that there’s something slightly dark and sinister about the fact that this ‘Tory moment’ is an elitist moment. It’s about an increase in hierarchy and inequality and there’s something odd that at the same time there’s been a cooption of and gesturing at a grass roots proletariat, the demographic that in the past would have been labelled ‘folk’. For me, folk culture should mean a working class culture, even if that can be contested and qualified. It’s very difficult to put a label on any demographic at all these days, but there has to be some attempt to do that. To me, it seemed that ‘folk’ might be one heuristic way of doing that, even if it’s not completely satisfactory. My sense was that when Cameron came into power in 2010 this would create the room for the resurgence of an opposition that had been kept in check by New Labour. Cameron coming into power and making some aggressively right-wing moves opened up the space for the revival of an opposition. So ‘folk opposition’ is about seizing the old left and working class culture and seeing what we can do with it, trying to aggregate and synthesise it in some way.
You start the book with a discussion of Raul Moat: why?
One of the things I try to make clear is that it’s not any sort of defence of Raul Moat, who was clearly an appalling criminal; it’s a defence of the people that defended him. My question was: why did all these ordinary people in the north-east start Facebook groups celebrating Raul Moat – was that an extreme instance of something we should look at? Why did people feel so desperate and marginalised that they had to resort to championing a psychopath? I guess almost the starting point for the book was when Cameroon stood up in Prime Minister’s Questions and said he couldn’t understand any sympathy for Raul Moat, which on the one hand is a very sensible thing to say; on the other hand, he was categorically ruling out sympathy for a marginal fringe of his own electorate. I thought that was a subtle shift from this Blairite mood of politicians being everything to everyone and trying to bring people together, even if only in a spurious, PR-driven way. There’s something straightforwardly conservative about that tabloid dismissal of criminals. I think that knee-jerk unwillingness to try to understand what it might have meant was part of a reinstatement of an ugly, old-fashioned Tory intolerance.
So what’s your interpretation of why people identified with Raul Moat? You suggest that if he is a Ned Kelly figure, he is a kind of crap neo-liberal one.
Well I think that ordinary people are very marginalised – people in the north-east, inner London, Scotland, and Wales tend to more marginalised than people in, say, Bedfordshire, and working class people obviously tend to be more marginalised than wealthy people. Owen Jones’s book Chavs highlighted this: the decline of working class art, soap operas, music. In my book, the chapter on nu-folk tried to bring this out: even ‘alternative’ music is now made by an elite. I think people in places like the north-east feel completely marginalised and un-represented and hopeless and ready to throw their lot in with absurd causes, and they will continue to if this situation isn’t somehow reversed.
Geography is important in your book. Everyone knows about the disparities in income, wealth and power between the south-east and rest of the country. Would the north/south divide form a basis for ‘folk opposition’?
Yes I think so. It’s always the case that the less egalitarian Britain gets, the more you will have a concentration of power in the centre. There is some hope in that you get things like Scottish independence, which seems to be a reaction to this centrifugal culture that Thatcherism accelerated. The Thatcher administration was very much a geographically oriented regime, to the point that you have pitched battles, in the case of the miners’ strike, between the miners in the north and the police drafted in from the south. The neo-liberal economy was geographically orientated, with de-industrialisation in the north and the new industries in Cambridge or the Thames Valley.
In the Blair years there was a slight reaction to that with the ‘urban renaissance’ and investment in cities like Newcastle and Manchester. This was definitely significant, I wouldn’t want to dismiss it as completely spurious. It made a difference, but not enough of a difference. It was quite cosmetic and was limited to tourism, art galleries and so on. Art galleries are great things, but they don’t change the employment statistics, they don’t do anything to tackle under-representation in the media and so on. There was a referendum in the north east in 2004 on a regional assembly that failed I think largely because it was such a New Labour PR exercise. People were wise to that and felt that it wasn’t coming from them; it was coming from think tanks and from London. So yes I would hope people would get angry about this, but unfortunately at the moment it only seems to come out via bizarre outlets like Raul Moat.
The one positive development you highlight is Football Supporters’ Trusts. What are they and what do they tell us about contemporary folk opposition?
There’s a long and complicated history and it’s still ongoing. Going back to 1997, one of the first things New Labour did was to set up the Football Task Force. This was a body that attempted to come up with some solutions and programs for football after a period in the 1980s and 1990s of decline and disasters and the increasing exploitation of supporters. Out of this an organisation developed called Supporters Direct which is still going. Ken Loach once said “It's about the one good thing New Labour have done."
Supporters Direct established a model and guidelines for supporters’ trusts to form throughout the country. It’s not completely grassroots but the spark and impetus to form one has to be. Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust (NUST) formed in late 2008 in response to incidences of gross mismanagement, the sacking of manager after manager, sky-rocketing ticket prices, and the renaming of the stadium St James’ Park to the ‘Sports Direct Arena’. Supporters’ groups have sprung up all over the country, from the grassroots but using this institutional framework. I think there is potential in that kind of alliance, between grassroots movements (in the past it would have been co-ops and trade unions) and mainstream politics. The Newcastle Central Labour MP Chi Onwurah is on the board of NUST, for instance.
Football went from being a ‘national disgrace’ in the 1980s to the hyper commercialism of the Premier League in the 1990s. You say in the book that despite this it could be a source of oppositional energy. Why?
Even when capitalism is at its most confident and virile it also contains some buried potential. I think this is the case with football: it’s populist and I think there is potential in any kind of populism. Obviously it’s always poised on a knife edge, because there is always a dark potential there. But you might as well think about how it can be channelled to humane and socialistic ends as opposed to just thinking it will end badly. With football the sense of history and the importance of collective experience are still strong. The difference between football culture and music culture is interesting here; music has also taken a neo-liberal turn. The recent history of alternative culture, with its regional scenes and sub-culture tribalism, is now being marketised and commodified and diluted. I think music has really suffered because it doesn’t have as strong roots as football. Even though you had strong regional scenes, as in Manchester, they were certainly not as grounded. But a football ground is a difficult thing to move! They are in cities and act as a conduit for heritage and identity, no matter how moneyed elites try to move stadiums or, as in Newcastle’s case, rename it. There is something immovable about football which you don’t get with say, indie music, which has been completely co-opted and transformed into its opposite.
I was in a band [Everything Everything] for a few years. The experience of going to a gig is vastly awful: there is almost another book in that. Having said there is potential in almost any collective experience, I’m not sure what potential there is now in a gig-going crowd. You’re not allowed to interact with other people between sets because the music is stupefyingly loud, it’s quite expensive, these venues are owned by Carling or O2, and you are sold this awful watered down beer. Also the bands don’t tend to be very good and the live performances are so formulaic and rigidly hackneyed. Every band will play a certain amount of tunes, they will go off, come on for an encore, they will spend thousands and have a big crew trying to replicate the record’s sound. With all that in place it’s very difficult to get anything interesting happening
The folk revival that occurred between the 1950s and 1970s suffered from a lot of the accusations that you could throw at nu-folk: it was middle-class or it was just a leisure activity. I don’t think that’s true. It was much more positive, based around a network of folk clubs and was geographically diverse, whereas nu-folk is very London-based. And of course it wasn’t just folk music: all countercultural music – punk, reggae, rave – once relied on these widespread networks and embedded contexts. The problem now is one of cultural space: where do you perform? The high streets, pubs and clubs have been colonised by the global market. It’s difficult now because there aren’t the spaces there were in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. We need a music supporters’ trust perhaps.
Your book shares similar concerns with Blue Labour, but focuses more on what is happening now rather than looking to past examples.
That’s true, although I don’t have a problem with looking to the past. One of the paralysing things with the left now is that anytime someone mentions, say, the co-operative movement there is a sense that “Oh no you can’t talk about that, that’s Old Left, that didn’t work, that didn’t happen”. It’s a very debilitating thing to be told that you can’t look to history and you have to invent something out of thin air, or that some kind of genius will suddenly come up with ‘a new politics’. Why I think the supporters’ trusts movement is a positive development is the way it combines a contemporary reaction that is broadly spontaneous – the basic spark comes from people finding something unjust – with the remnants of an older working class culture. We seem to have lost that basic sense that you have to build on the past to have any hope of moving into the future.
If I have a criticism of the left, it’s that it’s quite inimical to populism because in many contexts the left has become ghettoised as a liberal-individualist tendency that dismisses any kind of populism as a herd mentality, distasteful and so on. That’s why you get attempts to correct this culture with things like Blue Labour, which I think has got half the right idea, yet it’s also completely ridiculous: primarily because of its dodgy line on immigration. It seems also to be inherently flawed because of its sound-bite aspects.
Older figures on the left like EP Thompson or Raymond Williams wrote novels and were involved in adult education. Can we learn something from this tradition? Is the current activist left in a good position to understand any potential folk opposition?
I’m not sure that they are. A lot of metropolitan activists are quite privileged; it’s not their fault, it’s a consequence of this neo-liberal history. The only people who can get in positions where they write for newspapers etc are privileged people. This middle class intelligentsia is becoming increasingly less privileged however; people with PhDs aren’t going to get a job, people in the media are not getting paid for what they do. So in a sense we are getting a new proletariat of the intelligentsia; there is some semblance of shared ground between them and, say, someone working in a low-paid job in Carlisle. But one of the things we need to get around is the fact lots of working class people in Carlisle are now far more likely to vote Tory than be part of the left. Cameron understands this better than Labour in some ways: he’s positioning the Tories as the party of work, apprenticeships, getting a trade and so on. On the other hand, the left has always had a section of bourgeois bohemian hangers on – gap year socialists, if you like. There is definitely a preponderance of that demographic in the left at the moment. The left has got to be wary of the hipster element and radical chic. But then this has always been the case.
If “folk opposition” means anything, it’s not a quietist philosophy or a favouring of culture over politics; it’s just balancing intellectualism with developments on the ground and trying to combine those two elements. I think the culture now is quite Fabian, we’ve regressed to this late Victorian or Edwardian social dynamic with a well-meaning but detached progressive tendency at the top. By contrast, adult education is exactly the paradigm I would advocate. The book finishes with a quote from a Raymond Williams – who was in adult education for years – that calls for a common culture: “We need a common culture, not for the sake of an abstraction, but because we shall not survive without it.” I guess that is a synonym for my sense of what a folk culture and what a folk opposition should be. It must have a sense of a collectivity and unity that is derived from ‘lived experience’, to use a favourite phrase of Raymond Williams. Williams wasn’t theorising or coming up with a sexy sound bite in the manner of a New Labour think tank. That’s another example that you shouldn't be afraid to use: heritage, upbringing, where you live, and use that as a basis for a progressive left vision.
Another problem at the moment is that people don’t feel they want to address a broad community. Even on the left there is a sense that you can’t talk about a folk, or unity, or community because that’s reductive. But it’s quite paralysing if you aren’t able to talk reductively; the notion of a common culture is incredibly reductive but without it you can’t do anything. Without some kind of ethos that is going to appeal to a large amount of people the notion of an opposition just evaporates. I think the left needs to rediscover a certain reductiveness. If there is one elemental argument in Folk Opposition it is for team spirit, that people need to be part of something.
William Farrell is a member of the Labour Party and is researching a History PhD at Birkbeck.
Artwork by Edd Baldry.
 Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780 – 1950 (1958).