“And even those who still have the power to cry out, the cry hardly ever expresses itself, either inwardly or outwardly, in coherent language. Usually the words through which it seeks expression are quite irrelevant. That is all the more inevitable because those who most often have occasion to feel that evil is being done to them are those who are least trained in the art of speech. Nothing, for example, is more frightful than to see some poor wretch in the police court stammering before a magistrate who keeps up an elegant flow of witticisms”. Simone Weil, “Human Personality”.
Recently, The Sun published one of its classically vituperative articles, featuring allegations of pro-Raoul Moat chanting by Newcastle United supporters at the pre-season friendly against Carlisle:
Sections of the 2,000-strong away support sang “there’s only one Raoul Moat” during United’s 3-0 win at Carlisle.
They also copied an old terrace song about 1960s triple cop killer Harry Roberts when they sang: “Raoul Moat, he’s our friend, he shoots coppers.”
The Toon Army also tried to mock home fans with the chant “Who the **** is Derrick Bird?” – a reference to the Cumbrian gunman who murdered 12 people in a shooting spree last month.
There is subtle gallows humour in this passage, and some comic misreading on the part of a sanctimonious tabloid media of what is basically tongue-in-cheek, carnivalesque Geordie braggadocio (albeit of a wildly inappropriate kind). Nevertheless, it’s true that responses to the Moat Saga over the last few weeks have ranged from slightly misguided to downright alarming. Witness the misogynistic, vigilante-ish comments on pro-Moat Facebook groups, where epithets for Moat have included “total warrior and legend”, “martyr”, and – my personal favourite, for sheer gall – “the British Mandela”.
Writers like Charlie Brooker, John Tatlock, Martin Robbins, and Mark Fisher have written brilliantly about the implications and resonances of all this. I mostly don’t have anything to add to these analyses. (Fisher’s phrase “Britain’s anti-Diana moment” is trenchant to the point of genius.)
However, I have to say that I think Tatlock’s Quietus piece, with its accompanying Spotify playlist on “how folk heroism warps reality”, is massively misjudged. Casual anti-establishment populism can warp, no doubt about that, especially with the help of media exaggeration. Raoul Moat was a deranged, pathological killer – of course he was – and any outright valorisation of the man and his actions is ridiculous. But there was undoubtedly something more to the story than media hype, more to the popular reaction than neo-right mob hysteria. Most importantly, and presciently, I think, was the clear intimation that what you might term folk-opposition remains a powerful extant force in British culture, even after 30-odd years of neoliberal hegemony.
END OF STORY? THE CENTRE AND ITS OPPOSITE
The word folk (and especially its German correlative volk) has extremely dangerous connotations, of course, and from a certain angle, the Raoul Moat narrative does seem like a frightening tale of Robin Hood-style mythologizing eliding with a resurgent thug-libertarianism. Nevertheless, this interpretation necessitates overlooking a number of important contexts. Most notably, there is the whole tangle of social, cultural, political and historical factors that constitutes the identity of the north east of England. What John Tatlock’s piece doesn’t allow for is the fact that: 1) The vast majority of the “support” shown for Moat was from this region, and 2) That such sentiments were, at bottom, an expression of a profound antipathy to the media, to London, and the police force, which may have been utterly misplaced as regards Moat, but must not thereby be dismissed as mere chauvinistic “Geordie nationalism” allied to a sort of anarcho-gangsterism.
The sources of such attitudes are too numerous to list here (though the 1980s would be a good place to start). Suffice to say, Tatlock’s blasé-rationalist dismissal of “folk heroism” does not entertain the fact that there might be entirely sound reasons for the anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-London attitudes which somehow – stupidly and unfortunately – found an avatar in the figure of Moat. Instead, Tatlock explicitly sides with David Cameron, whose “full stop, end of story” rejection of “public sympathy for the callous murderer” Tatlock finds “pithily accurate”. Anyone from the north east, mindful of David Cameron’s recent attack on the region – one of the places where the state has “got too big [sic]” and where “we need a bigger private sector” (surely the prelude to an imminent full-blown Thatcher-style jobs cull in the area) – would think twice before accepting Tatlock’s equable appraisal of Cameron’s good common sense in “taking down” Moat. (Charlie Brooker has interesting things to say about Cameronian sympathy, in a follow-up piece in The Guardian).
In light of such lofty, centrist disdain for populist feeling (however reasonable in the case of Moat taken in total isolation), and in addition to the frankly neo-colonialist, Boys Own-style behaviour of the London media in Rothbury (as reported by Brooker and Robbins), the actions of a minority of Newcastle supporters in eulogizing Moat begins to look, at the very least, a good deal more complicated and ambiguous than the narrow, Old Tory, “full stop, end of story” reductionism of Cameron and Tatlock implies.
As everyone knows, Newcastle United fans are used to being deprived of a voice, and to being treated as “mugs”; “dogs” if they happen to be female. (These two terms were first deployed by former NUFC director Douglas Hall in a Spanish brothel in 1998.) For decades now, Toon fans have been denied representation and dismissed as primitive imbeciles. In such circumstances, people will inevitably latch onto, and identify heavily with, desperate causes, outsiders, even homicidal loners. Hence the whole history of football violence eliding with far-right politics. Hence, “there’s only one Raoul Moat”. Hence, the tragic appropriateness of Gazza – a desperate victim of media celebrity if ever there was one – appearing in Rothbury with a can of beer, determined to go for a fish and “have a chat” with “Moaty”.
It is depressing that Gazza, along with a significant minority of north easterners, was able to overlook the very real crimes committed by Moat, sad and absurd that an apolitical, sociopathic individual should be posited as a kind of bizarre, postmodern Bobby Sands. But conversely, and more importantly, the whole narrative underlines the sheer depth of oppositional feeling in places like the north east to a London-centric nexus that is now, once again, unequivocally Conservative, hard-line, unsympathetic, given to scapegoating individuals, and wholly unapologetic about launching explicit attacks on entire localities like Northumbria and Northern Ireland.
RUMOURS OF COLLECTIVITY
While the pro-Moat chants at the Newcastle vs. Carlisle match represent the benighted, if lightly-meant, actions of an extremist few, there have also recently been signs of a more constructive, less macho and hot-headed, form of folk-opposition beginning to take root in the north east, with football at its centre. As Mark Fisher has written:
Football has been at the forefront of the total re-engineering of English culture, society and economy wrought by neoliberalism over the last thirty years.
This is self-evidently true, and Toon supporters know better than most what it is like to be on the forgotten fringes of an aggressive, market-driven regime. Neoliberal English football culture has not been kind to the north east. (This fact is reflected in the current England team, which consists almost entirely of players from West London’s Chelsea and clubs within commuting distance of Cheshire like Man United and Liverpool. Contrast this with the Italia ’90 north-east main artery of Bobby Robson – Bryan Robson – Waddle – Beardsley – Gazza. Added to this, the region’s main teams – Newcastle, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough – are all now firmly entrenched on the inferior “second tier” of club football.)
However, after years of muddled acquiescence to all manner of “inevitable” corporate encroachments (inevitable because “investment” is ultimately “for the good of the team”), the actions of the NUFC power-elite reached such an extreme of absurdity and anarchic ridiculousness in the past few years, that the support base has arguably taken the first steps towards radicalization, or at least to something resembling old-fashioned-style collective representation. The Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) is hardly the Fifth International, but the establishment of this independent body (and one that has a genuinely popular base) represents a significant milestone. The efficacy of organizations like this has not yet been proven, but their very existence is a testament to a more hopeful, less-fatalistic climate, and to ways in which the folk-sentiment that found an unfortunate outlet in the Moat debacle can be put to more positive use.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that football is the battleground on which many of the most vital political and cultural debates of the next few years will take place. Indeed, the growing popular discontent with the Premier League and the F.A. might represent first signs of a thaw in the neoliberal winter, the first chinks in the armour of an adversary hitherto regarded as unbeatable. With this in mind, it is encouraging that certain sectors of the Labour Party have sought to establish links with organizations like the NUST, in this crucial (to put it mildly) period of ideological renewal. Chi Onwurah, who represents Newcastle Central, is one of a handful of newly elected Labour MPs notable for being archetypically Labour in a way that has become increasingly rare over the past couple of decades. As an individual Onwurah offers a reminder that, for all the invidiousness of Blair and New Labour, there are still sizeable and numerous individuals and enclaves wholly resistant to being incorporated into the new centrist/centre-right political orthodoxy. Onwurah both symbolically and actually represents a constituency that is something close to the antithesis of David Cameron in almost every sense, so it came as no surprise when she recently announced her membership of, and support for, the NUST. Hers is a constituency that encompasses the extreme fringes of pro-Moat sentiment, but it is also the constituency of Newcastle United supporters who have finally exchanged apathy for a semblance of organized resistance.
Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central
In these sorts of oppositional matrixes, and these sorts of allegiances, there is an ocean of potential for the British left. Tragically, it seems that the only Labour leadership candidate who understands this is the otherwise arch-Blairite Andy Burnham, who was a member of the Football Taskforce in the late-nineties, and who makes great show of his role in opening the dossier on the Hillsborough disaster last year. For all his New Labour odiousness in other areas, Burnham at least has the prescience to recognize that a renewed British left must re-engage with its grassroots on the sort of “folk” territories of which football is by far the most prominent and pithy example. The Moat narrative underlines just how vital it is that the sort of folk heroism so disdained by Tatlock and Cameron, should not become the province of the far-right, that it should be re-channeled and re-directed to become a major bastion of its historical home, the Labour Party. Unfortunately, this a truth that will probably always evade the technocratic, mandarin, classically neoliberal sensibilities of the Miliband brothers (both of them), who appear most likely to shape Labour policy for the next few years. Meanwhile there are millions of Britons – and not just in the north east, of course – who hate the establishment, hate David Cameron, hate the media, who hate what was happened to football, and who hate neoliberalism, even if they couldn’t put a name to it. All they are lacking is someone better than Raoul Moat to speak for them.
screenshot from the NUST website