When Mick Jagger was first nominated for a knighthood, the ‘Keeper of the Flame’, i.e. Keith Richards, reacted with disgust; his response was that for his fellow Stone to accept such an award would be to feed from the hand the band bit with such venom in the 60s. During the period when they were pursued all the way to prison in what appeared to be a carefully coordinated operation by the Ruling Class Ltd and their affiliated companies (Scotland Yard plc and Fleet Street Inc.) to put those long-haired yobs firmly in their place, the Rolling Stones were the antithesis of the British establishment.
Keith’s error forty years after the infamous Redlands bust, trial and sentencing was to perceive the contemporary powers-that-be as the same league of gentlemen that had once made his life hell, the same old-boy network that Peter Cook had mercilessly mocked when naming his ground-breaking comedy club The Establishment. Perhaps understandably distracted by other matters to pay too much attention to the changing of the guard back in Blighty, Keith Richards clearly had no idea that those who had put the name of his Glimmer Twin forward for a gong had done so because they had been on the right side of the barricades in 1968; he hadn’t realised they had now crossed over to the other side.
Long before Chris Huhne became yet another celebrity ex-convict-for-hire as a ‘Newsnight’ pundit, back in the days when he was running against Ming Campbell for leadership of the Lib-Dems, a photo emerged of him participating in a rowdy early 70s student demo, as well as an article from the same period penned for a student magazine in which he’d advocated the decriminalisation of various Class-A substances favoured by youngsters of the era – not exactly a shock, but embarrassing enough to elicit a retrospective apology. Like many 70s students from an affluent middle-class background, he went through a ‘Long-haired Lefty’ phase at university to annoy his parents and then knuckled down to the task of travelling towards respectability.
Huhne is hardly unique; whilst some of his contemporaries also turned-on and tuned-in, but never came back once they’d dropped-out, the vast majority showed their true colours and eventually made mummy and daddy proud by ascending to the top of the tree in classic careerist fashion – fulfilling their destiny after a dalliance with the dark side. One could point out most indulge in brief lightweight rebellion during adolescence, none more so than posh kids – just ask Jarvis Cocker about the Greek girl who had a thirst for knowledge; equally, if one’s view of the world stays frozen at eighteen, that doesn’t say much about intellectual development or a capacity to learn from mistakes. But discovering that today’s middle-management mannequins in suits sucking up to the same old symbols of power and privilege once professed to hold an opposing stance somehow makes them even more despicable.
David Cameron (without a hint of embarrassment) claims he slept overnight on the streets of London in the summer of 1981 in order to have a front-row seat for Charles and Di’s wedding carriage, not even pretending he was in the capital to nip down to the Blitz and hobnob with Steve Strange, so it’s safe to say he never posed as a radical; it is those that did who deserve the most contempt, and Chris Huhne’s journey is mirrored by many belonging to his generation who now hold public office or positions of power. They were no doubt unaware of it in the heady days of free higher education, toking with Trotsky beneath the watchful eyes of Che, yet hindsight makes so many of them seem reactionaries in radical’s clothing, as though all they ever really wanted deep down was to be Head Boy.
In 1973, DC Comics published a short-lived, non-superhero title called ‘Prez’, which depicted the First Teenage President of the US as a groovy dude, tapping into a cultural blip when it was thought that youth had all the answers; Prez was no doubt the kind of political figurehead the baby boomers envisaged as their leader whenever they seized power. They did seize power in the end, but resembling watered-down clones of their parents once they achieved it rather than the cool guitarist in a prog-rock band. If this similarity to their forefathers were restricted solely to looks, they could perhaps be forgiven; most, on the whole, shed the visual trimmings of the rebel once they bypass thirty, especially if seeking a respectable position within society. But evidence that the youthful fads of the current political class were precisely that is blatant in the manner by which they have been smoothly assimilated into the establishment and have embraced its inertia. For one-time student radicals, the goals at the end of the revolution are remarkably similar to those before it; many no doubt cherish their membership of exclusive golf-clubs, just like daddy did.
If challenged, they would most likely claim they have stayed loyal to their ‘radical roots’ and have merely modified the less palatable and unrealisable elements of their original blueprint for change to fit the twenty-first century model; they would point to the minimum wage, paternity leave or civil partnerships as proof they have been progressive social reformers true to the spirit of their idealistic adolescence. But does that really compare to Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in the late 60s – legalising abortion, decriminalising homosexuality, reforming the archaic divorce laws and abolishing the death penalty, acts that improved (and in the case of the latter, saved) thousands of lives in this country? A bald and bespectacled, portly intellectual who looked more like Arthur Lowe than Arthur Brown, Roy Jenkins hardly inhabited a ‘crazy world’, but the social legislation he oversaw affected far more people than anything eventually achieved by those who once saw his head as a prime target for a student egg.
It’s hard not to respect those who stick to their political guns, whichever side they dress on; and whilst many who hold high office today are understandably keen to keep quiet about youthful indiscretions – such as Speaker of the House John Bercow’s early 80s membership of the horrible far-right Monday Club or Harriet Harman’s blind-eye endorsement of the P.I.E around the same time – those who sacrificed whatever principles they had in the rush to grab the reins of power are worse than those who were prematurely politically menopausal from the moment they first lectured a party conference as a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old.
It would perhaps be too obvious to evoke ‘Animal Farm’ and the manner in which the pigs who lead the revolution eventually morph into caricatures of human rulers whilst the rest of the farmyard beasts regress back to the oppressive state they were kept under before the farmer was ousted; that the pigs’ leader is called Napoleon could also evoke the image of the former First Consul of France crowning himself Emperor and taking an Austrian bride to establish a dynasty, just as his Bourbon predecessor had. One could even think of Howard Kirk, anti-hero of Malcolm Bradbury’s ‘The History Man’, who relishes his role as the Radical’s Radical, a 70s university lecturer gleefully exploiting the Permissive Society for his own ends, and whose wry obituary reads – ‘He voted Conservative at the 1979 General Election’.
So, perhaps Keith Richards had got it right, despite himself. Making Mick Jagger a Sir was not a belated apology by one establishment for past persecution; it was a reward from another establishment for composing the soundtrack of opposition, a soundtrack now replayed in air guitar-fashion by trendy dads in jeans…who just happen to run the country.