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Peter Hoskin: Lessons from the censorial past

What would you do if a band released a single called ‘How Does it Feel to be the Mother of a Thousand Dead?’ in reference to Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War? Would you lap it up? Would you listen to it first, and try to judge it on musical, rather than political, grounds? Would you dislike it by default? Or would you try to have it banned?

This isn’t just a pop quiz, but something that actually happened. The band Crass did indeed release that single, in 1982, in a black sleeve decorated with tiny white war crosses. Those who were around at the time – I wasn’t – might remember Margaret Thatcher being asked about it in Prime Minister’s Questions. They might also remember the political commotion that followed. Some Tory MPs, led by Tim Eggar, brandished the Obscene Publications Act at the song. Of the options listed above, they basically chose the fourth.

As it happens, Mr Eggar lost his battle against Crass, but the episode still typifies the cultural tension of the Eighties. There was music in the cafés at night, alright – but also censoriousness in the air. The police paid Morrissey a visit after the release of his song ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’, and at the insistence of Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens. Parliamentarians debated the bloody influx of “video nasties,” and how it might be stemmed. And Monty Python’s Life of Brian – yes, Life of Brian found itself slapped with an X certificate, or just banned outright, by 39 local authorities.

The culture has moved on since then, to the point where there’s probably no greater profanity that banning a Michael Palin movie. And, thankfully, politics has joined it, on the whole. When Matthew Parris, as MP for Derbyshire West, questioned some of the more censorial provisions in the Video Recordings Bill of 1983, he was scolded by David Mellor for “stir[ring] up trouble” against the “essential unity of the House”. Yet when a successor Bill was introduced in 2010, Ed Vaizey looked back on Mr Parris’s “fine and intelligent speech”. Even the Tory leader loves Morrissey nowadays.

But that doesn’t mean the uptight politics of the Eighties are irrelevant today. For starters, the split between – for want of better descriptions – the Tory traditionalists and the Tory libertarians remains, even if it’s now more likely to unwind itself on debates about digital policy or about personal debt than on your record collection. And then there are lessons from that era that are worth dwelling upon, not least because some of them might be urgently topical this week. Let’s see.

The first is that policy forged in the heat of parliamentary outcry can be rushed out so quickly that it’s bound to shatter eventually. In those Commons debates in 1983, Matthew Parris pointed out many of the inconsistencies and errors in what was being proposed for the Video Recordings Bill, but even he couldn’t have imagined how sloppy it would turn out to be. The Bill became an Act, the Act was amended in 1993, and then… well, it was eventually discovered that none of it was actual enforceable law. The original Act should have been passed by the European Commission, but no-one thought to do that. It was a rushed job, with desultory results.

Lesson the Second is simply the law of unintended consequences, which applies more than usual in the case of angry political interference. Was it Tim Eggar’s intention to get more copies of ‘How Does it Feel to be the Mother of a Thousand Dead?’ sold? No, but that’s probably all he achieved. Crass themselves wrote that, “Eggar had created a great deal of publicity for our cause” – much more publicity, indeed, than would normally amass behind a song such as this, which didn’t make it on to the official chart because it wasn’t really being sold through official outlets. It never harms music to be politician-unapproved.

And then, finally, there’s the unforgiving truth that political designs are often junked by reality. The video nasties? There are much bloodier, raunchier and swearier movies available now. And that’s the point – they’re available. At first, video piracy merely hampered the Government’s efforts to block films such as Driller Killer and SS Experiment Camp from our televisions, but soon changing attitudes, the spread of DVD and the Internet completely undid them. If people really want to watch something, they can just download it. Even if politicians try to control every niche and corner of the Web, they will always be more. It gets to the point where total regulation becomes impossible, or self-defeating in its inconsistency.

None of this is to say that Parliament shouldn’t draw lines in the culture – I, for one, am pretty glad that eight year-olds can’t use their pocket money to buy pornography. But it is to say that politicians should be wary of where their righteous indignation can lead them, and what might be squashed in the process. In the end, some freedoms are too fundamental to be sliced, traded and defined by legislators.


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