Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Why is nightlife framed as a social problem in the UK?

As is usual over the holiday period and New Year, new documents sealed as official secrets hit the headlines. This year, we got more information about the Thatcher administration, and, in particular, how rave culture was managed away in the late 1980s.

I’m going to look at what it told us, how and why nightlife and alternative cultures get framed as a social problem, and what to do about it. 

Nightlife as a ‘social order problem’

There is two ways officialdom (and by that I mean central government, the police, magistrates, the media, and local government) sees nightlife historically.

First, nightlife and its cultural behaviours have are defined as a moral and social order threat. The manner of this process of defining has changed from one of moral turpitude (dating from the first licensing statute in the fifteenth century and in successive legislation referring to the concept of ‘fit and proper person’) to a criminal justice definition (a criminal, nuisance or social order problem).

But it’s still viewed as a social order problem, as opposed to a stunning appreciation of cultural innovation and dynamism of young British people. The disinterest the media shows in talking about innovative nightlife, compared to the frenzy to film drunken women falling over on a night out, just illustrates this uniquely British lack of appreciation of cultural forms.

Second, that officialdom, as defined above, will use whatever legislation is at its disposal to manage the problem away, or will create new legislation if it thinks that the plethora of ways to sit on anything it doesn’t like isn’t enough. As Hatful of History points out, and this has been revealed in the recent tranche of information, the Thatcher government explored a range of regulatory measures to try and control raves - the licensing law that governs public entertainment, Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, the common law powers available to the police to prevent public disturbances, the Control of Pollution Act 1974. It was a case of whatever does the job.

Why does all this matter? Because it illustrates both that the law is not a neutral arbiter of behaviour (as it is sometimes portrayed), and that the use, mobilisation and creation of law is purposefully about control, by one group (the authorities) against another (the people). Licensing has historically been the means by which the authorities engineer away a perceived problematic form of entertainment in favour of officially sanctioned ones.  

To combat rave, the Pay Party Unit was set up by Scotland Yard in 1988, led by Ken Tappendon, using an array of road blocks, fake parties, local environmental laws, noise legislation, social order legislation, and drugs laws.

But local councils also started handing out later licenses, to encourage the incorporation of rave parties into regulatory oversight – a ‘coordinated plan’, said Tappenden. Accidentally, and through the eternal compromise of social forces that licensing represents, we got late nightclubs, albeit ones with commercial objectives.

Through the popularisation of concepts such as the night-time economy, nightlife then became seen as a driver of economic regeneration. The Licensing Act 2003 summarised this trend, allowing later licenses and situating regulation firmly within evidential, rather than subjective, criteria.

Then, the reaction happened. The Blair government along with local authorities, resident groups, academics and the media, decried ‘binge drinking; in town centres. The Licensing Act has since been superseded by laws intended to ‘toughen up’ the control of night venues. This includes the infamous ‘Licensing Review', which brought subjective criteria back into the licensing process, introduced through the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006.

Dangerous nightlife?

The question is, what is so threatening to the authorities about nightlife? I would argue that there is nothing intrinsically dangerous about nightlife. As a social form, while it has historically had associations with radical political movements (such as the Chartists, or the counterculture), cultural experimentation would never in itself overthrow the social order. Indeed, it has become part of the social order, if we consider how the counterculture has mutated into the cultural industries, now worth £84.1 billion per year. Other countries seem to manage a nightlife culture without the same agonies as the UK.

Nor is it about crime. Just about every legitimate industry in the UK has a criminal underbelly, whether it is money laundering, drugs, or trafficking. Do we see officers at the doors of the banking sector? No. Attention is very selective.

I would argue it's about history. With the exception of the new Labour government of 1997-2010, the British elite has unthinkingly adopted and transmitted an anti-democratic perspective aimed at controlling the people and their cultural habits. The elite always had historical enemies – the working-class, trade unions, public houses, intellectuals, the Irish, young people, gay men and lesbians, bohemians, West Indians and other arriving immigrants, and so on – and with every opportunity, they keep at it. It's a psychosocial dance, and, like the girl in the red shoes, they simply can't stop dancing. And we, in turn, are forced to dance with them.

Everyday prejudice

But behind this seemingly coherent ideological spectacle (or moral panic, as Stan Cohen put it) is a thoughtless reflex. The authorities dress up as consistency what is often petty and embedded reasons for ‘not liking something’. Thatcher, it has been reported, went on the offensive against rave because a Tory MPs uncle complained about noise from one of these parties. She didn't want more ‘innocent' events to be targeted (such as ‘barn dances’) though.

In my research in Brixton in the 1990s, many thought there was a conspiracy to drive out black culture – a gentrified and sanitised nightlife - but the reality was much more mundane. The prejudice that black venues were more suspect, more criminal and commercially disorganised was accepted matter-of-factly by the police, councillors and council officers alike. The little note I saw on the whiteboard in the local MET licensing team saying ‘I hate rap', spoke to this de facto attitude. 

No-one questioned them at the time (partly because no-one knew and partly because they were scared), even as it was unwittingly driving a culturally whitewashing gentrification. The officers and officials I spoke to were just racists in an 'everyday way'. Moreover, they simply had no way of thinking about why a diverse nightlife might matter, or how they could help, not hinder, black venue owners or promoters. As I said at the time, ‘the value of such spaces was overlooked.’

Combatting control

Everyday, unthinking prejudices matter, because they are channelled into policy, strategy and law. It's why those seeking to push back against the recent regulatory and legislative assault on nightlife need also to combat what lies behind it all. It means winning the ideas war; outlining the reasons why nightlife is important, why we should be permissive about transgression, and how the liminality of the night and its culture is for the greater good. It shouldn't be hard since the authorities don't generally have many good ideas.

I’ll write more on that later.

This was a battle fought and ‘more or less’ won in Manchester. It was heard in the passing of the Licensing Act 2003, however temporary the liberalisation was. And it was won through the articulation of the importance of the ‘night-time economy’ and the cultural industries.

Since that point, no-one has made a case for why nightlife is an important part of our social fabric. We have become complacent, and we see the results in the closure of nightclubs, pubs and bars. Maybe that’ll change with the furore about the closure of Fabric and the appointment of the London Night Czar, Ame Lamé.

And, after the case has been made, nightclub owners need resources and training to help them meet regulatory requirements, and legal help when they encounter problems. Otherwise, the only people who can combat an over-zealous officialdom will be big corporations, not small and diverse innovators.

Creativity needs culture, culture needs spaces, and spaces need protecting. Without a diverse nightlife, there is no inspiration, freedom or life to our cities. Let the fightback begin.

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