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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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