As we watch our treasured punk icons melt into establishment figures, Labour MP for Wirral South ALISON MCGOVERN muses on the nature of being an outsider: that it may be cool to be a rebel for a while, but to effect real change we all need to be on the inside.
Liverpool is a rebel city, right?
We are not like the rest of England, and we turn our back on the country, and look out towards the Atlantic, right? Part of our self-image on Merseyside is surely our radical, uncompromising nature. We stand apart. We take battles on. We won’t be told. We are contrary. Gobby. Up for a fight. Right?
Culturally, being a rebel is great thing to be. In music, film, art, sport even, being a rebel is synonymous with being original. Rebelling means doing things differently. It means critically – furiously, even – taking on the accepted way that things are. In politics too, my Merseyside heart is rebellious. Getting into politics to change how the work gets done, not just to be the one who does it. Not just playing the political game. Ripping up the bad rules; making new rules.
And our Liverpool rebel hearts have served us well. No one thought that the public would love mad, yellow half-lamb-half-banana art, until we showed it could be done. We take on lost causes, and make a virtue of the disdain with which the rest of the country has sometimes treated us.
But here is a weird truth: today’s rebel is tomorrow’s establishment figure. The Beatles were rebels once. Their hair, their accents, the lyrics. It’s easy to forget it was once all very controversial, even before John Lennon said they were more popular than Jesus. In the end, they have become the gospel truth of music. Those people who say they don’t actually like the Beatles? That’s just rebellion. Jazz was deeply controversial once too; now it is often middle of the road. The enfants terribles of punk ended up becoming national treasures. Madonna was once a rebellious young New Yorker, until one day, there she was in a hunting jacket and hanging out with top Tories.
Why does this happen? Is it just age? Do you always grow out of rebellion?
No, I don’t think so. Plenty of people come to rebel status later in life. Picasso was more rebellious as he went on, for example. Rather, it’s because in the end, a rebellion, to really change the world, needs wide acceptance. The unpopular view must become accepted wisdom. Once that happens, change is established. I am old enough to remember when the idea that two men or two women being married would have been shocking. Now it is (in Britain, anyway) so uncontroversial that the legislation passed through our Parliament with support from all corners. Even the establishment Tories. Change happens because a minority view becomes majority consent.
Therefore, even my rebel heart knows that to see the big change our society needs – an end to homelessness, more money in people’s pockets, power based on talent and hard work not family or connections – those of my political persuasion must be more than a sect. Even a noisy inconvenient faction can be ignored if they are just shouting from the side-lines, never imposing a view to influence the decision, just shouting for the sake of the din. Madonna, in the end, was able to change pop music not just because she was a rebel, but also because she was popular. She was followed.
Though I’ll never forgive her for the hunting jacket.
What’s more, being a rebel, staying outside the consensus, brings with it consequences. Rebellion is isolating. Liverpool’s outsider city status binds us together, but kept us misunderstood by others in Britain. How long has it taken to correct the misunderstanding heaped on our shoulders? So, it may be cool to be a rebel, but it can also be uncomfortable. Artists are often outsiders too. And they experience the pain that goes with it. That loneliness, I mean.
Standing alone, with self-belief, may be one thing. But what about the equal value of being a cog in a larger machine? We all have that very human need to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to work together with others, not just dissent. Societies only function if, in the end, rebels row in with everyone else. People are entitled to fight their corner, to seek change, but permanent rebellion can never give enough of a permanent platform to stand on. To build from.
So, in my mind, there is a sweet point somewhere between rebellion and creating structure – a system – that people can actually believe in, and use to their own advantage. Rebels who never try to change the consensus view are doomed to fail on their own terms. So that’s why I say to my fellow Merseysiders: us rebels can’t get stuck on the outside. We are entitled to be heard, and to change the establishment – just as anyone else is.