It’s almost as if ‘Ill Manors’ was conceived specifically to generate broadsheet think pieces.
With “rich boy”-baiting lyrics and a fantastically catchy Amen break chorus, Plan B’s latest single is as zeitgeisty as they come. The track has been lauded by Guardian columnists and Labour MPs alike (a surefire sign you’re doing something wrong), with parts of the left-leaning media loudly proclaiming that ‘Ill Manors’ is the generational anthem for which we’ve all been waiting.
The left’s sudden lionisation of Ben Drew is odd, given that his most recent album is dedicated entirely to perpetuating myths about rape. The Defamation of Strickland Banks is a concept record based around a man who is convicted of raping a woman during a one night stand. Drew’s character, Strickland Banks (apparently not a Bugsy Malone extra, despite the name), protests his innocence, claiming that the woman is in love with him and has falsely accused him after being rejected. In a country in which one in four women is the victim of rape or attempted rape, but in which just six per cent of cases result in a conviction (and in which women are going to prison after being forced to retract truthful accusations of rape), there is really no place for art predicated on the notion that women who do come forward are obsessive liars.
But we should also be questioning Drew’s sudden urge to position himself in the rioters’ camp. The video for ‘Ill Manors’ shows the rapper ensconced with a group of people hauling away stolen TVs – a strange choice given his disgust at the looters at the time. On the second of those extraordinary days during which the cities burned, the rapper took to the pages of the Sun to deliver a rambling, confused response to events. The crux of the piece mirrors the argument made by so many commentators at the time and since: that theft is not a reasonable response to poverty, and that the riots weren’t political because the people on the street weren’t burning government buildings.
This is dangerous, and it is fundamentally incorrect. It assumes that politics is something that just happens in Parliament; something that parties do. It assumes that the political space is somehow separate from the ‘real world’, and that actions outside that space necessarily cannot be political. In fact, politics is everything. The rioters weren’t carrying placards, and they weren’t waving them outside Westminster – but that doesn’t mean that the riots weren’t informed by politics. They were poverty riots, born of inequality and of endless police harassment – the constant structural violence that is inflicted by capitalism on the working class every day.
Drew is keen (and rightly so) to change the way people think and talk about council residents – but most of all he seems personally affronted by the riots. “You’ve got people like me,” he said in the Sun, “who are trying to change the way middle England look at the underclass, have a bit more compassion for them – how can I stand up for that any more?” For Drew, a better life is something that is given to you – not something that you take. In a lecture for TED and The Observer last week he encouraged people to ignore the government and instead each find one person that they can help. He talked about a friend who runs a hair salon, training “underprivileged” young people, and pointed to those that he had taken out of school to star in his film as evidence that the solution to poverty is the altruism of the better off. In Drew’s mind the poor need to keep quiet and stop embarrassing him, and wait for a pop star to turn them into film stars. Then society will be fixed.
Drew is the archetypical liberal. He believes that poverty can be solved through charity, and that the poor must respond to structural violence either by ignoring it, or by acting within strict parameters of acceptability. For Drew it’s bad that there are no jobs, that there are mothers skipping meals in order to feed their kids, that people are being forced to work for free in order to keep their benefits – but if you throw a brick through a window you’re on your own.
Drew has been so effusively welcomed by the faux-left commentariat because he conforms precisely to their prejudices while resolutely failing to challenge their porous theory. He is a working class lad from a ‘difficult’ area, just rough enough for the Guardian to keep its edge but eloquent enough to safely hold a room at TED. He has ‘improved’ himself by sticking rigidly to the strictures of the system in which he found himself – a tactic that has seen him financed by one of the world’s largest record companies. It was inevitable that he would become a figurehead for the Guardian and the rest. For them he is totemic proof of the fundament of liberalism: that the ‘problem’ of the working class can be ‘solved’ without structural change.
‘Ill Manors’ is yet another reminder that we must see the riots through the prism of politics. We must recognise them for what they were, and for what they will be again this summer: a tentative insurrection. It is the destruction of capital that will end poverty. Charity and record deals won’t hack it, regardless of how pretty the accompanying video is.