Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Guardians

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians?

IT’S strange, the things we remember. For me, it’s the formative influence of an obscure television series, produced in 1971 by London Weekend Television for the private British broadcaster, ITV, and screened here a few years later by the NZBC. The name of the series was The Guardians.

Described by Mark Duguid of the British Film Institute as:

"A product of the new pessimism of the early 1970s, and reflecting that decade's key concerns - mass unemployment, spiralling inflation, chronic industrial unrest - The Guardians (ITV, 1971) is now largely forgotten, perhaps because relatively few viewers had the patience to see this lengthy, talky drama to its conclusion. For all its faults, however, the series is fascinating for its insights into the political ferment of its times, and for what now appears an unusual and bold attempt to present a drama of moral philosophy for a mainstream television audience."

The BFI website offers the following synopsis of the series’ plot:

"In a near-future Britain, the far-right government has declared a state of emergency and suspended elections. The Queen has fled in protest, while the defence of the state is in the hands of the Guardians, a paramilitary force with absolute power and a ruthless determination to stamp out resistance."

What made The Guardians so special for me, were the very attributes that rendered it so commercially unsuccessful. It was, indeed, very long and very "talky". More particularly, however, this "bold attempt to present a drama of moral philosophy", was a powerful study in the application of political ethics in extremis.

One scene in the drama remains forever seared into my memory.

The anti-government terrorist organisation, "Quarmby", has captured a young and idealistic member of the paramilitary "Guardians". Asked by his captors to put on record his reasons for joining the Guardians, the young man delivers a brutally eloquent speech in which he reaffirms the far-right government’s view that "democracy is a form of group suicide", and celebrates the opportunity provided by the state of emergency to force through long-delayed change – especially in relation to the environment. "At long last", he declares, "people are having to clean up their own shit!" At that moment, with the tape still running, and the young man still declaiming, one of the terrorists takes out a pistol and shoots him in the back of the head.

A couple of years ago I was invited by Sue Bradford to address a meeting of the North Shore Greens. In the Q&A session afterwards I was somehow reminded of that shocking scene from The Guardians – most likely in response to a comment about the almost insurmountable barriers to effecting urgent environmental change in a democratic political context.

With my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek, I recalled the 1970s television series and suggested that perhaps what the world needed was a force of "Green Guardians" – a paramilitary organisation comprised of "partisans of the planet"; people with sufficient coercive power to quite literally force individuals and corporations to "clean up their own shit". To my astonishment (and alarm) I saw many respectable North Shore heads nodding in agreement. One woman later rose to her feet and declared that she really liked the idea: "Green Guardians are exactly what we need!"

Green fascism? Is there a case to be made?

In the Great Britain of the early 1970s a rising sense of political unease pervaded the nation’s governing circles. Many believed the country was on the brink of ungovernability. Northern Ireland had already become an open wound, where all manner of extreme political solutions were being tested in the fight against terrorist violence. Of even greater concern to business leaders and the permanent civil service, however, was the seemingly unstoppable (at least by democratic means) power of the trade unions.

The Guardians ran from July until October 1971. In the ensuing eight years many of its plot-lines took on the appearance of prophecy. In 1973, faced with a crippling coal-miners strike, the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, asked the country to decide "Who governs?" – Parliament or the Unions? The answer came back: "The Unions!" People in high places began to contemplate a Guardians-style coup d’etat (Lord Louis Mountbatten was rumoured to be involved). In 1976, the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, resigned suddenly, amidst rumours of an MI5 plot. The decade ended with Margaret Thatcher ushering-in 11 years of extreme right-wing rule.

Desperate times had called forth desperate measures.

The NZ Greens (and green parties all over the world) are similarly convinced that what happens – or fails to happen – in the next five-to-ten years will determine the fate of civilised existence on this planet. As those years tick by, tremendous internal frustration will grow at the inability of the democratic process to address in any meaningful sense the global ecological crisis. The fear will be that by the time the effects of global warming and peak oil are serious enough to prompt a majority of the global electorate to swing its support behind green solutions, it will be much too late for them to have any effect.

Every passing election makes it increasingly clear that, with only 4-12 percent of the popular vote internationally, the greens can never be anything more than attractive window dressing for the non-ecological parties of the Left and the Right. Accordingly, the global green movement is faced with two, equally daunting, prospects. Green activists will either become disillusioned with politics altogether, and drift away into personal redemption and/or survivalism, or, they will embrace new and undemocratic means of forcing the ecological issue.

The friendly, all-things-to-all-people brand of "Green" may end up being replaced by a starker and more menacing brand, "Survive!" – a movement ready and willing to tap into the deeply embedded millenarian and apocalyptic mythos of the Judeo-Christian tradition – most probably by appropriating and/or adapting the excluding and annihilationist rhetoric of the far-right evangelical churches: "He who is not for me is against me".

With a global economic meltdown now overlaying the global ecological crisis, the number of voters willing to trade their personal freedom for collective security – democracy for survival – is only going to increase. As burgeoning rates of unemployment are echoed by rising sea-levels, and an increasing number of countries succumb to the economic equivalent of the advancing desert sands, the grimly prophetic words of The Guardians team of writers: "democracy is a form of group suicide" may come to sound more and more like political – and ethical – common sense.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 9 April 2009.


Anonymous said...

this post really upset me because i am now desperate to watch that TV show but cant find it anywhere. thanks alot Chris ;-(.
BTW you a fan of BBC's 1975 "Survivors"?

SeaJay said...

Fine form Mt Trotter. Do not tamper with this post now y'hear?
Now where is the Guardian tv show of our era?

Nick said...

Nice analysis Chris, having been involved in some environmental causes I can see where it will end. If for example you follow all avenues available and fail to prevent the demise of a species or ecosystem what option do you have but to take illegal actions? Once extinct you cannot bring species back. So to prevent this the legitimacy of any system that allows it has to be questioned and where necessary over ridden. This is the point that ecological devastation will innevitably lead us to.

Graeme Edgeler said...

Now where is the Guardian tv show of our era?One of the seasons of "24" involved, basically, a coup.

"Jericho" involved a plot by parts of the Government to seize control after letting off nuclear weapons in major US cities, with Blackwater-type security companies terrorising people.

A few years back (but more recently that Guardians) you had other shows like "House Of Cards" and its sequels, and "A Very British Coup"; a show like "Between the Lines" also traversed some similar themes.

Saxbey said...

I also well remember The Guardians on TV in the early 70's. Seem to recall the "leader" called Norman. Anyway, it made quite an impression on me also. It was very much about concerns of the time, politics had a polarity in those days that is simply no around anymore.