In 2011, the British Con-Dem coalition government imposed massive cuts to public spending, ostensibly to reduce the national deficit. The funding shortfalls produced by this austerity programme were to be met by opening up public services – schools, hospitals, universities, hospitals, libraries, and so on – to corporate investment and, where the profitability was likely too be too small or too distant in time, voluntary work within the affected communities. This latter option, known as the Big Society initiative, met with little success and was quietly dropped from political and news agendas. Not, however, before introducing the country to an array of costumed crimefighters and, eventually, a handful of genuine heroes.
Memos and recordings of secret high level meetings leaked to the press in 2015 show that, in an attempt to reduce the cuts to the police service, senior officers conspired to provoke the wave of protests sweeping the UK into violence. They reasoned that the greater the threat to property – one tape reveals officers agreeing to use ‘public order’ as a euphemism – the more likely corporate bosses were to pressurise politicians into maintaining, perhaps even expanding, the police budget.
This strategy proved disastrous.
Many aspects of police work were suddenly opened up to competitive tender, with tax-payers’ money diverted into the coffers of multinational security consultant companies. The size of the police force was massively reduced. Many former officers found themselves employed by these new ‘security providers’ as freelancers or on short-term, zero-hour contracts, doing the same work for minimum wage or less. Only the least profitable of police work – crimes against people, particularly in the poorest sectors of society – were left to the barely funded police force.
Meanwhile, the tail-end of Big Society state initiatives encouraged neighbourhood watch schemes and other community groups to police their own streets. And while many people were concerned about the violence and injustices this introduced, the media lapped it up.
Steven Seagal presented four seasons of the reality TV series Have-A-Go Heroes, a ratings hit that inspired numerous imitators, including Ross Kemp’s Britain’s Hardest Heroes and Danny Dyer’s Village Vigilantes.
Richard Branson, Simon Cowell, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Alan Sugar joined forces to produce Britain’s Got Talents, a show which uncovered the nation’s would-be superheroes, and The X-Factory, which followed each season’s finalists through superhero boot camp. For a while, their names were on the lips of school-children everywhere. Wicca Man. EastEnder. White Van Man. CiderMan, the west country cyborg.
General Dodd, the former head of Britain’s top-secret Meta-Human programme, came out of retirement and once more summoned his Diddy Men – a veritable army of forgotten bullies in long underwear – from the obscurity of their seniors’ villages and sheltered accommodation. Colonel Bogey, Boy’s Own, the Dandy, the Minx, Brown Owl, Victor, Hotspur, Warlord, Bullet, Starlord, the Space Hopper…
But things were already going badly wrong.
Austerity measures intensified, driving the country ever deeper into poverty and despair. Workhouses returned, called Job Centres now, and in the Brutal Parishes peonage too root. Private police forces, security contractors and criminal gangs – the differences between increasingly nominal – carved up cities. No-go zones and exclusion zones proliferated. Emergency powers were declared. Black-shirted militias were formed. Labour camps opened. Cities burned. People died. And so did civil liberties.
At first, only a handful dared to raise their voices in opposition.
Banned once more, and once too often, from a Liverpool mall because she refused to uncover her face for security cameras, a sixteen-year-old girl decided enough was enough. She burned down a militia R&R centre in a former library. She called herself Hoodie.
This first act of heroic resistance attracted others, and soon she was joined by Bradford’s The Muslamist. Then Wolverhampton’s ASBOy. Glasgow’s Northern Emergency Defence System. Billericay’s Counter-Hegemonists Against the Violent State.
And Citizen Media was everywhere, breaking the corporate stranglehold on information. ‘We are not the heroes,’ his broadcasts would conclude. ‘The people are the heroes, and it is time to get heroic.’
In the North, the Angel stirred.
The Insurgency had begun.