Achtung Bono! Glastonbury gets political

This was to be the year the festival got its radical mojo back. So what happened to all the protests?

There were rumours of siege towers and stage invasions. But in the end, Art Uncut's much-hyped U2 protest proved somewhat less seismic: an 8m-high balloon – inscribed with the slogan "U pay tax 2?" (geddit?) – that was ripped down by security almost as soon as it was inflated on Friday. Standing a few metres away, I was surprised and disheartened. It's not that the ensuing scuffles were serious (although one protester ended up with a broken finger), but they left a sour taste. Stamping on good-natured direct action so aggressively seemed at odds with the supposedly progressive values of the festival.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. This year's event was built up as the year Glasto got its political mojo back, with the U2 protest slated as emblematic of this change. Festival-founder Michael Eavis had sounded excited, calling politics the thing that "gives Glastonbury soul and gives it back its purpose". On the day of the protest itself, he called the festival "socialism with a small s", saying that Glastonbury-goers "walk the talk, rather than just talk the talk". It's not that Art Uncut's argument – that U2 shouldn't be offshoring their tax burden when a) their Irish compatriots are up the economic spout, and b) their lead singer Bono is petitioning western politicians to increase overseas aid – would have persuaded everyone, but it was expected it would get a hearing.

Then again, it's an annual complaint that Glastonbury's not what it used to be. "This 'return to politics'," one of the Art Uncut protesters, Danni Wright, tells me, "I don't even know what that means. Does it mean there's more political people here? Does it mean the way the festival is organised has changed?" Glastonbury's not in a position to be truly radical, Wright argues: "It's just become too corporate."

There were a few signs of political engagement. At the Left Field tent – reintroduced last year as a reaction to the Tory government and curated by socialist singer Billy Bragg – attendance numbers were up. And while the programme mostly focused firmly on British politics, a debate about Palestine with Faithless guitarist Dave Randall and comedian Mark Thomas had a 300-strong crowd.

At the Greenpeace stage, music label Cowshed Studio gave both punters and established bands such as Stornoway and Badly Drawn Boy the chance to record their own protest songs. "The protest song seems to have gone to sleep in the last 10 years," the studio's owner, Joe Leach, told me. "Our aim is to reinvigorate interest in it."

Then there was the radical new Tripod stage, buried away in Glastonbury's south-eastern corner. Here UK Uncut activists – most of whom took part in Friday's protest – held direct action workshops, alongside political music performances. "No, no, we don't want your cuts," sang an activist who gave her name as Aisha. "Cuts ain't getting no love from me."

But did this smattering of radical activity mean that the wider festival had recovered its political soul? Laurie Penny, who took part in the U2 protest, says in fact it highlighted the opposite. She points out that Art Uncut's protest, rather than proving Glastonbury can still function as a political forum, was actually an attack on the ideas with which the festival has become associated.

Bragg, meanwhile, says the festival can only ever reflect the times. "In the 80s," he admits, "this festival was a gathering for what Margaret Thatcher saw as the enemy within." But that clarity of purpose, he adds, was the result of a profoundly ideological decade. "Today, I've no idea what David Cameron believes." Bragg says: Glastonbury's cultural currency – music – no longer has the political clout it once had. "When it started, music was still the language with which you spoke to your peers. But if I was young, political and angry today, I wouldn't need to play guitar to get my voice heard. I could blog, I could tweet, or I could Facebook."

But Bragg is still positive about the festival. "Alternative culture often gets subsumed into the mainstream," he says, "and Glastonbury to some extent has done that. But there is no other similarly sized festival that I know of that has a Left Field, or a U2 protest. I don't think there's much political debate at Reading. That's just a gig in a field. Glastonbury is something else."

With this in mind, Friday's protest – and the security staff's reaction to it – tells us two things. Glastonbury itself can no longer, in Eavis's words, "walk the talk". But perhaps it still allows others the space, however temporary, to do so themselves.

• This article was amended on 27 June 2011. It said that the words used by Art Uncut on the balloon were "U Pay Your Tax 2". This has been corrected.


Patrick Kingsley

The GuardianTramp

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