Voices: Did Banksy and Idles miss the mark with their Glastonbury protests?

Rock band IDLES led attendees to chant ‘F*** the King’  (BBC)
Rock band IDLES led attendees to chant ‘F*** the King’ (BBC)

It’s that time of year again. The time when all of your poshest, whitest friends disappear into the ether for a couple of days, and start posting Instagram stories about bands you’ve never heard of with names like “Mo//Jo” and “The Milky Tea Connection”. The middle-class Mecca that that gives Kings College students the country over license to act like they’ve “never heard of a trust fund, what even is that?” The last chance for people with names like “Polly” and “Rupert” to gather together and sing “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”, before their uncle hooks them up with that sweet, sweet consultancy job. That’s right: it’s Glastonbury weekend, baby.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Glastonbury… in theory. In a country whose stance on left wing politics would make Joe McCarthy blush, and which regards young people with the sort of nervous scepticism usually reserved for people muttering to themselves on the bus, it’s nice that we’ve turned a bastion of both of those things into one of our most celebrated and enduring cultural institutions.

I can’t imagine where else you’d see something like the stunt Marina Abramović pulled on Friday, where she took to the Pyramid stage and somehow convinced a crowd of drunk festival goers to observe a seven minute-long silence dedicated to peace (handily reflected in the performance artist’s dress, shaped like a peace sign, for the benefit of those whose capacity for abstract thought had been compromised by the festival’s non-musical offerings).

It just strikes me as a little hypocritical. I mean – and I’m aware this is an ice-cold take in 2024 – but the ticket prices alone sort of disqualify the event from being the big anti-capitalist love-in that we all pretend it is. I wouldn’t mind as much if it consistently delivered, but it often doesn’t. “Sure, I had to remortgage my house to get a ticket, but didn’t you hear? Coldplay are performing this year! You know, Coldplaythat band everybody famously likes.”

And if we’re being honest, even the political side of things could use a little tightening up. During a set on Friday, rock band IDLES led attendees in a rousing chant of “F*** the King”, while the crowd passed around a prop depicting child refugees in a dinghy. The prop, which the band denies any knowledge of, was created and distributed by Banksy – another artist famous for his use of subtle political metaphor.

Look, I’m no royalist, but it really feels like there are better targets for your left-wing angst than a 75-year-old cancer patient – not least because he actually has a pretty good track record when it comes to progressive causes like the environment. It’s doubly weird when you consider that at an earlier show, the band used their platform to call Nigel Farage a fascist – arguably a much more urgent bit of messaging, when some polls predict that Reform UK could overtake the Conservatives at next week’s election.

Similarly, crowd surfing a bunch of fake child refugees feels like the kind of thing ChatGPT would come up with if you put in the prompt “gesture politics lazy ineffective Very Lazy”. Honestly, when I first heard about it I thought it was some kind of weird anti-immigrant protest. It’s a good thing Banksy is so bad at being anonymous, because if he hadn’t immediately attached his name to it I wouldn’t have known it was supposed to be a message of support.

Compare that to Charlotte Church, who used her time in the spotlight to take as unambiguous a stance as possible. The singer, who has received threats and police visits for her pro-Gaza views, lead the crowd in a chorus of “Free Palestine”, while wearing a traditional Arab keffiyeh over her shoulder. Sure, it probably won’t change any minds in Westminster, but as messages go it’s both loud and clear.

I’m glad that progressive politics are so tightly interwoven with the fabric of Glastonbury. At this point, I’d be happy to see them celebrated at an underground rave attended by 20 people, let alone a world-famous festival with 200,000 of them. But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that for many of the people there, it’s just a bit of political cosplay for rich kids who won’t carry those ideals into the real world.

They sleep in a tent for a few days and act like they’re Bear Grylls – they shout “down with the system” and pretend they’re Karl Marx. But do they take any of that home with them? Well, there’s an election next week, and considering the choices laid before us include the far right possibly out-polling the Tories, we can only hope so.