The Guardians (1971): Power, Politics and Policing

It’s the 1980s, but not as we knew them in this ITV series about England veering into fascism

Nick Barlow

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DVD cover of The Guardians, featuring characters and symbols from the series

Britain is in crisis. Underperforming economically with inflation causing rising prices while strikers threaten to paralyse the country, a succession of political leaders from all parties seem to have no answer to the problems facing the country. The country itself is falling apart, with nationalist separatists tearing the union apart, while the police are stretched too thinly and are too hidebound by existing rules to tackle a rising tide of crime.

Welcome to Saturday nights on ITV in the summer of 1971. Welcome to the world of The Guardians. What, you thought what was happening now was new?

The Guardians took viewers forward from the early 70s to the 1980s where England is a very different place. Sometime before the start of the series, successive British governments of all parties failed to tackle a series of crises and so the old parties were swept aside, the United Kingdom fell apart and the Royal Family fled to Canada. An unnamed military officer (referred to only as “the General”) took temporary power and established a militarised national security force — The Guardians Of The Realm — to restore law and order before stepping back and allowing a new civilian government led by businessman Sir Timothy Hobson to come to power in a heavily stage-managed election.

It’s about an England that’s not quite a democracy, yet not quite a dictatorship either and the series as a whole operates in this grey area. The machinery of repression is in place, but it’s enforced with a relatively light touch — at least as far as most of the population experience it, anyway. The opening titles set this tone, centred on black-clad machine gun-wielding fascistic-flag-carrying Guardians marching purposefully down a street, while in the background people continue going about their daily lives. The new regime depicts itself as evolutionary, a necessary step to promote security, not a revolutionary overthrow of the old order. Depictions of fictional authoritarianism often imagine all of the old society being washed away, but this is a much more realistic future where a lot goes on as before.

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Nick Barlow

Former academic and politician, now walking, cycling and working out what comes next. https://linktr.ee/nickbarlow