Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Iron Lady and My Part In Her Downfall

Protest and survive

Looks ugly doesn't it? It wasn't. It was damn good fun and jolly good exercise. All that running. All that shouting. All that righteous fury. The glow I got from Ready Brek as a 1970s primary school kid, I got from protesting in the 1980s (and also from bargain booze and amphetamine to be honest).

I wasn't a very good political activist. Though I tried.

Back then I went to demos the way other people went to the shops. I always nipping out for a rally or popping into town for a picket or a protest. It was the era of miner's strike and there was always something on. The odd thing was that I once I got there I never felt entirely comfortable. I'm too much of a natural doubter - Don't get me wrong I hated the Tories as much as anyone - I was, in the words of the old chant - a Tory hater, but I wanted to win in a Corinthian stylee. Not so much Organise. Agitate. Kick The Tories Out  as Organise. Agitate. Beat them Fair and Square in A Public Debate. In some shameful, unacknowledged part of my psyche Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! OUT! OUT! OUT! became Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Next time we'll persuade more voters to put their crosses in our boxes than in yours! Then you'll be sorry!

I was particularly uncomfortable with No Platform rallies. Remember them? I think (and thought then - though I kept quiet about it) that everyone should have a platform. The point of being on the left is that we are fighting so that everyone can speak. So that everyone gets a voice. One of the big things we are fighting for is the right of our opponents to argue against us. Even if they win. 'I hate what you say - but I defend to the death your right to say it'. That's me - though then I was sort of ashamed of it. (God knows there were plenty of things I should have been ashamed of doing, saying, thinking - but that wasn't one of them... That's always been a thing with me. Feeling shame. And for the wrong things...)

Luckily the behaviour of the police at these things was usually enough to cure the inconvenient doubts. Because the police were reliably horrible. They never seemed to suffer from shame or angst about their part in the rituals of demonstrations. They knew who buttered their bread and it wasn't us.

Just one example: It is 1985 an anti-apartheid demo heading up to Trafalgar Square. Me and my mate Dave have sprinted to the front of the march so that we can nip into The Spice of Life and have a couple of beers while waiting for the Essex Uni contingent to catch up. A couple of beers means a trip to the toilet and have you ever used a public toilet when there are thousands of people milling about trying to topple a government? It can take a while.

Afterwards I'm trying to find Dave and the Essex SU crowd when I discover I'm at the front of the march where a little group of Class War nutjobs are taunting the police. They are chanting 'Tottenham! Tottenham!'  not because of any love for the boys from White Hart Lane, but to remind the coppers of the murder in that district of PC Blakelock a couple of years previously. I'm not an idiot. I'm at University. And my uni educated mind tells me that this is all unnecessary and, probably, unwise. That the police are likely to be unhappy about this and unhappy too about the banners that are now being used as missiles - so I turn away. None of my mates will be here that's for sure. And it's then the police charge, lashing out with their truncheons as they come.

Ah, truncheon. Such a nostalgic word. Truncheons have gone the way of typewriters and record players. They seem now like messages from a more innocent time. In the era of the US-style baton they seem benign somehow. Quaint. Almost sweet. Dickensian. The sort of thing a fat Beadle would carry. But they bloody hurt as does the fact that my arm is being bent up behind my back at an impossible angle.

'You'll do.' says the PC. Really. 'You'll do.' I'm scared and in pain but I'm also infuriated and, more than this even, I'm curious as to what I'll be charged with.

 It turns out to be 'obstructing a police officer in the course of his duty.' According to the PC he had been attempting to arrest some chanter, some banner-thrower, when I  intervened punching and kicking and swearing and he lists the words I'm meant to have used. I almost blush. To hear such words coming out of the mouth of a uniformed public servant... I can't think it's what Sir Robert Peel had in mind when he founded the force. I'm genuinely shocked. Not just at the words, but how brazen this all is. And then I spend several hours in a cell with a nervous wreck of a guy who has just been told he is going to be charged with attempted murder. A cop has been hit with a full can of Guinness and this chap has been discovered on the demo with a can of Guinness in his hand. He is, the police told him, therefore the obvious perp. He is going down.

The hours pass and eventually I am kicked out of the door to be greeted by a little knot of hyped up activists asking if I need anything. Food? Drink? Train fare? and actually yes, I discover I need all those things. The student union bus has gone you see and I need to get back to Colchester... A girl turns and addresses her fellow campaigners with a (frankly unnecessary) megaphone. 'Comrades! There's a bloke here who needs to get back to Manchester...' No no no Colchester, I whisper but it is too late, she is too swept up in her role as Joan of Arc to listen. '...Manchester. Please give whatever you can.' It's like I'm a famine and she is a Blue Peter appeal. It's like a little Live Aid. And I have to say, the crowd dig deep. I get more money than I've held in my hand since I started at Uni. And my protests about the wrong town are waved away. No one is listening to me.

I go to court a couple of months later. There are dozens of us and we're all absolutely discharged in batches of ten by an exasperated magistrate.

What really did for Thatch (as we called her then)  was the Poll Tax demo. The infamous riots. I was working by then. Clerking and assistanting for the Probation Service, and it had been our union conference the day before so I was hungover and hadn't had much sleep. Those probation officers can really put it away.

I was going to the demo with my mate Jessica (who later became the BBC producer on the Food Programme...). Jess was much more radical than me. She was in the SWP (who never allowed self-doubt- that was for  the Labour Party and other class traitors...) She was also American, fearless and in possession of a camera. When it all kicked off (and my memory is that it all began with a solitary orange juice bottle chucked at the window of a pizza hut) Jessica's instinct was to run towards the police, the horses, the burning cars. It was bonkers but it cured my hangover and the photos were sort of worth it. And it worked of course.

That's the thing with riots - they are an English tradition. And they work. A riot torn street in a deprived neighbourhood today is a City Farm tomorrow. Riots have always been part of the discourse between the ruling class and a disenfranchised working class. And the managers of capitalism do listen. Yes, at the time they're all birch 'em, flog 'em hang em high but then afterwards you'll find quiet concessions, subtle alterations in the course of the ship of state. You'll find, for example, the rhetoric about necessary cuts softened and a plan b gradually introduced(if not named) consisting of some large scale infrastructure projects.

And after the poll tax riots Thatcher was gone in weeks. That's all it took. Ding dong the witch was dead. The Iron Lady turned out not to be so very tough after all.

The next time I was on a really big demo was the huge anti-war thing in 2003. A million of us marching through the city and lots of people like me who hadn't been on a demo in years. I think we were all a bit over excited. Not only was it a huge, huge demo which they couldn't ignore. (Couldn't they? Of course they could... it would have different had it turned nasty. If they'd had to use the water cannon and the rubber bullets.) There was hope and happiness in the air. It was like a massive reunion. Veterans of all those old battles back together for one last gig. And what a gig. A million of us. A million. But times had changed a bit. There were a lot of people breaking off from the demo saying 'ooh there's a great little vintage shop down here...' or ' there's this amazing organic bakery round here somewhere.' I suspect a lot of the marchers had olives and hummus in those sandwiches. I know I did.

And now there's a new generation of student activists - smarter than we were I think. Witness how clumsy they make the police look. One goateed geek with an iPhone seems worth entire squadrons of police transits when it comes to organising the movements of large groups of people. 'I see your kettle and I raise it...' and it's because they're smarter that the authorities come down harder.

And I think the current generation are angrier too. They bloody well should be.

I do still prefer rational debate - and these days I'm not ashamed of doubt. It's people who have no doubts that worry me. But these days more than ever I think students should be out of the streets Occupying, Defending. Trying to make people listen. And you can tell that they've already got the ruling class rattled. Four years hard time  for writing 'let's have a riot' on Facebook? A year in chokey for climbing on a statue of Winston Churchill? These are not the responses of politicians who feel confident and in control.

In ten or twenty years time some of the things that are happening now will look ridiculous. Some actions might look embarrassing. Some - most - of today's student activists will have stories of generalised daftness But so what? Plenty of things worse than embarrassment. Doing nothing, saying nothing. Letting the bastards grind you down. That's all much worse. Isn't it?

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