As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...
- Name: Alistair Livingston
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Alternative Sex was an anarcho and feminist zine published in October 1983 from 103 Grosvenor Avenue London N5. The magazine was collectively written by Val, Nicky, Illyane,Angie, Beck, Steph, Jenny, Griet, Debbie, Mouse, Lorraine and Lou. It was put together at 96 Brougham Road which was one of a row of squatted houses in Hackney.
103 Grosvenor Avenue was one of 4 houses in the Islington based Black Sheep Housing Co-operative.103 was also home to two members of the Mob and All the Madmen Records as well as two other fanzines- Kill Your Pet Puppy and the Encyclopaedia of Ecstasy. Andy Palmer of Crass lived in one of the Black Sheep Houses as did Bob Short of Blood and Roses.[I think!]. I have also added two pages from Vague 15 written by Anna and Maria about Greenham. Anna and Maria also lived in one of the Black Sheep Co-op houses at the time. Click on the pages to enlarge them
The next two pages are by Anna and Maria from Vague 15 about the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp. The contact adress given is 109 Corbyn Street which was another of the Black Sheep Housing Co-op houses. The last image is of Pinki (on the left) at Greenham in 1983.
Do I need to add any thing to this blog post? Does it need to be interpreted? To be contextualised? I am wondering because I know that punk/ anarcho-punk is now the focus of several academic/ historical studies and part of at least one university course.
But it isn't just history. Hagar the Womb who were a musical manifestation of Alternative Sex have reformed so to end with here is a clip of Hagar playing live in March 2014.
Friday, April 18, 2014
Vague- the revolution of everyday life
Here is an opening extract from Tom Vague's reminiscences - for more look here.
As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a vagrant – unemployed, on the road, unattached, unaligned, undomesticated, etc. I left school aged 16 in July 1976 during the heatwave, on the 200th anniversary of American independence, at the time of the Israeli special forces raid on the hijacked plane at Entebbe to free the hostages, the Montreal Olympics, and punk rock. ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven’; albeit nearly a hundred miles away from the action. I was there in 1976, as much as I was in 1966 when I broke my arms swinging from a tree after England won the World Cup.And here is some more- about Vague Number One
In 1978 I went back to Salisbury Tech College to do a building studies course and duly started Vague fanzine; for something to do, other than attempting to play guitar or sing, rather than with any literary aspirations. The original Vague editorial team consisted of the cartoonist Perry Harris, the Dutch poser Iggy Zevenbergen, Sharon Clarkson and Chris Johnson from the art college, and Jane Austin and Christine Nugent from Mere. The first Vague office was Iggy and Sharon’s place on Nelson Road. Other notable figures on the early Salisbury punk rock scene were Terry Watley, Spanish Alf, Bournemouth Christine, the catering punks Martin Butler and Tim Aylet, the black post-punk artist Dave Somerville, Mike Muscampf (who went on to the goth group Dormannu), the punk jeweller Simon Loveridge, and our hippy correspondent Frank Stocker. Our local pub was the Star and later the Cathedral; the record shops were Derek’s in the George Mall and Wilmer’s.
Inspired by Tim Aylet’s Channel 4 fanzine, post-punk and reggae – Ants, Banshees, Joy Division, Pop Group, PIL, Slits – in 1979 we launched Vague on the world. The first few issues were co-edited by Perry, Iggy and me; I assumed more or less total editorial control by the 3rd or 4th issue with Jane and Chris Johnson as assistant editors. On the back cover of Vague 1, Iggy, Alf and Dave Somerville are pictured outside the common room between the tech and art colleges on Southampton Road. The first issue was designed and printed by Mark Cross from the art college, who went on to design album sleeves. The second issue was photocopied down Fisherton Street. Perry’s ‘Lovable Spiky Tops’ cartoons best documented the evolution of Vague and the Salisbury scene; attempting to put on gigs, avoiding bikers, Teds, rockabillies, squaddies, smoothies, young farmers, etc.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
1985...in England's dream a nightmare...2005
This is an article I wrote for International Times, published in 1986.
It is rather bleak, but then the year had begun with the eviction of Molesworth peace camp followed by the Battle of the Beanfield in June. I then spent a couple of months living on travellers' site-Greenfields farm just outside Glastonbury with survivors of both events. I mention 1 June and Stonehenge surrounded with barbed wire in the article. Twenty years later I produced my own IT as a 'Beanfield Memorial'. I will add it below.
International time -IT- began in 1966 and continued on through punk into the eighties. There is a complete archive here. The last issue was in 1994- apart from this one.
Wednesday, April 09, 2014
The Radical Case for Scottish Independence
Yes- the Radical Case for Scottish Independence by James Foley and Pete Ramand Pluto Press
By securing England’s northern border from the threat of invasion from a Scotland allied with France, the Union of 1707 laid the foundations for what became the British Empire. Although in 1715 and again in 1745, Scottish Jacobites did invade England and did have French support, they did so as ‘rebels’ rather than as a fully financed and organised Franco-Scottish invasion force. The failure of the Jacobites then allowed Scots as soldiers, merchant-traders and settlers to add their energies to the expansion and maintenance of the Empire for the next 200 years. Scots also played a major role in the development of Britain as an industrial and commercial world power.
The retreat from Empire after the end of World War Two dragged on until the 1960s. The loss of Empire was matched by the United Kingdom’s decline as an industrial powerhouse. The title of a book published in 1983 -‘The Eclipse of a Great Power: Modern Britain 1870 -1975’- seemed to sum up the situation .
But, as James Foley and Pete Ramand explain, over the past 35 years, successive UK governments have attempted to put the ‘Great’ back in Britain. From the Falklands war through to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain’s armed forces have hoisted the Union Jack in the corner of many a dusty (or damp) foreign field.
At the same time, what David Harvey in his new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’ describes as the neo-liberal counter-revolution has revived the City of London as a permanent autonomous zone. According to the City of London Corporation, $1.9 trillion flows through this onshore-offshore banking business zone every day. In contrast the annual value of the UK’s manufacturing sector is only $0.23 trillion.
Only a fraction of the trillions of dollars flowing through the City of London get creamed off by the banks and financial institutions, but even this fraction is enough to ensure that when the City says ‘Jump’ UK politicians ask ‘How high?’. Once upon a long time ago, when Britain was the workshop of the world, the economic importance of manufacturing heavy engineering and coal production in Scotland, northern England, the Midlands and south Wales provide a partial counter-balance to the City of London. Today no such counter-balance exists. The City rules.
By an accident of history, the Union of 1707 left Scotland with the vestiges of nationhood. This means that Scotland, unlike a region of England, has the potential to become a state. The restoration of a Scottish state has long been the ambition of Scottish nationalists, but has been seen as divisive by many on the Left. In ‘The Origins of Scottish Nationhood’ (Pluto Press, London 2000) pp 202-3, Neil Davidson argued that
If ‘Scottishness ’itself is at least partly the product of imperialism and ethnic cleansing, then it is futile to imagine that merely setting up a Scottish nation state will by itself remove the attendant poisons of racism and hostility towards cultures which are perceived to be different’. The point here is not that there is anything inherently desirable about feeling British rather than Scottish (or any other nationality), but rather that, precisely because the central economic, social and political have tended to be resolved at a British level, it is at a British level that working class unity has tended to be expressed…The acceptance by Scottish workers of British nationhood has by no means been unconditionally positive. Where it has encouraged working class identification with the British state -where it has been channelled into nationalism- then it has acted as a barrier to socialism, but where it has involved recognition of the collective interests of workers on both sides of the Border…then it has offered the possibility of achieving socialism, and of escaping from the prison of nationhood altogether.
And in ‘Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746’ (Pluto press, London 2003) p 301
The completion of the Scottish revolution was at the same time the completion of the British revolution. The formation of the Scottish working class was at the same time part of the formation of the British working class. These facts make it unlikely, whatever the nature of any subsequent constitutional changes, there will ever be second proletarian Scottish revolution separate from one in Britain as a whole.
However in May 2012, in an interview with James Foley for the (Scottish) International Socialist Group newsletter Davidson said ‘I think you need to consciously argue for setting up a state, where we would have some sort of levers over policy and so on ’, and went on to say
The key point, I think, is that working class unity is not based on the constitutional form of the state or its organisational reflection in the structures of the trade unions: it’s based on solidarity in action, across borders if necessary. The biggest obstacle to intra-national unity is the union bureaucracy – think of the arguments about “Scottish steel” during the Miner’s Strike, for example. The question I suppose is why people make this argument about the divided working class. On the sectarian left it tends to be an expression of an abstract internationalism which is hyper-sensitive to what they regard as any capitulation to Scottish nationalism while remaining completely insensitive to the far greater ideological problem of British nationalism.
Unfortunately, although Neil Davidson has ‘moved on’ (and, I think has left the SWP) at a left Unity Conference in Manchester on 29 March 2014 a motion ( no. 37) which argued for a “Hands Off the People of Scotland” campaign to counter the propaganda of the mainstream parties and that a ‘sovereign democratic secular and social republic would not only be in the interests of the Scottish people but would encourage similar democratic movements in England, Wales and Ireland” was rejected. However, after supporters of the motion resisted the Chair’s ruling that the motion was clearly defeated, a careful count revealed it had lost by just 2 votes – by 70 to 68 – with 22 abstentions. Some of the West Midland comrades behind the motion had left in a minibus by the time this vote was taken. [Information taken from ‘Left Unity’s Debate on Scottish Independence’ by John Tummon of Left Unity Stockport]
If the Left Unity delegates who voted against motion 37 had read ‘Yes- the Radical Case for Scottish Independence’ would some of them have voted for the motion instead? I suspect they would. The obvious difficulty -expressed in motion 36 ‘That Left Unity will not support Scottish or Welsh nationalism’ which was voted through- is that the vote on 18 September is seen as about ‘nationalism’ rather than ‘neoliberalism’. The strength of the book is that it homes in on this problem and makes a very strong argument that a Yes vote in September can be a vote against the ‘neoliberal counter-revolution’ rather than for Scottish ‘nationalism’.
There is - necessarily- a big ‘but’ involved though. The ’but’ requires that the momentum being built up by the campaign for radical independence is maintained after the 18th of September so that Scotland becomes something more than another small social democratic Scandinavia style state. The outlines of such a post-neoliberal Scotland are set out in Chapter 6 ‘Scotland vs. the 21st Century: Towards a Radical Needs Agenda’.
At this point an ideal rather than an actual book review would cross-reference the detailed proposals set out in Chapter 6 with David Harvey’s new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’ -but I have only just finished reading Harvey’s book so can‘t do that yet. The most I can say right now is that the two books complement each other so that the ‘Radical Needs Agenda’ of Chapter 6 would put into practice the ‘Promise of Revolutionary Humanism’ outlined by Harvey in his conclusion.
Although the global scope of Harvey’s new book means he does not mention Scotland , Adam Smith is mentioned several times as a key figure in the history of capital. But as this quote from a review of a book on the Scottish Enlightenment and political economy shows, Smith was not acting alone.
The development of a capitalist economy had a destabilising effect on the socio-economic and political infrastructure of eighteenth-century Britain; nowhere more so than in Scotland where commercialisation had to contend with the lingering vestiges of feudalism. Contemporary analysts were quick to note that rapid economic expansion had, for instance, eroded traditional social bonds, most irrevocably those of employer and labourer, and that it had also weakened political institutions by placing unprecedented demands on them. But few in Scotland lamented the changes; instead, there was the recognition that man's relationship to man and man's relationship to society had to be redefined not so much out of an anxiety to come to terms with the .new ethos but because of a determination to engineer the future. This positive response provoked an intense public debate as philosophers including David Hume, Adam Smith, Lord Kames and John Millar contributed sociologically informed critiques of civilisation projecting distinctive visions of the ideal society. Moreover, in doing so, they in effect gave birth to political economy…All Enlightenment thinkers however shared certain common preoccupations in their social analyses not least of which centred on the problem of how to reconcile the responsibilities of citizenship with the need for individual liberty in a commercial society.
The Scottish Enlightenment was the product of an elite for whom the ‘destabilising’ impact of a capitalist economy was an abstract problem. For the millions of working class Scots who saw very little of the nation’s wealth during the heyday of the capitalist economy, the problem was concrete, was one of sheer survival. As individuals in a commercial society they had very little ‘liberty’. What liberties they had were the creation of collective struggles against the capitalist economy’s iron cage.
Over the past 35 years the neoliberal counter-revolution has reversed the hard fought gains for ‘collective liberties’ under the banner of ‘freedom for the individual’. The hollowness of this slogan can be illustrated in the recent rise of ‘Food Banks’. These collective, charitable, resources are needed in one of the world’s wealthiest countries since otherwise ‘poor’ individuals and families are at liberty to starve.
In theory, individuals are at liberty to exercise the responsibility of citizenship by voting in elections. However, at UK level, it has been estimated as few as 30 000 voters in 40 key marginal ( Labour/Tory) seats could decide the May 2015 general election. This may be an exaggeration, but it is true that under the first-past-the-post system, most voters have very little influence over the outcome of such elections. This is particularly true in Scotland where Labour has 41 out of 59 UK seats. The result has been a disengagement with the ‘responsibilities of citizenship’.
Unlike UK general elections, on 18 September every vote will count and the outcome of the referendum will shape Scotland’s future for better or ill. To the extent that the Yes campaign has become a grassroots campaign, it has began to engage voters across Scotland in a debate about Scotland’s future. The Radical Independence Campaign has taken this a step further by actively seeking out the disengaged, including people not registered to vote, in the Labour Party’s Scottish heartlands.
If this ‘reserve army of the disengaged’ can be persuaded to vote Yes in September, his will be significant political achievement. But to achieve the next step, the challenge will be to persuade Yes voters that securing Scottish independence is only the beginning of a process which must continue beyond 18 September if our ‘collective liberties’ are to become the bedrock of the new Scotland.
To end on a speculative note, one way that this ambitious, even revolutionary, goal might be achieved is for the Radical Independence Campaign to evolve into a political party. For its manifesto, the ‘Radical Needs Agenda’ of James Foley and Pete Ramand’s book would provide an excellent starting point.
Saturday, March 15, 2014
Contemporary Anarchism Dumfries 9 April 2014
Monday, March 10, 2014
Everyone was an anarchist
|Metropolitan Warf, Wapping- home to the Autonomy Centre 1981-2|
This is the second draft of a talk I will be giving to an Anarchist Seminar at Glasgow University’s Dumfries Campus in April. I am posting it now so I can include feedback/ comments in the final draft. I have written a lot about the punk side of anarcho-punk, but this is the first time I have written from the perspective of the anarcho side. NOTE- slight correction made in Stop the City section. Dave Morris has told me he did not live at Ickburgh Road in Hackney so I have edited the relevant paragraph.
On 3 January 1979, in the middle of the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ I arrived at the London Rubber Company’s east London factory to start a new job as a trainee draughtsman. I had started working for the company in one their factories in Gloucestershire in 1977. The year before, while I was briefly a student, I had joined an anarchist group at Stirling University and started buying Black Flag. I had also signed up to Stuart Christie’s Ceinfeugos Press paying £2 a month to receive copies of the books they published.
A few months after arriving in London I was invited to a Black Flag/ Ceinfeugos readers meeting above a pub on the Kings Road. This turned out to be a support group meeting for the defendants in the Persons Unknown Anarchist Conspiracy Trial which was to begin in September, so as well as Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer I met Iris Mills and Ronan B and I think Dave Morris of later McLibel Trial was also there.
Iris and Ronan were acquitted and after the acquittal, Ronan had the idea of setting up an anarchist social centre in London. To raise funds for this social centre, the notionally anarchist punk groups Crass and the Poison Girls were approached to make a benefit record for the centre, which was released in 1980. As a result of this connection, at one of the planning meetings in early December 1979 I met a group of punks.
The meeting was held in the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and after the meeting we all went to the nearest pub where I got into conversation with them and found that they produced a punk fanzine called ‘Kill Your Pet Puppy’. Tony Drayton of the Puppy Collective as they called themselves had started his first fanzine, called ’Ripped and Torn’ back in 1976. This was a very well-known punk fanzine. We had a lengthy conversation and when I got back to my bedsit in Ilford I bashed out a letter to Tony inspired by our conversation. At the next planning meeting in January, Tony gave me a copy of Kill Your Puppy number 2 which had my letter in it. I was impressed! I then started visiting the Puppy Collective at weekends and became a regular contributor to the fanzine as AL Puppy.
To backtrack a little before moving on, Tony had started ‘Ripped and Torn’ while he was living in Glasgow. He then moved to London in early 1977 and lived in various squat in west London which later that year declared themselves the Independent Republic of Frestonia. In one of the squats, which had been a bookshop Tony found a collection of underground magazines- issues of OZ, Frendz and International Times from the late sixties and early seventies. At the time, most punk fanzines were photocopied in black and white, but, when Kill Your Pet Puppy was being planned Tony was able to do a deal with Joly McPhie of Better Badges to use their colour photocopiers to print the new mag. Joly had been part of the late sixties, early seventies west London counterculture and encouraged Tony to make Kill Your Pet Puppy into a punk version of OZ or International Times.
1978 79 also saw a skinhead revival and the skinheads began attacking punk squats and disrupting punk gigs, including Crass ones. Rock Against racism was very big in 1978 and overlapped with the Anti-Nazi League which was a Socialist Worker Party organisation. The National Front tried to counter this by setting up Rock Against Communism gigs which were popular with skinheads. In an attempt to distance themselves from what they saw as the politicisation of punk, Crass decided that they would become anarchists. This new stance was reflected in the lyrics of ‘White Punks on Hope’ written in early 1979.
Pogo on a Nazi, spit upon a Jew
Vicious mindless violence that offers nothing new
Left wing violence, right wing violence all seems much the same
Bully boys out fighting, it's just the same old game
Boring fucking politics that'll get us all shot
Left wing, right wing, you can stuff the lot
Keep your petty prejudice, i don't see the point
Anarchy and freedom is what i want
This did not solve the problem of violence at their gigs. This led Leigh Kendall, an Australian anarchist and punk to write a short article in Kill Your Pet Puppy number one, titled ‘Peaceful Pro- Crass- tination- a critical look at Crass peaceful anarchy stance ’ commitment to peaceful anarchism in relation to violence at their gigs’. Crass then invited Leigh and Tony Drayton to discuss the problem- which they did. It turmed out that Crass had very little knowledge of anarchism. Penny Rimbaud of Crass was later to say [in The Story of Crass by George Berger]
In all honesty I wasn’t aware of anarchism until about year one into Crass …We had got a peace banner to tell people we weren’t interested in kicking shit, and we had put up the circled A banner as something to get the left and right off our backs. It was then that we started getting people asking what we meant by that. I realised that outside of my own libertarian stance , I didn’t know what the fuck it was about. It was then I started looking at what it actually meant in terms of its history. I hadn’t had much interest in it and I can’t say I have now to be honest.
In 1984, Andy Palmer of Crass told Radio Free France
There were both left wing and right wing influences who were trying to co-opt what we were trying saying, which is largely why we adopted the anarchy symbol. Then we came up against the established anarchists, and their establishment idea of what anarchy meant, and as far as we could see, putting anarchy and peace together was a complete contradiction to the idea of what they had of what anarchy was, which was chaos and no government, general violent revolution, which was the opposite of what we were trying to say. So we put the peace banner together with anarchy banner.
Crass’ symbolic appropriation of ‘anarchy’ was already present at the very beginning of punk as Jon Savage explained several years later.
There was a lot of talk about anarchy in the summer of 1976. John Lydon was working on a set of lyrics to one of Glen’s tunes which became ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Vivienne set about making a parallel item of clothing. The resulting ‘Anarchy’ shirt was a masterpiece. Taking a second-hand sixties shirt, Westwood would dye it in stripes, black, red, or brown., before stencilling on a slogan such as ‘Only Anarchist Are Pretty’ . The next stage was to stitch on more slogans, hand painted on rectangles of silk or muslin.. These made explicit references to Anarchist heroes and to the events of 1968 : ’Prenez vos desirs pour la realite’, ‘A bas le Coca Cola’.
The final touches were the most controversial. Small rectangular portraits of Karl Marx (from Chinatown) were placed on the side of the chest, and on the other, above the pocket or on the collar, was placed an (often inverted) swastika from the Second World War. To ensure that the message was received, the whole shirt was finished off with an armband which simply read ‘Chaos’. The intention was the group should not be politically explicit, but instead should be an explosion of contradictory, highly charged signs.
The Sex Pistols single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was released in November 1976. The Crass and Poison Girls benefit single for what was to become the Wapping Autonomy Centre was released in May 1980 and raised £10 000 . The money was used to convert a space in a Victorian warehouse beside the Thames at Wapping into a social centre. After discussion the more neutral ‘Autonomy Centre’ was chosen over ‘Anarchist Centre’ as its name. It opened in early 1981 but was a rented space without an entertainment licence or a drinks licence. The rent was £680 a quarter and by November 1981 the lack of committed support from the traditional anarchist community had created a financial crisis.
To bring in some cash, it was agreed to put on punk gigs on Sunday nights at the Autonomy Centre. Over the next three month these brought in £700 but as Albert Meltzer sadly observed
With the punks' money came the punks, and in the first week they had ripped up every single piece of furniture carefully bought, planned and fitted, down to the lavatory fittings that had been installed by Ronan Bennett from scratch, and defaced our own and everyone else's wall for blocks around. In the excitement of the first gigs where they could do as they liked, they did as they liked and wrecked the place. Loss of club, loss of money, loss of effort. End of story.
The problem was that the majority of the punks who came to the Sunday night gigs were teenagers, some as young as 13. For many of the audience and groups, the Autonomy Cemtre gigs were a continuation of gigs that had been put on in a squatted, derelict church on the Pentonville Road through 1980 and 81.These stopped after one of the homeless alcoholics who also used the church accidentally set fire to it.
While the end of the Wapping Autonomy Centre in February 1982 marked the end of one connection between anarchists and punks, a different connection soon emerged. The new connection was with a group of Spanish anarchists who had squatted an abandoned school on the Harrow Road called the Centro Iberico. The Spanish anarchists lived in the classrooms upstairs and allowed us to convert a former assembly room downstairs into a performance space. A stage was built using old cookers from the kitchens covered with carpet retrieved from skips. Although the Centro was evicted at the end of 1982, for a few month during the spring and summer it was used once a week for anarchist punk gigs. After that a series of ’Anarchy Centres’ were squatted in north London over the next few years, one of which evolved into Molly’s Café on Upper Street in Islington.
A spin-off from these activities was the setting up of the Black Sheep Housing Co-op in Islington in 1982, which by 1983 had been given four derelict houses to convert by Islington Council. After the failure of a building co-op to convert the houses, we had to do the conversion work ourselves. This venture provided an alternative to squatting for co-op members over the next ten years, although many of the original Black Sheep went on to become ‘new age travellers’. I moved into one of the Black Sheep houses in 1983 while I was still working for London Rubber. Mark Wilson of the Mob, a well known anarcho-punk group lived in the same house and in 1984 Mark asked me to take over the Mob’s record company called All the Madmen which I ran for the next couple of years and which I am still involved with 30 years on.
Politically, the most interesting actions that took place in in 1983/4 were the Stop the City actions. Unfortunately, my partner Pinki who was involved in the planning and organisation of these protests died in 1996, but while we lived together she did pass on various snippets of information which I will now try to piece together. As soon as she was 16 in 1978, Pinki left home to become a punk Squatter in London. Then in 1980 she returned home to Gloucestershire and became involved with Stroud CND. In late 1981, Stroud CND visited the newly established peace camp at Greenham Common. The othes went home but Pinki stayed at Greenham on and off for the next 3 years. In 1982 she took part in a protest against the Fallklands Victory Parade in London, which was organised by London Greenpeace.
In early 1983 Pinki was involved in the planning of the first Stop the City protest also organised by London Greenpeace where she was arrested and swiftly released since she was nine months pregnant. Her son Sky was born four days later. The full story of the Stop the City actions has yet to be written, but last year Rich Cross wrote about them for Freedom in September 2013.
Called on 29 September 1983, to coincide with the quarterly calculation of the City’s profits, protestors were encouraged to take part in a ‘carnival against war’ and deliver ‘a day of reckoning’ for the warmongers and racketeers of the Square Mile. Around 1500 anarchists, libertarians, punks and radical peace activists descended on the City to occupy buildings, block roads, stage actions and swarm through the streets.
Cumulatively these efforts were designed to snarl up the operation of the capital’s financial hub. In an analogue era, long before the City’s ‘Big Bang’, when files and paperwork still had to be physically couriered between companies, the impact of mobs of unruly demonstrators filling the City’s narrow streets could be dramatic. Estimates differed, but the occupation of corporate space interrupted scores of monetary transactions, and drove down the day’s profits. The cost to those demonstrating was significant too: more than 200 arrests at the first STC; nearly 400 at the March 1984 event; and close to 500 in September 1984.
Support for STC came from two principal directions: from elements within the radical wing of the nuclear disarmament movement (which had been looking for ways to generalise and extend action beyond military bases) and from within the ranks of anarcho-punk (a sub-culture eager to test out its collective political muscle). But the audacity of STC struck a chord with activists and militants from many other movements and campaigns.
Pinki was arrested on the first Stop the City but released since she was 9 months pregnant. Her son Sky was born 4 days later. She was arrested again at the second Stop the City and held over night. A creche had been arranged and fortunately Dave Morris took Sky home with him after it closed. Pinki was arrested again on the third Stop the City, but this time she we were in a relationship so she arranged that I would look after Sky for the day. Over the next 12 years, apart from 1990 when I almost stood for election as an anti-Poll tax Green Party councillor in Hackney, Pinki was the activist of the family while I kept the home fire burning. Pinki’s last and 26th arrest and was in June 1994 at a road protest in Bath.
Compared with the Stop the City actions, the Poll Tax riot on 31 March 1990 in Trafalgar Square was a mega-event. We weren’t there but myself and Pinki had been present when an anti-Poll tax protest in Hackney turned into a minor riot a few weeks earlier.
Recently, while working on a talk for the Dunfries and Galloway branch of the Scottish Radical Independence Campaign I jotted down my memories of the Poll tax in Hackney.
On a wet day in January 1990 the Livingston family set off from Hackney to Blackheath in south London. We were going to the launch of the English Anti-Poll Tax Campaign. Blackheath was chosen because of its link to the 1381 Poll Tax Uprising. The revolting Kentish peasants camped on Blackheath on 12 June 1381 that peasants before joining with the Essex crew to occupy London the next day.
I don’t recall it being a very impressive event. There were a few banners, a few hundred political activists trying to sell each other their revolutionary tracts and perhaps some stalls. It did not seem much better organised than Stonehenge Campaign events we had attended a few years earlier.
We did pick up an anti-Poll Tax Green Party leaflet which inspired us to join the Party. I started going to meetings of the local Stoke Newington and Hackney North branch and put myself forward as candidate for the local elections due to be held later that year. Our ward was mainly made up of the huge Nightingale Estate plus our Estate and few surrounding streets. I went to hackney library and checked the stats from the previous election- turnout on our ward was very low, less than 20%. I worked out that I only had to persuaded a couple of hundred people who hadn’t bothered to vote before to vote for me as an anti-Poll tax candidate to win.
It seemed do-able, but just to make sure, I got in touch with the Hackney Tenants and Residents Association, based in the old Shoreditch Town Hall to see about setting up a local branch. The local community centre was on Brooke Road and was where our children went to playgroup. I went along one day to see about hiring a room in the community centre for a first meeting and to get some flyers printed. In a slightly surreal co-incidence the new community worker there was Ian Bone. Ian was very enthusiastic about the tenants group, but quickly headed me off before I started discussing politics by saying ’Of course, I am an old Labour Party man, myself’. This puzzled me at first, but then I realised that the rather thin partition walls in the community centre meant that our conversations would be public rather than private…
As it turned out, the Green Party decided to lead their local election campaign on the dangers of irradiated food rather than the Poll Tax and at the two tenants meetings I organised the problem of how to get rid of some squatters from our estate and how to get Hackney Council to carry out a long list of essential repairs were the main subjects discussed. No-one at the time seemed very bothered about the Poll Tax.
Meanwhile, Hackney Council had set 8 March 1990 as the date when they would vote on what level to set the Poll Tax. As a Labour controlled council, it was unlikely (impossible) that they would refuse to impose the tax. Even if they did, I found that central government would then appoint an Auditor to set a Poll Tax rate for Hackney anyway. As the date grew closer, and as people in England started to catch up with Scotland, where the tax had been brought in the year before, things got more interesting.
I went to an anti-poll tax meeting on Southwold Estate, but although it had been organised by one of the tenants - a young woman- she was flanked by four non-local Militant members. This annoyed me, since it looked as if they were trying to take over our Hackney campaign. I asked if Militant were working with the Socialist Workers Party who were blitzing Hackney with posters saying ‘HACKNEY POLL TAX £475’. This caused consternation and the muffled reply ‘No we aren’t’ but fortunately for the Militants, one of the Southwold tenants then accused me of trying to split the campaign by asking the question…
Then came the day... On 8 March the council met to set the poll tax rate for Hackney in a boarded up town hall surrounded by a wall of police confronting an increasingly agitated 1000 strong crowd. Three days earlier, Harringey had set their rate and there had been a minor riot. Now everyone was expecting a riot in Hackney. The whole scene was unreal. It didn’t look or feel like everyday Hackney at all. I half expected helicopters to come in and rescue the councillors like what happened when Saigon finally fell to the Vietcong in 1974.
I had, rather naively, planned to give an election speech to the crowd so was wearing my wedding suit. There was a BBC London film crew there and I was chatting to them when they suddenly got busy, anticipating trouble. So I moved on to the steps in front of the town hall to get my speech in before the trouble started. I managed to say ‘If you want to get rid of the Poll Tax, don’t get mad get even and vote Green’ before the police suddenly moved forward from behind me to push the crowd away from the town hall. The only response I had from my election speech was a young punk woman in the crowd shouting back at me ‘It is too late for that now’.
I then went home then but my wife stayed on to report later that a riot had broken out. McDonalds burger bar was smashed up and Paddy Ashdown, who had been giving a speech in the Assembly Rooms behind the town hall, had his car attacked by the crowd and 38 people were arrested. One of our punk friends told us later that he had got close enough to Paddy Ashdown to give him a punch…
Compared with the major Poll tax riot which took place in and around Trafalgar Square on the 31 March when there were 350 arrests what happened in Hackney was a minor affair. However, not wanting to be arrested for giving my speech in Hackney, before hand I had contacted the local police, the council, several UK and foreign journalists and even Paddy Ashdown’s office. All the people I spoke to realised that there was going to be trouble, but seemed helpless before the rapid movement of events. That the massive 31 March Poll Tax rally would lead to a major riot now seemed a certainty. An unexpected outcome of the Trafalgar Square riot was the enforced resignation of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990.
My enduring memory is of the few moments that I was stood between the police and the protestors, trying to give my political speech. The sheer intensity of the anger of the crowd was like a physical force, their rage, built up over 11 years of Thatcher governments waging class war was like a blazing furnace. It was not what I had expected at all. Like the young punk woman said, it was too late for my ‘vote Green’ pitch. Way too late. The only coherent thought I can recall from the experience was ‘Fucking hell, there is going to be a revolution’.
But as I noted in my Radical Independence Campaign talk, reflecting on the dramatic events of 1990, it is possible to see in the very different reactions to the Poll Tax north and south of the Border the first signs that Scotland and the rest of the UK were beginning to move apart politically. In Scotland the economic hammer blows of Thatcherism reforged a powerful sense of Scotland as a civil society. Across most of England, the same hammer blows fractured the post-war consensus and fragmented civil society. In Scotland, the Poll Tax gave rise to a popular movement of collective resistance which also focused Scottish civil society on the need for constitutional change. This led to the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. In England the Poll Tax led to riots.
A key theme of the Scottish Enlightenment was the idea of a ‘civil society’ existing between individuals and families and the state. If there had still been a Scottish state with Edinburgh as its political centre, this idea might not have arisen. Scottish intellectuals would, as members of a privileged elite, have been part of this Scottish state. But with the new Union state of Great Britain centred on London, the dispossessed Scottish professors, lawyers and ministers had to re-invent themselves as members of their own stateless civil society.
Since they viewed the new Union state as a continuation of the English state English intellectuals did not face this problem so had little interest in ‘Scotch philosophy’. The Scottish Enlightenment was more favourably received in France and Germany. Immanuel Kant claimed that David Hume ‘roused me from my dogmatic slumber’. Georg Hegel was another German philosopher who was influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thought. Hegel, however, developed his political ‘Philosophy of Right’, published in 1821, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. In Hegel’s version, civil society emerged out the disintegration of the family as the focus of ethical life and in turn a rational state will emerge out of civil society as the ‘actuality of the ethical idea’.
What Hegel hoped was that Prussia would be able to modernise and become a rational state without having to undergo a bloody revolution. But by the time he wrote an essay on the English (that is British) Reform Bill just before his death in 1831, Hegel was less optimistic. He feared that the forces unleashed by industrial capitalism would lead to revolution rather than reform in Britain.
Hegel’s fear reminds me of a question Tony Drayton asked one of the veteran Spanish anarchists at the Centro Iberico in 1982. Tony asked him ‘How did you manage to have an anarchist revolution in 1936?’. The reply was ‘Everyone was an anarchist’. Hegel also once said that what is rational becomes real and what is real becomes rational. It is forty years since I became a ‘self-confessed anarchist’. Over those years I have had plenty of time to change my mind. But I still believe that of all the varieties of political theories and practices, anarchism is the most rational and hence most real and so I look forward to the day when everyone is an anarchist.