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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Anarcho-Punk as Militant Liberalism Part Two 1995

Anti-Criminal Justice Bill Hyde Park 1994

This is a longer critique of anarcho-punk than the Anarchist Workers Group one posted in Part One. However it also describes anarcho-punk as ‘militant liberalism’.

The following is only part of a much longer article which has as its main focus a discussion and critique of opposition to the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act- the one famous for its attempt to make ‘repetitive beats’ illegal. The VERY full text from Aufheben 4 March 1995 can be read here

Read from today’s perspective, there is an interesting absence from the full article- neoliberalism. If written today, a section like this on Tony Blair would include a reference to neoliberalism. However it was not until David Harvey's 'A Brief History of Neoliberalism' was published in 2005 that the history of the recent past became the history of neoliberalism.

It has taken 15 years in opposition for the Labour Party to respond to the dictatorship of finance capital by planning to scrap the traditional commitment to nationalization. During those 15 years the party has swung to the right, recognising that if it is to win an election it will have to satisfy City analysts that it is capable of imposing as harsh a monetary regime as its opponents. This process has reached its logical conclusion with the election of Tony Blair as leader and his plans to reassure the bankers that his party does not even have a semblance of a commitment to the type of fiscal regime which would allow the diversion of surplus value into loss making nationalized industries and public services.

And the ‘question of Europe’ has now taken centre stage. The marginalized are now immigrants, welfare scroungers and the disabled rather than punks, travellers, ravers and road-protestors.

 Despite the ditching of the 'petty nationalist' Thatcher, the Conservative Party is still divided over the question of Europe: the problem of class rule in the new economic reality of global finance capital…The problem they face which seems to be defying any easy resolution is simply the need to impose austerity, the need to attack the gains of an entrenched working class, without destroying the fragile Conservative social consensus represented by the 'Essex Man' phenomenon. With the dream of a property-owning democracy sinking into the nightmare of debt, the consensus is rapidly becoming unravelled, but UK plc cannot retreat. 
What better tonic than a good old attack on those firmly outside of the deal, the marginalized, whose exclusion the Conservative deal was predicated upon, to stiffen up resolve in the ranks for those attacks which threaten to recompose the class. But even such an apparently uncomplicated weapon has been threatening to blow up in the faces of those trying to use it. 

Aufheben’s 1995 critique of anarcho-punk

b) No Future:
Given the close relationship between alternative lifestyles and music, and the importance of music in providing something concrete within which value can invest itself in its repeated search for a new generation of consumers, the word 'alternative' needs to be treated with a degree of caution.

 Nevertheless, not all youth cultures are the same. Some contain more or less positive tendencies than others, a greater or lesser potential for recognizing the contradictions inherent in the phenomenon and developing a practical critique of their grounding. And all 'alternative' lifestyles are by definition outside of the remit of the usual forms of political representation.

Music was in a moribund state in the mid 1970s. The musicians of the '68 generation had become tired and boring, the naive optimism of hippydom out of tune with the harsh realities of ongoing class conflict. No amount of lustre or glitter on the stage sets of glam rock could disguise the fact that all was not well in the (music) factory, and it was obvious that the new subjects of struggle required new overtures.

And as Callaghan declared his intention to launch the war of austerity in 1976, a different declaration of war was beginning to reverberate through distorted amplifiers in the back rooms and basements of London: the declaration of war on 'society' by punk. Punk was able to articulate the frustrations of the new generation. But in comparison to the wave of youth revolt in Italy, both inside and outside of the factories, punk was only a caricature of revolt, superficial nihilism.

Punk was inherently contradictory. Central to it was the 'DIY' ethos, but it lacked an explicit critique of the commodity-form. This lack of critique allowed self-valorization to give way to recuperation, giving a long overdue kick up the backside to the entrepreneurs involved in the 'youth culture' industry.

The shops of King's Road and Carnaby Street testified to the process of turning rebellion into money, shelves laden with designer bondage trousers, studded leather, mass-produced 'Destroy' and 'Vive La Revolution' t-shirts, and badges. But the recuperative powers of these new commodities were not without limit.

 For the punks that had taken the mocking lyrics of their anti-heroes seriously, the sight of all this commodity capital awaiting realization, and the selling out to major labels of the biggest bands, was an insult they could not leave unanswered. They realized that 'the great rock and roll swindle' had in fact been perpetrated on them.

Perhaps the most important point, however, is the fact that selling an image of revolution to keep would-be revolutionaries from the real thing requires that they have the necessary purchasing power. And many of the working class youth attracted to punk were on the dole and therefore skint. The time was right for a sub-genre to emerge from all this shit to explicitly politicize the DIY ethos that punk stood for.

c) Anarcho-Punk:
'Do you believe in the system? Well OK. I believe in anarchy in the UK'. These words from the release of the first Crass record on their own non-profit making label were accompanied by the words 'Pay no more than £2'. If you still had to pay for your anarchy at least it was affordable! Crass had the means to release their own cheap records, play cheap gigs, and promote other bands who shared their ethos.

 The anarcho-punk scene soon became a vibrant alternative to the punk scene it declared dead. The anarchism of the typical anarcho-punk was however little more than militant liberalism. Crass had their roots in the old peace movement, and largely ignoring the harsh realities of class warfare in the world outside their commune, set about promoting the ideas of pacifism and lifestyle politics.

Offensive though many of their dogmas were, the anarcho-punks must be judged not just by the lyrics they sang along to, but, crucially, by what they actually did.

During the early 1980s, the main political focus for the new breed was the CND demonstrations which drew hundreds of thousands of concerned liberals to Hyde Park on a yearly basis. Grouping under a collection of black flags the anarchos would hand out leaflets and fanzines encouraging personal revolution and then heckle the speakers and try to storm the stage.

As numbers swelled, the anti-militarist struggle was taken into the heart of enemy territory with the Stop The City actions when banks and rollers would get smashed under the cover of a pacifist carnival. The obsession with lifestyle politics, however, was a major factor hindering the development of the 'movement', making links with those who didn't fit problematic, as would become apparent during the miners' strike.

Far too many anarchos simply changed their clothes, diet, drugs and musical tastes, deluding themselves that by doing so they were creating a new world within the belly of the old which would wither away once it recognized its comparative existential poverty.

But most of the criticisms of lifestyle politics, then and now, were and are mere defences by militants prepared to accept the continual deferral of pleasure in favour of the 'hard work' of politics. The desire to create the future in the present has always been a strength of anarchists.

 How one lives is political. Thus the anarchos may be considered to have constituted a political movement seeking social reproduction unmediated by wage labour.
In 1980 Crass played the Stonehenge festival and a close link with the free festival scene subsequently evolved. Likewise the anarchos gave a massive impetus to the squatting scene left over from the 70s.

By the mid 1980s, virtually every town in England and Wales had its squats. Bands were formed, venues either squatted or hired dirt cheap (church halls and the like which meant no bar - take your own home-brew) and gigs organized, often benefits which would succeed in raising money despite cheap entry because the bands would play for next to nothing.

During the summer months much of this activity would shift on to the free festival circuit, meeting up with those who had chosen to spent the whole year travelling between peace camps and festivals, and who in turn would benefit from the links with the urban scene (news, contacts, places to rest and repair, opportunities for fraud etc.).

This scene was particularly well organized, and more politicized, in the cities. On Bristol's Cheltenham Road, the Demolition Ballroom, Demolition Diner, and Full Marx book shop provided a valuable organizational focus, with the activities of the squatted venue and cafe supplemented by the information and contact address of the lefty book shop. Brixton squatters not only had their own squatted cafes, creches and book shop, but also Crowbar their own Class War style squatting oriented paper.

Strong links were forged with the squatting movement on the continent, particularly Germany, and draft dodgers from Italy were regularly encountered. And with direct communication supplemented by the then fortnightly Black Flag, a couple of phone calls and a short article could mobilize numbers in solidarity with other struggles.

Whilst the anarcho-punk scene created a not insignificant area of autonomy from capital, such autonomy was always disfigured by the continued existence of exchange relations. Going to gigs and eating in squat cafes, even brewing your own beer to share with mates, all required money. And free festivals, whilst standing in stark contrast to the commercialism of Glastonbury, were anything but - there was no entry fee and no-one would let you starve if you were skint, but drugs in particular cost money.

Unless you wanted to cloud your relationships, obscuring lines of solidarity and friendship by becoming a dealer, if only to cover your own dope requirements, money remained a problem. There was always a correspondence between the satisfaction of needs and the need for money, a correspondence that contradicted the professed desire to abolish the filthy stuff.

d) Fragmentation of anarcho-punk:
This contradiction partially explains the subsequent fragmentation and decline of the anarcho-punk squatting/travelling movement. On the one hand, the state relaxed credit restrictions, abandoning tight monetary policy, producing the credit-fuelled boom which preceded the 1987 stock market crash.

This led to a rapid fall in the number of jobless. Many previously involved with organizing in and around the squatting scene got jobs during the boom, and whilst many remained living in squats (to stay with friends and save on rent), momentum was being lost. Individualism tended to replace a collective approach to social problems, as wage earners and dealers could afford to accept the position money held within the scene. The carrot of the boom, however would not have had the same impact without the repeated blows with the stick of state repression.

With unemployment falling, it became easier for the state to make the benefit system more punitive. The changes in 1987 and 1988 certainly increased the disciplining role of the welfare state, thereby throwing down a gauntlet to the lifestyle of work-rejection. Benefits for 16 and 17 year olds were scrapped in favour of an extension of YTS slave labour, thereby removing the possibility of work avoidance (except by begging) for the young school leavers who had always been central to the movement.

The introduction of the Job Training Scheme and the availability for work requirements also had an effect. Restart interviews were easy enough for most people sufficiently clued up to blag their way through, but tended to encourage people to rely on their own wits. Because these changes were ultimately divisive, they encouraged people to look after number one. Attempts to organize against them were met with responses that expressed a distinct lack of solidarity, and this reflected not only the nature of the attack but also the divisions that had emerged within the scene.

The biggest causes of such fragmentation were the smashing of the miners and printworkers on the one hand and the repression of the festival scene on the other. The anarchism of the anarcho-punk scene was always pretty incoherent, a militant liberalism that sought to destroy the state yet which was committed to pacifism. Within the movement there would be differences, some placing greater emphasis on non-violence or animal rights, some more committed to a revolutionary class position.

For a while these underlying differences could be glossed over, and whilst people could argue about the 1981 riots, for example, it was just talk. But the miners' strike presented a major challenge by its longevity and opportunity for involvement, one that caused underlying differences to surface with a resultant divergence between those who dismissed the miners as violent macho men performing an ecologically unsound activity, and those who, despite a certain amount of confusion, recognized that there was a war going on and, whatever it was about, they had to choose the violence of the pickets over that of the state's thugs.

Most anarchos supported the miners, even if such support was not of a particularly practical nature, though bands like Crass and Poison Girls and numerous others played benefits for the miners to give some material assistance. The resultant defeat therefore had a demoralizing effect on the anarcho-punk scene.

The same conflict between liberalism and class struggle anarchism came to the fore with the Wapping dispute the following year. The movement was divided between those who saw the need to support the printworkers and those who dismissed them as sexist, racist, homophobic macho men. However even amongst those more sympathetic to the former view were some who argued that it was better that pickets got trampled by police horses than horses get broken legs by pickets rolling marbles under their hooves.

The defeat of the printworkers was another demoralizing factor, but also one which accelerated the process of fragmentation. The inherent contradiction in the movement led to a substantial parting of ways, one pole devoting itself almost exclusively to the moral crusade of animal lib and many of those they fell out with getting so fed up with lifestylism that they joined one of the national anarchist organizations.

Meanwhile those who had been more attracted to travelling than squatting or political activity were being put under severe pressure. The Stonehenge festival was banned in 1985, and the determined attempt to defy the ban was met with a response not unlike that experienced by the miners, culminating in the famous 'Battle of the Beanfield'.

The following year the state brought in the Public Order Act, section 13 of which established a 4 mile radius exclusion zone around the stones. Other sections gave new powers to proscribe demonstrations and extended the law against trespass. The former were successfully challenged on the streets of London by the Campaign Against The Public Order Act/Campaign Against Police Repression; but whilst many travellers have battled bravely in adverse conditions, the police have been able to use section 39 to intimidate and harass them, continually moving them on.

Travelling and free festivals continued, but, with the loss of the weeks-long Stonehenge focus, went into something of a decline. The police-benefit festival at Glastonbury, extortionately priced but affordable to those now working, mopped up. And before they were successfully excluded in recent years, convoys of travellers used to gatecrash it (literally), with many others bunking in, and so the new reality was gradually accepted, particularly as the 'unfree' festivals were full of punters waiting to be parted from their cash.

The nomadic dream of rural idyll gradually gave way to the reality of being moved from noisy lay-by to squalid car park, with decent sites often blocked off by farmers and local councils. As the links with squatters and politicos became more distanced, so the mysticism of the 60s hippies, aided by reminiscence of the magical stones now out of reach, took further hold, alongside cynicism.

 Alienation from capitalist society increasingly expressed itself through alcoholism and heroin addiction, bringing new problems to deal with or run away from. Ghettoization increased, with the 'you've had a bath so you must be a cunt' mentality increasing.

Whilst the late 80s witnessed a decline in the anarcho-punk phenomenon, it did not disappear. The Poll Tax riot demonstrated that the anger of the punks only needed an invitation to riot to stop it being internalized and bitterly misdirected. And despite all the repression since 1985, the loss of direction, supportive links, and ghettoization, a significant travelling scene survived to see the psychedelic cavalry arrive in 1992.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Anarcho-Punk as Militant Liberalism Part One

Stop the City 1983
In 2008 I found and posted a critique of anarcho-punk written by the Anarchist Workers Group in 1989. The same  post included this short section from a critique of anarcho-punk published in 1995 by Aufheben magazine.

The anarcho-punk scene soon became a vibrant alternative to the punk scene it declared dead. The anarchism of the typical anarcho-punk was however little more than militant liberalism. Crass had their roots in the old peace movement, and largely ignoring the harsh realities of class warfare in the world outside their commune, set about promoting the ideas of pacifism and lifestyle politics. 

The Anarchist Workers Group also described anarcho-punk as ‘militant liberalism’.

I discovered these critiques via Ben Franks book ‘Rebel Alliances-the Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms’ published by AK Press in 2006.

The Anarchist Workers Group are described on  page 83.

The Anarchist Workers Group membership never rose above 20 and its influence was further reduced, partly as a result of taking sides with the Iraqi dictatorship during the 1991 Gulf War. As if to conform to its critics' accusations of incipient Bolshevism, several of its members joined the Revolutionary Communist Party.

I don’t know how many members the Aufheben collective have, but as a Marxist -academic group based in Brighton, probably not many more. See Part Two of this post for the Aufheben critique of anarcho-punk.

Anarchism in the Thatcher Years -extract- published August 1989

For the first time in years, the start of the decade saw a real increase in the number of people referring to themselves as anarchists. This growing movement of mainly young people was in no small way influenced by the rock group 'Crass' and the imitators they spawned. Their "anarchy and peace" agit-prop was in part inspired by the "do-it yourself" ethos of the punk-rock explosion, and in part hankered back to the pacifistic "alternative lifestyle" tradition that had become a major facet of what passed for the British anarchist movement in the previous 20 years.

Anarchism has always had, to varying degrees, its liberal wing. This is partly because terms bandied around by anarchists, such as anti-authoritarian, freedom and justice, are in themselves meaningless and open to a wide range of interpretations when divorced from their specifically anarchist context: the day to day realities of class society, and an understanding of capitalism and why and how it should be smashed. Going right back to the days of the First International. there were those anarchists who in contrast with Bakunin (1)

"Abandoned the field of struggle of the working class in favour of a particular form of radicalised liberalism."

In Britain in the 1980s anarchism was still tightly in the grip of a rot that set in during the heyday of the l950's peace movement. Many rank and file anti-nuclear activists (7% of the movement during 1958-65(2)) disillusioned with limitations, in terms of politics, leadership and strategy, of the CND adopted anarchism: in part as a reaction to this, and often not fully aware of the political legacy behind their new label, confusing anarchism "with a more militant liberalism" (3). Their confusion was not helped by the sectarianism of the existing - and increasingly isolated - anarchist movement who made little effort to provide a political lead or a class perspective to the new 'anarchists'.

Living in a state of blissful ignorance of class struggle, they promoted their ideas in "Freedom", "Anarchy Magazine" and "Peace News", taking on board and developing the ideas of pacifism, personal liberation and alternative lifestyle. The "punk anarchy" of Crass and their camp was but a continuation of this: a dressed up version of militant liberalism with electric guitars and a brand new haircut, but the same tired face

But it did catch on, striking a chord with the disaffected, young rebels - without a cause but on the look out for one. The small groupings of class - struggle anarchists "active" in the early 1980's repeated the mistakes of the l950's by failing to acknowledge - let alone give a lead to - the new generation who were left to their own devices to "reinvent" "anarchy". In this case it meant inventing a loose, anti-statist pacifist "movement" that left the theory question of class conflict to the trots, instead proclaiming that

"Anarchists believe that if each individual can learn to act out of conscience, rather than greed, the machinery of power will collapse." (Penny Rimbaud, 4)

The small groupings that started to spring up around the country responding to Crass's challenge were soon to be seen on CND demos clustered around their ragged black flags and handing out their leaflets and fanzines, telling the world;

"Don't give in to the authorities, make them give in to you" (5)

but never quite managing to go so far as to suggest a way that this awesome task might be achieved.

In some of the literature of the time, however, the way forward for anarchists was spelled out a bit more clearly. And reading it, you would be forgiven for believing that the anarchist movement was less a political current, more a bizarre religious cult:

"to give back to life what we have taken from it ... understand the seasons, the weather, the soil .. reject the grey filth and shit" (Penny Rimbaud ,6).

It seems there was quite an obsession with shit. Stripping away the mystical nonsense we are left with naked personal politics: the revolution begins - and ends - within. There are, for those whose imaginations have perhaps been tainted by years of dealing with the "grey filth" some useful practical examples of how this discovery of self can be put into practise. And it's the classic lifestylist romanticism of a small band of worthy converts struggling to build the society within the shell of the old with:

"housing co-ops or communes ... gardening groups to squat and farm disused land ... and grow medicinal herbs to cure each others headaches " (Penny Rimbaud, 7)

All very commendable and laudable stuff, but about as revolutionary and "anarchist" as sharing your last Rolo with someone you love. Of course there is nothing wrong with being nice to your mates and eating a lot of organic garlic, the danger was that this was substituted for the more pressing and difficult task of developing and testing out a coherent and workable revolutionary strategy that could win people over to the struggle against capitalism. Bakunin asserted that:

"the serious realisation of liberty, justice and peace will not be possible while the majority of the population remains dispossessed. (8)

However, the punk anarchists hadn't cottoned on to this, and busily sought personal solutions to social problems. Therefore, the groups were little more than consciousness-raising rap groups existing in navel gazing isolation from the real world, helping their participants along on the quest for personal purity.

The movement in the early eighties displayed the worst kind of elitism - the politics of "if everyone was like me wouldn't the world be a wonderful place." The concept of working class mass self-activity didn't get a look-in because there was no understanding - or will to understand the class nature of society. In fact the working class categorised as "grey-nobodies", as people who were:

"in their willingness to bow down to authority ... the real fascist threat." (Penny Rimbaud, 9)

So count out the working class in terms of having any positive role to play in fighting. The action to be taken - aside from changing your own life - was to be taken by the anarchists on behalf of the class and amounted to little more than adventurism and propaganda by deed:

"jam up the locks of banks and of with superglue or cut down fences around government installations ... sabotage operations at work." (1Penny Rimbaud, 10)

Aside from that, ever living for kicks you'd be more likely to find an anarchist a on a hunt sab than a picket line, at a free festival than a march against deportations, advocating shoplifting than fighting cuts in welfare provisions. After all, we're trying to get away from the grey filth and we mustn't forget that:

"boredom is counter-revolutionary militants are people for whom boredom is part of the struggle and being miserable and downtrodden is part of the revolution. (11)

This phase of modern day anarchism had its swan song in the "Stop the City" demonstrations in 1983-4. These were mass demonstrations of anarchists. pacifists and other members of the counterculture that took place in the City of London with the aim of closing it down for the day.

Little attempt was made to broaden them beyond the lifestyle ghetto and although they received national media coverage. they were not much more than adventures of the same type as the beloved super gluing expeditions. albeit on a larger scale. They were a spectacle, and a substitute, for the hardwork of building and organising the fightback, and there were those in the anarchist movement who were beginning to recognise this:

"If we are to build a meaningful anarchist movement we have to go beyond Stop Business as Usual and be prepared to argue our case in the workplace and the community." (12)

The start of the upheaval that transformed the movement in Britain was the great Miners Strike of 1984-5 where the anarchist movement was forced to test its ideas out against a backdrop of genuine struggle. Those who did. found contemporary anarchism wanting. They started to rediscover the class roots of anarchism and realise how far the movement had strayed from them. From the Miners Strike and through to the end of the printers dispute at Wapping many were forced - in one way or another - to make the break and embrace the class struggle.

Not everyone in the movement chose to make that break. There were some who chose to distance themselves from the struggle of people who through lack of time, opportunity or inclination, had not reached the same dizzy heights of personal sanctity as they had.

Thus we saw so-called anarchists refusing to dirty their hands in the Miners Strike, blithely dismissing them en masse as sexist and racist without making any attempt to get to a picket line let alone have any argument about the need to fight. Another way out was to blame workers for the effects of the industry they worked in: thus the miners were not worthy of support because they exploited the earth, as the 'green' anarchists were want to put it.

This mistake was repeated over the Wapping dispute. where an anarchist paper claimed to support the printers but:

"I detest the racist and sexist shit they print ... many have said they are only doing a job like anyone else with no control over what they do. BOLLOCKS" (13)

It gets better. The author goes on to say, talking of the fight for better pay and conditions at work:

"Suddenly all our aims and dreams are thrown aside in the euphoria of class struggle ... playing the capitalist money game." (14)

So the class struggle is reduced to an annoyance. something that gets in the way of the real task of building the anarchist revolution, once again in isolation by the anarcho elite on behalf of everyone else. Again it shows the complete and seemingly wilful ignorance of the anarchist movement about how exciting its is going to be making the revolution, and failing to realise that workers fighting back against the attacks of the boss class are far more relevant to the struggle than any number of obscure and turgid anarcho-rags.

There was however a considerable section of the movement who saw the need to leave all this behind. Unfortunately some of them - seeing the need for political, tactical and organisational coherence - and seeing it to be conspicuous by its absence in the anarchist movement, ended up gravitating towards and in many cases eventually joining the various Leninist parties - notably the SWP - who were active during the Miners Strike and Wapping. The anarchist movement drove away through its own folly - good, active revolutionaries who wanted to fight and for whom the movement had nothing more to offer.

1 "Putting the Record Straight on Michael Bakunin" Libertarian Communist Review 1976
2 R Taylor, C Pritchard "The Protest Makers" Oxford 1980
3 A Meltzer "The Anarchists in London 1935-1955" quoted in P Kane "British Anarchism Surveyed" Virus No 7
4 P Rimbaud "The Last of the Hippies" in "A Series of Shock Slogans and Mindless Token Tantrums" Existence Press 1982
5 "Prisoners of War" No 1 1983 Page 7
6 P Rimbaud ibid
7 R Rimbaud ibid
8 G Maximof "The Political Philosophy of Bakunin" quoted in P Kane "British Anarchism Surveyed" Virus No 7
9 P Rimbaud ibid
10 P Rimbaud ibid
11 The Beano No 3 June 1986
12 Steve T "Anarcho-syndicalism?" Virus No 7
13 The Beano No 3 June 1986
14 The Beano ibid
15 Black Flag

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Brexit, Crown Prerogative and Popular Sovereignty

Revolutionary Spanish Tram System

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

What was meant to happen was that having seen off a threat by the Scots to break away from the United Kingdom in September 2014, David Cameron would repeat the trick in June 2016 be seeing off the Ukippers and their allies and keep the UK in the EU.

What Cameron failed to notice was that in Scotland ‘Project Fear’ as the No to Independence campaign was called, had complete control of the British and Scottish media. In the EU referendum, the Leave campaign had the support of an influential chunk of the print media which countered the Remainers scare stories with their own even scarier ones.

From triumph to disaster, Cameron’s political career ended in ruins in the early hours of 24 June. He resigned and was succeeded as prime minister by Theresa May

For the UK to leave the EU, the UK must trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. Here a major legal question arises.

Domestic laws, laws created by acts of Parliament, cannot be altered by what is called Royal or Crown prerogative. Only Parliament can do this.

International treaties are part of international law, not domestic law. In the UK, but not most other countries, Parliament has no formal role in treaty-making. Treaties are made by the government of the day using the power of  Crown prerogative. The same power can therefore be used to unmake international treaties.

However, where an international treaty made by the government of the day requires changes in domestic law, Parliament has to be involved in order to pass the necessary acts for the changes to be lawful. An example of this is the European Communities Act 1972. This was necessary to make European Community law part of the national legal systems (I.e. including Scots law) of the UK.

The recent High Court judgment therefore found that , because leaving the EU would change domestic law, the Crown prerogative cannot be used to trigger Article 50. Only an act of Parliament can do this.
Despite the outrage this judgment caused among Leave supporters, this example of a limitation of the Crown prerogative is part of a centuries long struggle.

It goes back to the time when kings and queens believed they had an absolute right to make and unmake laws. In practice this power was always limited by the rival military power of feudal barons and the ‘spiritual’ power of the Church when belief in God was universal.

As everyone knows, it took a bloody civil war and a revolution for an undemocratic parliament to place firm limits on the power of kings and queens. However, since it was useful for successive governments, the residual power of the Crown prerogative was only slowly whittled away.

If the Court of Appeal upholds the High Courts judgment, then Parliament will have won another victory over the Crown.

There is an interesting twist though.

In a live television discussion with Gina Miller, one of the people who raised the High Court challenge, Nigel Farage said

“This not about whether Parliament is sovereign, it’s about whether the British people are sovereign. That’s the real argument.”


In Scotland, the idea that the people not parliament/ the crown in parliament are sovereign is widely held. For example at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in May 2016 -

"Nicola Sturgeon has declared that the Scottish people are sovereign... the First Minister said: “The Scottish National Party pledges loyalty to the people of Scotland, in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people of Scotland.”


I don’t suppose Nigel Farage or even Nicola Sturgeon have thought through what it would mean if the people really were sovereign. It would require a democratic revolution to put in place mechanisms which would give the people the power to rule themselves.

Or should that be  ‘It will require a democratic revolution for us to take back the power to govern ourselves’?  The mechanism then being a federal network of autonomous anarcho-syndicalist communes/ co-operatives

No, I don’t think that is what Nigel Farage has in mind, nor Nicola Sturgeon. On the other hand, if, as I have argued previously, the impossibility of Brexit leads to ‘anarchy’ as in failure of government
In the UK, some form of anarchism may emerge as the rational solution to the collapse of authority.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

No Future In The British Dream

We have fed the heart on fantasies, 
The heart's grown brutal from the fare 

Britishness/ British identity was originally a product of James VI and I attempt to unite the kingdoms of England, Ireland, Scotland and the principality of Wales after 1603. It was a form of cultural engineering, an imagined community. It was a way to manufacture consent to James and his successors’  rule. It did not work in Ireland where the Irish refused their consent and so had to be ruled by force.

Britishness in Ireland was therefore not ‘hegemonic’ in Gramsci-speak since it was imposed from above and grew from the barrel of a musket. In England ‘British’ was read and understood as equal to ‘English’. In Scotland, Britishness was given a coat of tartan paint. In Wales , the Welsh could see themselves as the surviving descendants of the original, pre- Anglo-Saxon, ancient Britons.

The global imperial/industrial success of nineteenth century Britain as England, Wales and  Scotland but not famine struck Ireland buttressed popular consent to Britishness in the island of Great(er) Britain. [Brittany in  France was the original ‘lesser Britain’]

Two world wars, but not Easter 1916 nor the 1966 World Cup, helped keep James VI and I primitive hegemony alive. However, following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 and during the economic traumas of the 1920s and 1930s, Plaid Cymru was formed in 1925 and the Scottish National Party in 1934.

Electoral success was elusive for both parties until the 1970s. In the October 1974 UK general election, Plaid won 3 seats and the SNP 11. This was the same period renowned in accounts of popular culture as the point where the post-war social democratic consensus broke down and punk emerged spitting and screaming out of the ruins.

Punk is interesting not because it involved an actual breakdown of the reproduction of consent (Britishness as hegemony) but because it symbolised and acted out that breakdown, most obviously in the summer of 1977 when the Sex Pistol’s ‘God Save the Queen’ challenged the universality of QE2’s silver jubilee celebrations.

But as John Medhurst revealed in ‘That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76 (Zero Books, 2014), by 1977 a wave of left radicalism inspired by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders 1971 work-in and encouraged by the Institute for Workers Control had been neutralised. Right-wing reaction to this socialist surge, which included feverish talk of a military coup, solidified around a push to get Margaret Thatcher elected.

Following Thatcher’s election, plans for Scottish and Welsh Assemblies were dropped, removing a perceived threat to the Britishness of the UK. However, to keep the UK safe for capitalism, the Thatcher regime chose to impose consent by coercion, unleashing a wave of political violence which culminated in a huge anti-poll tax riot in London in 1990.

In Scotland and Wales, the fallout from the Thatcher era forced Labour to revive plans for devolution in order to keep a lid on the nationalists. These plans reached fruition in 1999. In Northern Ireland an Assembly was created in 1998 as part of the Good Friday peace agreement. In England, the situation was more complicated. A proposed  north east England regional assembly was voted down in 2004 but the Greater London Council dissolved by Thatcher in 1986 was revived as the Greater London Authority in 2000.

During the seventeenth century, as the capital of three kingdoms and a principality, London grew rapidly. From 200 000 in 1600, London had doubled in size to 400 000 by 1650, By 1700, after recovering from plague and fire, it reached 575 000, overtaking Paris to become the largest city in Europe. Growth continued to the million mark by the beginning of the nineteenth century, making London the largest city in the world. Growth continued until 1914, when London reached 7.5 million, but then New York edged ahead to become the largest city in the world.

London’s growth stimulated the coal industry in north-east England in the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century this domestic use of coal was matched by the industrial use of coal. During the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the coal fields of south Wales, central Scotland, north-west England and the English Midlands as well as north-east England became an economic powerhouse which made Britain the ‘workshop of the world’. The combination of economic wealth and urban growth in these areas created a political and economic counterbalance to London.

The economic ability of the industrial regions to act as a counterbalance  to London as a financial centre broke down in the 1920s and 30s. Despite a return to importance in the 1940s, stimulated by war production, and the 1950s, stimulated by a post-war boom, by the 1960s cotton, shipbuilding, coal mining, steel making and locomotive making were once more struggling. The 1974-79 Labour government had a plan to re-vitalise manufacturing industry using tax revenue from the newly discovered North Sea oil reserves.

Tragically, by the time the oil revenues came on stream, the Conservative party were in power. In order to destroy organised labour and the Labour party, but disguised as anti-inflationary monetary policy, interest rates were raised and manufacturing industry was devastated, never to fully recover. At the same time,  constraints on London’s financial sector were removed.

The Labour party survived by re-inventing itself as ‘New and Improved’ under Tony Blair, moving its position to the right so it could become electable in 1997.

This move created a crisis for the concept of post-war Britishness as a form of social democratic consensus. In Scotland especially, the tension between new and old Labour made it increasingly difficult to sustain this form of Britishness. This allowed the SNP to start eating into the Labour vote in Scotland by presenting itself as a social democratic party committed to civic rather than ethnic nationalism. In 2015, after being Scotland’s largest single party for nearly 100 years, Labour were wiped out, returning only one MP.

In England the concept of Britishness had always been confused by its equation with ‘Englishness’.  But this Englishness itself was always fractured by regional and class divisions, reflected in a crude way by the strength of the Tory vote in most rural/agricultural areas and the Labour vote in most urban/ former manufacturing areas.

The 2016 EU referendum vote has created a further layer of confusion. Every local authority region in Scotland voted Remain. No such clear picture emerged in England. If the Leave vote was an expression of English nationalism/ identity, then England is a nation divided against itself.

If England is now a divided nation, where does that leave Britishness? If there is a British identity, where does it exist now? If the Leave vote in England was an expression of English nationalism as Anthony Barnett has suggested, was it therefore an ‘anti-British’ vote?  A vote to, effectively, dissolve the united kingdom first established in 1603 and the traditions of a British identity James VI and I invented?

Among the ideas being floated about a post-Brexit Britain is that somehow ‘free trade’ with the rest of the world will make up for the loss of trade with the EU. But even within England, the era of free trade -1840 to 1930- was one when economic and political power was more evenly distributed than it is now. It was also the age of empire, not an English empire, but a British one. The Irish were never reconciled to the British identity of this period, but the Scots and Welsh and even the English were.

The ‘loss’ of most of Ireland did not noticeably diminish Britishness, but the possibility of ‘losing’ Scotland was seen differently. Without Scotland England would have to confront the question- what does it mean to be English not British? To pick up the threads of an identity put on hold since Tudor times…

For a brief period between September 2014 and June 2016, it seemed that this confrontation had been avoided. Now it has returned. Or rather, it hasn’t.

One of the influential economic arguments against independence in the Scottish referendum campaign was that an independent Scotland would be outside the EU and have to negotiate its way back in. This argument equated Britishness with membership of the EU. There was a related currency argument. If Scotland left the UK, what currency would it use? Scots were told very firmly that they would not be allowed to use the British pound. But as we are now finding, the British pound was only strong because of EU membership.

Could the survival of Britishness over the past forty years therefore have become  entangled with membership of the EU? If so, then the Leave vote in England was a vote against Britishness. This creates a tidal wave of irony. While the BBC and other ’British’ institutions presented the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum as an attempt to ‘break up Britain’, they did not  present the Leave campaign as working towards a similar outcome.

Yet if Scotland had voted Yes in 2014, it is highly unlikely that there would have been an EU referendum in 2016. England would have had to reflect on what English Britishness now meant in a smaller United Kingdom, but without having to go through the deeply divisive process of an EU referendum.

Now the question is- can a British identity survive Brexit? It is very difficult to see how it can, even if the result of a possible second Scottish independence referendum is uncertain. This is probably why there has been no great debate about the survival of Britishness. The ‘national’ institutions like the BBC, the newspapers, legal establishment, academics and political parties involved all see themselves as British not English institutions.

They are constitutionally incapable of thinking from an English rather than British perspective. On the other hand there are many in Scotland who would disagree, arguing that institutional disinterested Britishness is a cloak for English interestedness.

What this points towards is the fracturing of the UK along some pre-existing fault lines and some new ones. One old one runs along the Scotland/ England border, another between the institutions of the UK and the people of Wales, northern Ireland, Scotland and England, between the rulers and the ruled. A new fault line is opening up between people who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. Within Ireland, the  Brexit vote risk turning the open border between south and north back into a closed one.

As yet the actual economic impact of Brexit is unknown, although the fall in value of the pound is feeding through into higher inflation. Brexit was sold on the promise of a better life outside the EU. Several of the promises have already been revealed as lies. If Brexit has a negative economic impact, even in the short term, there will be political fall-out.

But if, as I have argued above, the UK’s Britishness is faltering, then the social cohesion British identity once provided cannot be relied on any more. To echo the title of John Medhurst’s book -that option no longer exists. In particular, if there is a connection between the current model of Britishness and membership of the EU, leaving the EU will explode that model.

It will not be possible to summon up the spirit of Britain as a defence against the break-up of the United Kingdom.

How will this affect England and Englishness? Can England dream itself a future?  There are traditions of English radicalism, of a historic culture which ran counter to British imperial delusions, a red and black thread which still Remains.

England already possesses a dream whose consciousness it must now express in order to actually live it; as both Karl Marx and Guy Debord once almost said.

But it is a dream which hovers even now on the edge of a nightmare, an abyss of fear and hate unleashed by the final failure of the  Britishness that was once at its centre to hold the UK together. We are entering a state of disorder in the absence and non-recognition of  what was once authority as the controlling systems of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland  collapse into Brexit as a black hole.

In 1976 the Sex Pistols sang about it. It was a bit of a joke back then. In 1919, reflecting on the carnage of a world war and as the brief war of Irish independence was beginning, William Yeats took a more serious view of ‘anarchy’.

 The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

By 1922 the fight for Irish independence had been won and the Free State created, but then a civil war broke out. In response Yeats wrote ‘Meditations In Time of Civil’, published in 1923.

During the Scottish independence referendum campaign I re-read it and noted these lines-

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare

In Scotland, the failure of the  2012-14 Yes campaign has led to a narrowing of debate. The optimistic, forward looking, vision of the radical, grassroots independence campaigners has struggled to survive a retreat into a reactionary nationalism promoted  by advocates of ‘Independence first’. The fantasy of freedom from English rule has returned to supplant the difficult reality of working out what independence would mean in practice.

This conflict between fantasies of freedom from foreign rule and the actuality of self-government faced the Irish in the 1920s and will- if Brexit happens - face the English in the 2020s, just as it will the Scots if they ever achieve independence.

By concluding with this section from Yeats ‘Mediations’ I am not anticipating an actual, physical, bloody civil war. Rather, I am anticipating a cultural and political, even ‘spiritual’ in William Blake’s  language, civil war. One which has the potential to become a democratic revolution completing the work of the seventeenth century ‘British’ revolutions.

The Road at My Door

An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun.
A brown Lieutenant and his men,
Half dressed in national uniform,
Stand at my door, and I complain
Of the foul weather, hail and rain,
A pear-tree broken by the storm.
I count those feathered balls of soot
The moor-hen guides upon the stream.
To silence the envy in my thought;
And turn towards my chamber, caught
In the cold snows of a dream.

The Stare's Nest by My Window [stare = starling]

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the state.
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.