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Tuesday, 8 October 2013


George Orwell understood that those who control the past control the future. In his ‘1984’ we see a nightmare world where the past changes to suit the needs of the dictators who rule the present. Inconvenient memories disappear down the ‘memory hole’. If the government says we have always been at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia. If it says we have never been at war with Eastasia, well then…

This is why the critical study of history is dying out in our schools and universities. A critical analysis of the past would mean a close study of what our rulers said and how that measured up to what they did. And, importantly, it would mean studying the dynamics of change. What drives what we call the process of history? Great men and the odd great woman, kings, queens, generals, or great masses of people – ordinary people, like you and me? And if we effected change in the past, could we do so now, or in the future?

‘Power to the People’ is a popular/populist refrain, but when spoken by our rulers it is rarely meant. Even by lowly, mundane rulers like…Newport City Council. Though I have no illusions about local authorities being ‘servants of the people’, this council’s wilful destruction of the much-loved Chartist mural days before a mass protest against such destruction is breathtaking in its arrogance. It shows quite clearly that their masters are not ourselves, citizens and electors, but big business - the bloated billionaire multinational corporate bloodsuckers who own the superstores that will go up where the mural once stood. Two things need to be said: first, that the councillors who did this must be punished – in other words, they should, if possible, be voted out of office. And secondly, funds must be raised to restore the mural – whether by putting together the smashed remains, or by constructing a new memorial.

Would the mural have been destroyed quite so rapidly and gleefully – or at all – had it portrayed not an insurrection against the state but, say, the coronation, or some other royalist or elitist puffery? I doubt it. Because, make no mistake about it, this is an attack on our class. There is a move afoot by our rulers and their cats’ paws in local government to destroy not just murals, but any potential for resistance against corporate power, by ‘disappearing’ in the ‘memory hole’ any memories of past resistance.

In Llanelli, too, we understand this. In 1911 the town was the scene of an uprising by strikers and their supporters against the military and local bigwigs.  After the soldiers of the Worcester regiment shot dead two protestors, outraged citizens torched the property of the Great Western Railway Company and ransacked the shop of the magistrate who was believed to have called them in. For decades this was hidden from history – not taught in schools or colleges and not memorialised in any way except by local trade unionists, socialists and Welsh republicans. Two years ago some of us decided to mark the centenary by putting on some events, making a banner and producing books for use in schools.  Our website here:

Although we had excellent support from both Llanelli Town Council and Llanelli Rural Council (they hosted our forum, gave us a civic reception, and attended the march)  Carmarthenshire County Council was less forthcoming. They directed us to the Heritage Lottery funding stream, but when we won some money, they seemed over-directive in their desire to shape how we spent it. What was evident was a desire to keep things as bland and ‘safe’ as possible, a veritable ‘Disneyfication’ of what were after all highly politically-charged events. When it became clear that the main event was going to be a march through town at which Bob Crow of the RMT union was invited to speak, they were horrified and stopped attending meetings. It seemed they wanted a prettified, depoliticised version of history, not one in which class divisions and class conflict were sharp and uncompromising. We ended up having to return £5,000 of an Arts Council of Wales grant.

The other night I watched a documentary on the much-missed Gwyn ‘Alf’ Williams, for my money the most incisive and insightful Welsh historian of the 20th century. His book on the 1831 Merthyr Rising was a key element in my understanding of 19th and 20th century Welsh history. His insights into everything from continuity in popular resistance to myth-making around the legend of Madoc illuminated so many aspects of Welsh culture and history for me. Yet today, when I look at the way our universities have been eviscerated by neoliberalism, it seems clear to me that a modern Gwyn ‘Alf’ would never, now, be given the space to develop the insights that shed such a light on the times he studied.      

It is up to us to take charge of our own history. When they smash up one of our murals we must raise it up again. When they seek to bland out working-class history, or, next year, project a travesty of the slaughter of the 1914 war, it is up to us in the campaigning groups, the left, the trade unions and the activist groupings to tell truth to power. We must take the time to study our history and ensure it is not hidden. We owe this to the past but we also owe it to the future. If we aspire to nothing else, we can aspire to be the memory of the class.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


As I watched a film marking the Pinochet coup – 40 years since Chile’s 9/11 - I found myself thinking about how a person would go about dealing with that sort of abrupt, catastrophic increase in state repression. Would it be possible to scramble together street protests or strikes, or would the level of state violence be such that you’d just have to either go underground or flee? If you were not known to the authorities you’d probably just keep your head down, stay off the streets, and hope for the best.  

But of course in Chile the attack was not just the physical attack on  individuals – arrest, prison, torture, ‘disappearing’ – but the economic shock treatment that came afterwards, and which was inflicted on the whole society. This meant privatisation, deregulation, the introduction of competition and individualism into industrial relations, pensions, health, education. Crucial to the more long term process was the destruction of collectivism, of social solidarity, and the insertion of a ‘me-first’ mentality as atomised consumers compete with each other for resources, jobs, benefits, housing. Eventually repression is internalised. We begin to police ourselves. Does any of this sound eerily familiar?

Chile went from being a democracy with trade unions where a Marxist could be elected president, to a military dictatorship overnight. But turns to increased state repression do not have to be sudden and dramatic. In many ways the UK today is morphing gradually, incrementally, into a more repressive society. This is the ‘darker side’ of economic neoliberalism. There is a direct link between the level of state control & repression & the type of economic structure we have. In post-coup Chile the society became a massive economic laboratory experimenting with the nostrums of the free market. Neoliberalism, as it bulldozes the middle class & immiserates workers & the poor, of necessity will close down those areas of civil society where resistance could begin – trade unions & the organs of political protest. And it will do so piecemeal, in the name of protecting us and improving our lives.

Under neoliberalism banks and big corporations rule, and the state is strengthened to keep order so that these companies can continue to make profits. Anything that gets in the way of this has to be removed. A shift to the free market does not mean the state is done away with, it means that only the more repressive functions of the state remain. Those aspects of state ownership which redistributed money and resources to ordinary people – what used to be called the ‘social wage’ – are sold off to billionaires, hedge fund managers and those corporations already poised to buy up schools, security services and the NHS.

UK governments over the next five years, whether Tory, Lib Dem or Labour, will be seeking to further restructure the economy along these lines without provoking unmanageable social unrest. The move from managing consent to managing coercion will mean the closing down of democratic spaces. Slowly, the unthinkable will become thinkable. It is already happening. The first targets are not yet the beleaguered middle class, but the more peripheral groups: the disabled, the poor, people in social housing, claimants, Travellers, immigrants, asylum seekers…

We who disagree with this social model need a political response. But in electoral terms, this has yet to be constructed. Labour has already sunk into the neoliberal mire and can’t help us. So the long-delayed strikes that are coming, from teachers, firefighters, civil servants and perhaps most importantly, postal workers, are important, as is the demonstration at Tory conference on 29th September. Large, militant and disruptive strikes and protests would draw a line in the sand. They would be a restatement of social solidarity, shifting the centre of gravity from passive, vapid, atomised consumerism to mass action. They would be a badly-needed reminder of our own collective strength.

Otherwise, we may wake up one day to find that a tolerant, social democratic society can change to a highly repressive one with no space for protest or resistance without the necessity for a violent military coup. Chile 1973 was a combative society with a strong left and powerful unions. The US government, the CIA and the Chilean ruling class understood that an ‘iron fist’ was necessary to smash this, and Pinochet was prepared to be their man. But for any ruling class massive physical force is a huge gamble, fraught with risk. Far better, if possible, to enforce gradual, constitutional changes, dealing with one group after another until you have eliminated all the forces that might resist you.

In many ways, the gorillas are already amongst us…

Thursday, 5 September 2013


When Chinese premier Zhou En-lai said to Richard Nixon in 1972 that it was ‘too early to tell’ what were the implications of the 1789 French Revolution, he was actually referring to the Parisian turmoil of 1968. Still, it was a good quote, and I was put in mind of it in relation to the 2003 movement of protest against the Iraq war. It didn’t manage to stop that war, but it might just have stopped British participation in the attack on Syria.

British politics is in an unpredictable, fractious state. In the vote on Syrian intervention Westminster seemed, in its contradictory fashion, to finally catch up with the mood on the streets of London in 2003. It was as if the energy of 2 million people had at last found expression in the hermetically sealed chambers of the Palace of Westminster. It seemed to happen almost without design, with Ed Miliband stumblingly thrust into a situation where he found himself accidentally giving the Tories a bloody nose on an issue where they were supposedly strong. In truth, Miliband was more object than subject of history here, with the decisive factor being the Tories who voted the other way.

So, the real question is: why did the Tories vote against, particularly on an issue like this?  Leaving aside Cameron’s arrogance and stupidity, and the hash he’s making of domestic policy, the vote shows just how long the shadow of Iraq is, and how deep anti-war culture has penetrated. The biggest demonstration in British history took place on 15 February 2003. It was a real mass movement, with effective, active groups in every major town and city, uniting all ethnic backgrounds and those of all religions and none. It took the arguments against war into every locality, and, through School Students Against the War, into every school. Protests were held in the inner cities but also in the leafy shires. Tory MPs received letters and petitions against attacking Iraq, and saw protests and rallies. The lies and ‘dodgy dossiers’ severely undermined people’s faith in government and in ‘official’ politics. It is to the credit of the Stop the War Coalition that it did not let the fact that Labour were in office inhibit its campaigning in the way that the US peace movement did once Obama was in the White House.

In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the vote Labour politicians seemed to be horrified at what they had done. Certainly the military and political establishment (and the Tory media, including the BBC) were initially furious at what they saw as sidelining of the government at a time of war and international diplomatic posturing. Cameron was no doubt hoping to ‘do a Falklands’ and use his time in the international spotlight to boost his flagging domestic popularity. Noteworthy, too, and chilling, were the voices, including Boris Johnson’s, musing about a re-run of the vote. Bugger democracy, old boy... This disdain for democratic procedure shows how narrow is the thin layer of democratic skin stretched over the machinery of state, and how quickly it would be shed in a real political crisis.

But the other surprise, apart from the Commons vote itself, was the knock-on effect it had on the U.S. and on Obama. It exposed a real popular reluctance to embrace another war, and tapped in to an international weariness towards more Western intervention after the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan adventures.  My initial assessment was that the US would go the bombing route alone, but after Obama's apparent acceptance of Putin's plan for a diplomatic solution involving the removal of Syria's chemical weapons, I am not so sure. John Pilger, writing in the Guardian, insists that 'the US intends to crush the last independent states in the Middle East: first Syria, then Iran.' I think he is correct. In which case the question is: will the neocon hawks at the Pentagon win out, or will the pressure of popular revulsion at yet another war succeed in holding this one off?  The stakes are very high. The anti-war movement is still needed. Wars and revolutions, indeed… 

Thursday, 30 May 2013


Why did the 2005 London bombing, with its 56 dead , not result in the wave of anti-Muslim attacks we’ve seen over the past few days?

Crucially, 2005 was 2 years before the economy tanked. Not that the years before the crash were much better, but now in 2013 there is a lot of fear. Anxious, angry people are easier to manipulate and much more vulnerable to the EDL’s politics of despair.

Throw in the permanent anti-immigrant drip-feed in the national media and the ‘cult of the dead soldier’ used for years to bolster and justify the Afghan occupation and Bob’s your uncle. Fascism thrives on pain and fear. And the implosion of the BNP’s electoral strategy in 2012 strengthened the street thugs of the EDL: the ‘boots’ won out over the ‘suits’. 

The other reason there were no pogroms after 7/7 is that by 2005 hundreds of thousands of Muslims and anti-war activists of all descriptions had been working together for years in the Stop the War Coalition and the Respect party.

In many ways this was the most significant thing about the movement. For years the left used the slogan ‘black and white, unite and fight,’ but during those years it became a reality. Anti-war politics became an alternative to jihadist politics for young Muslims who saw and hated what the British government was doing as much as the school students and trade unionists they marched with, (and, indeed, in many cases, were).

The political bonds formed across ethnic and cultural lines provided a counter-weight to the Islamophobia of the BNP and the far right. With the waning of a mass anti-war movement, the splits in Stop the War and Respect and the fading of those bonds racism has been given more room to grow.

Of course it’s not just the lagered-up goons of the EDL driving this but the whole apparatus of government and media. Racism doesn’t just fall out of the sky and into people’s heads. The Tory press feeds people a daily diet of Muslim and asylum seeker horror stories. This creates the mood music for the fascists. 

One might say that the gruesome nature of the Woolwich killing caused outrage but was it really more horrible than the case of Baha Mousa, the Iraqi hotel receptionist, tortured to death in Basra by British soldiers? Of course two wrongs don’t make a right but at least have the grace to admit that both wrongs took place!

This is precisely what the British government can’t admit. It is blindingly obvious that these wars, together with the tender attentions of MI5 and the Kenyan police, are what motivated the man concerned to commit this horrible crime. But while the government is in denial about the wars, it can never admit this. So it becomes the fault of the ‘hate-filled Islamist preachers’ or the Jihadi websites, some sort of peculiar, inexplicable blood-lust you find only in Muslims.

If we deny the importance and impact of our imperial wars of occupation on events, then the fostering of Islamophobia is the clear side-effect. Because if it is not something we did to them, but something they are doing to us because they ‘hate our way of life’, then of course there must be something wrong with them. You can have your Islamophobia served up de luxe a la Richard Dawkins or Martin Amis, or you can have the basics version a la Tommy Robinson. The Muslim in a mosque as it’s firebombed would doubtless not appreciate the fine distinction.

One day the British will see how they were fooled about Muslims as surely as they were fooled about weapons of mass destruction. And that day their anger will be great. But right now the job of the left is to stand side by side with British Muslims against the fascists. No to Islamophobia. No to racism. No to the EDL’s lies.

Unite Against Fascism is calling a unity event, against racism and Islamophobia in Woolwich this Saturday 1 June. Assemble 12 noon, General Gordon Square SE18. Visit for more details.