As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...
- Name: Alistair Livingston
Wednesday, February 01, 2017
Sunday, December 04, 2016
The Railway Footpath- a Very Lengthy Saga
|Train approaching Castle Douglas. My parent's house marked X.|
Golf course on left, sewage works on right
I was brought up with the sound of steam trains and railway whistles. My parents’ house is next to what was the 10 mile Castle Douglas to Kirkcudbright railway. The house is beside a cutting just before the railway curved round to join the main (single track, long and straggling) line from Stranraer. The two lines then passed Castle Douglas Signal Box 2 before entering Castle Douglas station together.
The Distant signal was in the cutting and trains from Kirkcudbright would pause and whistle to let the signalman know they were ready to enter the station. Prompted by the whistle, the signalman would raise the signal and the two carriage train would proceed into the station. Sometimes my father would lift me up on the wall so I could wave at the driver and fireman.
|Castle Douglas Signal Box 2. |
Kirkcudbright branch on right, Stranraer line on left.
In June 1965 the Kirkcudbright branch and the Dumfries to Stranraer line were closed. Even before it shut, with my school friend Stephen Briggs I had trespassed on the line, bravely walking on the track under the Abercromby Road bridge. The tracks were lifted just over a year later, but before they had been lifted my father took me and my brother Ian for a walk along the line.
We walked out beside the Castle Douglas Golf Course, the sewage works and the ever smouldering and smoking town cowp (Scots for ‘tip’ as in rubbish tip) as far as the Carlingwark Lane canal. We then walked alongside the canal to the Blackpark Marsh pumping station (built 1938) and then back into town via Blackpark farm road and the railway.
|Train approaching Blackpark bridge.|
Town rubbish dump on right.
I did not know then that the slow flowing stream we walked beside was a canal. My father called it the Tarry Burn, although properly the Tarry Burn was the stream which flowed from the town gas works and sewage works into the canal. Lane is a local dialect work for a slow flowing stream, originally a Scots Gaelic work ‘leanna’ which means marshy meadow rather than stream.
Even after the railway track and sleepers were lifted, for a few years more the small iron bridge over the Carlingwark Lane survived. With school friends and Ian we would walk out across the bridge towards Barley Hill, or explore the Blackpark Marshes. It was a very quiet place apart from occasional flocks of lapwings rising up from a shallow lagoon in the marshes. The lagoon has strange stumpy ‘fingers’ leading out from it. I have seen illustrations of similar shallow lagoons which were created by wildfowlers. The ‘fingers’ would be netted and wildfowl driven into the nets.
|The marshes between Carlingwak Loch and the river Dee in 1755|
In the winter of 1974/5 there was a big flood. Part of the earth bank/ bund beside the pumping station got washed away. The railway embankment became a narrow peninsula jutting out into a the swirling waters.
|Letter confirming that Castle Douglas Burgh bought former railway land |
from British Railways in 1971. If only a footpath had been made back then...
Part Two - The By-Pass is built and I return to Castle Douglas
Then, in 1987, the whole area was transformed. A by-pass was built to carry the A 75 around Castle Douglas. It was carried on a 30 foot high embankment across the marshes with a bridge over the Carlingwark Lane canal. I was living in London then, but when I moved back to Castle Douglas in 1997 and began re-exploring the surrounding countryside, the by-pass was the biggest change to the landscape.
I was now living just across the road from my parents and found it was possible- with difficulty- to walk from my backdoor down to Blackpark road, cut across what had been the cowp but was now in the process of being converted into an extension of the golf course, along the old railway embankment, cross the canal by using the by-pass bridge, carefully clamber over a barbed wire fence, walk across a field and then pick up the old railway again, now converted into a footpath by the National Trust for Scotland.
|Beneath Abercomby Road bridge, no access along old railway.|
I could then walk another mile along the railway footpath to an island with a bird hide on the river Dee or walk up to Archibald the Grim’s great castle of Threave on its island in the river. Practically, however, it was easier to walk out of town along the Old Military Road and follow the NTS footpath network from the rear of Threave Gardens or -more often- take a risky short cut along the old A 75 out to Kelton Mains for Threave castle and estate.
|Threave Castle on a wet day.|
The Old Military Road passes Furbar cottage, originally Forbes’ Croft, where the Galloway Levellers had been persuaded not to knock down a recently erected dyke in 1724. A stone in the wall of the dyke here is supposed to commemorate the event, having the date ‘1724’ carved on it. In January 2003 I recorded and interview with Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell for their radio series (and book) on the Lowland Clearances there. There is a stone with a date on it, but it is 1757 not 1724.
Part Three- The Railway Path is Proposed
In 2003 I was Secretary to Castle Douglas Food Town and the Food Town were invited to attend meetings of the Castle Douglas Community Initiative. I started going to the meetings and discovered that the Initiative were looking for projects to raise funds for. The Initiative had to do this because Castle Douglas Community Council were not allowed to do this kind of work.
I had a chat with my brothers Ian and Kenneth and we agreed that it was daft that it was easier for people from the town to drive out to Kelton Mains and then walk to Threave Castle and the Nature Reserve rather than being able to walk there. Why not make a path along the old railway so residents and visitors to the town could do what we used to do as kids and walk out to Threave? This would benefit the Food Town by linking it with the countryside where the locally produced food we were promoting came from.
|Map of Proposed Path between Abercromby Road and Barley Hill.|
Existing paths also shown.
I put this idea to the Initiative and it was enthusiastically accepted. We then contacted Stephen Wiseman who was the Head Ranger at NTS Threave and Keith Kirk who was the local Dumfries and Galloway Countryside Ranger. Both agreed it was an idea worth pursuing. I think it would have been Keith who put us in touch with Gilbert Clerk who was Dumfries and Galloway’s Access Officer.
|Galloway News 1 May 2003|
Since my son Callum is a wheelchair user I was keen to make sure that footpath would be wheelchair accessible. I remember walking parts of the route with Gilbert, checking where there were slopes to work out how to make them wheelchair friendly. As Gilbert explained at the time, it would be much more expensive to create a fully accessible footpath. I still have a copy of his estimate for the work. The total was just over £100 000, split over two years. However, by the end of 2004 only £34 860 had been raised.
Unfortunately there was also opposition from two important ‘stakeholders’- Castle Douglas Golf Course and tenant-farmers on NTS Threave Estate.
The first part of the footpath would have been from Abercromby Road to Blackpark Road along the railway embankment beside the Golf Course. From Blackpark Road to the boundary of NTS Threave Estate it would then have run along the edge of the golf course extension. Without permission from the Golf Club, this could not be done.
The next section was to run along the old railway embankment, cross the Carlingwark Lane canal, run under the A 75 by-pass where it crossed the Lane and then alongside an existing fence line across a field to link up with the existing NTS Threave footpath network. The tenant farmers objected to the loss of a strip of the field and were worried that the new path would permit youths to wander out of town vandalising farmed land.
By 2004, the combination of lack of funds and opposition to the footpath seemed to have scuppered the project. In an attempt to keep it going, I included the proposed path in a booklet of walk around Castle Douglas I wrote and published in 2005.
Part Four- The Path Saved by Sewage
I have found some documents from 2004/5 which I will paste into the section.
What saved the footpath turned out to be the sewage works, or more formally Castle Douglas Waste Water Treatment Works. And the Blackpark Marsh Pumping Station. Please bear with me, the next part is complicated…
900 years ago a small stream ran down the western edge of what was to become Castle Douglas. The stream was used to define the boundary between the medieval parish of Crossmichael and the parish of Kelton. Although it has since been culverted and diverted in places, the parish boundary still follows roughly the course of the stream.
When the Victorians built the first sewage works in the town, it was built beside the stream. Treated water from the works flowed into the stream, as did effluent from the town’s gas works and the cowp. Which is why it became called the Tarry Burn. The stream then flowed into the Carlingwark Burn, which was straightened and turned into a canal in 1765. The Kelton/ Crossmichael parish boundary still follows the course of the Carlingwark Burn/ Lane/ canal to the river Dee.
When the Galloway Water Power (hydro-electric) Scheme was built in the 1930s, the average level of water in the river Dee became slightly higher. This affected the flow of water along the Carlingwark Lane so that Blackpark and Carlingwark Marsh were becoming waterlogged, affecting adjacent fields.
The solution found in 1938 was to build a pumping station on the Carlingwark Lane which would act as a barrier to water flowing up from the Dee and keep the water level in the Lane low enough to keep the marshes and farmland reasonably dry.
As Castle Douglas grew through the later twentieth century, the amount of nutrient rich treated waste water from the sewage works increased. This encouraged the growth of weeds and vegetation along the Carlingwark Lane. By 2002 Scottish Power (successor to the Galloway Water Power Company) were complaining that it was costing them a fortune to clear weeds from the pumps of the pumping station and threatened to remove the pumps to save money.
|Pre-2006 outflow from sewage works.|
Carlingwark Lane choked with weeds.
Pumping station near large tree in distance.
|Threave path and the pumping station 18 May 2004|
This caused concern- if the pumps were removed, would this lead to an increased risk of flooding in Castle Douglas? Questions were asked - perhaps the landowner of the marshes had a duty to control vegetation in the Lane? The landowner being the National Trust for Scotland, in 2004 I was asked to do some research for the NTS to see if there was a historic responsibility for the landowner to keep the Lane clear of weeds. After a few hours reading through the 1930s/40s records of Castle Douglas Burgh Council in the Stewartry Museum I found that the Ministry of Agriculture had been responsible for keeping the Lane clear of weeds not Threave Estate.
|NTS letter about my research and pipeline proposal|
|Article from DG Nat Hist and Antiquarian Soc Transactions about pumping station, marshes and sewage.|
The implication (backed up by later research) was that the pumping station was not built to control floods but to keep surrounding farmland dry in order to maximise agricultural output- very important in the 1940s.
In meantime, an alternative solution had been proposed. If Scottish Water built a pipeline from their Waste Water Treatment Works to the river Dee, the nutrient rich outflow from the Works could be diverted from the Carlingwark Lane, thus reducing the weed growth problem and so solving Scottish Power’s problem.
This would also solve a critical problem for Dumfries and Galloway Council/ NHS Dumfries and Galloway. In 2005 a new health centre for the town was planned / under construction alongside a new housing development. But this development would increase treated water flow through the sewage works adding to the Carlingwark Lane vegetation problem.
I had a personal interest in this complex situation. Loreburn Housing Association were building a small development in the town, including a specially designed disabled flat for my son’s long term needs. I was therefore also pestering Scottish Water to sort out the problem.
Unfortunately Scottish Water’s original proposal was to run the waste water pipeline directly out to the river Dee along the Carlingwark Lane- straight through the Carlingwark/Threave SSSI marshlands. Scottish Natural Heritage refused to allow this so an alternative route which would run from the Carlingwark Lane along the A 75 to just past Threave Bridge on the A 75 was proposed.
|SNH letter regarding pipeline May 2005|
Thanks to my pestering of Scottish Water I was sent a copy of the new plans and I remember meeting an SNH person on the by-pass bridge over the Carlingwark Lane to discuss them and the footpath project. Amusingly I got my copy before Dumfries and Galloway Planning Department so was able to make a copy for them as well…
|Scottish Water letter about pipeline|
|Scottish Water pipeline map|
|Spring 2006 - new gate on Blackpark Road.|
Pipeline work in field. Path now runs along here.
|A 75 Carlingwark Lane bridge, pipelaying and path making.|
Close up of pipe and new path heading towards Barley Hill on left.
|New path looking back to by-pass. |
Old photo -footpath now follows fence line up to Barley Hill.
The upshot of this lengthy diversion is that in 2005/6 the pipeline was constructed along most of the route of the 2003 footpath proposal. As the photographs below show, the end result was that a basic footpath was constructed alongside the pipeline from Blackpark Road to Barley Hill and opened by Sir Malcolm Ross, Lord-Lieutenant of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in August 2006.
|My article in Galloway News 24 August 2006|
Part Five- The Core Path Network and the Missing Link
Going back to 2003, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act was passed in that year. This Act included a requirement for local authorities to establish a network of ‘core paths’. It took some time -seven years of consultation between 2006 and 2013- but Dumfries and Galloway’s Core Path Plan was activated in January 2013.
The path from Castle Douglas to Threave Estate was included as Core Path 155. During the consultation phase I and many others had identified the Abercromby Road to Blackpark Road section of the 2003 footpath plan as a ‘missing link’ in the local footpath network. The missing link was included as part of Core Path 155.
|Path under construction in cutting below my parents house, early 2013.|
|Abercromby Road bridge open to traffic again.|
|Callum and sister Beth on newly opened path.|
Abercromby Road bridge.
The new section of path was high quality and as soon as it was opened (without any ceremony this time) I took great delight in pushing Callum in his wheelchair along it. Unfortunately we still could not get very far along the 2006 section. Then came The Flood.
Part Six- The Great New Year’s Eve Flood
My son attends Castle Douglas Activity and Resource Centre, a facility for people with physical and learning disabilities. Luckily my son was at home that day, but on 31 December 2105 we had a phone call from the ARC saying they had been flooded and would be closed until further notice. The ARC is on the edge of the Carlingwark Marsh. Local team Threave Rovers’ football pitch is on the other side of the marsh. It was also flooded that day.
|Michael Lowden's photo of flood. X is location of ARC|
After New Year and when the waters had receded, Keith Kirk posed a photo on Facebook. The wooden footbridge over the Carlingwark Lane constructed in 2006 had been washed away and was now lying in a field several hundred yards away.
A few days later I went out to inspect the damage. The bridge really had gone and parts of the footpath had also been washed away. Fortunately, the Scottish Government responded by offering Dumfries and Galloway Council funding to repair flood damage.
In May a notice went up saying ‘Footpath Closed for Restoration Work’. Altogether £60 000 was spent to replace the old bridge with a new, stronger one at a higher level than the old one and to restore and effectively improve the footpath from the Carlingwark Lane to Barley Hill.
By the end of June the path was ready to be reopened. In early July the Galloway News ran a feature on the re-opening and asked myself, Michelle Robertson of Castle Douglas Development Forum and Bryan Scott, Dumfries and Galloway Countryside Development Officer to pose for a photograph on the impressive new bridge.
I took the opportunity to discuss the possibility of upgrading the Blackpark Road to Carlingwark Lane section of the path to the same standard as the newly restored section with Michelle and Bryan. Both agreed it was a do-able project.
Part Seven- Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership
On 1 July the Galloway Glens Heritage Landscape Partnership’s website went live. The Galloway Glens is a major- £2.5 million- Heritage Lottery funded project. Castle Douglas is within the project area. On the website there was a notice that the partnership were looking for project ideas and an ‘Expression of Interest’ form with a 2 September deadline.
I suggested that the Castle Douglas Development Forum might be able to get part funding (40%) from Galloway Glens. Bryan Scott provided a cost of £18 000 to upgrade the Blackpark Road to Carlingwark Lane section It would cost another £3600 to make a ramp from railway level up to the Kelton Mains farm road- this would give access to the path down to Threave Castle and the river Dee. This has been part of the original 2003 footpath plan.
|Original path No. 1 plus three new paths.|
CDDF put in an Expression of Interest for the path upgrade plus three new footpaths. The proposals were accepted and taken forward to the second stage. This required more details- a 9 page form- with deadline of 2 December.
If successful again, we will find out in January with another deadline of May 2017 to submit fully worked out plans. Which will be a lot to do. For example one of the questions asked in the 2 December form is ‘Does the proposal require planning permission?’
I have checked with Dumfries and Galloway Planning Department and got an answer today. Upgrading Core Path 155 will not require planning permission since it is an existing path, but the three new paths will. I have no idea how difficult it will be do take three paths through the planning process, but it is going to add an extra level of complication to the process.
Part Eight- The Great Expedition
On the other hand, for the first time today myself and Sandy, Callum’s main care worker, managed to get Callum in his wheel chair all the way from home out to the Kelton Mains bridge along Core Path 155.
We sailed along the 2013 Abercromby Road to Blackpark Road section, got up and over the filled in railway bridge on Blackpark Road but then had a struggle to get through the metal swing gate at the start of the 2006 section of path.
The next part was not too difficult since all the grass and nettles which had grown up in the summer while the path was closed had died back. The next part of the path is not surfaced, it is on the grassed over trackbed of the old railway on the embankment that leads towards the Carlingwark Lane canal.
At the canal, the replacement bridge is higher than the old bridge so there is only a short slope down to bridge level. From the bridge, under the A 75 and all the way to the edge of Barley Hill we were on the 2016 upgraded section. The surface is slightly rougher than the 2013 section surface, but was still an easy push.
The last part of the Great Expedition was along the NTS section of railway path. Apart from a couple of soft places it was quite ‘pushable’. At the Kelton Mains bridge over the old railway we stopped, 1 and half miles from home. It had taken us an hour to get there.
The NTS railway path carries on for another mile or so to Lamb Island on the Dee where there is a bird hide. However this section has not been surfaced so is a grass path which is also muddy in places. We could not get up to the Kelton Mains road because of steps. We took some photographs and headed back into town, which took another hour.
It was a great Great Expedition, but also deeply frustrating. 13 years on from having the idea of a path, I was able to get Callum nearly all the way to Threave Castle- or at least the edge of the river Dee.
But it was very awkward to get Callum through the metal swing gate and he did not enjoy the heaving and pushing and bumping. All the other gates on the path are wooden, pull-handle dual-directional and so are no problem. On the 2013 section there are no gates at all, but it has not become a mecca for motorcyclists.
In the late summer we tried to get along the next section, but the grass and nettles had grown up making it impossible. Re-surfacing would be helpful. The long grass and nettles do get strimmed at least couple of times in the summer- I have seen the ‘Community Payback’ team doing this in past years.
|This section has been improved, but may get overgrown again in the summer.|
The unsurfaced section is a problem. It is very bumpy which shoogles Callum and there are soft sections which if it had been wetter would have bogged us down.
And it is frustrating to be able to get along the 2016 improved section, the NTS section and then have to stop under a bridge and go back again. It would also have been much more difficult without Sandy to help in the awkward places.
Part Nine - Is the end of the Railway Footpath Saga in sight?
Perhaps. Unfortunately, by bundling the upgrade with three new paths, it is going to be more difficult, costly and complicated (eg planning permissions) to get the upgrade done as part of the Galloway Glens project. But if it can done, work could start in 2018. The 2013 section only took a couple of months to construct. The 2016 upgrade and new bridge took about two months as well.
|Freight train between Lodge of Kelton and Kelton Mains.|
However, actual construction work is the least complicated part of the process. It took three years from 2003 to 2006 to get the main section of basic path open, 13 years to get half of it to wheelchair pushable standard. It took ten years from 2003 to 2013 to get the Abercromby Road to Blackpark Road section open.
So I will pencil in 2020 as an optimistic date when I will be able to conclude this Railway Footpath Saga and write ‘The End’ …
Below- Stewartry Area Committee Report on Path from December 2005.
But no mention of the pipeline...
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Anarcho-Punk as Militant Liberalism Part Two 1995
|Anti-Criminal Justice Bill Hyde Park 1994|
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.
'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|
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.http://libcom.org/library/kill-chill-aufheben-4
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|
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
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.