Interview: A People’s History of London
| Jonny Gordon-Farleigh interviews John Rees and Lindsey German |
Stir Magazine: The publication of A People’s History of London coincides with the 2012 London Olympic Games and for those who know the history of the games will find it unsurprising that there has been a virtual militarization of the “Olympics boroughs” and the eviction of families – some with as little as two weeks notice. While writing A People’s history of London what inspiring examples did you find of resistance to the breach of Londoner’s rights?
Lindsey German: There are lots of examples and one is that most of the parks and commons that still exist in London are only there because people protested about them being completely built on and covered over. If you look at the protests going right back to the use of parks for demonstrations, there is a very interesting history.
When we look for inspiration in all of this we find that people have always resisted the attempts of the rich to get their hands on the land, housing and other things. These are very important things to campaign for. Squatting, for example, was very big in the ‘60s and ‘70s and is getting very big again because people have nowhere affordable to live. After the Second World War there was a very large squatting movement because there was a housing shortage and all of the history inspired us to do it.
John Rees: The Coin Street housing development by the OXO tower on the South Bank, right in the heart of London, would not be there now if that had not been for the movement to defend it. Although there have been many occasions where the corporations and government got their way, some of the best parts of London are exactly the places where they did not get their way.
S: You begin with the contemporary scene of Occupy LSX’s encampment at St.Pauls – a place “where an unusual amount of London’s history has happened”. One of the many interesting issues provoked by the occupation was the question: what is a legitimate form of protest – or as David Harvey might put it – who has the “right to the city”? How do the current laws on protesting in the capital compare with attempts to repress protest throughout London’s history?
LG: Well, I think they are quite bad now. Clearly, on one level, people have the right to demonstrate but there is a huge area around parliament where protest is restricted and you have to give notice, even if we do not get notice of a bombing in another part of the world. They are now talking about making people pay for closing the streets when they want to demonstrate. When you think of the money poured into closing the streets for Jubilee and all sorts of other events, it tells you that protest is treated very badly. If you look at the history of London, particularly in the case of Trafalgar Square, protest was a very big part of asserting our rights. This went all the way back to a very famous series of protest in 1877 where, during one demonstration, a bystander (maybe a demonstrator) was killed — this became a huge cause célèbre and a huge march to East London accompanied his funeral.
Even in recent years in our experience within the anti-war movement we’ve had to fight for the right to assemble in Trafalgar Square. It is a constant battle. The privatization of leisure space, which is now a very big question, is continuing and if we take the case of Trafalgar Square, it is often occupied by an officially sponsored event which has paid thousands of pounds to be there.
Another example is Hyde Park. The Stop the War Coalition wanted to march to Hyde Park but were told we couldn’t because it would ‘damage the grass’ — yet they don’t say the same about the Winter Wonderland, for example, because money talks.
JR: Many people think of the law as fixed: you either have these rights or you don’t have these rights. However, the truth is that the law is just a marker of the balance of forces between those who want to protest and those who stop them. For instance, during the English Revolution it was illegal to publish anything that was said in the House of Commons. So, when people published pamphlets about what had taken place there, though it was illegal, the tide of publications were so great they couldn’t be stopped. After the revolution prohibition was reintroduced and it wasn’t until Wilkes and Liberty movement in the middle of the eighteenth century that there was another battle to publicly report what was said in the House of Commons.
It’s the same as the right to demonstrate. Actually, at the very moment when the anti-war movement was demonstrating most frequently in Parliament Square, the government introduced the law that you could not demonstrate there without giving notice. We never did and they could not stop us. This was the lesson: if you were sufficiently determined and there were sufficiently large numbers, you create the freedom to protest. Where this doesn’t happen they will take it away from us.
S: How has the Criminal Justice Bill affected protest?
LG: It has affected it badly in the sense that it has prevented people from assembling in the ways they want to. I think many people now believe it to be legitimate to ignore these laws and sometimes they get away with it — Occupy LSX got away with it, quite rightly, for a while. But even when you get away with it you still have the law hanging over your head and it makes it much more difficult. It often requires a lot more personal commitment from protesters to risk going to prison or to be sued in the civil courts. So, it is a constant battle to assert the right to protest and it is very important in terms of London’s history.
S: London is often presented to the public as a city of palaces and torture chambers – and in many ways it was for a long time. However, it is has been and continues to be the scene of a great number of popular revolts ‘from below’. Is A People’s History of London an attempt to change the popular memory? And does challenging this story also change our expectations of what we can do as political activists today?
JR: I think that is exactly right. Everyone knows the palaces and everyone knows the landmarks but they do not always know what happened in these places. We have already mentioned St. Paul’s Churchyard where an enormous number of events took place, but it is probably not upper most in the popular memory that the Leveller Robert Lockyer was executed there in the 17th century.
When people visit the Tower of London they are probably not told that during the Peasant’s Revolt the mass of peasants actually broke into the tower and beheaded the archbishop of Canterbury. Or where the Savoy Hotel now stands, formerly known as the Savoy Palace, was the home of John of Gaunt (who was seen as the key figure ruling Britain at the time of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381), when it was sacked by the peasants.
So, yes, we are trying to recover that history. If you don’t understand the past you can’t properly understand the present and you also can’t understand the possibilities of change in the present. This process of historical recovery is definitely part of the purpose of the book.
LG: I think the book is pertinent at the moment because we are being presented with a history of Britain, and to a large extent of London, as a history of a united people for a thousands of years; a series of mostly benevolent monarchs of whom one unfortunately got his head chopped off (…but this was of course only an abberation), and that everything has been stable for hundreds of years. This is not the history of London at all. The history of London shows that nearly all of the improvements in London, from whatever period we care to talk about, have come from below — from campaigners for education, early housing pioneers and those who took part in demonstrations. It is clear that the improvements in London have rarely been instigated by politicians, let alone a monarchy that remains as divorced and uninterested in the concerns of most Londoners as ever.
JR: There is a long historical tradition of people’s history. The title of the book refers back to A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England, which is still a terrific book. If you could say that there was one book that initiated the whole idea of a history from below — the story of working people — then you would have to say it was that book and the group of historians working with Morton at the time, such as Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson.
Not only is our book an attempt to recover the actual facts of the people’s history of London but also this approach to history itself against the revisionist tide that exclusively presents a history of kings and queens and political elite.
S: The English Revolution does not hold the same place in the tradition of revolutionary thought as, say, the French or Haitian revolution – maybe because it was so short-lived. However, the Levellers and Diggers have seen a resurgence of interest and have once again become an influential historical reference for activists (especially the new generation of land squatters and community gardeners). Do you think we should be taking this part of our history more seriously?
JR: Definitely. The English Revolution is the first of the great modern revolutions and it is almost impossible to imagine the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence without it. It is also impossible to imagine the French Revolution — Liberté, egalité, fraternité — without the model of the English Revolution. In the case of the American Revolution there is a direct link between the pilgrims who fled Charles I rule and founded America — many of them came back to fight in the New Model Army against Charles I and then during the restoration of the monarchy returned to America. In 1776 in the back woods of America women were christening their children ‘Oliver’ in memory of Oliver Cromwell.
The English Revolution still has a terrific impact and it is still the only period in our history when England was a republic. There have been times in history when monarchs had been killed in inter-court battles or in fights with other monarchs or on the battlefield, but this was the first time ever — in a world of only kings, emperors, Kaisers, tsars and shahs — that a popular movement beheaded the monarch. The shock of this was absolutely enormous and John Milton, the poet and foreign secretary in Oliver Cromwell’s government, wrote A Defense of the People of England and then a Second Defense of the People of England for a global audience justifying the regicide.
So, yes, it is a very important revolution and the most radical section of it — the Levellers and the Diggers — were the first people to establish the idea of democracy in the modern sense. They tied democratic principles to the question of economics and equality as well.
LG: The only thing I would like to add is that it was also the time where you had the beginnings of ideas about free love and women’s equality. This took many more years to become a reality but it began to be taken seriously with the French Revolution and, in this country, by figures like Mary Wollstonecraft. It was remarkable that when these ideas were developed, they did not only concern the land or economic distribution, but also people’s personalities and individual relationships. The English Revolution was a very big development in human history.
S: There was an interesting statement by a soldier in the New Model Army where he says ‘We do not have anything against the person of the king, but rather his office’. Over the course of history, needless to say, many kings had been killed and replaced but never had a popular movement demanded that the “office” of monarchy be replaced with something, which was at the very least, proto-democratic.
JR: Yes, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People was a constitutional document. It was an entirely new constitution for the nation written by people who were not always the poorest people in the country but who were way outside of the normal political elite. That idea was there right from the beginning. Henry Marten was an MP and ally of the Levellers, and the Earl of Clarendon’s (an advisor to Charles I) recorded that Henry Marten was the first person he had ever heard say, “One man is not wise enough to govern us all”. Henry Marten was the first person, according to Clarendon, to question the institution of kingship and you can feel the shock as Clarendon writes this down.
S: The recent London riots have been considered by some to have politically dubious origins – while being very organised they were without organisation(s). Many have reservations about comparing these riots with the ones in Notting Hill and Brixton which are very much of the people’s history of London. Are these reservations justified or not?
LG: I don’t think so. If you look at all the riots that have taken place in modern times, I can remember the Notting Hill Riots from my childhood in the late 1950s. My family were quite racist and quite hostile to immigrants and this was a source of tension. The sort of riots you got in the 1980s were very different again and I regard them as an attempt by the Black, Asian and working class section of the community to fight their way into British society. I think they succeeded in doing this in many ways and it is one reason why London is such a decent city now in terms of multiculturalism. Virtually anybody who comes here comments on this fact, and if you go to many European cities you can see exactly why — immigrants are often consigned to the outer reaches of cities and you can see them selling things in markets, but you don’t see them sitting in cafés and acting like the local population.
I think the most modern riots are very different again because they involved people of many races and there was a high black element. This doesn’t surprise me because blacks are much more likely to be stopped and searched in the street. Certainly, the riots in Hackney and Tottenham were about a person being killed by the police, which seems to be forgotten by many people. We have to remember that the riots in Tottenham were not only about Mark Duggan being killed but the lack of respect for his family and friends in the aftermath of the killing. The riot in Hackney, right where we live, was very clearly about police harassment. There was also very little damage to shops or looting. But of course, some damage to shops occurred that I don’t agree with because it affected ordinary shopkeepers, but you also have to understand it in terms of the society we’ve become. So, the idea that they were not political is simply not true.
The way many of the kids articulated themselves was extremely political. You can’t have kids who are told they are worthless; you can’t keep telling them their educational qualifications are worthless; you can’t keep them living in lousy accommodation with no hope of even getting that level of accommodation themselves; you can’t have record levels of unemployment; and you cannot have a deeply unequal society and not expect riots. If you tell people that consumerism is everything — what you wear, where you go out, what your house is like — don’t be surprised when people blow up occasionally. This is of course, what happened.
The problem with riots is that they are not a sharp political intervention. They explode and people burn things down which then opens them to accusations of lawlessness. You have to ask why wasn’t there lawlessness in the 1950s or 1960s? In our book we talk a lot about earlier riots like the Gordon riots and Wilkes riots in the 18th century where people had no political voice: they had no vote, unions by-and-large didn’t exist, nor much of the democracy that we talk about now. I think we are returning to a stage where, while we can vote, it has become so meaningless that people feel they do not have political voice again. I think this is one reason why the riots happened.
JR: I think we have to be careful about riot nostalgia — “Back in the day they rioted with a purpose!” “It was so much better when they rioted in my youth”. I remember being involved in the Handsworth riots in Birmingham in the 1980s and the press response at the time was just as horrified as it is now. There were no next day editorials arguing that the rioters may have a point. That comes later and it has come later with these riots. There was the hysteria, the legislation, the penal treatment of the rioters and then, six months later, you began to hear that there might have been social causes for the riots. Maybe they are closely related to poverty and there is a problem with the democratic deficit. Maybe there is a problem with the market driven consumerism of the last twenty years and this is the reason why people started going shopping without money.
Although these riots have their own specifics in the way that every riot does, I do not think that in general terms they are any different from the ones in the 1980s.
S: So you would agree with Alain Badiou when he says, ‘We get the riots we deserve’?
JR: You certainly get the riots that the society has prepared a generation before. If you have twenty-five years of deregulated capitalism and a democratic system where there are no real choices, there will be a riot at the end of it.
LG: In today’s Telegraph, a paper I do not normally read, there is an exclusive that claims that the Cabinet (of about 25 people) is worth £70 million. That must be the richest cabinet, I would guess, for about hundred years — probably since Edwardian times. We have all this talk of how we are not a something-for-nothing society but these politicians in the cabinet inherited millions of pounds. George Osborne is the heir to a fortune and baronetcy.
Now, there is all this angst from poor people, even middle-class parents, about how their children will afford a reasonable house in London. They will be lucky if they get an ex-council flat — and that’s if their parents leave them money. This is no future for anybody.
I was reading yesterday that if you earn £35,000 and want a reasonable pension of £20,000 when you retire, then you will have to save a quarter of your income. Now, how can anybody afford to do that? The present government is as contemptuous of us as the 18th century slave owners were of the poor. It is quite shocking that this still goes on.
And who knew that Lords claim £160 in expenses if they have to turn up at the House of Lords? Well, I did know, because our friend Paul Foot’s dad was a Lord, and he used to say that he can’t afford to put him in a nursing home but if he can turn up at the House of Lords then he would get a lot of money! We used to laugh about that!
S: You were co-conveners of the Stop of the War Coalition. In retrospect, how does it feel to have been part of such a large mobilization against the Iraq war, the biggest in British history, and the years since its decline?
LG: Well, it was a fantastic experience and privilege. We were both very much involved in the Stop the War coalition and it was our whole lives for several years, really. There are so many aspects of it that were very exciting, and we didn’t include much about it in the book, and it really changed my life.
It is obviously a great regret that we did not stop the war, but what we did was establish a real anti-war consciousness in Britain, and particularly in London, which is itself a really anti-war city. We have a meeting this week about stopping the missiles being sited on people’s housing in East London. It still continues and we have just been on a picket this morning outside the Leveson Inquiry because Tony Blair will be turning up to give evidence on media ethics. On Friday night we had a huge fundraiser for Stop the War coalition with Brian Eno and Mark Rylance. So, it is still going on but obviously hasn’t stopped the war in Afghanistan or Iraq. In my opinion, the demonstration, the largest in British history, was not enough by itself: I think it needed strike action. We tried to get workers to walk out on the day the war started. This had some success and definitely more success than recorded in most places in the mainstream media. We would have effectively needed a mass strike to stop Blair from going on his course of war but the movement wasn’t quite at that level. I think next time the government will have immense problems with going to war with Iran and I think that it has fed into all of the protests which have happened since. It is hard to imagine a strong UK Uncut and Occupy movement in this country without the history of the anti-war mobilisations earlier in the decade. There were kids who were only 11 or 12 years old during the early years of the anti-war movement who are now part of different campaigns today.
JR: One important thing that the Stop the War Coalition did was to provide a fantastic insight into what a popular movement is and what political leadership within it can and can’t do. Before that, I had been involved in the Anti-Nazi League and the Poll Tax protests which were large and effective movements in their own way, but Stop the War was the biggest by far. When you are on the Left you hold a certain set of ideas that are at variance with what the majority of people in society think. You have to be quite tough and it gives you the quality of resistance, which are both good qualities to have in these situations. However, it does not necessarily give you the experience of connecting with millions of ordinary working people, but we managed to do this with the Stop the War coalition and it teaches you many things. Firstly, it teaches you humility — we didn’t create the anti-war movement. It already existed because of what Tony Blair and George Bush had decided to do in the very early stages after 9/11 and people knew that something terrible was going to happen in response to the attacks.
So, we did not invent that and this is important to realise. In the same way that Eleanor Marx or Jim Larkin who led the huge, new union wave in the 1880s didn’t invent it, it came from working people themselves. It does also tell you that how you do it is important because there was a similar movement in the United States which ended up as two separate movements — a Left-leaning side and a Liberal-leaning side. It was massively weakened because of this. In France, they never tackled the question of Islamophobia and they are still living with the legacy.
So, even though we did not invent the anger at the government’s intention to invade Iraq and Afghanisatan, we did make choices that were both broad and radical. We could have taken different decisions and gone to different places — but we didn’t. This taught me the difference in the relationship between the thing you don’t create and then how you respond. I think it also taught me about how actual historical processes work.
I hoped we’d stop the war and it was great to be involved in a movement that had no limit on what leadership were willing to do. Not only revolutionaries like ourselves, but Tony Benn did not have a problem with calling strike action or with whatever was required of us. So, if there was a limit on the movement it was objective rather than subjective. We kept going because you never know where the tipping point is and I think we came close. However, I didn’t really start with the view that we would rush on from one side of the stage with banners and all of the bad people would run off the other side. I always thought it would be a longer process than that, and as it turned out the movement revives when there is another threat. The major concern was the war in Iraq and Afghanistan but when Blair was backing the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, we called a demonstration with a week’s notice and there were 100,000 people on the streets. Within the week Blair was forced to say that he would be gone by the end of the year (when his intention was to stay until 2010). So, this is how these processes work out sometimes — not black and white.
This really informed us while writing A People’s History of London: If you live through a political process and see the inter-relationship between the explosion of anger, the organised form it takes, and how it works out, it is an education. Though, we obviously didn’t do it for the education!
John Rees is a British political activist, broadcaster and writer who is a national officer of the Stop the War Coalition and founding member of Counterfire who was formerly associated with the Socialist Workers Party. He participated in and reported on the Egyptian revolution in 2011 about which he made two TV documentaries, Inside the Egyptian Revolution and Egypt in Revolution. For the Islam Channel, he is the writer and presenter of the political history series Timeline and a presenter of the Politics and Media programme. His most recent books are Timelines, a political history of the modern world and A People’s History of London.
Lindsey German is the convenor of the British anti-war organisation Stop the War Coalition and a former member of the central committee of the Socialist Workers Party. She was editor of Socialist Review for twenty years until 2004. She has twice stood as a left wing candidate for Mayor of London, coming fifth in 2004 and most recently standing as the Left List mayoral candidate in the May 2008 elections. In February 2010, following “increasing disenchantment” with the leadership, she resigned from the SWP, after 37 years membership. She has written several books, including two on women’s rights.