Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Britain's Top Anti-Roads Activist

No it's not Swampy.

Nor is it Jim Hindle, who managed to save his tree at Newbury - the only person who did - and whose trousers now reside in a museum,  a claim to fame he shares with Nelson.

Nor is it Rebeca Lush, who's probably put in more legwork than anyone else, nor Tania de St Croix of Solsbury Hill, nor Balin of Granny Ash, nor any of those heroes of the 1990s.

Neither is it the polite person who had a quite word with the minister in 1959 and diverted the M1 away from Leicester's Bradgate Park.

Nor, despite a very strong case, is it the late Sir Martin Doughty, who, as well as a long career in charge of the Peak District National Park Authority and Natural England, was probably the only elected Councillor to close a major road.

This happened after Mam Tor in the Peak District had one of its regular land slides and took out A625. The district council wanted a multimillion pound bypass, but he just closed it and created a lorry free zone. Respect.

c. Ralph Stephenson
No, instead I give the award to the late John Tyme, polytechnic lecturer and seventies anti-road activist.

The extent of opposition to roads in the decade-that-fashion-forget had largely been forgotten itself by the time my generation took to the trees. Not many people know, for example, that the first Reclaim the Streets was held on Oxford Street in 1971.

This was the Decade of the Environment, and opposition to roads had started to move away from NIMBYism and into real issues of sustainability.

As Tyme himself wrote:  

None of our national enemies have so mutilated our cities, undermined the long-term economic movement of people and goods, destroyed our industrial base, diminished our ability to plan our community life and reduced our capacity to feed ourselves.

Tyme lectured on Planning at what is now Sheffield Hallamshire University and was also the Conservation Society's West Midlands transport campaigner.

c. Ralph Stephenson
The Conservation Society were a fairly conservative lot with something of an obsession with population, but Tyme spoke for more than just this narrow group of people. One of his skills was to be able to link the concerns of local campaigners with the issues of the growing environment movement, and to connect the more radical Hippy-inspired groups to the more staid campaigners.

The mid-seventies found him acting as a consultant activist touring the country helping out local groups opposing road schemes. Like the groups operating twenty years later he believed in Direct Action, but his target was very different.

Tyme believed that once a Public Enquiry was underway the road was effectively built. His standard modus operandi then was to attend an Enquiry and start to speak about global issues of sustainability and wider environmental impact. The inquiry inspector would rule his objections out of order and his supporters would then disrupt the meeting with slow hand-claps until ejected by police and security.

c. Ralph Stephenson (and yes that is a young Ken Livingston!)
In Shipley, Yorkshire, they barred the doors to keep him out but his supporters, led by a local pig farmer, broke them down to get in. At the inquiry into the plan to widen the Archway Road as part of a London inner orbital motorway, protesters provided music and dancing to enliven proceedings. Eventually a three deep line of police guarded the inspector but he's had enough. A four week adjournment was ordered, but the inspector was never seen again. In 1990 the scheme was finally canned.

Some of Tyme's other victories proved rather more temporary. He bought 15 years grace on the extension of the M3 at Winchester, but it eventually reemerged and devoured Twyford Down.

Tyme's legacy though probably extended to the 1990s road protests. As I said, he built bridges and so perhaps it was thanks to him that when the bulldozers eventually came for Twyford Down they were opposed not only by Travellers and Earth First!, but by a Conservative Councillor and the grandson of an Earl.

The man himself eventually retired to Stroud and died in 2008. In print he was satirized by Tom Sharpe in Blott on the Landscape, but really he deserves a better epitaph than that.

He doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page.

The Secret life of Motorways, BBC4
Earth First! and the Anti-Roads Movement by Derek Wall
(Thanks to Ralph Stephenson for the pictures.)

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Davina and Me

Every media tart has his moment and this is mine, being interviewed by Davina McCall on the Big Breakfast on Thursday 22nd May 1997.

It may appear a toe-curlingly awful display of cheese but in reality this is a professional at work, perfectly adjusting the performance to the medium. Davina is quite good too.

Note my skilful insertion of that day's soundbite "noisy defeats, silent victories" and the blatant sucking up to New Labour.

Monday, 2 April 2012

From Tumbledown to The Beanfield: The violent legacy of the Falklands War

I earnt my activist spurs under John Major's government. We thought we had a tough time, thanks to Michael Howard and the Criminal Justice Bill. But with hindsight we had it easy compared to those who fell fowl of Margaret Thatcher's government ten years previously. Then the solution to The Enemy Within was a not a new law, but a policeman's truncheon.

When the Scots Guards crested the ridge of Mount Tumbledown in the early morning of 14th June 1982 and saw the Argentine army running back to Stanley, it marked the end of a remarkable military adventure.

One of the shortest wars ever fought, the Falklands War was the only occasion since World War II in which two nations had settled their differences with submarines, aircraft carriers and amphibious soldiers.

Two thousand islanders were back under the government of their choice, Argentina's brutal military dictatorship was fatally wounded, and an unpopular British Prime Minister suddenly found herself, not only forgiven for the folly of loosing the islands in the first place, but, thanks to a compliant Murdoch press, raised to the status of national saviour.

Having ridden that wave of popularity from winning the war to an election victory over faction-riven Labour Party, the next two years were to see Mrs Thatcher unleash an astonishing level of violence directed at her own people.

The first victims were the miners.

Tricked into a strike they could not win, the miners faced a state on a war footing. Metropolitan Police Officers were sent to rural mining towns were they acted with breathtaking arrogance as if they were an occupying army. Nottinghamshire became a police state.

The miners were slowly ground down, but the killer blow was delivered in South Yorkshire on 18th June 1984 at a place called Orgreave.

The extent to which the confrontation was contrived is controversial, but pickets arriving for the usual pushing match found well laid out car parks and a police army that outnumbered them and hemmed them in on three sides.

At first it seemed it was business as usual, but soon the miners were being charged by police cavalry and attacked by 'short shield' snatch squads. They retreated and, finding themselves blocked in against a railway line, eventually fought back with whatever they could get their hands on.

They were pursued into the village where this iconic photo was taken by John Harris, of a mounted officer taking a swing at activist Lesley Boulton - one of the very few women present on the day.

The strike limped on until March the next year, but the outcome had been decided at Orgreave.

Looking back former miner, turned copper just before the strike, Mac McLoughlin said "I joined the police because I wanted to do something for my community. And I did do something – I helped Thatcher rip apart our communities and destroy our lives."

The miners though had been a macho lot, and on occasion had given as good as they got, but the state's next victims would not be so butch.

Travellers, or New Age Travellers, or Hippy Convoys as they were called at the time, were a reaction to the austerity of the decade. The unemployed on wheels, they were people who'd turned their backs on the sink estates springing up in Britain's industrial towns and cities and found a new way of life, and a community that cared, on the road.

Convoys being driven from one side of the country to the other were a regular news feature in the eighties, a break from the grim statistics of industrial decline and conspicuous consumption of a growing '1%' of extreme wealth.

On 1st June 1985, almost a year from the Battle of Orgreave, a large convoy moved off from Savernak forest towards Stonehenge. Following behind on his motorbike, just out of curiosity, was the owner of the forest, the current Earl of Cardigan. The police blocked the road and the convoy took refuge in a field, where it was trapped.

According to Police Review a week later what happened next "had been planned for several months and lessons in rapid deployment learned from the miners' strike were implemented."

Riot police entered the field under orders to arrest every member of the convoy and what followed was an orgy of violence in which police attacked men, women and children, their vehicles and their belongings with truncheons, fire extinguishers and rocks. When it was over 537 people were under arrest - the most arrests in a single day since the Second World War - and all that was left in the field was broken vehicles, scattered belongings and blood.

That the assault was not followed by a major miscarriage of justice was solely because of the brave stand of Lord Cardigan. Vilified in the right wing press, he spoke out regardless. An unlikely saviour of the Travellers, he later said "I hadn’t realised that I would be considered a class traitor; if I see a policeman truncheoning a pregnant woman (as I did) I feel I’m entitled to say 'that's not a good thing you're doing, officer'. I went along, saw a dreadful episode in British history, and simply reported what I saw".

His testimony at least ensured that the only person go to prison was a police sergeant, although the Establishment contrived to prevent those wrongfully arrested receiving compensation and, no other officers could be prosecuted as they had all removed their ID numbers before the attack.

The third of Thatchers 'enemies within' were football fans.

Football hooliganism was a real problem and not an invented one. Maybe this too was blowback from the Falklands War and many foreign observers linked the two together when commenting on violent Britain. It certainly gave the Police a chance to refine their public order tactics, and long before the Met started kettling anti-Capitalist demonstrators it used the tactics on potential trouble makers.

And somewhere along the line the division between fan and hooligan got blurred. Nowhere is this more striking than the Hilsborough Disaster in 1989. The reason was the disaster was a mistake, a fairly major mistake, but a mistake never-the-less. But what happened next was no error.

Using the conduit of a Tory MP who had supported the death penalty, opposed sanctions on Aparteid South Africa and supported Clause 28, South Yorkshire Police, the force responsible for Orgreave, put out a series of lies about Liverpool fans. Despite the fact that every TV viewer had seen fans helping the casualties and using advertising boards as improvised stretchers, the right wing press still spread the story that they were the villains of the piece.

The current Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Sir Norman Bettison, is currently fighting to stay in his job as he was working for South Yorshire Police at the time [Bettison resigned on 24 October 2012]. He claims he was only an ordinary plod, but he has been named by Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Liverpool Garston, as one sixth of a black propaganda unit responsible for the cover up.

What strikes me now about these events, nearly thirty years later, is the utter cravenness of the press at the time. After Hilsborough the Police, a Tory MP and the Sun combined to rewrite the truth in a way that would have made Stalin blush.

But whilst Murdoch's Sun and Maxwell Mirror were as loathsome as each other,  the supposedly unbiased TV news was little better.

When the BBC showed film of Orgreave they edited it so that scenes of miners throwing rocks preceded shots of the police horses charging, when in reality the events had happened the other way round.

After The Battle of the Beanfield, ITNs Kim Sabido, who had given an emotional address to camera saying "What I have seen in the last thirty minutes here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I've witnessed in my entire career as a journalist" returned to the office to edit the footage his crew had filmed, only to find most of it missing.

Ian Harris's photo was only printed in one national paper after Orgreave, whilst photos of The Battle of Beanfield are almost nonexistent as only two journalists were present and one was arrested and the other chased away.

Many people see a conspiracy here, I just see apathy. Nearly ten years after Orgreave I was still arguing with supposedly intelligent people who still refused to believe the BBC messed up the film. I imagine the editors in their darkened rooms thinking to themselves "British Police could not have done this as this is not what British Police do".

There are none so blind as those who do not wish to see.

So this is what the Falklands legacy means to me.

If you are a war veteran reading this, I'm sorry. You fought an honourable war, bravely and in terrible conditions.

I've met many of you since, in homeless hostels and mental health facilities, and you seem to be decent people, immune to the triumphalism that marked your return.

But your victory ushered in an age of Barbarism to this country that had not been seen since the days of the Luddites 170 years earlier.

When Mrs Thatcher eventually departs this earth there will be much debate about what to put on her tombstone. My vote is for "Now wash your hands".