Those CND demos in the early 80s


IMG_6241The start of the 80s saw some monster CND demonstrations in London. The 1981 demo, which I remember well, attracted at least 250,000 people and took five hours to snake through London to Hyde Park. As we approached the park, I could hear Michael Foot’s voice very clearly – the then Labour leader and veteran unilateralist.

Later, outside McDonalds on Charing Cross Road, some old biddy came up to me and said I was as bad as those Peace Pledge Union types in the 1930s who’d have left us defenceless in the face of Hitler, etc.

The reason for the big turnouts on these CND protests was mainly the election of Ronald Reagan, seen as a dangerous militarist by us lefties at the time. The world was dominated by the superpower struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and it seemed to be hotting up. There were widespread concerns in the UK over the stationing of American nukes on British soil with Tony Benn calling for the closure of US military bases here.

 

When Shoreditch was fascist territory


National Front leafletEven in a lifetime, parts of London can change dramatically and Shoreditch is a huge transformation story.  Thirty five years ago, it was a battleground between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists.  National Front supporters would strut through Brick Lane intimidating the local Asian population and spray painting swastikas and racist graffiti.  And in 1978, the NF set up its headquarters in deepest Hoxton – 73 Great Eastern Street to be precise.

In the spring of 78, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism organised a huge anti-racist carnival in Victoria Park, Mile End – which I attended with my school mates. In our group was the son of Len Murray, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a fellow pupil at my school. On what was a magical day, we watched The Clash play in the park as well as the Tom Robinson Band – not a combo remembered much by anybody aged under 40.

Later the same year, south London got its chance to rock against the National Front with a carnival in Brockwell Park. But the word went out that while the capital’s anti-racists were watching some great bands – the Nazis would be taking over the east end. The call went out for some of those who opposed the NF to forego the music and counter-demonstrate against the far right in Shoreditch.

 

Tony McMahon

My student union election poster from 1982


Tony McMahonIn my first year at university, I ran for the welfare officer position in the student union at Liverpool Uni. The Labour Club was heavily influenced by the Marxist policies of the Militant Tendency and so the programme I ran on included calls to nationalise the top 200 monopolies, a £90 minimum wage and a 35 hour week. I think the latter demand probably terrified some of the arts students!

Note the heavy fringe of the time. Think my hair would have been dyed jet black – think Phil Oakey of the Human League.

The poster was drawn with a felt-tip pen. Seems so weirdly amateur now but we had no digital magic back in those far off days.

 

Peter Tatchell, Michael Foot and Margaret Thatcher


Peter Tatchell – the prolific human rights campaigner – first came to national prominence as the Labour candidate in a by-election held in Bermondsey, south London, in 1983. If ever an episode in politics revealed the prejudices and bigotries of the age, then it was this one. Even to look back on it now just makes me depressed.

The reason for the by-election was the decision in 1981 of old Labour stalwart Bob Mellish not to run again for the seat.  Mellish was a die-hard Harold Wilson loyalist who once announced in 1976 that he was NOT an “anti-racialist” and opposed letting the Malawi Asians in to the UK, in spite of the fact they had UK passports and had been forcibly expelled by the Malawi government. It’s worth noting that 1976 was, in this humble scribe’s view, the high water mark of National Front activity and attacks on Asians in Britain – particularly those who had come from Uganda, fleeing Idi Amin.

Needless to say that Mellish did not appreciate the Bennite and Militant swing to the left within his constituency party in the early 80s. First he announced his intention not to run again, then decided to sit as an Independent MP before finally finding a home with other Labour renegades in the newly formed Social Democrat Party. Just to stick up a final two fingers to the Bermondsey comrades, he resigned his seat precipitating a by-election in 1983.

His constituency party had already selected Australian born Peter Tatchell. It should be noted that contrary to some misinformation, the Militant Tendency did not support Tatchell – they had their own preferred candidate who if my memory serves me right had an impressive 80s mullet.

Tatchell’s opponents would go on to use his place of birth and sexuality as door-to-door campaigning issues. The Liberals – now the Lib Dems – squirmed on this issue for years but if you’ve ever campaigned against a Lib Dem candidate (I have), you won’t be surprised by any tactic they employ. I’m not going to repeat the anti-gay slogans and innuendos – just Google away and you’ll find them.

From his selection in 1981, elements in the Labour Party goaded on by their former colleagues now in the SDP tried to get rid of Tatchell – trying to rule him out as a candidate in Bermondsey. In 1981, Tatchell penned an article on his political views that advocated direct action against the Thatcher government.

The inappropriately named Labour turned SDP MP James Wellbeloved rose to his feet in parliament and asked Margaret Thatcher – and Labour leader Michael Foot – to denounce this call for extra-parliamentary action. What Tatchell had written was no different to what many MPs and Labour activists advocated at that time but the vehemence towards him was, to my mind, very much tinged with the casual homophobia of the era. There was a sneering vitriol employed towards him – and he’s spoken since of the threats he faced as a candidate.

Michael Foot, in a reaction that even surprised me at the time, denounced Tatchell and said he would never be accepted into the Labour Party, let alone run as a candidate. Needless to say those words and no doubt his hat were force fed to the party leader at a later date as Tatchell did indeed run – though he would be defeated by Liberal Simon Hughes (who subsequently declared his own sexuality decades later).

 

 

 

Jim Callaghan heckled during his 1979 election speech


A rather forgotten incident here when Pat Arrowsmith – veteran CND campaigner – heckled a beleaguered Jim Callaghan who had held on to his Cardiff seat in the 1979 general election but just lost the country to Thatcher and the Tories. She was shouting at him about Ireland and British intervention in the province. Callaghan probably had other things on his mind – like getting back to Downing Street, packing his belongings and going into opposition.

The fall of Jim Callaghan


This was the moment in 1979 when Prime Minister Jim Callaghan returned home from a political summit abroad to be pounced on by a gaggle of journalists asking him how he could have  left the country during a time of crisis. Callaghan was clearly irritated by the line of questioning and said that from outside the UK, the so-called ‘winter of discontent’ didn’t look so bad.

He also made a point that no spin doctor today would have ever allowed to happen – that he’d gone swimming while at the summit. An image of the PM in his Speedo trunks paddling in a tropical clime was not what the nation wanted. Callaghan never actually said the words ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ This was a cruel twist of the dagger from the hacks who scented blood.

Below that video of Callaghan – I’ve put another video. It’s an interview with Tony Benn at the time Jim Calaghan died giving his interpretation of events. Benn served under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan and he questions the conventional wisdom that the trade unions brought Callaghan’s Labour government to its knees. He says the blame lay with the International Monetary Fund.