In the dark days of the War the public wanted to be told something of what they were fighting for, rather than against, which even so was not always clear For instance, were they to wipe out the Germans — all of them — or just the Nazis? Those who said the former were vociferous admirers of pre-war Germany and later of post-war Germany, but during the war they preferred to discredit ordinary Germans. No such distinction was made between Mikadoist and Japanese — all “Japs” were blamed equally, which meant the leadership not at all. All the Emperor lost in defeat was his divinity. Was the war perhaps just one sort of fascism against other more virulent breeds? Was it for capitalism and imperialism against capitalism and have-not imperialism? A few thought powerful empires could disintegrate and capitalism be firmer than ever in “liberated” colonies. The armed forces, feeling subject to impoverishment at home and fascist-minded officers and discipline, had subversive thoughts of this nature.
The parliamentarian left plugged a European revolution against Hitler since 1940 when Britain badly needed some plausible war aims for propaganda purposes. After a year or so it became plain even to the Tories that their own citizens wanted some too. Civil servants were instructed to draw up the plans of a brave new world and a revolution by consent, and William Beveridge, an obscure backroom bureaucrat, came up with his plan for a Welfare State taking care of people’s social needs from the cradle to the grave. The mighty mountain had been in labour and produced a mouse.
Beveridge gained a knighthood from the Plan. It did not save the Conservative Party from electoral defeat, notwithstanding the newspaper deification of Churchill which was reckoned enough on its own to get the Tories back in power. For himself Sir William Beveridge tried for another step up the social ladder by standing as a Liberal MP and for all he knew a Minister thinking (like Churchill, mistaking press for public opinion) his name would be a counterblast to the Prime Minister’s. He too was discarded and made for the disconsolate reaches of the House of Lords under a grateful Labour Government which made the “Beveridge Plan” its own.
It fitted in nicely with the Fabian panacea of Nationalisation, which the miners greeted with flags flying at the pits. I recall one union official at a meeting in Doncaster saying there would be no more strikes “now the pits are ours”. “Who”, he asked rhetorically, “Should we strike against? Ourselves?” “The National Coal Board,” I piped up, amid laughter, and was told I was a fool. Ten years later I met him again and asked, as if I didn’t know, if there had been any more necessity for strike action. He apologised for his earlier judgment and said he had seen the mines weren’t “ours” nine and a half years before but added ingenuously that he had hoped the Labour Party being in office then, all would be well. A few decades later and what parliamentary socialists had always described as the “syndicalist scare” came true. Whole industries taken over by the State were given back into private hands.
With the post-war groans about rationing and shortages came the false relief that unemployment had been abolished and there was a new order which would provide housing, cause the disappearance of slums and guarantee the lack of poverty and sickness. But only in the mining community was there actual dancing in the streets. They had suffered so much from private ownership they felt as liberated as the American slaves did after Lincoln’s Proclamation, and the illusion lasted no longer.
So far as the Health Service is concerned, the myth has grown since the days of the Eighties and Nineties that we were in the depths of deprivation and neglect until the NHS, when sponsors Beveridge and Aneurin Bevin opened up vistas heretofore unknown. Health care in the Twenties and Thirties was hardly in a golden age, but in the main, excepting for technical and scientific progress, not inferior to today. The facilities were there on the “panel” whereby one paid health insurance out of a compulsory weekly contribution (which one still pays, and tax besides). There were voluntary friendly societies, the trade unions ran their own hospital and convalescent homes, religious and other organisations ran penny-a-week schemes (not all were rackets), and doctors and hospitals were freely available without a waiting list to members of societies, not just the rich. Miners’ lodges ran their own health service and employed their own doctors (Dr A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel is an example of how middle-class snobs hated being answerable to their patients). The Peckham Health Scheme was a fine example of communal practice combining prevention with cure which many felt was an example of how an anarchist society might operate.
The main problems were lack of funding for health and abysmal poverty causing ill-health. When deprivation ceased because of full employment, even short of a socialised system the best of the old system could have been funded. It was probably a good thing to abolish charity hospitals, but the friendly societies with their cottage hospitals were a lot better managed than the State could provide. There had been little or no provision for teeth and spectacles in the old days but this was not beyond the wit of society to solve. Often married women were left out of the “panel” if they did not go out to work, though the Co-operative Societies made provision for medical treatment out of dividend on purchases and provided non-contributory burial benefit.
The State took over and improved many things at first, but has steadily deteriorated. The doctors were anxious to give treatment. Even as late as the Sixties I was pressurised by my GP into being hospitalised for two weeks for high blood pressure caused by being overweight. I was persuaded to go in without delay but stuck out for a day’s notice. Thirty years afterwards I hear a friend must wait nearly two years for major surgery. His GP would love to get him in immediately and he needs no persuasion. The State is in control and the present government is determined to make the hospitals pay. What the Lord giveth, He taketh away. Even Lord Beveridge.
The National Slump coloured my boyhood. In the Twenties the aftermath of war meant depression, unemployment, misery, rags. I escaped any hunger though I remember going to grammar school at eleven years old in a patched reach-me-down when my father was thrown out of work and bailiffs moved into the house. In the streets there were ragged old soldiers begging or busking. Still, it was never as bad as many people find today, sixty years and one war after. Begging as a way of life, cardboard cities in the capital, the mentally sick discharged to walk the streets or the growth industry of crack dealing were unknown or thought to have gone forever. There was mass unemployment, especially in the North — in London the diversity of low-paid trades saved it from becoming the norm — from which the “social consciousness” aroused by the War was supposed to have saved us.
The nation was promised solemnly in 1939-45 such conditions would never happen again. Now they are back worse than ever and accepted with fatalism like bad weather, drought, earthquakes, floods and natural catastrophes. Even some of these are man-made, and depression, slump and currency fluctuation certainly are.
Nobody criticised the trade unions more than I did whilst they were powerful. I plugged syndicalism for over half a century and for what my powers were worth never spared the lash on bureaucracy and reformism. In the Nineties legislation and unemployment have reduced their power no less surely than was done in fascist countries abroad during the Thirties. I can now see the worst union was better than the best political party, and their faults were as nothing compared with the absence of any form of workers’ defence.
If I “had done the State some service” at any time, albeit reluctantly, and they didn’t know or appreciate it, it was surely in the number of times I have gone bail. In theory people are innocent until found guilty, but this is only in legal theory, not in practice. It must have saved the taxpayer thousands of pounds and saved dozens of homes.
When I was quite young, still with the boxing academy, John, a colleague, was charged on suspicion of burglary. Two men, whom he did not know, were caught in the act of armed robbery in London but a third escaped on John’s motor-bike. He was visiting his parents in Cardiff, and this alibi was proved immediately on his arrest that same night. Had he said the bike was stolen he would have been in the clear, but he admitted letting “a friend” borrow the keys when he was away, yet declined to name the person. A girl friend had, unknown to him, loaned it to another lover. Not until the driver was arrested two months later, possibly on information from the other two concerned in the hold-up, was he released from custody. That two months imprisonment “on remand” merely for being chivalrous, cost him his job, his flat and his possessions, which were nobody’s concern. In fact his financial loss was greater than the fine imposed on the real driver, given credit for his story that he came forward voluntarily.
This early experience of injustice when I was too young to intervene may have led me into persistently going bail not just for friends, but for people I did not particularly know and once even for someone I never met. Visiting a political prisoner once in Brixton I met a woman in the waiting room who told me her friend was held in custody for an assault on a local drug dealer who had defrauded him. Bail was set at £100. She was not accepted so I offered to act as bailee. The case came up six months later and was dismissed as the dealer had disappeared. Let alone the prisoner, I saved the taxpayer a thousand pounds on this occasion alone. I was never let down by anyone, which was just as well considering some of the ridiculously high amounts I have been asked to stand in default of the prisoner appearing which could not possibly have been met and which certainly wouldn’t have been credited against the money I saved the Crown in forced board and lodging.
For years I was cross-examined whenever I offered to stand bail. Of late it has altered. The last time I stood bail, a few months before writing this, the magistrate, who queried every other surety and refused most, took one look at me and said, “Of course we accept this gentleman”. So maybe things have changed, or else it is the story of the lady who said young soldiers of today had better manners than during the War, when they had always whistled at her from the backs of lorries.
I found that in the Forties and Fifties judges still clung to the antiquated and long illegal notion that if people did not take the oath it was because they intended to commit perjury and feared hellfire if they swore on the Book. Alternatively, as I myself was asked at a court martial, “does your atheism in any way impede your telling the truth?” Mr Justice King Hamilton, a staunch defender in court of the privileges from criticism of Christianity and Islam, but not of Freethought, a Jew and not even an orthodox one, revived this notion in the Persons Unknown case in the Seventies.
I often advise people to take the oath for the very reason that it gives them credence with an old-fogeyish judge, especially in the sticks. I long since ceased to worry about taking it or not. It is a piece of legal flummery that shows one is liable to the penalties of the Perjury Act. However, catch-22 is that then, especially in political cases, an artful barrister may know they are committed to a view of the Holy Book which most people hold privately — a lack of faith in its magic — and may claim in horror that the oath means nothing to them and, free from the fear of thunderbolts, may lie. Which, of course, neither the religious nor the indifferent ever do.
From an early age I have professed the ideal of anarchism which seeks to replace the State with a non-coercive society in which the police force is abolished along with any other force, repressive or persuasive, that enforces government on the people. If this makes me anti-police so be it but along with most anarchists of an earlier generation and indeed with most workers, I was never “anti-police” in the sense in which it is now used, until they as a body declared war on society.
The old-fashioned copper is stereotyped in the beer-and-beef bobby who cuffed the kids when they broke a window and warned the mums rather than bring them to court. He is now a semi-legend like the “charlie”, the bumbling nightwatchman that preceded him and outlived the re-formed police as a pantomime character. The old fashioned force was a repressive force but it was near enough to the people for police to be playing football with strikers in 1926. They all felt the Old Bill had a dirty job to do from time to time, but they had to live with the people afterwards. It was an embarrassment to them, like having to arrest your drinking pal for an offence.
This could not happen in a police state and in the late Thirties the police state mentality flourished. It now flourishes like the green bay tree. I’ve seen in my own circles how the criminalisation of dissent or class (or in later years colour) made crime appear respectable, or at least understandable. It happened among young Whites long before mass immigration brought about the same reaction with young Blacks. In the first fifty years of the century we didn’t talk about being in Babylon and it wasn’t expressed (at least in England) in national terms but the same feelings were there and as the police state became more refined the alienation grew sharper. Lord Trenchard saw this in the Thirties and militarised the police. Only in the last few years have some high-ranking officers begun to realise when the chips are down that it doesn’t really work and to talk hopefully of “policing by consent”.
The flourishing of the police state, the new laws against almost everything that helps and the tearing apart of welfare, has led not to a feeling of revolution, as the fear of it did twenty and thirty years ago. It has led to apathy and disillusion with almost everything. In the pollution of any pool in which we could swim, metaphorically speaking, we had to give up publishing Black Flag in 1991 after our stalwarts Margaret, Jessica, Terry and Peter left for Australia and Leo died.
But do I detect a note of change? There seems to be some hope yet. I don’t believe in abandoning the struggle. In 1993 Pippa, Alec, Martin and myself resumed Black Flag, this time as a quarterly, hopefully for its second twenty years, even more hopefully still with me to the end. The least, or (if you wish) most you can say for me is I never give up.
© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
Published by AK Press Book details and the Kate Sharpley Library.
Marked up by Chuck0 in 1996, originally posted at http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html
(Reproofed by KSL May 2010).