23 The State's Internal Enemy; Death Pangs of Fleet Street; Spanish Practices; The Battle of Wapping; The Emperor's Courtiers

I couldn’t paint golden angels - Chapter 23

The State’s Internal Enemy

In a memoir I wrote, The Anarchists in London 1935-55, I digressed to say something of the Welsh miners. In 1938 I spent a weekend in Neath with Sam Mainwaring junior, one of the last active survivors of the heyday of Welsh anarcho-syndicalism. At a meeting of the local ILP I came across an obstreperous group at the back who liked to give hell to visiting “toffee-nosed” English speakers from the Communist and Labour Parties. “Those are the Wrecking Brigade,” whispered the chairman. “Take no notice of them.” But they were, to my delight, survivors of the formerly strong anarcho-syndicalist miners movement, mostly elderly women and a couple of old men (miners tend to die young). They started by mimicking my accent and finished by applauding every sentence, shouting down anyone with hostile arguments.

John Quail, somewhat of an obituarist in the Woodcock tradition though more of a historian, in his “lost history of British anarchism” (The Slow Burning Fuse) says that this quotation was a “depressing note”, on which he closed his account. I did not look at it that way. I thought it great to take up inspiration from them. They looked on it that way too.

One of them, Lloyd Lloyd, at sixty-seven had volunteered to fight in Spain with the CNT militia. They turned foreign volunteers down except for a few with Great War experience, but though he had served then and after in the Welsh Fusiliers, the Bureau lacked imagination and declined the offer of his services, which would have been of tremendous propaganda value. I doubt if his offer got past Ralph Barr and Emma Goldman. The Communist Party would have jumped at the idea but he loathed them as much as he did the Falange. “At least you know where you stand with the fascists”, Lloyd told me. “They kill you if you don’t kill them first, but with those buggers you never know where you are”. It was out of the mood of the times but I heard the same expression about false allies many times in the years to come, including Gomez and Miguel Garcia referring to the quietists hanging on to our movement.

Over the years the old mining community of anarcho-syndicalists in Scotland and Wales vanished, though pockets still existed in the Scottish coalfields when Stuart was young, and they inspired him the way the Welsh veterans inspired me. Aldred retained a following in the Scottish pit village of Burnbank until shortly after WWII when most of them were dying off.

For years I always tried to get on support committees for miners, mostly through the print union ostensibly as a representative, though really as an individual. The anarcho-syndicalist presence in the coalfields belonged to the past owing to the Communist Party and I could never help there under my own political steam until very late in the day, in the last great battle of the National Union of Miners, when Arthur Scargill nailed his colours to the mast on the closure of the industry. I am glad Black Flag was able to do a lot to help in that struggle without using it for narrow political advantage.

I have no reason to entertain friendly feelings to Scargill. He was always a Marxist and despite his leftism, timid when it came to helping political prisoners, most of all non-Marxists, even in Spain. But one is bound to regard differently a Trade Union leader who sells out from one who does not. And while he never led the final strike to save the pits, or maintained the dispute, despite the mythology that people hazarded their livelihood for the sake of a bureaucrat’s blue eyes, he kept pace with the union he led and listened to what the members had to say. That was why the NUM was loyal to him, and why a rival scab union was formed by a sinister cabal of businessmen at the Dorchester Hotel, with no ties in the industry, to break away from one led by him.

I had written to him once or twice on behalf of Bolivian copper miners who appealed to the Black Cross for British miners’ help but received no answer. When their deputation came over I did get support for them from the London NUM HQ. At the time Brenda Christie was arrested in Germany, Stuart phoned many people for support but when he got through to Scargill, the left-wing hero simply put the phone down. I have to say albeit reluctantly it contrasted with the courteous way I was received by Church of England bishops I approached, usually in regard to prisoners, even if they eventually did nothing. But one could hardly hold a grudge in a strike affecting the lives and livelihoods of so many, and despite enormous pressure, amounting at times to criminal libel from the media, Scargill did stand by his members.

In that last great struggle the miners were actually organising on anarcho-syndicalist lines, less as a memory of past struggles than spontaneously. It certainly wasn’t because of the amount of help we could give, limited to individual groups. The women in particular rallied round solidly with food kitchens and staffing the picket lines, determined not to let the strikers be starved out. Many who before the strike had been content to take a backseat emerged as heroines calling to mind a historical parallel with American miners’ organiser Mother Jones and her army of women with brooms who fought the State militia and the Pinkerton private gangs hired by the employers.

Many miners, after years of cosy political existence in the Labour establishment, did not know what hit them when they found themselves transformed into “the enemy within” by the British State. Respected union officials, accustomed over the years to Royal patronage, invitations to Downing Street, to being mayors, councillors, aldermen, lay preachers, magistrates, school governors and parliamentary candidates, found themselves in the battlefront while the police did their best to beat their skulls in. Going in some of the villages was like advancing into an occupied country.

To add insult to injury so far as we were concerned, in the same way the right-wing libertarian scum had hi-jacked our traditional description, the police dubbed their pit storm operation, because it involved several regional police forces, “Mutual Aid”, with its echo of Kropotkin’s book (just as the miners were writing another chapter of it, as it were). It is a wry comment on Freedom, for that matter, that because I was heavily engaged in miners support, it wrote maliciously that I was expecting a Ministerial post in a Scargill government! Its then editor supported the scab union but got so much stick from anarchists that he announced after several issues he was only saying it to wind people up. There must have been a bit of a disturbance in Kropotkin’s grave that month.

Anyway, driving up to one village, I was stopped by the police four times. All we had in the car were tins of canned food and other provisions, but it might as well have been dynamite or even a portfolio in a Scargill Government. We were not allowed to proceed on the public highway. Finally I did a detour and we arrived in Builth Wells and put up in an inn. Joe Thomas was with me and he telephoned local people who came down by train and took the provisions back with them. We had to behave like smugglers, just to bring food from one part of Britain to another.

Eating habits, like much else, must have changed a lot in the coalmining towns owing to the strike. Collecting in Hampstead brought such rarities as muesli and so far as we were concerned I recall on another trip an old Welsh lady looking quizzically at kosher delicacies we had obtained free as a result of an appeal to a wholesaler near Haverstock Hill (“and please, not baked beans and teabags” Miguel had said) and asking if latkes and lokshen were standard London dishes.

In a strike conference in the north-east a good friend, an old member of the CNT in Bilbao, who had been here since post-war demob from the British Army, came with local anarcho-syndicalists to help with the catering. I don’t know if Special Branch observed how eagerly the miners clustered round his wife while he was scribbling little notes for them all evening. How to make bombs? Afraid not. Their wives were clamouring for a recipe for the tortillas and giant paella which had gone down a treat.

The Death Pangs of Fleet Street

The new emperors who took over from the war lords in Fleet Street came from outside the industry, indeed outside the country. They were used to different standards from those which were customary since the mid-Twenties. Having inherited, bought or in some cases stolen or fraudulently acquired part of an industry where the proprietors made fortunes and achieved power by persuasion over the rest of the country, they still resented the fact that their own immediate subjects got well paid for their efforts. In some cases these wages were higher than their own management executives got for kowtowing respectfully. The upper crust were scandalised that their social inferiors achieved something like self-management within the workplace. It did not make any difference to the profits heaped on high by unhappy tired-eyed tycoons who could not spend the money they had anyway, but it offended their sense of propriety and progress. They wanted their power to be absolute and not to have to be told of the mote in their own eye when it came to telling other industrialists how to run their own businesses.

The negotiations with trade unionism, that is to say with workers’ representatives, however distant from the workplace, offended their innermost souls. The worst they had to say of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, perhaps the reason why they planned a military coup against him, was that he invited Trade Union leaders to beer and sandwiches with him at Downing Street to discuss industrial peace. “Beer and sandwiches with trade unions” became a taunt that kept the Labour Party out of power for years, until it repudiated any such intention of handing them out again when negotiating. According to right wing philosophy the workers who made the profits possible should be offered rat poison. Any alternative meant they were running the country rather than the City magnates, whom Government could ask advice as to how to run the country over champagne and caviar.

The final battle lines were drawn over the new technology which would eventually make the old method of printing obsolete. They intended from the first to use it to break the power the workers had achieved and there was no secret about it. Objections to the process of eliminating the industrial gains of the century had to be expressed in terms of objecting to the new technology. But all that the printworkers wanted was the new technology being harnessed to the people who operated it and not used to pile the Pelion of new wealth on the Orissa of old wealth. Like the Luddites (as misrepresented in historical propaganda as the anarchists) the printers were represented as objecting to progress when what they resented was being reduced to servility and penury. For their pains they were described both as Luddites and anarchists though there were none of the former extant and precious few of the latter.

For years we had fought a rearguard action objecting to the dangers of the new technology, many of which were real enough, some of which were exaggerated. Finally a proprietor was found outside Fleet Street with nothing to lose, a former TV studio manager, “Eddie” Shah, who had decided to run some freebie advertising circulars looking like newspapers. He sacked the former printworkers on the presses he took over and introduced the new technology in a pseudo-newspaper which could, unlike Fleet Street, tolerate delay in production in the interests of efficiency.

If an Asian immigrant had been attacked by fascist hoodlums, the police would have been out in force to protect the fascists. As a factory employer protecting his investments against dismissed workers, he had huge police protection. The laws were altered to protect him. Pickets were made illegal, union funds were made subject to sequestration. He stuck it out, at huge public cost, and won. From then on the battle was moved from the sticks. He switched to a national and the rest of the press saw the way ahead. Fleet Street began its death process.

Spanish Practices

I don’t know how many times work colleagues said to me, “You know about Spain, don’t you? What are the Spanish practices we keep getting accused of following? Is that the anarcho-syndicalism you’re always on about?” Not quite!

For years there had been talk of following precedent, ‘custom and practice’, in dealings with management. The traditionally Liberal philanthropist cocoa Quakers who ran the News Chronicle had been the first to object to following custom and practice, and immediately these fat cats found their way to the dairy of commercial television rights, they discarded their print empire. Reserving for themselves the profitable sidelines which needed few workers, they simply terminated the paper and devoted themselves to commercial television, which they had cornered as a result of being newspaper proprietors. They need no longer observe “custom and practice” but make their own rules with a “licence to print their own money”.

A piece of American slang, introduced by a song hit in the Thirties, was sometimes used jestingly as an alternative to ‘custom and practice’. “Old Spanish customs” referred to the traditional courteous manners of the first colonialists of California. I suspect in reality the conquistadors behaved more like the Maxwells and Shahs coming into the industry.

Custom and practice”, the following of tried and respected agreements going back to the late Twenties, were now deplored as “old Spanish customs” and what would have been regarded as gracious in Old California became distasteful to the new conquistadors. Robert Maxwell was the first to pick up the expression and in a mix-up of idiom referred to ordinary British trade union methods in the print as “Spanish practices”. Like “beer and sandwiches” it became a rallying cry for people who always said they were certainly not against trade unions, but deplored the abuses of trade union power, like doing what the members wanted. There was something sinister and foreign about “Spanish practices” that sent a chill down the spine of Daily Mail readers. Daily Telegraph readers protested in the name of Spain where (since Franco) they had seen no sign of these vicious practices but where (since time immemorial) they had seen courtesy and dignity as people followed established customs.

The Battle of Wapping

The process towards change in the printing of national newspapers moved inexorably forward. Rupert Murdoch gained control of the Times and various other papers, and declared open war. He moved his whole operation to “Fortress Wapping”, and abandoned Fleet Street and its “Spanish practices”. He offered his workers the choice between capitulation and sacking. Those who capitulated were sacked later rather than sooner. The overwhelming majority were dismissed while on strike. Some lost their jobs while on holiday or sick, some turned up to work to find they were locked out.

A picket was mounted at the Wapping works which were turned into a miniature fortress. Demonstration after demonstration was mounted almost resulting in a blockade. Scab journalists were bussed in, heavily protected by police, not looking right or left lest they encounter the eyes of old colleagues standing in the rain outside while being jostled by the police. Sometimes the confrontation became violent, and almost for the first time I was involved in something where my political interests and particular job responsibilities as a trade unionist coincided. It was odd that for most of the dispute I was asked to hold a watching brief for infringements of the law by the police. It was pointed out when I demurred that I was an accredited TU Health and Safety rep and nothing could be more inimical to health and safety than being bashed over the head with a truncheon.

Some years after the event of the major battle, a Northamptonshire police inquiry into the actions of the police confirmed all we said at the time. It was leaked to television and taken up by the press. All we had noted and photographed, and what the TV cameras had shown, came as a surprise to the enquiry. Nevertheless, it still whitewashed the offenders, as I commented in Black Flag at the time of the “discovery”.

The police had behaved like an occupation force smashing down the local resistance. They charged into the crowd, beat up elderly people, could scarcely be restrained from killing younger, more active demonstrators, hit out at women and men alike, in some cases at women with accompanying children. All that was just for being there. It wasn’t a case of hitting back at incensed activists, though that did occur too. The enquiry said some of the police force acted in a “violent and undisciplined way”. That was a lie which enabled a further distortion by police apologists that maybe some fraction of the police, perhaps junior officers, lost control under violent provocation.

The attack on the demonstrators to defend Rupert Murdoch’s scab operation was violent but it was not uncontrolled. It had one guiding purpose, to get his papers out on time. All along senior police officers kept command and discipline was maintained. Had it not been, some police could have been expected to run away or at least hold back. Would they all have rushed forward on their own initiative, putting themselves at not inconsiderable risk committing illegal acts in public, just for the sake of getting the Sun and Times to the wholesalers?

SOGAT was sued, indeed had its funds sequestrated, for not being able to ‘control’ all demonstrators though anyone could, and many hundreds did, turn up uninvited. Nobody turned up to support the police. Those who were there were on duty, under orders, and remained so.

I was standing with a bunch of people, taking notes while somebody beside me was using a camera. We were in front of an official SOGAT platform where union leaders were speaking, all dissuading violence. The police ranks were directly opposite us. A woman got up to speak and I heard a voice from the police ranks clearly shout, “That’s Brenda Dean.” She had recently become secretary of the SOGAT. I couldn’t see if it was Brenda Dean or not, but a chorus went up from the police ranks, “Let’s get the bitch!”

There was no media hype against Brenda Dean, no whipped-up abuse as there was, say, against Arthur Scargill in the miners’ strike and since. To the general public she presented an image of moderation, nor had the press attacked her. The only people who hated her, aside from activists who regarded her as far too conciliatory and determined to put her own interests first, were Murdoch’s minions. She put the case against him on television clearly and convincingly if she failed to do anything effectively.

On hearing the cry “Get the bitch!” the police charged forward as one. No harm was done to the woman on the platform (I couldn’t see if she were Brenda Dean or not) as a shower of stones dispersed the police and a scattering of marbles prevented the mounted police charging right at us. The question remains — why would police officers want to “get the bitch”? What could they have against Brenda Dean? The only reason I can think of is that they were following the Murdoch goons’ instructions, and cash hand-outs sanctioned from the top were given. There was no other motive. The police did not appear undisciplined to me. Even in retreat they maintained their rank.

On another occasion I was driving a car on the public highway when the vans wanted a clear dash out of the besieged citadel. I was told by a uniformed policeman to get off the road, which they were about to close, though I had as much right on it as any newspaper van. I handed them the visiting card of a local GP (I didn’t say it was mine) mentioning the surgery was round the corner. I was told, “Don’t argue, doc, or we’ll smash the car”. They did not smash the car but expertly manoeuvred it on to the pavement (illegal parking) as vans came dashing out of the besieged compound at dangerously high speeds (not just illegal but on one occasion resulting in a death).

Strict discipline was maintained. A sergeant was present controlling his men. The crowd, which surged forward when the vans came out, was stormed at a word of command. Horsemen rushed into the crowd, batons flying, like the Charge of the Light Brigade. The policeman who had parked me on the pavement and grabbed the keys came over to me before it happened and returned them, saying politely, “Don’t drive off. I think your services may be needed in a few minutes, sir”. At that, in the traditional newspaper words, “I made an excuse and left” before my bluff was called. But how did he know a doctor would be needed “in a few minutes”?

Other cars who had intended to block the road, and some who hadn’t, were damaged and the drivers roughly handled. I was the only exception. Honesty is not always the best policy, but that’s not the point. Was that the action of a disorganised force who had been unnerved and lost control?

When and where had the nerves snapped, the discipline broken down, the senior officers lost command, as the internal police enquiry said later? The constabulary knew perfectly well what they were doing. They obeyed orders. That is why none were punished though their victims faced imprisonment and fines, after hospital treatment, for defending themselves. Maybe the expected answer from the pacifists, once asked by tribunals “What would you do if a German officer tried to rape your sister?” was “Demand to see his warrant”.

The Emperor’s Courtiers

One of the journalists who were satisfied with the warrant to seduce their sisters, or at least, as trade unionists might put it, to betray their brothers, was Bernard Levin. He had begun his career by declining National Service, appearing before a conscientious objectors tribunal. His conscience led him to espouse progressive causes in his student days and he entered journalism with high-minded zeal. He made his career as a columnist on the Daily Mail. As the only daily newspaper journalist ever sufficiently impressed by an obscure article I wrote to quote from it approvingly in a national daily (admittedly it attacked the Chinese Government) I find it difficult to impugn his good taste. When he had shifted by stages far to the Right and was sacked from the Mail (hardly for that reason) on his last evening he slipped an indecent request to his readers past the sub-editors. There is no indication how they dealt with any responses explaining exactly the biological reasons as to how adult readers refrained from bed-wetting. He turned to the Times, where he sat through the palace revolutions and was one of those who slunk into Wapping, bussed in under police guard like criminals into Dartmoor, so he could describe his former colleagues as thugs.

A whole new breed followed in the line of Bernard Levin. So-called radicals of the New Left at University, they started as Trotskyist activists like Peter Hitchens (later of the Daily Express) vigorously denouncing anarchism as petty-bourgeois, worshipping at the shrine of Trotsky. They finished for the most part as red-baiters for the capitalist media, but always with a contempt for working people which their shift to the Right no longer obliged them to hide.

In turn, I never hid my contempt of them, least of all at the Telegraph. There was one, Jamie Dettmer, who had started his career at the Tribune. He differed from the International Socialist and Socialist Workers Party activists like Wendy Henry, who made her way from the Economic League blacklist to editorship of the News of the World. He had come from the Economic League, where his father was a director, to the Tribune, organ of the Labour Left, a vantage point to ferret out information on “the enemy within”, and then became the anti-labour correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

Dettmer reported “Anarchists in Wapping” were responsible for the violence on the first anniversary of the sacking of five thousand News International employees, blaming it on “new anarchist sects”, some of which were going before daddy had decided to send his boy into journalism, and some of which were flourishing before the proud father had decided to go into the Economic League himself.

If Dettmer didn’t know what was happening under his own nose, he had only to ask someone else in his office. Alternatively he could have looked up old Telegraph files and found (to his, and everybody else’s, astonishment) that his colleagues had once reported, if inaccurately, that old anarchist sects had penetrated every corner of British life, had thousands of members and papers selling at every news stand.

Probably he knew that neither the new stories nor the old were the truth but he wasn’t going to allow that to stand in the way of an exposure. “Unlike the more established Trotskyist parties,” he wrote. “The new anarchist sects try to remain comparatively anonymous. They prefer to act covertly at demonstrations and hang back, provoking confrontation”. One would have thought it difficult to provoke a confrontation by hanging back though I admit that on this occasion, while the ‘established Trotskyists’ were busy selling their papers, I was sitting in my car, ‘covertly’ provoking a confrontation because of the extraordinary notion that I was a doctor.

However, after Dettmer was held up to ridicule on this by Black Flag, his stories on that journal became more covert if still confrontational. He invented the “Hurricane Gang” at the same time as the Economic League found it. I am never sure whether daddy gave sonnie the stories or vice versa, or if it worked both ways. Some time before, Black Flag had taken a postal address at British Monomarks which required a code name. We chose, at random, “Hurricane”. The address was “BM Hurricane, London, WC1”. Some idiotic journalist, in the absence of a story, made great play of this “secret address”, used in the same way by hundreds, maybe thousands, of businesses, religious, political and musical groups, at a time when the press was adopting strict security passes into their fortresses.

Hooligan Press was started by a friend — it had nothing to do with us — who asked if he could use our postbox. Later it faded away. The Anarchist Black Cross and one or two other groups, some of which we did not even know, also used it for a time. They all therefore became the mysterious “Hurricane Gang”! The attacks on Black Flag merged into attacks on the mysterious gang, which some kindlier commentators transformed into the “Hurricane Group”, and we started getting enquiries for the mysterious group, including one from an interested weather forecaster.

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© 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).