Freedom News

Interview: Bristol Class War in the 1980s

In this chat with a former Class War member, the Kate Sharpley Library discusses deindustrialisation, upheavals in the 1980s and thumbing the nose against Thatcher’s new normal.

Can you tell us a bit about where you came from?

I grew up in a town in the west of England during the 1970s. It was an industrial town going through de-industrialization at this time. Large factories like the Wagon Works and the aircraft factory where my grandparents had worked were closed or closing down. My family was solid Labour and my Grandad, who was Glaswegian, was a life-long socialist and union shop steward who’d helped build up the sheet metal workers union in the area. He’d been politicised after being given ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by an older worker as a 14 year old apprentice.

What did the world look like then?

Life seemed good in the 70’s. People’s living standards were improving and that 1960s optimism was still there. It seemed like we lived in a country where everyone mattered. My town also had a vibrant youth culture… Punk was massive, as was Northern Soul and the whole Rasta thing.

I remember Thatcher’s election victory in May 79 being received like the Grim Reaper had just moved into No.10. An evil shadow had been cast over the land. How history has been rewritten since her death, presenting her as a national treasure is beyond contempt. Most of the country despised her. Looking back, a crossroads had been reached and the bright egalitarian future of the post-war years was over.

The early 80’s were a seriously grim time and watching the evening news was like witnessing the slow death of a nation. The manufacturing industry collapsed, unemployment skyrocketed, the hunger strikers died, Northern Ireland went up in flames followed by rioting across the UK in July 81, the SPG [Special Patrol Group] patrolled the cities, there was the horrific Falklands War, the Brighton Bomb and the violent, year long Miners’ Strike. Most terrifying of all was the very real threat of a nuclear holocaust. Thatcher had sanctioned the basing of American nuclear armed Cruise missiles on British soil and cold war tensions with the USSR reached fever pitch. A ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflet was produced for every household in the country informing us how to survive a nuclear winter by painting our doors white. It was a terrifying time. A lot of us genuinely didn’t expect to see adulthood. I remember being sat in school one afternoon and they tested out the local WW2 air raid siren and we all thought it was the 4 minute warning. It is now known that on at least 2 occasions in 1983 we were only minutes away from a full scale nuclear war which would have been the end of civilization.

On top of all this there was mass youth unemployment. Everyone I knew left school at 15 or 16 and we went either straight onto the dole or into youth training schemes – YOPs or YTS’s. There was a lot of heavy drinking and violence where I lived and the local paper was always full of stories of assaults or suicides. It really did seem like there was No Future.

How did you get involved in the Anarchist Movement?

Punk was a real political education for tens of thousands of kids in the late 70s and early 80s. Punk taught a whole generation utter contempt for authority. We learnt to question and have opinions on everything. As punk started to die out, Crass appeared and took the rebellion to a whole other level. They introduced Anarchism as a serious political philosophy. A hardcore critique of the society we lived in and there was no doubt they were genuine. A lot of punks hated them and saw them as posh hippies but for at least the first couple of years, before Steve Ignorant got elbowed out, they were seriously popular and had a big influence politically. They sold their records for pennies and played in little towns where no-one else would go. Outside a Crass gig in Birmingham one time a gang of older Brummie skins looked after us and gave us leaflets on the British Movement and then we went inside and got leaflets on Anarchism from Crass. It was very like this politically at the time. Teenagers, particularly ones who had come through the punk movement, were looking for radical alternatives. Some of them, including friends of mine, were unfortunately won over by the far-right. To their credit, Crass were willing to talk to anyone and they attracted many, many thousands to Anarchism, breathing new life into an old ideology.

By 1985 punk was long dead. Unemployment went over 3 million and many young people including me were unemployed. The future looked bleak and riots again broke out again across the country. The miners’ defeat and walk back to work on the news was pitiful. It hit me as it hit many people that there was something seriously wrong with society and someone had to do something about it. If not us, then who? I dug out and listened to the album ‘Yes Sir I Will’ by Crass and began to get really angry and political. I went to London, found Freedom Bookshop and Housmans and read through all the books, leaflets and papers I could get my hands on. Loads of it was unreadable, boring stuff, but I loved Errico Malatesta among the old Anarchist writers. His writing was clear and convinced me of Anarchism as an idea. I found Crowbar, BM Blob, Spectacular Times (all brilliant), Virus and Direct Action. Then there was Class War….. Ian Bone and Class War were all over the newspapers. We were supposed to think ‘how terrible’, but many people just thought ‘fucking brilliant!’. There was none of your boring, whiny, condescending ‘look how terrible things are’ of most of the Left. It wasn’t preaching to you and it was funny, very funny, with pictures, and it explained politics in a language anyone could understand. It didn’t make you feel like a victim…because who wants to feel like a victim? It made you feel confident and strong. It wasn’t us who should be worried. It was them! ‘Behold Your Future Executioners!’ I was in, flat out involved with Class War from then on.

I’d gone down to the Wapping Strike on the Printers’ Union coaches. It was the Miners’ Strike part 2. The 3 horsemen of the Apocalypse – Thatcher, Murdoch and the Metropolitan Police versus the people. Blatant class war. They had declared it. We just called it what it was. They were intent on rolling back all the political gains the working class had made after the War. The first anniversary of the strike was unbelievable. Pitch black, in the east end of London. Police searchlights scanning the crowds. It was brutal, like a medieval battle. Someone died. The riot went on for hours in the cold, us chucking concrete, railings, bits of wood and the police repeatedly charging the crowd on horseback and on foot. Batons whistling past your ears, running with your heart in your mouth never knowing if you were going to catch one on the back of the head. When hundreds of police finally charged into the park you genuinely feared for your life. They were clubbing anyone they could get their hands on – old women, old men who’d been listening to Tony Benn or someone. There were terrified screams everywhere. It was a surprise more people didn’t die.

It seems hard to believe now but it really did seem in the mid-80s that we were close to social breakdown in this country. On top of this, the unions had been defeated, the Labour Party had rolled over and died, and much of the revolutionary Left was an embarrassment. For a while, fired up by the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War and the changing face of politics, it felt like Class War might create a mass movement. As well as being constantly in the media, Class War was selling 20,000 copies an issue at this time… a lot of it to the general public. There were groups in every major city and I moved to Bristol to be part of the action. In Bristol, we had 2 groups, North and South. More riots had broke out in Bristol in 86 and CW were there on the frontline. Things were dynamic. There were packed meetings in working class pubs. We were at every meeting, demo or strike. We didn’t sell papers to the Left or to students. We were selling in the city centre in the rush hour, outside the shops and in council estate pubs on a Friday night. Almost everyone knew of Class War. The revolution never happened, but the language and attitude had a deep impact on popular culture. Dislike of politicians, police and ‘Yuppies’ spread everywhere.

What was your relation to the paper? Was it a ‘London production’, or something made by the whole of Class War?

As for the CW paper, I think in the early days it was produced by a small group around Ian Bone and Martin Wright. By the time I was active in 86/87 each issue was produced by a different CW group on a rotational basis – about 4 a year maybe. I produced one issue along with other members of the Bristol group and I remember spending a weekend in London as a delegate looking over an issue which London had produced. Rotating was more democratic but I think it watered down the quality a bit as I still think the early issues were by far the best.

I know you were involved in the fight against the Poll Tax. What were your experiences?

The fight against the Poll Tax was electrifying. After a decade of defeats people were spoiling for a fight. I had returned to my home town and it was the talk in every pub. A meeting in my local community centre had people standing in the corridor because it was that full. It felt revolutionary. Working class men and women, old and young, across the country were saying ‘No Pasaran’.

The day of the riot in March 1990 was a day to remember for life. Ten years of fear and anger were released. It was a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies and a carnival atmosphere. I went down from Bristol and I think I’m right in saying 50 coaches left that day. We reached Downing Street and there was already a crowd there refusing to move. We were right there when it all kicked off. I remember a group of young Yorkshire miners were shouting at No. 10 – really aggressive. It was massively defended by rows of police whose arms were linked behind waist high barriers. The fencing was dragged away and loads of punches and kicks and truncheon blows were exchanged. The anger was palpable and the crowd had no fear of the police. There was a sense of righteousness which is probably there when revolutions break out. Eventually the police wall broke and they started lashing out wildly but the crowd wasn’t backing down. The touch paper had been lit. People started flooding back from the Mall. The police may have panicked that we’d get to No.10. The horses started charging, batons were swinging and rocks were flying. A full scale riot erupted. The rest is history. One of the funniest memories of the day was stepping out of the window of a looted off licence carrying two bottles of whiskey and bumping into Fergal Sharkey and his girlfriend who were standing there watching in disbelief.

The riot rocked the Establishment. It was pivotal in bringing down Thatcher. But the campaign of non-payment was what made the Tax unenforceable and made sure it was scrapped. Make it cost them more than it costs us. Violent and non-violent disobedience working together. Millions refused to pay and many went to jail. I refused to pay and refused to turn up in court. I was sentenced in my absence, eventually arrested and after turning down the offer to pay, served a month in prison. ‘Toy Town Revolutionaries’ Kinnock called us, but we proved that traitor wrong.

And could you tell us how you finished with politics?

Things had seemed revolutionary for a while but in 87 we were shocked when Thatcher won a third General Election. It was very demoralising at the time but easy to understand in retrospect. Selling people their council houses for peanuts, selling off our national utilities and deregulating the banks so they flooded the country with credit (debt), meant that many people thought they were loaded for a short while. It was a fantasy of course – the ‘Loadsamoney’ era. Myself and many others got decently paid jobs on building sites as a debt fuelled property boom started. All the national assets the working class had won after the war were being sold off and we were all being enslaved by a mountain of debt, but no-one could see it at the time. They just saw the money in their pockets.

Later that year the South Bristol group which I belonged to split from Class War. We wanted to attract and influence working class people with the paper – to give people a voice and a positive narrative. We wanted Anarchism to be the religion of the working class in Britain. Like it was in Spain in the early 20th Century. The religion of ordinary people, not a fringe identity for people who weren’t comfortable with their own. But the liberal-left identity politics which destroyed so much of the traditional working class movement and still dominates it today began to take over. Many university students (university was a far more elitist institution in the 80s) and even people who had been privately educated began to join CW and we didn’t think this was a good thing (not that they were necessarily bad people at all). And because these people had more cultural capital – the ability to write, to speak in public, to expect people to listen to them etc, then they naturally came to dominate organizations. That is how it is. This has happened to most of the Left. Maybe the Unions escaped it a bit. Self-identity is a big part of why people get attracted to a political movement. It is very important. People will join a movement to feel they belong. When they feel that it represents their interests or who they are. If it doesn’t do that, then they are not going to be interested. Period. And most people weren’t going to be attracted by a group of scruffy punks wearing black rags or by a sanctimonious, posh voiced student lecturing them on how racist or sexist they were. Anyway, we lost the argument or we didn’t express ourselves very well and we were expelled from Class War at the national conference in Bradford that year. We did a couple of issues of a free paper called Class Anger but I think history was moving on by then and it went nowhere.

On top of this, Anarchism had been reduced to defending the Post-War Consensus. We always preached to people not to vote but most of our fighting was done to protect the achievements of the 1945 Labour Government. As important as this was, inevitably we were going to lose because Capital will always eventually roll back any reformist social gains which are made. To me, I was always concerned that Anarchism wasn’t presenting concrete economic answers to concrete economic problems. And it is always about economics. Political structures grow from the economic organization of society not the other way around and Anarchism or any Left ideology needs to concentrate on making capitalism economically redundant.

Anyway, by the early 90s, like many others I was disillusioned and gave up on politics. The working class had been defeated politically but like a phoenix from the ashes it began to win culturally. Rave and free party culture was born allowing hundreds of thousands of us to flip the finger to 9 to 5 consumer capitalism and enjoy a brief period of drug fuelled liberty, equality and fraternity.

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