Month: December 2016

Policing Acid House Parties in 1989: What the new Thatcher Government papers reveal

The latest round of papers from the Prime Minister’s Office have been released, relating to the final years of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989-90. While files on several topics have been opened, this post will look at the file dedicated the policing of ‘acid house parties’ (also known as raves) in 1989.

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-39-25-pm

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the phenomenon of acid house swept across the UK in the mid-to-late 1980s and while a number of clubs, such as the Hacienda in Manchester and Shoom in London, attracted large crowds for their club nights, raves exploded into open areas that were typical venues – warehouses, fields and other places left vacant by Thatcherism. For a number of reasons, including the noise generated by these parties and the use of drugs, these raves started to draw the ire of the police and of the authorities. One briefing note stated that the ‘main problem with acid house parties is the nuisance caused by the noise’ and curiously, stressed ‘[d]rugs are not the main issue’.[1] In a letter to the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the new Home Secretary David Waddington wrote that there was also a concern that ‘criminal elements [were] becoming involved’.[2] This concern, ‘coupled with the need to reassure the public that the existing law can be made effective’, Waddington argued, required a new approach.[3] He also noted that 223 parties had been held in London and the South East in 1989, with 96 stopped by the police and another 95 prevented from going ahead.[4]

And so, after a localised and haphazard response by local councils and the police, in late 1989, the Thatcher government proposed a co-ordinated and nationwide effort to clamp down on these ‘illegal’ parties. The aforementioned briefing note outlined that there were four ways to combat these parties:

  1. Under the licensing law that governs public entertainment;
  2. Under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986;
  3. Under the common law powers available to the police to prevent public disturbances;
  4. Under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.[5]

The note stated that all indoor events were subject to licensing laws (particularly the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982), irrespective of venue, and that in some cases, outdoor events were also subject to licensing laws, depending on the local authorities. However the largest problem for regulating raves through this mechanism, operated by the local councils, was that ‘most organisers of acid house parties are flouting the law by not applying for a licence’.[6] A report produced by the Association of District Councils explained the authorities had tried to prosecute party organisers under the 1982 Act in the past, but there were many ‘practical difficulties’ with the legislation.[7] This report suggested that a ‘national code of standard conditions’ be drawn up, similar to the code of practice for music events that had previously been established by the Greater London Council.[8] Interestingly the same document also mentioned that it might be pertinent to take into account the recent report by Lord Justice Taylor into the Hillsborough Disaster.[9]

All involved in this discussion felt that one of the key reasons that the organisers did not seek to obtain licenses for their events was that the penalty was far too low – a £2000 fine and/or up to 3 months in prison. In his letter to Howe, Waddington wrote that the penalties were ‘so relatively light that the organisers of these very profitable acid house parties can afford to ignore the law’.[10] Waddington proposed fines be raised to £20,000 and a possibility of up to 6 months imprisonment, commenting that the Association of Chief Police Officers supported these stricter penalties.[11]

One of the problems facing the authorities was that because these raves could be held in any kind of space, trying to police them was difficult. As mentioned above, indoor events were subject to licensing laws, but outdoor events weren’t always covered. For the police, indoor gatherings were not specifically within their remit, but outside assemblies were, under the Public Order Act 1986. An extension of the Public Order Act to include indoor assemblies was considered ‘contentious’[12] and at this stage, looked like legislative overkill (although similar legislation was eventually passed in 1994 to combat outdoor raves with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act).

In a letter from Home Office official Peter Storr to Margaret Thatcher’s Personal Secretary Andrew Turnbull, he noted that the police were ‘generally relying on their common law powers to prevent a breach of peace’ and that in the past, the police had ‘been able to persuade organisers to pack up voluntarily’.[13] Furthermore, they had ‘on occasion seized sound equipment on the grounds of preventing a breach of the peace’.[14] The aforementioned briefing note acknowledged:

Strictly speaking the police have no power to intervene to stop a party purely on grounds of noise. But if they receive complaints about the noise, they can intervene using common law powers.[15]

However it was argued that the police were often reluctant to intervene in this way, due to the following two reasons:

  1. mainly to the sheer numbers involved in some of the parties – the risk would be too great;
  2. slight nervousness about relying on common law powers alone – this leaves them open to challenge.[16]

It was believed that what was required were greater police powers ‘to act in flagrant cases’ immediately and at the time of night when these parties were occurring. Turnbull wrote to Carolyn Sinclair in the Home Office saying, ‘It will not be sufficient to give local authorities extra powers if they are not around at 3am to enforce [licensing laws]’.[17] The Association of District Councils also called for the police to be given greater powers ‘to seize and remove and apparatus or equipment’ being used by party organisers.[18]

While the primary problem with acid house parties was identified as the public nuisance caused by the excessive noise generated by these parties, the legislation dealing with noise pollution, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 was deemed ‘inadequate to deal with these parties’.[19] It was noted that noise nuisance was a civil offence and the legislation was aimed at factories and other industrial sites, rather than outdoor events. Thus ‘remedy through the courts [was] slow’.[20] The Department of Environment pushed to make noise nuisance a criminal offence,[21] but Turnbull advised the Home Office that Thatcher was ‘doubtful whether greater use of the Control of Pollution Act would be effective as the need was for action at short notice outside working hours.’[22]

Alongside greater penalties under the licensing laws and more explicit powers to allow the police to break ‘illegal’ raves, one of the key proposals made by the Home Office and other agencies was to establish powers to seize profits from party organisers. Powers to seize the proceeds of crime already existed under schedule 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (with a minimum of £10,000 to be confiscated after conviction), and Waddington suggested to Howe that this legislation could be easily amended to incorporate the organisation of these parties into the legislation.[23] On this point, the Home Office’s briefing note stated:

What is needed is a way of hitting at the profit made by the organisers. This should discourage the craze.[24]

It was hoped that these increased penalties and powers of confiscation, as well as more pre-emptive action between the police and local councils, would prevent acid house parties from occurring. The Home Office noted:

No amount of statutory power will make it feasible for police forces to take on crowds of thousands on a regular basis. We cannot have another drain on police resources equivalent to policing football matches.[25]

Incidentally, this was the argument made by Tony Wilson in the final days of the Hacienda – that the police were willing to police Manchester United and Manchester City games, but unwilling to do the same at the famous nightclub to ensure people’s safety.

The following year the Thatcher government passed the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, which increased the penalties for organising an ‘illegal’ party to £20,000 and/or 6 months in prison. As the debate in Hansard shows, these measures were supported by both major parties in the House of Commons. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was also amended to allow the seizure of profits made by party organisers.

However this did not end the phenomenon of the illegal rave and the Major government introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal specifically with raves, which included the seizure of equipment used to put on events deemed illegal. This Act was opposed by many and led to a grassroots resistance by partygoers and activists. But this was a far way off in 1989. We will have to wait a few more years for the internal government records relating to this.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 1, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Letter from David Waddington to Geoffrey Howe, 2 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 1.

[6] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[7] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, 9 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[13] Letter from Peter Storr to Andrew Turnbull, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[14] Ibid.

[15] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Note from Andrew Turnbull to Carolyn Sinclair, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[18] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

[19] Ibid., p. 1.

[20] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Peter Storr, 16 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[23] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[24] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[25] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

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Buy ‘Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control’ from Palgrave and save £30

Palgrave cover

This is just a quick plug to let you all know that Palgrave Macmillan are having a “£30 off” sale until December 31, 2016 and while they do publish a ton of great books, you should really use it to buy our book, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control. You can buy it from the Palgrave website here. Remember to use the code PHLDY16EP.

If you don’t know what the book is about, here’s the blurb:

This book analyses the practice of virginity testing endured by South Asian women who wished to enter Britain between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, and places this practice into a wider historical context. Using recently opened government documents the extent to which these women were interrogated and scrutinized at the border is uncovered.

And here’s some nice words that people have said about it:

“An important and revelatory study of a shameful episode in 20th century British immigration history that was shaped by Imperial racism.” – Alan Travis, Home Affairs Editor, The Guardian

“It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of Smith and Marmo’s study. Their chilling documentation of abuses permitted and vigorously denied by the Home Office represents feminist scholarship at its best.” – Philippa Levine, Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professor in the Humanities, University of Texas at Austin, US

“This historical study examines the intertwining of ‘race’, gender and the body in the application of immigration controls in Britain since the 1970s. Drawing on research in British Government archives, ‘Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control’ begins with the shocking case of virginity testing of a 35 year old woman, who arrived at Heathrow Airport, London in 1979 to marry her fiancé. Smith and Marmo unpick these obscene practices as symptomatic of the de-humanising treatment of migrants from the former colonies and the dense racialized, sexual politics of British border controls. Crucially, Smith and Marmo also explore the incredible resistance of South Asian women and anti-deportation activists against the discriminatory practices of the British state. This important new history of immigration control speaks directly to the contemporary situation of border securitisation in Britain and beyond. It will be of interest to, and will be widely read by all interested in migration, citizenship, human rights, post-colonial migration, and histories of resistance to unjust border controls.” – Dr Imogen Tyler, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Lancaster University, UK

The top ten posts of 2016

It’s that time of year for reflection, so for all of you keeping tabs, here are the top ten blog posts of 2016 at Hatful of History:

10. Another reason to #FundTrove: Communist Party of Australia material now digitised

9. 1951 and the attempt to ban the Australian Communist Party: When Turnbull’s predecessor gambled on a double dissolution election

8. Historians and the online archive of the Hillsborough Independent Panel

7. Starting a discussion about self-archiving political movements and the international left

6. “Don’t Let Them Die!”: The British Far Left and the Armagh Women’s Prisoner Protest

5. Turning that blog post into a journal article: A quick guide

4. Hobsbawm, 1956 and the Mythology of the CPGB Historians’ Group

3. How to navigate the Comintern archives online: A guide for the non-Russian speaker

2. Corbyn, Labour and the limits of the British far left

And the number one is…

1. Policing the Northern Irish border in the 1970s

And remember, if you enjoyed reading this blog this year, do donate to keep me/it going here, or click the ‘DONATE’ banner on the right hand side.

17 December, 1967: Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappears

How the disappearance of Holt was reported in The Canberra Times.

How the disappearance of Holt was reported in The Canberra Times.

Harold Holt had succeeded the long-serving Liberal Party Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1966 and won an election in November of the same year. Holt continued the commitment of Australian troops to Vietnam, introduced by Menzies in 1965, and this issue dominated Australian politics over the next decade. At the same time, the Holt government introduced several reforms that led to the eventual dismantlement of the ‘White Australia Policy’ over the next decade (eventually abolished by the incoming Whitlam government in 1973).

However Holt is probably most famous in Australia for his extraordinary disappearance on 17 December, 1967. On this day, he went swimming at Cheviot Beach on Mornington Peninsula, a beach he claimed he knew ‘like the back of his hand’. The tide was unusually high and conditions were, according to witnesses, not good for swimming. Despite this, Holt swam quite far out and eventually disappeared out of sight. Presumed drowned, his body has never been discovered.

Here is a digitised version of the official investigation and report into his death, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. And here is the obituary given in Parliament on its first day in session since his disappearance (March 1968).

There have been several conspiracy theories developed around Holt’s disappearance, with the most prominent one being that he was taken by a Chinese submarine. This theory was expounded by Anthony Grey in his book The Prime Minister Was A Spy.

In a moment of irony, the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre was built in Melbourne after his death.

The Communist Party of Britain, the Morning Star and the Legacy of the Soviet Union

With the recent controversy surrounding the Morning Star and the Communist Party of Britain’s Russophilia, I thought people might be interested in this, which I wrote a few years ago on how the CPB reacted to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991. It is an extract from this book chapter that also looked at how the CPGB and the SWP reacted to the events of 1989.

For those interested in reading further on this, Lawrence Parker is contributing a chapter on the CPB to the forthcoming edited volume for Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, vol. II. Keep an eye out for this in the new year!

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

MS announcing the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991

The Communist Party of Britain was, and remains, probably the most significant party that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism. The CPB had emerged from the discontent inside the CPGB during the mid-1980s as the Party tried to grapple with the ‘victorious’ Thatcher Government, who had defeated the Argentineans in the Falklands War, had defeated Labour in the 1983 election and looked to defeat the trade unions in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The fierce debate over the role of the industrial unionism had rumbled on within the CPGB since Tony Lane criticised the role of the trade unions inside the pages of Marxism Today in late 1982.[1] The Morning Star, under the editorship of the traditionalist Tony Chater, became increasingly critical of the reformers (or ‘Euros’) in the Party and a beacon for those dissatisfied with the way the CPGB seemed to be going. Between 1983 and 1988, a series of expulsions, resignations and heated arguments led to several factions being formed around various discontented Party and ex-Party members,[2] including the Straight Left and The Leninist factions, but most importantly for the CPB was the Communist Campaign Group, which eventually formed the Communist Party of Britain in 1988. Many believed that the CPB would sink into oblivion like the New Communist Party and the various Maoist outfits which left in the 1960s and 1970s, but the saving grace of the CPB was its links to the Morning Star. Although it was nominally under the control of the People’s Press Printing Society since 1946, Kevin Morgan has stated that ‘[t]he paper nevertheless remained the acknowledged voice of the CP[GB] until the factional disputes of more recent years’.[3] ‘Control’ of the Morning Star by the CPB meant that the fledgling group had a widely read and well-established organ to reach into the British labour movement and until the mid-1990s, provided the CPB with a significant income.

Even though the CPB was sympathetic to Soviet-styled Marxism-Leninism, the Party was not in favour of the Leninist method of armed insurrection or the dictatorship of the proletariat, with the CPB opting to maintain The British Road to Socialism as their programme. The Party’s favourable opinion of the Soviet Union was an almost historical hangover, based on nostalgia and popular memory, rather than seeing the Eastern Bloc as a blueprint for a socialist revolution in Britain. But even this view of the Soviet Union acknowledged the severe shortcomings of the Soviet experiment. As would be expected, the language used in the Morning Star in its reporting on the events from 1989 to 1991 was much more moderate than what was expressed in Marxism Today or the Socialist Worker, but there were many positive stories about the people’s uprisings in Eastern Europe and the moral and political bankruptcy of the collapsing regimes. When the Ceaucescu regime was toppled in Romania in December 1989, the Morning Star editorial team published on the front page:

The Morning Star salutes the heroism of the Romanian people and sends it condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the struggle.

Despite the enormous difficulties still to be overcome, Romania is set to join the movement for democracy and Socialism sweeping Eastern Europe. We wish them every success.[4]

In a further editorial a few days later, the Morning Star stated that the ‘unbridled exercise of personal power’ used by Eastern European dictators like Ceaucescu had ‘nothing to do with the ideas of Socialism’.[5]

Within the pages of the Morning Star, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were celebrated as important reforms that allowed the people to achieve ‘democracy’ in the former People’s Democracies. A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the paper reported that the ‘winds of perestroika have reached the GDR’, but this ‘[did] not mean a crisis of Socialism,… because the majority of the GDR population is not going to abandon human Socialism.’[6] Discussing the revolution in Romania, the editors of the paper claimed that it was ‘the essence of perestroika’ that was ‘at the heart of the complex changes taking place throughout Eastern Europe.’[7] When the August Coup failed in the summer of 1991, the front page headline for the paper declared ‘GREAT DAY FOR PERESTROIKA!’,[8] and when Gorbachev resigned in December 1991 and the Soviet Union dissolved, the editorial team celebrated Gorbachev as ‘[h]e tried to rescue the Socialist ideal from the authoritarian straitjacket that was suffocating it to death.’[9]

This ‘authoritarian straitjacket’ that was ‘suffocating’ the Soviet Union was a theme returned to repeatedly in the Morning Star’s reporting on the final days of the Soviet Bloc. While the paper and the CPB commended the Soviet Union for transforming Russia ‘from its state of backwardness in 1917’ into ‘a highly industrialised state with enormous potential’ and defeated the Nazis in the Second World War, it criticised the ‘inertia of the bureaucratic-command system that it created’ and argued that during the Cold War, this centralised command economy ‘ultimately stultified social development and limited the democratic participation of the people.’[10] Tony Chater argued that it was ‘this bureaucratic command model of Socialism which [had] failed, not the Socialism ideals of the revolution’ and that from the 1920s onwards, ‘Soviet society became ossified’.[11] In the days after the August coup, the paper argued that the ‘events we have witnessed were the death throes of an authoritarian, bureaucratic way of organising Socialist society’.[12] In November 1992, the CPB published their resolution on the Soviet Union (republished in 1998), which stated a very similar argument, stating:

[t]he root cause of the collapse lay in the particular forms of economic and political structure which developed in the Soviet Union. Specifically, the great mass of working people came to be progressively excluded from any direct control over their economic and social destiny. This erosion of the very essence of socialism increasingly affected all aspects of Soviet society.[13]

As Robert Griffiths, the General Secretary of the CPB in 1998, wrote, ‘With the working class excluded from a genuine mass role in the administration of industry and the state… and the party exercising state power as a bureaucratic-centralist organisation, Marxism-Leninism was distorted into a dogma and adopted as a state religion’.[14]

But the CPB and the Morning Star was still sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union and were not completely dismissive of its ‘achievements’. In his article, Chater claimed that criticisms of the Soviet Union ‘cannot alter the overwhelmingly positive contribution made… toward the elaboration of a new system of international relations based on peace and co-operation’, and ‘[h]ad it not been for the Soviet Union, fascism would not have been crushed’.[15] The CPB’s 1992 resolution expanded on this:

This is not to deny what was achieved in the Soviet Union. Large-scale industry was developed. There were massive advances in education, and a cultural revolution which changed the face of what had been a very backward country. The development of the Soviet Union’s scientific potential is beyond question. In health, housing and social services big steps forward were recorded.

The Soviet Union made a tremendous impact on the movement for national liberation against imperialism in the world. Its role supporting the anti-colonial movement and in the fight for peace is beyond dispute.[16]

But the Party concluded, ‘the fact remains that the defects in the Soviet system sapped socialism of its strength within the Soviet Union’.[17] However in the end, the CPB remained (and remains) sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union, with Robert Griffiths stating, ‘[w]ere we to draw up a balance sheet, the positive features of the socialist experience would far outweigh the negative ones.’[18]

The CPB acknowledged that ‘[i]t is understandable that there is disappointment, even despair, at the collapse of the Socialist system in the Soviet Union and the other Socialist countries’, but claimed ‘the struggle isn’t over.’[19] The first General Secretary of the CPB, Mike Hicks, was quoted in the Morning Star, declaring in 1991, ‘we do not believe that Socialism is dead… Nor do we believe that millions of Communists around the world have stopped dreaming of and aspiring to a better future.’[20] For the CPB, The British Road to Socialism programme and the name ‘Communist Party’ remained important as they represented ‘a living expression of the application of Marxism-Leninism to the concrete conditions of Britain in the world today’, with Hicks stating that the Party would not consider ‘abandoning the title Communist, nor the Leninist structure of our party.’[21] Hicks added:

We are proud of the name Communist. We are proud to reach out over the years to those great pioneers of our party – Pollitt, Gallacher and Dutt, to name but three.[22]

The Morning Star from 11 Nov, 1989 (all pics from microfilm copies of the paper so text is probably unreadable)

The Morning Star from 11 Nov, 1989

[1] See: Tony Lane, ‘The Unions: Caught on the Ebb Tide’, Marxism Today, September 1982, pp. 6-13.

[2] For discussions of these disputes within the CPGB, see: F. Beckett, Enemy Within, pp. 190-228; Edmund & Ruth Frow, The Liquidation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, E. & R. Frow, Salford, 1996; G. Andrews, Endgames and New Times, pp. 201-223; K. Laybourn, Marxism in Britain, pp. 114-147; Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1960-1991, Rotten Elements, n.d., pp. 54-71.

[3] Kevin Morgan, ‘The Communist Party and the Daily Worker 1930-56’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan (eds), Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party, Pluto Press, London, 1995, p. 142.

[4] ‘We Say’, Morning Star, 23 December, 1989, p. 1.

[5] ‘Socialism and Democracy’, Morning Star, 27 December, 1989, p. 2.

[6] Nokolai Portgugalov & Vladimir Markov, ‘Perestroika Wind in GDR’, Morning Star, 30 November, 1989, p. 4.

[7] ‘Socialism and Democracy’, p. 2.

[8] John Haylett, ‘Great Day for Perestroika!’, Morning Star, 23 August, 1991, p.1.

[9] ‘A Tragic Farewell for Gorbachov’, Morning Star, 27 December, 1991, p. 4.

[10] ’72 years of Socialism; Perestroika – A New Stage’, Morning Star, 7 November, 1989, p.2.

[11] Tony Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, Morning Star, 7 November, 1991, p. 5.

[12] ‘Socialism, What Now?’, Morning Star, 27 August, 1991, p. 2.

[13] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’, Resolution of the Reconvened 41st Congress of the Communist Party of Britain, November 1992, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Aassessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=51%3Achinas-line-of-march&Itemid=22&limitstart=1, accessed 1 November, 2010.

[14] Robert Griffiths, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union: Introduction’, September 1998, http://communist-party.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=345%3Aassessing-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union&catid=51%3Achinas-line-of-march&Itemid=22, accessed 1 November, 2010.

[15] T. Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, pp. 4-5.

[16] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’.

[17] CPB, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union’.

[18] R. Griffiths, ‘Assessing the Collapse of the Soviet Union: Introduction’.

[19] T. Chater, ‘1917 and the Fight for Socialism’, p. 5.

[20] Cited in, Isolda McNeill, ‘Vital Role for the CPB’, Morning Star, 11 November, 1991, p. 3.

[21] Cited in, ‘CPB Call on British Road’, Morning Star, 30 November, 1989, p. 3.

[22] Cited in, ‘CPB Call on British Road’, Morning Star, p. 3.

The Communist Party of Great Britain and the ‘Irish Question’, 1949-1968

This is the text of a paper I gave last week at the 22nd Australasian Irish Studies Conference held at Flinders University. It is my first foray into a very contentious issue (see this discussion between Anthony Coughlan and Matt Treacy) so I would be grateful for any feedback, but please be kind!

From the Daily Worker, 11 February, 1933

From the Daily Worker, 11 February, 1933

Since the partition of Ireland at the end of the Anglo-Irish War in 1921, which occurred almost simultaneously with the establishment of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the Party has generally supported the reunification of Ireland and, since 1969, has supported the call for the removal of Britain’s military and political presence in Northern Ireland. This support for a free and united Ireland originally stemmed from the position of the Communist International in support of the national liberation struggles of all colonial and semi-colonial peoples across the globe, and from the Leninist assumption that revolutions in the colonial sphere would help spark revolutions in the West. Specifically for the British working class, Lenin argued in 1914 that ‘[t]he English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke.’[1]

The CPGB and Ireland in the inter-war period

The CPGB had a substantial Irish membership and had close links to the communist movement in Ireland. Although this was, at times, a strained relationship at times, with the Irish Communists often feeling that their sister party overshadowed them, and in the eyes of Moscow, had to often defer to the leadership of the CPGB. With the Irish Communists going through several different organisations in the inter-war period, the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) came into being in 1933, ‘Bolshevised’, but still wavering between advocating a broad anti-colonialist front against the British and a more united front against the British and ‘their Irish agents, Cosgrave [and] De Valera’.[2] The CPI and its previous incarnations had attempted to win over left-leaning Republicans from Soar Éire and the IRA (although dual membership had been banned until 1933), but the IRA was deeply divided over left-wing Republicanism as evidenced at its 1934 conference.[3] In response to this, the CPGB, in the journal Labour Monthly, criticised the ‘petty-bourgeois leadership’ of the IRA as ‘unwilling to conduct a fight’ against the De Valera government.[4] However as the 1930s progressed, the British party recognised the IRA as part of a broad anti-fascist Popular Front during the late 1930s, particularly as a number of former IRA men went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.[5]

Compared to its British counterpart, the CPI remained numerically very small during the Popular Front period and during the ‘imperialist war’ phase of the Second World War, resolved to dissolve itself, in line with dominant attitudes towards Irish neutrality in the country at the time. A remnant of the party still existed in the six counties as the Communist Party of Northern Ireland (CPNI), which existed until 1970, while the CPI was reconstituted as the Irish Workers League in the Irish Free State in 1948, becoming the Irish Workers Party in 1962 and finally merging back into the CPI (including the CPNI) in 1970.

11288-coverconassoc

CPGB member C. Desmond Greaves helped to establish the Connolly Association (CA) in 1938, whose aim was to promote Irish Republicanism within the British labour movement. Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn have written that the Connolly Association provided ‘a vehicle for socialist republicanism under communist direction, but without any suggestion of rivalry with established communist party structures’.[6] Publishing the monthly newspaper, the Irish Democrat, the CA had a more symbiotic relationship with the republican movement in Ireland and the IRA, rather than King St, which gave lip service to them in the party press, but put much more emphasis on the trade unions. According to the Association’s 1955 constitution, the aims and objects of the CA were:

To organise Irish men and women resident in Britain for the defence of their interests, in united struggle with the British working class movement, and in particular –

(a) To win support for the struggle of the Irish people for a united independent Republic, and to fight for the removal of all obstacles placed in their way by British imperialism…[7]

Unlike the militarist road of the IRA, the CA promoted obtaining these aims and objects via the following tactics:

(a) Winning majority support for them in the organised working class and democratic movement in Britain.

(b) Working for the unity and strength of the Labour movement, especially the unity of British and Irish workers…

(f) Co-operating with other organisations in matters of common concern and affiliating to or accepting affiliation from appropriate bodies as may be decided.[8]

Although individual CA (and CPGB) members had links to the IRA, particularly through the Wolfe Tone Society,[9] the only two organisations that the CA affiliated with were two organisations that the CPGB had links to, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF).[10]

National Liberation or Peaceful Devolution?

In the era of decolonisation that followed the Second World War, the CPGB believed that the Irish Free State would gain full independence similar to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (which did occur in 1949), but also accepted the idea that British rule in Northern Ireland was a form of neo-colonialism to be challenged by the Northern Irish population (especially the labour movement). In 1958, Greaves described the partition of Ireland as ‘a political arrangement designed to create and perpetuate precisely what has happened – to facilitate the expropriation of Irish capitalists by British financers, instead of by Irish workers’.[11] In the same year, John Hostettler suggested that Northern Ireland existed in the liminal space between a colony and part of the United Kingdom, with practices by the British having ‘the same pattern in the colonies’, but also ‘so near home’ that government and policing practices could be transferred to British sphere.[12]

The CPGB, as the Communist Party at the metropole of the largest empire at that time, were dedicated to anti-colonialism and fostering links with anti-colonial movements across the Empire. Unlike its support for the insurgent national liberation movements that emerged in the British colonies, such as in Malaya, Kenya and Nigeria, the CPGB chose to support the united Irish labour movement (including the Irish Workers League), rather than the more militarised republican movement embodied by Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army. In the post-war era, the CPGB leadership under Harry Pollitt resolved that armed insurrection, akin to what occurred in October 1917, was a foolish adventure for Western Communist Parties, and endorsed a parliamentary road to socialism, based on capturing the trade unions and building an alliance between Labour and the Communist Party. Despite the military presence of the British in Northern Ireland, the CPGB viewed the socio-political conditions of Ireland as similar to Britain and believed that focusing on developing the strength of the labour movement to gain political power, rather than armed rebellion, which was happening elsewhere in the British Empire. In 1947, the CPGB hosted a conference that brought Communist and Workers’ Parties from across the British Empire to London. At this conference, a representative from the IWL pronounced:

Our policy is aimed to bring about a strong united labour movement which, in alliance with the working farmers and progressive forces, will provide the country with a Government which can direct it along the path of advance to socialism.[13]

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The Party called for the remaining British troops stationed in the North to be removed, but believed that this could done peacefully. In some instances, the situation in Northern Ireland was seen as more akin to the political landscape in Scotland or Wales, thus requiring a strategy of progressive devolution-cum-independence, rather than the strategy of insurgent national liberation needed in many other colonies. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist Party advocated for devolution in Scotland and Wales, with their own parliaments, but keeping within the United Kingdom, but saw Northern Ireland as a superficial entity that needed to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. For example, in the 1958 version of The British Road to Socialism, the Party stated:

The withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland is necessary to end the enforced partition of Ireland, and leave the Irish people free to establish their united Republic.[14]

Speaking on the national question in Marxism Today in 1968, leading Welsh Party member Idris Cox wrote ‘Northern Ireland would have no part as such in a British federal system’ as envisaged by the CPGB at that time.[15] However Greaves, with his focus on Ireland, was one of the few in the late 1960s in favour of full self-determination for Scotland and Wales, as well as the break-up of the United Kingdom.[16]

Relationship with militant Republicans and NICRA

Supporting the push for civil rights for the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, as well as an end to the ‘police state’ present in the North, the Party was sympathetic to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which included people from the Communist Party of Northern Ireland and the Wolfe Tone Society. After a series of civil rights marches were attacked by the police and Loyalist gangs in August 1968, Labour Monthly (edited by long-time CPGB figure R. Palme Dutt) published an account of these attacks by NICRA and CPNI member Betty Sinclair.[17]

The relationship with Sinn Fein and the IRA, despite some links between them, the Wolfe Tone Society and the Connolly Association, was much more fractious for most of the 1960s. In a bulletin published by the CPGB’s International Department in 1968, the Party wrote that Sinn Fein’s United Irishman newspaper ‘increasingly reflects the interests of petit-bourgeoisie and small independent capitalists’, but welcomed the leftwards turn that Sinn Fein had taken in the mid-1960s.[18] Even the Connolly Association asserted in July 1966 that it favoured ‘the political strength of the working class movement’ to the ‘power of the gun’ proposed by Seamus Costello,[19] at that time a leading figure in the IRA.

an-phoblacht-no-8-nov-dec-1966Despite taking a leftwards turn, some within the militant Republican movement were highly critical of the criticisms made by the Connolly Association, with the Cork based Irish Revolutionary Fighters, describing the Association’s position on the armed struggle as ‘reactionary politics’[20] and writing in 1966:

We would suggest that the protégés of the Connolly Association… return to the orbit of the British Communist Party, and keep their cotton-picking-fingers [sic] out of our business.[21]

It also had harsh words for the CPGB, doubting its revolutionary character and describing it as ‘nothing more than the “servant boy” of British imperial interests’.[22]

The outbreak of the conflict in 1968 and the arrival of British troops in Derry in 1969 changed the outlook of the British left towards what was happening in Northern Ireland and the wider ‘Irish Question’. The CPGB continued to call for mass movement to fight for civil rights in the north and against the British presence in the statelet, while some Trotskyist groups, such as the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists, ‘critically’ supported the Provisional IRA after the split within the Irish Republican movement in 1969-70. Like many other social movements that the CPGB was involved in, the Party had been at the forefront of building solidarity between the British and Irish labour movements for the purpose of a reunited Ireland, but was slowly overtaken by more radical groups in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.

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[1] V.I. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch08.htm (accessed 6 January, 2015).

[2] Letter of Anglo-American Secretariat to Ireland RE: elections (7 January, 1932), Comintern Archives, RGASPI 495/89/75/1. As cited in, David Convery, ‘Internationalism or Paternalism? Relations Between British and Irish Communists, 1920-1941’ (forthcoming).

[3] See: Richard English, ‘Socialism and Republican Schism in Ireland: The Emergence of the Republican Congress in 1934’, Irish Historical Studies, 27/105 (May 1990) pp. 48-65. As cited in Convery, ‘Internationalism or Paternalism?’

[4] Jim Shields, ‘The Republican Congress and Ireland’s Fight’, Labour Monthly (November 1934) p. 687.

[5] David Convery, ‘Revolutionary Internationalists: Irish Emigrants in the Spanish Civil War’, in Mícheál Ó hAodha & Máirtín Ó Catháin, New Perspectives on the Irish Abroad: The Silent People? (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books 2014) pp. 131-144.

[6] Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen & Andrew Flinn, Communists and British Society 1920-1991 (London: Rivers Oram Press, 2007) p. 201.

[7] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association? Constitution and Explanation (Derby: Connolly Association, 1963) p. 1.

[8] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association?, p. 2.

[9] Kenneth Sheehy, ‘In the Shadow of Gunmen: The Wolfe Tone Society, 1963-1969’, unpublished paper, https://www.academia.edu/8441579/In_the_Shadow_of_Gunmen_The_Wolfe_Tone_Society_1963-1969 (accessed 30 November, 2016).

[10] Connolly Association, What is the Connolly Association?, p. 14.

The CPGB had close relationships with both the NCCL and the MCF, with some Party members holding leadership positions in both organisations. See: Christopher Moores, ‘From Civil Liberties to Human Rights? British Civil Liberties Activism and Universal Human Rights’, Contemporary European History, 21/2 (May 2012) pp. 179-181; Josiah Brownell, ‘The Taint of Communism: The Movement for Colonial Freedom, the Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1954-70’, Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2007, pp. 235-258.

[11] C. Desmond Greaves, ‘What of Northern Ireland?’, World News (12 July, 1958) p. 438.

[12] John Hostettler, ‘Northern Ireland’, Marxism Today (November 1958) p. 332.

[13] W. McCullough, ‘Ireland’, in CPGB, We Speak for Freedom (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1947) p. 60.

[14] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1958) p. 24.

[15] Idris Cox, ‘The National Problem in Britain’, Marxism Today (June 1968) p. 191.

[16] Desmond Greaves, ‘The National Problem in Britain’, Marxism Today (October 1968) p. 312.

[17] Betty Sinclair, ‘Aftermath of Derry’, Labour Monthly (December 1968) pp. 555-559.

[18] CPGB International Department, International Affairs Bulletin: Ireland, 3/1 (May/June 1968) p. 8.

[19] ‘Force or Agreement?’, Irish Democrat (July 1966) p. 3.

[20] Paddy Mac, ‘The Neo-Parnellites: Irish Democrat Flies True Colours’, An Phoblacht, 7 (September 1966) p. 11.

[21] ‘The Yahoos and An Phoblacht’, An Phoblacht, 8 (November/December 1966) p. 7.

[22] ‘Wolfe Tone Society Exposed’, An Phoblacht, 9 (January 1967) p. 8.