British History

Love Milkshakes, Hate Racism: A short history of throwing food at the far right

nigel-farage-milkshake-1558430783

In the last month, milkshakes have been lobbed at several far right candidates in the Euro elections. First it was former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, then UKIP’s misogynist YouTuber Carl Benjamin and now Nigel Farage as he was out campaigning in Newcastle for his new Brexit Party. When Farage visited Edinburgh, the local police advised McDonald’s not to sell milkshakes and there has been further news that Farage refused to step off his tour bus after being threatened with further milkshakings.

This has followed on from the egging of right-wing politicians in Australiaand of neo-Nazis in the United States. Some commentators have argued that these milkshakings and eggings are a form of political violence, while defenders of those who have thrown milkshakes and eggs have countered that these are non-violent forms of protest, designed to humiliate rather than injure. Compared with the prospect of violence from the far right, the dousing of political opponents in food stuffs is relatively minor.

On social media, opponents of the far right have been quick to use eggs and milkshakes as cultural symbols of anti-fascism. The throwing of food stuffs at politicians has a long history in most parts of the world, but there is a discernible history of food stuffs being used to combat the far right in Britain going back to the 1930s and the fights against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

In June 1934, shortly after the violent clashes between anti-fascists and the BUF at Olympia, eggs and fruit were thrown at the BUF in Melksham, Wiltshere, alongside a car being overturned. Later in the same year, eggs and bottles were thrown at the BUF in Gillingham, Kent. At the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936, various accounts say that eggs, rotten fruit and flour were hurled at the marching fascists and the police. In the weeks following ‘Cable Street’, eggs, vegetables and tomatoes bombarded fascist speakers in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

After the war, Oswald Mosley still attracted protests involving food. After being invited to speak at the Cambridge Union in 1958, Mosley was hit in the face with a custard pie. Invited again to speak in 1960 to the same union society, Mosley was slapped with a jelly across the face, while protestors chanted ‘Sharpeville, Notting Hill’.

Screen Shot 2019-05-05 at 7.59.18 pm.png

When the fascists attempted to go out in public, they were also confronted with food stuffs. When Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement held a rally in Trafalgar Square in July 1962, he had tomatoes and rotten eggs pelted at him. A few months later, Mosley attended a Union Movement (the successor organisation to the BUF) in Bethnal Green in East London and endured a hail of fruit and bad eggs while he tried to speak. As he fled to his car, he was egged again. When Jordan married Francoise Dior in Yorkshire in 1963, eggs were among the things thrown at those attending the Nazi wedding.

In the 1970s, when the National Front held provocative rallies, there was a clash in North London in April 1977 at the ‘Battle of Wood Green’ (with a young Jeremy Corbyn involved in organising the protest). Bags of flour, rotten eggs and fruit were gathered and thrown at the NF.

During the protests against visiting hard right politicians in the 1970s and 1980s, several MPs had food stuff thrown at them. Sir Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s early supporters, was pelted with flour bombs and eggs when he came to speak at Essex University in February 1977. Home Office minister David Waddington was doused in beer in December 1985 when he tried to address a meeting at the University of Manchester and Enoch Powell had a ham sandwich thrown at him the following year during a visit to Bristol University.

And the tradition of egging the far right continued into the twenty first century. Days after winning a seat in the 2009 European elections, leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, was egged as he tried to hold a press conference. When the English Defence League attempted to march through Nottingham in August 2016, eggs (alongside the protestor’s popular choice, smoke bombs) were thrown as anti-fascists largely outnumbered the small EDL crowd.

image-2-for-nick-griffin-gets-pelted-with-eggs-gallery-260699986

After the egging of Nick Griffin,Gerry Gable, the long-time editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight wrote that while seeing food stuffs being dumped over Griffin’s head ‘certainly brought a smile to many people’s face’, it was ‘going to take more than a few well-aimed eggs and worthy placards to finish the BNP for good.’ This is certainly the case, but a well-aimed egg or milkshake (especially in the era of social media where such spectacles can shared and replayed by millions) can lift the spirits of anti-fascists everywhere.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

‘No Platforming’ at Bristol University in the 1980s and Now

The protests against Eric Kaufmann at the University of Bristol last week are part of a much longer history of ‘no platforming’ at the university, stretching back to the 1980s.

This research is part of a book that I am writing on the history of ‘no platform’ and free speech at British universities for Routledge’s Fascism and Far Right series. 

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 7.42.38 pm.png

Daily Express, 18 October, 1986, p. 4. 

Last week students at the University of Bristol staged a walkout in protest of a talk being given by Professor Eric Kaufmann, who has been promoting his book Whiteshift about white anxieties about immigration. Denigrating ‘the cultural Left’ for their support for multiculturalism, Kaufmann has argued for ‘ethno-traditional nationhood’, with ‘slower immigration to permit enough immigrants to voluntary assimilate into the ethnic majority, maintain the white ethno-tradition’.[1] Umut Ozkirimili has described Kaufmann as part of the ‘academic alt-right’,[2] while Alana Lentin argues that Kaufmann ‘confuses racial self-interest expressed as white opposition to immigration with the sense of ethnic belonging’.[3] By doing so, Lentin writes, Kaufmann attempts to portray white concerns about immigration as ‘not racism’, but legitimate fears.[4]

Kaufmann was invited by the Centre of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol to speak about his research. The Bristol Post reported that around 30 students walked out of the lecture, but some who opposed Kaufmann also stayed.[5] Several academics at the university questioned why Kaufmann was invited. On twitter, Kaufmann complained that a ‘small, vocal minority’ had the potential to ‘no platform’ his event and while acknowledging that they did not actually shut down the event, he asked whether there should penalties ‘in order to deter such actions in the future’.[6] A number of people argued that those who walked out were merely demonstrating their freedom of speech to not listen to Kaufmann, who has been championed by free speech absolutists recently. This has been part of a broader debate about free speech, ‘no platforming’ and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ in an era of a global right-wing resurgence.

The recent media obsession with ‘no platform’ and free speech at British universities (also seen in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) often overlooks the history of these debates and the lengthy development of the tactic of ‘no platforming’ since the 1970s. Many commentators are quick to blame the use of ‘no platform’ tactics on the rise of ‘identity politics’, suggesting that it is a twenty-first century phenomenon. But ‘no platform’ has been official NUS policy since 1974 and there have confrontational protests with conservative and far right speakers at British universities since the late 1960s.

This incident at Bristol University in 2019 echoes a much longer history of battles over free speech at the university. In particular, the university became a significant site of student protest against speakers perceived to be racist in the mid-1980s. This happened amidst a wave of Conservative MPs and hard right speakers visiting universities that provoked strong student reactions and led to the Thatcher government introducing legislation seeking to protect ‘free speech’.

Throughout the year 1986, the University of Bristol was a focal point for the debate between ‘no platform’ and ‘free speech’ on campus. There seemed to be a significant increase in the number of protests against visiting MPs to university campuses between 1985 and 1987, with several notorious hard right Tories, as well as other figures on the right (such as Enoch Powell) attempting to speak on campuses throughout this period. By 1985, students had been locked in a four year battle with the Thatcher government over funding for higher education, with cuts to student grants and plans to introduce fees for higher education.[7] As Richard Aldrich has written, ‘the more market-led, free-enterprise approach to society and the economy which characterized the premiership of Margaret Thatcher’ influenced the education reforms of the 1980s,[8] which led to confrontations with students, just as the government had in their battles with other sections of society such as the trade unions, peace campaigners or Britain’s ethnic minority communities. The period of confrontation with MPs on campus came at the end of the Miners’ Strike, which had polarised British society and generated a strong oppositional movement to the Thatcher government.

In January 1985, Enoch Powell cancelled a visit to the University of Leeds after the students declared that they would protest against him[9] and Home Secretary Leon Brittan faced a hostile crowd at the University of Manchester in March 1985 in the week that the Miners’ Strike ended.[10] At the University of Bristol, a Professor of Modern History, John Vincent, became a target for protesting students who objected to his columns for The Times and The Sun. Vincent was considered part of a cohort of ‘new right’ intellectuals, who ‘skilfully adapt[ed] the cultural racism of the “New Right” circles into a populist format’, namely the mainstream press.[11] Vincent had written some inflammatory columns for The Sun, such as one in July 1985 in which he blamed the death of a black toddler on Lambeth Council’s belief in ‘separate treatment’ for black people.[12] Cited by Paul Gordon, ‘The anti-racist “mumbo jumbo about black identity”, Vincent wrote, had overridden the safety of the child and had led to disaster’.[13]

A campaign to boycott Vincent’s lectures started in 1985 and escalated in early 1986, coinciding with the beginning of the Wapping Strike, when Rupert Murdoch moved his printworks and instigated a long-running battle with several trade unions (months after the Miners’ Strike ended). In late February 1986, students disrupted a lecture by Vincent and this was repeated the following week. The Daily Telegraph described the second incident:

Prof. John Vincent… was escorted by police through a mob of angry students yesterday after giving a lecture at Bristol University.

Mr Vincent… left the arts faculty building after a two-hour siege by about 300 students while he gave a history lecture abandoned last week due to protests.[14]

The newspaper cited the University’s Information Officer who claimed that the protest was ‘orchestrated by the Socialist Workers Party and anarchist elements determined to widen the dispute over the printing of Mr Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers at Wapping’.[15]

The disruption of Vincent’s lectures was condemned in the media. An editorial for The Times declared:

An academic lecture has an absolute privilege. Disruption is an act of intellectual vandalism as dangerous as any other effort to truncate learning and the exchange of opinion…

Professor Vincent’s extra-curricular activities are irrelevant. Prveenting his teaching about late nineteenth century politics was to disrupt the instrument of higher education itself, the academic lecture.[16]

In the same newspaper, Lord Beloff stated that the disruption of lectures due to the lecturer’s external activities ‘must be regarded as conduct so irreconcilable with the idea of a university that its perpetrators must, after due warning, face expulsion’.[17]

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 6.46.50 pm

Daily Mail, 16 May, 1986, p. 8.

15 students originally faced disciplinary proceedings as a result of the disruptions,[18] but this grew to 19 by May 1986, when nine were acquitted, two hard the charges against them dropped and seven were found guilty.[19] Baroness Cox, during parliamentary debates about the introduction of legislation to protect free speech on campuses, complained that the penalties for those found guilty were too mild.[20] John Carlisle, an MP who faced violent protests on various campuses around the same time, also criticised the leniency shown to the protesting students. In the House of Commons in June 1986, he said:

The students who came before the court were merely fined and slapped on the wrist. They were not expelled from the university. The taxpayer has the right to ask whether such students should be able to continue their studies at the taxpayers’ expense when they are intent on disrupting meetings.[21]

Eventually the seven students who were found guilty had their convictions quashed on a technicality.[22] Meanwhile John Vincent took a leave of absence from his teaching role after the disruptions, but continued to write.

But the troubles didn’t stop after this. In late April 1986, Conservative MP John Carlisle visited Bristol University as part of his tour of university campuses. Carlisle was a prominent member of both the Monday Club and Federation of Conservative Students, and was a hard right figure within the Conservative Party. In the 1980s, he was most well-known for his support for apartheid South Africa and his condemnation of the African National Congress, including the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Matthew P. Llewellyn and Toby C. Rider have described Carlisle as a ‘fierce pro-Pretoria spokesman’[23] and it was on this topic that he frequently spoke at public meetings, including at universities. In February 1986, large student protests had forced Carlisle to cancel speaking engagements at the University of Bradford and Oxford University as he faced hostile crowds. He pre-emptively cancelled a visit to Leeds Polytechnic the following week after these incidents. In late April, Carlisle went to the University of East Anglia, where there was a picket by some students (mostly aligned with the SWP) and a much larger ‘silent vigil’.[24] Carlisle managed to bypass the crowd, but his speaking engagement was eventually cancelled.[25]

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 7.40.36 pm

Daily Express, 26 April, 1986, p. 7. 

A day later, Carlisle arrived to speak at Bristol University, invited by the Conservative Association. He was joined by fellow Tory MP, Fred Silvester, who had recently introduced a private members’ bill to ensure free speech on campus[26] – an idea that had been raised by Sir Keith Joseph’s green paper on higher education the previous year and would become part of the Education (no. 2) Act 1986 by the end of the year (after pressure from the House of Lords).[27] Unlike many of his previous attempts at speaking at universities that spring, Carlisle was able to address a crowd, despite significant student protests. The Times reported that ‘more than 100 left-wing students attempted to disrupt a meeting on free speech’ and that both MPs faced ‘a barrage of screaming, foot stamping and obscenities’.[28] The newspaper further described the protest with the following:

Ignoring cries of ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’, Mr Carlisle said he was pleased that in Bristol at least he had been allowed to address a meeting…

Making himself heard through a microphone in spite of a fire alarm being activated, Mr Carlisle shouted: ‘You won’t stop us because we believe in the fundamental principle of democracy’.[29]

Using the trope of the ‘red fascist’, Carlisle said that the reaction by the protesting students reminded him of ‘what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s’.[30] By the mid-1980s, the comparison between protesting students and Nazism was a well-worn allegory, often used (since the late 1960s) to portray students as violent or hostile to opposing ideas.

Over the summer, Carlisle became one of the staunchest proponents of legislation to be put in place to protect free speech at British universities and greater penalties for those who disrupted speakers. By the autumn of 1986, the section of the Education Bill regarding ‘no platform’ and free speech was being debated in parliament, which coincided with further clashes between hard right speakers and protestors.

In October 1986, Enoch Powell visited two universities amidst this debate and following in the footsteps of Carlisle and others. As Camilla Schofield has argued, Enoch Powell had an influence on the hard right forces in the Conservative Party that developed Thatcherism in the 1980s,[31] but during Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, Powell himself remained a critic on the right of Thatcher. He had left the Tories just prior to the 1974 election over the issue of British membership of the European Economic Community and joined the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). As the ‘Troubles’ continued into the 1980s, Powell frequently spoke about the issue of Northern Ireland. The other major topic that Powell spoke on in the 1980s was ‘race relations’ and immigration, a topic that had originally brought him notoriety in the late 1960s. Powell used the 1980-81 and 1985 riots as vindication of his racist pronouncements on Commonwealth immigration and challenged Thatcher to clarify her position on non-white immigration in the wake of the 1985 riots.[32] Despite not being a member of the Conservative Party anymore, Powell was still a drawcard for the right and he was invited on a numberof occasionsto address Conservative Associations at various universities around the country. While he had to cancel a speaking event at Leeds University in January 1985 after a proposed protest, he had still spoken at Cambridge later in the year with little protest, but after the actions against John Carlisle at a number of universities, Powell’s campus visits drew a renewed level of opposition.

A week prior to his proposed speech at Bristol, Powell had had to abandon a talk at University College Cardiff (UCC at the time; now part of Cardiff University) when students from the Socialist Workers Student Society, as well as the UCC Labour Club, the UCC Women’s Group and the UCC Union of Liberal Students (several of which were leading members of the UCC student union),[33] launched a protest to prevent Powell from speaking. The front page of Gair Rhydd, the student newspaper at UCC, described the protest:

Trouble began almost before the meeting had started when Socialist Worker Students, angered at the prospect of the controversial right-winger speaking at UCC, mounted a picket outside room 22 of the Law building.

When this failed to stop the meeting they attempted to enter themselves… After ten minutes of argument [sic] most of the protestors were kept out.

Trouble flared up again, however, when Mr Powell began speaking. A group of protestors flung open the doors and occupied the platform on which Mr Powell stood. Mr Powell then faced a barrage of abuse and chanting of ‘No free speech for racists’…

As it became more and more obvious that the protestors had no intention of leaving until Mr Powell did, the UWIST College Secretary made an appeal to the demonstrators to stop chanting of face disciplinary action. He was unable to finish his announcement before being drowned out by further chanting.

Mr Powell then left with the words ‘Thank you for your courtesy’, and beat a hasty retreat to a waiting car.[34]

Ten students were eventually identified and faced disciplinary proceedings brought by the College, but the student union argued that the College had failed to inform the student union in a timely manner of Powell’s proposed visit.[35] The student union declared, ‘College denied us the right to organise and orderly protest… The spontaneous nature of the demonstration was due to College’s negligence.’[36] As protests against the disciplinary actions grew in the weeks that followed, the student union’s Communications Officer, Jake Lynch, claimed that the College had ‘ridden roughshod over the Unions [sic] No Platform policy’.[37] This disciplinary charges were dropped after a negotiated settlement between the student union and the UCC administration, which also led to a revised version of the ‘no platform’ policy at UCC.[38]

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 6.44.13 pm

The week after the Cardiff incident, Powell was scheduled to speak at the University of Bristol, invited by the Bristol University Conservative Association. The student union at the University of Bristol did not have a formal ‘no platform’ policy in place (in fact a referendum on whether to introduce such a policy was being held during the Powell debacle) and the student union instead urged a silent protest.[39] Similar to when John Carlisle visited Oxford, Leeds and Bradford earlier in the year, the President of the student union, David Gottlieb, suggested that the Conservative Association was being provocative with their invitation of Powell.[40] Gottlieb queried the Conservative Association’s aims with their invitations, arguing that ‘the individuals who have invited these speakers to come and talk here in the sensitive atmosphere of Bristol must bear some responsibility’ for stoking tensions on campus.[41] He added, ‘It is my considered opinion that there are people in this Students’ Union whose actions prove them to be interested not in protecting freedom of speech but in stirring up trouble’.[42] An editorial in the student newspaper Bacus also questioned the motives of the Conservative Association in inviting Powell, asking:

Do they hope for interesting speeches, or for the sort of protest which will give Fleet Street the chance to run yet more ‘left wing thug’ stories?[43]

In a Union General Meeting leading up to Powell’s visit, Phillip Malcom, the Chairman of the Conservative Association, said to those opposing Powell’s invitation that he ‘would not be intimidated in defending free speech’, claiming to be ‘fanatically in favour of free speech’.[44]

 Bacus also reported that the University were reluctant to intervene in the case, even though the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals had previously recommended that ‘speakers in possible danger should be barred’ (especially after the incidents involving Carlisle a few months prior), while the student union president stated that he did not expect any trouble from students regarding Powell’s visit.[45] The editorial in the student paper implored students to be peaceful in their demonstrations, pleading:

Any sort of violent demonstrations will discredit all opposition groups in the eyes of those who read such reports [from Fleet Street].

Don’t play into the hands of the Tories and right-wing press by resorting to violence.

We will suffer the consequences if you do.[46]

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 6.44.32 pm

While around 200 students had attended a peaceful protest against Powell in the foyer on the building where Powell was speaking, a smaller group of protestors violently confronted Powell shortly after he began. The front page of Bacus described the incident:

Around 30 demonstrators, mostly anarchists from outside the University, gathered at the front of the hall hurling abuse and spitting at Mr. Powell. They blew whistles, let off stink and smoke bombs and at one point threw a ham salad sandwich at him…

Mr. Powell left the stage after only ten minutes when the protestors began shaking the crash barriers in front of the stage.

Three of the demonstrators then climbed onto the stage, overturned tables and chairs and snapped the microphone stand. Two of them gave mock Nazi salutes to the audience.

Others tried to chase Mr. Powell but were met by a locked door which one protestor kicked in.[47]

The actions by the anarchists were condemned widely. Phillip Malcom described the events as ‘worse than I could ever have imagined’ and called for legal action to be taken against those who disrupted Powell.[48] An editorial in Bacus declared that the anarchist protestors had ‘discredited everybody who had made an effort to provide a forum for those who find the views of Powell and his ilk abhorrent’.[49] In the Daily Express, Lord Chalfont called those who disrupted Powell ’a mob of illiterate morons’.[50] Even the SWP criticised the anarchists for their ‘tactical suicide’,[51] suggesting that ‘the event was marred by the Anarchists’.[52]

Screen Shot 2019-04-06 at 7.04.12 pm

One of the anarchists that broke up the Powell talk gives their reasons for doing so. Bacus, 10 October, 1986, p. 1.

The anarchists themselves wrote to Bacus justifying their position. Alongside affirmation of the broader ‘no platform’ position shared by the SWP and others that ‘it should not be used as an inalienable right to allow a racist a platform’, the anarchists argued that ‘[s]ymbolic demonstrations do nothing to prevent racist attacks or the spread of racist propaganda.’[53] They rationalised their tactics by claiming:

In the absence of an effective anti-racist policy in this Students Union there was no other way of preventing Powell and what he represents from speaking.[54] 

A week later, two figures from the ‘new right’ centred around the journal Salisbury Review, John Savery and Ray Honeyford, spoke at Bristol University, alongside John Bercow from the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS). The FCS had been involved in the invitations of Carlisle to the University of Bradford and to Leeds Polytechnic earlier in the year and many accused them on deliberately trying to provoke the student left into ‘no platforming’ by bringing these hard right figures onto campus to speak. The FCS campaigned against ‘no platform’ throughout the 1980s, often as part of a wider campaign against the ‘closed shop’ of the NUS.[55] Future Speaker of the House John Bercow debated the policy at the University of Leeds shortly before the FCS was disbanded in late 1986, arguing that the policy was ‘dangerous’ because ‘it enable[d] cowardly student unions to use the policy against any people to whom they object’.[56] When asked whether he would allow the NF to campaign on campus, Bercow said he would, but claimed that ‘No Platform is designed solely to exclude Conservative MPs’ (despite evidence that fascists were still active on campuses across the country in the early 1980s).[57]

For this event with Savery, Honeyford and Bercow, the student union had significantly increased security for the event in the light of the Powell protests, with Bacus reporting little trouble at the event.[58] Bercow commented on the disruption of the Powell speech the previous week, calling it ‘a disgrace to a free society and to the very concept of an academy where debate and free speech occur’.[59] The student newspaper stated that there only three hecklers inside the venue and once the event had ended, Honeyford was ‘jostled and pushed by about fifty demonstrators’.[60] One protestor attempted to throw yellow paint over Honeyford but missed, hitting a car, other protestors and a policeman.[61]

In the wake of these incidents at Bristol, the student union held a vote on whether a ‘no platform’ should be introduced at the university. According to Bacus, students were to vote ‘either to allow all freedom of expression within the law, or to ban organisations such as the National Front and the British Movement and their members’ (with the vote requiring support from 500 students to be binding).[62] However the NF and BM were not the target of the recent protests against Carlisle, Powell and Honeyford and the student union stressed that ‘[n]o platform would not be used to ban Conservative MPs unless they are declared members of the National Front or like organisations.’[63]

For the anarchists and Trotskyists who disrupted Vincent and Powell, whether a formal ‘no platform’ policy applied to Tory MPs was a moot point – the NUS endorsed ‘no platform’ policy at the national level made a distinction between fascists (who were to be ‘no platformed’) and hard right politicians (who were to be allowed to speak), but was often ignored by more militant protestors from the left. The Powell incident showed that disruptive protests happened outside the bounds of the politics of the student union, often at odds with the wishes of the student union itself. As one of the protestors wrote in a letter to Bacus:

When we sent [Harvey] Proctor, Vincent and Powell packing we were not simply silencing racists. We were saying an emphatic ‘No!’ to the lie that our ‘free speech’ has anything to do with real freedom or power over our own lives.

The right must continue spouting its cliches [sic], and in such a white and middle class university as Bristol it can be no surprise that so many are willing to swallow them at face value. But, make no mistake about it, the only freedom that the brats in BUCA really care about is the freedom to stay rich and become powerful, and that means that the rest of us must stay poor and powerless.

We can talk about it as much as we like. That’s our freedom of speech. Unless we back our words up with action nothing will ever change.[64]

An editorial for Bacus the week of the vote implored for a more civilised discourse around politics at the university, writing:

Whether we get No Platform or not, let common sense be the guiding instinct to those on both sides of the political divide. We do not want a repeat of the scenes at the Powell meeting…[65]

This was a sentiment expressed by moderate student union leaders and student newspaper editors across the country in the mid-1980s (and is something that is still mentioned today) – that the far/hard right and the far/hard left were at each other’s throats and left no room for civility.

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 6.46.05 pm

University of Bristol Newsletter, 27 November, 1986, p. 1.

The eventual outcome of the vote was a rejection of a formal ‘no platform’ policy at the university, with just over 1,200 students voting for the option ‘which compelled the Union to adopt a policy of freedom of expression for all views within the law.[66] At the same time, the Education (no. 2) Act 1986 was being passed, which demanded that universities, polytechnics and colleges ‘shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’[67] After seemingly reaching a peak in 1986, the controversy of far right and hard right speakers on university campuses wound down slowly over the next few years (although the issue of ‘no platform’ did not go away entirely).

The University of Bristol seemed to a particular flashpoint for controversy over free speech and the tactic of ‘no platforming’ in the mid-1980s, but was far from alone in witnessing clashes between students and controversial speakers. In recent years, there have been complaints that students today are less open to difficult ideas and are using the policy of ‘no platform’ to silence ideas and speakers that they do not agree with. Looking at the case study of Bristol University in 1985-86, it can be seen that the same criticisms of students were being made then and like today, some commentators have been calling for the enforcement of a policy of free speech protection against a supposedly hostile left on campus.

The ‘no platform’ policy has gained a new notoriety in an era when the far right seems to be making significant strides, with many on university campuses becoming more resistant to encroachment of the far right into their spaces. As scholars like Eric Kaufmann promote ideas that non-white migration has a detrimental effect on host societies and suggest that racist anxieties about immigration are based on legitimate concerns, many feel that this is helping to bring white supremacist ideas to the mainstream and legitimising these ideas through academic discourse. The protest against Kaufmann at Bristol was a response to this, and fits into a much longer history of student protest at the university, whether rightly or wrongly used against various speakers from the right in the 1980s.

Thanks to David Gottlieb for his assistance and feedback on this post.

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 7.27.41 pm

The Times, 18 October, 1986, p. 2.

[1]The Australian, 6 April, 2019, p. 24.

[2]Umut Ozkirimili, ‘White is the New Black: Populism and the Academic Alt-Right’, Open Democracy, 2 January, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/white-is-new-black-populism-and-academic-alt-right/

[3]Alana Lentin, ‘Beyond Denial: “Not Racism” as Racist Violence’, Continuum, 32/4 (2018) p. 408.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Bristol Post, 5 April, 2019, https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/bristol-university-students-walk-out-2725051.amp

[6]Eric Kaufmann (@epkaufm), twitter thread (https://twitter.com/epkaufm/status/1114473894797299714) , 6 April, 2019.

[7]David Watson & Rachel Bowden, ‘Why Did They Do It? The Conservatives and Mass Higher Education, 1979-97’, Journal of Education Policy, 14/3 (1999) p. 244.

[8]Richard Aldrich, ‘Educational Legislation of the 1980s in England: An Historical Analysis’, History of Education, 21/1 (1992) p. 59.

[9]Leeds Student, 25 January, 1985, p. 1; Leeds Student, 1 February, 1985, p. 3.

[10]Brian Pullan with Michele Abendstern, A History of the University of Manchester, 1973-90(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013) pp. 200-202.

[11]Neil MacMaster, Racism in Europe 1870-2000(Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001) p. 197.

[12][12]Paul Gordon, ‘A Dirty War: The New Right and Local Authority Anti-Racism’, in Wendy Ball & John Solomos (eds),Race and Local Politics(Houndmills: Macmillan, 1990) pp. 184-185.

[13]Ibid., p. 185.

[14]Daily Telegraph, 5 March, 1986, p. 1.

[15]Ibid.

[16]The Times, 28 February, 1986, p. 17.

[17]The Times, 21 June, 1986, p. 8.

[18]The Times, 23 April, 1986, p. 2.

[19]The Times, 10 May, 1986, p. 16.

[20]The Times, 28 May, 1986, p. 1.

[21]House of Commons, Hansard, 10 June, 1986, col. 215.

[22]The Times, 5 September, 1986, p. 2.

[23]Matthew P. Llewellyn & Toby C. Rider, ‘Sport, Thatcher and Apartheid Politics’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 44/4 (2018) p. 579.

[24]Phoenix, 1 May, 1986, p. 1

[25]Daily Telegraph, 26 June, 1986, p. 6.

[26]Times Higher Education, 7 February, 1986, p. 1.

[27]Secretary of State for Education and Science, The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s(London: HMSO, 1985); Times Higher Education, 6 June, 1986, p. 3.

[28]The Times, 26 April, 1986, p. 2.

[29]Ibid.

[30]Daily Express, 26 April, 1986, p. 7.

[31]Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) p. 330.

[32]‘Speech by the Rt. Hon. J. Enoch Powell, MBE, MP to the Birkenhead Conservative Women’s Luncheon, at the Masonic Hall, Birkenhead, at 1pm, Friday, 20thSeptember, 1985’, PREM 19/1521, National Archives.

[33]Gair Rhydd, 22 October, 1986, p. 1.

[34]Gair Rhydd, 15 October, 1986, p. 1.

[35]Gair Rhydd, 22 October, 1986, p. 1.

[36]Ibid.

[37]Gair Rhydd, p. 2.

[38]Gair Rhydd, 19 November, 1986, p. 1.

[39]Bacus, 3 October, 1986, p. 1.

[40]Ibid.

[41]University of Bristol Newsletter, 16 October, 1986, p. 3.

[42]Ibid.

[43]Ibid., p. 2.

[44]University of Bristol Newsletter, 16 October, 1986, p. 1.

[45]Ibid., p. 1.

[46]Ibid., p. 2.

[47]Bacus, 24 October, 1986, p. 1.

[48]Ibid.

[49]Ibid., p. 2.

[50]Daily Express, 28 October, 1986, p. 8.

[51]Ibid., p. 1.

[52]Socialist Worker, 25 October, 1986, p.

[53]Bacus, 24 October, 1986, p. 2.

[54]Ibid.

[55]Ruth Levitas, ‘Tory Students and the New Right’, Youth and Policy, 16 (1986) p. 4.

[56]Leeds Student, 5 June, 1986, p. 3.

[57]Ibid.

[58]Bacus, 24 October, 1986, p. 12.

[59]Ibid.

[60]Ibid.

[61]Ibid.

[62]Bacus, 7 November, 1986, p. 1.

[63]Ibid.

[64]Ibid., p. 2.

[65]Ibid.

[66]University of Bristol Newsletter, 27 November, 1986, p. 1.

[67]Education (no. 2) Act 1986, s43.

New article on Corbyn and the historical context of the 2017 Labour manifesto

Very excited to announce that British Politics has published an article by myself and Rob Manwaring on Jeremy Corbyn and the 2017 Labour Party manifesto in historical context. You can access a free version of the article here.

Two new opinion pieces on the history of fascism and anti-fascism

A quick post to let people know that I have had two opinion pieces published this week on the history of fascism and anti-fascism in Britain and Australia.

Firstly, the Times Higher Education website published a piece on the pre-history of ‘no platform’ and the protests against far right speakers on university campuses in the 1950s and 1960s.

Secondly, in response to the debate over whether those who attended a far right in St Kilda earlier in the month were Nazis, Overland published a longer piece on the history of neo-Nazism in Australia and the far right.

Now back to the book!

New book: ‘Communists and Labour: The National Left-Wing Movement 1925-1929’ by Lawrence Parker (with extract)

Lawrence Parker, author of The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991, has published a new book, Communists and Labour: The National Left-Wing Movement 1925-1929.

The National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM), set up by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1925–26 to pull the Labour Party rank and file towards Communist politics, was one in which Marxists worked in a largely open fashion to promote specific programmatic principles.

This publication sheds new light on how the early CPGB approached its work inside the Labour Party and points to a more variegated picture of the CPGB in the mid-to-late 1920s as still capable of producing rational and principled responses to the class struggle — albeit, in the case of the NLWM, partially flawed and unsuccessful ones.

The NLWM had another goal forced upon it of protecting Communists and their sympathisers from a Labour leadership intent on expelling and disaffiliating such elements in a pursuit of respectability. This monograph seeks to qualitatively measure the impact of that disaffiliation process on the CPGB, the NLWM and Labour sympathisers.

You can order the book here. Below is an extract from the book’s introduction.

vaughan and co 1928

Members of the disaffiliated Bethnal Green Trades Council and Labour Party in 1928. Joe Vaughan, Britain’s first CPGB mayor, is front-centre

The National Left-Wing Movement (NLWM), an oppositional force inside the Labour Party in the mid-to-late 1920s, designed to pull rank-and-file Labour members towards the politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), has the status of a relative historical curio. In the ever-expanding literature on the CPGB, the NLWM has received only cursory treatment.

This ‘novelty-item’ status is probably a reflection of the ‘grander’ historical events surrounding the NLWM in the trajectory of the 1920s CPGB. If people know anything about the CPGB in this era, they know of Lenin’s ‘hanged-man’ advice on affiliation to the Labour Party;the party’s role in the General Strike of 1926; and its adoption of disastrous sectarian tactics in the late 1920s.Compared to this, the NLWM is a relative blind spot.

The CPGB itself evinced very little understanding of the NLWM up to its dissolution in 1991. In one historian’s words, the Comintern’s seventh congress of 1935, which saw the popular front take centre stage in world Communist politics, came to be seen by CPGB members as a “foundation congress”.[1] This creates instant problems for the reception of formations such as the NLWM, which was constructed around the pursuit of a process of differentiation with a more ideologically diffuse Labour left, whereas later CPGB approaches to this constituency were hedged around with more modest ideas of adaptation and accommodation — the popular front being the exemplar of such tactics.

Thus, in its latter decades, while the CPGB was still concerned to promote unity with the left of the Labour Party, a nebulous courtship was conducted from a distance, and Communists, in general, did not organise within Labour (this had largely come to an end in 1940). As the CPGB became ever more concerned with notions of respectability (which, in this case, meant respecting the bourgeois proprietorial rights that the Labour Party bureaucracy expected to wield over its patch) and as its chances of becoming a mass organisation that could become an attractive partner to the Labour Party receded, such ‘unity’ became steadily more chimerical. Even though its programme, The British Road to Socialism (first published in 1951), in many ways represented the Communists writing the Labour left’s programme for it, the CPGB was generally forced to rely on more indirect means of influencing Labour, such as the trade unions.

This conservative approach had definite implications for the manner in which the CPGB handled the radicalism of past movements such as the NLWM. When, for example, the CPGB chose to emote on Communist-Labour relations in 1977-78,[2] there was no way, of course, that the historical experience of the NLWM could be central to that debate, given that it was set up to differentiate Communist politics inside a more generic Labour left and act as a bridge to the CPGB (although Monty Johnstone did at least outline a rudimentary awareness of the NLWM in 1978).[3] Official histories of the CPGB offer a bland outline of the NLWM. For example, Noreen Branson, having spoken to one of the NLWM’s secretaries, Ralph Bond,[4] does offer up some useful details but her narrative doesn’t reveal any of the key contradictions of the movement — in a similar fashion to Stalinist economists discussing the quantities of pig iron produced in the Soviet Union.[5] In other words, we know some of the facts of the NLWM’s existence but we know very little of how and why it existed.

The Trotskyist movement has a much better record of trying to excavate the history of the NLWM, led by Brian Pearce, who originally published an important essay ‘The British Communist Party and the Labour left, 1925-1929’ in 1957 (under the pseudonym of Joseph Redman). This offered a sympathetic analysis of the NLWM and the CPGB’s work in establishing it.[6] Pearce was a pioneer in this field and is deserving of respect. However, I have been critical of some of his approach in this study and, in particular, of his preference for quantifying the NLWM’s impact through bare statistics over exploring the qualitative evidence, which, in its very consistency, offers up a far less optimistic picture of the movement’s prospects. Nevertheless, Pearce, in identifying the NLWM as a positive force emanating from the CPGB beyond 1925 (i.e. after Stalin’s bureaucratic faction began to talk hold of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), is an important figure in pointing up a more variegated picture of the CPGB in the mid-to-late 1920s.

Unfortunately, Pearce’s example has generally not been followed and when Britain’s two major Trotskyist organisations of the 1980s, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and the Militant Tendency, investigated the NLWM, the jaundiced picture that emerged had more to do with factional manoeuvring and soap-powder-type brand differentiation than with the real dynamics of the history involved. The Militant Tendency was an entrist group working inside the Labour Party and falsely denied that it had a separate organisation outside Labour. The SWP was Militant’s opponent, inventing spurious reasons as to why entry into the Labour Party was a thoroughly bad idea. This set the scene for their reception of the NLWM. Militant was obviously the more sympathetic but was publicly suspicious of the CPGB for maintaining a separate organisation outside the Labour Party (i.e. exactly what Militant itself did).[7] The SWP, on the other hand, in Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein’s desperate works of the period, felt duty bound to present the NLWM essentially as a ‘right-opportunist’ gambit and a capitulation to reformism, in order to do down Militant and thus any idea of entry work in the Labour Party.[8]

Academic works haven’t generally offered up anything better on the NLWM than the occasional, often trivial, aside,[9] the exception being Leslie Macfarlane’s 1966 work on the CPGB in the 1920s, which offers some useful detail and was a suggestive source of ideas for this work.[10]

However, there is another side to this partial disappearance of the NLWM from the history books. It was a badly organised and unsuccessful venture that lasted for barely three-and-a-half years. In fact, these years saw the removal of Communists from the Labour Party’s ranks and its political defeat at the hands of the Labour bureaucracy. So the question would be: why do we need a study of the NLWM?

The author doesn’t really have a pat answer to this question beyond his own cussedness and interest in obscure political formations. This work probably began with a set of different intentions and conceptions, roughly based on the thought that it would be a useful project since Jeremy Corbyn’s accession to the Labour Party leadership in September 2015 — the most left-wing leader in the party’s history — to understand the history of left-wing revolts in Labour. The author rapidly jettisoned these ideas, partly because he became suspicious of the utilitarian projections some of his friends put on the work.

The history of the NLWM has no specific bearing on today’s situation in the Labour Party. The NLWM was organised by a serious force to the Labour Party’s left: the CPGB, which was part of and exterior to the Labour Party in the first half of the 1920s. It was organised, in theory, on a precise political programme to offer a bridgehead for Left-Wing workers into the CPGB. Today, the Labour Party has a left-wing leader who is panicking the establishment (and is worth supporting for that reason alone) but there is no serious Marxist organisation to its left — merely a gaggle of incompetent sects. The idea that an organised Marxist conspiracy propelled Corbyn to power is a bizarre fantasy peddled by tabloid newspapers… and the Labour Party’s deputy leader Tom Watson. The movement that propelled Corbyn to power is ideologically incoherent and scarcely animated by socialist, let alone Marxist, ideas, instead being composed of people inspired by a loose amalgam of politically correct good causes and a weird cult of non-personality around Corbyn himself. So, ultimately, nothing has animated this work beyond the author’s own interest in the NLWM and filling a gap in the historical record.

However, while the author would be highly suspicious if his work were to become some kind of handbook for today’s militants inside the Labour Party, it does perhaps provide some more general — pessimistic — lessons as to the inherent problems of revolutionaries working inside reformist organisations. The CPGB of the 1920s largely worked in an open fashion inside the Labour Party and while it was able to animate a supportive section of Labour members inside the NLWM, it is doubtful this led to many long-term gains in the sense of making substantial numbers of Communists (or at least Communists willing to accept the CPGB as the ultimate organisational broker of their political identity). Later endeavours of the CPGB in the 1930s and subsequent entrist adventures in the Labour Party by smaller Trotskyist groups tried to offset the major drawback of open work (i.e. exposure to bureaucrats intent on expulsion and disaffiliation) by clothing themselves in the outward garb of social-democratic reformism and hiding their Marxist politics to a greater or lesser extent. It is doubtful if this later entrism achieved a balance sheet of anything more than the traditional leftist twin evils of opportunism and sectarianism.

cover

 

[1]K Morgan Against fascism and war: ruptures and continuities in British communist politics 1935-41 Manchester 1989 p33.

[2]See, for example, G McLennan ‘Interview on the Communist Party and unity’ Marxism Today March 1977; D Priscott ‘Problems of Communist-Labour relationships’ Marxism Today October 1977; and M Prior ‘Communist-Labour relations’ Marxism Today February 1978.

[3]M Johnstone ‘Early Communist strategy for Britain: an assessment’ Marxism Today September 1978. ‘Official’ histories of the CPGB also offer a bland outline of the NLWM — see, for example, N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927-41 London 1985.

[4]Ralph Bond (1904–89) became better known as a documentary filmmaker and co-founded the London Workers’ Film Society in 1929. He remained with the CPGB until his death.

[5]N Branson History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1927–41 London 1985 pp 4–11.

[6]I have used this version: B Pearce ‘The Communist Party and the Labour left, 1925-1929’ in B Pearce and M Woodhouse A history of communism in Britain London 1995 pp 184-210.

[7]T Aitman ‘Labour’s purge of the 1920s’ Militant 18 April 1986. Aitman said: “Militant is a newspaper whose supporters represent a trendof opinion in the [Labour Party] — unlike the Communist Party of the [1920s,] which was a separate and distinct organisation.”

[8]  See T Cliff and D Gluckstein Marxism & trade union struggle: the general strike of 1926 London 1986; and T Cliff and D Gluckstein The Labour Party: a Marxist history London 1988. See chapter 2 for more on this.

[9]For an example of such trivia, John Callaghan argues: “[The NLWM] was designed to seduce the Labour left into joint work with the communists and succeeded, up to the General Strike, in fostering some sort of united front…”[9]— J Callaghan Rajani Palme Dutt: a study in British Stalinism London 1993 p 117.

As this study will argue, if this was a seduction then it was a remarkably unsuccessful given that the courtship had in fact foundered long before the General Strike.

[10]LJ Macfarlane The British Communist Party: its origin and development until 1929 London 1966.

London and the south-east regional divide in television sitcoms in Blair’s Britain

This is an extended conference paper by Lauren Pikó and myself, originally presented at the Eric Richards British and Australian History conference earlier this year. It is part of an on-going research project that we are working on looking at representations of political and socio-economic change in modern Britain through television comedies. Our previous work on The Young Ones and Men Behaving Badly can be read here.

“Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.” – Alan Partridge

 While many have discussed the North/South divide in England that has widened since the days of Margaret Thatcher, at the same time, many have overlooked the divide between London and the regional south-east, where the divide between Greater London and its surrounding counties has become increasingly blurred in a geographic sense, but a stark contrast has emerged socio-economically. Cities as far away as Norwich in East Anglia have become commuter towns to London, while conversely, much of the non-customer service work that used to be conducted for the city has been moved out to its outliers, such as Slough and Staines. In these commuter towns and outlying places in the Greater London region, the workplace (and the working class) has become irrevocably changed by the shift away from industry and manufacturing to service industries and white-collar office work. London, to those on its fringes, is not a place of opportunity, but an expensive and anonymous place to be avoided.

This post looks at how this regional divide plays out in three British sitcoms made in the Blair years, which normalised and encoded the economic transformations of Thatcher’s Prime Ministership. These are I’m Alan Partridge (set in Norwich), Da Ali G Show (set in Staines) and The Office (set in Slough). Through their liminal fringe south-eastern settings, and their tortured main male characters, these programmes negotiate the tensions and borders between ‘Middle England’ and the glamorous, but ultimately unfamiliar metropolis.

Liminal spaces in the Blairite metropolis

The explicit divide-and-rule policies of the Thatcher governments pitted the post-industrial service-based economies overwhelmingly located in the south-east of England against heavy industries, manufacturing, and those associated with communities in the North of England, by exploiting deindustrialising macroeconomic trends and weaponising them against communities and regions who were politically hostile to the new political order. While this phenomenon has been well explored by historians, it is significant to note that it was understood as an explicit and overt policy at the time; the very concept of “the enemy within” during the Miners’ Strike exemplifies Thatcherite attempts to Other and present northern working-class communities as not only outside of national norms, but as being in opposition to it.[1]

The willingness of the Thatcher governments to accelerate and weaponise wider global macroeconomic trends against communities it judged as hostile helped establish a new economic geography of Britain, which was also mapped onto a moral political rhetoric. The fullest expression of this rhetoric would be developed under the Major government, through the concept of “Middle England”. While this was far from being a historically new term, its usage during the mid-1990s came to reflect a historically specific set of economic and class allegiances associated with suburban petit-bourgeois individualism, a hostility to working-class cultures and to state “intervention”. Middle Englanders were associated with the geography of south-eastern England’s post-industrial economies that had been encouraged by Conservative deregulation of urban planning protections. From the extensive service and logistics industries populating the new geographies of out of town “industrial estates”, the transformation of motorway sidings through the expansion of “services”, “big-box” distributing centres and fringe leisure complexes, the primary and visible economic functions of British landscapes changed drastically during the 1980s and through the 1990s.[2]

At the same time as these communities and regions were being actively redefined as outside of the national norm, the Thatcher governments actively cultivated the idea of a south-eastern English aspirational middle class aesthetic, lifestyle and individualistic value set as a universal norm and as an ideal moral and economic type of its voting base. Through political rhetoric and the constant media generation of associated ideotypes such as Essex Man, Basildon Man, Mondeo Man, and White Van Man, the conceptualisation of the typical or privileged voter as white, male, lower-middle-class, and south-eastern English were codified through cycles of political and media repetition.[3] This process established a mythological norm which privileged a specific image of embattled bourgeois whiteness and presented it as intrinsically linked to the new forms of productivity generated by the south-eastern English landscape.

This would become all the more profoundly normalised as the Blair government, elected in 1997, deliberately refrained from attempting to remedy these drastic changes to maintain their idea of political legitimacy. For all its rhetoric of change, its appeals to authority relied primarily on making only superficial aesthetic changes to the existing economic order; the divisions left by the Thatcher governments could only have been addressed through the kind of interventionism and regulation which postwar Labour governments had used to shape and control market influence, and these were no longer seen to be politically palatable to a “New” Labour. While they were elected on a hopeful campaign promising change from 18 years of Conservative rule, one of the Blair governments’ primary political contributions was to reinforce the neoliberalisation of the British state. While high-profile support for Blair amongst musicians, comedians, and writers peaked during 1996 and 1997 at the time of the election, once New Labour began to be seen as business as usual, this mood mellowed.

British television comedy in the 1990s

The history of British television comedy defies easy compartmentalization and the rise and fall of different comedy trend are difficult to categorize. On a broad level, the mid-to-late 1990s can be somewhat characterized as the start of a shift away from the ‘laddish’ comedy culture of the early-to-mid-1990s, typified by Baddiel & Skinner and Men Behaving Badly. Tim Edwards has described this as the ‘New Lad’ phenomenon, which spanned television, film, magazines and novels, pointing to the following examples:

The BBC situation comedy, Men Behaving Badly, gam shows such as They Think It’s All Over and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as well as movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels… in very different ways play upon and invoke the theme of the New Lad. Loud and sexist humour often tied in with rudeness and bad behaviour, if not extreme violence, characterize all of these representations of masculinity that, for the most part, appear to have direct appeal to a young, aggressive and sel-consciously working class male audience or its admirers.[4]

The ‘laddish’ comedy trend had originally been partly in reaction to the ‘political correctness’ of the alternative comedies of the 1980s, such as The Young Ones and The Comedy Strip Presents. Many sitcoms in the 1990s took the flatmate/sharehouse premise and extended it, often with the protagonists no longer being students (like in the Young Ones), but now older, in some form of employment and in some form of relationship. Furthermore, these were comedies were dominated by men, often in their late 20s or early 30s, putting off the pressures of ‘adulthood’. This can be seen in Men Behaving Badly and Game On (and later in shows like Coupling, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and even Peep Show). The locations that these shows are set in are the traditional house or flat, as well as the pub/bar and sometimes the workplace). Most, except for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, were set in London. In many ways, these shows reflect a transition in the way in which the British family and household were changing in the 1990s, as people were increasingly likely to buy a house and start a family later in life.

The shows that we are looking at transgress these traditional settings, moving away from the home and the communal area of the pub to the workplace and the liminal spaces on the edges of the metropolis. The programmes under examination here all formally depart from classic sitcom formulae and from the domestic setting of many popular comedies from prior to 1997. All are located in liminal south-Eastern English cities and within these, in “non-place” post-industrial settings (motorway sidings; industrial estates; suburbia/housing estates). They all share a critical and subversive relationship to television comedy genres, and all use a form of humour which deliberately provokes the edges of social norms through their main male characters. In this post, we examine the relationship between the liminal landscapes and liminal values these programmes navigate, and use them to trace the social, economic and geographic normalisation of neoliberalism during the early Blair government.

I’m Alan Partridge

The first series of I’m Alan Partridge aired from November 1997. A successor to the sketch show The Day Today and to the talk show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, the programme continued to document Steve Coogan’s character of a failed Norwich-based television and radio presenter in a new context. While using a laugh track, I’m Alan Partridge adopts a fly-on-the-wall style which at times approaches documentary style. The series opens with Alan living in one of the typical liminal spaces of the post-Thatcherite deregulated south-eastern English landscape; Linton Travel Tavern, a carefully fictionalised Travelodge located on the motorway services halfway between London and Norwich. Alan’s life is in a similar transitional space, as he fails to negotiate a new BBC contract, his optimistically titled autobiography Bouncing Back fails, and he is forced to liquidate his production company.

The gap between Alan’s aspirations and failures is mirrored in part through his occupation of what Marc Augé termed the “non-places” of late capitalism; motorway sidings, service stations, carparks, ring roads.[5] Partridge’s comfort with these settings even as he seeks to escape them is central to the humour of the programme, with his conservative enjoyment of mass produced foods, music, and even clothing which are so mainstream as to be passé. Like Alan’s preferences for consumption, and the settings of the programme, the plots satirise ideas and aesthetics which presume the audience is both familiar with and therefore contemptuous of, with Alan’s failure to realise his own faux pas making him the target of jokes. Phillip Wickham has written that the first series of I’m Alan Partridge, ‘broadcast in the year of raised hopes as New Labour came to power in 1997, suggests a world where… the individual has become dislocated from society and where codes of personal morality, solidarity and self-belief are rendered meaningless’.[6]

The second series of I’m Alan Partridge, broadcast in 2002, shifted its setting to Alan’s caravan and under-construction Barratt-style home, further exploited Underpinning these stories of Alan’s striving for status are flashes of narratives of repression, whether of his innermost sexual desires or reflections on past breakdowns.[7] Even while he constantly seeks to escape his surroundings, his antipathy to London as the site of his professional failures, and indeed any other city, region or country, entraps him with his refusal to transcend the comforts of what he knows.

Da Ali G Show

The first series of Da Ali G Show was broadcast in 2000 on Channel 4. In some ways Ali G echoed Coogan’s earlier invocation of Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing You, in its constant attempts to subvert the format of a smoothly functioning talk show by introducing tension (interrupting music segments, simulating mistakes and technical failures). Much of the humour, however, arose from actively exploiting the guile of guests who believed the show would conform to conventional talk show formulae. While creator Sasha Baron-Cohen, like fellow character creators Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan, subsequently took these characters into other settings (including America) in subsequent series, the setting of the first series of Da Ali G Show is frequently referred to as Staines, the staid Middlesex commuter town on subsumed into the exurbia of London’s Western fringes.

The gap between Ali G’s persona and the show’s setting exploits racialised stereotypes of “urban yoof” subcultures associated with inner cities, and the gentrified commuter landscape of the fringes of Greater London. The gap between expectations of what is “allowed” to be said and what Ali G, Borat, or Bruno would in fact say, and the ensuing discomfort of guests and audiences, relies on the perception of being “out of place”, mirroring the programme’s juxtaposition of stereotypes with their setting. Locating Ali G in an implied stronghold of Middle England works to subvert both the supposed homogeneity of the ideotype, and to point to the limits of cultural and political stereotypings of race, class, and youth subcultures. The space between expectation and reality as a source of recognition for the audience, as well as of humour, is mirrored in the programme’s landscape as well as its social relations.

The Office

This was especially the case in The Office (airing from 2001), which used mockumentary style to depict the mundanity of working life in the regional office of Wernham Hogg paper company, located in Slough. Existing on the fringes of the London commuter belt, Slough represents an anonymous ‘anywhere’ in Britain outside of London proper, but is also a representation of the ‘local, specific and particular’.[8] As Tara Brabazon has suggested, The Office represents ‘the specificity of a post-Blair, post-union, post-industrial, post-feminist, insular, open-plan office’.[9]

The setting of the comedy in Slough, and its regional tensions with Swindon branch, is inextricably interwoven with the aimlessness and escapist desires of its main characters, who are presented as socially and economically enmeshed with their unfulfilling environment. This underpins both the normative characters Tim and Dawn, whose dissatisfaction is expressed overtly, and through the escapist, compulsive approval seeking of the office manager David Brent, who barely sublimates his dreams of fame and an exceptional life into being a “cool boss”.

Like Partridge, however, Brent’s affection for the landscape of his entrapment reinforces his wider social failings: in an interview scene where Brent reads and ineptly critiques John Betjeman’s poem “Slough”, his defense of the town is represented as over-familiarity with the undesirable or distasteful, much as his racism, ableism, sexism, and general insensitivity is ostensibly mocked for its failure to conform to new social norms. Brent’s escapist desires is offset by his desperation to keep his job, which he is fired from as he stretches his “relaxed” attitude to the point of untenability. With an identity predicated on stretching the boundaries of acceptable workplace behaviour, Brent’s workplace persona relies on remaining in tension with social and economic expectations, much as his regional office is a tense and precarious link in the wider supply chain of Wernham Hogg.

We propose that the shared humour style of representation in these programmes, and the landscapes they depict, are distinctly related. Cringe humour can be seen in this way as one that plays with uneasy interpellations, and the tensions and liminal spaces of comfort and discomfort, familiarity and unfamiliarity. It relies on the audience recognising particular character types, settings, and situations, but identifying with them at least partly unwillingly, whether through recognising social faux pas, vulnerable emotions, or behaviours that are outside of the established norm. The humour in each of these programmes derives from discomfort, whether that of the audience, the main character/s, or other characters reacting with distaste due to their expectations of a social norm not being met. The gap between uplifting rhetoric and economic realities is presented as the source of displeasure, unfulfilment, and the striving for places and economic roles outside the norm; the characters either want to escape, or are ridiculed for their level of comfort with the new environment. Unlike comic forebears such as Abigail’s Party, whose satires of social mores responded to suburbia and which ended in tragedy, these comedies are workplace-focused with a heavy emphasis on individual pursuits of fame as an exit-strategy. In these comedies, the failed promises of neoliberal economics and the landscapes which it has created are inextricable subjects of ridicule.

Cringing is a form of emplaced dramatic irony, making reference to the uneasy space between familiarity and contempt, knowing and wishing not to know, while locating the audience as a moral arbiter over the characters’ failures to differentiate the behaviours that are dictated and required by this particular setting. In the programmes under discussion here, the use of post-industrial “non places” reinforces and emphasises the literal “edgy-ness” of the type of humour being used; familiar and yet distasteful, both inside and outside of the expectations of the projected audiences. On the one hand these can be contextualised within longer patterns of elite satire of mainstream working conditions, lifestyles and aesthetics which recur throughout modern British culture, however these comedies deliberately targeted settings, lifestyles and expectations in ways which were made possible by their being both relatively historically new and deeply familiar and recognisable. The constant juxtaposition of emotional repression and economic striving, and perpetual entrapment within liminal, unfulfilling spaces not only shapes the humour of these programmes but maps them onto the specific post-industrial landscape of south-eastern England, which are seen as familiar but also as morally desolate sites of discomfort, precarity and unease.

[1] Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[2] Joe Moran, Reading the Everyday (London and New York: Routledge, 2005); “The Strange Birth of Middle England,” Political Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2005).

[3]Imogen Tyler, “”Chav Mum Chav Scum”,” Feminist Media Studies 8, no. 1 (2008); T. Jensen and I. Tyler, “‘Benefits Broods’: The Cultural and Political Crafting of Anti-Welfare Commonsense,” Critical Social Policy 35, no. 4 (2015); Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, Class and Contemporary British Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[4] Tim Edwards, ‘Sex, Booze and Fags: Masculinity, Style and Men’s Magazines’, Sociological Review, 51/1 (2003).

[5] Marc Augé, Non-Places : Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London/New York: Verso, 1995).

[6] Phillip Wickham, ‘British Situation Comedy and “The Culture of the New Capitalism”’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Exeter (2013).

[7] Joe Moran, On Roads (London: Profile Books, 2009); “‘Subtopias of Good Intentions’: Everyday Landscapes in Postwar Britain,” Cultural and Social History 4, no. 3 (2007).

[8] Tara Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”: The Office, (Post) Reality Television and (Post) Work’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 8/1 (2005).

[9] Brabazon, ‘“What Have You Ever Done on the Telly?”’.

Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 5.18.39 pm.png

Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.