Elections

‘Who Governs Britain?’: The last time the Tories called a snap election…

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In between the ‘hey-day’ of 1968-69 and the upsurge in trade union militancy and political radicalism of 1971-74, the 1970s began for the British left as a period of a political plateau, only shaken up by the unexpected election of the Conservatives under Edward Heath. Although Harold Wilson had faced several political problems in the dying days of the 1960s, such as increased trade union militancy, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, a burgeoning anti-war movement against Vietnam and some economic woes, it was still expected that Labour would win the 1970 General Election, probably with a reduced majority of seats. However, once the Conservatives were elected to power, Heath introduced a piece of legislation that would transform the labour movement for the first half of the decade. The Industrial Relations Act 1971 created a groundswell of resistance to its implementation and in 1972, the trade union movement, with the lead taken by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), undertook a strategy of continual strike action, which led to paralysed industries.

Britain was thrown further into disarray over the next few years, beginning in late 1973 when the Oil Crisis plunged the Western world into economic shock and the re-election of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1974. The Oil Crisis emanating from the Middle East in October 1973 caused massive energy problems for the Western world, particularly in Europe and North America who were facing the start of winter, which impacted upon industry, causing a rise in inflation and living costs. The Heath Government, concerned about conserving energy now that the price of oil had risen exponentially, instigated a three day business week, but was also concerned about an on-going pay dispute with the NUM, which looked threatened access to coal stocks. To break this deadlock, Heath called a snap election in February 1974 with the campaign promise to be tough on trade unions who held the nation to ‘ransom’, with the NUM calling a strike a few days later. The outcome of the February election was a hung parliament with no clear majority to either Labour or the Conservatives and thus another election was held in October 1974, which Labour won with a majority of three. After the February election, Labour ruled momentarily as a minority government and the NUM called off its strike, but Wilson, not wanting a return to the industrial action he faced in the late 1960s and fearing that any strike activity would hinder Britain’s economic recovery, negotiated a ‘Social Contract’ with the Trades Union Congress that agreed to a voluntary wage freeze and a cessation of strike activity for the short-term future. Many felt that the victories of the early 1970s had not produced their desired effects and that end result of years of militant industrial struggle was a return to the same old Labour Government that had preceded Heath and had now restrained the unions with the Social Contract.

But the crisis that Britain faced in the mid-1970s was not remedied by reinstallation of a Labour government. Despite Labour’s best efforts, unemployment and inflation still rose and productivity declined. The economic crisis compounded the feelings that a political crisis was impending. Wilson suspected that a right-wing conspiracy, with sections of the military and intelligence services involved, was out to unseat him from being Prime Minister. The National Front, as well as the Monday Club, started to agitate for stricter immigration controls and the repatriation of non-white Britons, as well as the elimination of trade unions and the monitoring of those considered ‘communists’ or ‘socialists’. In 1976, the International Monetary Fund agreed to loans to assist the Labour Government, but only on the condition of strict public spending cuts, which exacerbated the problem further and turned many sections of British society away from Labour. This, alongside the view that the Social Contract agreed between the TUC and Labour was on the verge of collapse, placed an enormous burden upon Wilson, who resigned due to ill health in March 1976, with James Callaghan becoming Prime Minister. Increasingly it looked to many observers that Britain was experiencing a crisis of the post-war social democratic consensus and that the bipartisan framework constructed by both major parties in the early 1950s was now falling apart. As Stuart Hall and others from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies wrote, the crisis of the mid-1970s was ‘a crisis in political legitimacy, in social authority, in hegemony, and in the forms of class struggle.’

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Corbyn, Labour and the limits of the British far left

This is something that I’ve been playing with while trying to write the intro to our second volume on the British far left’s history, titled Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 vol. II and to be published through Manchester University Press in 2017. Parts of it may or may not end up in the final version, but I thought I’d post this while the topic is still being debated…

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While putting together our second edited volume dedicated to the history of the British far left, we have witnessed a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s stint as leader of the Labour Party. This has, in turn, brought a renewed interest in the far left’s history.

Corbyn’s victory in July 2015 had been on the back on a wave of enthusiasm amongst different sections of the Labour Party membership – trade unionists, young people, those who flirted with the Greens and other minor parties, working class members, and, of course, refugees from the British far left. Many on the far left had written off the Labour Party as unreformable in recent years, but Corbyn’s entry into the leadership contest after the 2015 election made a number of the Party’s leftist critics reassess their analysis of Labour.

The election of Corbyn as Labour leader seemed to many to overturn the assumed position of the far left since the advent of New Labour in the 1990s. From Militant Labour (later the Socialist Party of England and Wales) to the Revolutionary Communist Party, it was presumed that the Labour Party was unsalvageable, a bourgeois party that had abandoned the working class. Entrism was left to the rump of Militant and the other groups began a long line of alternative electoral vehicles to Labour – Socialist Alliance, Respect, No2EU, TUSC, the Left List (for example). Admittedly, some groups, such as the Communist Party of Britain, still called a Labour vote at general elections, but asked people to metaphorically hold their nose while doing so. But the initial period after Corbyn’s victory seemed to suggest that there was political life left in Labour, awoken from its slumber by the thousands of veteran activists from the social movements of the 2000s that Corbyn had been involved in, primarily Stop the War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Unite Against Fascism, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

However as the last year has proved, trying to reform the outlook and membership base of Labour Party (which has been the intention of many of those supporting Corbyn) while trying to maintain the emphasis on electoralism (which has been the focus of the Party since 1945 at least) has brought the Party to near schism. Looking at the long history of the relationship between the British far left and the Labour Party, it seems that the lessons of the 1960s (when the IMG and IS became entities in their own right) or the 1990s (when Militant Labour had its ‘open turn’) might have to be learnt all over again. Entrism has its limits and it is possibly far better for the far left to be social forces outside the Labour Party putting pressure from without than to be marginalised while attempting to apply pressure from within. Since the Labour Party refused to affiliate with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1920s, the far left has had to negotiate how much to work with (or within) Labour and how much to differentiate and present an alternative.

The Communist Party of Great Britain had sought affiliation with the Labour Party several times during the inter-war period, but after its last attempt failed in 1945-46, the CPGB devised another way to influence the Labour Party and bring forward the future possibility of a Labour-Communist alliance. This influence would come through the structures of the trade union bureaucracy. Most other groups on the far left looked to seek influence in the trade unions at rank-and-file level, but wrote off the higher echelons of the trade unions as reformist and too conservative. However this strategy of working through the trade unions formed the basis for the CPGB’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism. As John Callaghan has noted, almost all the elements of the CPGB’s plan to gain influence inside the Labour Party through the trade unions came together in the period between 1973 and 1983 (between the defeat of the Heath Government and Labour’s ‘radical’ 1983 manifesto),[1] but as we now know, there were little tangible gains from this strategy. The victory of the trade unions over Edward Heath only resulted in a crisis-ridden Labour Government beholden to the International Monetary Fund and Labour were roundly defeated in the 1983 election by Margaret Thatcher, after the Party’s leftwards shift caused a section of the right to break away to form the Social Democratic Party.

The loss of the 1983 election is routinely blamed upon the far left entrists in the Labour Party who pushed the party to the left, resulting in a manifesto that alienated the political centre. Roy Hattersley is attributed as saying the Party’s ‘Trotskyists, one-subject campaigners, Marxists who had never read Marx, Maoists, pathological dissidents … played a major part in keeping the Conservatives in power for almost twenty years.’[2] Although the actual reasons for Labour’s disastrous showing at this election are far more complex, the shadow of 1983 has loomed large over the party since Corbyn’s leadership victory.[3] Since becoming Labour leader, many have predicted that Corbyn will repeat the mistakes of Labour under Michael Foot – giving too much leeway to the far left and thus encouraging a split with the centre-right. The far left is portrayed by many commentators as a nebulous force set to derail Labour’s ability to present a credible opposition to the Conservatives and one of the main reasons that Labour will lose the 2020 general election (if not called sooner). While the spectre of various Trotskyists and Communists inside the Labour Party has been raised, it also vastly overestimates the influence that the far left has within the Labour Party nowadays.

In his recent book on the Corbyn ‘revolution’, Richard Seymour has suggested that the Labour Party ‘may simply be untenable in its current form’.[4] The gap between the electoral desires of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the grassroots call for reforms by a large section of the Party’s membership, not to mention to shifting voting base for the Labour Party, seems unsurmountable – and a resolution to suit all involved is unrealistic. Journalist and economist Paul Mason has recently suggested that the Labour Party should become a social movement, rather than simply an electoral political party. However the post-war history of the British far left highlights the difficulties in creating a social movement around an organised political party, rather than a single issue organisation. As Phil Burton-Cartledge showed in our last volume, Against the Grain, the success of the far left has come when it has spearheaded a broad-based social movement,[5] such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War movement, rather than when it has tried to consolidate and centralise its membership into a particular party. The history of the far left in Britain has shown that when different parties have attempted to transform momentum from a broad social movement into concrete party membership, this has not been easily translated. An understanding of the history of how the far left has operated and functioned in Britain since the 1950s is important to understand the limits of a radical agenda within a reformist framework (essentially where the Labour Party finds itself in 2016). It is hoped that our forthcoming book, as well as the previous volume, will help provide readers with this understanding.

 

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Plan to Capture the British Labour Party and its Paradoxical Results, 1947-91’, Journal of Contemporary History, 40/4 (2005) p. 707.

[2] Cited in, Mark Steel, Reasons to be Cheerful: From Punk to New Labour (London: Scribner, 2001) p. 116.

[3] For example, see: Peter Dorey & Andrew Denham, ‘“The Longest Suicide Vote in History”: The Labour Party Leadership Election of 2015’, British Politics (2016) doi:10.1057/s41293-016-0001-0

[4] Richard Seymour, Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (London: Verso, 2016) p. 12.

[5] Phil Burton-Cartledge, ‘Marching Separately, Seldom Together: The Political History of Two Principal Trends in British Trotskyism, 1945-2009’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) pp. 80-97.

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

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Yesterday Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that if the Senate did not pass two pieces of legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), he would call for the Governor-General to issue the writs for a double dissolution election. This would mean that all seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate would be contested at the election to be held on 2 July. Only a handful of double dissolution elections have occurred sine Federation in 1901, with the first double dissolution called by a Liberal Prime Minister occurring in 1951, requested by Sir Robert Menzies.

Menzies had won government in December 1949, defeating Ben Chifley’s Labor government, which had been in power since the end of the Second World War. The Liberal-Country Party coalition had made significant gains in the House of Representatives, but Labor still controlled the Senate, which made the passing of controversial legislation difficult, especially as a central part of the LCP’s programme in the lead up to the election was the proposal to ban the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

The CPA had been briefly banned during the war while Menzies was Prime Minister, but this was reversed by Chifley’s predecessor, John Curtin. As the Cold War erupted in the late 1940s, the CPA took a particularly militant line, partially inspired by the rise of communism in Asia and assertion by the Soviets that the world was falling into two opposing camps – the democratic and ant-fascist bloc of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European ‘People’s Democracies’ (soon to be followed by China) and the anti-democratic and fascist bloc of the Western nations. This led to fierce battles in the Australian labour movement over its stance towards Chifley’s Labor government, with the CPA-led trade unions pushing for confrontational industrial militancy in several industries. This came to a head in 1949 with the Coal Strike that led to the Chifley government ordering troops to break the strike and the imprisonment of several Communist trade unionists.

Sir Robert Menzies

Sir Robert Menzies

This industrial unrest gave Menzies the opportunity to campaign on the programme that an LCP coalition would ban the CPA. Drawn in tandem with the Suppression of Communism Bill by the Malan government in apartheid South Africa, the Menzies government drafted the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in early 1950. First introduced into the House of Representatives in April 1950, the Bill was opposed by Labor and heavily criticised outside of Parliament by the Communist Party and a significant portion of the trade unions. Initially rejected by the Labor controlled Senate, Menzies threatened a double dissolution election and Labor senators, possibly against the public statements made by Chifley, passed the Bill into law in October 1950. The legislation banning the CPA was broad in its scope and meant that fellow travellers who sympathised with Soviet communism could be prosecuted, as well as ‘official’ members of the Party.

As soon as the Bill became law in November 1950, it was subject to a High Court challenge by the Communist Party and several trade unions, with H.V. Evatt (soon to be Labor leader) acting as one of several counsels for the trade unions in this case. On 9 March, 1951, a 6-1 majority of the High Court of Australia found that the Communist Party Dissolution Act was unconstitutional and its powers to prosecute individuals for their alleged connection to the CPA violated what could be included in Commonwealth legislation. To re-introduce legislation banning the CPA would need a change to the Constitution, which itself needed a referendum to allow these changes. Without control of the Senate, Menzies felt that he would be unable to pass the necessary legislation to alter the Constitution and subsequently, formally ban the Communist Party of Australia.

On 15 March, 1951 – a week after the High Court’s decision – Menzies formally requested that the Governor-General order a double dissolution election, on the grounds that the Labor controlled Senate had already twice rejected his Commonwealth Bank Bill. Two days later, both houses of Parliament were dissolved and a bicameral election was held on 28 April, 1951. While Labor gained five seats in the House of Representatives, Menzies won control of the Senate and now had a majority in both houses.

This allowed the Menzies government to introduce legislation that would start the process to change the Constitution that would render any new Bills to ban the Communist Party legal and without grounds to challenge. With control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Menzies government quickly passed the Constitution Alteration (Powers to Deal with Communism and Communists) 1951 Act and a referendum was held on 22 September 1951.

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As the above graph shows, the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia voted ‘no’ and at the federal level, a slight majority voted against altering the Constitution to allow the banning of the CPA. While the gamble of the double dissolution had paid off for Menzies, his attempt to change the Constitution to ban a specific political organisation failed and was seen as government over-reach by many commentators.

The CPA's weekly newspaper, The Tribune, after Menzies' referendum defeat.

The CPA’s weekly newspaper, The Tribune, after Menzies’ referendum defeat.

Since Menzies, there have only been four double dissolutions, by Gough Whitlam in 1974, by Malcolm Fraser (in caretaker mode) in 1975 and 1983, and by Bob Hawke in 1987. Each time the incumbent government, besides Fraser in 1983, has retained power – although in the case of Whitlam, only briefly. It could be argued that powerful political conviction on a controversial, yet important, topic has helped governments get over the line in double dissolution elections. The question is whether the Turnbull government have this conviction or the right issue to take to the electorate if they proceed with a double dissolution.

The road to ‘The Dismissal’ in 1975: The British perspective

From The Guardian, 12 November, 1975, p. 13.

From The Guardian, 12 November, 1975, p. 13.

The Museum of Australian Democracy has announced that in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam government, it will be tweeting the events of late 1975 leading up to 11 November. This will be a very interesting for those into in Australian history and helpful in understanding how the events in the weeks beforehand led to the dramatic dismissal of Whitlam by the Governor-General John Kerr.

For the last few years, one of my many research projects has been looking at how the UK government reacted to the dismissal and when I was last in the UK, I examined the FCO files relating to the ‘constitutional crisis’ of 1975. These files, which I discussed here and here, are mainly correspondence between the British High Commission in Canberra and the FCO in London, giving an account of the events leading up to the dismissal and then offering advice to the Wilson government on how to proceed, particularly as there was confusion over whether the Queen could have intervened in the crisis. One of the very interesting things to read in the files is the interpretation of the events leading up to 11 November, 1975 from the perspective of the staff at the High Commission. These are mostly letters written from J.M. Hay in Canberra to Alan Clark in the South-West Pacific Department of the FCO in London. I thought I would highlight some of this correspondence from the files.

On 22 September, 1975, Hay wrote:

The phoney war over the prospects for an early election continues thanks to Mr Fraser’s unwillingness to come out firmly one way or the other. It looks as though he is still casting around for an excuse but the indications are that the initiative is slipping out of his grasp…

There are indeed strong hints that the Mr Whitlam would soldier on should the Senate block supply and would return the budget bills to the Upper House for reconsideration while gradually turning off the tap on various Federal financial commitments. I doing so, he would hope to persuade the electorate that the Opposition was doing damage both to the Constitution and to the economy and thereby reverse the trend in the opinion polls.

On 23 October, Hay outlined that while the Senate continued to block supply to the Whitlam government and the Prime Minister refused to hold an election, both Whitlam and Fraser were looking to the Governor General to make a decision on this stalemate. Hay wrote:

Mr Whitlam and Mr Fraser seem set on a collision course, and more and more often the Governor-General is mentioned as the final arbiter. Mr Whitlam has given his very firm opinion that the Governor-General cannot take any step such as dissolution of Parliament without the advice of the Prime Minister… Mr Fraser, on the other hand, has made equally clear his opinion that the Governor-General has the power and the duty to dismiss the Government in order to resolve the crisis. It must be a very lonely time for Sir John Kerr.

On 31 October, Hay wrote:

We do not seem to be much nearer a solution to the political deadlock in Canberra and both Mr Fraser and Mr Whitlam are standing firm on their positions. It begins to look, however, as though the former’s support, both amongst his own colleagues and in the country, is beginning to leak away.

The letter continued:

Mr Fraser is now in the position that he can no longer be absolutely sure of the support of his colleagues in the Senate… Mr Fraser must now seriously doubt whether Opposition Senators will continue to fall into line on motions of deferral, never mind one of outright rejection of supply.

Hay concluded his letter that there were ‘no signs of compromise’, but that Fraser was unlikely to ‘gain… the support he need either in the Senate or in the country’.

On 7 November, Hay described an offer by Malcolm Fraser to Whitlam to pass the supply bills being held up in the Senate if Whitlam would call for an election of the House of Representatives and half of the Senate. Hay said that the High Commission was surprised by this offer by Fraser, writing:

It is difficult to see what Mr Fraser hoped to gain out of making an offer which he must have known… that Mr Whitlam, who believes that Governments are made and broken in the House of Representatives, would reject out of hand. In making the offer Mr Fraser also damaged his own position by effectively shifting his ground from a stance of principle to an admission that his tactics have been no more than a grab for power. In doing so he showed weakness in the face of the enemy – and few now have any doubts about the degree of personal animosity which exists between the two leaders – which would inevitably stiffen Mr Whitlam’s resolve.

Throughout the correspondence from late September to early November, Hay expressed concern that the deadlock was continuing and lamented that both Whitlam and Fraser seemed unwilling to compromise. It seemed, from Hay’s writing, that the British High Commission were dissatisfied Fraser’s politicking and expected that the Opposition’s tactics would not lead to the dismissal of the government in Fraser’s favour. My reading of this correspondence suggests that the High Commission expected Whitlam to survive the crisis and that the Australian public were not interested in returning the polls so quickly, as an election had been held in 1974 and was not due to be held until 1977.

Also evident in the correspondence was a concern that the Governor-General might have sought advice from the Queen or the British government. The view expressed by the High Commission to the FCO was that this was unlikely, but not impossible. In a letter from the FCO to the Foreign Minister, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, dated 24 October, suggested that while the best strategy was to do nothing for the time being, but also wondered whether it would be appropriate for the Queen’s Private Secretary ‘be advised to get in touch with Sir John Kerr with a view of “blocking off” any attempt to involve The Queen in Australian domestic politics’. However it was decided:

such advice could well offend the Governor-General who might feel he was being told how to advise on a matter for which he is already well qualified, while Mr Whitlam, if he heard of it, would inevitably suspect the UK’s involvement.

However when the dismissal did occur, the High Commission were taken by surprise and there were debates about what to send Fraser after being made caretaker Prime Minister as ‘a message in conventional terms would clearly be inappropriate’. In a telegram from the High Commission to the Prime Minister’s Office, dated 12 November, it was recommended that Harold Wilson ‘be advised to send a brief but friendly message’, wishing ‘Mr Fraser and his government well in discharging the responsibilities of their new offices and look forward to working with them in the spirit of friendly co-operation which traditionally shapes relations between British and Australian governments’.

As anger in Australia was directed towards the Governor-General, the representative of the Queen in Australia, the British government was steadfast to avoid being involved in the crisis. A telegram sent on 13 November from the FCO to the High Commission clearly stated:

It has accordingly been decided that UK ministers should avoid any involvement in this exclusively Australian domestic political dispute.

It was proposed that the line to take by those at the High Commission would be:

There is no Ministerial or Parliamentary responsibility at Westminster. It would be highly improper for any of us to enter into these very difficult problems – constitutional and others – which have arisen in Australia.

Despite earlier predictions that Whitlam would survive this challenge by Fraser, after the dismissal, the High Commission predicted that the Liberals would win, although they feared that the Liberals would control the lower house while Labor would control the Senate, leading to the same predicament in 1976. The High Commission started to favour a Liberal-National Party victory as this would mean closer and more straightforward ties between Australia and the UK, believing that if Labor was re-elected, Whitlam would seek to loosen ties with the UK, particularly making moves towards abolishing Australia’s ties to the British Monarchy.

In the end, the fears of the British were allayed by the electoral victory of Fraser’s Liberal-National Party coalition. These files reveal that the British government were keenly following the events in Canberra leading up to the dismissal in November 1975, while hoping that the events would engulf them and require intervention by London or the Queen. It is interesting to see that the High Commission underestimated the tenacity of Malcolm Fraser to unsettle the Whitlam government and to provoke such a crisis that needed the Governor-General to act in the way that he did. The 1970s saw the relationship between Australia and the ‘mother country’ greatly change, with Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community and this constitutional crisis affecting the traditional ties. While the Australian side is well-known by now, the perspective of the British on this untangling is yet to be fully uncovered.

 

(And it would be great to find the US perspective on this in the future too!)

New article on Australian Border Force for Salvage mag

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This is just a quick post to let people know that the new left-wing magazine from the UK, Salvage (established by ex-SWPers China Miéville and Richard Seymour, amongst others) has just published an online article by me on the failure of Operation Fortitude and the Australian Border Force controversy. You can find the article here.

This follows on from a tweet of mine about the failed Operation making it into a report from the Sydney Morning Herald that day. You can see my *hilarious* tweet here.

2011 was not 1981. And 2015 is not 1983.

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Back in 2011, I wrote about how many people viewed the riots that swept across the UK through the lens of the 1981 riots. I wrote in this article:

Karl Marx famously paraphrased Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, saying that “all facts and personages of great importance in world history, as it were, twice”, adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 1969, p. 15). Marx’s point was that in periods of great societal upheaval, many of those who observe and attempt to explain these events look to past historical events for an interpretative framework, or as Marx (1969, p. 15) put it, “they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them”. While Marx was writing about the French counter-revolution that occurred after the uprising of 1848, these words could be used to describe any number of rebellions, revolutions or episodes of disorder. The focus of this article is on the riots that spread across the UK in early August 2011 and how most commentaries and analyses of these riots sought to explain them through the prism of the riots that occurred in the UK in 1981 (first in April in Brixton and across the UK in the summer of the same year). While Marx (1969, p. 15) wrote about how those observing the events of 1848-1851 looked back to the “Thermidor” period of the French Revolution, substituting “Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848-1851 for the Montagne of 1793-1795”, those writing on the riots of 2011 looked back to 1981, substituting David Cameron for Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May for Willie Whitelaw and the black, white and Asian youth of 1981 for the black, white and Asian youth of 2011.

The parallels between the events of 2011 and 1981, and their surrounding socio-economic and political conditions, seem, at first glance, to be very similar. David Cameron’s Conservative Government was pushing “austerity” measures to cut public spending and reduce the “debt” inherited from Labour, akin to the monetarist policies sought by the first Thatcher Government, which meant less money for the poorer sections of British society reliant on some form of government assistance and less spending on other public services in poverty-afflicted areas of the UK. In 2011, as well as thirty years ago, these austerity measures, combined with a wider globalised financial crisis, had led to great increases in unemployment, particularly amongst the UK’s ethnic minority communities and amongst young people. Alongside these economic factors, both years saw concerns arise about the powers of the police, particularly in the operation of stop and searches (or “sus” laws in 1981) and the perceived targeting of ethnic minorities by the police, as well as other sections of the lower classes and young people in general.

These parallels were picked up upon by many commentators. For example, Gilroy (2011) remarked in a speech on the riots that there was “a temptation … to say it’s the same game as it was thirty years ago” and citing Stafford Scott, said that “unemployment numbers, school exclusion numbers, stop and search numbers [his emphasis] … In terms of these things, the number are as bad as or worse than they were thirty years ago”. In their research as part of The Guardian and LSE’s Reading the Riots project, Newburn, Lewis and Metcalf (2011) wrote that the conditions for the riots of 1981 were “in many ways similar to those that blighted England this summer”, pointing out that “[b]oth took place while a Conservative prime minister grappled with the effects of global economic downturn and rising unemployment”. Wheatle, the novelist and participant in the 1981 Brixton riots, also wrote in The Guardian (2011) that the circumstances between the two periods of rioting were “remarkably identical”, identifying factors such as “economic crisis, disenfranchised young people, deep cuts in public services and a deterioration between young black people and the police”.

Even before the August 2011 riots, commentators had remarked that the socio-economic and political environment in the UK seemed to mirror that of the early 1980s, and in discussing the thirtieth anniversary of the riots of 1981, there were speculations of the possibility of riots in the near future. An article in The Guardian on the upcoming anniversary of the Brixton riots stated that “some community leaders are warning that similar tensions could, again, spill over into violence”, describing “a toxic cocktail of factors reminiscent of 1981, including rising youth unemployment, cuts to local services and deep suspicion of the police”, as well as “the politicisation of a new generation of anti-cuts protests … and anti-tuition-fees marches” (Walker 2011). The article also quoted Alex Wheatle as saying:

You’re going into dangerous territory, eroding services for young people … I can imagine a repeat of 1981. I can feel the anger. I can feel the resentment towards authority. You’re getting a lot of young people with degrees and big debts, but not jobs. What was really striking in 1981 was the lack of hope. When you have no hope you’re going to confront the police, you’ve got nothing to lose. (cited in, Walker 2011)

Another article on the riots in Liverpool in 1981 in The Guardian quoted a community worker who had experienced the riots as a youngster, who saw parallels between Liverpool in the present day and the city in the 1980s:

First, there was deindustrialisation, now there’s a recession, and you hear people worried about losing their jobs and how they will now in all probability have to work longer for their pensions. It makes some of us quite jealous, because at least you had jobs consistently enough to enable you to build a pension in the first place. I look at these people now and think to myself: “Welcome to our world. Welcome back to 1981.” (cited in, Vulliamy 2011)

However, as Hughes (2011) has said, “[h]istory doesn’t repeat itself exactly” and there is logic in the government assertion that 2011 is not 1981 (McSmith 2011). Many commentators and scholars have noted that there are a number of differences, both in the context from which the riots developed and how the riots actually unfolded, between the riots that have recently occurred and those that happened thirty years before. This article accepts the argument that while these riots occurred quite spontaneously, they did not arise from nowhere and were not completely unexpected, and while one cannot draw a direct line between the riots of 1981 and the riots of 2011, the history of riots, public unrest and civil disorder in the UK does show that there is a precedent for what occurred last year and the riots were not an a-historical episode. The point of this article is that while the recent history of riots that have occurred in the UK since the mid-1970s can provide us with an insight into the most recent outbreak of urban unrest, much of the discourse on the 2011 riots was presented through the prism of 1981. On one hand, the events of 1981 were upheld by some commentators (mostly on the centre-right, but some on the centre-left) to contrast the “criminality” of those participating the most recent riots with the more “political” and “socially aware” riots of the early 1980s. On the other hand, there seemed to be a number of people, particularly on the left, who saw a teleological narrative that formed a direct connection between the events of 1981 with the present era, putting forward that the lessons of 1981 and the struggle against Thatcherism were instructive to how the left should respond to today’s crises. This article does not want to present a guise of political neutrality and certainly aligns itself more closely to the interpretation of the events as put forward by the left, but acknowledges that for political expediency, some of the more nuanced details of what occurred in August 2011 (and in 1981) may be shaped to fit the left’s practical programme. As Smith (2010) has argued, riots and episodes of public unrest do not fall neatly into categories of political struggle and the motives and actions of those involved are open to a multitude of interpretations.

The article concluded:

Power (2011) wrote in The Guardian after the initial burst of public disorder in North London last year that “[i]mages of burning buildings, cars aflame and stripped-out shops may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media … but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur”. This article has looked at how different commentators, journalists, politicians, scholars and activists have interpreted the historical context of the riots that happened across the UK in August 2011, particularly focusing on how the most recent riots have been seen through the lens of the riots from 1981. Although providing a historical background to the 2011 riots helps us to understand that these riots did not occur from out of nowhere or that they were unprecedented in any way, but the comparison of the two events has, in many ways, crystallised how the 1981 riots are perceived in the collective memory. Notions of what “the 1981 riots” or “the Brixton riots” or “the Toxteth riots” have come to symbolise are essentialised ideas of the “noble” or “justified” riots against institutional racism and Thatcherism – in other words, the events of 1981 were explicitly political.

This article has argued that framing the 1981 riots in this way has had two effects on how the 2011 riots are perceived. Firstly, commentators, journalists and politicians on the right (as well as some on the liberal-left) have used the idea of the 1981 riots as expressions of political frustration against “legitimate” targets to condemn the criminal and destructive activities of the rioters involved in the unrest in 2011, arguing that those involved in the most recent riots were motivated by consumerist desire and anti-social behaviour and thus, the response by the authorities should be criminal justice oriented, rather than making political concessions. Secondly, commentator and activists on the left have taken the framework of the 1981 riots as explicitly political actions from the lower classes to show that the riots of 2011 were just as political and represented the anger of the growing “underclass” in the UK. For many on the left and within activist circles, the same neoliberal/monetarist agenda by the Conservatives (resulting in high unemployment and cuts to public services), combined with the institutional racism of the police and the judiciary, were the underlying causes of the riots of 2011 and those that occurred in the early 1980s, and that the lessons of the battles against the Thatcher government are to be heeded.

However, this essentialised version of the 1981 riots, and the comparison with contemporary events, overlooks the fact that the riots that broke out across Britain thirty years ago were not as neat to categorise and interpret as they look in hindsight, and that at the time, there were clear differences in how the riots were understood by different sections of society. Even for those that agreed that the riots were political disagreed on whether the riots were a response by the lower classes to socio-economic policies of the Thatcher government or a response by the black communities to the racism that they faced in Britain on a day-to-day basis. The evoking of the riots of 1981 in the discourse on the August 2011 riots has been used by commentators from both sides of politics to portray the most recent riots in a particular manner, using the supposed explicit political nature of the riots of the past to dismiss or emphasise the political nature of the riots of the present. While historical comparisons are useful for understanding the wider context of events, such as the public unrest of 2011, in too many scenarios, the past is distorted and simplified to fit the political demands of the present.

new labour working

I feel that similar evocations of the past are being made in commentaries on the Labour leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn is not Michael Foot and the 2020 manifesto (if he wins) will not resemble the 1983 manifesto. While it might be more progressive than the 2015 manifesto, no one expects Corbyn to reverse 30 years of neoliberalism inflicted upon the Party. There is not the organised entryism by Militant and Socialist Action that there was between 1979 and 1983 and the threat of a rightwards split seems predicated on the belief that there is the political space for another centre-right party.

As much as it might seem that way, we are not reliving the 1980s.

Local legal history: A microcosm of the South Australian government’s ‘law & order’ agenda under Rann

While I was a criminal justice researcher in the public sector, I got really interested in sentencing laws in Australia and their history. This might form part of a broader paper about the pursuit of a ‘law and order’ agenda in South Australia under the 2002-2011 Rann government.

Rann

As Don Weatherburn wrote in his book Law & Order in Australia (pp. 28-32), state governments across Australia started to promote tough ‘law and order’ agendas in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Both Liberal/National and Labor governments have been keen to promote this agenda (taking inspiration from the United States and the UK). South Australia was no exception. Although South Australia had a Liberal government for most of the 1990s, it was not until the final years of the Olsen government that ‘law and order’ became a hot political issue. This delay in joining the ‘law and order; bandwagon probably owes much to the small ‘l’ liberal outlook of the Attorney General Trevor Griffin, who had been part in the position of Attorney-General (or Shadow Attoryney-General) since the late 1970s. But once Mike Rann became Labor leader in South Australia in the late 1990s, he was willing to push this ‘law and order’ agenda – a policy area where Labor had seemed weak traditionally.

Rann’s ability to promote Labor and himself as ‘tough on crime’ and in tune with the concerns of the tabloid media first pressured Griffin and the Liberal government into reforming the law concerning break and entering during a moral panic over ‘home invasions’. The Criminal Law Consolidation (Serious Criminal Trespass) Amendment Act 1999 introduced tougher penalties for break and entering offences, but also inserted into the Criminal Law (Sentencing) Act 1988 an instruction for sentencing judges that stated:

A primary policy of the criminal law is to protect the security of the lawful occupants of the home from intruders…

Once Rann’s Labor government came into power in 2002, s. 10 of the Criminal Law (Sentencing) Act 1988 was amended on several occasions to instruct sentencing judges that they needed to consider certain things before handing down their punishments to offenders. But the amendments made seem to have had little coherence and look as if they were inserted into the legislation after a particular issue became a media storm for the Rann government. For example, the Statutes Amendment(Bushfires) Act 2002 stated that in relation to bushfires and arson, the primary policy should ‘bring home to the offender the extreme gravity of the offence’ and ‘extract reparation from the offender… for harm done to the community’.

In 2005, the Statutes Amendment (Sentencing of Sex offenders) Act, among other things, inserted another primary policy into s. 10. This third primary policy of the section now stated:

A primary policy of the criminal law is to protect children from sexual predators…

There was little explanation by the Government for the reason for inserting the new primary policy concerning child sex offenders, other than the Attorney-General Michael Atkinson asserting that ‘[t]his government is tough on convicted paedophiles and pederasts’ and that it related to the State Strategic Plan’s priority about reducing crime rates (House of Assembly, Hansard, 11 April 2005: 2274). Opposition MP Vickie Chapman said that this amendment would ‘create a plethora of primary purposes’ and proposed that ‘surely it is a contradiction in terms to have more than one primary or chief purpose’ (House of Assembly, Hansard, 4 May, 2005: 2516). In the Legislative Council, Robert Lawson further declared that this amendment was ‘window dressing’ and that the Government were ‘just simply seeking to put political rhetoric into the sentencing legislation’ (Legislative Council, Hansard, 26 May, 2005: 1949).

Chapman also asked the Attorney-General whether the two prior primary purposes had had any impact upon the sentencing decisions by the courts, asking for sentencing comments which refer to these primary policies, with Atkinson stating that he only aware of one case explicitly mentioning this policy (House of Assembly, Hansard, 4 May, 2005: 2516).

Indeed when the Rann governmment tried to insert another primary policy into s. 10 in 2007, Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond questioned why the insertion of another primary policy statement was necessary, based on the impact that the three previous primary policy statements had had on sentencing. Redmond said that she had asked members of the legal community whether these primary policy statements had had any effect on sentencing and claimed that ‘each of them was at a loss to give me any precise answer’, adding:

I simply wonder how, in practice, it will make any real difference to the way these matters are dealt with when an offender is before a sentencing judge (House of Assembly, Hansard, 6 March, 2007: 1935).

By the end of the decade, s. 10 was a conglomerate of different primary policies that reflected the reflexive nature of the Rann government to public/media concern over certain ‘law and order’ issues. Before these primary policies were removed from the legislation in 2012-13, the primary policies of s. 10 read:

(1b) A primary policy of the criminal law is to protect the safety of the community.
(2) A primary policy of the criminal law is to protect the security of the lawful occupants of the home from intruders.
(3) A primary policy of the criminal law in relation to arson or causing a bushfire is—
(a) to bring home to the offender the extreme gravity of the offence; and
(b) to exact reparation from the offender, to the maximum extent possible under the criminal justice system, for harm done to the community…
(3a) A primary policy of the criminal law in relation to offences involving firearms is to emphasise public safety by ensuring that, in any sentence for such an offence, paramount consideration is given to the need for deterrence.
(4) A primary policy of the criminal law is to protect children from sexual predators by ensuring that, in any sentence for an offence involving sexual exploitation of a child, paramount consideration is given to the need for deterrence.

As the title of this blogpost said, this s. 10 can be seen as a microcosm of the ‘law and order’ agenda of the South Australian government under Rann. In 2012, legislation was passed by the new Jay Weatherill government  that removed the terms ‘primary policy’ from the Criminal Law (Sentencing) Act, which came into effect in March 2013. The new s. 10 now specified that in certain cases concerning serious criminal trespass, arson, child sex offences or firearms, the court had to take certain things into consideration. The new s. 10 read as:

(2) In determining the sentence for an offence, a court must give proper effect to the following:
(a) the need to protect the safety of the community;
(b) the need to protect the security of the lawful occupants of their home from intruders;
(c) in the case of an offence involving the sexual exploitation of a child—the need to protect children by ensuring that paramount consideration is given to the need for general and personal deterrence;
(d) in the case of an offence involving arson or causing a bushfire—
(i) the need to protect the community from offending of such extreme gravity by ensuring that paramount consideration is given to the need for general and personal deterrence; and
(ii) the fact that the offender should, to the maximum extent possible, make reparation for the harm done to the community by his or her offending.

As John M. Williams has argued, ‘law and order’ was central to the vision of the Rann government, seeing it as a potential vote-winner, a measure to demonstrate that the government ‘as listening’ to the public and the media and something to undermine the criticisms of the Opposition. This examination of s. 10 of the Criminal Law (Sentencing) Act and how it was subject to various amendments over the decade that Rann was in power reveal that this government tried to subvert the independence of the criminal justice system and bend the decision-making of the courts to the political will of the ruling government. As the Rann era passes into history, hopefully historians, political scientists, lawyers and criminologists will start to examine the major shifts in the South Australia’s criminal justice system since the late 1990s and determine how they fit into a wider ‘law and order’ trend amongst Australian state governments.

Photo credit: Gary Sauer-Thompson