Popular memory

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

I have been in discussions with various people over the last few months about how movements ‘remember’ themselves and how they engage with their ephemeral history. I am interested in how these movements have often self-archived their materials and what they have done with these materials – are they open to researchers and people interested interested in the history of these movements? Some organisations and movements (as well as certain individuals) have donated their historical papers to various university archives or museums. These are valuable to researchers, but still privilege those who can gain access – usually academics and independent researchers who can afford to do archival research on site.

However some organisations and enterprising researchers are overcoming these obstacles by scanning and digitising the materials of the various progressive and left-wing movements across the Anglophone world. Sites such as the Marxist Internet Archive have been scanning many American, Canadian, British, Irish and Australian documents from the international communist movement, including various Trotskyist and anti-revisionist groups. A number of institutions across the globe have followed, such as the University of Wollongong’s Communist Party of Australia journals, the collection of South African radical material digitised by DISA, the Anti-Apartheid Movement collection at Oxford University, and the Amiel and Melburn Trust collection of British new left journals and the CPGB’s Marxism Today. As well as these institutional initiatives, others are digitising their historical documents at the grassroots level. This can be seen with the Red Mole Rising website, which is archiving online the materials of the International Marxist Group, the Irish Left Archive, the Red Action archive and the Anti-Fascist Archive, amongst others.

The wonderful thing about these online archives is that they are democratising the research of these movements. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can now access these documents, without incurring the costs of doing archival research. This is particularly helpful for those conducting research internationally. The downside is that these initiatives are often costly in terms of equipment and labour, with individuals having to volunteer a lot of their time and effort to provide these resources for others. Also by relying on the efforts of individuals with access to certain collections, there are significant gaps in what is available online. For example, I would like to see more stuff from Militant and the Workers Revolutionary Party made available.

It is exciting to be conducting research in this era of increased digitsation, but there are limits to what we can access at the moment. More people need to get involved – either providing original documents, or offering their services in the scanning process, or by helping out with the costs of hosting the websites (particularly as Scribd and Dropbox are increasingly used to hold these large file depositories).

At the same time, many original activist documents are languishing in people’s attics, basements, garages and other storage areas. These need to be located and preserved. If you have a collection of left-wing ephemera stored away somewhere, do try to find it and think about donating (or selling or at least, lending) it to people who can digitise it and preserve this (often obscured) history.

I hope this starts a discussion about how historians and activists can work together to help ensure that the documentary history of the international left is not overlooked.

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Deny, normalise and obfuscate: The Home Office in the 1980s and the abuse of South Asian women

Palgrave cover

The ‘missing’ files of the Home Office relating to an alleged child-sex ring given by Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens to Home Secretary Leon Brittan is not that surprising. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office kept silent about a hundreds of thousands of files that were thought to be ‘missing’ or ‘destroyed’ during the decolonisation process that most probably document a number of abuses by British personnel in Africa, Asia, Latin/Central America and the Middle East between the 1930s and the 1970s. Our own research into the abuses suffered by South Asian women at the hands of the British immigration control system shows that the Home Office (along with the FCO) was unwilling to admit to the abuses that occurred during the 1970s and at every turn, Home Office staff tried to obfuscate any independent investigation into these known abuses. We have only started to fathom the extent of the abuses suffered from the archival records released 30 years later. Without the archival record, many of the transgressions of the state would go unnoticed by the mainstream and historians are valuable in making the past wrongdoings of governments known.

As we have written in the introduction of our forthcoming bookRace, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control: Subject to Examination:

The main methodological approach adopted for the research underpinning this book was archival research based on recently opened Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) files held at the National Archives in London (released to the public between 2004 and 2012). This approach allowed us to capture the internal voice of authority – the one that we know it exists but often cannot be reached – representing the secretive side of the state that excludes us unless there is a leak of information (as recent cases linked to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden would suggest). Thus, we must wait an inordinate number of years to access such information, should any trace of it remain. In the case of the virginity testing controversy, we had to wait 30 years to access this side of the story, for more details of what occurred to be released. This practice must also be understood within a wider context of a series of human rights abuses conducted by British state institutions in the 1970s and 1980s (with the relevant files being released in the same timeframe), such as the actions of the British forces in Northern Ireland, the death of Blair Peach at the hands of a police officer in 1979, the policing of the Brixton riots and the response to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. We see in black and white the recurrence of the typical cycle of government evasion of accountability, which usually starts with denial, and is followed by the adoption of a minimisation approach and ‘othering’ strategies. The crude reality of what is known and not shared publicly conveys a sense of uneasiness, and of unbalanced power between those who govern and those who are governed, which can be readdressed by the opening of the archival record.

And further into the book:

This [book] has outlined how the British Government, under both Callaghan’s Labour and Thatcher’s Conservatives, responded to the revelation of the virginity testing practice by The Guardian in early 1979. The initial reaction of the government, led by Home Secretary Rees, was to question whether the tests on South Asian women had taken place in the manner alleged and to claim that any such test was part of a ‘routine’ medical examination to which most migrants were subjected. However, these claims were contested as details emerged that the practice was much more common than first thought, with numerous cases alleged to have occurred in British High Commissions across the Indian subcontinent. The strategy of the Home Office and the FCO was thus to deny publicly the number of examinations conducted (even though internal correspondence reveals that by March 1979 the Prime Minister’s Office knew of at least 80 cases), and to hope that public criticism would be stemmed by the announcement of an investigation into the process of medical examinations of immigrants by Sir Henry Yellowlees.

Soon after the practice of virginity testing was revealed in the mainstream press, the CRE announced that the Home Secretary should allow an independent investigation to pursue allegations of racist (and sexist) discrimination within the immigration control system. However, the Home Office was keen to resist this and challenged the questions raised by the CRE, claiming that discrimination was necessary to ensure the effective control of immigration, as well as launching legal action against the CRE, disputing whether it had the necessary powers to investigate another government institution…

The same strategies of denial, justification and obfuscation were adopted by the Home Office and the FCO when similar questions were asked about the use of x-rays within the immigration control system, with criticisms that x-rays were being performed upon minors not for medical reasons, but to verify their entry clearance applications. The Yellowlees investigation was used by the incoming Conservative government to deflect enquiries about the administrative and non-medical use of x-rays. Although the Yellowlees Report, released to MPs in April 1980, sanctioned the use of x-rays for age assessment purposes, the documents we have uncovered show that the Home Office and the FCO, internally, were in doubt over the usefulness of x-rays and quietly abandoned using them in all overseas posts except the High Commission in Bangladesh. Eventually Yellowlees, for reasons unknown, reassessed his position, and in 1982, Willie Whitelaw announced in the House of Commons that x-rays would no longer be used to determine the age of potential migrants. Since this 1982 embargo, there have occasionally been calls to reintroduce x-rays to verify the claims of potential migrants (and more recently, asylum seekers). 

Guardian front page

And in the book’s conclusion:

As we have shown throughout this book, from the 1960s to the 1980s the British authorities saw (and still see) the strict implementation of immigration controls as necessary for ‘good race relations’, and discriminatory practices – with the burden of proof placed upon the applicant – as necessary for the effective implementation of these controls. The suspicion of foreigners that existed within the system and pressure to scrutinise those who fit the profile of a potentially ‘bogus’ migrant led to the occurrence of various physical (and mental) abuses. This is the context within which the practice of virginity testing operated.

The practice of virginity testing and other forms of intrusive examination conducted upon migrant women from the Indian subcontinent in the 1970s were informed by a mentality of postcolonial dominance. The targeting of this group of women was certainly dictated by the British colonial experience – or misconception – that the female role in South Asian society is submissive. Further, the post-imperial British Government held a conviction, remaining from the colonial era, that people from the Indian subcontinent were untrustworthy. Yet, having admitted many Indian men into Britain for economic development purposes in the 1950s and 1960s, the government had to recognise the need to reunite families as a pressing point of public policy, while at the same time attempting to preserve the whiteness of British society.

The border became a space where virginity testing and other abusive treatments were justified to serve socio-economic and political aims. The increasingly restrictive conditions produced by British immigration control policy saw the authorities seek to apply a formula to create and maintain its idea of the ideal mixed society, whereby the Commonwealth migrant would be accepted on the terms of the host society. In the case of the South Asian women who came to Britain in the 1970s, they were to fulfil the purpose of joining their male family members and creating homogeneous family units in Britain’s South Asian communities, thus replicating the ideals of white British society. To ensure that these women would fulfil this role, and because South Asian migrants were thought to be prone to fabrication (especially women), the body became the signifier of ‘the truth’ for British immigration officials. The combination of all of these elements formed the basis for the conditions under which [many] South Asian women had to endure intrusive tests between 1968 and 1979. This practice was highly discriminatory, with a very select demographic group being the victims; it was an abuse of power and a violation of human rights.

The victims who were subjected to such practices remain mostly nameless and faceless, will never receive adequate compensation and, most importantly for the purpose of a proper healing process, have yet to receive an apology from either the past or current British governments. On this point, when the story broke again in May 2011 in The Guardian, and was widely reported worldwide, the Conservative government did not consider it to be a good opportunity to redress past wrongdoings:

[a] UK Border Agency spokesman said: ‘These practices occurred 30 years ago and were clearly wrong.This government’s immigration policies reflect the UK’s legal responsibilities and respect immigrants’ human rights.’[i]

In a multi-ethnic, globalised Britain, one would assume that this matter would be taken more seriously. Redressing past wrongdoing is the foundation of restorative justice, an underpinning principle embraced by the UN to attest to the importance of acknowledging abuse and the infringement of human rights. Meaningful reparation of wrongdoings does contribute to the healing of victims, and any action in this direction ought to be encouraged…[ii] 

The task of discerning ‘undesirable’ migrants at the border was prioritised over all other economic, social and humanitarian concerns. Did ever the Immigration Officers, who used their discretionary power to argue that more intrusive examinations were needed, consider the implications of their actions? Have they ever looked back? We accept that they followed orders. We also accept that immigration officials may have agreed, up to a point, to perform their duties in a most comprehensive manner because of the government’s broader vision and their background. In other areas of the world, brutalities directed at certain ethnic groups to achieve a better position for the dominant state would be framed in completely different terms. The harmful actions of the British state and its branches and personnel cannot be dismissed in this way… 

As we have written, the archival record is key to uncovering the past abuses by the British state and as this blog post argues, the need for historians to assist in bringing the archival record to the public’s knowledge is increasingly greater. The recent past should not be arbitrarily off-limits. And if the government is reluctant to open its records, historians should learn from journalists and endeavour to make FOI laws work for us.

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[i] A. Travis, ‘Ministers Face Calls for Apology as Extent of 1970s “Virginity Tests” Revealed’, The Guardian 9 May 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/may/08/home-office-virginity-tests-1970s (accessed 9 January 2014).

[ii] Much of Miriam Aukerman’s analysis would apply to this context as well. See M. Aukerman (2002) ‘Extraordinary Evil, Ordinary Crime: A Framework for Understanding Transitional Justice’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 15, pp. 39-97.

 

The British left and immigration: Weekly Worker cites Hatful of History blog

WeeklyWorker

This post is just a brief one to note that Peter Manson from the Weekly Worker (the newspaper of the new-ish CPGB – more info on their origins here) quotes from this blog at length in a discussion of the British left (primarily the Communist Party of Britain and the Socialist Party) and their position on immigration controls.  The article quotes extensively on the position of the old CPGB and argues that this forms the basis for the CPB’s (and thus the Morning Star‘s) current position, which is in favour of ‘non-racist’ controls. Manson’s main argument is that the CPB and the SP (the main group behind electoral party No2EU) are playing a ‘fool’s game’ which takes the lead of UKIP. The CPGB hold the position of no immigration controls whatsoever, but Manson doesn’t mention that this is also the position of the Socialist Workers Party, which I think would’ve been worth making clear – even though the focus was on the CPB/SP.

You can read the original post that Manson cites here.

The Conversation (UK) On Rik Mayall, The Young Ones and Thatcher

I just thought I’d mention that The Conversation (UK) has published a short piece by myself on The Young Ones as Mayall’s ground-breaking achievement and what the show reveals about Britain under Thatcher in the 1980s. You can read it here.

Mayall

In tribute to Rik Mayall: The Young Ones, Thatcherism and the People’s Poet

It is very saddening news to hear of the sudden death of Rik Mayall at the age of 56. As Rick, the lefty sociology student in The Young Ones, Mayall helped create one of the greatest contemporary portrayals of life in Thatcherite Britain, while indulging in surreal and off-the-wall comedy. The longevity of The Young Ones is a topic that I have written about at length. In a paper under consideration for publication at the moment, I wrote:

The Young Ones can be viewed historically and gives us insight into how Thatcherism and the 1980s was experienced by sections of British society. The show can be read as a text that portrays popular opinions about Thatcher’s Britain and satirises contemporary issues… However this does not mean that The Young Ones is an accurate reflection of the times per se – the show is obviously an over-the-top and surreal portrayal of student life in Thatcherite Britain. We, as historians and students of history, don’t watch The Young Ones to observe an authentic depiction of life under Thatcherism as it actually was, but because we can see certain themes and concepts (important for understanding Thatcherism and 1980s Britain) depicted in the television show. The show works as an excellent demonstration of the zeitgeist of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but at the same time, it is factually inaccurate and stakes no claim to historical authenticity… 

Janine Utell has written that The Young Ones ‘challenge[d] the hegemony of Thatcherism’, using laughter to highlight the ‘profound ruptures and transformations in society’ under Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership.. Characters that espoused left-wing positions had been in British television comedies before, but had often been the focus of ridicule. Robert Lindsay’s character of Wolfie in the late 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith was a stereotypical Marxist attempting to start a socialist revolution in suburban London via the Tooting Popular Front… On the other hand, The Young Ones were obviously critical of Thatcher and capitalism in the 1980s and sympathetic to the ideas of the left, but also willing to poke fun at the left for its sanctimonious tendencies.

The Young Ones doesn’t show us Britain in the 1980s as it really was, but it is a depiction of how the 1980s were experienced. The references to phenomena such as unemployment, police racism, popular capitalism, student activism, sexism and class stratification in the show are taken from the real life experience of living in Britain under Thatcher and depicted as icons/symbols that could be popularly recognised, but satirised to an unreal level. The Young Ones captures the zeitgeist of Britain in the early 1980s under Thatcherism by making reference to many symbols of the era, but the context in which these symbols are represented is often contorted and push to the bounds of the absurd. The juxtaposition of the political and social commentary with surrealism and cartoon slapstick makes the show enjoyable to watch, while telling us much about the recent past – this is why historians should rewatch The Young Ones.

Other alternative comedy television shows broadcast around the same time as The Young Ones, such as Not the Nine O’ Clock News, Spitting Image and OTT, were predominantly made up of topical sketches and stand-up performances and could be immediate in their satirical take on the politics of the day. However The Young Ones had to weave its satire into the broader narrative of the episode and accordingly its parody of aspects of Thatcherite Britain had to have broader resonance that were not so instantaneous. Arguably the longevity of the show’s satire and the significance of its comedic targets makes The Young Ones much more valuable for historians of Britain in the 1980s than other television shows that have not had the same durability.

This paper is based on a bunch of blog posts I wrote after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013. You can read the series, titled ‘What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism?’, here:

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: ‘Race’ and the police in the 1980s

Part Three: Unemployment

Part Four: Neo-liberalism, market populism and crony capitalism

Part Five: Activism and the left

Part Six: Women and sexism

Part Seven: Higher education and class

And here’s Rick with the final word:

June 4, 1976: Sex Pistols play Manchester for the very first time…

In the history of British popular culture, June 4, 1976 is a significant date. The Sex Pistols played at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall to a small room of people. It is one of their first gigs outside London. Like the saying about the first Velvet Underground LP, nearly everyone in the audience that night went on to have a cultural impact on Britain (and beyond). Here is a collection of what several people have written about that gig.

From Tony Wilson, 24 Hour Party People: What the Sleeve Notes Never Tell You (London: Channel 4 Books, 2002) pp. 23-24:

4 June, 1976. Lesser Free Trade Hall. People dotted around. Desultory. Strange.

A thin, handsome mekon appeared on the small proscenium stage. ‘Hi, we’re the Buzzcocks but we’re not ready yer, so we’re not playing tonight, but this is the Sex Pistols.’

A band emerged. Who knows what the drummer, bass player and guitarist looked like. The guy who took centre stage took the mike, took your mind. A swagger to make John Wayne look a pussy. A sneer so dismissive of everyone and everything, of God and civilization, in just one pair of twisted lips. And then they started playing…

They stared, open-mouthed, transported to a place where you didn’t need to pogo (it wasn’t invented till three months later). That place was real life; that place was the clearing in the undergrowth where meaning and elucidation live, that place where the music came from and the place it would take you back to.

But they knew nothing, these forty-odd strangers, gathered by chance and chat, they just knew their world would never be the same again. A past obliterated and No Future.

From Peter Hook, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012) pp. 35-37:

Reading the small ads in the MEN was how I found that the Pistols were playing the Lesser Free Trade Hall, 50p a ticket…

So that was it anyway, the group of us who went and saw the Sex Pistols at Lesser Free Trade Hall. A night that turned out to be the most important of my life – or one of them at least – but that started out just like any other…

There to greet us was Malcolm McLaren, dressed head to toe in black leather – leather jacket, leather trousers and leather boots – with a shock of bright-orange hair, a manic grin and the air of a circus ringmaster; though there was hardly anyone else around… Look at the photographs of the gig and you can see that everybody in the audience was dressed the same way, like a Top of the Pops audience. There were no punks yet. So Malcolm – he looked like an alien to us…

The Sex Pistols’ gear was set up and then, without further ceremony, they come on: Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Steve Jones was wearing a boiler suit and the rest of them looked like they’d vandalized an Oxfam shop. Rotten had on this torn-open yellow sweater and he glared out into the audience like he wanted to kill each and every one of us, one at a time, before the band struck up into something that might have been ‘Did You No Wrong’ but you couldn’t tell because it was so loud and distorted…

We just stood there, stock still, watching the Pistols. Absolutely, utterly, gobsmacked.

From Mick Middles & Lindsay Reader, Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis (London: Omnibus Press, 2009) p. 35:

In the summer of 1976, Terry [Mason] convinced Barney [Bernard Sumner] and Hooky [Peter Hook] to go along with him to the Sex Pistols gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.. Although some believe that the importance of the Lesser Free Trade Hall Pistols gigs have been somewhat overstated, they were almost certainly a trigger for the musical ambitions of many in attendance.

Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto famously shelled pout the necessary £32 to hire the hall on FRiday June 4, 1976, and, to more poignant effect, on Tuesday July 20 where they would make their debut appearance as Buzzcocks. The first gig… saw Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, clad in black rubber, accosting pedestrians on Peter Street like some downbeat and desperate spiritual street hawker. Even when he succeeded, many of the wary Pistols gig goers were immediately swamped by the music of the support band, a progressive rock act called Solstice.

From James Nice, Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records (London: Aurum Press, 2010) pp. 8-10:

Situated upstairs from the much larger Free Trade Hall, the venue was small, seated and salubrious, yet sufficiently unorthodox, and city central. The Sex Pistols date was set for 4 June 1976…

Lacking a regular bassist and a drummer, Buzzcocks were unable to perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June, and instead drafted ina local heavy rock group called Solstice to open for the visiting Pistols. Most present number the audience at around forty, although Devoto maintains the figure was closer to 100… Future musicians present in the room included Mark E. Smith (of The Fall), Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (Joy Division) and Steven Morrissey (The Smiths), then a New York Dolls obsessive, who afterwards sent an ambivalent ‘epistle’ to NME describing ‘discordant music’ by ‘bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire.’ Others included Steve Diggle, soon to join Buzzcocks on bass, fanzine editor Paul Morley, photographer Kevin Cummins, Eddie Garrity (better known as Ed Banger) and Alan Hempsall, a progressive rock fan later to form Crispy Ambulance.

From Morrissey, Autobiography (London: Penguin Classics, 2013) p. 115:

Back on Manchester’s inscrutable streets I find a tatty leaflet stuck on a Peter Street lamppost telling me that the Sex Pistols will play the Lesser Free Trade Hall. They are not the saviors of culture, but the destruction of it – which suits me quite perfectly…

Morrissey also wrote a ‘review’ of the gig as a letter to NME (reproduced on the Passions Just Like Mine website):

Review by Steven Morrissey of a Sex Pistols concert: “I pen this epistle after witnessing the infamous Sex Pistols in concert at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The bumptious Pistols in jumble sale attire had those few that attended dancing in the aisles despite their discordant music and barely audible lyrics. The Pistols boast having no inspiration from the New York / Manhattan rock scene, yet their set includes, “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, a number believed to be done almost to perfection by the Heartbreakers on any sleazy New York night and the Pistols’ vocalist / exhibitionist Johnny Rotten’s attitude and self-asserted ‘love us or leave us’ approach can be compared to both Iggy Pop and David JoHansen in their heyday. The Sex Pistols are very New York and it’s nice to see that the British have produced a band capable of producing atmosphere created by The New York Dolls and their many imitators, even though it may be too late. I’d love to see the Pistols make it. Maybe they will be able to afford some clothes which don’t look as though they’ve been slept in.”

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Here is Paul Morley’s recollection of the same gig (via The Guardian). The Huffington Post also did a piece on the same gig here.

People might also be interested in this paper written by cultural studies scholar Sean Albeiz on the popular memory of this gig, and my article on how the Manchester music scene (including this gig) has been portrayed in film.