Lindsey German on royal theatrics and undercover policing
Driving back into London from the very enjoyable Levellers Day in Burford on Saturday, we were met with a series of billboard ads exhorting us to ‘join the nation in celebration’ of the queen’s jubilee. A bit further on we encountered a young man begging by the road in the Euston underpass, while traffic crawled past. It’s a contrast which tells you that there is really nothing to celebrate about a reign which after 70 years has seen inequality increase, begging and homelessness a common reality in every city and town, public sector parsimony which allows cuts in essential services, falling real wages, and a cost of living crisis which is leading to misery on a mass scale.
Meanwhile the rich get richer, the poor are forced out of cities like London, their housing replaced with hideous shiny new towers of offices and luxury flats. At the pinnacle of all this is the queen who also has a government which is the most incompetent and corrupt since before even she was born. She is one of the richest people in the world, but she and her family are subsidised by us. The costs of this jubilee alone are put at £1billion. Most of us will be grateful for an extra day off work, but already opinion polls show that around a quarter of people in Britain don’t support the monarchy. That figure will no doubt rise considerably once we are faced with King Charles III.
Monarchy, the House of Lords, the established Anglican church, the armed forces, are all essential to maintaining the status quo. There can be no fundamental change in Britain while these institutions remain in place. This was something our ancestors understood in the 17th century, when they made a revolution, cut off the king’s head, created a republic, abolished the house of Lords, instituted much greater freedom of worship. The Levellers were the most radical wing of this movement, calling for a much wider (albeit male) suffrage, annual elections, freedom of the press, free speech and freedom from debt. We have universal suffrage, but the other demands would lead to much higher levels of democracy.
To maintain the supposed mystique of monarchy, and to justify the ludicrous claim that this dysfunctional family somehow works hard on our behalf, there are all sorts of trappings of power and prestige, and this jubilee is only the latest. It is meant to conceal the fact that Britain is increasingly manifesting as a failed state, where we face multiple crises of housing, healthcare, poverty and much more. What better than a series of flag waving events, a Ruritanian pantomime, and boozy street parties to try to deflect attention from the real problems facing society and the complete unwillingness and inability to deal with them from those in power. The jubilee suits the right wing agenda perfectly – and we can expect Boris Johnson to milk it for all it is worth.
It comes at a time when there are very high levels of discontent in society but few outlets for that discontent. Keir Starmer’s Labour has no fundamental critique of the system, supports the monarchy, house of Lords and imperialist wars, and concentrates his fire on inefficiency and corruption in government rather than highlighting alternatives which would benefit working class people.
This means we have to look for alternatives outside parliament which can being to change society from below. We have been told this weekend that the chancellor Rishi Sunak and his wife are worth a staggering £730 million. Only a privileged class based system would even consider that such a person should decide the benefits, pensions, and tax levels of working class people. Yet this level of wealth – like that of the monarchy – is regarded as acceptable and justifiable.
Anyone who challenges it is immediately pilloried. Jeremy Corbyn was hounded for suggesting fairly modest reforms to the system. The rail workers in RMT are balloting for national strike action. The results are out on Tuesday and if they manage to reach to the 50% turnout threshold there will be a concerted attack on them from everyone in the establishment – including the media, politicians, and businessmen. This is already underway but will reach a crescendo if the strike goes ahead. They need our solidarity. And we need a major turn out on the 18 June TUC demo demanding Tories out and across the board pay increases.
The attacks on the unions are very clearly designed to weaken working class opposition to the cost of living crisis and Tory policies. The Tories know union organisation is one of the major defences against attacks on wages and conditions, which is why they have spent the past 40 years passing ever more stringent legislation to restrict strike action and union organisation.
In the next two weeks the whole ruling class and its supporters will try to channel the fears, anger and discontent into support for an outdated, undemocratic and unequal institution as a means of deflecting from its constant attacks on us. We should be waving placards, not flags.
We know who the police thought were the real enemy – and it wasn’t the fascists
You really couldn’t make it up. While the left was being infiltrated and spied on a considerable scale back in the 1970s, the fascist National Front was treated very differently. Its deliberately provocative marches through areas with high numbers of black and Asian were given the most extensive police protection while those of us who protested against them were greeted time and again with violence and repression.
Much of the recent tranche of the Spycops inquiry (UCPI) into infiltration from the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstrations Squad was taken up with testimony from managers of the undercover police, who quite openly argued that they didn’t infiltrate the far right. As DI Angus McIntosh, former deputy head of the SDS, put it ‘It [the far right] was a very violent section, and it was often involved in crime, so to put an undercover officer into that would have very, very difficult.’
Another former head, Barry Moss, told the inquiry that there was probably a policy decision not to infiltrate the far right ‘because they were too violent, and we were concerned what the officer may have to do to prove his credentials.’ Moss also opined that ‘If the National Front had just been allowed to demonstrate and the left wing hadn’t turned up, there probably wouldn’t have been any disorder.’
This is so revealing: any trouble around NF marches is blamed on the left, and they couldn’t risk infiltration because of the level of violence and criminality in the fascist organisations. So instead secretly enter the left because they were less likely to be violent and criminal! And absolutely no sense that a fascist march proceeding unhindered through areas with high numbers of ethnic minorities might lead to further violent attacks on black and Asian people.
I was involved in giving evidence to the inquiry about the first phase of state spying on me as a then member of the SWP in the 1970s and early 80s. I plan to write more about this in future, and you can read my witness statement here but just to say for now that the questioning of me was mostly about my politics rather than getting to grips with the role of the large number of undercover police in the SWP. Two of them worked in our national office handling confidential financial and membership information for a total of 6 years in this period. Many people will have been blacklisted and victimised as result of their deception.
To put some of this in context: three people have been killed on demonstrations since the 1970s – Kevin Gately at Red Lion Square in 1974, Blair Peach in Southall in 1979, and Ian Tomlinson in the City in 2009. All were at the hands of the police. No one has ever been held accountable. None were at the hands of left wing demonstrators. There were at least 51 racist murders in England from the mid 70s to early 80s. Many were connected to the far right.
Yet the police spied on and tried to criminalise the left. It is one of the many shocking things – along with the everyday sexism and racism displayed by the undercover police – which the evidence shows. The state aimed its fire at the left from the start of the SDS in 1968, and no doubt continues to do so.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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