Lindsey German is the National Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition. Elly Badcock spoke to her on the coalition’s tenth anniversary.
A Twitter wall buzzes on a giant screen as Julian Assange, Brian Eno and Jemima Khan take to the stage. Young men wear fancy dress and young women shout into microphones to roars of approval. A general assembly takes place between the lions guarding Trafalgar Square, before a 106-year-old woman leads a crowd of students, ex-soldiers, activists and workers to Downing Street. This is the modern anti-war movement; and ten days later I meet Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition, to discuss it.
Landing in the middle of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement that is sweeping the globe, the Anti-War Mass Assembly clearly drew on the rhetoric of both. ‘The reason we had this type of protest’, says Lindsey, ‘is that we wanted to do something different. We wanted to link it with the mass uprisings in the Middle East, with what’s happening in Egypt and Tunisia. And now it’s clear that a lot of the protests like Occupy Wall Street are taking that form too, the occupation of squares. What we did was very much a part of that. It was a day which really showed the breadth of the anti-war movement’.
It was clear that a significant proportion of attendees had never been involved in the anti-war movement before. Many in Trafalgar Square would have only been in primary school when the Afghan war began, as Lindsey remarks, and certainly didn’t attend the two-million strong protest against the Iraq war in 2003. It’s an oft-repeated mantra on some parts of the British left that so-called ‘A-B demos’ – marches which start at one point, proceed along an agreed route, and finish with a rally in another point – are discouraging young people from participating in the anti-war movement.
Lindsey brushes this idea aside firmly. ‘This whole argument is misplaced,’ she argues, ‘because actually demonstrations are fantastically good things. Clearly on their own they’re not enough, but they are good for getting a message out and uniting people; March 26th was the high point of the anti-cuts movement, and no-one would regard that as boring and passive!’
Lindsey is careful to emphasise, however, the role that the Stop the War Coalition has played in organising alternative forms of protest. She relates stories of students blocking roads and walking out of school in 2003 – and of young people blockading Whitehall on October 8th this year.
Listening to her smiling description of militant teenage activists in V for Vendetta masks, I’m intrigued by how this compares with the political movements Lindsey grew up with.
For someone who became involved in revolutionary politics nearly fourty years ago, Lindsey is remarkably honest about her formative political experiences. Upon arriving at the London School of Economics in 1972, she confesses to being ‘absolutely bemused at how many socialist groups there were, dozens, and they all sold different papers!’. Initially wary of engaging with any group, Lindsey joined the International Socialists in the same year after an amusingly cack-handed recruitment effort. ‘This guy used to come round – he was obviously my contact – and my Dad would say ‘oh, that man’s been round again’. As if he was my boyfriend or something – which he certainly wasn’t! In the end I just said to him ‘is it okay if I join?’ and he said ‘I thought you had!’’.
Lindsey stresses that it was a conscious decision for her to become a political activist – growing up during the Miner’s strike, apartheid South Africa and the Vietnam war spurred her into action after years of ‘dabbling’ in the movement. She describes a political history that spans 1968, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – as well as the rise and fall of the Labour Party.
The lack of such a rich political history for a generation who grew up under the policies of Thatcher ‘affects people a lot ideologically’, Lindsey argues. ‘The ideology of society now is much more right wing than when I grew up’. Growing up in ‘boomtime’, she describes her generation as ‘always getting better off. We were going into education – I was the first in my family to go to university. We had things our parents never had, whereas now there’s terrible insecurity amongst young people.’ Economic prosperity brought with it an expectation of basic service provision that seems non-existent now; social democracy, Lindsey says, was much more rooted in the fabric of society fourty years ago. ‘There was a left wing Labour government; MPs like Barbara Castle [who introduced equal pay laws]; there was a strong union movement and the Communist Party had a membership of 40,000.’
Despite the huge political shift, Lindsey is convinced that the supposedly apolitical generation are actually better informed and more likely to go on a demonstration. Even the biggest demonstrations of that era didn’t reach the heights of those since the turn of the century, she argues; ‘on March 26th there were half a million people out on the streets, and I don’t remember anything like that on a trade union march in the 70s.’
It’s somewhat paradoxical that a generation fed on the mantra ‘there’s no such thing as society’ are actually more active than those brought up to believe union membership was an integral part of the workplace. Lindsey explains this as the ‘DIY approach’ to politics; because younger activists don’t have strong social democratic institutions to support them, they’re forced out onto the streets to demand social change in a way that perhaps their forebear's weren’t.
Lindsey has observed a number of such political shifts in her four decades as a revolutionary. I ask if watching hard-won gains slip away, and seeing the boom-bust cycle reoccur seemingly infinitely, ever tempts her to throw in the towel – a question that is greeted with a politely puzzled chuckle. Of course, she says, ‘it’s always a source of regret when that happens; you need to look at what went wrong. When I joined the IS, I really thought there would be a revolution in five years; now we’re further away, in some ways. We need to analyse that – and in the past few years, we’ve needed to examine our politics and see how we can appeal to the younger generation.’ The notion that she’d leave revolutionary politics is firmly dismissed however – and she’s not convinced the Labour party would have her even if she did.
She’s incredibly optimistic about what the future holds; ‘Short of fascism, there is always hope. Even if it’s just a small group of people being active, organising and clarifying their ideas, that’s an incredibly rewarding thing. If you can organise, there’s always a level of hope.’