What were you doing when Peace News turned 75?

IssueJuly / August 2011
Feature by Cedric Knight

On 5 June 2011, the day after a Peace News 75th anniversary celebration was held nearby in North London, I attended a panel discussion at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. It was 90 minutes on “The Age of Dissent”, featuring Laurie Penny, Dan Hind and Dan Hancox. Despite the overarching title of the festival, the panel had practically no literary content (other than that the panel were writers and journalists), and only the most tenuous of connections to Stoke Newington.

In the seventeenth century, Stoke Newington was a village sufficiently beyond the bounds of the city of London so that nonconformists could legally worship (under the Five Mile Act, 1665), and thus later a home of Defoe and Quakerism. There is currently a quarter-of-a-million-pound campaign to erect a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft there. So I wondered: is it only in Stoke Newington you would get 150 random locals turn up on a wet Sunday afternoon to listen to a talk about the state of activism?

But the “age” it focussed on was very much the present, in particular the anti-cuts march of 26 March. The first Dan (Hancox) spoke about “kettling” [holding demonstrators in a pen for hours], and the effect of police tactics in stopping many people with families (or weak bladders) from demonstrating, but radicalising those who could afford to be less cautious.

I wasn’t convinced by his idea of turning kettles into “autonomous spaces”, feeling it could ignore the illegality of disproportionate detention and deprivation. (He also mentioned an attempt to start a local group via megaphone.)

The other Dan (Hind) was a bit more academic, taking a wider view, observing that the concentration of mainstream discourse on cuts distracts from radical analysis of the 2008 capitalist crisis, and saying that “in a very specific sense” chancellor George Osborne did not know what he was doing. Titters from Keynesians in the audience betrayed that many thought that was something of a understatement.

Laurie Penny provided a younger, starker, and possibly more radical, perspective. Her reaction to party politics was that the Labour opposition also wanted to cut public services, just a bit less, a realisation that leads many younger people to radical action.

I was sitting a few seats away from local Labour MP Diane Abbott, who also asked a valid question about diversity in the new movements, and I was encouraged that as she left I overheard her describe the meeting as “interesting”.

Laurie seemed particularly irritated that people can be prosecuted for “criminal trespass” after entering a shop that is open to the public and sitting down (particularly after police had told them they would be let go). I reflected that the Criminal Justice Act 1994 includes police powers over people “disrupting” activity in private property, but that some of us failed to foresee the ramification of it being applied in Fortnum & Mason when we were opposing it, because we didn’t foresee Labour extending it (in 2003) to indoor areas.

There was some sympathetic discussion of the effect of the Black Bloc weaving in and out of the main march waving red-and-black flags and attacking the same banks as UK Uncut, which to my mind could have been arranged so as not to inadvertently undermine the other action.

But the revelation that interested me most was Laurie’s statement that the 2003 march against the impending Iraq war (the biggest political demonstration in the UK ever) caused many people who were her age, then around 16, to become radicalised. To many, the failure to prevent (or apparently even ameliorate) the coming devastation was profoundly dispiriting and disempowering, but to some youngsters it was proof that something more was needed than walking from A to B.

Personally, walking from A to B is pretty much my ideal level of political commitment, particularly if A and B are quite close together. (If adventurous, I might contribute a witty and thought-provoking placard, or have a rest to give out Peace News.)

However, I’ve always wondered how a movement of maybe two million people, partly backed by the mainstream, was squandered as the wars went on. I think there’s little wrong with the rationalisation that marching is a fraternal action that does at least as much to change the individual as change the world. But maybe the disenchantment was partly owing to a failure at point “B”.

I will only listen to a speaker at a rally if it’s personal testimony, key new facts, specific ideas for action or at least as inspiring as Jeremy Corbyn (the record is about 2.3 corbyns, with some union sponsors alas only reaching the millicorbyn range).

It was during the “Q&A” that one or two women near the front questioned the chair’s truncating questions to 20 seconds (since the event was being cut short to make way for a session on crime fiction), arguing that attendees had as much to say as the advertised panel. With many clamouring to be heard, for a moment it looked like the whole session was going to unceremoniously disintegrate into chaos, which might reflect badly on prospects for a radical movement. However, to me it seemed unfortunate that something similar hadn’t achieved a richer, more participatory dialogue in 2003.

(There was a question about the recent AV referendum result indicating a hopeless conservatism, and a not entirely convincing answer to say that it was actually mostly a anti-LibDem vote, engineered as “political judo” by the Tories. I was also thinking about the upcoming Radical/Rebellious Media Conference and how my own area of interest, the internet, might enable us to really know and verify what is going on in the world. In the light of the later “lesbian Syrian blogger” hoax, I’m wondering if it’s any use at all.)