Then & Now: A Letter to Occupy from David Osler

January 4, 2012

Ever asked your mum if she did anything more constructive in the Thatcher years than dressing up in ra-ra skirts and pixie boots and dancing to Duran Duran? It’s a reasonable bet that some people participating in Occupy London today are sons and daughters of the brave women who camped outside Greenham Common RAF base all those years ago. Looking back on it three decades later, the parallels between the two seem entirely obvious, if only on account of the requirement to beg, steal or borrow a tent and then pitch it in a symbolic location designed to highlight a major moral issue of the day.

Direct action, then, is nothing new. Despite the hoary old claim that there are not any good, brave causes left, each generation has its own good reasons to protest in innovative ways. I have been down to visit both St Paul’s and the Brighton camp, which has since been evicted. Although the older me is frankly too attached to carpet slippers, cocoa, central heating and a comfy bed at night to sign up for a night kipping on the floor of a disused courthouse, I am still glad someone is doing something on the issues Occupy London is raising. Grumpy middle aged men are part of the 99%, too.

The Greenham Common camp was established by a small group of women from Wales in September 1981, in opposition to the arrival of US cruise missiles in this country. Media coverage was almost universally hostile, and couched in notably sexist and homophobic language. While the numbers at the camp’s core were small to start with, they made every attempt to draw in others, with ‘embrace the base’ mobilisations ultimately drawing in tens of thousands. I presume that the idea of calling solidarity demos has occurred to Occupy London already. But if not, you should think about it.

This would be an excellent opportunity to make common cause with public sector trade unionists, local government service users, the unemployed and everybody else faced with austerity measures to fund the continued privileges of the super-rich. While the Greenham women were widely derided at the time, they were ultimately vindicated by events. Ten years later, in a very different international relations climate, the nukes were gone. As it was a women-only initiative, I was not personally involved with Greenham. After all, this was a period in which many activists based themselves on the principles of autonomy and self-organisation. Being straight, I likewise did not join the kiss-ins on public transport, organised by LGBT people angry that gay sex was still against the law for men aged under 21. But an equal age of consent is now in place, and rightly, too.

Yet I did take part in movements on some of the other big questions of the period, such as South Africa’s system of state-sponsored institutionalised racism, known as apartheid. Activists staged a round the clock picket outside the South Africa House, which was highly visible, if only on account of its location next to Nelson’s Column. A mass demonstration marked the visit of South African president PW Botha to London in June 1984. I joined a breakaway contingent that held a sit down around the embassy, lasting for several hours. We successfully stopped the traffic from circulating round Trafalgar Square, not at that time partially pedestrianised, and thus a major London thoroughfare. Gridlock was the inevitable outcome. There were newspaper articles the next day denouncing what we had done, and asking how inconveniencing motorists like that can possibly have achieved by way of putting pressure on Pretoria.

The honest answer is that taken in isolation, the action could not have worried the racists sitting on top of the goldmines in the slightest. But the simple rejoinder here is that the incident should not be considered in isolation. While each such action was in a sense a one off, they gained in impact from being part of a co-ordinated worldwide range of protests. Again, a comparison can be made with the Occupy camps in so many cities across the planet. Discrimination against the majority of the population of South Africa on the basis of skin colour in the end proved untenable. Only a decade later, the country held its first free elections.

Perhaps the most notable direct action victory of the 1980s was the derailment of Thatcher’s poll tax through orchestrated mass non-payment. Admittedly, this effort was assisted not a little by a major riot centred yet again on Trafalgar Square. Millions simply refused to pay the equivalent of what is now council tax, levied on a ‘one size fits all’ basis that left the poorest as much out of pocket as the very wealthiest. What’s more, such obvious unfairness seemed to be precisely the point of the exercise. Non-payment was for me a matter of political choice. I was working and could just about have coughed up. But many others simply did not have the money to meet the ridiculously large bills that came in through their letterbox. Yet whatever our motivations, we drew courage and support from each other. The impact of what we did can been seen by the way in which the Tories went on to oust prime minister Margaret Thatcher and water down the scheme into something just about more tolerable.

It would be wrong to portray the 1980s as a string of uninterrupted triumphs, of course. There were all too many defeats, not least for miners, printers and dockers, and we are still suffering the consequences of losing those battles today. But it would be just as foolish to deny the successes. The track record is sufficient to show that direct action can win, especially when it is accompanied by persistence, internationalism and novel tactics.

So in short, I hope Occupy London both learns from our mistakes and draws a little inspiration from what we did. And good luck, guys.


By David Osler