“…the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Committee which, not uncommonly, was more interesting than the Angry Brigade itself, a widely-based, politically creative organisation of very different people.” – John Barker
Below is a complete reprint of a Stoke Newington Eight Defence Group booklet. It’s a good example of a document which you see mentioned everywhere but can’t actually read without access to private libraries or the money to pay for antiquarian books. Until now.
There is a lot here to disagree with, but it does perhaps show the sort of debates that were taking place at the time.
The text has now been reprinted with a new introduction and endnotes by the enigmatic See Red Press who kindly sent me a copy. It is a beautiful edition, but the introduction does intensify my unease about the contents:
Regardless of the illegitimacy of the prosecution evidence, it’s likely that at least some of the defendants were actively involved in carrying out the activities of the Angry Brigade. John Barker later said, “In my case the police framed a guilty man.” Bombs and explosions have been associated with anti-authoritarian struggle across the world for centuries, but in more recent years in the UK the idea of ‘terror’ – and its identified perpetrators – have been increasingly individualised and racialised, enshrined in state programmes such as Prevent. It has equally been restricted. Those who undertake direct action against the state increasingly seek to distance themselves from the label of terrorism, often enforcing its use against those with less leverage in society. If authoritarian terrorism is ideology maintained by force, what does, and could, anti-authoritarian terrorism look like? And is there a place for it now, in 2020 in the UK?
The short answer to this latter question is no. A longer answer is: whilst this is an interesting question, it is the wrong one. This is an anti-authoritarian blog and I shall place my cards on the table and say that I would like those in power to be considerably more scared of the rest of us than they currently seem to be. There is a class war raging and we are losing it.
The “terror” card is one weapon in the state’s armoury that is used to divide us. A whole swathe of completely reasonable groups have been accused of terrorism or “domestic extremism” in recent years, including anti-fracking protestors, trade unionists, anti-fascists and volunteers fighting ISIS in Syria.
“Direct action against the state” can take many forms and the Angry Brigade’s tactics are a useful historical example of something that creates a lot of noise but achieves little in isolation.
Reviewing issues of Hackney Gutter Press from the early 1970s shows us that 137 people were identified by the state as Angry Brigade suspects and many of them were subjected to dawn raids, arrests and lower level persecution. At the same time large numbers of radicals were diverted from their day to day community and workplace campaigning to defend arrestees as part of organisations such as the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group. This collateral damage needs to be included in any analysis of this period.
There are unfortunately no shortcuts to “peace”.
These reservations aside, the booklet is recommended as a useful slice of Hackney’s radical history. It can be got cheap here from AK Press.
Hackney Gutter Press was the most revolutionary, counter-cultural and colourful of the plethora of community newspapers published in the borough in the early 1970s. Previous entries on this blog have covered issues 2-5.
Issues 3 and 5 can be found on archive.org – so as far as I know, the complete set is now online. (If you were involved with the project or know more about it, get in touch!)
Most people in Hackney don’t like the way their lives are controlled by work, rents, councillors, police, schools etc. A lot of us are organising to fight their control – but we feel we don’t know enough about each other. For example with the coming tenants’ campaign against the Fair Rents Act we’re going to need a united fight if we are going to win – women at home, people going to work, claimants and kids together: we’re all tenants.
We want this newspaper to be used as part of getting to know each other. Organising to fight together. We want it to be used as a WEAPON TO FIGHT FOR OUR OWN CONTROL OF HACKNEY.
This first issue was produced by a group of people whjo are involved in organised activities such as Claimants’ Unions, squatting, Womens Liberation, playhouses for children, food co-ops.
We have intense discontent with the Hackney Gazette. Not only do they always report in favour of the rich and those in authority, but even this reporting is inadequate, amateurish and often totally inaccurate.
HACKNEY GUTTER PRESS is non-profit making and its policy will be decided from issue to issue by open meetings.
The first meeting witll be at Centerprise, 34, Dalston Lane on Thursday May 4th at 8pm. This is open to all wishing to help produce the paper, writing, drawing cartoons, distributing, reporting, etc.
Introduction from Hackney Gutter Press issue 1
It looks like the debut issue was published in April 1972. (Judging by the dates referred to in the articles)
Contents of the first issue include:
Why Not Squat? On direction action to solve the homeless issue. The Council faces resistance when it tries to evict four families squatting Grayling Road in Stoke Newington.
The Stoke Newington 8 – update on the arrests of 6 people in Amhurst Road the previous year in relation to Angry Brigade bombings.
Mildmay Action House, 26 Mildmay Park N1.“We’d had enough, kids around the house all day, fed up with endless housework and nowhere else to go. So we took action – women and children from Grosvenor Avenue marched on the Council last summer and demanded a house and money – we got both, and started work straight away on repairing and painting the house, clearing the garden” – plans to run the house collectively as community/childcare centre and Claimant’s Union.
Militant protests outside two different Hackney Social Security Offices, both broken up by police.
Last train to Dalston Junction? North London line station (i.e. Dalston Kingsland now) threatened with closure.
In the Courts – defend yourself with McKenzie advisors – Three members of Highbury and Hackney Claimants’ Union were charged with criminal damage for painting slogans on the side of a Social Security Office. They defended themselves in court were initially fined £30 and then acquitted on appeal. “The defendants told the magistrates what a load of deathlike, corrupt, prejudiced, bastards they were, representing a law designed only to prevent people taking back what is their own.” The defendants also demanded a minute’s silence for the 13 people murdered in Derry recently! (NB – do not do any of this now, Radical History of Hackney will not be held legally liable if you happen to spray paint a benefits office and/or are convicted after defending yourself in court).
Rents Will Double – Then There’ll Be Trouble. Calls for rent strikes if council rents increase from £3.50 to £7.47. And quite right too. Suggestion that the tenants associations run by the Labour Party will not be aggressive enough in challenging the increase.
The design for issue 6 was more sombre. Perhaps reflecting the contents or possibly the budget. It seems to have been published in December 1972.
The cover story is on the conclusion of the trial of the Stoke Newington 8 “after 111 days and nearly £1,000,000 in costs”:
Hackney Gutter Press was concerned about the policing of the suspects, the safety of convictions and the wider implications of the use of conspiracy to imprison radicals. It called for James Greenfield, Anna Mendelssohn, John Barker and Hilary Creek (who were found guilty) to be regarded as political prisoners.
There are some reprints of the wildly lurid coverage of the trial from the tabloids:
Also in this issue:
Demonstration at the Town Hall against the implementation of the government’s Housing Finance Act.
Up The Squatters! 25 people squatting 4 houses in Dalston take on Second Actel Housing Association. Scenes of disorder in the courtroom. The case was thrown out, eviction staved off. Also a new squat at 98 Richmond Road E8.
Freedom of the Press? Or ideology of the State? on BBC and media bias.
Justice in Action – British Home Stores in Mare Street takes a 75 year old pensioner to court for allegedly nicking 16 pence worth of sweets.
Securicor – concern that private security firms will be used against protestors / poor people more generally.
Fight To Live – unemployment and the radical demand for an equal living income for all.
Hackney Dossers – survey of rough sleeping in the borough.
The back page has the usual contacts for radical and community organisations as well as a bold short piece slagging off a magistrate:
Also on the back page, a plea for assistance. with production and sale of the magazine. “The Gutter Press needs helpers if it is to keep going”. This looks like the last issue though. After this the paper merged with the more moderate Hackney Action to form the much longer running Hackney People’s Press.
The building in question was 27 Stamford Hill, which is now a posh nursery. It caught fire in the early hours of Wednesday 3rd June 1987, eight days before the general election.
The blaze severely damaged the three storey building used by Hackney North and Stoke Newington Conservative Association.
The fire started at at about 3 o’clock this morning and completely wrecked the second floor and the roof. Scotland Yard say traces of petrol were found on an internal staircase leading to the basement. Fire investigation officers are now sifting through the debris for more clues.
The Conservatives say valuable computer equipment was lost as well as 45,000 letters containing election literature that was being sent out to voters. They say they have received threats before.
Thames News – transcript of clip above. Reporter Christopher Rainbow
Chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit arrived later that day for a press conference outside the building. He remarked on the wider context of anti-Tory violence during the campaign:
Not far from the gutted building in Stoke Newington is a billboard poster which someone has tried to burn down – and four vans displaying Tory posters were set alight near Vauxhall bridge four days ago.
Inspector Peter Turner went on:
A mob of youths damaged cars bearing Conservative stickers outside Stoke Newington Assembly Hall in nearby Church Street earlier in the evening. But we are not linking the two attacks at the moment.
The Gazette also noted that the Fire Brigade had evacuated women and children from the council-run hostel for single mothers next door.
2. Who was Oliver Letwin and how did he end up in Hackney?
Letwin was born in London in 1956. His parents were conservative academics. He went to Eton and then Cambridge University. After a few years of academia, he joined Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit in 1983.
It was Letwin who recommended that the hated Poll Tax be road-tested on Scotland before being inflicted on the rest of the population. (Hackney had its own Poll Tax Riot in 1990 and was number one for non-payment at one point.)
In 1985 he stated (in private correspondence only recently released under the 30 year rule) that the Broadwater Farm riot happened, not because of endemic police racism and poverty, but because of “individual… bad moral attitudes” – and that this was the reason black people were apparently more likely to riot than white people. Therefore these areas should not be invested in as this would “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops” and black “entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade.”. He has since apologised for this.
I’ve not been able to find out how Oliver Letwin came to be selected as a Conservative Party candidate in 1987. He mentions in his autobiography that he left Downing Street the day he was selected, but he doesn’t say how that happened. What had Letwin done to piss people off so much that he was given one of the unsafest constituencies in England? Journalist Terry Coleman followed him around on the campaign trail: “In the streets a few people yelled at Mr Letwin to fuck off”. The Independent mentions that “he was chased down the street by a knifeman“.
3. What about the election?
Terry Coleman’s book Thatchers Britain is a travelogue covering the 1987 election. The chapter on Hackney is interesting for a number of reasons, but one of them is that Letwin’s voting base featured two distinct demographics. The first were orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill (where Hackney’s sole Conservative councillors are today). The second were people who would usually vote Labour but weren’t going to this time because of the party’s new candidate – Diane Abbott: “‘You see the colour of my face?’, said one elderly white man. ‘That’s where I’ll be voting'”.
Abbott and the SDP-Liberal Alliance candidate both condemned the arson attack in the HackneyGazette. These two clips show that a few days after the fire there was also vandalism against the Labour Party HQ and that of… Red Front.
The upper clip includes a classic Letwin gaffe: “I’m afraid it’s a very unpleasant place” [awkward pause] “to be campaigning”.
(Lefty trainspotter aside – Red Front was a brief electoral alliance between the middle class academics of the Revolutionary Communist Party and ultra-workerist anti-fascists Red Action. There is an excellent piece about Red Front at New Historical Express. Red Action have cropped up here previously because one of their members who lived in Stoke Newington was convicted for the 1993 IRA bomb attack on Harrods.)
The outcome of the 1987 election in Hackney North and Stoke Newington was definitive. Diane Abbott won with a 7,678 majority. She therefore became the first black woman to be elected to House of Commons and has remained in post ever since. Red Front got 228 votes.
4. So Whodunnit? (aka Wild Speculation)
As far as I’m aware nobody was ever charged with setting the fire, which has lead to some imaginative theories about the identity and motivation of the culprit.
Norman Tebbit was first out of the starting blocks at the press conference in front of the smouldering ruins:
One can only assume if it is arson it was an outrage perpetrated by the extreme Left. I don’t know whether by members of theLabour Party, or the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), or anything else. But what I do know is that all of us in democratic parties would deplore this sort of thing. I’m sure Mr Kinnock would deplore this extremely vigorously. I recollect his vigorous denunciation of violence during the coal strike.
Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: a journey through the promised lands (Bantam, 1987)
But there were much more dramatic suspects to point the finger at:
There was no real evidence of who did it. But just down the road, Anarchist posters were pasted on the walls. One said “Never Trust A Politician. They Always Lie”. Another, which showed a Rolls Royce being bashed in, said “Let’s Kick Out The Tories? Let’s Kick Them In”.
Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: A Journey through the Promised Lands (Bantam, 1987)
It’s undeniable that there was a huge counterculture of squatting and anarchist and animal liberation activism in Hackney throughout the 1980s. The account of the fly-posters seems real and people I have met reminisce fondly of consistent low level acts of violent subversion against Barclays Bank (hated for its investment in Apartheid South Africa), butchers’ shops etc. But glueing locks and a bit of fly-posting is several notches down from an arson attack on a major political party during an election, you’d think?
Letwin himself doesn’t hold back from speculating about the culprits in his autobiography:
As I came the next morning to the point on the road outside the headquarters, I could see that there was something wrong. Gradually, I focused on the fact that what was wrong was the headquarters building itself. Not to put too fine a point on it, the building wasn’t there any more. It- and all the hand-addressed election manifestoes within – had been burned to the ground.
It was considered to be a case of arson, and it seemed at least possible that whoever had done it might have been associated with, or perhaps inspired by, a now defunct organisation known as Class War. Class War (though not directly participating in the election on the grounds that elections were bourgeois conspiracies) had been campaigning actively under the perspicuous slogan “We will bomb, blast and burn every bourgeois out of Hackney”.
Oliver Letwin – Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present (Biteback Publishing, 2017)
It’s also undeniable that Class War were all over Hackney in 1987. Indeed, the edition of the Hackney Gazette which has the fire as its cover story also features, coincidentally, a full page article on Class War and its anti-yuppie campaign. Which itself raises an interesting issue with Letwin’s accusations above.
The language in Letwin’s quoted Class War slogan is a bit off – and I have not been able to find a source for it other than his book. Class War was infamous for its “tabloid” approach to propaganda and its unlikely that they would have used the word “bourgeois” – directing their bile instead at yuppies, cops and the rich. Similarly “bomb, blast and burn” seems like an incitement to individual terror that was out of step with the organisation’s fetishism for collective working class violence (like rioting) – and their understandable desire not to get nicked for incitement.
Also, oddly for anarchists, Class War did actually stand a candidate in the 1988 Kensington by-election – and more recently put up seven candidates in the 2015 general election.
I remain unconvinced that “people associated with” Class War in particular, or non-specific anarchists in general, burned down the Hackney Tory HQ in 1987. I think that’s a bit of neat scapegoating and misjudges the often wide gap between insurrectionary propaganda and actual anarchist deeds. Mind you, I doubt there were many anarchists who were upset by it at the time.
Just as plausible non-anarchist options:
Far right? Letwin is Jewish and as we have seen, ten years earlier fascists were trying to burn down Centerprise.
Disgruntled party activist? Being a Hackney Tory must bring its own tensions and internal disputes and who I am to discount an “inside job”?
Criminal/insurance? The front cover headline of the Hackney Gazette the week after was “Man Dies In Shop Blaze” which the paper feels could have been part of “a string of arson attacks” on empty shop properties in Dalston.
One of the countless victims of eight years of Thatcherism? The circle of suspicion would be quite wide in an increasingly impoverished borough, where Tories are told to fuck off in street or chased by knife-wielding assailants.