Popular Politics Project: Radical Left Politics in the North East in the 1970s
Interview transcript: Sandy Irvine
Date and place of birth: not given
Interviewer: Peter Brabban
Date of interview: 13 October 2011
Political allegiance or membership of interviewee at time: International Socialists
Geographical area(s) covered: Newcastle upon Tyne
Present political allegiance: Green Party
Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives
PB: Sandy how did you first get involved in left politics and when?
SI: It probably started in the mid sixties, my mother was brought up by her uncle who had been a coal miner in West Yorkshire but he was injured in a pit accident and never worked again. He had, for many years been a subscriber to the Daily Worker and also had quite an impressive Left Book Club collection. So when I was in my mid teens and we’d used to go there, just about every Sunday, I used to go through all these Daily Workers / Morning Stars and also read quite a few of his Left Book Club books so I got used to the idea of left wing politics. And coming from a working class family, my father was a turner in an engineering works and my mother worked in a textile mill I didn’t need any education about social differences or class inequalities. It was quite natural for me to gravitate to the left. I did pass my eleven plus so I did get to a grammar school and I did spend an extra year in the sixth form which I used to do a lot of wide reading, and I started reading Marx at that point. And I joined the Labour Party Young Socialists having been to an election meeting in 196?
THERE WAS AN INTERRUPTION IN THE INTERVIEW AT THIS POINT. IT BEGINS AGAIN DURING A DISCUSSION ABOUT PARTY WORKPLACE BRANCHES
SI: I think that there was something dangerous about it in other ways, in that it can provide a focus for things, a group of workers in a workplace. Take the CA Parsons people that I mentioned, the draughtsmen, focussing on issues at CA Parsons. There is a danger that people lose sight of wider issues. The struggle isn’t about, at the end of the day, bread and butter matters. One came into the movement to change society not to get an overtime deal or something like that. There was a danger that the politics would be impoverished, if you like. By that focus you could lose sight of what your fighting on behalf of. And things would be narrowed back down again. So the geographic branch did have that possibility of taking people out of themselves, whatever their particular occupation was and opening their eyes to wider issues and concerns.
PB: Could I move it onto the personal experience. The one common factor that everyone on the left has was selling the paper, and you touched on a little of how it felt to do that. Everyone that I’ve talked to has really quite strong feelings about selling the paper. You also talked about becoming the local organiser (for the IS). Could you expand on those two aspects?
SI: I accepted that one should sell the paper and I didn’t look down on people who didn’t pull their weight in that respect. Having said that, it is a hell of a chunk out of your time. In effect if you allowed, getting there, standing there, going home, it was writing off most of daytime Saturday. In my case you’re talking about a hell of a lot of Saturdays. But I accepted that it was something you should do, but there was a personal cost and you’re aware that you’re doing something that all your mates, for quite a bit of that period, up to 1973, I was still a student so I had a lot of student friends and it created a gulf between you and the people you knew. For instance I was sharing a flat and some were prepared to talk about politics but they weren’t prepared to do what I was doing. It can create a schism in your social life to some extent. I used to find some sales just embarrassing. We used to stand outside one or two working men’s clubs on a Sunday morning and you’d see the guys rushing in for their pint at midday. You’d stand there for an hour with these people going in and out and if you’re lucky you’d sell one paper. One must question, what was the point of that. And your heart sinks when you turn out for something and there’s six people from six different organisations selling six different papers and you can’t help but wonder what the ordinary punter going past you actually makes of this sight. Even though you might think that your paper is the best, and I still think that Socialist Worker was an excellent paper, in particular under Roger Protts, I think it declined badly after Protts left, or was pushed out, he did produce a paper of quality with which I was proud to be associated. It was miles and miles better than all the other ones, better articles, better writing, better layout, better in every respect. None the less I do think it takes it out of you the sea of faces that suddenly pass you by, particularly, as I mentioned, selling outside of Swan Hunters. You know, you’re there at seven o clock in the morning.
PB: How did you cope with the fuck off to Russia type of comments that came your way?
SI: That never worried me because I just thought, I grew up on a council estate; I spent eighteen years on a council estate so I never had any romantic images about the working class. In my youth I met enough ignorant working class people never to have naïve illusions about what people are like. In the terrace where my mother grew up there were people who were drunks, nasty people in one way or another, scabs in strikes so getting abuse like that meant nothing to me. It’s that time that’s taken out of your life for no great purpose that on reflection you think you might have done something better. In terms of becoming full-time organiser….
PB: Isn’t that a bit like poacher turning gamekeeper because a lot of ordinary members saw the organiser as an enforcer
SI: I think my predecessor Dave Pierce had a lot of respect, he was a capable man and I certainly learned a lot from him. A lot of people who didn’t like him were people who didn’t do anything anyway and just used alleged resentments against him to excuse their inactivity. The trade union members did respect him and because of that it reinforced my view of his qualities. The branch itself, for a number of years was split between two personalities. Dave Pierce is now in London I think he’s no longer a member of the SWP I think he’s a TV producer actually. The other guy was Tony Corcoran he is still around and I still see him occasionally in the Gosforth Hotel . Both of them had been FE teachers, like I had become, I lived near Tony Corcoran so I knew Tony well and more recently because I like music I often see Tony at gigs. He’s a very accomplished violin player. He was ex Communist Party and Tony’s a larger than life character, a rather flippant character in some ways quite destructive. I’ve personally always got on with him very well but I could see he was an unhealthy presence in the branch. Dave had recruited him by going to Newcastle United matches with him and the minute Tony joined Dave stopped going to football matches. Which was quite an unusual occurrence. Because Tony was a more colourful character a lot of students identified with him and that [????]a cultural split in the branch to some extent . But I think a lot of the more ordinary, non student members respected Dave for what he did. And people just accepted that some poor sod had to go and pick up the newspapers from Newcastle Central Station, someone had to account for them all, someone had to book speakers, someone had to try and get interviews with strike committee members and stuff like that. So I am not too sure that I would endorse the view that people saw the organiser in very negative terms. For when Dave went down to London, at Cliff’s behest, there was a danger of things just falling apart. It was difficult, because in reality the branch was very weak , but I think a lot of organisations on Tyneside have historically been weak. The North East hasn’t proven very fertile ground for lots of organisations. A lot of people would have naturally joined the IS or more recently the Green Party but just stick to the Labour Party because they equate it with being in the party of the working class which it manifesting isn’t, but that’s how they see it. It was very hard work; I was living in Sandyford, and there was one or two good people who did help and what I did was the routine things that one would be expected to do. At this time there was the problem that a big split was beginning to emerge nationally within the IS and the main representative of that around here was a chap called Rob Clay, who later in life rebranded himself as Bob Clay, and later became a Labour MP. In that era I was sympathetic to these people who had joined the IS opposition. I had always liked and admired people like Jim Higgins and I still think that Jim Higgins’ writings stand the test of time and are a good as guide to what was going on as anything. He was very embittered by (Tony) Cliff, but put that on one side he was a brilliant writer and a brilliant analyst. John Palmer, who still writes for the Guardian I believe, a sharp thinker. The Birmingham organiser, Granville Williams, a very decent man who built a very impressive organisation, and I met some car workers that he recruited and these were genuinely political militants, Larry Lucas and people like that. I was deeply impressed by Granville Williams. So it was people like Jim Nichol, who originally came from Newcastle that struck me as odious, a nasty bit of work. There were clearly a group of hatchet men around Cliff who were prepared to do the dirty on people. And I think that people like Roger Protts were treated very, very badly . And there were people like Paul Foot who were just yes men essentially. I knew Paul and I liked him as a guy but he was typical of upper class people who were blackmailed by people who threw the proletarian thing at them, ‘your petty bourgeois doubts were a reflections of your bourgeois self’. People like Vanessa Redgrave, people like this, they become putty in the hands of the unscrupulous, the Gerry Healys and Tony Cliffs. Even though in the case of Paul Foot he was an exceptionally talented and congenial man. He was a sad loss from any point of view when he died. So my time as a full timer was corrupted, if you like, by these wider problems. And like a lot of small organisations these good things get complicated by personal tensions of girlfriends, and falling out, people who liked each other tended to go with the IS opposition, other people rallied for apolitical reasons, for personal reasons . A lot of it came to a head in the strike at Eldon Square when the scaffolders went on strike and we did what we could to try and help and have influence. The main IS rep there was, Steve Waldie. And was someone with whom I had big arguments, ironically, being that we ended up working together much later in life and became quite good friends. He’s now Deputy Head of Bishop Barrington School in Bishop Auckland.
PB: Was he a scaffolder at that time?
SI: No, he was typical of time. I first met him Killingworth when he was lived in St Little[?] House, he was a draughtsman but as he became more involved in the IS he jacked in being a draughtsman to become a trainee teacher. It was very typical that I think that if he had not got involved in the IS he’d still be a draughtsman today. So for a period he became a student, and I think he was still in his teacher training stage when the scaffolders strike took place. The scaffolders strike was the only occasion that I came across a working class Maoist, Dixie Deans was a scaffolder and a Maoist, an endangered species, I think. Every now and then you would meet someone different. I was once working in a club in Hebburn and I got talking to this working class bloke who had read all of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and he wanted to talk about what I thought of Dostoyevsky which was a bizarre scenario of selling Socialist Worker to somebody. It’s true that every now and again you would meet these freaks, in the best sense of the word, these unusual people. A bit like Jimmy Murray who was the convener at Vickers, a bit of a rogue was Jim but a well read man, an interesting man, who was probably frustrated by the fact that he had to be the convener of a load of blokes who he probably thought was stupid. A colourful character, a ladies’ man and a bit of a rogue. You would meet these people and you could talk to them about anything, you could talk to Jim about anything, he knew a lot, there were no limits to the conversation you could have with him. And a lot of these odd people you would meet, I’ve mentioned Bob Harrison who was the convenor of the electricians up at, no G&M, sorry, the electricians they were in the G&M and not the EEPTU for some reason, I don’t know why; Bob could talk to you about a lot of things, he was a well read man. They were odd people in an attractive sense of that word. On the scaffolders’ strike committee there were one or two people like that . But there again the mass of scaffolders weren’t like that, most of them were just layabouts and drunks and fly by nights. Some would get their money and they would have drunk it by Monday. And you talk about fighting for health and safety these guys were their own worst enemies. It wasn’t just bad bosses. One attractive member of the IS branch was a singer called Alex Glasgow, a very nice man, for his health he had to go to Australia and he died there, a lovely man, of course he was guilty of romanticising the working class, non the less a thoroughly decent chap. He was involved in helping to organise a social on behalf of the scaffolders with Alex singing, and he was booed down by the said scaffolders because they thought he was boring. They just wanted to have the latest pop music on, or something like that. They had Alex singing about the working class being booed off. The members of the strike committee having to round all these guys, who had drunk gallons of beer by this stage, telling them to shut up and give Alex a chance who was playing his guitar and singing about the heroic working class and being booed by the said working class.
PB: They wanted the Bay City Rollers
SI: That’s right. That strike and the fact that we got nothing out of it, by that time I was getting interested in other things. Like why we building another bloody shopping centre in the first place. Not the conditions on the construction site but why we were constructing it had become of greater interest to me. That had always been there, when I initially came up to Newcastle to be a town planner, so I had always had that side to me. I had read ‘The Population Bomb’ by Paul Ehrlich and ‘Limits to Growth’ and all these kind of things, ‘Blueprint for Survival’ and later on I became friends with people like Teddy Goldsmith so there were other factors at work. But inside the IS I was dissatisfied by Cliff and these quick fixers. He wrote a book called ‘The struggle against the Social Contract’ and we were expected to go round and flog it, and this was going to launch a whole new movement of which we would be the vanguard and it clearly wasn’t going to happen. And you started getting that tendency of attacking people for lack of faith, if they dissented. Whereas earlier on I had helped to research a book on productivity deals, which was when I first met Bob Harrison at Blyth power station because there had been a productivity deal there and a lot of the information that went into Cliff’s book came from Bob Harrison. That was carefully researched, well received, very helpful and improved the credibility of the IS amongst a lot of serious militants. Whereas the later ones, like the social contract book were just crap that was churned out on the grounds that there had been a revolution in Portugal and perhaps we were due one in Britain. Tragically more and more able people at the centre of the IS had this complete character change and Duncan Hallas, who had been a very thoughtful man with a long political pedigree which you thought would have protected him from these kind of ‘get rich quick’ schemes. But sadly, I think he almost mentally capitulated to Cliff and became a very powerful force on their side. Then you had the hatchet men like Jin Nichol who could engineer things to dish, bosh and bash things. So basically the IS position was outmanoeuvred and like a lot of organisations the ordinary members don’t want to know. But the trouble is that when you leave an organisation you think that you can set up something afresh but I don’t think that deep down there is the energy to do that. Once you give people the option to stay in bed on a Saturday they suddenly realise that ‘I would prefer to stay in bed on a Saturday’. So our attempts to build something anew after the IS, almost to bring back the IS as it were, as apposed to this new bastard child called the Socialist Workers Party were doomed to failure. And everybody was scattered to the four winds. Granville Williams ended up as a leader of the ‘Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom’; Bob Clay became a Labour MP, Jim Higgins went off to be a journalist, John Palmer went off to Europe and it all fragmented.
PB: So you left the IS rather than ——
SI: I think that I was expelled but I couldn’t actually say. The difference was far less significant than… I think that I was on a list of expelled people, but if I wasn’t I was going anyway.
PB: It was basically over this ideological split within the party?
SI: Yes, the core of it was what we saw as the fantasy of creating the smallest mass party in the world. In reality it was just a small group but with fantasies about being a party. And also trying to adopt central type committee structures for which there wasn’t the where with all. I wasn’t totally against the central committee structure if it is the centre of a big, vigorous, healthy organisation. But to have a puny body and have a big head on top of it is very peculiar biology.
PB: I lot of people outside of what is called the extreme left can’t understand those of us who paid lots of money to the party. How did you feel about subscriptions?
SI: I didn’t think anything about it I’ve always thought that you should pay your way. Anyone who’s into fishing or football would pay out far bigger sums. I’ve got friends who have season tickets at St James Park and what they pay is far more for their interest in life. I’ve got friends who are keen fishermen and they spend a fortune on rods, so I’ve never had a problem about paying your way. I think that when people take huge chunks of your income as in the case of the Socialist Labour League that becomes another matter. Because that is affecting your prospects in life just in terms of keeping your head above water. But I never felt that the IS were being unreasonable in some things. In the 1985 miners’ strike I agreed to give part of my salary to the miners, it’s just something that you do. So the money has never been an issue with me.
PB: I think it does apply much more to WRP people. So how did you feel about movements like the Anti Nazi League and Rock against Racism ?
SI: I suppose that I was a bit of their core market, I could see that one should try and stop these people basically but I think has had a tendency in Britain to exaggerate the danger from the far right. I think the far right is much weaker and far more likely to implode under its own insanities. If the left is bad the far right is far, far, far worse as the current difficulties inside the BNP (British National Party) illustrate. I think there is a bad tendency on the left to think that we’re back in Cable Street trying to stop the Mosleyites, and the historical situation is not what is was in the nineteen thirties. That said I can see that if I was a member of an ethnic minority and the BNP were marching through your neighbourhood that’s an utter outrage and ought to be physically opposed. But I do balk to some extent at the romantic images of bash the fascists and stuff like that, I am not a pacifist, I am more pacific person, I don’t like violence. And also I went to an Anti Nazi League thing in Blackburn where we were outnumbered and had to be protected by the police from whoever they were at the time, the National Front, I suppose they were. That triggers a second thought, that I never quite shared the far lefts contempt for the police. I’ve known a number of policemen in my life, they were a mix of people, and I’ve met thoroughly decent policemen. This is not to say that the police as an institution might function certain ways in society. But just dismissing all policemen as pigs is something that I’ve never gone along with. Just as the left vilify the armed forces and it’s counter productive. I think that one can have a criticism of militarism and of arms expenditure, etc, etc. But I think there’s one mistake made by the American left was to treat veterans coming back from Vietnam as if they were nothing but scum and defile tem in the streets to their faces. When these people were just victims, as much as anybody else. All this did was to drive these people into the arms of the right and that was foolish. It’s simplistic politics. With Rock against Racism, I was not enthused, I could see it’s validity and I can see that it might have saved a lot of young people from being lured into the arms of the far right, but since I thought that the music was crap, I’ve always preferred classical music and jazz and blues, to that kind of stuff. I found it culturally odious. So whatever I thought abstractly it was doing good work personally I wouldn’t want to be engaged.
PB: What is it that took you into green politics?
SI: Back in the mid sixties I had become interested; I was particularly struck by my father’s side of the family, crofters from the Shetland Islands, I was always struck by our croft in the Shetlands and the dark satanic mills of Huddersfield. Industrial civilisation was lacking in many ways, even in my early teens I began to think that and that led me to think that planners might help and be an aid into using land better. Which is why I became a town planner. I didn’t realise the error of my ways. I ceased to be a town planner. I did quickly come to the conclusion that when one of the big exercises we had to do as town planners was to plan a new town at Stannington and I remember thinking ‘why would we want to do this’. We were taken to what was then the new A19, which was under construction and we were taken to various other places and the whole orientation of the system was towards growth, even in my late teens it was obvious to me that on a finite planet you cannot have infinite growth. The whole industrial project was inherently doomed. To come back to the example of Stannington; so you go and build a new town at Stannington and you know that under that growth treadmill that you will have to have another new town further north than Stannington, and then another new town even further north and this treadmill must eventually break down. Through this period(of time)I began to realise that the Left never faced up to any of these issues, it had rubbished the ‘Limits to Growth’ report, which seemed to me to be self evident . It never campaigned and I began to think, for example that the idea that the coal mines should be shut down to me was an obvious thing to do because when my great uncle died he had to be cut open to investigate pneumoconiosis, he had an artificial arm because he had his arm blown off. The evils of coal mines apart from the CO2 releases from coal and what have you. The number of people I knew in that community that had crippled backs. When I was a town planner they took us down coal mines and to see these guys eating white sandwiches which were speckled with black dust, and the fact that they had to have a crap down there because there wasn’t time to go to the toilets so far away. These things convinced me but that’s a completely different issue from making sure there was an orderly transition for these communities from that economic basis to something better, rather than throwing them on the scrap heap as Thatcher did. But I think the left has consistently failed to distinguish good work from bad work, it’s failed to address issues like biodiversity, soil erosion, dependence on finite resources. I read ‘The Population Bomb’ around 1969 and what Ehrlich was saying seemed self evident to me, and the fact that in the last few weeks we have shot past 7 billion people on the planet just shows me how critical human numbers are. Even at that stage (1969) I thought that whatever problems you’ve got, like say those in Palestine they would be easier to solve if there were fewer people. And to have a situation like you’ve got in India today where they’re giving incentives to people to have large families when it’s got one of the world’s fastest growing populations, struck me as madness. I become aware of the repressive population policies of Ceaușescu in Romania, and the Nazi’s and their heroic families, heroic mothers who have loads of kids. Struck me as parallel to Stalin’s heroic mothers, that both societies had this cult of the large family. I accepted the left critique of mal-distribution and mal-consumption, if you want to call it that, I think the left failed to address over consumption and over development and overshoot and it’s views on the food crisis is mal-distribution, wrong use of the land for wrong crops, blah, blah, yawn. But the fact is that there is only so much you can take out of the land without knackering it. There are two sides. And all this time these thoughts had been ticking away. Sadly I thought that the IS of all the groups had that chance, I remember reading Kidron’s critique of Ernest Mandel who was a theorist of the Fourth International, a talented man, Kidron had really spotlighted the nature of capitalism as being growth for the sake of growth and in that there was the possibility of an ecological dimension. There was a journalist called Laurie Flynn whose father was head of SOCAT and Socialist Worker did one or two articles on pollution and things like that. The Left in my time, and still today, it struck me when I became a teacher I used to take students to Hartlepool nuclear station and it became clear to me that the thing would still be Hartlepool nuclear power station whether it was nationalised or privatised. A change of ownership or a change of control makes no difference to the technology that might facilitate better controls, it might better enable safety standards but it is at nature a nuclear power plant that functions in certain ways and poses certain dangers that are intrinsic to it in the nature of the technology. Whereas the IS and BRP and the IMG all saw it as a function of relations of production, rather than the productive forces themselves . I did spend some time involved in the Tyneside Socialist Centre, there was something called the Tyneside Anti Nuclear Campaign (TANC) which had grown and I got involved in that because of the threat of a nuclear power plant at Druridge Bay. Also waste dumping in the Cheviot Hills, wopuld you believe it, I actually drove Mo Mowlam to a demonstration on the top of the Cheviot. Through TANC I got more involved in the anti nuclear campaign, I didn’t work as a volunteer on weekends, having stopped selling Socialist Worker I found I’d lost my Saturdays all over again at something called the Days of Hope bookshop which started in Jesmond Road and then moved to Westgate Road down from the Communist Party bookshop. You met people like Tony Benn and people like that.
PB: I photographed him at Days of Hope
SI: I was there at a book signing session which was interesting because his popular appeal was not to be denied. I sat next to him and he always had a tape recorder like this one because he said he was so often misrepresented by people that he taped conversations. This bus pulled up outside and the driver quite illegally jumped out of his drivers seat, ran across Westgate Road ran into the shop said can I have your book, can you sign it for us and ran back and jumped into his bus and off he went again. I knew people like Hilary Wainwright, she was a leading force in this sort of re-groupment . She had written a book called ‘Beyond the Fragments’ which had begun to raise new issues. To tell the truth I think that Hilary must have bank rolled it to some extent from the Wainwright fortune because it never really got going and one of the problems is that these broad unity initiatives, trying to bring together a broad church with members of existing parties within it will always have this tension that deep down the existing parties have got their own agenda which is to build themselves and they haven’t got the long term interests of the umbrella organisation at stake. None the less it did some useful things. I was quite impressed by the way it tried to address cultural issues. For example there was a TV series on, I can’t remember its name, and we got the lead actor from that up, he’s now in a detective series called Wycliffe on ITV, it was a story set in the General Strike.
PB: That was actually ‘Days of Hope’.
SI: Yes, of course it was, so we got the main star (Jack Shepherd) of that to come up, and it was interesting that at our meetings where people would talk of these broadly cultural matters and the role of the media in society, issues on the feminist agenda and so on and so forth. It was a refreshing change to meetings that always seem to have ‘Victory to —‘ in their title. To bring the story to a close I decided to join the ecology party. It was a bit like IS I didn’t know anybody in it, so it was like going back twenty years and writing off to an organisation, having got its publications before I met anybody in it, just like when I saw Labour Worker and International Socialism and decided to join that organisation on the strength of its publications, rather than being recruited by a person. That was in the mid eighties when that took place. I ended the 1970’s still active in the Days of Hope bookshop, that brings the decade to a close.
PB: What do you think you got out of being part of a left party during the 1970’s?
SI: I think that one thing it does is quite an elitist thing, you flatter yourself that you are more in touch with the reality than the people you might find yourself sitting next to on the bus. What people you meet and I’ve met thousands, having been a teacher in an FE college, I’ve met hundreds upon hundreds of ordinary working class kids and their parents and I’ve taught generations now. I’ve retired now, but you had kids coming along saying ‘you taught my Dad’, so you know the generations. The Left gives you insights and interests in, and even if those insights are wrong it’s stimulated the interest in those wider matters. And I think that what it gives you above all is a desire to analyse, to look at things and think what is happening, what is causing this, who is causing it, what are the ramifications of it, are there alternatives to what is happening, thoughts that I think a lot of people go through life not having. Now they might be happier because of that, but I feel that I’d rather have my eyes open. That insistence on thinking and analysing. The second thing it gives you is a number of practical skills actually. Even the simple thing of choosing the right moment to speak at a meeting. It’s interesting to watch people at a trade union meeting, or local community meetings, they have no idea of the dynamics of a meeting whereas to me it’s blindingly obvious. Or people don’t know the first thing about how to get leaflets put through letterboxes. It seems so obvious and baby stuff until you meet people who haven’t got a clue of how to do it. How to fundraise or even rudimentary things of chairing a meeting. It’s just staggering you think it’s just obvious how to chair a meeting, but it isn’t obvious, because I’ve been to enough meetings where people foul it up big time. It’s that desire to analyse and think things through and not be satisfied by surface explanations, combined with some healthy scepticism about the powers to be, about the media about so on and so forth. To me those are all pluses. How you analyse it and the direction of your scepticism might change but none the less that’s the basic thing you get that perhaps you wouldn’t have got otherwise. The education system gives you many things but didn’t give you that degree of disbelief about the official story. Second a number of practical skills. Third, the gift of meeting a number of interesting and talented people, I’ve mentioned some in this interview, and I’m grateful for having had the pleasure of meeting them. Even Tony Cliff was a gifted speaker and some of his writings stand the test of time, not as many as some might think but none the less an undoubtedly talented man I feel honoured to have heard on a number of occasions. Right down to some of those very individual trade union militants that I’ve met who I still deeply admire. So there’s a degree of pleasure and privilege in that. Finally, I suppose some sense that you did the right thing. It was right to stand by the miners, much as I think that the coal industry should have been phased out, I supported the miners as people, as individuals. Much as I criticise Ho Chi Minh, what the Americans were doing in Vietnam was wrong and we were right to oppose it. Every now and again you did do some genuinely good things. But you didn’t win some battles, but there’s something that’s often forgotten that defeats would often have been worse if you hadn’t have stood up. Even in a number of practical things. Like there is a number of Chileans in Newcastle who got out of Chile and were found accommodation and jobs in Newcastle by, in that case, there were one or two of the blokes from Parsons who were on that committee I was on it helping Chileans to come here. That was an intrinsically right thing to do it doesn’t need any further justification. And for all the disappointments and that kind of thing every now and again you did have a laugh.
PB: How closely related to reality do you think your politics were during this period in IS, and how closely related to reality were your actions?
SI: That’s a [?????] question and it’s a very hard one to answer. I think that reality, or part of reality are massive social inequalities, all kinds of discriminations in society a lot of which the Left correctly identified and against which it correctly fought. In that sense it was close to reality and much closer than those people who talk about a classless society or unprecedented mobility in that everyone can be a millionaire or other fantasies about the world. I think that to some extent it correctly saw some of the contradictions inside the economic system; I think it missed out others, like the credit, the financial downturn. I think that those economists like Herman Daley and Richard Hindberg have linked it to peak oil and changes in oil prices and knock on effects in the car industry and aviation that was a trigger for those events providing the core insight. But there were other insights you get about the behaviour of bankers and the rip off and the bail outs and stuff like that is reality and the stuff that was said about bankers sabotaging Labour governments with artificial runs on the pound and so on. It was reality to see that the Catholic minority were getting a terrible deal in Northern Ireland and were being repressed. It was reality to see that Trades Union powers were being reduced for the sake of shifting more of the gross national product to capital. We saw it happen in America and it happened here. I think it’s reality to see what corporate power is and the dangers it poses. I think in terms of institutions and forces in society the Left, and the IS in particular, what I said about its capacity to see the long post war boom for what it was made it closer to reality than any other left wing group. I think it was also closer to reality in seeing the evils of Stalinism more than the other left wing groups. Although one might argue about when those evils first set in and what their roots were, never the less they saw them for what they were which other groups didn’t do, or even the public. You forget how popular the Soviet Union was for many years, in the war. Probably the Achilles heel, apart from the ecological Achilles heel and that whole missing chunk of what needs to be seen, was an inability to look ordinary people in the face and see what mass culture is like. Some sections of the Trotskyist left in America, after they split from American Socialist Party, or whatever it was called, the SWP, people like Dwight McDonald did develop a good magazine called Partisan Review and did develop a good cultural critique. But I think our left consistently failed to get to grips with modern consumer society and the values and aspirations of ordinary people have that can exist across society. The kind of narcissism that Ulrich Beck calls individuation and trends like that, all those things, what Tom Wolfe called the ‘me decade’. In the 1970’s I can remember reading Tom Wolfe and already he was talking about the 1970’s being called the ‘me decade’. I think that this was a profound shift in society, I think it had longer roots but it was beginning to change and I think that the Left didn’t see it, nor did it see the changes in the working class, John Sullivan’s Del Boy was a close approximation to what was happening in many places than the ‘heroic worker’ stereotype. I think it (the Left) didn’t have a good grasp of power dynamics, it didn’t grasp how easily central organisations can degenerate and Lord Acton said power I wouldn’t say that power always corrupts but it can corrupt and there is a need for countervailing checks and balances. What I mean by that is that in a left wing organisation there are plenty of people who want to be admirals in the navy even though the ship itself is a tiny little ship, they like to be cock on top of the midden. Jim Nichol being a wonderful, he did some good things later in his life, but at the time he was a classic example the person who didn’t care less if the organisation was shedding people as long as they were in charge of the organisation, that’s all that mattered. I’m not going along the road of Robert Michaels and the iron law of oligarchy, but never the less they can be dangers and the Left wasn’t prepared to recognise it, I think, just as anarchists I’ve never been prepared to recognise that non organisation can also, there’s a lovely feminist paper called ‘the Tyranny of Structurelessness’ which documents that the absence of structures can be just as anti democratic as too much structure, or too much centralised structure. What I’m trying to say is that there is always a need to keep looking at things and looking at whether they’re working, shift the stick this way or that way. Rather than assuming that you can draw paper structures. The Left does fail particularly to spot the atrophy inside the broad trade union movement. It was well set in during the sixties and people tend to post date, but I think it was underway back then. That comes back to your previous question about the Rank & File movement; it was trying to build itself on structures that had atrophied. It’s difficult to know what one might put in their place, for it’s not as if there are alternative structures that have emerged. Some of the other attempts to form autonomous groups and stuff like that haven’t proved any more successful. The Tyneside Socialist Centre fell to pieces. To come back to the trades union movement per se it wasn’t that the Left failed to look it straight in the face to see what it was and where it was going. Just as it failed to look at mass culture straight in the face and see it warts and all. So in that sense it was removed from reality.
PB: Thank you very much; I think that was quite comprehensive.