Oral History: Political organisations – Thea Khamis

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Popular Politics Project

Interview transcript: Thea Khamis

Date and place of birth: not given

Interviewer: Kath Connolly, transcriber: David Hiscocks

Date of interview: 4 April 2012, Stanley, Co Durham

Location of interview recording: Durham County Archives

 

Key words – Greenham, Grosvenor Square, Consett steelworks, South Moor Labour Branch – Stanley, CND, Palestine, Miners gala, Co-Op Party, Tony Blair, Iraq War

Notes on transcription

(?) – This indicates that the word proceeding is not said very clearly, or the spelling of the word is open to question. It may appear in conjunction with * and a guess at what the word may be.

*Incoherent* – This is only used when it is impossible to guess what may have been said.

 

Transcript

Kath Connelly (KC) – So here I am in, North terrace, Stanley. Interview Thea Khamis for the Popular Politics project. Right Thea, thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed.

Thea Khamis (T) – Alright.

KC – And what I want us to do is to start with, with your politics, and the fact that you’re very much an activist.

T – Do you fancy a job as a reporter?

KC – *Laughs* Not at all! So where do you think you got your interest from (sic) politics from?

T – It’s always been there I think, from, just living at home over the dining room table like, there was political argument from as far back as I can remember between, usually my granny, English granny, and my father, over Britain’s policy in the Middle East. And, err, over Nasser when he came to power, my granny was against him until we moved to Egypt and then the arguments went the over way when my father was opposing him because of his treatment of the communists and all the rest. My granny was in favour of him, so there were battles all the time, forever!

KC – Was that on one side of the family, or on both sides of the family?

T – How do you mean? It was my English granny and my Palestinian father. My mother’s mother, and my father. Most of the time. And my mother joining in. And then my mother was a frustrated Labour Party supporter because she left England before she’d been old enough to vote, and she’d been quite active, in the Left Book club and the like. Erm, so she was frustrated she couldn’t vote for all those years until we moved back to England.

KC – So you lived in Italy…?

T – America. Lebanon, Egypt, and Italy. Because my father didn’t have, well he was basically a refugee, but well educated so he got jobs, but had passports pretty much of convenience I would say. Finally taking a British passport after he retired, he retired to England. He actually refused one in 1948, as he taught for, he taught for the British Protectorate, you know, in Palestine.

KC – What was it called, Protectorate?

T – Yep. He taught for the British government. So they offered, when Palestine became Israel they said, they sort of weakly said, here, you can have a British passport. And he had a British mate who worked for the BBC, his mate never took a British passport he died in protest. My father did eventually, when he retired with my mum to England. So there you are! It’s always been politics at home!

KC – So, right. So you were brought up on politics. So when did you, when did you feel that you started to become active?

T – In England. Earlier on, we tried to organise demonstrations against the Vietnam War when I was living in Rome going to the English school there. Erm, so…..

KC So how old were you then?

T – Well, I was probably, fourteen? Thirteen? Something like that? *Laughs* We had, err, and the school was quite into political debate, being, an English international, British international school in Rome with people all over the world. So it was pretty lively. Especially over Palestine because we had Israelis there as well. And we had South Africans, so racism was often discussed with. Actually, in my class, there was the daughter of one of the people who was big in the apartheid promotion, if you like. Creation, setting up, she was called Barbara Erasmus, her father was quite big. And we had massive discussions about racism. And of course America as well, as we had Americans from the Southern states who were more racist than the South African students actually. And of course, a lot of Black students as well from Africa. Lively debates all the time. I think when you’re living in an international environment you can’t help it can you really.

KC – That must have been a rich political environment for you as well!

T – Well, there was Lebanon, the civil war. The American soldiers came in, it wasn’t called an invasion, 1958 we had bombings. Bombs in the school playground. Bomb craters to investigate afterwards. That was quite exciting. Erm, yeah. A lot going on really.

KC – So, leaving school, you went to university.

T – Essex, ’68, ’67, ’68. So of course, that was quite lively as well. Were you there? Were you in Grosvenor Square in 1960, ’68?

KC – No, I wasn’t! *Laughs* No, unfortunately, no, I was at Greenham.

T – No, I never got to Greenham.

KC – I regret it, I still regret.

(05:02)

T – Anyway, at university it was all the 1968 stuff going on so, demonstrations. Anti-Vietnam stuff was in it most of the time.

KC – You must have been young though to have been at university?

T – Yeah, I went when I was quite young.

KC – Yes.

T – It was just the result of schooling. The years didn’t quite fit in. So I went to university just before I was seventeen. A bit young, yeah. But it was lively.

KC – So you went to Grosvenor Square?

T – Yes. Yes, and we had, what?! (?) We were protesting there, and we had to push through into the square, I know one thing, when the police grabbed me to try and keep me out, fellow demonstrators grabbed me to try and get me away from the police, I can’t remember now who it was who had hold of my hair, I think it was friends, and I just didn’t care! I wanted my hair back! It was, it was quite a good experience. I’d been in the embassy earlier that day, trying to do something, as I had an American passport at the time, and, err, or the day before I think it was, I fitted in the demonstration and getting my visa sorted on the same weekend!

KC /T – *Laughs*

T – So Essex was a very political place. And of course, we set up a Palestine Solidarity Group there, way back, as well. So I was mostly involved with that, and then all the university politics and, I’m trying to think. It was against chemical warfare, wasn’t it.

IN – So how did the campaigning manifest itself? What did you do?

T – What Palestine, or the –

KC – Yes. Or any of them.

T – Or any of it. Well, I just went along on demonstrations, went to meetings, occupations, you know. All the things students do when its going on. Yeah. And sleep-ins, when we used to occupy, very sensibly occupy the canteen areas, the rest-rooms, so there was never a shortage of food! Erm, what’s his name now? Triesman, he was running the Students Union at one point there. We always saw him as a bit of right-winger for some reason. He wasn’t so popular.

T/ KC – *Laughs*

T – I think also, he was supposed to be pro-Israeli at some point, because the Six Day War happened, in… ’67 wasn’t it? June, ’67? I think. 1960…. Was it ’67? It was just before I was in the sixth form. And that was a big *emphasis on this word* issue at the time. ’67, we went to Lebanon, the following year. I think it was. Ahmm *affirmative*.

KC – Right. So, moving on from university, you….

T – Then we went, I got my first job after university, my first full-time job was teaching in Algeria. We were there just ten years after they got rid of their, after they got rid of the French. So that was again, a very political place to be at the time. Everyone just talked the whole time about politics. Castro came, and, err, was, had a fantastic welcome. Everything shut down there, everyone waited, and, the streets were so, yeah, just a party atmosphere, it was absolutely brilliant really. And of course, Algeria then was really hopeful, they were building schools, not just mosques as they are now. It was a good place to be.

KC – So how long were you there?

T – That was until 197….2. And then I came back, and I was a nasty foreign American because I happened to have been born there, so I had an American passport, even though that was all I had had to do with America. So then I had to, I struggled to get visas, work permits to work in England, so a lot of where we lived depended on where I could get a job and a work permit. So I came back and I ended up teaching French and Italian in schools, and went on from there, work-wise. Moved to FE eventually. I had lived in Italy a long time so we kept going back to Italy for short spells. Then got involved, eventually, again, because, I suppose I didn’t do anything much in politics, other than just be interested. And moan and complain, and argue.

KC – Shout at the television.

T – Yeah. And the radio. Then I thought I would get involved again, that was 1980-ish, I think. We’d joined the Labour Party already I think. We joined the Labour Party just as Thatcher was about to get elected. When would that have been?

KC – ’79.

T – We chased somebody down the road, and decided to join. As we’d never joined anything, neither me nor Ben my partner. We just decided then we would join. And of course we joined just in time to have Thatcher in power for years! *Laughs* And so, there was a lot going on. March, the Jarrow March. I can’t remember the dates any more, what came first. Erm, but it was very active here. I mean, politics, everyone, the Labour Party was completely different wasn’t it?

(10:13)

Everyone was active, there was a lot of arguing, fighting to get to be representatives on the constituency, delegates to this and that. Not like now when they’d pick anyone off the street. And anyone’s uncle, mother, auntie or brother was dragged in to help out! *Sigh* And then I ended up being secretary of the branch –

KC – So which branch was this?

T – It was the South Moor Labour Party branch at the time, which doesn’t exist now, it sort of merged in with another one. We’ve become part of a completely different ward.

KC – What was the Labour Party like in those days in Stanley?

T – It was pretty dire I think really. There weren’t many active people who were members of it. People didn’t really talk a lot of politics. It seemed to be, in the Labour Party branch itself. But it got very lively, I think you were involved about, even before then of course in your area weren’t you? It got very lively when we came, we joined, there was a little clique of people who were regarded as being ‘troublemakers’, who were, you’d say now, they were on the Left, they saw themselves as being to the Left of the councillors. And they were the troublemakers, and we Ben and I, added another two to their number! *Laughs* But it was also, we got involved, very involved, in producing a newsletter, knocking on doors, trying to get people to join. So, that was, I think we did liven up the branch, and eventually, with a lively campaign as well, we managed to get three women councillors, including myself, getting elected. I think it had been independent for a while. Or some of the people had been.

KC – So who –

T – Liz Coulson, first, then Joyce James and myself. And we had a slogan. Three socialist women for South Moor. And we had music on the van, stickers when we went round in the van. We’d been doing the newsletter for a long time, so it was a very jolly time! Jolly I think is the word! *Laughs* I’ve got a picture of a little boy sticking stickers all over his face, dancing up and down the street. Wouldn’t happen now I don’t think.

KC – No.

T – Not at the moment anyway.

KC – I don’t think so.

T – And, the council, I think, I was on Derwentside Council just as there was a big influx of new young people who wanted to change things, make it a bit more responsive. Issues, council house issues, issues of choice, to a great extent.

KC – That would be the time of the closure of the –

T – Steelworks.

KC – At Consett.

T – I in fact got my job, a full-time job with the college as a result of that, really. Because they were short of people at the time. They needed more people to train people when they were made redundant. We were actually away just as the steelworks was shutting, so I wasn’t here for the big protest through Consett. But yeah, terrific impact that. At the time.

KC – So Stanley in those days, was it the same as it is now, or was it –

T – Stanley in the ‘70s?

KC – Yes.

T – Late ‘70s we moved from Gateshead in ’77. I don’t know. I mean, yes, it was much more, everyone was in the Labour party weren’t they. Or Labour party supporters. At the moment I don’t know there are still a lot of votes that the MP can count on. But certainly you don’t get the feeling –

KC – So what are your memories of the GC, I’m interested to know.

T – How many people used to go to the GC? About 150? Something like that?

KC – Ahhh, maybe not as many as that, but I certainly remember, 90 plus for big occasions such as the selection of the MP. Of the candidate rather, and so on. So what do you remember of those troublesome times? If they were troublesome. They were certainly exciting.

T – They were. Yes, but the fact… I think the sad thing is that now, you haven’t got the same battles going on have you? I mean the people who we used to regard as terrible, Right-wing establishment people, would now be regarded as extreme Lefties! In fact many of them have left the Labour Party in complete disillusionment. Well it was a time of Tony Benn. Was he standing for deputy leader, or leader? Tony Benn for leader wasn’t it. And Eric Heffer, was he…? That’s right. And CND of course, and NATO, and cruise missiles were big issues as far as I was concerned. Anyway, as well as jobs. There wasn’t disagreement generally on the campaigning for jobs and against the Tories, and the Poll Tax.

(15:24)

The Poll tax was a big thing. We were involved in the anti-Poll Tax campaign.

KC – Right, that was sort of, after the miners strike?

T – Of course, we were involved in the miners strike, and support groups, we sort of set up the local support group with Len James as county councillor then. And started collecting at the supermarkets, and doing what people were doing all over the country. Organising the parcels, delivering them, organising….events. Fundraising at the clubs. We had one at the Empire Club? Central Club? Whats the one in Stanley? Not the Central, the one on the main street. The Empire I think its called. I remember that with, erm, Mick Elliot? Got him to come along. And, Mike Elliot, that was it. We got him. I went along to put that, and had to go into the committee and try and get them to agree. Which was, I find that interesting at the time because they weren’t used to women going in I don’t think very often. It was very much a men’s club still in those days!

KC – Were you successful?

T – Oh yes. Generally they were very supportive of me. You had no shortage of people wanting to collect money. They did it for the miners, it was just massive support. I remember standing there, ice cold, with a Father Christmas outfit on, erm, and then, oh, there was just everyone just seemed to be working to support the miners, and such….yeah. I hope it goes down in history as something people do actually remember as being encouraged by in the future. As a good fight. And then we also had, I think it was during the miners strike, but it might have been some other time, when Skinner came up for some sort of fundraiser. We had music, organised bands. Lots of activity the whole time. Miners strike, Poll tax after that?

KC – I think it was the open cast campaign.

T – Oh yes, we were involved in that up at Quaking Houses (?).

KC – So how did that come about, you remember?

T – Erm, it was, was it an extension of the open cast, and we opposed it. There some other open cast things locally as well, but that was the big one. And, together with Diane Sparks as she’s now known, we got, and Len James, who was always very supportive, erm, the Quaking Houses environmental trust was eventually set up, but it started off as opposition to the extension to the Chapman Wells site. At the very end there, yeah. And that went on for years.

KC – They wanted to open cast because they needed the coal?

T – But people had just lost their jobs. Yeah. And of course, it was an environmental disaster for years, whatever they do afterwards, there’s a whole generation of kids brought up with just that big barrier, and the dust, and losing all these environment that they could at least enjoy.

KC – And did you feel that the open cast campaign was successful?

T – Erm. No! *Laughs* Successful so far as it was a good, well run campaign, and some things were stopped. I remember going to a public inquiry, I don’t think it was about that one. Or it might have been, yes, yes. It was about something at Chapmans Well. I can’t remember the details you know. Because I remember measuring the number of cars, having an argument about the number of cars, and trucks going down the –

KC – The county council did decide they were going to, they weren’t going to give planning permission for the open cast site, so as far as that was concerned, I suppose we were successful. At that time.

T – I suppose in all fairness the district council was quite, you know, was quite careful in not giving permission easily. Making sure there were plenty of conditions.

KC – That was probably a result of the campaign, and because we’d all been well rehearsed during the miners strike, and were geared up.

T – maybe I’m too negative because you look at it, because you do have your victories even if its postponing things. Because there was one over South Moor golf club, which we opposed. And of course, that went ahead, and its over and done with now. But we found all the older women who had walked along the foot path there, in there courting days, apparently. And that was stopped. But again, later on it came back. So yeah, so maybe you could say that was successful in as much as the council did go along with people.

(20:11)

KC – Did you feel that you drew new people in, were people politicised in these campaigns you were involved in?

T – Yes, to a great extent. From everything, from knocking on doors, CND was a terrific campaign that involved amazing numbers of people. That a little town like Stanley, we filled the civic hall, with that first big meeting –

KC – When was that then?

T – After we came back. So ’81, ’82? Cruise missiles were coming in and I started. What I started was, I was so fed up with people talking at the Labour Party, so I just booked the civic hall myself. And then Len James, who was our county councillor said, you can’t do that on your own! We’ll have to form a committee! *Laughs* And that’s how we really got Stanley CND started. Along with Consett who then went their own way, so we had two groups. We knocked on every *emphasis* door. Every single door was leafleted. We had enough people supporting it. Masses of people joined the Labour Party because we were, because of CND really. Because the people who were active in CND many to start with were in the Labour Party. Many of our friends now we met through those days. And more through CND actually, in and around Stanley. And then of course the miners strike and all of that, you met a load of people. Lots of people joined. The Poll Tax, lots of people got involved, all those campaigns did bring people in who thought they could change things, which is what Iraq and Tony Blair I think have destroyed. Yep. Which is why I’m really happy about George Calloway! I think, nobody can deny that at least he’s got people thinking that we can, it’s worth getting people involved in politics again. It’s…..

KC – So are you still in the Labour Party still then?

T – No, I left over, not immediately, but I left with the Iraq War and Blair, and his attitude to the Middle East really. As well. And everything else. Everything that Blair stood for.

KC – But you’re still involved, still active –

T – In the Co-Op Party. Still involved, more, I would say, more through writing letters moaning, than anything else.

KC – So where do you write your letters?

T – To various members of parliament. Most of whom nowadays say, I’m not your MP, I’ll pass it to Kevin Jones. I’ve noticed, I don’t know whether it’s a new parliamentary protocol, so I’ve been writing back saying, well yes, but this isn’t a constituency issue. This is politics generally. Are you not interested? About, mostly about Palestine and nuclear issues. But I’ve had other things too occasionally. I’ve stopped doing as much I have to admit for the time being. I’m having a rest. But I cannot bring myself to rejoin the Labour Party.

KC – You’re just re-charging your batteries.

T – That’s right, aye. But really, joining the Labour Party, and I think, I know quite a few people who rejoined just before when Ed Milliband was standing, yeah. Hoping. Some of them joined so they could vote for Diana. Rejoined, people who had left. But, a number of them have said certainly they’re not going to rejoin again. Which is sad. Because there’s no real alternative. We’ve got no choice.

*Seems to be edited at this point*

KC – You’re going to talk to us in regards to the campaigns you’ve been involved in, nuclear waste.

T – Yea, but not just nuclear waste. When I was on the council I was very concerned about nuclear free-zone issues, and, err, the fact that the county and councils were being dragged into nuclear wargames. Erm, and sort of legitimising this belief that you could fight and win a nuclear war. And so, erm, I got, pushed our local council to join the nuclear free-zone local authorities movement. And had enough support for it to go through, and one of the things we did, apart from constantly questioning the emergency planning games that were being played with the county, was to monitor the transport of nuclear convoys through the district. And I was part of the, oh, what did we call it? The fun chain. And we used to find out when the convoys carrying nuclear warheads from Scotland, down to the South, where they were refurbished, the trident nuclear warheads. And when they were passing through the district we’d go out and follow them and photograph them. And on a number of occasions they actually broke down in Derwentside on the A68, near a school. And err, the council took an active role there in monitoring these, emergency plans for accidents, and really just highlighting the dangers of transport through the districts in total secrecy. Because in fact, people were not informed, and it’s quite amazing. Corbridge, it went through Corbridge as well. But nobody was being informed about these things. And, I think we had some impact, as on one occasion even a journalist called up and said, did you know? I’ve just seen it broken down.

(25:46)

So down we went. So I think that was quite a successful involvement. Erm, it went on for some time, even when I was out of the council. And then we brought in radiation monitoring. After Chernobyl. On the basis that in many area, they’d found out quite by chance that there’d been a nuclear accident. And that Derwentside, and the council, could have built on background knowledge about radiation and supported any sudden rises. That was carried on by the district for some time as part of their other monitoring. So I think we had some impact then, but I don’t know what’s happened to it now quite honestly. Apart from that, I was also active in the union.

KC – And which union was this?

T – It was NATFHE. When I started teaching in FE it was NATFHE. National Association for Teachers in Further and Higher Education which became UCU. I was branch secretary for quite a few years, and various other roles.

KC – Do you remember any campaigns, strikes?

T – Yes, we had a few strikes, a few picket lines. I went and joined them after I retired, just to support them. About a year ago, so the branch is still active, yeah. Oh and yeas, and we supported other unions. I remember when the bus drivers were out, going along with a collection from work.

KC – I’m told that women make up, in the North-East, still have the highest percentage in unions of the workforce, than any other part of the country. Erm, did you find that most people in FE were actually members of the union?

T – Err, the majority in our branch, until quite recently, were, also members of the main union, which was NATFHE, then UCU.

KC – So what were your campaigns about? What were your fights?

T – They were about workload, to a great extent. Pay of course, but more, very often more to do with the workload, and recently pensions. Trying to think of any other things. But to a great extent it was workload and pay.

KC – So how did the campaigns manifest themselves? What sort of things did you do in the workplace, you went on strike did you?

T – We went on strike to negotiate hard with the management, we resisted the new contracts that were imposed on us in ’93, I think?

KC – Was it on a workplace basis?

T – Well, there was a national campaign. And then gradually, everyone was caving in. When they removed Further Ed from educational authority control, and then we had new contracts imposed, so a number of us didn’t sign them for a long, long time. Even when most people caved in. Then when we did decide that there were so few of us left, we decided to go together and, I think we gained some concession, and then agreed to keep the union together, and the branch together. Anyway, yes, that was a big national campaign. Part of this step by step privatisation, competition thing.

KC – You haven’t talked about the work you’ve done in the area to raise the issue of Palestine and Palestinians who are imprisoned. Do you want to share some of that with us?

T – Right, ok! In my waffly (sic) way. Erm, I can’t remember how long we’ve done a stall, we’ve done a stall at the miners gala, must go back twenty years, could it? Something like that. It was a Palestine stall originally, I think, yes. And it grew, and we had a red van, and we used to sell Arabic coffee to raise money.

KC –Anti-Apartheid as well I think.

T – Anti-Apartheid, yeah. I took students in a third world group on a free Nelson Mandela once in Durham before he was freed as well. Yes indeed. And of course, Palestine. Many similarities with the apartheid system, with the Israeli’s and….

KC – So how big is the Palestinian –

T – I’m involved in a couple of things. The Palestinian National Solidarity campaign. We’ve got a local branch which we’ve had for many years, we have a stall at the miners gala, as I said, for covering, for promoting, for campaigning on whatever the main issue is in Palestine. There’s also a trust that brings over Palestinian students. *Interlude* We had street stalls, we had vigils in Durham marketplace, and so on. Write letters, and go down on national demonstrations and leaflet people. Boycott Israeli goods campaign, we go into supermarkets. But the miners’ gala is a fantastic event. We have actually had a Palestinian speaker on there once or twice. And we’ve have, we always have an event there. Yeah. Right, I think I’m running out of steam.

KC – Thanks very much!

*Interview recording ends at 31:37*