Thursday, October 16, 2008

Political Influences

I've been thinking about a post I wrote a little while ago on the books I read when first becoming a political activist which went slightly meme-like. At the time I said that whilst books can help clarify thoughts, bring out ways of articulating ideas and deepen your political understanding those who become politically active on the basis of books are mercifully few and far between.

For me, whatever the utility of books, events have been the primary catalyst that shaped my development into a politically engaged human being. So, I thought I'd try and put pen to paper/screen on the five most politically influential moments in my life.

  1. The Falklands War.

    The first genuinely political thoughts I had were at the time of the Falklands War. Strangely enough it was watching Michael Foot on the TV attacking Thatcher, essentially for not being patriotic enough, that gave me a gut feeling that things weren't right.

    I remember thinking how bizarre it was that this guy who was in CND and the Labour Party seemed to be all for a war over a patch of stony ground thousands of miles away. For whatever reason I didn't see any contradiction between being horrified by Foot and turning towards the Labour Party and a down the line anti-war stance.

  2. Hearing Billy Bragg the first time.

    Like many disaffected teenagers there were a good deal of things I was against, but I struggled with exactly how to be against them. When my brother came back from university a devoted punk his new Billy Bragg albums were an immediate source of joy and, to be honest, slight obsession.

    I knew I supported the miners but hadn't realised that I wasn't just some freak, that in fact there were others out there who called themselves 'socialists' and thought trade unions were a good thing especially when they went on strike, rather than despite strike action.

    Billy switched a light on in my brain that said you can be against the way capitalism is run but in a constructive way - wanting to see a new society built not just the old one torn down.

  3. The defeat of the Poll Tax.

    The eighties were hard for socialists. Every struggle seemed like a bitter defeat, and the harder you fought the more hurt you got. I know people who were active at this time could probably cite a whole list of victories but for me it seemed like one defeat after another. And then we broke the poll tax.

    You just couldn't take it in. What did this mean, what did you call it when you didn't lose a fight? Then Thatcher resigned and it was bloody marvelous. I don't think I've ever been happier in my life, but it was all so sudden.

    One moment she was there the next "poof" you had grey underpants man, and he seemed mostly harmless, hardly a Tory at all. When the Poll Tax was defeated it was a great lesson to me that I wasn't doomed to be on the wrong side of every single fight.

  4. Going to university.

    I came to university late. I left school at sixteen and went to work in a series of dead end pointless jobs. It was only ten years later that Major's government kindly sent me to university, which was an extraordinary life changing event as well as a completely unexpected one.

    It helped me learn how to think and it was the first time that I began to get consistently politically active. I'd been to demos and things before but now I was part of organising them - and it felt great.

  5. The Balkans War.

    I think the Balkans War was the first moment I genuinely realised that Labour was not just disappointing but actually it wasn't the party for me. I sort of knew it before, but now I began to really know it. The anti-war movement might have been small compared to what was to come but it had a strength to it and was my first experience of effectively campaigning, if not successfully.

    The Stop the War movement taught me a lot at that time, about how you work with people from different political backgrounds, what it feels like to organise a group who were actually persuading people of their case. That movement taught me that campaigning was about more than simply telling people what you thought, which was really little more than posturing. It was indeed possible to win arguments with large sections of the population, but you had to think as well as feel.
There's a kind of mix of big politics and personal there, which I think is probably right, although in a different mood I may well have come up with a different list. I hope it doesn't convince everyone that I'm irretrievably old and it's time I was put out to pasture, although that sounds rather nice. What the next decisive events in my life will be we shall have to see.

If any other bloggers out there are interested in giving this a go I'd be interested to see how much differences/similarities there are - and I'm more than happy to link to those posts as I did last time (as long as I know about them).


Anonymous said...

Blimey, you are old! (She says, pretending she can't remember any of these things). For me:

Animal rights and green stuff (learning about the ozone layer on Blue Peter etc) probably played a bigger role in my life than politics until my mid-twenties, though I did stand as the Green Party candidate in the mock election at 6th form college (and was beaten by everyone except the SWP, just like in most of the country!).

I didn't get involved in stuff at uni until my final year, and then it was drop the debt, Earth First and Animal Rights stuff, though I wasn't brave enough to do anything that risked getting arrested - I was friends with Hunt Sabs, but a bit too intimidated by the hunters to go sabbing. Then I went and taught English in Belarus for a year, which gave me plenty of time to ponder the downside of nuclear power.

I remember waking up in a youth hostel in Lithuania in 1997 (I was meant to be there) the day after the general election (for which I had spectacularly failed to get myself a proxy or postal vote sorted at the British Embassy in Minsk). I'd gone to bed late and hadn't met the other people in the dorm, but woke up to hear this British student who had a walkman relaying the news to everyone else - Michael Portillo has lost his seat - yes! That was fun, and I was quite hopeful for the future then, naive fool that I was.

Then somehow, when I returned to the UK, I got sucked into 'The Corporation' (aka Citigroup) when I moved to London, telling myself it was just for a year then I'd get a job on the Russian desk at Amnesty or something.

September 11, 2001 - I was sitting at my desk of the seventh floor of the Citigroup building in Canary Wharf. My US(oil analyst) boss was on a conference call to colleagues in NY which got abruptly cut off as they had to evacuate their building. Then we watched it on the Bloomberg screens. I'd never been to the US and didn't realise that the twin towers were iconic buildings etc, and it took a while for the significance of the day's events to sink in, and I felt v vulnerable in the glass tower we worked in.

Sometime not long after that, when we started bombing Afghanistan, I decided to change a few things in my life. I joined the Green Party and my local Oxfam Campaigns group and started planning my escape from my job. Ruthless capitalist that I am, I hung on until after my next bonus, then quit my job and did a TEFL course. I had great fun at my exit interview (Why are you leaving? Well, I don't like working for the second largest donor to George Bush's election campaign, I don't like the fact that we're funding deforestation projects, I don't like these crappy plastic cups . . . . and I went on for a while, to the astonishment of my poor boss).

So I guess my transformation into political animal was shortly after that, when I got involved in the 2002 local election campaign. Not much of a political pedigree before then, didn't even get registered to vote half the time. I always watched the news growing up, and had regularly debates over the dinner table with my Dad about politics, but neither of my parents were party politcal or firm supporters of a particular party and everything on the TV (the Falklands war etc) seemed rather distant and removed from my safe life in Worcester.

Wow, that feels strangely confessional. Good post btw, got me thinking.

Anonymous said...

oh, and chumbawumba and the Levellers of course . . .

scott redding said...

I wouldn't say as much "going to university", but what I did at university. Many people can go to university, have a three/four year degree, and then go straight into the corporate world.

I got really involved in my university radio station's news department early in my 1st year. I remember coming in and talking with the news director, and then her leading me around to the on-air studio, and her chatting with the DJ finishing up the 10am to 12noon shift about a David Suzuki programme on heroin prescriptions and Canadian medicare. And I'm thinking, it's like they're talking about the weather, I want to spend more time here.

Jim Jay said...

Mmmm, that whole feeling of being in a place where you actually discuss ideas - and they matter!