CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE - YESTERDAY AND TODAY
We had our own little code to warn them it was a dawn raid and to get out. There's more than one way of getting out of the flats - there's two staircases and two lifts, so you could play games if you knew how. If we were a thorn in their flesh, then good.
This story (to be viewed alongside this) is both cheering and depressing. Cheering, because it shows how altruistic people can be when they are united; depressing because it demonstrates Oscar Wilde’s claim that “charity creates a multitude of sins.” While admiring tenants who unite in order to save their neighbours from deportation, we must also admit that their support only prolongs Britain’s profoundly inhumane policies towards asylum seekers.
Nevertheless, the actions of the Glaswegian tenants prove that the only true guarantors of freedom are people themselves. The counter to this – that only an elected Parliament truly underwrites democracy – conceals whose freedoms liberal democracy really protects. Parliament is, in truth, the underwriter of capital. The state in a capitalist economy is there to maintain stability, which means protecting the freedoms of the market over those of its citizens, so that basic human needs like housing and healthcare become private property to be sold back to us at the market rate.
The out-of-control housing market, which made a few filthily rich and which will make many more filthily poor, is the best example of how a basic human need – a roof over one’s head – has become unaffordable to the majority because it was allowed to get out of hand.
To find a much earlier example of how the government tried to force people outside of the welfare state and into the private market (and how the public resisted it ferociously), we must return to North London in the mid 1950s.
For me, St Pancras was the first example of working class action I saw in England. I remember getting off the train from Scotland in 1960 as a young man who had just moved to England. I stepped out of Kings Cross station and into a battle between mounted policemen and demonstrators outside St Pancras Town Hall. I remember thinking "England can’t be as bad as I thought! (Hugh Kerr, Harlow Tenants Federation)
By 1956, the Tories were in the middle of their post-Atlee period of dominance. Meanwhile, north of Whitehall, after many tedious years of nondescript administrations, the Trotskyite John Lawrence had become Leader of St Pancras Borough Council.
Two of Lawrence’s opening gambits – flying the red flag on the roof of the Town Hall, and introducing a closed shop to Council employees - were seen as gesture-politics . But a third – lowering the ceiling on Council rent payments – anticipated a conflict between the public and its rulers over how public housing should be paid for. During the next 18 months the Tory Government cut housing subsidies, deregulated private-sector rents and compelled Councils to fix rents "at such a level that many tenants would actually find it cheaper to move out and buy their own houses". The security of Council tenants was under serious threat.
John Lawrence's own position as a hard-left Council Leader was hardly more secure. In 1958, he and 13 other Labour Councillors were expelled from the party for Communist sympathies. The right wing of the local Labour Party, which had traditionally dominated in St Pancras, returned to power and reversed Lawrence's housing policy. Rents increased marginally - but this was not enough for St Pancras Borough's Tory Party. They proposed a scheme, in which general rents would be increased whilst, in the mealy words of Councillor Prior, "charging no tenants more than he can reasonably afford”.
In 1959, when the Tories took control of the Council, the differential rent scheme became policy. The effect was devastating: overnight most of the rents on the Borough's older estates trebled, and most of the newer estates doubled.
Tenants were infuriated - not only because their rents had soared, but because they knew whose hands their money would fall into. In order to build houses, Councils had to borrow money from banks on the basis of massive mortgages, so that 70% of the money required to build a Council flat was spent on repayments. 4,000 Council tenants, disinclined to line the pockets of entrepeneurs, marched to the first meeting of the newly-formed United Tenants Association in September 1959. It called on tenants to refuse to fill in the means form, called on trade unions and ratepayers to support this action, and called on the Council to drop the scheme.
Support for the UTA quickly grew. Tenants (opposed by the St Pancras Labour Party) continued to protest and campaign. A petition with 16,000 names was sent to the Council. And still the Council would not budge.
At first, the majority of tenants affected by the rent hikes pledged to withhold the increase. But, after a series of blunt letters from the Council, and the threat of legal action, the majority paid their arrears. By May 1960, there were only three non-paying tenants, and by August three tenants were served notices for possession.
Finally, the Labour Party upped the ante, urging tenants to block the entrances when the bailiffs arrived, so that, according to Dave Burn, when the time came for Don Cook and Arthur Rowe to be forcibly removed from their Kentish Town and Gospel Oak homes,
Don Cook had 12 pianos in his flat barricading various doors, as well as other old furniture and doors put against windows, and barbed wire and an old bedstead on the roof to discourage bailiffs from entering that way.
On hearing or seeing the warning, workers all over the borough were prepared to down tools and rush to the assistance of the two beleaguered tenants. An intercom system was set up between Don Cook’s flat and the campaign headquarters in another flat in Kennistoun House.
On 31st August when half the tenants in the [Kennistoun] block were supposed to pay their rent, only one old-age pensioner was at the rent office. Banners saying "No Evictions" and "Force the Council to Negotiate" hung from the access balconies and an effigy of Cllr Prior hung in the middle of the courtyard.
On the evening of 21st September – the evening before the eviction – a demonstration of about 500 tenants took place outside St Pancras Town Hall, as a housing committee was being held inside. The police had already banned demonstrations outside the Town Hall; now they cleared the area and violently manhandled demonstrators. Eleven people were arrested, including John Lawrence, and the crowd, which included young children, was charged twice by mounted police.
The mounted police returned to Kennistoun the following day at 5am, preventing tenants from supporting Cook. They were there to protect the bailiffs, who entered the two properties using crowbars, hacksaws and axes. The police attacked any tenants who dared to demonstrate. That evening, 14,000 demonstrators marched down Euston Road to the town hall, where they met a violent cordon of a thousand police.
The St Pancras Labour Party capitalised on the rent strikes, and regained a Council majority in 1963. But this represented no victory for the strikers themselves, or for the Borough's Council tenants. Cook and Rowe were given new tenancies, but the Tories' differential rent scheme remained Council policy. Labour, like the Conservatives, accepted that the only way to ensure that big business stayed in St Pancras was to keep rates low. The high costs of land would continue to be borne by Council tenants.
No doubt many of St Pancras's tenants drew the same conclusion as John Lawrence did in later years: that socialism from above does not work, that it must have a libertarian and individualistic character in order to thrive. John McIlroy's biography of Lawrence suggests that "what is compelling is his insistence that socialists start at the bottom, integrate themselves with existing workers’ struggles, appreciate what workers see as important, listening and facilitating." The hue of politics today is not very different to that of the St Pancras Rent Strikes of the early 1960s. If civil disobedience does make a comeback, we should all be prepared for similar struggles in the future.