I felt a kind of weary recognition when I saw this story in the Guardian the other day. I don’t remember what the precise occasion was, but I remember vividly being told that I was on “the list” by a trade union acquaintance of mine. At the time, I greeted the information with the kind of youthful bravado you’d expect of someone in their mid-20s and in the thick of the kind of grassroots activism that feels like nothing but actually is the most effective means of creating change.
By matching staff records against MI5 files, the SPL came to the conclusion that there were 1,420 “subversives” in the civil service, including 52 in Customs and Excise, 169 at the Inland Revenue and 111 at the Ministry of Defence, many of them at the Royal Naval dockyards at Rosyth. The largest number, however, 360, were said to be at the Department of Health.
Privately, I figured that if MI5 were targeting me, then they were even more incompetent than their poor reputation suggested. This was the era of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, the banned memoir that revealed that the British Intelligence services had been fucking up operations for decades. I bought my copy, illegally imported from Australia, at one of those second hand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank, a half-hour walk from Gower Street, the then-headquarters of MI5.
But pause with me a moment to look at the picture the Guardian used to illustrate this news story (above). Did I resemble the floppy haired young man depicted? My hair was curly and frequently dyed blonde. I never once held a copy of Militant in my hands; and I would have fled in terror if someone offered me a loud hailer. On the other hand, I might well have considered a stripy jumper.
Apart from being told by a reliable source that I was on this list, I have other evidence to offer.
- I worked in the tax office (Inland Revenue) in those days, which meant I had signed the Official Secrets Act. I was a very lowly clerical assistant (or the Revenue’s equivalent), a position for which I was overqualified. And yet, it took me fully six years to gain a promotion to the next grade above. If you knew me at all, you’d know this could not possibly be because of incompetency on my part. To illustrate this latter point, I will refer you to the time I went on the Tax Officer training course when I finally got that promotion, six years in. I was taking a cigarette break with the trainer that day when he said to me, “This must be very boring for you?” “Why do you say that?” “Because you obviously know this stuff already.” This wasn’t, in fact, the case. But, I’m very quick on the uptake. And so, yeah: it took six years to get promoted from my filing job.
- Aha, you say. Why then, did you not just go and get another job? Good question. I applied for many: very many. I got many interviews. I took many intelligence tests and got the highest marks. But, you see, I was blacklisted.
- One job I applied for, at the Abbey National building society (or was it already a bank by then?), I passed the tests with flying colours, passed the interview, and was told I’d be receiving a job offer “subject to references”. Well, one of my referees, Norman, who was my line manager, sat opposite me in the office. And he would have told me if he’d been asked for a reference. But he never did because he never was. And the nailed-on job disappeared into thin air.
- Finally, I was arbitrarily moved, in my lowly clerical position, to another one in another tax office that was just around the corner. It separated me, on that day to day basis, from my immediate circle of radical trade union buddies. Apart from that, there was no reason to move me.
“Most “subversives” were found to be working in junior clerical positions. The SPL recommended in its initial report that they should, where possible, “be identified and distanced from such work”.
It added that mounting a purge of suspect individuals would not be possible, but “it might sometimes be possible covertly to move individuals to posts where they would have less potential for disruption.”
Anyway, that blacklisting blighted my career prospects, and held me back for years. Eventually I got out of the tax office only by getting a place at University. My life is divided into the before and after in that respect. Things went pretty well after that: although I still consider those nine years struggling against the machine to be lost.
It was all so unnecessary, really. All the “list” consisted of was names and organisations. In my case, it would have been the IRSF, the Inland Revenue Staff Federation: a trade union so radical that it wasn’t even affiliated with the Labour Party.
And I only really got involved in the union because I was pissed off with the way I was being treated (early on in my glittering tax office career, I was criticised for the way I walked, and the way I looked for files, and for not wearing a collar and tie, and, when I did wear a collar and tie, I was told by my manager that he didn’t like my collar and he didn’t like my tie). And I’d been a little radicalised by 18 months on the dole: to the point that I had values at odds with most of the management class. When they were throwing post away in confidential waste sacks in order to meet targets, I was kinda muttering that if they left their targets unmet, maybe some unemployed person could be given a job.
But I hadn’t read a word of Marx or Militant, hadn’t joined any organisation apart from my union, and (ironically) my first exposure to such reading would come at University, which only happened because of the blacklisting.
So what did I do to get on that list?
I did once sign a petition at a CND rally. With hindsight, I did come to believe that the stunningly pretty girls who were circulating with the petition were probably MI5, harvesting names from the many bus trips.
But my real activism was small and local. I went to Branch union meetings, first as office rep and later as Branch Organiser. I sold raffle tickets to help the striking miners in ’84 and ’85. I was the Organiser who organised a crucial vote on the union having a political fund.
Which brings us to the crux. The Tory project in the 80s was principally about crushing the unions, who had so effectively destroyed the Heath government of 1970-74. All forms of collectivism (public transport, public utilities) were out, to be replaced by privatised companies who would make life hard for unions. And all strikes had to be approved by an expensive postal ballot, thus ensuring forever more that no strike would be called on anything over a 25% turnout, which was all the media would need to call foul. And, the most evil step of all, members would have to vote as to whether their union could make political donations. This policy was designed to kill the Labour party at its roots.
As I said, the IRSF wasn’t even affiliated with the Labour party, but we did believe, us union chaps, that we ought to be able to fund research and so on, or support candidates. So we organised the vote, and we got it approved.
Which, one suspects, wasn’t supposed to happen.
Possibly the most damning thing I did was organise the publication and distribution of a branch newsletter. This was my idea because it was clear then that the government, through their managers, were trying to bypass the unions by offering, for example, newsletters of their own. Going direct to the workers with new initiatives and spinning information without considering their elected representatives. So, I said, if they’re going to be “communicating” with our members, shouldn’t we offer an alternative?
Thus the Conscientious Op was born, a newsletter title that punned on a collection of Dashiel Hammett short stories (Continental Op). It was reproduced by typewriter, letraset, cut ups and photocopier. It was, probably, pure punk.
I don’t remember a single thing I wrote in it.
But one suspects that something upset somebody. (It was a similar story when I left school at 18.)
So, blacklisted I was. And what have we learned? First of all, those small-time local activities you can get involved in do have an impact, and do scare the bejesus out of those in power, who know full well that they only get away with stuff because we let them. To give you an across-the-Atlantic example, it has been local politicians working at District and State level who have been gerrymandering election boundaries in the USA, and bringing in voter registration laws to make it harder for people of colour to vote, and harder for opposition candidates to win seats. So, yes, grassroots politics really matters.
Finally, I think we’ve learned something I think I’ve always known: that the real “enemies within” in this country are those who create and share such lists, who treat legitimate political opposition and perfectly legal trade union activity as criminal, and who maintain unfair power structures unfairly and undemocratically. The construction industry blacklists during the Olympic Park construction led to legal action and big payouts. The trade union movement began with people being transported to Australia. It ended with a postal ballot that you chucked in the recycling.