‘A rippling mood of rebellion’

SIMON MATTHEWS on a new account of the Left in the days of Audrey Wise, David Widgery and Barry White.

Sheila Rowbotham
Daring To Hope: My Life In The 1970s
Verso, 2021

The 1970s. The decade that keeps on giving. Still a battlefield, too. The interpretations, conceptions, misconceptions, falsifications, implications, glorious failures and might-have-beens. Into this maelstrom steps Sheila Rowbotham – feminist, historian, activist – with her account of her life during that much derided decade. Drawn from her diary and personal papers, this is a neat, easily readable chronology.

She lives in a communal house in Dalston. Some of the time with David Widgery, though other men feature as well. She writes, teaches (for the WEA) and travels around the UK, mainly helping women organise around various issues. The narrative quickly settles down to meeting after meeting, campaign after campaign, demonstration after demonstration: for ten years. Some of this was worthwhile, some much less so. (Who remembers the Schools Action Union now?) She, and her peer group take little notice of what is going on in Parliament. On Thatcher’s 1975 installation by the right of the Conservative party she says: ‘I did not regard her politics as a dangerous threat, partly I think because on the left we tended to think in terms of dramatic fascist coups.’

This was true: they did. And with reason, perhaps. This was the time of Allende in Chile (1973), the collapse of the generals in Portugal (1974) and the demise of Franco in Spain (1975). It was also the era of apartheid, the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Red Brigades and the ‘strategy of tension’. The UK left – Communists, IMG, SWP, Big Flame and any number of non-aligned independent libertarian socialists – took itself very seriously indeed then, despite accounting for no more than 1 per cent of the vote at general elections.

It was a time when one felt that politics intruded into everyday life in a direct way. On a day-to-day basis many experienced the boorish behaviour of the police: search warrants, raids, people rummaging through your personal effects for no particular reason at 8am after a heavy knock on the door, officers being nosey and worse, if you were Irish or black, a sense of being pushed around if you didn’t ‘fit in’ or were ‘awkward’ or ‘looked weird’. And people sometimes got killed. One of her friends, Ruth First, drives her back from a meeting in Tyneside to Hackney in 1978; four years later, First was murdered in Mozambique by a letter bomb sent by South African agents.

On the other hand, though, it was also a time of faintly preposterous antics. A period when having published an essay, review or article, one would be written to by figures in ‘the left’ and invited by them to ‘defend’ it in the context of how closely (or not) it adhered to a Leninist (or Trotskyist) framework. As many have noted, the ‘70s were a time of upheaval in UK politics: four general elections, a referendum, the SNP bursting onto the scene, Ireland in turmoil, a Lib-Lab coalition in Westminster, the rise of Thatcher and Benn and the constant drumbeat from Enoch Powell. But not very much of that is in this book. Mainstream politics hardly features, though she mentions canvassing and leafleting for Ben Pimlott (against Leon Brittan) in Cleveland and Whitby in 1974 and 1979. The most name-checked MP in the text is Audrey Wise, MP for Coventry from 1974 and closely associated then with the Institute for Workers Control. Barbara Castle doesn’t feature.

You wouldn’t realise from reading this account that there were nine major pieces of legislation concerning women passed in the first half of the decade (two of them by Heath’s government) culminating in the 1975 establishment of the Equal Opportunities Commission. (On an aside, this is the year Rowbotham buys a TV, having previously attempted to rent one. Full disclaimer: it was difficult to rent a TV in Hackney in the ‘70s if you looked odd to the people in Radio Rentals.)

Beyond the politics, teaching and personal relationships there wasn’t room for much else it would seem. In a curiously humourless account, she goes – with the Brixton Women’s Aid Centre staff – to see Barry White at the Albert Hall and states ‘While the others all seemed to enjoy him booming out promises of insatiable love ad infinitum, I found the music unpleasantly gushy-slushy’. Likewise, the key theatre, novels, films and so on of the time pass by without comment, though she does check out the 1978 Rock Against Racism gig in Victoria Park that David Widgery helped organize.

We reach 1979 in the final chapter, in which she is a tad confusing about the election of Thatcher, saying on the one hand ‘I was aware that something exceedingly bad had happened, but the full import was slow to sink in’, and on the other hand ‘I paid little attention to the new force at the helm of government … In those early years I persisted in thinking that soon she would become so unpopular she would be voted out…’ It isn’t quite contradictory, and she notes that ‘like many other socialists and feminists I focussed on local action’, in this case against her local (Labour) council.

There is no over-arching analysis in this memoir of why the left failed. The truth is that unlike arrangements elsewhere, in the UK the political class hardly overlaps at all with the intellectual and cultural class. The notion of a major conference taking place, where philosophers, thinkers and academics debate meaningfully with sociologists, political leaders, economists and trade unionists about current issues affecting society, the nation, the economy or ‘the west’ generally is seemingly alien to the UK tradition.

It isn’t in France or Germany (where the likes of Jurgen Habermas, and others, regularly pronounce on issues such as the Iraq war, or the European debt crisis). Many of the half-forgotten names, with which her account is peppered, might have had greater impact if such things took place in the UK. But they don’t, and it has been the fate instead of ‘the left’ either to busy themselves in grass-roots campaigns (often against cash-strapped local authorities), or to engage in ‘entryism’ within the Labour Party. Neither route has produced particularly remarkable results thus far.

She concludes her book on a positive note, pointing out ‘a rippling mood of rebellion among many young women world-wide, whose hopes are higher and whose confidence is far stronger than anything I could have imagined in 1970’. This is true, but in the UK, it is surely happening despite local circumstances, rather than because of them, given that our political system is still based on a simple adversarial electoral process, where the winner takes all and the Prime Minister wields the Crown prerogative. On reflection, one has to query just how much influence all the campaigning she speaks of in the 1970s actually had, and how secure some of the gains made then are today.

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