Activism - Meet the political activists
- Kirstin Innes
- 23 July 2009
It may be the spiralling economy, new technology, or the time bomb that is global ecology, but the UK is a more socially and politically active place than it has been in decades with first hand examples to be found all across our cities. To kick off our five-page special celebrating this new activism, Kirstin Innes uncovers the reasons why we care again. Illustrations by Matt Pattinson
There’s been a lot of nostalgia for the 90s recently, as Blur, Take That and the Spice Girls reform (however fleetingly), and various media outlets (this one included) celebrate 15 years since the invention of a handy marketing tool called Britpop.
The 90s were brash and bold, the bands big and colourful; the idea of Britishness that they promoted (complete with slightly-ironic tuba fanfare) was secure, confident and wealthy. We bought into Cool Britannia, we bought things on credit, Tony Blair was very smooth in power and the chattering classes despaired of a younger generation in thrall to political apathy. Youth culture of the 80s could be characterised in broad strokes by the rise of the avaricious Thatcherite yuppie and the reaction to this by certain sections of the left. Think of it as the difference between Duran Duran and The Smiths; being a fan of either was, in some way, a politicised stance. What, by contrast, were the defining features of the 90s? The utterly manufactured Blur versus Oasis sales war? A few embarrassed New Labour ministers in ill-fitting suits bopping about to ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ by D:Ream? Despite New Labour’s landslide victory (dare we suggest, perhaps because of it?), politics generally seemed something far-off and impenetrable, something that didn’t touch ordinary life.
Perhaps we’re nostalgic for the 90s because things are very different now. To hurl accusations of apathy at the post-Iraq, post-G20 generation seems rather more than churlish. The current recession has made politics an immediate part of everyone’s daily life, while the freedom of new media technology means that incidents like Ian Tomlinson’s death at the G20 protests are impossible to cover up. Organisations like Plane Stupid (whose members are almost all under 30) are bright, often more media savvy than the lumbering corporations they’re opposing, and adept at capturing the public imagination. Local communities, inspired by their actions, are beginning to fight back against school closures and airport expansions.
Whether because of the threat of the economy, or because they’ve simply had enough, it’s beginning to feel like the people of this country are waking up again.
Over the next few pages, we take a look at politicised activism in Scotland and in the UK today. We’ve spoken to various people – from independent MPs to high profile campaigners, youth workers to community organisers – all of whom are involved to some extent in taking direct action to effect political change. We’ve looked at ways you yourself can get involved, from supporting charities to changing how you shop.
‘Most of the political people I know don’t vote,’ said Alice, one of the activists we’ve interviewed over the next few pages. ‘They’re disillusioned with the mainstream party process, but not with politics. They’ve just found other ways of making a difference.’
While the views represented in the first person interviews with activists are not necessarily those of The List, we’re very happy to allow them the space to share their views. We’ll be equally happy to offer any of the organisations they mention the right to reply in next fortnight’s issue, too.
The List takes to the streets and meets the extraordinary people taking a stand and making a difference
Dan Glass is 25. He’s been involved with Plane Stupid, the direct action organisation, who raise awareness about the dangers of airport expansion and carbon emission through high-profile stunts, for two years. Recently, he was given an award for his work with communities affected by Glasgow and Edinburgh Airports by Gordon Brown, and used the opportunity to superglue himself to the Prime Minister’s sleeve.
‘I’m not really from an environmentalist, or even a liberal, background. I’d been reading about climate change for a while, and to me, this just seems like it’s the biggest issue of our time – the defining issue of our generation. It just seemed logical to try and do something about it: why wouldn’t you?
‘We’re a very unique generation and we’ve got a lot of responsibility on our shoulders. We’re the first generation who have been faced with the problem of climate change who also know how to deal with it. And we’ve got this window of opportunity, essentially, to salvage something of the world for humanity, for the future.
‘I take a lot of inspiration from my family, who were Holocaust survivors. It’s always been instilled in me that if you can tackle injustice, if there’s the opportunity, grab it with both hands; that it’s important to stand up to adversity, and that it’s important to challenge prevalent laws, as well.
Right now big business is getting away with destroying the planet, legally, and the people who challenge that are seen to be acting illegally; in pre-Second World War Germany, Naziism was enshrined in the law, and it was important to challenge that if you could. So that’s where I get my motivation from; that sometimes, the law can be wrong, and if you think it is, you shouldn’t just accept it.
‘I found it outrageous that I was going to be getting an award for work with communities affected by the aviation industry from a man who’s wedded to the aviation industry. If Glasgow Airport’s expansion goes ahead, the residents of Clydebank, who have not been consulted, are going to be exposed to seriously dangerous levels of noise and air pollution; these are his voters. His electorate.
‘As regards the Gordon Brown incident, the opportunity was just too good, so I took some Superglue in pouches attached to my boxers and cut a hole in my trouser pocket and stuck myself to him when I shook his hand. I said ‘This is a peaceful protest in line with Plane Stupid’s commitment to direct, non-violent action. You cannot shake off climate change, just like you can’t shake me off your arm’. There was lots of support in the audience by that point: I think that was perhaps why I didn’t get arrested! Really, though, the situation of climate change is so dire you could really just sit about crying all day, so making your point in a humorous and inclusive way, without rendering the issue superficial, is really important.’ (Interview by Kirstin Innes)
The community activist
Alice is a health care worker and community activist who was most recently involved in the high profile Save Our Schools campaign to stop the closure of 22 primary schools across Glasgow. She’s also a member of the Glasgow chapter of the Anarchist Federation.
‘There’s this sense of freedom and possibility that you get when you’re involved in doing something to make the world a better place. It’s wonderful; it’s a creative act, and it’s liberating.
‘I became involved in direct action through the London M11 link road protests in 1994. Living on the blockade, I came to find out a lot more about the situation, about how the system works, how the government works, and about the way local people who would be affected by the motorway weren’t being given any say about what happened in their area. I also realised that people had the opportunity to fight back about it, which is something I hadn’t realised before.
‘I moved to Glasgow in 2003, and I’ve done a lot of community organising in Maryhill, where I live. In Glasgow, we have a very top-down system, with the council and Glasgow Housing Association, these kind of monolithic organisations who dictate to people what’s going to happen with their lives, and that’s wrong. Anarchism, to me, is where people have direct control over the things that affect them. I use all the skills I learnt as an activist in London, but on a local level, to put pressure on the GHA to fix lifts in high-rise blocks, to make sure that there are proper facilities for kids to play in.
‘At first, when the schools closures were announced, it seemed as though this was another occasion when things would just be allowed to happen, but actually the parents got really angry. Communities need local primary schools, that people can walk to, can meet at. Glasgow City Council has the money to spend £50,000 on renovating a fountain in Kelvingrove Park, to organise massive city marketing events, but no money for primary schools?
The parents decided to occupy the primary schools, to move in, over the whole Easter holidays, and we went along to support them. This is direct action, this is the beauty of it: they’re acting as a community to take control over their lives.
‘In the end, their campaign was unsuccessful: the council have announced they’re going ahead with the school closures anyway, but it was very inspiring, very exciting, to be there and see the difference it made to the parents. Being involved in direct action changes how you feel in response to power – you don’t feel that power is this thing that operates onto you from the outside, that you can’t have any interaction with. They also found out, I think, that their opinions mattered, that they themselves mattered. Working class women, living in these estates, have always been felt disempowered, and have long been told that their place in society is a very lowly one. Suddenly, they were being interviewed by GMTV and the BBC news, and it transformed them: after spending their lives at the beck and call of the council, the council had to come to them. And they know how to organise themselves, now. They know how to contact the media. They know they can do something.’ (Interview by Kirstin Innes. Alice asked us not to print her full name.)
The youth worker
Euan Platt is the National Participation Co-ordinator for LGBT Youth Scotland. He trains LGBT young people between the ages of 13 and 26 to become activists, working to increase tolerance and awareness across the country.
‘It’s my job to identify opportunities for young people to get involved in campaigns and youth activism projects. I co-ordinate the LGBT National Youth Council, an elected body of young people who come together and work on campaigns to help challenge and improve life for other young people who are LGB or T.
‘At the moment, we’re campaigning for sexual orientation to be covered further in the Equality Bill, which currently doesn’t include harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation. We’ve collected young people’s stories of times they’ve experienced harassment about their sexual orientation, and we’re going to be presenting them to the government and to the EU, when the Equality Bill is discussed there.
‘Our other major national activism project is called Green Light. It’s focussed on coming out, and on trying to make that process easier for young people. In the first wave, we trained ten young people from all over Scotland to be peer educators, using their experiences of coming out to put together workshops and projects for young people in general, and they’ve been going into schools and youth groups, and making people think.
One of the things that comes out is that LGBT young people want to use their own experiences of coming out, or being bullied, or just feeling isolated, to help try and make those things easier for other people. Many of them do encounter these difficulties, and it’s good for them to have the chance to feel involved in trying to change legislation. I think they get a huge amount of satisfaction from going in and challenging people’s attitudes, too.’ (Interview by Kirstin Innes)
The independent politician
Margo MacDonald is an MSP for Lothians. She’s a strong supporter of Scottish independence and over the course of her political career has been a vocal campaigner for many and diverse issues. She’s currently campaigning, among other things, for more qualified PE teachers in schools, for the right to euthanasia, and for better legislation of prostitution.
‘If someone said describe me I wouldn’t describe myself as a campaigner, I’m first and foremost an elected politician, but there’s no doubt about it – I have been involved in a lot of campaigns, and I certainly do believe in public campaigning.
‘It’s something that started back in the 60s. And I’m a child of my generation. There were big issues and big ideological and idealistic campaigns running then. These things continue. Some of them have been accomplished – there is no Apartheid now in South Africa – but there’s still inequality and there’s still injustice.
‘I’m not satisfied with anything I’ve done though. The thing is that, if you go into a campaign, it’s very unlikely that you’ll achieve exactly what you’re looking for. There’s things that I’ll never stop campaigning about – I believe in an equitable share for everybody of what the world has to offer.
‘Aside from politics I can’t really think of another democratic and decent way of doing it. And having said that, that’s not fair, because Greenpeace have changed things, and CND to a certain extent. But usually you also have to have some campaigners who are active in political parties, who probably never get preferment or advancement inside the political parties, who may well be looked on as upsetters and head cases, but if they can stand up to that, if they keep championing on the side of the angels inside political parties, if they keep a long term perspective and stay focused on why they are doing it and the people for whom they are doing it, then they’re doing everyone a service.
‘If you’re a genuine campaigner interested in the results of your focused effort, then it might be easier for a lot of people to be like me and be an independent – rather than trying to accommodate their timescale and their priorities inside a party organisation and the party’s natural wish to see its program put into effect.’ (Interview by Lizzie Mitchell)
The community gardeners
Groups of residents at ten sites across Edinburgh, supported by Edinburgh Community Backgreens Association, are venturing out into their neglected and underused shared back gardens and meeting like-minded people, creating communities and contributing to urban sustainability.
The List visited one such backgreen in Marchmont on the day of the rather exciting sounding ‘Backgreen Blitz’ – a Saturday of clearing and tidying carried out by residents, with tools and guidance on hand courtesy of ECBA.
Community is the key word for this project, perhaps much more so than gardening or environment. Founder Greig Robertson points out that, with up to 20 households on a stair, and perhaps 300 around a block, tenements are comparable in population with a decent sized village, and if they were villages, they would have a shop, a church, perhaps a pub.
While it is unrealistic to expect that we will soon all be living in idyllic little urban villages, chewing the fat with the neighbours as we harvest some of the early asparagus of a summer’s evening, ECBA’s founder wants to see people talking, socialising, organising things on a small, local scale, for themselves and their neighbours and not for profit. What stands out about ECBA in contrast with other environmental projects is that it focuses on this community culture.
Another helper at the Backgreen Blitz volunteer Ben, explains his reasoning for participating: ‘the solution to most of the things I’m worried about is on a community level’. ECBA is about scaling everything down – our entertainment, energy, food and communities – and creating things for ourselves rather than waiting to be provided for. It’s not about total self-sufficiency, but it is about reclaiming our independence. (Laura Ennor)