London underground

Nearly forty years ago, an explosion of surreally subversive magazines brought sex, drugs, gay liber

The prosecuting counsel held the publication up disdainfully. "It deals with homosexuality," he told the jury. "It deals with lesbianism - on the front cover! It deals with sadism; it deals with perverted sexual practices; and, finally, it deals with drug taking. You will, having read the magazine through, ask yourself: 'Does such a magazine in fact tend to deprave and corrupt a person in whom those sort of practices are latent?'"

The date was 1971, the place the Old Bailey and the trial that of three editors. Nearly 40 years later, the media and an editor have been in the dock again over the coverage of sexual practices but the issues are as far apart as the intervening years. That earlier case, brought under the Obscene Publications Act, was the trial of the three editors of Oz - Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson - who were convicted and jailed briefly, before the Court of Appeal freed them, for producing what was seen then as a subversive, not to say perverted, magazine.

The trial judge, Justice Argyle, famously inquired of one expert witness, George Melly: "For those of us who don't have the benefit of a classical education, what do you mean by the word 'cunnilinctus'?"

Soon those days will be recaptured in a film, by the director Beeban Kidron, based on Neville's later book Hippie Hippie Shake, which was published in 1994. I have been revisiting that period for a novel set in the same year as the trial, a time when the underground press, as it was called, was at its peak. But what legacy did those publications - Oz, IT, Ink, Frendz and the rest - bequeath us?

The first and longest-lived was International Times or IT, which arrived on the scene in 1966. "Even within the wonderful museum of British subversive publishing, International Times had no logical antecedence," wrote Roger Hutchinson in his book High Sixties. "It was not a piece of scurrilous pamphleteering and it was not a Fabian tract." While Private Eye had already donned the mantle of Claud Cockburn's Thirties subversive publication The Week, IT addressed a different, stranger audience.

Hutchinson credits the litho presses of the Sixties with the making of the underground press: they circumvented hot metal and made production of a publication available to all. "Suddenly, all you needed was a typewriter and a few hundred quid," said Hutchinson. And here is the first obvious connection to today. Just as litho allowed anyone to publish, so does the internet. While much of what was published then may have been ephemeral, it allowed hundreds of would-be writers and designers who had not found their way into the mainstream press, or did not want to be there anyway, to express themselves, as the blogosphere does today.

Full-colour and full-on

Having edited IT, Hutchinson headed to Skye and the West Highland Free Press, which had also been founded in the early Seventies, although it was "alternative" rather than "underground" and, unlike all the others, continues to this day. One of its founders, Brian Wilson, who went on to become an MP and a Labour minister, realised that one way a radical weekly could survive was by making itself essential reading for the community it served, which meant covering shinty results and marriages as well as local politics. Hutch inson, whose own book, Calum's Road, is soon to be filmed, also worked for the Australian upstart that arrived in London at the end of the Sixties.

Oz was visually unlike anything we had ever seen before, although it had its critics, not least among its own editors. "The early Ozes were an uncomfortable hybrid of satire, Sunday journalism and pirated titbits from the underground," said Neville later. But it packed a punch.

When the still youthful San Francisco-based Rolling Stone made a brief and doomed attempt to launch a British edition, it stressed that it, at least, was not trying to be "underground". "Poor baby," retorted Germaine Greer in Oz. "It's awful to be misunderstood. You just want to talk about music and fucking and dope and that's all. We know you have no intention of overthrowing the Vichy government." Rolling Stone's wounded reply was a classic of the period. "Revolution is a happening thing. I hope you won't be stuck in your bag of defending the underground; like the man said, let's make it for the hell of it."

While Oz was brash, full-on and full-colour, in keeping with the days when the skies were marmalade, Ink, which was launched in 1971 and for which I wrote a few times, described itself as "The Other Newspaper". It took a more serious approach.

John Lloyd, later editor of the New Statesman and now director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, was one of Ink's editors. What legacy does he now believe those papers left us?

"I would argue that you had issues taken up, often quite intemperately, which have passed now into normal, liberal practice. There was a lot about the gay liberation movement in the United States, a lot about feminism and both have passed into liberal discourse, although they were then still way out. At their best, they were good-hearted and opened up a whole series of things.

"Frendz and IT were very druggy and the staff there were famously stoned, while Ink was more lefty in a non-denominational way. It was a vehicle for stuff that was happening much more loudly in the US and it was backing liberation movements in Latin America and Africa, which were then regarded as very outré."

Critics of the underground press at the time saw many of the publications as self-indulgent, unpolitical and misogynistic. Anna Coote was a young reporter on Ink who covered the Oz trial.

"We saw it as defying the Establishment," says Coote, who had come from the Observer. "By comparison to Ink, the Observer was seen as very stuffy. Ink was much freer. It was certainly male-dominated, no doubt about it, but the boys at Ink were very careful not to call us 'chicks' or get us to make the tea. Spare Rib and Red Rag [which were both soon to follow] were seen very much as a riposte to the male-dominated ethos."

At its peak, IT was selling 50,000 copies and its admirers found articles there about drugs, sex and music that appeared nowhere else and were unremittingly anti-Establishment. The Establishment fought back. Police raids were frequent. Apart from the Oz editors, staff at IT, Nasty Tales and the early Time Out all found themselves in court charged with offences ranging from conspiracy, via corrupting the public morals - by running gay small ads - to breaches of the Official Secrets Act.

Some musicians of the time, already distrustful of the mainstream media, would only talk openly to IT and its sister papers. The early editions are a treasure trove. "We're playing and we're pretending to be Beatles," George Harrison said in one interview with Barry Miles for IT, "like Harold Wilson's pretending to be prime minister and you're pretending to be the interview on IT."

Intellectual compost

The underground press also offered the only honest information available at the time on drugs and encouraged much of the most interesting music and theatre. There was always a tension between the organised and increasingly factional political left and the "Groucho Marxists" who worked on the underground press, although there was much overlapping, exemplified by the late David Widgery, who combined his international socialism with technicolour prose in Oz.

One of the great joys - and drawbacks, on occasion - of the old underground press was that anyone could wander in off the street, as they often did, with their manuscripts, their cartoons and their crazy ideas and stumble into the, usually, basement offices of the paper concerned. So far the internet has not quite found a way of recreating that communality, except electronically.

So what survived? In his book Underground: the London Alternative Press 1966-74, Nigel Fountain noted that the right saw the baleful effect of the "revolting students" of the Sixties in the "revolting teachers" of the Eighties. He added that "the issues raised by the underground press in all its forms, IT, Mole Express, Frendz, Grass Eye, Black Dwarf, Ink, Oz, 7 Days, even Gandalf's Garden, were never resolved. The arguments about self-activity, about the failures of reform, the limitation of conventional politics, the need to step outside an alienated system, were never refuted. History filed them for future reference."

He quoted Richard Neville's reflections on his former colleagues: "Some grew rich. Some grew wiser. Some have fallen dead as junkies. Some have suffered. But it was a period of intellectual ferment. It was a compost heap."

Now that we are in an environmentally conscious age, it is only fitting that we should value this compost.

Duncan Campbell's novel "The Paradise Trail" is published by Headline (£7.99 paperback)

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad