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    23 January 2006updated 09 Sep 2021 8:51am

    What did the squatters do for us?

    Their primal-screaming, Trotskyist, free-love solution to a 1970s housing problem has a message for

    By Nick Cohen

    BBC4 has had the good idea of running a series on the lost world of the 1970s left. It has produced films on radical feminists, who did change the world although not in the way they intended, and on disastrous attempts to create a socialist newspaper, which are always a laugh. Both are fine, but the first documentary, Property is Theft, by Vanessa Engle, is excellent. It describes how, just 30 years ago, tens of thousands of people could live independently of the state in British cities for next to nothing. That time, and that possibility, feels as remote today as Anglo-Saxon Wessex.

    The squatters’ movement began in the mid-1960s. Jim Radford, a former merchant navy seaman, led desperate families into homes abandoned either because the fascist movement in Germany had dropped bombs on them or because the modern movement in architecture had scheduled them for demolition. Radford spotted that the law protected squatters once they were in. Councils and developers could evict them, but it took a hard struggle. After the disastrous slum clearance programme of the Sixties collapsed under the weight of popular protest and its own inability to build homes on a human scale, many landlords just threw up their hands and let the squatters stay.

    By the time Engle takes up the story, in 1974, there were 30,000 squatters in London alone. She concentrates on one street, Villa Road in Brixton, just south of the Thames. Lambeth Council had planned to knock down its Victorian terraces and build yet more tower blocks, but the money had run out and so had patience with brutal high-density housing. The homes stood vacant, and so young white radicals, nearly all of them Oxbridge graduates, forced their way in.

    They were clear from the start that they would use the privilege of rent-free accommodation to organise a revolution. It is touching to hear them looking back. A working-class girl could barely understand the conversation of her social superiors. “It was all Marx, Marx, blah, blah,” she says. However, the other interviewees emphasised that they meant what they said. “‘Dialectical materialism’ and ‘historical materialism’ were phrases which tripped off the tongue,” says one. “We actually thought that we could produce a revolution and increase the power of working people,” says another.

    They joined Trotskyist groups and picket lines. An Old Etonian from Villa Road, Xander Fraser, was the first squatting officer the Transport & General Workers’ Union hired (and in all likelihood the first Old Etonian it hired as well).

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    Their belief that revolution was imminent was not quite as far-fetched as it now seems. The latest cabinet papers show an anonymous minister in the 1974 Labour government warning Harold Wilson that if “inflation accelerates further a deep constitutional crisis can no longer be treated as fanciful speculation”. The rise of the far left and right, the power cuts, the slump and a civil war in Northern Ireland pushed Sir William Armstrong, the head of the Home Civil Service, into a spectacular nervous breakdown. He was “really quite mad at the end”, one Tory minister in the 1970-74 Heath government recalled. On the fringe of one Anglo-American summit outside Oxford he spotted Armstrong “lying on the floor and talking about moving the red army from here and the blue army from there”.

    Engle does not tackle the dark side of the far left of the time. She mentions that the Workers’ Revolutionary Party hung around Villa Road, but doesn’t add that it was a cult organised to worship Gerry Healy, a paranoid schizophrenic and rapist who took Saddam Hussein’s shilling. She compensates, however, by showing that when you don’t have to worry about the mortgage, revolution is not the only game you can play.

    The personal politics of the 1968 generation were more important in the long run than their dialectical materialism. The squatters saw the nuclear family as an instrument of oppression and in theory believed in free love, although it turned out that the price in Brixton was higher than predicted. Thirty years on, women still talk with bitterness about rivals who stole their boyfriends – and didn’t do their share of the communal cooking.

    Pete Cooper, now a folk singer, recalled that boy could not just meet girl and get on with it. Boy and girl first had to explain themselves to the commune. “It was agonising. You had to explore the feelings you had and the emotional and sexual pressures on you with the group before you did the deed.” His long face and weary voice make virginity sound a welcome alternative.

    The new therapies also found a home in Villa Road. Against the tyrannical theories of Marxist-Leninism were pitted the equally insane theories of Arthur Janov, who believed you could recover buried memories of your time as a foetus by taking off your clothes and shrieking at the top of your voice.

    For the therapists, personal liberation was more important than political revolution. The best-looking women were in the primal screamers’ commune and they had artful ways of diverting comrades from the task of overthrowing capitalism. Anne Janowitz, now professor of Romantic poetry at Queen Mary, University of London, alleges that “the primal screamers sent vixens out on to the street to seduce the handsome boys on the left and got them to scream rather than agitate”.

    How disgraceful, but you cannot deny that the ideas about therapy and personal liberation which took hold in obscure corners of rent-free radical London are now everywhere. I have no time for them, but perhaps I am prejudiced. Plenty of people seem to find the therapies a help. In any case, not only Trots and screaming vixens benefited from cheap housing.

    In 2001 Martin Amis published The War Against Cliche, a collection of his literary journalism. In the introduction he says he can barely recognise the younger self who produced the first pieces in the early 1970s. Literary criticism dominated his life then. Getting an argument right for the Times Literary Supplement meant everything. His friend Clive James said, “While literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to civilisation”, and Amis and his circle agreed. “I read it all the time, in the tub, on the Tube; I always had about me my Edmund Wilson – or my William Empson. I took it seriously. We all did. We hung around the place talking about literary criticism. We sat in pubs and coffee bars talking about W K Wimsatt and G Wilson Knight, and Richard Hoggart and Northrop Frye . . .”

    This world collapsed in 1973. Criticism became the province of obscurantist academics without the talent or inclination to address the public that was paying their wages. From then on, no one trying to make a living as a critic could manage without a private income or a day job. The meagre fees from the books editors could not cover the cost of living. Amis concluded that a four-letter word killed literary London: Opec.

    “In the 1960s you could live on ten shillings a week: you slept on people’s floors and sponged off your friends and sang for your supper – about literary criticism. Then, abruptly, breakfast alone cost ten shillings. The oil hike, inflation and stagflation revealed literary criticism as one of those leisure-class fripperies we would have to get along without.”

    Just so. Without cheap shelter, all kinds of ways of living become luxuries. A report in 2004 for Gordon Brown and John Prescott, by Kate Barker of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, gave a statistical founda-tion to Amis’s lament. Since 1974, the real prices of British houses had increased at a little over twice the rate of the European average. Periodic property market crashes had not slowed the trend, as each fall stopped on a plateau higher than its predecessor. In 2002, 100,000 people were living in temporary accommodation and only 37 per cent of new households could afford to buy, down from 46 per cent in the late 1980s.

    Millions are suffering as a result. The Treasury naturally worries about the unemployed who can’t afford to pay the rents in the towns and cities where there are job vacancies. But the consequences go way beyond the economics of labour mobility. A great welter of misery and frustration lies behind Barker’s figures. Grown-up children are forced to live with their parents; women are forced to put off pregnancy until they can afford the space for children they may be too old to carry; gifted people abandon their ambitions and take a second-best career to get a roof over their heads.

    In a dismal echo of the 1960s, Lord (Richard) Rogers, who happens to live in the spacious splendour of two Georgian houses knocked into one in Chelsea, wants high-density and often high-rise housing built across London. There may be a species that can happily raise families in His Lordship’s hutches, but the human race isn’t it.

    The only way out is to build in the countryside. I can’t see the problem with that when so much of Britain’s land is controlled by agribusinesses that have left barely a hedgerow or tree standing. If we were to build homes for humans with gardens of their own, we would not only make people happier but also get more bio-diversity as they replant the trees and shrubs that modern agriculture destroyed.

    Barker said Britain needed 120,000 more houses a year to reduce property inflation to the European average – not to lower the astronomical level of house prices, notice, merely to slow down further rises. And the privileged who lived in the country or profited from inflated property values in town could see problems aplenty with that.

    Benighted pundits greeted her findings with primal screams. Sir Simon Jenkins said Barker’s “statistics on Britain’s so-called housing ‘shortage’ are among the most mendacious that department [the Treasury] has ever published”. A brass-necked Sir Max Hastings posed for the Sunday Times lolling against the gates of his country estate while asking: “Do we not owe it to our descendants to check our obsession with house ownership before it devastates what is left of rural England?” (To which the only sensible answer was, it depends whose children you are talking about, Sir Max.)

    The mania reached its peak when the Daily Telegraph whipped up a perfect storm for Tories. The native British didn’t need new homes because our birth rate is “precipitately low”, it said. The government was destroying the green belt not for our sake, but for the sake of immigrants who were taking our jobs and wrecking our countryside. At no point did the Telegraph ask itself why the birth rate in Britain is so low.

    Not everyone of the right is so lacking in intellectual curiosity. You could tell something was moving in British Conservatism some time before the election of David Cameron, when Tories started producing interesting books for the first time in 15 years. The best was Mind the Gap, by Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser Ferdinand Mount (a proper baronet, rather than some arriviste from the yellow press). He proposed giving the public control of assets, and the most important asset to give away was land. “Land ownership in Britain is more concentrated than in any other major country I can think of,” he wrote. The great estates still flourish while “the small holdings which are such a feature of life on the Continent are the exception rather than the rule”.

    Bizarrely, it was the Attlee government’s Town and Country Planning Act 1947 which kept prices so high that only the big developers could afford to enter the market. Mount proposed relaxing the planning laws so that agricultural land could be used for housing. Land should be sold in plots to families that wanted to build their own homes, he said, rather than to large construction companies. The British landscape he imagined resulting would be cluttered, but eccentric and individual. This is not too far away from the dream the squatters of Villa Road had about increasing the power of ordinary people.

    Whether they would embrace Mount as a comrade is another matter, as most have ended up as deep greens. But they ought to retain enough knowledge of dialectics to recognise that ideas can metamorphose into their opposite. When socialist legislation from the 1940s protects the interests of Sir Max Hastings and his kind, it should not be too great a leap to accept that Brown, Prescott, Barker and Mount have a case and it is time to let the bulldozers roll.

    Lefties begins on Wednesday 8 February at 9pm on BBC4

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