Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Threat to Archives and Records

The next few years will see the collapse of many charities and non-charitable community and voluntary groups working at local, regional and national level. If these organisations do not have a policy re-their archives and records and a rolling programme of deposit, their histories could be lost.

The greatest threat is to those organisations that suddenly find themselves having to go into liquidation. The liquidator's interest is simply to shut the office room/building, order the staff to leave and take financial records. As the latter are usually are computerised the hard drives are taken away. Everything else is left lock-up on the premises. This leaves the landlord with the task of having to clear everything, which usually has no saleable value, so that s/he can try and find new occupants as quickly as possible.

Organisations which do not have staff and are run by volunteers, who keep records and pass them through haphazardly from one set of officers to another, pose archive/record deposit challenges akin to those which the Society for the Study of Labour History has tried to address over the years. The usual advice is to deposit locally with the local authority archive service.

The scale of the cuts now required by the ConDem Government mean that many of these will be under threat.

A third category will be libraries and archives held in historic educational institutions which suddenly face closure, some because of public funding cuts, and others for other reasons, as is the case with Ushaw College, the Roman Catholic Seminary in County Durham.

What can the British Record Association and other bodies do to encourage organisations to take seriously the future of their archives and records?

A presentation on record and archive management systems for charities given at the British Record Association Annual Conference on 7 December was applicable to very large national organisations but not relevant to the majority of small organisations which dominate the charity/community/voluntary sector.

A strategy is needed which addresses:
  • alerting organisations of the importance of having an archival/record policy and a programme of deposit before they face a crisis
  • how organisations suddenly faced by a crisis can be given emergency assistance to ensure their archives/records are not thrown away
  • identifying facilities which could become emergency depositories for archives and records until permanent homes can be found for them

An action plan to implement such a strategy could include the following:

  • providing guidance that could be circulated through organisations such as National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, regional equivalents such as London Voluntary Action Council (LVAC), and local authority based Councils of Social Service and Voluntary Action Councils.
  • providing guidance to national organisations which have branches around the country.
  • persuading the editors of History Today and BBC History to include an article on the subject.
  • discussing with the archive repository world which organisations may have expansion facilities to be emergency repositories e.g. in London Bishopsgate Institute Archive; nationally Black Cultural Archives for Black organisations collections.
  • a national web based network to enable people to alert each other to emergency situations, and to the start by local authorities of libraries and heritage service cuts consultations

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Policing and Disorder

It is interesting to see how events move on faster than one can predict. In early November I drafted a blog in which I wrote:

'In the coming years the way demonstrations are policed, and the individual actions of police officers, which notoriously spark conflict will only stoke a wider tinder box. Policing cuts will lead to increased stress for officers and inappropriate behaviour by them, and that is likely to provide some of the sparks. Tinder boxes may well also build up in the officially recognised socially deprived areas, as these are likely to take the brunt of the ConDem cuts in benefits and increased lack of jobs.'

Having got caught up with doing other things I put the draft on one side. It now seems timely to post this up-date, in the light of ACPO President Sir Hugh Orde's statement that it is crucial that police do not appear to be "an arm of the state" who are being used to allow the government to "impose cuts".

The reason I had drfted the blog was that on Monday 25 October I was a member of a panel discussing the Uprisings of the 1980s organised by the British Library. I was on the panel because in 1981 I worked for Solon Housing Association which had properties in Brixton, and between 1984 and 1989 I worked for the Community/Police Consultative Group for Lambeth (CPCGL) in the area, during which time there were further street clashes with the police.

In 1981 Brixton was a tinder box because of the way the police treated young blacks in their bid to combat street crime. They resorted to saturation policing, operationally called Swamp 81, and the indiscriminate use of arrest on suspicion 'sus' and stop and search. The tinder box included a anger about the lack of police response to the Deptford Fire, racist marches, and the acquittals of alleged rioters in St Paul's, Bristol. The spark was provided by a misunderstanding about the police assisting a young black man who had been stabbed.

The tinder box also included the history of conflict between the Council and squatters in which the former had used the police as its para-military force. e.g. in St Agnes Place in 1977. Squatting had arisen because of the Council's large scale redevelopment programme leaving hundreds of houses empty. Solon had campaigned against this policy. It had also supported squatters to become short-life licensees and then co-operatives. Many squatters joined in the fighting against the police.

Afterwards Solon's workers decided to support the Brixton Defence Committee and boycott giving evidence to the Government set up enquiry led by Lord Scarman.

Brixton of course was just one area where the tinder box exploded. The reason why some areas which may also have been tinder boxes did not explode is probably due to the absence of a spark.

The Uprisings of the 1980s should not be seen as something alien to the British experience. They must be seen within the context of historic social unrest, going back as least as far as the Peasants Revolt in 1381.

The situation led Thatcher's Government to reform policing through the Police & Criminal Evidence Bill. Leading for the Government Douglas Hurd was open to listening. He took on board many of the ideas of the CPGGL which I had started working for in January 1984. An impasse was reached in the Commons between the Government and the Opposition over how to put safeguards in on the use of stop and search powers. After consulting the Group Labour's Alf Dubs proposed a Code of Practice. Hurd honoured his pledge to provide for one during the House of Lords stage of the Bill. Hurd was supported by sympathetic Home Office civil servants. A different Minister and set of civil servants may have led to very different and more negative outcomes.

The Consultative Group and the linked Panel of Lay Visitors to Police Stations were never going to be panaceas to the problems of policing. They became important components in seeking to influence the process and make the police more accountable.

The street fighting backlash following the shooting of Mrs Cherry Groce in 1985 during an early morning operation to try and arrest her son alleged by an out of London police force to be at her home, showed how fragile the situation was. The street fighting began later in the day outside Brixton Police Station, when some people at the back hurled petrol bombs over the heads of the demonstrators, in response to which the police rushed out in riot gear.

The senior officer in charge of the Borough that weekend failed to alert the Group that Mrs Groce had been shot. The Group therefore had no chance to try and ensure that protest remained peaceful. The officer consistently was to demonstrate his opposition to the Group and the Panel despite their being official Met Police policy to support them.

Ten years ago about 70% of the BME population lived in the then designated socially deprived areas. In 1995 commemorating the role of his fellow members in the Second World War, Rene Webb, the then President of the West Indian Ex-Servicemen and Ex-Servicewomen's Association said: 'A society that cannot look after its own poor, cannot be expected to look after its black poor.'

Since the early 1980s there have been dramatic changes in the composition of poor communities, in ethnicities, and the growth of individualism. Perhaps the Thatcher agenda of 'there is no such thing as society' and the breaking of community solidarity will mean that the location and nature of future explosions will be unpredictably different from those like 1980s Brixton.

Cuts, Big Society & Decentralisation/Localism Equals The Big Bang

Combined with the massive cuts in public spending, the ConDem Government's Big Society initiative and its linked measures in the Decentralisation and Localism Bill will be like the Big Bang: destruction and chaos with no idea of what will emerge.

There will be five main response groups:

  • Monetarist extremists who believe the Government is not doing enough, like Rupert Murdoch.
  • Ostriches burying their heads in the sand believing that the Government is right because of the economic situation.
  • Outright oppositionists whose only weapons are anti-cuts campaigning, increased protest, and civil disobedience.
  • Engagers who argue that anti-cuts campaigning will have no effect and will try and salvage and build from the chaos.
Lastly, there are those, and I count myself among them, who are arguing that a multiple strategy including opposition and engagement is needed, to focus on the contradictions in the ConDem programme. Detailed arguments about this are discussed in my History & Social Action News 30 and the first issue of my Wandsworth Back To The Future newsletter, both available on request by email.

As one of those who has been working to build the Big Society over the last forty years, I recognise that it cannot be done without state money. In the 19thC the working and middle classes built an impressively large infrastructure of organisations covering life and medical insurance, unemployment support, medical services, housing and land development, retailing and production, farming, education and learning, and culture through mutual aid fundraising, supported by the philantrophy of the better off. Despite its ups and downs and inadequacies the Co-op movement is heir to this tradition, as is Nationwide Building Society and even the National Trust.

But the activists knew that all this effort could only alleviate, not solve the social and economic problems of the time. They campaigned for state provision because it was only through legislative intervention and funding that services to each down into society like education for all, better housing, planning control, etc. The municipal socialist agenda that emerged out of Battersea in the period of the New Unionist explosion remained central within the labour movement until its dismantling under Thatcher.

So the Big Society initiative is fine in principle but without funding to support it it is a fig leaf, a deceit, a con trick, it is the Emperor's New Clothes. But in order to convince a large section of the public that what the ConDem Government is doing is fundamentally wrong, and to try and salvage something, requires us creative engagement with the agenda, and to see how the powers in the Decentralisation and Localism Bill can be reshaped to be valuable tools in the arguments in every local authority about how to minimise the destruction. The Bill opens up new arenas for lobbying and campaigning.

What the Tories need to understand is that they cannot control the consequences of their actions. While they will have expected a reaction form students, they clearly did not realise that this would re-energise the generation which cut its teeth in political action in the late 1960s/early 70s. Nor did they realise that their policy to withdraw EMA would radicalise a growing number of secondary school children. Future historians may well see that a key motivating factor in the student protest was the the background MPs expenses scandal. This helped many turn to the Lib Dems because they seemed to be more honest, but now see that they are just as prepared to betray them as they thought the other two Parties were.

When the police charged the Trafalgar free speech/right of assembly demonstrators in November 1887, who would have thought that the Police Commissioner of the day would have to resign, and that legislation would have to be passed to give the right of assembly in the Square? Who would have thought that the new emerging protest movement of that Bloody Sunday affair would have helped the Match-Girls to win their strike and spark alight the New Unionist explosion from 1889-92? And who would have thought that one of those who they imprisoned for his role at Trafalgar Square would be a major leader in that explosion and an MP from 1892.

The Liberals should ponder on their history. It was they who brought that man, John Burns, into their Cabinet. And while their Government that brought in old age pensions, national insurance, labour exchanges and town and country planning, it also ruled through a long prolonged period of civil unrest and protest: the suffragettes and the Great Unrest of the labour movement, and the Unionist threat of armed revolt in Ulster. They then made the great mistake after the First World War of allying with the Tories, leading in the turmoil of mass unemployment and protest to their collapse as a major political force.

A poem that made a big impression on me at school was Yeat's The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

That is what the ConDem's are unleashing. The problem is that Yeat's beast slouching towards Bethlehem might not be a resurgence of Labour or a new mass Socialist Party, but a new fascism.