Kim Howells remembers passion at the barricades as Britain's anti- war movement took on America
Friday 28 April 1995
The Vietnam war seemed to epitomise all that was rotten and exploitative in the way the industrialised west viewed the Third World. And there was something else, of course. We had fixed in our imagination the images of thousands of Vietnamese Che Guevaras, lightly armed, challenging the might of the world's greatest war machine, and winning.
They were our heroes. Night after night, through tedious meetings of organising committees, we were sustained by garishly printed Chinese posters of defiant peasants wearing straw hats, Kalashnikovs in their hands, glancing up at shadowy B52s carpeting the jungle with imperialist bombs. I find it hard to recall how we resisted giving ourselves the title of Viet Cong, Crouch End Hill Detachment. Needless to say there were those who saw themselves as north London's Ho Chi Minh and I knew at least half a dozen Trotskyist putative field marshals, all of whom tried to carve out their own little sectarian empires in the anti-war movement.
The anti-war movement ex-posed to my startled eyes an unimagined world of sectarian politics. We were easy meat in those early days for the Gerry Healys and Tariq Alis who were veterans when it came to the tactic of hitching the fortunes of tiny, self-proclaimed revolutionary outfits to the coat-tails of mass protest movements. They came equipped with a new language, an organisation and a political agenda. The enemy was the Labour Party, the Communist Party and, most of all, any other Trotskyist guru who looked like pinching disciples off them. They introduced a little discipline and a torrent of sourness into the anti-war movement.
I don't recall tasting it, however, on the streets. Sectarianism evaporated when we caught sight of the seas of flags, banners and faces which would form at the starting points of the marches. Looking back, I can still taste that beautiful cocktail of anti-war fervour, extraordinary optimism, the conviction that what we were doing would have a material influence on the slaughter in Vietnam and, most of all, a glorious whiff of solidarity with a generation which believed it had burst the shackles of conformity and convention.
Each demonstration was an adventure and I can recall, in acute detail, the tableaus that confronted us as we came up against the police lines. The Aldwych, for example, one dark evening: a line of police officers kneeling, each officer with one knee touching the road, truncheons drawn, in front of a line of colleagues standing, similarly armed, in perfect formation, backed by a fearsome line of chestnut-coated police horses mounted by helmeted riders. There were nutters among our ranks (inevitably Maoists) who argued for an immediate full-frontal assault but, like most of my companions, I stood there, shocked at first at this extraordinary display of police strength, and then I started laughing. Laughing to think that a bunch of ragged-arsed students planning in dingy bedsits, could force the state to take these desperate measures to contain us.
It was those anarchic instincts which the anti-war movement liberated in me and I shall always be profoundly grateful for the experience. No amount of sermonising by radical toffs, creepy self-proclaimed revolutionaries or crusading actors put us off our great project. We were in love with life, and even now I cannot catch sight of a number 41 bus without thinking, "Yeah! That's how we used to get down to town from Hornsey. That's how we helped stop the Vietnam war," and I start laughing.
Kim Howells (Hornsey College of Art 1965-69) is the Labour MP for Pontypridd.
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