My sad life under the Tories

In every major political event of the last 25 years, Mark Steel has played an extremely minor role. Here, in an exclusive extract from his hilarious new memoir, the Independent columnist and dedicated troublemaker recalls the highs and lows of life as Croydon's leading teenage radical
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''Socialism is inevitable," an activist argued with me once. I suggested that this was not necessarily true as, after all, there might be a nuclear war. To which he replied, "Yes, but that would just be a setback." In his defence, it's not been an easy 25 years in which to be a socialist activist, and at times self-delusion has seemed the most logical stance to take. And yet this time has contained many reasons to be cheerful.

''Socialism is inevitable," an activist argued with me once. I suggested that this was not necessarily true as, after all, there might be a nuclear war. To which he replied, "Yes, but that would just be a setback." In his defence, it's not been an easy 25 years in which to be a socialist activist, and at times self-delusion has seemed the most logical stance to take. And yet this time has contained many reasons to be cheerful.

When I became a socialist, I had the difficulty of living in Swanley, on the border between outer London and Kent. Most people brought up in small towns complain that the tedium of their place was worse than any other. But telling someone from Swanley about the boredom of your small town is like saying to Nelson Mandela, "I've had hassle from the Old Bill myself, so I know how you feel, mate."

To make things harder still, as unemployment grew and the stability of the post-war years faded under a Labour government, the centre ground in society was moving rightwards. A minority actively supported strikes and campaigns, but the majority was hostile to them, and one trend that sprang from this clash of historical forces was the rise of the badge.

Campaigners took delight in climbing aboard trains packed with commuters oozing with respectability, sporting a bright, bold badge saying "Abortion Rights NOW!", or "Ireland - Britain's Vietnam". It became possible to locate certain badges at 60 yards through crowded shopping centres. "That woman carrying a rubber plant's wearing an anti-nuclear power badge," you'd notice. Then, as long as you were wearing a badge or two yourself, you'd give each other a friendly nod as you passed, in the way that owners of Morris Minors beep each other on country lanes.

Occasionally I have a flashback to the badge age, and see someone 60 yards away in a shopping centre wearing a bright yellow badge. Sensing a kindred spirit, I prepare for the mutual nod, and notice it says "Judo for all", or "HMV record store". I got half way through the nod once, before realising that the badge said McDonald's, and felt annoyed all day that this wanker was probably thinking, "Ah, someone else who appreciates a Chicken McNugget."

In the winter of 1978/79, however, one organisation swept the board with all badge awards; the Anti-Nazi League (ANL). In that period, there were probably more people wearing that little yellow badge than there were wearing miniskirts in 1968 or platform shoes in 1973. The ANL was formed in response to fascist candidates winning several council seats, 5.7 per cent of the vote in London, and one of their leaders, Martin Webster, becoming a national celebrity.

My first sighting of fascists in action was when a punk band called The Lurkers played at Thames Polytechnic in Woolwich. There was nothing especially political about the event, until some 50 fascists took their shirts off, revealing T-shirts displaying the British Movement logo. "Sieg Heil", they chanted and set about attacking everybody in the room. The band was attacked, and dozens of people were pummelled, left to lie in a corner screaming for help.

Stunts like this were common, and a lesson in the tactics of fascism. One argument was that the way to defeat these people was by making their arguments look stupid. But it was doubtful whether it would have made much impact, as a 16-stone skinhead rammed his fist into your eyeball, to point out that he may well be descended from a Roman.

In Dartford, a local branch of the ANL was formed, and each Saturday we'd stand by the shopping centre, handing out leaflets opposing theirs. Once, two enormous skinheads walked past wearing badges saying "Pogo on a communist". "We'll get you later," they chuckled, and nearly did, hurling their huge frames between bewildered shoppers in pursuit of us, in a US TV cop-style chase, until a friendly car screeched alongside and we jumped in, sped off, and thanked our anti-fascist stranger. For tens of thousands of people, incidents like this amounted to just another Saturday morning in 1979.

In the spring of 1979 came Dartford carnival, in the park, with dog-handling displays, pony rides, home made cakes, a RAC recruitment stall and a spinning wheel stall. We knew in advance there would be a spinning wheel stall, because a security guard from the park had seen the application forms, and tipped us off that it would be run by the National Front, under the guise of the Angling Society.

We surrounded the stall and advised people not to contribute, though our informer was inaccurate in one detail, in that the NF stall turned out to be a lucky numbers game. So we had to perform the classic task of amateur agitators, crossing out a mistake on 500 leaflets and correcting it in Biro. I bet that as the French Revolution was starting, someone was adding the letter "l" to hundreds of leaflets, muttering "I didn't know there were two 'l's in Bastille".

We implored the public not to have a go at picking any lucky numbers, as this was a fascist lucky numbers stall, and prevented them from getting any custom at all. However, the general reaction was not outrage at the fascists, but utter bewilderment. There must have been people who went home that day, believing we were a group hostile to the concept of lucky numbers stalls in general, perhaps connected to a reference to them somewhere in the Bible.

The exuberant chaos of local activities was magnified many times over by the unrelenting mania of the national demonstrations against the NF marches. After each one, a few would scream in macho angst that if everyone else wasn't such a coward, we could have been far more destructive. Which was to miss the point of the ANL. The exuberant schoolkids who distributed the badges, the tenants who formed groups to wash off the graffiti, and the security guard who risked his job by tipping off the local group about the lucky numbers stall, were the real army that defeated fascism in 1979. It should be celebrated that most people who attended the counter-demonstrations weren't hardened brawlers, and were probably secretly frightened. For it proves that thugs can be beaten by ideas.

The alternative explanation for why this fascist movement declined is that extremism is not "the British way". Does this mean fascist groups in Britain can achieve 5.7 per cent of the vote, but never 5.8 per cent because "that's not British"? Or that marching and waving flags could never catch on here, as it would interfere with afternoon tea?

One of the first things I had noticed about people on the left was their books. Everyone had books. Bookcases crammed with them, and not padded out with ashtrays from Devon. Extra shelves specially fitted and laden with books in alphabetical order. Odd ones half-read and scattered across the settee. A book by the telephone, a book on the arm of a chair, a book on the cistern.

Whenever I wandered into a fellow activist's house for the first time, I'd see the array of books, proud and categorised, lining every room, and be mightily impressed and equally baffled. You just didn't need that many books. Having 300 books was like having 50 kettles. And how would you ever read them all? It took me three months to read a book, and then three months to work up to the next one. Three hundred books would last me 150 years. These people were wasting their money.

The Thatcher years took their inevitable toll on activists, for the simple reason that no one is enthused by defeat. And this is where the remaining stalwarts were tempted by self-delusion and a touch of eccentricity. "The Round-London Jobs March is coming near you", one group declared triumphantly one week on posters and leaflets around south London. So four of us from the Croydon branch of the Socialist Workers' Party went to join it as it passed nearby. But as it approached it became apparent there were six of them.

"We'd like to join your march," we lied.

The one who seemed to be the leader pointed at the Socialist Worker banner. "You can't come on this march with that," he said. "We've got widespread trade union backing for this march, so we're not going to jeopardise it by letting you bring that banner."

"You may have widespread union backing," I said, "but I can't help noticing there are six of you."

"I'm telling you," he said, getting aggressive, and we folded the banner. So for the next half an hour, the 10 of us marched along the side of the road, while the odd bemused motorist passed a puzzled glance in our direction. How much more puzzled they'd have been if they'd known that six of them were thinking "this was all right until the other four turned up".

But top marks for mania went to a group called the RCPGB (M-L). The brilliant thing about them was that when they announced who they were, they would actually say "RCPGB - brackets - M-L". I longed to ask them whether they were a split from the RCPGB - Parentheses - M-L. Or write to their paper saying that I was a member, but as a protest against petit-bourgeois vacillations, I was leaving to form the RCPGB (*£).

Even in the darkest days of Thatcher, however, there were cheerful moments, many of which were created by old people. Much of that generation had been through the Thirties and thought that the degradation of those days would never return, and so held a special hatred for Thatcher. During a paper sale, it was common, for an old woman of about 80 to come up and say: "Kick her out? You don't want to kick her out, you want to kick her teeth in, that's what you want to do."

If you weren't careful, you could end up selling no papers all morning, as you stood vaguely nodding while a pensioner waved his umbrella snarling, "They want to smother her in jam and stick her in a nest of wasps. That'd sort her out."

By the end of the Eighties, something was stirring. Suddenly, you didn't get lectures on how Thatcher had made it possible for ordinary people to cash in on the property boom, because interest rates were rocketing, and the dreams of ordinary people who'd bought houses were being shattered.

I realised the extent of this change from the reaction I got to a joke I would tell in my stand-up act at the time, about the poll tax. The line went: "Thatcher says a lot of us will be better off under the poll tax, and to be fair, in my case it's true. Because I always used to pay the rates but I'm not paying the bloody poll tax." And people would cheer. Not laugh, but cheer.

Which was just as well, because it wasn't always easy to combine my dual roles as comic and agitator. One night I was on a settee, doing chunks of my act on Des O'Connor's television show, with Des wiping a fictitious tear from his cheek in response. I got on well with Des. I wonder what he'd have thought if I'd broken a pause in the conversation by telling him I was in favour of the state being seized by a democratic collective of workers' councils. Then backstage I bumped into a co-guest, Donny Osmond. It was expected of SWP members that they should try and sell papers to their workmates. It occurred to me that this was a bit tricky when your workmates are Des O'Connor and Donny Osmond.

In January 1990, the TUC called "15 minutes of action" to support the ambulance crews during a lunchtime. Fifteen minutes. Even then you couldn't be certain they wouldn't panic, and call it off after 11 minutes. In Croydon, we called for a demonstration in the local park. From then until the 15 minutes, I felt a breathless hole in my guts every time I thought about it. How many would be respectable? Fifty? Forty? What if there were seven of us, and the local paper? This is the gut-wrenching procedure of organising a public event. You announce it, imagining the hundreds of people bound to support it. Then two weeks away, only 11 are definitely coming. With one week to go, the figure has dropped to five. On your way, you stop to give someone a lift, but they're not coming. If the reason is they have to work, you want to beg them to bring their work with them, even if it involves driving a bus.

By the time I set off for the park, I was simply hoping to beat the 10 on that march for jobs. But a student brought everyone from his course. Hundreds of council workers came from the Town Hall. The union official from the Post Office led about 500 postal workers across the road into the park. Eventually the crowd was estimated by the local paper at 2,000. It was almost as if it was a terrible mistake. The three of us who had done most to organise it were stunned. We went to the pub and contemplated what you're supposed to do when 2,000 people turn up. And we must have looked so perplexed, that if anyone who wasn't on the demonstration had seen us, they'd have thought "oh dear, they must have got less than 10".

Through the Nineties, the free-market values of Thatcher came to be rejected by increasing numbers. But the irony was that the man in the perfect position to soak up this rejection was Tony Blair, who accepted most of what they'd done. His selling point was that, after so many defeats, he was offering so little that it might just be possible. To put it another way, the root of his success was pessimism.

The antidote to pessimism is the understanding that we do make a difference. Blair didn't scrap the poll tax - we did. New Labour didn't end apartheid - we did. Future generations will remember the miners' strike, but few will remember Michael Heseltine.

Most of those who submit to pessimism do so against their instincts. Just ask them when they were most inspired. It may have been during the miners' strike, or the CND marches, or opposing the poll tax. No one will say, "My most exhilarating moment was when I realised it was unrealistic to propose a higher tax rate for top earners."

There are signs that a new generation is beginning to create a new era of activism. The large number who once felt that excitement but have since abandoned it for the sake of "realism" should remember the passion, close their eyes and say to themselves, "Go on, spoil yourself".

This article is an edited extract from 'Reasons to be Cheerful' by Mark Steel, to be published by Scribner UK on 9 April, price £10