Old radicals may lament the political apathy of Thatcher's children, but George McKay finds that there are plenty of ingenious subversives out there. Studying them, however, has its own problems
The snot-green contumacy of punk blew me away in 1977. As a 16-year-old growing up in Norwich I really believed in punk's liberatory possibilities,and the anarcho-punk scene of the early 1980s helped frame my politics further. By 1981 I was a student at Hull College of Higher Education, reading English, involved in the anarchist movement and taking part in those ritual early 1980s marches. I marched against racism, the bomb, unemployment and the Falklands war; I marched for Troops Out of Ireland and, later, the miners. These were the punctuating moments in what, with hindsight, was a maelstrom of traditional activism that revolved around weekly group meetings and the Roneo duplicator.
At the time I wondered whether we were the last in that lineage of student activists whose touchstone was May 1968 (though I was just seven in that rebellious year). Everyone in our world was some sort of socialist,all the way from the broad left to the anarchist, so you were never short of the opportunity for a good argument.
Through the 1980s I began to shift away from organised political activism and started to embrace what would later become called lifestyle politics ("the replacement of engagement by narcissism", as one ex-friend put it to me contemptuously). Lifestyle politics is the concentration of political activity on issues of personal identity, whatever matters to you - whether it be living in a squat, organising underground events, or being at a protest camp.
A turning point for me was 1984. In that year I saw punks and hippies merge in a vibrant, neo-tribal celebration of the summer solstice at the last Stonehenge Free Festival, (the last because in 1985 the police stopped would-be revellers on the road and trashed their convoys in the "Battle of the Beanfield"). Following a long hitch-hike from the North, passing endless convoys of police vehicles looking for miners and flying pickets to sweep up, I first glimpsed the stones, dwarfed by a shimmering megalopolis of marquees, trucks, tepees and columns of wood smoke. The scale of the event shocked me.
In some ways, people of my generation passionately wanted to believe in the myth that our successors, those children who had known no government other than Thatcher's, were children without politics, the "me" generation.It was a mythology that made our own political activism more important, it made us seem so heroically terminal. And yet, party and protest, the combination of lifestyle and resistance politics, if you like, seems stronger now than ever. Moving in 1992 to a job as lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, I realised that there it was, down the road from me, that in fact it had been there all along.
In East Lancashire in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new kind of underground culture was springing up, one located in those ubiquitous northern icons of redundancy, disused factories, but with its links to the older protest movements of the 1960s. Weekly a small group would break into one of Blackburn's disused factories, set up their equipment, pass the word round and prepare to rave the weekend away. Here, just as in the hippy movement of the 1960s, was a subculture around a politics of pleasure. And as if to prove that connection of subculture with protest the biggest campaign against road-building to date took place in East Lancashire in 1994-95. Aimed at halting the building of a link road between Blackburn and Preston off the M65, protesters built villages in trees with precarious aerial walkways and in countless other ways sought to save the lovely Lancashire countryside.
It did not work - I drove past the link road the other day - but it serves as an illustration of the different kind of politics of today's youngsters. While we were great at sitting around talking problems through,today's activists altogether prefer doing things. In fact, few talk of "demonstrations" any more, but of "actions" and "blockades". These are the "green children of Thatcher", as some have knowingly called themselves, and their activism has a new name - DiY culture. As one activist explains, "ingenuity and imagination are the key ingredients". Free parties, squat culture, the traveller movement - all are evidence of groups of disenfranchised people doing things for themselves. As Merrick puts it, in his book about the Newbury bypass protest, Battle for the Trees, "we're not fighting one thing we don't like; we have a whole vision of how good life could and should be, and we're fighting anything that blocks it. This is not a campaign, or even a movement, it's a whole culture."
Coming from an older generation and, worse, being seen as an ex-activist, I could only do wrong as I embarked on academic research into DiY culture. In DiY publications like Green Anarchist and Earth First!'s Do or Die, my book about post-1960s counterculture, the first really to deal with road protest, received only bad reviews. The accusations were that I was packaging rebellion as a glossy product, or that I was misrepresenting it. One review first accused me of not checking my facts and then criticised me for not including everything said to me by a group of activists I had phoned to check some facts.
The unarticulated accusation in these reviews was that I was somehow stealing their story, and even history. The former I could understand: after all, DiY culture is premised on the ownership of its actions and spaces by the people involved in it. The latter I resented: there was no recognition that, actually, maybe people like me were their history. My own research continues to uncover historical correspondences only ten or 20 years apart. The Squatters' Estate Agency set up in 1996 by those tireless DiY-ers at Justice?, an organisation set up to contest Michael Howard's 1994 Criminal Justice Act which outlawed so many DiY pastimes, captured the media's imagination with its subversive cheek. The idea was that you could collect details of "desirable residences" to squat in your area, including number of bedrooms, size of garden, and so on. No one, though, seemed to remember the remarkably similar Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Squatters' Estate Agency which, yes, had captured the media's attention with its subversive cheek - in London in 1974.
Of course there are difficulties writing about a subject both so contemporary and so dispersed. My research strategies are those of the journalist: phone, fax, email. (Unlike many of their technophobic 1960s counterparts, 1990s activists are surprisingly online.) To contact those activists who live in the deep countryside, a more sedate chain of communication opens up: a letter c/o address, to be picked up whenever... by someone passing through. On more than one occasion this has meant wandering the countryside looking for the tell-tale plumes of smoke from wooded glades to find a particular group of "organic nomads".
But despite these difficulties more and more academics are turning to this new subject of study. There is now an annual conference on Alternative Futures and Popular Protest at Manchester Metropolitan University, a new MA in politics of change at the University of East London, as well as frequent conferences on green issues and on dance culture.
Last year, incredibly, much of the talk was that DiY politics would fade with the election of new Labour. Ironically, what we have seen instead is the continuing rise of extra-parliamentary activity, if in unforeseen forms. These range from the recent multi-issue Countryside March in London to the more bizarre: landowners rather than land rights activists, hunters rather than hunt saboteurs, threatening the kinds of direct action they have previously witnessed being so effectively used against themselves. It remains to be seen how DiY culture will respond to the appropriation of its favoured tactics. But this development is further evidence of what I have always thought: that political culture outside Parliament is so much more interesting.
George McKay teaches cultural studies at the University of Central Lancashire. His book, DiY Culture: Party and Protest in 1990s Britain, will be published by Verso in June.