Belarus’ young photographers are capturing a country in flux: rewriting the narrative
Originally published in HUCK: https://www.huckmag.com/perspectives/reportage-2/belarus-protests-young-photographers-capturing-a-country-in-flux/
As protests continue to erupt across the country, a new generation of self-taught photographers find themselves at the forefront of direct action, documenting demonstrations in real time.
A sea of people fill the streets in the European sunlight. There are flags, banners, chants and songs. They dominate the wide boulevards, walking past grand facades, monumental architecture and litters of history. A couple of confident young men climb a statue of Lenin and hang a flag around the concrete body.
This is Minsk, the capital of Belarus. To those accustomed to the imagery that best defines protests, this kind of scene probably sounds familiar. But to those in Belarus, the landlocked Eastern European state with a population of just under nine and a half million, this is uncharted territory.
For the past two and a half decades, Belarus has existed in a way that did not fall on the radar of many outside of the region. This all changed when Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ strongman president since the establishment of the office in 1994, secured a sixth re-election on 9 August of this year. He cruised through with an apparent 80 per cent of the vote, marking his 26th year in power. Immediate uproar followed, with widespread accusations of voter repression and ballot burning.
The fraudulence of the election was not unexpected. Indeed, each of Lukashenko’s re-elections have been defined by censorship, raids, police brutality, stifling of dissent and arrests of opposition figures. What was unprecedented, though, was the reaction on the streets – leagues of marches, protests and rallies in direct opposition to the president.
Though many taking part in the protests are supportive of the main opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran in her husband’s absence after his arrest for participating in an anti-government rally, it contains a mix of people uniting against the regime after two decades of built-up hostility. People are fed up of corruption and intimidation. 9 August was a breaking point.
But amid the current turmoil, a new generation has been exploring creative ways to call for change. In recent weeks, photography has found itself at the forefront of direct action, as young Belarusians take to the streets, cameras in hand, to communicate their feelings and record demonstrations in real time.
“There are so many other outstanding photographers shooting our streets these days!”, says Alyona Savitskaya, 22, a keen photographer herself.
“Once you realise [to look] for it, you start noticing people with soap dishes on the streets,” adds Vasily Sakharchuk, another young photographer – soap dishes being an affectionate name for compact cameras based on the mutual resemblance.
There is a small but growing culture around film photography in Belarus, which was recently bolstered by a surge of new film development labs, the formation of youthful photo collectives and, in Minsk especially, a host of new exhibitions introducing the medium to a larger audience. Its newfound popularity, when paired with the limitations of independent media in Belarus, has seen a wave of amateur photographers use it to document the drastic changes occurring in the country themselves.
“So many creative people take to the streets. They are all very different, but each with a great sense of humour,” explains 27-year-old photographer Alesia Skidan. “Many see a great sense in documenting everything that happens – [they] ask serious questions, mock the absurd and support others.”
The 2020 election was odd even by Belarusian standards. It was a “dramatically short” and chaotic campaign, with the ruling regime making “numerous mistakes” according to Maria Shkumayeva, who, at just 23 years old, manages a development lab in Minsk. This, alongside the abrasive conduct of Lukashenko throughout the election, had a particularly politicising effect.
“Belarusians were politically indifferent before this campaign,” says Maria. “But during the pandemic, people realised that self-organisation principles could be applied to the political sphere of life.”
This helps illustrate why this election, despite the predictable outcome of a Lukashenko win, feels different for Belarusians. Amid the chaos of a global health crisis, the stakes feel higher. Increased levels of participation and political awareness have become an urgent task and photography has quickly revealed itself as a universally accessible way for people to begin doing that.
Instagram has been at the forefront of this. A video of an elderly woman moving past an intimidating riot policeman, stating “I’m Walking” to crowd applause, recently went viral: her phrase – #ягуляю – quickly become a popular hashtag as a show of solidarity. Moments like these are becoming increasingly rife in digital spaces.
While it could be argued that higher levels of social media activism lead to less of an onus on direct action, the increase in photography as a tool of protesting Lukashenko’s Belarus contributes to the strength of feeling on the ground, getting the message out there to an even wider demographic. It lies in stark contrast to the lack of direct political participation in previous years.
“It is always scary in our country not only to attend protests as a protester, but also as a photographer or even officially accredited media representative,” says Alyona. “These days protests seem safer…but you never know what to expect from our government, whoever you are.”
The enduring image of the protests has been the national red and white flag of Belarus, a historical symbol for sovereignty which has taken on the meaning of opposition to – and liberation from – what Maria refers to as Lukashenko’s “bloody regime”. The powerful simplicity of the symbol has been a constant through protest photography: the sea of red and white has created a uniform aesthetic. Flowers, other historical flags and symbols such as the traditional Belarusian coat of arms flourish alongside the more expected scenes of signs and banners.
“A white ribbon on the wrist indicates a desire for peaceful change, freedom and truth,” explains Alesia, “Creativity is very important during the protests – without it, this would all be harder.”
“I’m trying to create a frame that will represent the whole situation. Then there [will be] a lot of awareness,” Vasily adds. “You see how families, different subcultures, or ordinary people take to the streets, and then you realise that everyone understands the situation.”
Documenting the peacefulness of the protests is of key importance for those like Vasily, as it helps depict the unnecessary brutality of the crackdown. Representing different communities as united is also vital to countering the state narrative about protestors. In this sense, Vasily views his photos as his activism. “I promote [them] to the masses. And I make it clear that I am the same as everyone else at peaceful actions.”
Protesting on this scale in an authoritarian state can, of course, quickly turn dangerous. As the country’s main opposition leader, Tsikhanouskaya was forced to flee Belarus weeks ago ‘for the sake of her children’. Taking photos of police and government authorities poses comes with obvious risks, but this only makes the masses of people taking part all the more remarkable. A testimony from Minsk resident Anton Efremov, 33, who was detained for participating in a peaceful protest, is harrowing but necessary to understand the whole picture.
Detentions started in the run-up to the election campaign, outnumbering previous instances of police brutality during elections. Any interaction with OMON (Special Purpose Police Unit), the militia detachment often used as riot police, can lead to beatings. “Active but peaceful protestors, those who run, clap or shout mottos, are shot with rubber bullets,” Anton says. “This is done in order to choke up any form of resistance.” Other photographers have confirmed, and tried to document, the use of tear gas, water cannons and flash grenades on protestors.
But what overshadows police conduct at rallies is what occurs at the detainment facility if protestors are actually arrested.
“All the detainees, except those [who are] underage and journalists, are packed into cells of 25 square metres – I have seen cells with approximately 120 people in them,” says Anton, who describes the conditions as squalid (“no water, no toilet, no food,”), in which the minimum detainment period is 24 hours. He also states that he has witnessed some inmates losing consciousness, while others were seen not breathing. “Unfortunately, we do not know about the fate of those people.”
Anton’s testimony, which is one of many, signifies how these protests can be a case of life or death. Recent reports that Maria Kolesnikova, a key ally of Tsikhanouskaya and one of the few opposition leaders still in the country, has been detained at the Ukrainian border, just a day after witnesses claimed to have seen her ‘snatched from the street’ by masked men, are especially concerning. But young photographers are helping lead the charge by making sure the narrative of the people is not lost, demonstrating how the struggle involves all aspects of society. It feels like Belarus is on the cusp of forging a new path as a nation – but it is not going to be easy.
“The most drastic change [in the country] is happening right now,” says Arseniy Savin, 25, one of Maria’s colleagues at the development lab. “We are hoping [for] the most peaceful scenario – but we need to be prepared to have more victims.”
Originally published with Screen Shot: https://screenshot-media.com/politics/global-politics/statues-uk-racism/
Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with its colonial past, and by virtue of that, with the concepts of racism and state violence. In the debate about whether taking down statues of known slave owners harms our understanding of history, Boris Johnson strongly signalled which side of the culture war he backs by defiantly stating “We can’t photoshop our history.” This speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that statues play in society, but also to the way the British state has historically ‘photoshopped’ its own brutal colonial legacy.
Statues have not generally been erected to educate the populace about the people they commemorate; rather, they serve as a tribute to them. As historian David Olusoga put it, statues often deal with “adoration” as opposed to education. Statues in the UK of British figures from the colonial period make little reference to the treatment or fate of native populations around the world. They are also often erected long after the era in which events took place, and so the ‘historic value’ of these statues is not even reflective of the figure’s own time period; if anything, they tell us more about the society which chose to put them up.
Monuments that do not reference the brutality of empire or the individuals’ role in colonialism are not reflecting real history, and their erection is more of an effort to erase history and enforce a myth of British benevolence. Tearing down statues is not in fact an ahistorical act, but an attempt to correct the record.
This brings us to the state censoring its own history. The aptly named Operation Legacy was a British governmental programme which spanned the period of decolonisation from the 1950s to the 1970s. As more and more countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean pushed for independence, the Colonial Office (now known as the Foreign Office) found it necessary to obscure and hide what the British had actually done while they wielded power in these countries. The authorities in London instructed British officials in the colonies to destroy any documents which “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government”, such as documents that displayed racist behaviour or details of the violence often inflicted on different colonies.
It is estimated that over 8,000 documents were burned or dumped in the ocean to prevent residents of Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia, Singapore, Belize and other countries from seeing the conduct of their colonial rulers. This destruction of official documents had strict instructions to be carried out covertly, to avoid repeating the scandal that British officials endured when they were caught burning documents during India’s independence in 1947.
Declassified files have since revealed the scale of Operation Legacy, which covered up British-led torture of locals, as well as the scale of massacres and detention camps run by British authorities during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
The British state has already ‘photoshopped’ its legacy for decades, and was quite clear in what it was doing at the time. Naming the whole process Operation Legacy reveals the state’s interests in preserving a paternalistic, wholly positive understanding of the British Empire achieved by quite literally destroying its racist and problematic aspects. This erasure of history has been reinforced by a lack of education about the British Empire in schools.
The instructions given to local officers during Operation Legacy are also revelatory, as they explicitly forbade African involvement; only “British subject[s] of European descent” could participate. Therein lies the facade of the entire narrative of the Empire, the lie that it was beneficial to the people it controlled, that it was empowering to locals and a collaborative decision. Legacy has ironically shown us where the real betrayal of history occurred in our past and, indeed, into our present.
When Johnson talks of the dangers of retroactively altering British history, he only means it in ways that damage the created image of Britain as a noble do-gooder in an uncivilised world. He does not concern himself with actions that the British state has historically pursued which fundamentally reveal the reality of the British Empire: subjugation of local populations, exploitation of natural resources, rule by terror and intimidation, and brutal suppression of any challenge to total British control of these regions.
When Britain finally confronts its ugly legacy, the statues of slave owners and unabashed racists—which do not commemorate history but rather stand as political statements that deliberately counter reality—will fall. In its place will not be a photoshop, but something more tangible: an acknowledgement of the world we live in and how we can change it, starting with the truth.
Fetishising London 2012: Coalition-Era Unity in the Popular Liberal Imagination
Originally self-published in Medium: https://medium.com/@tommyleehodgson/fetishising-london-2012-coalition-era-unity-in-the-popular-liberal-imagination-5c13a9393526
The 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony was undoubtedly a tour de force of entertainment, made possible by a range of people including director Danny Boyle, who managed to put on a spectacular show which enthralled and inspired many. There was even political commentary embedded in parts, which, though liberal and woolly at the best of times, had the useful effect of exposing the most die-hard of xenophobic Conservatives, and bleakly reminding us that they still existed and, more crucially, held important positions in government. However, recent references to the Olympics have overstated the national unity of the time that this event represented. The reality of the build-up to, aftermath of and indeed execution of the Olympic opening ceremony, as well as the games themselves, evokes a ‘harsher’ yet more nuanced understanding – one which today’s polarisations are firmly rooted in.
In times of cynicism, those in distress look to the past, not to learn from it but to recreate it as the ideal. The nostalgia preferences of more than a few commentators have informed an image of the 2012 Olympics as near-sublime, a tribute to liberal Britain, or even ‘the antithesis of Brexit’. In an article in The Guardian, Dawn Foster outlined the false premise that ‘the 2012 London Olympic ceremony represented an idyllic high-point of culture and unity in the UK’, and further noted that this myth conveniently excuses the brutality of Coalition austerity. The fevered reaction to this part of Foster’s piece, not to her much larger point about the wrecking behaviour of Tom Watson within the Labour Party, has rather proved the sanctity of the Olympic ceremony as a symbol of untarnished liberal Britain. Those woeful of current discourse and with an interest in harking back to simpler political dynamics – where the three main parties had very similar commitments to the ‘necessary austerity’ narrative – do despair at grounded critiques of the 2012 London Olympics and its opening ceremony as a cultural event. This challenges the notion that there exists a past calmness and ‘sanity’ to go back to – hence their drive to reconstruct a sporting event as an everlasting symbol of better times.
How Foster arrived at such a critique of the Olympic legacy is apparent through looking at a variety of sources. From J.K Rowling to Change UK, the liberal discourse around London 2012 has clearly been one of selective nostalgia. Rowling’s 2018 book Lethal White, published under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, was set amid the 2012 Olympics, described by one reviewer as “that last precarious moment of national unity”. The discourse is apparent, somehow even more so, in the way (former) Change UK MP Chuka Umunna gushingly referenced it multiple times in a 2019 Progressive Centre pamphlet, describing the opening ceremony as a ‘vision’ to show the world we are a country ‘proud of what we have become – open, humourous, decent, confident and modern.’ Under the subtitle ‘What are progressives for?’, Umunna is clearly evoking the image of the opening ceremony as a progressive benchmark to aim for, and directly counter-imposing it against the current state of society.
This disingenuous comparison dually elevates 2012 as a simpler and more tolerant time, thereby ignoring the multitude of problems residual from New Labour’s dying embers and the cruel savagery already enacted by the Coalition government, and makes the case that today’s endemic divisions over Brexit sprang out of nowhere in 2016, not having deep roots over the last 40 years at least. Thus, the paradox of fetishising the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony: it both represents a ‘normal’ time in the mind of such centrists and liberals – i.e. a time when the status quo was not only widely accepted but celebrated – and was extraordinary in the way it united the country, of especial importance due to what was to come four years later.
Umunna later in the same pamphlet stated that the opening ceremony captured our ‘complicated, progressive nation’. Yet, to anyone who looks back at 2012 without the allure of veneration, there were notable voices absent from being included in the event. The exclusionary nature of the Olympic games was readily apparent as preparations took place. What of the residents of Newham, many of whom were displaced and forced to reckon with regeneration and the incoming swathes of gentrification? ‘The Olympics legacy is for others, not for them.’ These were ‘complications’ which are not included in Umunna and others’ narrative of the Olympics, as the displacement of people to make way for this project was clearly not alluded to in any part of the ceremony. If it was brought up more as part of the Olympic legacy, surely it would not be as revered in any serious manner.
Another complication not often included in prevailing narratives was the heightened security surrounding the games, including deployment of the military due to the incompetence of private company G4S (who still receive government contracts), flying helicopters with snipers on board above the grounds, and granting the police controversial new powers, such as increased stop and search with no probable cause and the ability to enter local residents’ homes to tear down political posters. What of increased brothel raids in the area and deliberate efforts to ‘sweep’ homeless people off the streets of East London to elsewhere? What about the rest of the country, who saw little-to-no benefit or investment as a result of the London-centric event? With its location and at £2012 a ticket (I’m sure those on minimum wage appreciated the sentiment with this price choice), it was hardly an open-to-all event which encouraged diverse attendance from across the country, as Jude Wanga poignantly wrote. If anything, the heightened security and limitations of the Olympics made it a particular signifier of disunity and disparity between the haves and have-nots. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that many politicians and commentators have remembered only a serene version of the games which presumably reflects the sanitised understanding they had at the time, if they willingly or unwillingly ignored the very real scandals and controversies surrounding the Olympics, and limitations on who could continue to live their lives undisturbed in Newham, let alone attend the opening ceremony.
By summer 2012 - on the backdrop of Olympic preparation - some of the most damaging and ideologically fraught policies of the Coalition Government were already in full effect including, but not limited to, Theresa May as Home Secretary giving her infamous ‘Hostile Environment speech’ (two months before the opening ceremony which laid tribute to the Windrush generation), the crackdown on civil liberties following the 2011 London riots (itself being just a year before should give an indication how farfetched the liberal myth of unity in 2012 really is), benefit sanctions, arrests of protestors, increased use of food banks (yes it had already started exploding then) and deep austerity cuts. George Osborne was famously and righteously booed at the Paralympics, demonstrating the already-established resentment against a Chancellor determined to rip everything from the most vulnerable in our society. The fact that £9 billion had been spent on this lavish event, in just the beginnings of ‘tightening our belts’ following the recession, already proved the ideological choice that austerity was, and continues to be.
And yet, commentators such as Emma Burnell have stated that the ceremony felt like the ‘triumph’ of the liberal moment because many of the successes of the Labour government had not yet been dismantled by 2012. It requires a very accommodating understanding of the policies that the Coalition enacted in their first two years in power, and indeed of New Labour ‘triumphs’, to come to this conclusion. Similarly, Ian Dunt wrote in 2016 that the opening ceremony felt like ‘a recognition of what we’d become, in fact, it was our high water mark.’ Does the Chancellor having the audacity to present medals at the Paralympic Games after his cuts depriving disabled people of food and dignity, and him being booed in return, feel like our ‘high water mark’? This is the kind of disconnect and rosy nostalgia which makes any serious political discourse seem almost futile. Even the most celebrated parts of the ceremony had ideological opposition from the establishment itself, such as the active government in power trying to axe the pro-NHS segment and the complete absence of recognition of Britain’s colonial past in relation to the segment on immigration.
Though a politically ludicrous and beyond-parody figure, actor Eddie Marsan summed up the function of the London Olympics as a re-imagined gasp of a fantastical liberal past when, in August 2018, he tweeted: ‘If I was running a GE campaign for a new centrist party, the Party political broadcast would jus be a re run of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, with the words “Make Britain Great Again” at the end.’ If appeals to fascist rhetoric and the fantasy of a perfect age doesn’t perfectly illustrate the mythic status of London 2012, then surely nothing will. If it is worth including the ceremony and event in political discourse at all, it needs to include the fact that it took place against a backdrop of discontent, an already-breaking country pushed to the edge, through austerity, income inequality and an undemocratic, toxic press, which had long sewn the seeds of the 2016 referendum result. Thus, Britain in 2012 was not a ‘very different place’ from Britain in 2016 – just because the divisions of a society were more under wraps (also arguable) than during and after a inflammatory referendum, does not mean they did not exist.
This yearning is a rewriting of history – it simplifies UK political discourse and ignores a host of ‘warning signs’ for the referendum, such as the collapse of financial capital and the ensuing recession, the results of the 2010 GE, the political choice of austerity and the conduct of the 2014 Scottish Referendum, not even mentioning the 40 years of neoliberal reforms which altered British society in profound ways. Even describing just the ceremony itself as ‘the antithesis of Brexit in nearly every conceivable way’ ignores the deep structural inequality in this country which informed the conduct of the ceremony, its security, its price tag, who it included and who it shunned, in favour of a popular liberal narrative. Perhaps liberals remember the ceremony so fondly because it did sanitise the worst excesses of New Labour authoritarianism and Coalition austerity, as Paddy Bettington – who worked on the production crew of the opening ceremony – wrote, it ‘concealed the politics of the time’. Is it possible that centrists need that ideal from the past as an end point to the vacuousness of their technocratic milquetoast ideology – demonstrated perfectly by the dismal showing of Change UK in recent European elections and their subsequent splintering and withering? The opening ceremony can and should be celebrated as a success of British entertainment and art, but its legacy will never be the valorised ideal that centrists so desperately crave in a new reality where the status quo has been thrown into disarray, for better or worse.
Originally published in Screen Shot magazine: https://screenshot-magazine.com/politics/london-tube-racism/
The reaction to this video of a man righteously shouting down a racist on the tube has been one of pure joy of ‘almost erotic’ proportions. The short clip went viral, and for good reason. Not only did the bafflement of the intervening man expose the absurdity of the accused’s position, it also disarmed the verbal attacker of his power of ridicule and bigotry. By taking a forceful, factual, and no-nonsense stand, the hero of the video physically and mentally touted a righteous anger to give someone his due comeuppance. Though the phenomenon of a viral ‘instant justice’ video is not unique to London, it made me reflect on the role of the city and the tube itself in such confrontations.
In the video, the dull decor of the underground provides a familiar setting—its yellow and blue poles, curved doors and capsule-like enclosing. The tube exists in a vacuum. It is not lawless—there are obvious rules and unspoken ones—but it does not appear to come under the jurisdiction of London in natural daylight. The tube’s atmosphere gives it a distinctive industrialised feel, one with jagged escalator steps and huge warning signs. It is flashes of colour before the grey sets in; it is movement, a sea of buds in ears, and eyes glazed from routine.
Drunken jeers and mob reverb usually lurk under the shadows in these underground spaces, passing as but a flash, but one drop of fear can rear sinister faces. Racist tirades in public spaces often appear out of an underlying ugliness, a reminder that London is not post-racial and multiethnic, but subject to the abuse of bigots, xenophobes, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, Islamophobes, anti-Semites, and a whole cast of grotesque creations who, yes, are London’s residents too. Such rants on public transport are a spectacle; a spontaneous reaction commodified for a worldwide audience through everyone’s ownership of a smartphone.
There is nothing brave about a bigot verbally unloading on a stranger on the tube. But, in a way, to that individual it must seem so cathartic, given their deeply-held beliefs about their own superiority, and thus the inferiority of others they are forced to travel alongside everyday. Yet, if we are talking a numbers game, it is surely never going to end well for them. If there were one thing to unite commuters to whom eye contact is an affront, save for an emergency, it would be the interruption we witnessed in the video.
As is often the case with outrageous human displays, the backlash tends to be more interesting than the original performance. The very real and tangible defence of victims of racism or prejudice, in the moment, deserves recognition as more righteous than the act itself, and the viral nature and celebration of the video proves it. The man defending the victim, and so vividly confronting the fanatic, channels all the counter-anger that many feel but do not necessarily express. It is a reaction to racists in high office, in the police or in other positions of power, where such a raw clash with injustice is not always possible or even thinkable. In that moment, the person standing up against racism represents another London, one that does not tolerate such bullying and does something about it.
The tube harbours this deep resentment from those with something to prove, which is prone to explode in the heat, artificial lights, and close proximity of fellow commuters. And the reaction to this, after the initial shock has worn off, produces a voice; an energy to counter the hate. In this most recent example, the succinct articulation against hostility, as well as the clear real-time impact of the words, gives the purest sense of retribution for us, the observer. Plenty of other examples have appeared in recent years, but also cases in which an outspoken public defence really could have changed the narrative for sufferers of harassment or violence.
This retribution is enough for some to counter the real visceral hate that exists in London, running parallel with the extreme, visible inequality of the city. The fact that injustice can be countered so successfully at the basest level is enough for some to provoke a sense of pride. While the response to the public spectacle should be applauded, it is not enough in order to counter a bigger, uglier wave of hate crimes and right-wing extremism that has been encouraged by huge swathes of the media, the ruling classes, and factions of the dark, untraceable internet.
One person standing up for another is not enough—one-off incidents have the tendency and momentum to increase and become more than just singular abominations. And in that sense, reactions to viral videos of racists being publicly told off serve their purpose. Like the tube, these reactions exist in a microcosm, and to break out of that shell, London must actually progress as a collective; it must confront the rotten core of such unadulterated hate, and not just as a backlash to injustice captured on camera.
The Myth of "Decent Tories"
Originally published in The New Socialist - https://newsocialist.org.uk/the-myth-of-decent-tories/
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, various commentators and journalists have revelled in the idea that this left a vacant space in the political centre ground, waiting to be occupied by the right party. Indeed, veneration of this supposed centrist wonderland has led to a belief that ‘soft’ or moderate Conservative MPs are worthy of praise for taking principled stands against the alleged extremes of our times, on both the left and the right. Not only is this stance intellectually dishonest, it’s genuinely concerning in an era where the Tories are technically still in power. Adoration and celebration of any element of the Conservatives or any individual within it, no matter how ‘woke’, ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’, suggests the uneasy notion that some MPs are not culpable for their party’s actions. It is true that a handful of Tories are capable of spouting a few sensible platitudes and enacting (by design?) ineffectual rebellions against their own party, but the leap to declaring them moderate centrists is extraordinary if one considers the reality of the situation. The Tories have been pursuing a callous and destructive right-wing economic agenda for the last 7 years of being in power; supposedly outspoken individuals in the party have not significantly challenged the political choice of austerity in any meaningful way.
Anna Soubry, once described as “today’s leading centre-ground politician” by journalist Jane Merrick, is one such MP lauded as a “moderate” Tory. Outspoken in favour of immigration and critical of other Tories for their part in the dishonest ‘Leave’ campaign. And yet, Soubry’s voting record contrasts starkly with her own rhetoric, voting with the rest of the Tory colleagues “on the vast majority of issues,” including against protecting the residential rights of EU citizen and and their family member lawfully residing in the UK.
Soubry misrepresenting herself in this way works because she can gain traction by expressing her sympathies and more liberal opinions on social media and in the press. It seems that Soubry’s ultimately empty words are remembered long after her actual voting record on related issues, which is predictably abysmal. Time and again, Soubry’s self-assertion of being a moderate voice, assisted by the veneration from her newfound admirers, is swiftly undermined by her own actions. For instance, she was also praised for visiting a refugee camp, but shortly thereafter voted against the scheme to accommodate lone child refugees in the UK. One does not have to look far to discover Soubry is a loyal Tory MP through and through. Yet the occasional lip service paid to moderation and rebellion seems to do her more favours in the eyes of her non-Tory supporters than any actual substantive break with her party ever could. This, combined with the liberal obsession with placing anti-Brexit issues ahead of all other domestic matters, has cemented a strange, hollow idolisation of Soubry in the minds of a few. Soubry’s run-of-the-mill Tory voting record exemplifies the fraudulence of her claim to be a maverick in her own party, à la John McCain for the Republicans, and invalidates her claim to hold the Conservative government to account better than Corbyn.
Another name that has bizarrely cropped up since the EU referendum is ‘soft’ Tory Ken Clarke, the leading light of the party’s dying One Nation wing. As a vocal opponent of Brexit, Clarke has found his way into the good books of liberal commentators such as Polly Toynbee, who described him as “magnificent” in his delivery of a speech where he spoke “for saving Britain.” Although Toynbee recognised that Clarke was in fact the architect of “brutal” austerity in the 1990s and the one who marketised the NHS under Thatcher, she nevertheless described him as “too good for [the Tories]” based on this one opinion. One could easily point out in response that rebelling against one’s own party in limited instances does not make Clarke “too good for them,” it makes him a complicit ally of his own party in the vast majority of instances, a fact so readily evident in the official records.
Has our politics been rendered so shallow that tiny, effectively meaningless rebellions against the hegemony of the party machine should be celebrated? Does Clarke’s love of the EU discount his well-affirmed love of British American Tobacco or his support for fox-hunting? Clarke served in the Cabinets of Thatcher, Major and Cameron. He is not “too good” for the Tories but evidently just as bad as the rest of them. Is the absence of a completely unwavering loyalty to one’s party all that is required to be considered above the rest of that party’s politics? Does Toynbee seriously believe that Clarke’s words suddenly negate the actions of a party that he has been part of for generations? In other words, does Clarke’s distaste for Brexit really excuse his active participation in Tory policies for thirty years? According to this reckless formula, the architects of austerity David Cameron and George Osborne should be lauded for their “magnificent” opposition to Brexit too. The absurdity of this position is clear.
In a similar vein to Clarke, another Tory MP, Heidi Allen became the most fleeting of commentariat darlings when she indicated her support public sector workers, tweeting on June 27 this year: “New DUP cash must surely mean funding will be urgently reviewed for [public] sector wages, schools, social care, [Universal] Credit across whole UK too?”. And yet, the very next day, Allen voted to maintain the 1% cap on public sector workers, along with the entirety of her parliamentary colleagues. Her rhetoric and actions follow a similar course to Soubry’s: one can see the lip service Allen paid to her constituents and to the media, the adoption of a ‘principled position’ in anticipation of a vote, and then the inevitable crash back to reality, as she toed her party’s line in the Commons. Allen has subsequently offered a series of excuses for not voting to lift the pay cap, but in the end this episode and the many others like it, exhibit either a willingness to deceive others with platitudes or an apparent unwillingness to follow through with one’s own personal convictions.
Centrism as a force is not always considered a real political space, which makes it all the more infuriating that some Tories are pushed as sensible moderates despite their dubious actions. Far from calls for the creation of a new party, a so-called centrist party in UK politics - the Liberal Democrats - already exists and they had a mediocre showing in the June 2017 General Election. Many that predicted Brexit would be at the heart of current debates are the same that laud Tories who suddenly grow a conscience, but conveniently forget to vote with it. It is a sign that the Overton window has shifted so far to the right during the last forty-odd years of neoliberalism in this country that slight deviations from status quo Tory opinions are commended. The notion that some of these Tories may be acting opportunistically or mindful of their personal legacy is one that is curiously absent from political debate.
These MPs are complicit in their party’s actions from the moment they run for election under the Conservative banner and excusing their behaviour disregards their party’s countless attacks on the most vulnerable in our society. The Tories declared their class war a long time ago; a few ‘moderate’ positions here and there do not and cannot excuse the mentality and actions of a wholly corrupt entity. Lauding such trivial intra-party grandstanding is dangerous because it humanises and legitimises the system itself. Commentators on UK politics, both amateur and professional, should remember that.
This disconnect between what ‘soft’ Tory politicians say and what they do can be summarised in a couple of choice quotes from Johnny Mercer, Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View: “I will persistently be a loud voice to remove public sector pay cap for frontline workers. But will not vote with this political game today,” he stated on the day he voted against removing the pay cap, and further said, “I will lobby hard to end the cap. But we have got to get the Queen’s Speech through. I won’t vote with Labour.” In other words, he is literally willing to say he will “lobby hard to end the public sector pay cap” but when the opportunity is right in front of him, party comes first. And therein lies the problem.
A Past to Inspire the Future
Originally published in The Morning Star: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/a-e7b4-a-past-to-inspire-the-future-1
This year sees Marx Memorial Library hosting its first film festival in collaboration with Platform Films. The films, documenting struggles of the sixties and seventies, were produced by London-based collective Cinema Action.
The group also used the title Working Class Films. These recordings were designed to provide an analysis of the struggles of working people and to encourage future action, which is why the MML is showcasing them in this special series of events.
Cinema Action has an interesting history that makes it worthy of wider recognition, especially within progressive groups.
The collective started in 1968 by showing a French film about the recent clashes in Paris between riot police and student demonstrators. This screening inspired people such as Ann Guedes, Gustav Lamche and Eduardo Guedes to produce their own short films on political conflicts in Britain.
Their aim was to make the medium of film a core part of political activism. Over the next couple of decades, the membership of Cinema Action was fluid and many political filmmakers got involved, either in production, or just by attending various discussions and screenings.
By the 1970s, Cinema Action had more support from trade unionists, which allowed it to produce higher quality films to greater recognition, prompting even more public funding from the Greater London Arts Association (GLAA) and the BFI, for example.
The establishment of Channel 4 also provided an important platform moving into the 1980s, where documentaries began to be made consciously for a wider audience.
There was also the first production of fictional pieces, such as Rocinante featuring John Hurt, partially in response to political setbacks.
The original Cinema Action project was reliant on wider involvement and activism of radical trade unionists, but the political climate of the late ’70s stifled this momentum, and the ’80s further discouraged the wider left in Britain.
Cinema Action survived for a while on creative changes, but ceased to exist by 1993.
However, its legacy is preserved in the variety of films that it did make and in the valuable experiences of members and associates alike.
The films to be shown at MML will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to learn more about working-class history, or view in-depth accounts of well-known popular struggles.
The films are also notable for their rare and intimate archival footage of the lives and protests of working people, giving a first-hand account of this politically volatile period.
Cinema Action produced, distributed and exhibited its own political films, notably using the effective technique of letting those involved speak for themselves without commentary. This secured its aim of making real films about working-class life, co-operating closely with the participants and allowing them shared control over the content.
Tomorrow, at 3pm, two films will be shown at MML regarding the Tory government’s attempt to liquidate the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and the subsequent “work-in” organised by union leaders as a response to this, between 1971 and 1972.
The first film The UCS Struggle is a short piece that details the fight for shipyard workers to keep their job, through the unique tactic of occupying and working in the yards, instead of the conventional industrial action of a strike.
This film was actually screened during the occupation at a time when meetings were attended by 25,000 workers overall. It includes footage of a speech by trade union activist Jimmy Reid, who was one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde work-in itself.
Further to this, Class Struggle — Films from the Clyde will be shown, which is a full-length documentary that goes into more depth on the occupation. It includes footage from the “inside” of the work-in such as internal discussions, negotiations and the relationship between the shop stewards and union officials.
It also notably deals with the way that activists and workers both dealt with the press during the event. The film truly portrays the solidarity of the occupation, but also the complexities of the organisational effort behind such a monumental action.
Other topics for this film series at MML include the industrial action of miners in the winter of 1973-4. The Miners’ Film is an award-winning piece exploring this significant event, which managed to alter the political landscape by helping to bring down Edward Heath’s Conservative government.
It will be shown on Saturday, March 26 at 3pm and similarly followed by a discussion.
Beyond this, films about student unions, squatters, the Irish struggle and the Portuguese Revolution will also be shown and discussed over the coming months, as part of this festival.
Each session costs just £5. Proceeds help to fund recently purchased audiovisual set-up in the Library’s main hall.
For details of these film screenings and other events, please check our website: www.marxlibrary.org.uk/education/upcoming-events