What Did the Squatters Do for Us? Their Primal-Screaming, Trotskyist, Free-Love Solution to a 1970s Housing Problem Has a Message for the Modern Era of Soaring Property Prices
Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)
BBC4 has had the good idea of running a series on the lost world of the 1970s left. It has produced films on radical feminists, who did change the world although not in the way they intended, and on disastrous attempts to create a socialist newspaper, which are always a laugh. Both are fine, but the first documentary, Property is Theft, by Vanessa Engle, is excellent. It describes how, just 30 years ago, tens of thousands of people could live independently of the state in British cities for next to nothing. That time, and that possibility, feels as remote today as Anglo-Saxon Wessex.
The squatters' movement began in the mid-1960s. Jim Radford, a former merchant navy seaman, led desperate families into homes abandoned either because the fascist movement in Germany had dropped bombs on them or because the modern movement in architecture had scheduled them for demolition. Radford spotted that the law protected squatters once they were in. Councils and developers could evict them, but it took a hard struggle. After the disastrous slum clearance programme of the Sixties collapsed under the weight of popular protest and its own inability to build homes on a human scale, many landlords just threw up their hands and let the squatters stay.
By the time Engle takes up the story, in 1974, there were 30,000 squatters in London alone. She concentrates on one street, Villa Road in Brixton, just south of the Thames. Lambeth Council had planned to knock down its Victorian terraces and build yet more tower blocks, but the money had run out and so had patience with brutal high-density housing. The homes stood vacant, and so young white radicals, nearly all of them Oxbridge graduates, forced their way in.
They were clear from the start that they would use the privilege of rent-free accommodation to organise a revolution. It is touching to hear them looking back. A working-class girl could barely understand the conversation of her social superiors. "It was all Marx, Marx, blah, blah," she says. However, the other interviewees emphasised that they meant what they said. "'Dialectical materialism' and 'historical materialism' were phrases which tripped off the tongue," says one. "We actually thought that we could produce a revolution and increase the power of working people," says another.
They joined Trotskyist groups and picket lines. An Old Etonian from Villa Road, Xander Fraser, was the first squatting officer the Transport & General Workers' Union hired (and in all likelihood the first Old Etonian it hired as well).
Their belief that revolution was imminent was not quite as far-fetched as it now seems. The latest cabinet papers show an anonymous minister in the 1974 Labour government warning Harold Wilson that if "inflation accelerates further a deep constitutional crisis can no longer be treated as fanciful speculation". The rise of the far left and right, the power cuts, the slump and a civil war in Northern Ireland pushed Sir. William Armstrong, the head of the Home Civil Service, into a spectacular nervous breakdown. He was "really quite mad at the end", one Tory minister in the 1970-74 Heath government recalled. On the fringe of one Anglo-American summit outside Oxford he spotted Armstrong "lying on the floor and talking about moving the red army from here and the blue army from there".
Engle does not tackle the dark side of the far left of the time. She mentions that the Workers' Revolutionary Party hung around Villa Road, but doesn't add that it was a cult organised to worship Gerry Healy, a paranoid schizophrenic and rapist who took Saddam Hussein's shilling. She compensates, however, by showing that when you don't have to worry about the mortgage, revolution is not the only game you can play.
The personal politics of the 1968 generation were more important in the long run than their dialectical materialism. …