Thursday, 19 February 2015

Ernest Rodker on Radical Action

Commonweal Lecture 2015

VETERAN activist and cabinet-maker, Ernest Rodker, addressed the problems and opportunities for those of us who regarded ourselves as radicals in the last half of the 20th century, last Tuesday night, at Bradford University.  It was pointed out that this Commonweal lecture was being held on the precise anniversary on the 17th, February 1958, of a meeting of CND which ultimately resulted in Cannon Collins calling on those present to go down to Downing Street to protest against, what was then known as 'the Bomb'.   Mike 'Randle', who was introducing the talk by Ernest described how while he was outside Number 10, he saw Ernest on the ground being beaten by the police and was told to 'Shut up!', when he questioned their conduct.

Later, in 1961, Mike and Ernest renewed their friendship when they spent time in prison together.  By that time Cannon Collins, who had initiated the provocative Downing Street protest in 1958, was to oppose Bertrand Russell's proposals for civil disobedience and direct action which had led to the formation of the Committee of 100.   

Ernest used graphic images of news reports and pictures to show events and historic posters of the time by people like the poster-designer Robin Field.  This continued later when he came to deal with  the 'Stop the 70s Tour' of the South African rugby and cricket teams.  At that time sport became an issue of protest in a way it hadn't previously, except perhaps for the rare case of suffragettes before the First World War.   Despite all the challenges the Labour Government's Home Secretary, James Callaghan, assured us that 'the tour is going to go ahead!'   

The Springboks arrived in November 1969 and stayed in the Park Lane Hotel, and the tour ended following protests in February 1970.  At the time of the cricket tour John Arlott, the then famous cricket commentator, announced that he would not cover the tour, and on the 22nd, May the tour was cancelled.

Ernest mentioned that had at the time,  had contact with Peter Hain and his family.  Peter Hain was later to write of the protests:
'I, along with many others, was outraged at their moral cowardice and hypocrisy, and helped form the Stop The Seventy Tour (STST) campaign to organise non-violent direct action protests against the tour.  These initially focused on country wide demonstrations against 25 matches of a South African rugby tour to Britain in the winter of 1969-70.  The campaign against the racism of South African sport took off with mass protests that quickly escalated to become a national and international controversy.  Eventually the pressure caused the MCC to cancel the cricket tour - by far the biggest victory the anti-apartheid movement had achieved. Australia and New Zealand soon followed suit in rugby as well as cricket, and white South Africa was expelled from the Olympics. ' 

On the 1st, April 1990, the Poll Tax was launched by the Thatcher government, initially in Scotland, where about 1 million refused to pay the tax.  This was merely the springboard to what was to happen on its introduction in England, where ultimately a riot ensured in London as well as mass refusals to pay the tax.  The consequences of this were that Margaret Thatcher left office in 1991, and John Major proclaimed:  'The Poll Tax is un-collectable!'   

Ernest described a  local campaign to save from closure the local school of Chestnut Grove in Balham as part of a series of school closures.   This was successful, as for the most part was his part in the scheme pursued between 1971 and 1981 to convert Dormobiles into vehicles to smuggle literature and duplicators into Czechoslovakia, which functioned until they got rumbled in 1981.  Less successful was Ernest's role in the campaign against pit closures and open-cast mining, culminated in digging holes looking for coal protests on Michael Heseltine's paddock.  

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