Activist Archivist

For a long time, I tried to keep my political activism and my day job as an archivist separate.  However, that is not a tenable situation.  Archivists may put things in boxes but our thinking must not be compartmentalised.

1354One challenge to this parallel approach came when I attended a great event in London.  I can’t remember it’s title but the main speaker was Randal Jimerson, author of Archives Power.  In the discussion, I found myself drawing as much on my politics as I did on my archival education and experience.  More strangely, during one of the exercises, I found myself paired with a former Tory councillor (who was keen to tell me he was) and wondering where the line between professional and political might lie.

Archivist turned political activist, Utah Phillips, frequently remarked that the long memory was the most radical thing and what are archivists if not custodians of the long memory. However, custodian is one thing – could we also be its liberator?

Archives contain multiple narratives but which ones surface?  As Verne Harris has argued,

[archivists] cannot be merely custodians and brokers of power relations … any attempt to be impartial, to stand above the power-plays, constitutes a choice, whether conscious or not, to replicate if not to reinforce prevailing relations of power.  (quoted in ‘Archives Power’, p.135)

Fellow archivists will know that I’ve just jumped into the Jenkinson vs Schellenberg argument within our professional discourse but I’m not going to get sucked into the detail of that here.  All I will say is that the archivist has no unique claim to impartiality. She or he has no less potential for bias than any other actor in the the process.

geddes-p

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) , thinker, doer and all-round ground breaker

But to practical matters, what does that mean for how to do the day job? A more recent collision came as I developed on of my current projects (I say ‘my’ in the sense that I initiated it – it is now way beyond being ‘mine’). In the course of identifying potential stakeholders, I saw that a number of them were people who were active in politics to one degree or another and with whom my own views concurred.  With a project based around Patrick Geddes, this was probably inevitable. Actually, if there was ever a personification of non-compartmentalisation of thought, it was Geddes.

At this year’s Archives and Records Association Conference, our first keynote speaker was Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner.  His subject was Orgreave and he emphasised to important role archives are playing in uncovering the truth (e.g. see Guardian article:  Miners’ strike files suggest ‘hints of political direction’ of police).  The abstract of his address states:

The  Miners’  Strike (1984-5)  was a desperate  and ultimately doomed  attempt  by the National  Union  of Mineworkers (NUM)  to prevent  the wholesale  closure of the nationalised  coal industry  and,  as a consequence, save  the communities that depended   on the local colliery  for their existence. The miners were bitterly opposed by the government   who viewed the miners as ‘the enemy within’.  South Yorkshire, where the NUM headquarters were situated, was at the centre of the dispute.  A pivotal moment in the strike was the so-called ‘battle of Orgreave’ in June 1984.  Striking miners  attempted  to stop delivery  of coal to the Orgreave  coking plant  near Sheffield  and were  met by hundreds   of police officers  from forces  drawn  from  across the country  in what  seemed  like a military operation.  There was a pitched battle in which both miners and police were injured.  One historian called it ‘legalised state violence’. Afterwards, attempts to prosecute miners for ‘riot’ collapsed.  Many suspected that the operation was an organised attempt to break the national strike. Since that time, the Orgreave   Truth and Justice Campaign has sought to find out the truth. They have always hoped that there might be a public enquiry, but the Home Secretary has ruled that out. However,   before the recent election, the Home Affairs Committee was looking at the possibility of some other form of enquiry.  The Orgreave archives will play a crucial role in this. At the moment, the records are closed to the public.  As Police and Crime Commissioner I have asked South Yorkshire Police to bring together all the material they hold – which is of many kinds – into one place, the Sheffield City Archives.  I have also funded an archivist, Benjamin Longden, to catalogue the archive.  This is essential work whatever happens not least because of the issues around data protection and redactions.  Having a professionally catalogued archive will be crucial for responding   to Freedom of Information   requests and enabling researchers find what they are looking for efficiently.  Above all, it will allow the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign to access crucial documents in their long search for truth and justice.  It will also enable South Yorkshire Police to demonstrate that they are a very different force from the one that confronted the miners in 1984.  In South Yorkshire there are still raw wounds that need healing and an archivist is playing a key role in enabling that to happen.

The role of archives in truth, justice and reconciliation cannot be underestimated but can the archivist be neutral?  Sometimes there is no middle ground.  As Desmond Tutu famously said:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

So maybe I just need to stop worrying about these being conflicts and embrace them. Openness, transparency and professional courtesy are more important than an un-achievable and quite frankly opaque impartiality.

 

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Ode to a General Election

(With a wee nod to Hamish Henderson)ballot

What box will I choose on the 8th of June?
Where will I let my pencil fall?
It’s the all or nothing compromised choice,
Or choose not to choose at all.

It’s party time again,
And the movement is moving slow.
We didn’t choose this route,
But along it we still go.

Our ideas don’t belong in boxes.
Nor for that matter do we.
My mind travels to the spaces beyond,
To see what there is to see.

So when the party’s over,
And we’re chucking the empties out,
Let’s reassemble, side by side,
And raise a mighty shout.

Our time has still to come,
And that time it may be soon,
When we altogether
“Dings the fell gallows o the burghers doun”

The Dead Britain Sketch

povertyWith absolutely no apologies to John Cleese.

A customer enters a pet shop.

Mr. Praline: ‘Ello, I wish to register a complaint.

(The owner does not respond.)

Mr. Praline: ‘Ello, Miss?

Owner: What do you mean “miss”?

Mr. Praline: (pause)I’m sorry, I have a cold. I wish to make a complaint!

Owner: We’re closin’ for lunch.

Mr. Praline: Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this Britain what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.

Owner: Oh yes, the, uh, the United Kingdom…What’s,uh…What’s wrong with it?

Mr. Praline: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad. It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it!

Owner: No, no, it’s uh,…it’s resting.

Mr. Praline: Look, matey, I know a dead Britain when I see one, and I’m looking at one right now.

Owner: No no it’s not dead, it’s, it’s restin’! Remarkable bird, the United Kingdom, idn’it, ay? Beautiful imperial plumage!

Mr. Praline: The plumage don’t enter into it. It’s stone dead.

Owner: Nononono, no, no! It’s resting!

Mr. Praline: All right then, if it’s restin’, I’ll wake it up! (shouting at the cage) ‘Ello, Mister Britain! I’ve got some lovely fresh colonies for you if you show…

(owner hits the cage)

Owner: There, it moved!

Mr. Praline: No, it didn’t, that was you hitting the cage!

Owner: I never!!

Mr. Praline: Yes, you did!

Owner: I never, never did anything…

Mr. Praline: (yelling and hitting the cage repeatedly) ‘ELLO BRITAIN!!!!! Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing! This is your nine o’clock alarm call!

(Takes Britain and thumps its head on the counter. Throws it up in the air and watches it plummet to the floor.)

Mr. Praline: Now that’s what I call a dead Britain.

Owner: No, no…..No, it’s stunned!

Mr. Praline: STUNNED?!?

Owner: Yeah! You stunned it, just as it was wakin’ up!

Mr. Praline: Um…now look…now look, mate, I’ve definitely ‘ad enough of this. That Britain is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not ‘alf an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein’ tired and shagged out following a prolonged xenophobic rant.

Owner: Well, it’s…it’s, ah…probably pining for the Raj.

Mr. Praline: PININ’ for the Raj?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that?, look, why did it fall flat on his back the moment I got it home?

Owner: The UK prefers keepin’ on it’s back! Remarkable country, id’nit, squire? Lovely pliant media!

Mr. Praline: Look, I took the liberty of examining it when I got it home, and I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been NAILED there by Theresa May.

(pause)

Owner: Well, o’course it was nailed there! If I hadn’t nailed that bird down, it would have been nicked by some nasty foreigners, and VOOM! Feeweeweewee!

Mr. Praline: “VOOM”?!? Mate, this wouldn’t “voom” if you put four million volts through it! ‘E’s bleedin’ demised!

Owner: No no! ‘E’s pining!

Mr. Praline: ‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This Britain is no more! It has ceased to be! ‘It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! ‘It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it’d be pushing up the daisies! Its metabolic processes are now ‘istory! Its off the twig! ‘Its kicked the bucket, It’s shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-COUNTRY!!

(pause)

Owner: Well, I’d better replace it, then. (he takes a quick peek behind the counter) Sorry squire, I’ve had a look ’round the back of the shop, and uh, we’re right out of Britain.

Mr. Praline: I see. I see, I get the picture.

Owner: (pause) I got a PLC

(pause)

Mr. Praline: Pray, is it friendly?

Owner: Nnnnot really.

Mr. Praline: WELL IT’S HARDLY A BLOODY REPLACEMENT, IS IT?!!???!!?

Owner: (to the audience) Well! I never wanted to do this in the first place. I wanted to be… a human being!

There’s an Onslaught Coming

Since the outcome of the EU Referendum was announced, it seems like everything has been turned on its head. Cameron has resigned, Boris has stepped away from being a successor. Even Farage has resigned (though he has form on this). More unexpectedly, the anti-Corbyn elements in the Parliamentary Labour Party have launched a huge hissy-fit operation. Despite its ineptitude, it has been taken up by the establishment as a means of neutralising the leftward shifting Labour Party.

corbyn-4-logo-support-jcLet’s face it, Corbyn’s election victory was unexpected.  I suspected he’d put up a good fight but that the party machine would ensure that a safe candidate won.  The subsequent victory was not just a victory for Corbyn but for the wider labour movement, an expression of grassroots will against the bulk of the PLP and therein lay the root of the current crisis.

The PLP seem to think that the party is theirs.  Michael Dugher’s recent outburst, where he called the grassroots of the party a mob, is perhaps the crudest indication of this but the same sentiment abounds elsewhere too.  This is typical of a centrist party, where politics is done by professional politicians and members are only there to pay their fees and be called on to do things.

There are now essentially two Labour Parties.  One centres round the initiators of the coup against Corbyn while the other comprises Corbyn, his remaining supporters in the PLP and the bulk of the ever-growing membership.  It’s not just that they take a fundamentally different view of what politics is about and how it should be conducted.  As David Graber recently said,

For Corbyn’s opponents, the key word is always “leadership” and the ability of an effective leader to “deliver” certain key constituencies. For Corbyn’s supporters “leadership” in this sense is a profoundly anti-democratic concept. It assumes that the role of a representative is not to represent, not to listen, but to tell people what to do.

There is a strong possibility that Corbyn can see off this challenge.  The challengers have wholly mistaken who and what they were taking on.  Yet that won’t be the end of it.  In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, we have an emboldened right wing of the Tory party. We’ve seen what the Establishment has thrown at trying to remove Corbyn as the head of the Labour Party.  Can you imagine they’ll sit back and see him become PM?

So there’s our challenge.  We’ve seen how grass roots mobilisation has been essential in opposing the coup and this has been mobilisation inside and outside of the Labour Party.  If you are on the left then this is your fight too.  As someone who has not been a Labour member since the days of their failure to fight the Poll Tax, I’m not so much interested in what Labour is but what it might become as part of a reinvigorated, broad movement.  It may not be called Labour and it may not have Corbyn as leader (for long), but this is no time to sit on the fence.  If you consider yourself part of progressive politics, the struggle to resist this onslaught is yours. To paraphrase Joe Hill, What they forget to kill goes on to organise.

Poor Hurts

I’ve been reworking song lyrics again.  This time it’s Love Hurts that gets the treatment.  If you don’t know the song, Gram and Emmylou’s version is embedded at the bottom.

Poor hurts, poor scars
Poor wounds and mars
Any heart not tough
Nor strong enough

To take a lot of pain
Take a lot of pain
Poor is like a dead weight
Holds holds you like a chain

Poor hurts
Mmm mmm, poor hurts

You’re only poor
‘Cause they are rich
The time will come
To make a switch

It’s time to learn a lot
Time to learn a lot
Standing hand in hand
We won’t accept our lot

Poor hurts
Mmm mmm poor hurts

Power towers crumble into dust
‘Cause they must, yes they must
Some fools fool themselves, I guess
But they’re not fooling me

I know it isn’t true
Know it isn’t true
This is all we get
Caps off to the few

Poor hurts
Mmm mmm poor hurts
Poor hurts
Mmm mmm poor hurts

Cereal Killer: in defence of criticism

bella1Some of the completely unnecessary rubbish thrown at Mike Small, following his publication of “Eat Your Cereal” on Sunday, is the impetus behind me writing this. I’ve written on this subject before and thought there was nothing more to say but, no, some of the half-baked nonsense that I have read in relation to Mike’s article means that I’m back here again.

First of all, let’s get something straight. Not every criticism of the SNP is anti-SNP. Friends criticise each other. We wouldn’t be very good friends if we didn’t. In the run up to the referendum in 2014, we had a shared vision. It was plural, diverse, contradictory, a bit scary, but it was ours. The defeat was our defeat and we all felt it, deeply. We almost made it but almost wasn’t enough.

We should all be very proud of what we achieved, the rebirth of democratic engagement in Scotland on a scale I haven’t seen in my lifetime (and I’ve been around a bit) and it was all of us, with our friends and families, in old organisations and new, all of us, working together towards a common purpose, that got us this far.

Since the referendum things have changed. “Politics as usual” has been resumed and it’s narrow. It’s point-scoring. It’s binary. It’s trying to put that big vision in a box that can’t contain it. It doesn’t belong in a box. You’ll break it if you try. One party cannot contain indy. It couldn’t contain the indy movement in the run-up to 2014, so why should it now.

Let’s take an analogy. Two phrases I remember from school report cards – “could do better” and “easily distracted”. The is the essence of most pro-indy criticism of SNP policy. Just as my teachers weren’t anti-me, articles like Mike’s aren’t anti-SNP. They are challenging the SNP to be better, to go further, to remember the vision and not be cowed by the political establishment.

I don’t do party loyalty. I’m a member of RISE because it best reflects my ideas and aspirations but I willy happily criticise if I have to. I will even walk away if I have to. The party reflects the idea; it isn’t the idea. The party and the movement are only vehicles. We must be prepared to adapt, improve, even discard if we need to, in order to reach the goal.

This is a long-game but one which can’t wait. Every step matters and people are in need now. I spent the ’80s and early ’90s waiting for a Labour government would make things bette. I held my nose and voted Labour and all we got was Blair, Brown and the Iraq War. Seasoned politicians took us for granted and gave us nothing back.  I will not vote on that basis again.

Let’s be bold. It’s time for us to tell our politicians what we want, not to be limited by what they say is possible. In the words of Robb Johnson: “Be reasonable and demand the impossible now!”.

To conclude, I remember the hope, standing on top of Calton Hill in 2013, singing the the Freedom Come All Ye alongside everyone else. Let’s take these words as our inspiration.

calton1

Sae come aa ye at hame wi freedom
Never heed whit the houdies croak for Doom
In yer hous aa the bairns o Aidam
Will fin breid, barley-bree an paintit room
Whan MacLean meets wi’s friens in Springburn
Aa thae roses an geeans will turn tae blume
An a black laud frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o the burghers doun.

The Ghost of ’85

In 1985, at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, Neil Kinnock stood up and launched an attack on Liverpool City Council.  This was the council who had stood up and defied Thatcher and Tory cuts, with the consistent backing of local people.  Kinnock’s words and deeds will be remembered amongst the worst betrayals in British Labour history.

How fitting then to parody his words and reflect on what my local council has done recently.  Just over a month ago it announced £91 million pounds of ‘savings’ were to be made.  In real terms this means 2000 jobs and massive cuts to services.  To them, I dedicate the following:

I’ll tell you what happens with broken promises. You start with passive obedience.  This is then pickled into complacency, and a sense of entitlement, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, mis-placed, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the ridiculous spectacle of Labour councillors – Labour councillors – protesting outside their own meeting before they then go in and slash public services

militant-rally-465-570408779

Liverpool fights Thatcher