Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Bread Or Batons - Bristol Radical History Group


As you walk along life's lonely highways, byways and boulevards of broken dreams, cutting a picaresque swathe through fire, death, pestilence and disease do you not sometimes wonder who else might also have trod this same path before you?
Was a time when on a daily basis I would walk along West Street leading into Old Market Street in Bristol, this being one of the main arteries into the city centre. Little did I know or have the slightest inkling at that time of the history of these roads and the surrounding area, and I wonder why that was? Why is it that none of the information as presented by the Bristol Radical History Group in their pamphlets has ever been taught in schools? The hidden histories. The important histories. The stories of our forefathers rather than the stories of kings, queens, tyrants and despots.

Bread Or Batons is one such pamphlet and though only 40 pages long contains more relevance than a hundred books on Edward Colston, the Merchant Venturers and whoever else Bristol might have statues erected in the memory of. It's the story of unemployed workers struggles' in Bristol during the 1930s and on reading it, the parallels with how things are in today's Britain are glaring.
Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, unemployment in Britain had risen to 3.5 million people and the National Government was on a mission to cut public expenditure in a blatant bid to put the burden of the financial crisis on the working and in particular the non-working class. To this end, unemployment insurance benefits were being slashed and entitlements means tested.

To counter this, under the banner of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM) a veritable army of unemployed grew and in a series of protests set out to challenge the political and economic decisions that were causing so much suffering to the poor. On the streets of Bristol, thousands of demonstrators turned out for marches upon the city's Council House only to be met time and again by lines of police blocking their route, truncheons at the ready. Down on Old Market Street, huge riots occurred, instigated - according to all the gathered evidence - by the police.

Perhaps the police did indeed view the unemployed - gathered together en masse, intent on marching on the Council House - as an army? Perhaps the police were afraid and felt the only answer was to see this army decommissioned? Was it their own decision and were the police acting independently in violently attacking the protesters, or were they acting under orders from above? Perhaps their intention was simply to prevent a breach of the peace but was the cracking of heads the best way to go about it? Were the police locked in a political struggle with the NUWM and its army of unemployed? Which begs the question: Have police tactics changed that much since those days? Are the police nowadays politically motivated? Are the police nowadays politically partisan?

As an answer to these last questions, French writer Anatole France is quoted, and it's a very good quote indeed: 'The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.' Which says it all, really.

When walking along Old Market Street in Bristol nowadays you would have no idea that such violent battles once took place there. You would have no idea of the violent injustice meted out there once by the police. It's not so hard, however, to see the similarities between those days and now in terms of the grinding down of those already at the bottom of the scrap heap. Perhaps more importantly, the big difference between then and now is in the reaction to the suffering heaped upon the poor and the vulnerable by those at the wrong end of it.

Compared to a lot of other towns and cities, Bristol has a hectic buzz about it as though its residents are busy dashing here and there in that curious, relaxed manner peculiar to Bristolians. For all the buzz of the city, however, not enough noise is actually being made. Not enough disrespect is being shown to those in positions of authority. Not enough disturbance is being caused. There's not enough standing up and saying 'No! We won't be ruled, we won't be governed, we won't be told what to do. We won't suffer from imposed austerity, bearing the burden of a financial crisis brought about by others.'
It's not a criticism, I might add, just an observation brought about by the reading of Bread Or Batons. An observation instigated by what is a very good pamphlet as published by the Bristol Radical History Group.
John Serpico

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