Some things never change. While rooting around in the archival material about the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group recently, I was reminded of the time a Tory MP launched a vitriolic attack on the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy. At Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday 25 May 1988, John Carlisle the Conservative MP for Luton North described the Non-Stop Picket as “a continual nuisance … to those working in the embassy”. He demanded that the Metropolitan Police be given more powers to remove the anti-apartheid protest. His speech came a year after City Group had successfully fought against an attempt to ban them from protesting outside the Embassy. It gives some indication of quite how much the Picket’s continuous presence outside the South African Embassy for the previous two years had riled the representatives of the apartheid state inside.
I believe that the House should hear about the terrible scourge of that picket, or demonstration, on Trafalgar Square… They are especially violent and spiteful in the demonstration that they are mounting against the South African Government outside the embassy… and the fact that this violent element exists in our capital is a disgrace to us all.
The Non-Stop Picket was raucous, loud and at times angry and unruly in its opposition British collaboration with apartheid, but it was a non-violent protest. Mr Carlisle’s description of the protest as ‘violent’ is itself instructive – to support the right of the South African people to struggle against apartheid (whether violently or not) was presented as an act of violence, even when those offering such solidarity were themselves acting non-violently. In hindsight, the MP’s description of the picketers as “a bunch of left-wing political extremists”, “rent-a-mob” and a “motley crew” is perhaps not so wide of the mark. Indeed, as often happened when they were attacked in such ways, the Picketers took these insults, turned them on their head and made them a badge of honour. The phrase “We are a motley crew….” was adapted into some of the Picket’s regular chants in the weeks that followed Carlisle’s attack. In some ways it was the very thrown-togetherness of this motley crew that made the Non-Stop Picket such an interesting and vital place, where the exchange of ideas between people from very different backgrounds and political perspectives fostered new forms of solidarity.
At this point in his speech, Carlisle either lost the plot a little or got carried away with his own rhetoric. He went on to describe how the Non-Stop Picket was part of a “world conspiracy” against apartheid “receiving funds from eastern European countries” and including the dangerous combination of communists, the World Council of Churches, London’s Camden Council and the Labour Lesbian Group! Each of these statements is (more or less) true in itself – the ANC received funding from Soviet Bloc countries; communists were involved in anti-apartheid work around the world; the World Council of Churches was strongly opposed to apartheid – but the way in which they are assembled into a single global conspiracy is telling. It reveals something of the way in which the South African state presented global opposition to apartheid to its supporters at home and abroad. It also shows how Carlisle adapted this narrative to play to the prejudices and fears of the Tory Right in Britain at the time – take one communist conspiracy, add lesbians and a left-wing London council, and stir.
Easy as it is to poke fun at the content of Carlisle’s speech, he was trying to achieve a serious outcome and to do so in the interests of the apartheid regime. He complained that, despite assurances given to the South African Embassy by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in April 1986 when the Non-Stop Picket started, ‘the problem’ had still not been alleviated. Despite several hundred arrests in the previous two years, he accused the Metropolitan Police of being ‘unwilling’ to deal effectively with the nuisance caused to the Embassy. He asked if the Government was satisfied that,
the police have to rely on local bylaws to arrest those who offend, and that cases can be brought only against individuals, not against groups. Will my Right Honorable Friend the Home Secretary consider bringing in legislation to prevent this sort of thing happening?
You don’t have to read too closely between the lines of his speech to realize that Carlisle was seeking stronger powers to ban demonstrations and (potentially) to proscribe the organisations behind those peaceful protests. In the two decades since the Non-Stop Picket ended, many new laws have been passed (by both Labour and Conservative governments) that do further restrict public protest. The Non-Stop Picket fought hard to continue causing nuisance to the South African Embassy, but I question how much harder they would have to fight to sustain the same kind of long-term, continuous protest today.