Blood in the Square by John Bean
Reviewed by Mike Newland
Few reading this will have direct experience of living in the earlier 1960s – let alone that distant time shortly after the end of WWII.
Much of it to those who were there seems like a dream so great has been our disillusion as the high hopes of sunlit uplands dissolved into a decaying country of which we are being dispossessed. But to understand the now we need to grasp how we got to where we are and how it could have happened.
John Bean’s new novel is shrewdly set in the world of Britain just before our accelerating fall.
Mass immigration was in its early stages as cynical businessmen sought cheap labour. I remember a rag trade factory owner in Islington at the time who said he employed immigrants because they were the only people who would work for his low wages. Why the preface to the book suggests that objections to immigration were often ill-founded goodness only knows. Perhaps a sop to safety in publication?
The preface also says that audiences at right-wing meetings ‘ranged from the near criminally insane, via social misfits to ordinary people worried about the change that mass immigration was giving’. What is left unsaid is that any meeting of any radical group left or right tends to be partly the same. A Labour MP created a great storm some years ago with a leaked letter in which he said that nearly all his activists were mentally ill or socially inadequate.
What it all really means is that you are an inadequate if you don’t believe what those in power tell you. A curious inclusion in a book by a right-wing writer.
The world of Bean’s novel is one of Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, party manifestos which actually meant something. beer and fags, unavailability of reliable contraception, factories, Ford Consuls, strikes, paraffin heaters since few had central heating, – and increasing living standards.
It was the latter which set the gestalt in the early sixties.
Britain had won the war (supposedly) and under a system of two parties with radically different ideas, at least on the face of it, the people ruled or at least things worked well enough that we had enjoyed a Golden Age for a decade of full-employment and rapid growth. Why would anyone seriously wish to challenge the basics of the system among ordinary not particularly politically minded voters? There was broad confidence in the system.
If you lost your job another could be obtained in a day or so of some sort. Benefits were handed out with little checks since few needed them. People expected to work in those days. Freedom of speech was of a degree unbelievable today.
There were battles between a determined communist movement invigorated by support from a Moscow, which had been transformed by the war from being a backwater into the centre of a world power, and the small right-wing groups largely of pre-war origins who opposed immigration. All of this made good copy for newspapers but had little resonance among a wider public planning its purchase of a new television or car. As today, there was a vast manipulation by the press to advantage those in power. ‘Manufacturing consent’ was already in full flower.
We are entitled to a wry laugh about the efforts made by the Jewish left-wing groups of the 1960s to stop opposition to immigration. The Jewish community is now complaining it might be forced to leave the country precisely because of activities and the attitudes of immigrants towards them which are far more hostile than those held by a portion of the British right. Ironically it’s now often the left who back precisely what they complained of on the right.
Britain was on the cusp of the fall in the 1960s but few could see it. In the wings were Private Eye, the satire movement, and the beginning of a collapse in belief in authority. Still several years away were the student movements and erosion of full employment which appeared unthinkable in the light of supposed Keynesian mastery of the economy.
The minds of the people were set in the patterns for which the end of the war had provided a narrative. In the 1940s, Britain was jammed with men who had proved their manhood in the services and had returned confident in themselves and in Britain’s victory and place in the world which was now unchallengeable.
There was little awareness of how weakened the country had really become and how the real winners had been the communists who had taken half of Europe and were beginning to get busy in internally undermining us using the techniques of the Frankfurt School. In the light of 1940, it was believed that Britain could always in the end surmount any challenge.
This is the background to John Bean’s story of the exploits of the ‘far-right’ in the 1960s. Fragmentary groups whose main vehicle was street politics and rabble rousing but without the competent middle-classes among the ranks in sufficient numbers to allow a movement into regular politics. But above all not far wrong in their political analysis that Britain was being betrayed.
There were quite a few among the ‘respectable’ public who could see how right the right were but sniffed at involvement with such a rough-edged crew. Bean’s book is largely about the efforts made to drag in such folk.
The position is still much the same on the right today. Often the behaviour of those on the right side gave them very good reasons to avoid it or to participate while sniffing with distaste. Involvement could land you in a police cell without really doing anything wrong and the secret police trying to squeeze you out of your job. All of this of course flies over the heads of the gentlefolk who see and saw Britain as a place where such things are not cricket.
Then there was the money. Radical right-wing groups tended to be led by people dependent on the funds they could raise for a living. No Moscow gold here. Inevitably, that affected the way they were run. Things are identical today in most but not all of the right.
John Bean’s book is worth reading not just as a didactic warning about how little the right has progressed in its ability to do politics in 50 years but also as a very good story of a time most will not have known and one so different from our time now. It’s also for the novice in politics an education about the real workings of the state as it tries to snuff out genuine dissent using dubious policing and a rigged press.
In Bean’s story, a Special Branch police watcher may announce himself and be friendly enough although ready to nick anyone on any pretext. Readers should be aware that matters are far more sinister today.
As confidence in authority has waned, the scope of infiltration and manipulation seems to have enlarged hugely. The left-wing lawyer, Michael Mansfield described it as ‘out of control’ recently. The Mark Kennedy affair, and the impregnation of women in left-wing radical groups by policemen masquerading as keen supporters, are things most Britons never would have believed of their own police force a few years ago. One may take that as a sign of growing paranoia by the rulers and an indication of just how bad their misrule has been.
John Bean’s novel is not dear and it’s a damn good story by a talented observer with an acute memory for the little things of life so far in the past which can bring a historical tale alive. One may read it on several levels.
* John Bean’s new novel Blood in the Square is set in the mid-60s and is centred around a nationalist/radical right background. It is available on Amazon books in a paper version and on Amazon Kindle as an e-book.