In Liverpool at the beginning of the month, a radical bookshop looked tempting.
In undergraduate days, such shops had a magnetic attraction. By the 80s, the days when one attached credibility to the claims of many of the writers were long past, but the bookshops provided a counter-balance to the rising politics of neo-liberalism with its abdication of social responsibility, and the conversations one might hear among the shelves were always fascinating. The hard Left thrived on conspiracy theories, it was easier to rally students against people objectified as plutocrats and fatcats than to offer reasoned and coherent alternatives; the repetition of slogans passed as political discourse. Amid the rhetoric, there was the occasional piece of trenchant criticism, the occasional insight that had not or, perhaps, could not, appear elsewhere.
The Liverpool shop was a business rooted firmly in 21st Century reality, picking up a book by Paul Krugman and a collection of First World War poetry, it would have been easy to have missed a box of pamphlets on the floor with a notice inviting shoppers to “root through” it.
A pamphlet on the Luddites caught the eye, a group much maligned in school history classes, but a group who might have had much say to working people two centuries later, and a pamphlet on online activism.
The writers of the online activism pamphlet seemed chiefly concerned with advising readers on how to use software and encryption in ways that would protect them from surveillance by the state security agencies. It seemed a piece of work worthy of a place on the shelves in those long off student days. State security agencies really did not take an interest in a handful of student radicals . . . did they?
Listening to RTE radio this morning, there was an interview with “Jacqui”, an animal rights activist from the 1980s who was this week paid £425,000 by the Metropolitan Police. Between 1984 and1988, Jacqui had a three and a half year relationship, including having a child, with a man she assumed to be a fellow activist. Their relationship ended when he claimed that he was facing arrest and would have to flee to Spain to seek refuge among Spanish anarchists. The man’s entire persona was a lie, he was an undercover member of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstrations Squad and had a wife and children in the real life to which he retreated from time to time while claiming he was engaged in secret animal rights activities. A Google search for “Bob Lambert” and “Jacqui” reveals a tale more grubby than something from the pages of John le Carré: would George Smiley have contemplated such a prolonged exploitation of a young woman?
The odd thought occurred that if this was the way the Metropolitan Police had conducted their business in the 1980s, perhaps the student chat in those times was not so fanciful, and perhaps, even now, thirty years later, a pamphlet of advice to online activists is not so silly.