As momentum against the poll tax grew, so did resistance to other attacks on the lives and wellbeing of men, women and children in Scotland and the UK. The Tory government continued its attack on welfare rights and freedom of expression, notably through the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, which sought to criminalize music which was wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats and created a crime of aggravated trespass which targeted nonviolent protest.
These were not only petty and vindictive laws, but as stupid as they were anti-democratic and were massively opposed throughout Scotland and the UK, with local grass roots campaigns sprouting up like magic mushrooms on a warm rainy autumn day. However, if the Criminal Justice Act was seen by many as one more example of the illegitimacy of Tory Rule in Scotland, others saw things differently. For Scotland’s Labour controlled councils, the criminal justice act was to become an important part of the legal armoury that would be used against the growing number of protests.
In Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, the Labour controlled council had turned its attentions to the green spaces of city. The parks of Glasgow had long been seen as the gardens of the people. As well as providing space for socializing and relaxing, they were also a vital breathing space for people living in crowded or inadequate housing. In addition they provided vital green corridors for the wildlife in Glasgow. Like the Soviet Politburo with its Five Year Plans, Labour councillors declared the green spaces unviable and uneconomic. Plans were drawn up. Plans that included casinos, hotels and motorways. Dissent would not be tolerated.
To the Labour councillors in Glasgow City Chambers, Pollok might as well have been as distant and inaccessible as the moon. Located on the south west of Glasgow It was a place of bleak statistics – low income, poor housing, ill health -, whose residents were expected to simply vote labour and be grateful for whatever hand outs they got from city hall. However statistics can obscure other truths. Many people in Pollok had a long history of campaigning for better conditions. They also prided themselves on living beside one of the biggest and most beautiful parks in Scotland, Pollok Country Park.
It was through this park that Labour councillors decided to build a massive motorway, the M77, a motorway which would block residents’ access to Pollok. This was part of a bigger plan which included the extension of the M74, which would impact on the lives of people in Rutherglen and Govanhill. It was an undertaking which defied logic – Glasgow already had an incredibly efficient public transport system including trains, busses and a subway – and could only worsen the lives of those living in some of Glasgow’s poorest areas.
In Pollok, locals began to organise and lobby and speak out. One of them Colin Macleod climbed up a tree to highlight the threat to Pollok Park by the proposed M77 motorway. It was a very simple and brave act. The repercussions of which are felt in Scotland to this day. Local residents set up support networks for the tree campaign, supplying food, material, publicity and information on the activities of police, security guards and the wheeling and dealings of Labour councillors. Through a combination of their own efforts and the networks of local activists, including Labour, Scottish Militant, nationalists, environmentalists and anarchist, the people of Pollok reached out to the rest of Glasgow, Scotland, the UK and eventually the world.
One of the problems of describing what happened next was that suddenly there was so much going on. Scotland had already experienced intense campaigning and protests in the early 1990s. From the mid-1990s the fun and the fury was massively amplified. With the setting up of the Pollok Free State, Scotland found itself with two protest camps, the other being the anti-nuclear Faslane Peace Camp outside the Trident submarine base. The residents of both camps used non-violent direct action as part of their defiance, but equally important was the quieter work, education days, clean up days, and the constant welcoming and chatting to visitors.
One of my favourite memories is of meeting the children in Pollok who led a mass walked out of their school in support of the Pollok Free State. I met them in the Pollok Free State and we chatted about schools, stories, the park and my work as a writer. The children were funny, curious and very astute. When some of them were later challenged by reporters that all they were doing was skipping school, one of the children explained that in fact they were still going to classes only classes being held in the camp and not in school. My chat with them was transformed into a creative writing class! Actually there was a pretty formidable education programme in Pollok Free State, much of it based around the pride of relearning traditional skills.
The big headline legacy of the anti M77 campaign was that the Scottish Labour Party’s mantle as the paramount party of the working class and social justice was broken for ever. However, as with all the campaigns in Scotland at the time, there were other legacies, equally if not more important. The education work that began during the heady days of Pollok Free State would continue through the work of the Galgael, which continues to give meaning and hope to people suffering worklessness, depression or addiction.
The M77 was built, as was the M74. The trident missiles were stockpiled and the nuclear submarines went on patrol. These were not the only defeats suffered by activists, campaigns and communities. There many such defeats as well as victories. However, the accumulative effect of every campaign - big or small, successful or not, - was this: by their actions the men, women and children opened up new political, social and cultural spaces, spaces free of Tory cruelty and Labour deceit. Anything and everything seemed possible.
Now read Part Nine: Not a nationalist Revolt
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