Spotting similarities between today’s Cambridge activists with previous generations – continuing a radical tradition

…and in the face of extreme inequality that prices many out of the city. And it’s in that theme of continuing a tradition and shaping the future of our city that this post is written in. Because the people of The Kite ultimately shaped the future of our city. The fact that Park Street Primary School is still open today is the result of a campaign to resist the closure attempt by Cambridgeshire County Council. Featuring some more discoveries from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

I discovered some more copies of The Grapevine Magazine – produced by activists in support of the Kite Community Council and its proposals to renovate the area as an alternative to the comprehensive redevelopment that led to The Grafton Centre under the leadership of the last Conservative leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr John Powley. The people of Cambridge responded to this policy by systematically deconstructing and all-but-destroying the once-mighty Cambridge Conservative Association over the period of about 20 years. It’s hard to overstate just how much the institution dominated civic life in a previous millennium.

Below – the Cambridge and County (so South Cambs) Conservative Association’s Summer Fete at The Gogs opposite Wandlebury.

From the Cambridgeshire Collection – the numbers in this photograph speak volumes. Fast forward to 2019/20 when the city association did not have a single active branch. (Which also explains why for years I’ve thought the party has been something of a sleeping giant given they can pull in nearly 10,000 votes at a general election with low profile / paper candidates).

“Why did it kick off in The Kite? What was there that was so radical about it and how does it compare to today?”

I explore this in Lost Cambridge here, and introduced the diverse groups in The Kite in the link above on The Grapevine. Also, have a look at this video from the former local TV channel That’s Cambridge.

Comparing the two ages

Cllr Davies alludes to Cambridge’s mobile population – one with a large and frequent turnover which makes it harder to establish and sustain communities. Even more so if you are also dealing with an area suffering from multiple deprivation – something depressingly familiar to local council leaders in urban areas.

Comparing the Cambridge of today with the Cambridge of the 1980s (I lived through both) the high population turnover in the 1980s was mainly confined to Cambridge University circles – with the start of every academic year. Furthermore, academia had not moved to a precariat model of short term and fixed term contracts with all of the downsides associated with insecure working conditions – something being scrutinised by Dr Mark Carrigan and colleagues in The Post-Pandemic University. Alongside this is strike action by the Universities and Colleges Union.

Compare that situation today and we have the rapid growth of the various Cambridge University-associated sectors alongside the sectors that sort of pretend they are associated with Cambridge University (eg the private colleges with pictures of the University’s colleges – the older ones anyway) and the industries that have sprung up alongside to service that sector. Ministerial failures to regulate various aspects of this – including property acquisition and speculation has resulted in a different sort of housing crisis to what we had in the 1970s & 1980s.

“A different housing crisis?”

One of the major themes of post-war Cambridge was slum clearance. Let’s not get nostalgic about it, the poverty was shocking. Councillors had very good reasons for completely clearing some areas and starting from scratch. What was striking about The Kite was just how long and sustained the efforts of locals were to try and stop the plans that were signed off by the Minister for Housing and Local Government in mid-1964, but were only completed some 20 years later. That is how long they kept going.

Above – The old Kite in the 1940s from Britain From Above.

The iconic former Eden Baptist Chapel at the bottom left, and the bright concrete extension of the Cambridge Co-operative Society HQ on the corner of Burleigh Street place the photograph geographically – most of the buildings in that photograph got demolished in the process of building The Grafton Centre. A number of schools, churches, chapels, cafes, and a rescue home amongst other places were all vanquished. It didn’t have to be that way, but Cllr Powley made the political decision as leader of the council to push through with The Grafton’s proposals. A reminder to politicians of today charged with taking some very big decisions on transport that their decisions will shape the futures of generations to come long after they have passed away. To be fair to the late Cllr Powley, according to his longtime liberal opponent the late Colin Rosenstiel, he defended his decision to favour The Grafton Centre in the years that followed.

“What about the people?”

Continuing an historical tradition

Comparing what I’ve read in the archives to what I’ve seen and experienced of Cambridge’s contemporary activist communities, they have much in common with each other to the extent you can make the case that the latter are continuing – perhaps without realising it, a radical political tradition that goes back over 200 years. On one side you have a Cambridge University-connected very wealthy elite carrying on as they do against an opposition of perhaps less-well-connected opponents but certainly by no means without friends in influential places. What you don’t get much of (with the exception of the Cambridge Labour Party in recent years, and there’s no reason why automatically we should) is groups of activists openly declaring they are continuing the work of a long deceased hero. For example the Liberal Democrats could sing the praises of their former Whig MP George Pryme who smashed the Tory corruptocracy of the 1830s. Further towards the far left of the political spectrum is the fascist-smashing and nazi-evading lifelong communist and war hero Frida Knight, who was also a prominent activist in 1970s and 1980s Cambridge as a peace campaigner. Not only that, Frida was a musician and a historian. She has deposited a host of materials in the Cambridgeshire Collection for future generations to make use of – including meeting notes of groups like the Cambridge Peace Council which she co-founded in the early 1970s when she returned to Cambridge with her then retired husband, the physicist Basil Knight.

Young radicals to politically-aware older activists

The photographs of the Save the Kite protests show a mix of activists, young and old. Some of the buildings were also squatted, similar to the Cambridge Community Kitchen’s takeover of the otherwise unused/unlet Hopbine Pub Building. Again, there are common elements from young graduates unwilling to throw themselves into the corporate rat race (I burnt out from it), to more affluent middle-aged supporters, to very radical retired people whose campaigning lights are still shining, just as Frida’s were in the 1970s & 1980s. And just as we’ve seen high profile figures supporting Extinction Rebellion locally, nationally, and internationally – along with the polarising of opinions, so the same happened at a local level with The Kite campaigners.

“The group were remembered for their effectiveness, inventing ways to pressure the council into preserving the area through benefits concerts with Clive James, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones.”

Debbie Luxon, Cambridge News, 18 June 2021

The most prominent of the academics was Cambridge academic Dr Lisa Jardine – active at a time when the political comments of Cambridge academics gained more media coverage than their contemporaries today. Recall Cambridge in the 1970s was still a Conservative city returning Conservative MPs and Tory-controlled councils.

International activists, international causes – and Cambridge’s refugees

One of the first volumes of what became The Grapevine was actually a magazine published by the Cambridge Anarchists. Preserved by the Cambridgeshire Collection, it’s a very heavy read about political theory and various authors trying to reconcile their support for their branch of far left ideology while the existence of the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war were very prominent. Yet somehow local groups from The Kite managed to get a foothold via the free small ads section and very quickly transformed the content of the publications from dense political theory to much shorter, sharper articles on local struggles and how they related to wider national, and international issues. Such as supporting refugees fleeing oppression. In this case the most prominent group were people from Chile who had fled the regime of Pinochet.

Above – The Grapevine Magazine, 1979 in the Cambs Collection

Contemporary campaigns from two generations ago

Cycling and the climate emergency? Friends of the Earth’s longstanding Cambridge Branch had that covered nearly half a century ago. Long before the founding of CamCycle.

Furthermore, as this 1979 edition of The Grapevine revealed they teamed up with one of the predecessors of the Petersfield Area Community Trust to stop Cambridge City Council (recall then Conservative-controlled) demolishing the Bath House on Gwydir Street/Mill Road Corner. And thus shaping the history of Mill Road.

A very prominent women’s rights campaign

The depressing state of violence against women remains a high profile political issue – not least because of Westminster’s repeated failures to get a grip of the problem, made worse by the repeated unwillingness of social media firms to deal with the online abuse. The campaigns in The Kite reflect the huge – and perhaps even greater barriers that women faced, from institutionalised discrimination in the workplace through to the social and cultural stigma against single mothers. It’s noticeable that Cambridge had a Gingerbread Group for single parents as well as an active LGBTQ support network mindful that the decriminalisation of homosexuality had only been passed by Parliament in the decade before. In the face of all of this, the Women’s Week festival must have been a significant event.

…and rather than moaning “What about teh menz?” …

…local men organised Cambridge Men against Sexism, just as their own predecessors in the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage organised a rally at The Guildhall in 1913 in support of Votes for Women.

Note only five numbers for a local land line – and no area codes because everyone was familiar with “0223”. Arjuna refers to the pioneering wholefoods shop on Mill Road, which has its own history available in book from from its Mill Road shop. It’s striking how so many of the department stores that the proponents of The Grafton Centre said would locate there have, one way or another closed down or imploded – not least due to poor management at board level, and the inevitable asset stripping. Arjuna on the other hand is still with us.

Today we almost take for granted the political support that the various equalities days receive. It’s easy to forget that for previous generations – many of whom are still with us, things were much tougher.

And finally…the independent councillors

Cllr Margaret Reiss (Ind – Market) took on the Conservatives over their policies on The Kite – and won. Up until 1970 the ward had been a solid Tory seat. As the results from Keith Edkins below shows, Mrs Reiss overturned the majority of incumbent Graham Edwards.

In the early 1970s, Market had another independent councillor (for the county council this time) – Elisabeth Harland, wife of geologist and polar explorer Brian Harland of the Sedgewick Museum, Cambridge.

Of the Independent councillors that served on Cambridge City Council since then, most have been former Liberal Democrat/Liberal/SDP councillors who resigned from their party to sit, and then re-stand as independent councillors. The first independent candidate to stand and win for the city council since Cllr Reiss is Cllr Davies herself. And for those of you familiar with South Cambridge, Cllr Davies isn’t there to make up the numbers, having been awarded her MBE at an investiture last week at Great St Mary’s. (Covid Restrictions means recipients of awards can choose to have a local investiture).

As with Cllr Reiss, Cllr Davies also has wealthy developer interests to take on with Addenbrooke’s and the Cambridge Biomedical Campus’s proposals for further expansion. You can follow her blog to see the efforts the community is putting in to try and persuade the influential interests to stay within the environmental and ecological limits of the area. And as we have seen, many people of The Kite were familiar with environmental issues given the active Friends of the Earth branch in their community. As I’m sure you would be too if the local council proposed building three multi-storey car parks in your neighbourhood. (In the end, only one was made multi-storey).

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