In the UK, in the post WW2 decades, the “Us” and the “Them” had been clearly defined along class lines. “Us” were the working class, generally without much money or social mobility, with an identity that came from hard work and physical exertion. “They” were the rich, and included the bankers, City Traders, business owners in their big houses, and even the politicians who were supposed to be looking after our interests, without ever really understanding them. In the years leading up to Punk, there was a growing distrust of these roles, and people had started to question how society was being run.
By the 1960s, Trade Unions were increasing their membership, and the strengthened Manufacturing, Transport and General workers Unions petitioned for higher wages, better job security, decent pensions and more safety in the workplace. Shop stewards ran for local parliamentary seats, and more working class people started to move into white-collar jobs and further education.
Generally, more and more of the working class were now on a socially upward trajectory, and many more of their sons and daughters were on course for University degrees and improved life opportunities. The Universities, in turn, were a breeding ground for new ideas and new approaches. Students began to demonstrate for the causes of the day; No Wars, No Nuclear Weapons, Women’s Liberation, and Whale Saving were all popular.
With their long hair, and their flares flapping bravely in the breeze, these marching baby boomers were also questioning modern political policies, through the new educational lenses of Philosophy, Marxist theory, Feminism and Peace studies.
By the 1970s, some of these graduates were now working in schools themselves, a new influx of trendy teachers keen to bring their groovy and experimental ideas into the classroom, but they were still the exception among teaching staff. Outside of the education system, the trade unions continued to grow and exert their influence, and there were new bookshops, and new publications all geared to fan the flames of the same more egalitarian social ideals. Underneath the mainstream political movements, new politically charged sub-cultures were starting to question the status quo like never before.
With no national curriculum or centralised control, schools were still allowed a certain amount of autonomy to develop their own personalities, and between the new breed of teachers and the mass of available printed matter, in was only a matter of time before school pupils started their own uprising. For a short time in the early 1970s, members of the newly formed Schools Action Union handed out leaflets at school gates encouraging pupils to think for themselves and then campaign for the changes that they’d like to see. In the same way as the Unions were changing working practices in industry, school students started petitioning their Headteachers for more student control, a voice via school councils, the banning of corporal punishment, better facilities, and no uniforms.
On May 17th 1972 a march of about 10,000 school pupils converged on central London to protest caning, detention, uniforms and “headmaster dictatorships”.
The British government were apparently so shaken by the thought of Paris-like student uprisings that MI5 were called in to monitor the situation. Education secretary Margaret Thatcher MP warned “Some boys and girls are already beginning to develop political attitudes in an immature way…”
[For immature read Marxist – but at least girls got a mention and were apparently seen as an equal threat as the boys]
One of the publications distributed by the Schools Action Union was something called “The Little Red Schoolbook”, which had been translated from its original Danish in 1971. It dealt in a no-nonsense factual way about sex and drugs along with all you might need to know about asserting your rights, especially at school. It was subsequently banned in the UK under the obscene publication act. Here at PGD, we got our copy sometime in 1978 after sending off 30p in coins taped to a piece of cardboard along with an sae to an address in central London. It had been recommended in a Tom Robinson Band newsletter, and to a young punk rock mind it seemed like essential reading.
In 1978, the ideas in the book still seemed radical, it spoke to its readers as equals and seemed almost opposed to the goody goody knuckling down behaviour that was normally encouraged, it had more options. We’d never before read anything that had the same tone, and there were some raised eyebrows from the teachers who looked at it like they would a box of plutonium.
Many of these same left wing ideas were finding a platform and a voice through Punk, whose whole ethos already subscribed to equality, anti racism, and the power to make changes. Bands like The Clash, X-Ray Spex, SLF and TRB made it very obvious whose side they were on, and us as the avid listeners, started to subscribe to this same punk plot to change the world.