Visual Culture

Interview with Tony Garnett

Tony Garnett at his London home, 2013, photograph by Poppy Sebag-Montefiore

Tony Garnett is one of the most influential and radical film producers working in Britain over the last 50 years.  Born in Birmingham, he began his screen career as an actor in the 1950s, after studying psychology at UCL.   A successful but dissatisfied actor, he was appointed story editor then producer at the BBC in the 60s and worked on The Wednesday Play with writers and directors including Ken Loach, David Mercer, Jim Allen Roland Joffe among many others.   Garnett initiated break-through drama which helped define the issues of the day: housing crisis, illegal abortion, childhood, casual labour and underemployment, the lives of petty criminals, the treatment of mental illness. The plays and films highlighted the limits of social democratic politics at the time, and still resonate strongly today.  Garnett, with Clive Goodwin, Mercer, Kenith Trodd and James Mactaggart formed Kestrel Productions in the sixties, which made 17   films for television in two years.  During a thirteen-year collaboration with Ken Loach, he produced and co-wrote Kes, adapted from Barry Hines’ book A Kestrel for a Knave. His collaboration with Ken Loach also included and a four part historical drama on television Days of Hope (1975) written by Jim Allen, about events from the Great War to the General Strike of 1926. Garnett helped many of Britain’s major contemporary filmmakers get started in the industry. He produced Mike Leigh with Hard Labour (1976), GF Newman’s four part film, Law and Order (1978), and he produced Roland Joffe’s first film, The Spongers (1971)  He produced, wrote and directed Prostitutes about the lives of working girls (their term) in Birmingham (1979) and when living in Los Angeles, he wrote and director and produced Handgun (1981), about a woman who pursues her rapist.

In the Eighties he worked in Hollywood where he produced films from Earth Girls are Easy (1988) to the Sesame Street film Follow That Bird (1985) and Shadow Makers (1990), starring Paul Newman and directed by Roland Joffe. In 1990 he returned to the UK, producing single films and drama series, including Ballykissangel (1996/7), Between the Lines (1992-4), and groundbreaking relationship drama This Life, (1996/7).  He was executive producer for World Productions from the mid-nineties, employing young writers, producers and directors.  He taught the first MA for Producers at Royal Holloway, University of London at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Garnett lives in London and now writes novels.  In May and June 2013 the British Film Institute showed a retrospective of his work.

HWO’s Poppy Sebag-Montefiore interviewed him at his home in London.

HWO: As a producer at the BBC you made so many pieces of work that you wanted to make, that you initiated. How did you make the BBC yours?

TG: That’s not how it felt at all. I worked at the BBC in the 1960s and 70s. In the 60s they believed in producer power, if there was a problem then you would refer upwards, and I never felt that I had a problem, so I just got on with it.  And in that environment, there was room to breathe. And we would go away to make films on location; this was easier than being at the BBC in the studios, because bosses could come to the studios and check what you were doing, but you wouldn’t get a BBC manager coming up to the docks in Liverpool. I was lucky that the drama people knew nothing about film, that bought me time too. I would make up technical reasons why they couldn’t see a cut until the film was finished, the sound wasn’t there or something. So I would make sure that they only saw the films for the first time after they had been announced in the Radio Times, that way if they wanted to ban them they would have to do so publicly.

But I had battles to get things made and shown. News and Current Affairs were particularly hostile to my work. Senior management from those departments tried to stop me.  They claimed that they were worried because our films looked real and were about real events, so they thought the audience would actually believe them.  But their real objection was political.  They were interested in keeping the established order of things. News and Current Affairs weren’t consulting dockers about industrial disputes. They weren’t examining historical periods, nor were they looking into the use of electroconvulsive therapy.

HWO: What was driving you to look at these things?

TG: Part of it was curiosity; I wanted to find out, and part of it was political.  But then in the 1980s the culture of management, and the right to manage, meant that there was no longer an atmosphere of enquiry. The single, authored film disappeared and the whole of drama became the renewable one-hour series.  Law and Order (1978) was a series I produced about corruption in the Met and we showed that it was impossible to be a detective unless you are corrupt.  In the 90s we explored that again in Between the Lines (1992-1994), but at that time, instead of saying we would make a show about police corruption, we said we would do a show about the departments that were set up to investigate corruption in the police, then we ended the first series with the discovery that the department investigating corruption was the most corrupt part of the Met.  It was Trojan horse drama. You couldn’t slip anything through. I would make my own show, within the show that I could pitch.

With This Life (1996) – I was asked to produce a series of 40 minute shows which was an odd length. The executives said the characters had to be young people, they should be lawyers and it needed to be cheap. I said OK. And then within that I produced the show I wanted to. In the industry now you are not allowed to fail, so it’s very tough on the young people coming in.  I recruited a team of very young people and encouraged them to dare. And then after two series, I said no more This Life. I wanted to produce a drama on a sink estate, but you couldn’t sell a drama that was set on a sink estate – so I sold it as a cop show. And so we made the show we wanted to make, inside the cop show.  As time went on we just had to be cannier.  What I produced was a drama on a sink estate full of struggle and despair, where heavy industry had closed down; it showed the other side of Blair’s paradise. We needed some way to get around the estate, to meet people, and so The Cops (1998 -2000) was the vehicle that took us around the estate into people’s homes.

HWO: You must have had a lot of courage in your job at the BBC to take on the system.

TG: I didn’t see it like that. That doesn’t resonate with me. I just saw it as an amazing opportunity, and as a political responsibility.  I had some great colleagues and we just battled it through to say what we wanted to say.  Our obligation was to tell the truth, our truth: what other truth could we possibly know? You cannot not be biased. You come from a point of view, and to pretend otherwise is to lie to the audience.

HWO: So how did you work?

TG: All you can do is create an atmosphere, a soil in which creativity might grow. Then you prune it, give it sunshine. You don’t pick the best people, you pick the best combination of people, and you love good work out of them. I recognised that creative people live in insecurity: no one really tells actors, writers, directors, that they believe in them. On the contrary, they are judged very harshly; and as a form of self-protection, they become defensive. They build armory around themselves and this is the enemy of being creative. You have to encourage actors and everyone else to dissolve that defense before anything good can occur.  Actors have to feel secure, you have to create an atmosphere of trust and give them encouragement.  You have to believe in them. It is about respect really.

Our rule was no actor can ever do anything wrong, and to thank them for what they do because it takes a lot of courage.  If you make them feel secure and love them, people will be more creative than they ever thought they could be.   Making television can be like a production line: the writer writes the script – the director shoots the script – the editor cuts the pictures together.  But I try to make that process into overlapping circles of activity. So I bring the director on early, keep the writer on late. Sometimes you see the writer in the edit suite with the editor – because the edit is like another draft of the script.  Actors need to be childlike, which is not childish. They need to play, to make believe. We have to resume childhood, and to get back to that, to find the child in us; but we are not childish because we work in a disciplined professional way.  You are not creating anything otherwise. Our jobs are to create, it’s a separate world from the world of management.

HWO: So you provided a parent role to the people who worked with you?

TG: Yes, perhaps. My parents died when i was very young so without being too psychoanalytical about it, maybe I learnt to parent myself.

HWO: Had your family encouraged you?

TG: No, I was discouraged from doing this work!

HWO: You found your own way to work.

TG: Yes, I am not just talking about working in films, this applies to anyone. I don’t believe in management. There is a whole industry around it with consultancies, MBAs, paperback books, and it’s horseshit. What we need is self-management. People respond to leadership. But everyone can self-manage.  When I was given power, I treated it like a hot potato; I would pass it on and share it around before it burnt my hands. I wanted power from the management, I fought to get it, and as soon as I got it I would say: you have some, you have some, and I would be giving it away to my creative colleagues.

HWO: Do you think people don’t have enough confidence to work in that way?

TG: People don’t have confidence in themselves. We are still brought up on old relics of feudalism which is the reason we preserve the institution of monarchy, and the theory that some are born to rule. People think that their opinion isn’t worth much. But if people argue enough and gain confidence they will surprise themselves.

HWO: How do you think your colleagues have fared who did go into television management?

TG: You will have to ask them, but my observation of my contemporaries is that they have to anesthetize themselves, and rationalise, and say they don’t care, and hide behind their professionalism.  They say shows were cleverly done; it doesn’t matter whether they ought to have been done, but they were cleverly done. They see making films as a stepping-stone to dizzy executive heights. They are immersed now in management systems, and they get a financial reward and a pension. Some of them are very talented, and very disillusioned because creatively they were never encouraged.  The management consultants have a slogan – if you can measure it you can manage it. At the BBC the product is creativity. You can’t measure that. So you manage the organisation in such a way that you suppress creativity.

HWO: So what happened to the freedom that you found at the BBC in the 60s and 70s after that period?

TG: In the 80s in this country – management consultants spilled into the public sector, lucratively.  You get complaints about this in the NHS and in education too.  It became a kind of ideology. Their ideas captured the political class.  Everyone decided that they must bring in layers of management.  Alistair Milne wouldn’t carry it out so he was fired; John Birt was hired and he did it. You had to do it, if you didn’t do it, they would bring in someone else to do it instead.  We all live with ideologies: governments, individuals, all of us do. But there are two ways of looking at ideology.  You either test what you see against evidence, or you believe in it like a religious dogma. So for example in the 1930s loyal members of Communist Party had to modify their beliefs in the light of the evidence of Stalinism.   But then of course we all select our own evidence.  And after 1979 we were all Thatchered.

HWO: So is the idea that if everyone made dramas from their own perspectives, instead of from an idea of an impartial perspective, then there would be lots of different kinds of evidence to check your believes against on television?

TG: Television should be a circus, with people all looking at things from their own point of view, then it would illuminate a whole range of positions.  Think about the BBC historically, and its purpose. There is a scene in Days of Hope which details this.

When Jim Allen, Ken Loach and I made Days of Hope (1975) we used contemporary news sources, archives, personal memoirs, we had sources for everything. Days of Hope is a 4 part series set from the beginning of the First World War to 1926, as part of a history of the labour movement, in order to learn lessons. Neither Jim Allen nor Ken Loach nor I are interested in making period films, in the sense that the BBC does period films where you come out humming the costumes, all about those nice vehicles and aristocratic houses. For me history is contemporary, and you can only understand the present or face the future if you understand history, and all history is class history: all history is interpretation based on social class, which is why Mr Gove is now very interested in the history syllabus.  So we made Days of Hope from a working class perspective as a warning; if you are not careful this will happen again. And of course it did in 1984-85 with the mines.

So we started in the First World War with different members of a family going in different directions. For instance, one boy was called up and became radicalised politically by his experiences in the war; another was called up and became a conscientious objector and he joined the Labour Party.  We followed them through the years, ending in 1926 and the strike. Using source material, and comparing different sources, we went through the days of the preparation of the strike, the strike, and its sell out, in order to make clear what was happening politically, particularly between the Trade Union leadership and Baldwin’s cabinet.

We also, incidentally, showed Reith at the BBC, threatened by Churchill who wanted to take the BBC over (Churchill had already realised the propaganda power of radio), doing a bargain with Baldwin’s conservative government, a bargain which still applies now, where Reith would be given by Whitehall the appearance of independence, providing he did what Whitehall wanted him to do.  So no one who was in favour of the strike was allowed to broadcast, only those on the side of the employers and government were allowed to broadcast. But the BBC of course is independent and has been ever since, as it is today. There was an exchange of correspondence between Jones, a civil servant at number 10, Baldwin’s right hand man, and Reith.  Reith wrote and said that BBC is on the side of the people, and he assumed the government was on the side of the people, as it was an elected government, and so therefore BBC would be on the side of the government.   Reith was very opposed to Churchill’s threat that government should just walk in and take over radio, it was Reith’s baby, he wanted to keep his independence.  Baldwin realised that if the government took over the BBC a lot of workers wouldn’t believe anything that was on it, but if the workers believed that the BBC was independent and impartial then the government propaganda would be believed. This is a sophisticated ruling class and this is what happens now.  And you can see, the BBC has always backed the government’s wars except Suez, because Labour’s Gaitskill was opposed, and he could have been the next Prime Minister.

HWO: But is that really true today? The BBC has not backed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

TG: That’s because now political opinion is divided. The only difference is that today’s opposition is tomorrow’s government: they allow that to be heard, which is why so much television now is empty headed tit-for-tat arguments between a Labour and Conservative MP.  Most of those barren rows between a handful of politicians on Newsnight are just about vanity. The BBC says they are showing all opinions – but those discussions are just an empty ritual. The BBC now never questions the basic ideology of the capitalist system.  Since the financial crash, the BBC has put on one or two docs about what happened, but mostly it is how do we repair the damage done to this system, not let us examine this system itself. Every institution’s aim is to ensure its survival. Its survival depends on the government of the day or the opposition, the government of tomorrow, for its charter and license fee – which is a political gift.  It is not in the BBC’s interest to piss off the political class, although its self-belief, independence, is serving people and baring witness to the truth.

HWO: How about working class representation on the BBC today?

TG: The BBC doesn’t represent the working class. The recruits are now all Jeremys and Emmas.  London is another country now. Salford has made a bit of a start. The class domination of all our institutions today is like Edwardian times. I come from the only working class generation that was well fed, because it was during the war and we had rations, everybody had rations – no matter how poor. So we had vegetables, and we didn’t have sweets. We were healthy. Since then junk food has been poisoning everybody, and now there are all these obese kids.  Mine was the only ever generation of working class people to be well fed. Then scholarships came in after 1945.  The National Health Service started. I got a place at university: I had no fees and I got a full scholarship.   My father was an engineering toolmaker, which was the labour aristocracy. Back then it was a world of cooperation not competition.  For me it’s scandalous – today it’s the price of everything and the value of nothing. History teachers are being told how to teach history. And there is a compassion deficit because this country took the American model: if you are rich you’ve earned it, no guilt, and it’s good if you give some to charity, do that conspicuously because everything has its reward.  If you are poor, it’s your fault.  That’s not a world i feel comfortable in.  Cathy Come Home (1966) and the Spongers (1978) are contemporary films!

HWO: What were your sources when researching?

TG: We would go out and research, research, research and then come back and make it all up. We were telling the truth through fiction.

When you are being creative – whatever you are doing – there is no substitute for finding out.  When we made The Cops – the writers had to spend a few weeks on shifts with the police and they came back with more characters and stories than they could write.

HWO: Are you still producing films now?

TG: I have spent 50 years making films  – the novelty has worn off, and I was tired of 60 hour weeks, and I wanted another challenge so I walked away.

I wanted to give it up. I didn’t want it to give me up.

HWO: So now you are writing novels – do you find that quite solitary in comparison to making films and working with people? How does the craft of novel writing and filmmaking compare, for you?

TG: A screenplay is very difficult thing to do well, because there is so much technique, in the structure of a screenplay. It’s what you leave out. A novel indulges you more. A screenplay is lean, and it is not a finished thing, it is a hypothesis that filmmakers test out. A novel is a longer haul – about 80,000 words, it’s a journey. You can say different things. In a novel you can learn in detail about the interior life of someone; in a film it is in a look – or not.

HWO: Where is your family today?

TG: They are all in and around Birmingham.  My grandparents had 12 kids, so you can imagine how many cousins there are; I was the only one who stayed on until sixth form.  All i wanted to do was read books, I went to the Birmingham library – and it was amazing, I could read all these books.  Those libraries were the product of 19th century benefactors and the government is now closing them down.

HWO: What can a film do?

TG: Prejudice and blind spots are enemies of revolutionary change – so a film can raise consciousness.   Some say a film changed my life, like someone in Rotherham, having seen Beautiful Thing, or Kes. Films can hopefully encourage people to think in ways they haven’t.  And also drama evokes empathy and helps us make connections with other people, and within ourselves.

HWO: What are and have been your subjects?

TG: I am highly critical of capitalism, and I would like a socialist society. How we do that is another question.

With Jim Allen and Ken Loach, I made historical films. History is comtemporary. We wanted to make some films as a warning and with Days of Hope we were right because it did end up with the miners on strike. We wanted to show that process in detail to demonstrate to working people, on TV, what the objective role of the Labour Party and of the Trade Union Council bureaucracy is. We have a very sophisticated ruling class. Remember we had a civil war a few centuries ago and partly because we have a strong middle class and also because the aristocracy, that is the landed privileged, seamlessly, although fighting all the way, gave ground to the rising merchant class and then the capitalist manufacturers in 19th century.  So this cohesive ruling class, is then independent of what had become a symbolic monarchy, had long practice of retaining power by being flexible. I will give you an example from metallurgy. There is good-tempered steel and bad tempered steel. Bad tempered steel is brittle, it is cooled quickly, and so if too much pressure is put upon it then it snaps. Good tempered steel cools slowly and when pressure is put-upon it gives a little and does not snap. Our ruling class has been like good-tempered steel. So when people, you can call it the mob as it used to be called or the working class more recently, have a sense of injustice and start to fight, come out on the street, the ruling class judges whether to give a little or smash them and most of the time they have got it right. And on some famous occasions they got it wrong, like Peterloo.

During the 19th century the Combination Acts were abolished, because they saw that working men, they mostly were men then, would organise, and there were advantages to allowing them to organise. And through the 19th century there were huge demonstrations and movements like the Chartists. Gradually the franchise was extended. Also after the Education Act in 1870 education for everyone began. As Disraeli said: we must now educate our masters. So then arose the popular press, owned by very rich men who were on the right, written in ways as the Sun is today, the Daily Mail was then, easily understood by the barely literate, educating them, guiding them politically.

The Trade Unions got more and more powerful legally, because organised working people have leaders and leaders are easier to deal with than millions of people who are not organised – the leaders will discipline the workers, and the leaders can be talked to, and rewarded and flattered, and as we still see end up in the House of Lords. The Trade Union movement created the Labour Party. So the Trade Union bureaucracy organised the working class and delivered the working class politically into the House of Commons for the Labour Party to betray. That is the objective reason for those organisations – and that is what they have been doing for a century or more, not created by our sophisticated ruling class, but allowed and welcomed by them, which compared with say the Tsar and upper echelons of Russia in the 19th Century, they have survived very successfully.  Sometimes however the ruling class decides it is necessary for them to inflict a defeat on the organised workers. This is usually to do with a rate of profit.

So in 1926, employers and their representatives in the House of Commons decided hours must increase, and wages must reduce so that profits can be maintained in difficult international trading conditions. They engineered a dispute when it was convenient for them. The Trade Union leaders reluctantly had a strike for 9 days, called the General Strike, and then couldn’t wait to betray the miners, who for historical reasons due to the size of their communities and working together below ground, had a deep sense of solidarity.  And just as in 1984/85, Baldwin’s government knew if it defeated the miners, it would have defeated the whole of the working class. There would be not much trouble after that. Which is what they did, and what they continue to do. The only difference between New Labour and old Labour, is that many people in old Labour, even in the House of Commons, were under illusions that they were really supporting the working class.  What Blair and Mandelson did was take the veil off and turn the Labour Party into a version of the Conservative Party, buying into neo-liberal, economic policy. What was it Mandelson said? That he was intensely relaxed about people becoming rich.

Baldwin, the prime minister, came from a family of iron masters in Worcester, he understood the issues. He was deeply a part of the employing class.  Baldwin had a calm, seriousness, moderation, a courteous fairness. He had a velvet glove and flattered and played the Labour leadership and TU leadership -but of course they were like trout who wanted to be tickled.  Ramsey Macdonald was the leader of the Labour Party – known later as the great betrayer of the Labour party. Ramsey Macdonald was a pious hypocrite who adored the aristocracy and washed his hands of the strike before it had happened, very like Neil Kinnock who showed Arthur Skargill virtually no help.    History repeats itself not in tragedy and farce but in tragedy and tragedy. The Labour Party’s role objectively, is not to fight for the class interests of working people, it is in the end to believe in, and defend the capitalist system, to argue for a few more crumbs from the capitalist table.

HWO: What is the solution?

TG: The solution is that as soon as this pub shuts we will start a revolution! (TG laughs.) It is very difficult to know how any radical change can occur – if they messed the system up so badly that our very strong middle class became impoverished. that would be an opportunity. The problem there would be a shift to the right. If the system failed to reward or reduce people’s rewards so drastically – that they ceased to believe in this parliamentary charade – the right would rise very quickly.  Then of course a revolutionary socialist movement would have more momentum too. But it would be a volatile and dangerous time.

HWO: Don’t you think that what happened to socialism in China and Russia has put a lot of people here off fighting for that kind of change now?

TG: You have to see what happened in China and Russia within their own historical contexts and also to see where we are today within ours. Russia for centuries had a Tzar, all power almost religiously put in the hands of the Tzar,  with a handful of big landowners a small educated bourgeoisie and the rest of the people more or less serfs, in what we would understand as being a feudal society. So ignoring for the moment, because it is another big discussion, what would have happened if Lenin had not been shot and died younger than he might have done, the Tzar gave way to Stalin – who was a Tzar. Stalin has given way to Putin – who is a Tzar. The first set of Tzars were ruling over a certain kind of economy and Stalin over another kind of economy and Putin over a third kind of economy, but Russia seems to continue to have Tzars. The weight of history and tradition and belief is so strong, we tend to not give it enough importance. And you can go through a whole number of countries. For instance, the USA now, is not a police state. People throw these phrases around and it is politically irresponsible to do so. Because it is not a police state. But it has all the technology in place and all the legislation in place for it to become a police state overnight. Now, why isn’t it a police state in that case? You have to understand how it achieved its independence. What were the deep influences on its constitution, on its sense of who it was: they came out of the French Revolution, from Thomas Paine and so on, it’s long history of freedom of the press, it’s long history of local democracy; there is very little national democracy, you have to buy it: so they have a  president who is president of Wall Street, Goldman Sachs pays for his campaign. But at a local level there is a very powerful sense of democracy, they elect the sheriff of the local town. So there are impediments in the way of the USA becoming a police state.

This country, the UK, has a very long and flexible history of some limited democracy. It is highly literate. its institutions are very powerful, like an independent judiciary. Of course it has a class bias, but our common law is very powerful. Our people have been fighting on and off for liberty and openness for centuries and centuries; our whole population is very sophisticated politically, compared with a lot of other societies, for all sorts of historical reasons, so it is unlikely that, let us say, if there was a socialist revolution in this country which abolished the capitalist system: an economy based on profit and socialised industry etc… it is unlikely that would then immediately lead to the KGB and Stalin.  There would be enormous difficulties of course, and until a new society settled down, which would take a few generations; there would be some loss of liberty.  The reason is that what we mainly think of as our liberties, are there because our ruling class is very, very confident; the prevailing institutions do not really feel threatened.

If you have another set of institutions based on another theoretical model, let’s say democratically socialist rather than capitalist, it would take a little while for it to feel secure enough.  For one reason, the counter-revolution would be constantly threatening, aided by agents from the USA. So our liberties would feel constrained for a while, but as it got more confident they would return, because century after century we have been fighting for freedom. Let me give an example, during the Second World War there was direction of labour, there was constant supervision by secret services, there were black outs and you were arrested if you shone a light. There were very restrictive laws and enforcement, because we were fighting a mortal enemy.  But soon after 1945 all those things disappeared: we didn’t need them anymore, because for centuries our people have fought for their freedoms. And just as we have a sophisticated ruling class, we also have a working class who have achieved many things, despite the fact that this system is the system. Do you think the government gave women the vote? Or allowed them to go to university? It was radical men, who created the universities that would accept women. Bentham and all those others, because women, dissidents, Jews, Catholics weren’t allowed to go to Oxbridge.  We mustn’t underestimate how progressive and courageous people who have fought for the liberties we now have, have been. And many of those liberties are in danger now, with what we see before us: welfare cuts, legal aid.  Those were all achieved by liberal minded socialist middle class and working people: up until more or less the Second World War justice could only be bought by the rich.  We are going back to that again. Nearly all the legislation about equal pay has been achieved by the organised working class in conjunction with enlightened middle class intellectuals.  In fact a lot of the progressive legislation for women was opposed by the organised working class, and was achieved in face of their opposition by enlightened middle class intellectuals.  Because working men did not want women taking their jobs. They wanted women to be house wives so they could earn money. They were backward. Working class backwardness is an important thing to fight.

HWO: The set texts we read at school seemed to be saying, or we seemed to read them as saying that it is our human nature that won’t tolerate that kind of political arrangement – not our history, like Animal Farm, like Lord of the Flies. Do you see that there is a possibility of a world where we own our own labour but we don’t live in a dictatorship – with the problem of human nature – and what you are saying about how power corrupts, and even the Labour representatives – when they get to power, want more power?

TG: Human nature is not something given to us, a good part of it is a social product isn’t it? Just because you have one economic system or another, it doesn’t mean you abolish the bad guys. What has tempered capitalism has been some measure of democracy, which has been fought for and achieved by the organised working class. Originally it was fought for by the middle class. It was the rising merchant class that fought the king to achieve some democracy for itself in parliament. The middle class wanted democracy but only for them.  Democracy is not something that is just given and then you forget about. It’s something you fight for. So of course we would have to fight for a socialist society which did not allow all the power to be permanently exercised by a handful of people in the centre. That is the argument about democratic centralism. The Bolshevik party on the left was organised under the phrase democratic centralism.  So are a lot of other organisations, what it meant was every decision is debated democratically and then a vote is taken and whatever wins the vote will be the policy, and once that vote is taken, even if you disagreed with it in the argument, that is the policy. That is democratic centralism. Otherwise you will never get anything done. There are lots of examples of this – like the fishing boat in Scotland where the crew elect the skipper and they go out for a week and all the time they were out there fishing, whatever the skipper said had to be done, no argument, no democracy, and as soon as they go back to port they elect another a skipper if they want to. The reason they did that is if they argue on the Atlantic, they all drown. Tennis clubs do it. You vote, if you disagree with the outcome, you leave the club, or you go with it. Parliament is supposed to be democratic centralist. They argue it out. They have a vote and then that’s the law. So what else are we going to do?   It’s possible to be a socialist society that becomes a police state, just as over night we could become a police state, but that is not an argument against socialism it is an argument for democracy.  It sounds like right wing propaganda to say as soon as you have socialism you have a police state.  Well, there are plenty of capitalist police states.

HWO: How do you see the increase in a culture of therapy and working on the self – do you think that is a new kind of politics, a response to some of the failures of political activism, or is it a distraction from the political?

TG: It’s an interesting question. You have to be a fairly prosperous middle class person to have the leisure and the economic security, to work on yourself. Most working class families I know, a man and wife and 2 or 3 school age children, the parents are both working to pay the mortgage and they are probably doing different shifts and she spends a few hours a day pulling the guts out of chickens in some fast food supplier, he works in a factory or call centre, they are too busy and too bloody knackered to be working on their inner selves, It doesn’t strike me as an obsession of anybody but people who are dissatisfied with life and have time on their hands.  The politics of the family and relationships are intricate and you become more aware of balance in yourself, and of wanting to be happy.  It may also be linked to commodification of everyone and everything and having things should lead to happiness, but don’t, people feel empty so are unhappy and dissatisfied in ways they can’t quite think why. They buy books about it.  The problem is even if you are a billionaire, buying another yacht isn’t going to make you happy.  People with very little money go out doing therapy shopping and that is what all the malls are about: I will feel better if I buy a new bag. And they feel better for 5 minutes. That’s a displacement, that’s the abolition of politics. I have never had that problem. I am lucky I have got everything I need materially, I have got more than I should have. I don’t want anything else. I don’t buy new clothes, because I have enough. But I suppose if there is nothing else in your life then you clutch at anything.

HWO: Where do you see the radical energy today?

TG: It’s been growing over southern Europe and Latin America has done well in throwing off the yolk of the USA and coming up with a version of socialist policies. It’s difficult to know here. The middle class is strong here. The working class has seen changes in employment, factories going down, call centres going up so they are in flux because of new disruptive technology. We shall see in 10-15 years the effect on the middle class of the internet and new technologies.  In the 1970s skilled working class people’s industries were being closed down, and now through the changes the internet is bringing we will see what middle class jobs are at risk: already we can see this with service jobs, lawyers, academics. Some stuff can be done by machines in the music industry, publishing, newspapers, the picture business.  So we will see what happens if the way of life of the middle class changes because of this.  Now there are more women at top. I am sure a lot of people are thinking about how to make more changes. Historically things can seem to be turgid and immovable for long periods and then because of economic change, huge advances can be made.  The rise of the right is worrying; and so we’ll see what response there is to that.

One Comment

  1. I was given Tony Garnetts biography, ‘the day the music died’ for my birthday in May 2020, unaware he had died. It was sincere, written so it was easy to read, and revealing so much of the trauma, sadness and human spirit, that enabled him to be amazingly creative and a great producer.
    I was planning on writing to him, to share some past memories of Erdington, which I first visited in 1955, to meet the family of my future husband, Alan Hume. They lived in Shortheath Road, which Tony would have known. I am so sad I am too late. I am also shocked that Tony has died – his book is so full of strength, of determination and positivity – and a history spanning 100 years. I would like to extend my sympathies to his family members in Birmingham, and to his two sons who I believe had been with, or near him, in Islington. I like in Surrey now, and had looked forward to perhaps meeting up with Tony to talk about his life, mine, similarities and differences.

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