The Politics of the Crowbar: Squatting in London, 1968-1977
‘You don’t need a degree in politics to know that property is the cornerstone of this society, property is power, and the need to own is what keeps us in line.’- Hackney Community Defence Association, Squats ‘n’ Cops (1992).
This paper is reviewing the London squatting movement as a key radical social movement within the UK, redefining ownership of space, and politicising housing. It demonstrates that squatting is inherently radical through posing a direct challenge to the state and the hegemony of the propertied, and also that the process of squatting was often a politicising one. In the current phase of severe housing crises more and more people are returning to squatting as a viable alternative to engaging with the neoliberal housing market. Thus, to reflect upon the roots of the movement and its radical, political history is more relevant and important than ever.
In the period 1968 to 1975 the squatting movement played a key role in the London counter-cultural scene. Beginning as a family rehousing scheme, it quickly diversified in aims and demographic make-up. Only a few years after Ron Bailey set up the Family Squatting Advisory Service, working with councils to get homeless families into properties, Nick Wates was organising local community actions in Tolmer Square, and anarchists were occupying Centre Point to make a political point about homelessness and the state.
Squatters had diverse goals once within their squats but were usually united in seeing housing as their primary aim. Unlike the autonomen within Germany, squatters in London usually saw their political goals as working in harmony with their need for sustainable housing, rather than using the house itself as a tool with which to fight the state. Both participatory accounts (Ron Bailey 1974) and sociological studies (Hans Pruijt 2013) suggest a false dichotomy between deprivation squatters and political squatters, which colours the subsequent evaluation of individual squatting actions. I aim to critique this binary, and argue instead that squatting is a political act. For, despite Bailey’s desire to work with councils, to create a grass roots movement that challenged the state on something as constitutional as property was radical and undeniably political in much the same way as Tolmer Square, or even the squats that drew less media support and more vitriol, such as 144 Piccadilly.
Following Radical Democratic theorists, I argue that politics is inherently conflictual. Applied to the context of squatting, squatters enter into a political conflict with the state and land-owners who enforce the rights of the propertied above the property-less. I then go on to demonstrate that squatting itself is a politicising process. Living collectively, facing daily repression from the state, and indeed, engaging in counter-attacks through barricading and defending one’s home from bailiffs and landlords, helped people to see the repressive nature of the state. This is in addition to the fact that many people chose to squat in order to have a base for political projects and campaigns. Given the prominence of these people on the squatting scene, they inevitably had an effect on many other squatters. No matter whether you were simply squatting for a roof over your head or to produce insurrectionary literature in your basement, squatting ought to be seen as a cohesive movement, the diversity of its aims and make-up only reinforcing the fundamentally radical nature of occupation in itself.
About Rowan Tallis Milligan
Rowan Tallis Milligan is currently studying History at the University of Oxford, specialising in 20th Century radical social movements. Alongside her degree, she works with the Radical Housing Network campaigning against the housing crisis, and helps run the Anti-Social Centre, a squatted social centre in London. She hopes to extend her research on the London squatting scene by focusing next on either the role of women within the movement, or comparing the British scene with the Dutch or German models. Contact her on: rowantallismilligan[at]gmail.com