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Susan Green

English Squatters Point the Way

London Veterans Take Over Luxury Homes

(30 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 39, 30 September 1946, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For a week or ten days in London the rights of human beings triumphed over the “sanctity” of private property. Thousands of homeless people marched into vacant luxury apartments and tried to make them their homes.

These people, forgotten by the labor government which had made nice-sounding election promises for peoples’ housing as well as many other unfulfilled promises, took matters into their own hands. They came from one-room “dwellings,” from cellars, from abandoned air-raid and other makeshift shelters, into the swank West End district of Kensington, the nearby Marylebone district and other neighborhoods where rents are not measured to workers’ wages. They came and camped in luxurious apartments reconverted from war use to rent from $42 A WEEK in the Duchess of Bedford House to $80 and $96 A WEEK in Abbey Lodge in St. John’s Woods.

The homeless took over these plush apartments, but not on the same luxuriant and individualistic basis as do the rich. Each four- or five-room apartment was shared by two families of the poor. Into the home of one lord, Lord Ilchester, in the Marylebone district, twenty families moved, and began immediately to grow food in the four-acre flower garden. Exclusiveness was not the keynote of the new tenants. On the contrary, they set up community kitchens and nurseries, and organized guards to keep the forces of “law and order” away from their doors.

Many Are Veterans

The squatters got whole-hearted support from all sections of the community. In the first place, when the caretakers of the invaded buildings called upon the police to turn out the squatters, the police instead helped the latter makes themselves more comfortable. Nearby restaurants supplied food. From the Kensington barracks arrived large urns of tea. When, as days went by and the squatters remained, the government began to get tough, trying to cut off food supplies from the invaded apartments, sympathizers threw food through the windows and made it apparent to the authorities that the squatters would not be allowed to starve. When the government cut off water and light in its repeated efforts to force the squatters out, delegations from factories called on the cabinet ministers demanding that all utilities be provided the squatters. A group of workers marched down Whitehall bearing placards: “Full Facilities for Squatters.”

The squatters movement started soon after the war. As long as the homeless moved into cellars, abandoned army camps and air-raid shelters, dilapidated prisons and other such miserable quarters, the government did nothing to suppress it – nor very much about providing housing for the poor. But when the territory and property rights of the rich were involved, that was another story. However, the homeless liked the new idea. It spread to Birmingham, Coventry and other cities. In Scotland at least one picturesque tourist-delight castle was taken over by the homeless, and from all reports, these squatters refused to obey the eviction orders of the government – and apparently are not bothered by the ghosts of past owners.

Though not all of the squatters are veterans, many are. A veteran who took part in the invasion of the Duchess of Bedford House wore his full battle dress with campaign ribbons from France, North Africa, Burma and Italy. He told reporters: “I came back to find my wife living with our two children in one room, doing her cooking on a gas ring (single burner). After serving throughout the war I expected more than this.” The issue was clearly drawn between the rights and needs of the class represented by this veteran and the vested property rights of the class represented by the well-dressed woman who pointed to a wash line hanging from the stately Duchess of Bedford House, and exclaimed with horror and despair: “Look – nappies!” “Nappies”, be it understood, is English for diapers.

Government Gets Tough

The labor government took sides against the “nappies.” Having failed to cut off supplies of food for the squatters, the government stopped the supply of water and light. Then it ordered the police, sympathetic to the squatters, to get tough, and it made use of the more formidable mounted police to break up meetings of squatter sympathizers. Next, five Communist Party leaders were arrested and arraigned on accusation of “conspiracy ... to incite persons to trespass on property and to aid, abet and direct such trespass ...” Finally the squatters obeyed the writs of injunction issued by the government and left their temporary havens.

The role of the Stalinists in the squatters movement is a revealing one. Undoubtedly they led the homeless into the luxury apartments. The London district of the CP issued a statement: “We have been waiting long enough for places such as this to be taken over for housing the homeless.” The Stalinists organized a huge meeting in Hyde Park and a march through London ostensibly to gain support for the “Luxury Squatters.” The Stalinist party also issued a call to working men to “make their full power felt” in support of the squatters. And Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the British CP, threatened the government: “It is necessary to issue a warning to those who so glibly talk about evicting squatters from their temporary homes. Let there be no mistake. If the government wants reprisals they will get them. The working class is in a fighting mood. It will not stand idly by and see its fellow-workers thrown out of their present abodes.”

Stalinists Pull Back

But all this was sound and fury signifying nothing. For the Stalinists capitulated to the government, did not call on the workers for action, in fact provided the buses to remove the squatters from their short-lived luxuries.

Thus we see that the Stalinists used the squatters movement to place themselves in the limelight. They utilized the movement to coin in for themselves. Pollitt was right about the workers being in a fighting mood. Besides the workers’ support of the squatters mentioned above, shop stewards came out with sympathetic statements and demands on the government to requisition the buildings taken over by the squatters. But Pollitt and his colleagues pulled back at a strategic moment. Perhaps the Kremlin ordered them to go so far and no farther.

As a side line, let me say here that the ruling class of Russia would certainly deal more quickly and summarily with the leaders of a squatters movement on Russian soil – and also with the squatters. The millions of Russian homeless, to whom one small room for a family has become a scarce luxury, are not being invited by the ruling bureaucrats to share their spacious city apartments nor their ample summer homes. Anybody in Russia daring to suggest such a partial solution to. the housing problem would be immediately purged as a “Trotskyist traitor.”

Much Was Gained

Though the squatters did not carry their action to a conclusion, there was much gained by their bold defiance of the rights of private property and of the government protecting those rights. Not only in England, but throughout the world those suffering from the critical housing shortage applauded the invasions by the poor of the houses of the rich. Not only the so-called labor government in England, but all governments have well noted the angry mood of the homeless, and perhaps these governments will bestir themselves to speed their altogether inadequate housing programs.

The political lessons emphasized by the squatters movement are two. First, the so-called labor government which the British working people voted in to effect a socialist solution of their problems, proves itself the protector of the vested interests in domestic matters as it does in international matters. Second, the Stalinists, the trusted agents of the Kremlin, prove themselves again untrustworthy leaders of the working people.

The squatters movement is by no means over. The British government, of course, promised to provide shelter for the decamping luxury squatters. Here is how the government is keeping its promise. Some of the squatters were assigned to a building in the East End, of course not the West End. When they arrived at the assigned place, they discovered that the hostel was occupied by building workers who at first defended their homes against the invaders. Finally, however, the building workers decided to accommodate the squatters for the night. The outcome was a decision for joint action with the squatters in sending a deputation to the government and the London County Council demanding the fulfillment of “the undertaking made to the squatters.”

Thus the whole working class is drawn into the housing crisis. They will have to solve it on a class basis.

The Workers Party of the United States demands for the United States: (1) A 250 million dollar five-year program to provide decent housing at low rental for all and an. extensive public works plan to provide schools, hospitals and other needed community facilities; (2) a national plan to begin work immediately on the erection of 25 million permanent low-cost housing units.

The working class principle behind these demands of the Workers Party is that if the capitalists could spend hundreds of billions for demolishing homes and cities and people, they should be made to spend as substantially for the peacetime needs of the people. The greater conclusion, however, is this: the people require a Workers’ Government to carry out the legitimate demands of working people.

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