Saturday, January 23, 2016

Occupying the Embassy

The Chilean Embassy in London

In the early 1970s, the International Marxist Group had a serious crush on our cousins across the channel, the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (French Section of the Fourth International). Initially just another French groupuscule, the Ligue had surfed les événements de mai 1968 to become a formidable Trotskyist force in left-wing politics, with perhaps 10,000 members.

The IMG had around 450.

The Ligue did serious stuff. It allegedly smuggled guns to the FLN in Algeria and occupied Embassies. Wanting a piece of the action, the IMG restructured its prosaic demo stewarding organisation to form the ‘Red Defence Force’ (RDF), and I was asked to head it.

Soon afterwards I'm enjoying a pint in a pub at King’s Cross, near the IMG headquarters in Pentonville Road. What's that I hear? It's the veteran working-class activist and IMG leader Bob Pennington referring to me derisively as the IMG’s Che Guevara.

In an uncharacteristic moment of moral courage I walk across to his table and confront him:
“It was the IMG leadership’s idea to set up the RDF, not mine. If you think it’s so stupid, take it up with them, not me.”
I like to think that’s when he first took a shine to me.


In 1973 the Chilean military overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende, which was then in the process of wrecking the Chilean economy. What was probably in hindsight the least bad option was nevertheless a messy and thoroughly cruel and repressive event. Naturally the IMG was signed up to all the London demonstrations against the Chilean coup.

So we have this enormous demo coming up on Chile, and an IMG leader takes me aside (was it Peter Gowan? I think it might have been) and tells me it has been decided we should occupy the Chilean Embassy on the morning of the demonstration. The demo will pass the Embassy and the IMG contingent will break through the police cordon and rescue us.

I have never heard of a more unlikely proposal in all my life: the police are quite used to our demos and we never manage to break their cordons.

Nevertheless, I have my instructions. Clearly someone has to reconnoitre the Embassy, to plan our incursion, and that person has to be me. At this time I'm a teacher-training student at Furzedown College in south-west London. I therefore concoct a story that I'm doing a project on education in Latin America, and specifically Chile. I call the Embassy and make an appointment.

I turn up - dishevelled clothes and long hair - and a security-goon escorts me up wide curving stairs into the sumptuous office of the junta's cultural attaché. We discuss Chilean secondary education, and somehow in the conversation it comes up that the whole Embassy is Chilean territory, that the guards possess guns and that they're authorised to use them.

I file this useful information away.

On the Saturday I brief my RDF team, carefully explaining about the guns, and we arrange to meet at a location about half a mile away from the Embassy at 8.30 the following morning. We all experience a rather troubled night’s sleep.

Sunday morning arrives, as it is wont to do, and I turn up a little early to check out the Embassy. I don’t get too close, just stroll in its general direction from the tube station until I have it in view. To my gathering unease there are way too many vans of the Special Patrol Group cruising the otherwise deserted streets while a large body of burly policemen block the Embassy entrance.

Returning to the rendezvous point, I gather my team together and tell them the operation is cancelled as we have no chance of getting in. We retire to the students union at UCL to debrief. I share my opinion that the police must have been forewarned about our mission; probably by an informer. Strangely, no-one seems that disappointed. I say that with one exception: when I inform Peter Gowan later that morning, he clearly expresses his view that I have messed up big-time.

We join the rest of the IMG contingent for the demo that afternoon. As we approach the Chilean Embassy we see phalanxes of police and mounted officers guarding it. Not in a million years would the IMG have got through that.

So I save the bacon of my fellow RDF comrades and myself - at the cost of showing yet again that we can't play in the league of the Ligue.


I once said to a senior comrade, “I don’t understand why they put me in charge of the RDF. I have no combat skills and I’m not at all aggressive. In fact I’m much more of a thinker than a doer.” The comrade smiled and replied, “Did you ever consider that that might actually have been the reason?”

The RDF didn't last long and performed adequately in its comfort zone of marshalling street processions and the odd agitprop street theatre. No more direct confrontations with the forces of the state!


IMG-related: A Mission to Prague and Red Lion Square.

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