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The Liberation archive

'Liberation' was the name chosen in 1970 by the former Movement for Colonial Freedom. The change of name indicated its belief that although its primary and most obvious mission, the political freeing of colonial peoples, had been very largely achieved, there remained a new agenda on which to focus.

The decision to change name was taken at a national delegate conference on 10 October 1970, under the Chairmanship of the Labour MP, Stan Newens.  It was the President, Fenner Brockway, who proposed the change of name. He argued: "We must recognise that our image has lost public support because of our contribution towards ending political dependence. Even friends query our name - the Middle East, the Nigeria/Biafra war, Latin America, Racial Discrimination, World Poverty are not obviously covered by the name MCF. One word names are needed - e.g. SHELTER, OXFAM, AMNESTY" (1).

Brockway also noted that the MCF had been formed to bring organisations together, and had a "proud record in briefing MPs". In his autobiography, Towards Tomorrow (2), he draws attention to another strong tradition, that of spawning or sponsoring other organisations with more specific aims. Among these were the Anti-Apartheid Movement, War on Want, and the British Council for Peace in Vietnam.

Brockway claimed MCF was a mass movement, basing his argument on the fact that it had the backing of constituency Labour parties and 3 million in trade unions as well as the involvement of these other organisations with related aims. He admitted, however, that its relationship with the Labour Party nationally had sometimes been strained, partly because of the Communist or Liberal affiliations of a number of influential activists, and partly because MCF had to preserve its powers of independent criticism. Periods of Labour government gave increased lobbying opportunity and access but probably also tended to heighten the tension.

Brockway's vision for Liberation entailed a new emphasis on the military and economic independence of former colonies, identifying with what he called 'progressive' independent countries, and the liberation movements of southern Africa. These aims are reflected in Liberation's first constitution, adopted in April 1972 (3). This stated the aims of Liberation as:

1. The right of all peoples to full independence (including self-determination and freedom from external political, economic and military domination).

2. The principle of international mutual aid by the extension to underdeveloped territories of economic aid free from exploitation or external ownership, of technical assistance in the economic, social and political fields, and of assistance in the development of trade unions and co-operative organisations.

3. The application of the Four Freedoms and the Declaration of Human Rights to all peoples, and Freedom from Contempt by the abolition of discrimination on the grounds of race, creed or colour.

4.  The abolition of imperialism and neo-colonialism and their replacement by international co-operation in political and economic relations based on equal responsibility and status.

The acquisition of Liberation archives by the Working Class Movement Library will enable researchers to judge how and with what degree of success Liberation attempted to pursue these objectives up to its dissolution in 1997.

Unfortunately there are major gaps in the archives. The MCF's archive, together with some early Liberation material particularly up to 1972, is now lodged in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (4). The WCML holding starts essentially at 1972 but there are gaps. In particular we lack, and would welcome donations of, a good run of Liberation's own journal, also called 'Liberation'. This would enormously facilitate the use of the archive.

What remains, however, is very valuable, even if holdings are incomplete in a number of categories. Many of the categories used to organise the material naturally reflect the structure and organisation of Liberation, e.g. Constitutions; Central Council and Executive Committee papers; Annual General Meetings; London Area Council and Scottish Area Council papers; financial statements of account; letters and communications to the membership. For some years, full sets of AGM papers survive; in other cases, only agenda papers.

One of the most significant parts of the archive is its individual correspondence sequence - three box files in date order reflecting the work of its General Secretaries and other officials. Not all correspondence has been put in this category. Some forms a naturally separate category, e.g. all the material relating to Liberation's frequent accommodation problems. Letters relating to the various conferences, tours and other events organised by Liberation have been filed with the other material relating to these events.

The correspondence files give us a good insight into the influence of a remarkable husband-and-wife team - Tony Gilbert, who became General Secretary, and Kay Beauchamp, who edited the journal. Both were lifelong Communist Party members. They are said to have met while working for the MCF.

Tony Gilbert was an Eastender, and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War (5).  During wartime service he had formed contacts with the Indian independence movement.  After the war, he became a coal miner, engineering fitter and railway worker before he was able to devote his full time to Liberation work.  Kay Beauchamp, a schoolteacher, had followed in the footsteps of her sister Joan (later Joan Thompson) as a CPGB member.  She had served as International Secretary of the Party, and, as Managing Director of the Daily Worker, had been jailed for contempt of court when the paper described the conviction of an unemployed workers' leader as a 'frame-up'.  Although they remained remarkably energetic (Kay was born in 1899 and Tony in 1914), failing health, and their deaths within a few weeks of each other in 1992, left a vacuum at the heart of Liberation, which it may not have been possible to fill.

Within the Liberation archive, there is valuable biographical material relating to these and other activists - including, of course, Fenner Brockway, who remained as President up to his death at the age of 99 in 1988. Understandably his level of activity diminished but his commitment to Liberation did not.

A number of other box files bring into sharper focus what Liberation actually did. There is a file of press releases and policy statements. Another file, 'Parliamentary Activities', features the work of sympathetic MPs who asked questions or otherwise acted for Liberation. Among these were Stan Newens, Ron Brown, Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn and Harry Cohen.

Liberation also arranged a significant programme of conferences, other events (such as concerts) and overseas visits. Perhaps one of the most important conferences, because it expressed a core Liberation theme, was the 1976 'Recession or Revival: Conference on the New International Economic Order' (6). A more theatrical event was the 'Trial' of Ronald Reagan staged in 1984. During the 1980s Liberation arranged or participated in ambitious and sometimes difficult delegations to countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Libya.

Liberation also concentrated on some aspects of internal politics. It was able to use its network of backers to develop a substantial role in combating racism. Kay Beauchamp was a key figure in this respect. One product was her 'Education for a Multi-Cultural Society' project organised in schools and colleges between 1978 and 1980. Liberation benefited from friendly relations with trade unions and the Greater London Council in its later years. In March 1984 it staged a conference 'Trade Unions and the GLC Year against Racism'. This was an eventful affair not least because the meeting was disrupted by a dissident group within NALGO.

Between 1983 and 1986 Liberation benefited from GLC funding to promote anti-racist education. This helped to boost an important part of Liberation's publication programme - Young World Books, launched in 1980 by Chris Searle and Kay Beauchamp. Comprising tales and anthologies from Britain and overseas, this children's literature series developed a substantial reputation, although this did not keep the anthology 'Our City' safe from an attack by Lady Olga Maitland, subsequently pursued on the floor of the House by the Tory MP, John Bowis (7). Whatever objections there may have been to the content of the series, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the true targets were its sponsors, including Neil Kinnock and the GLC.

Liberation continued the MCF tradition of sponsorship and networking with other organisations with cognate aims. One such was the Chile Solidarity Campaign, and the Library has acquired a valuable set of journals and archive material from this (8).  Another file, closely associated with Liberation and Kay Beauchamp, is that of the GLC Trade Union Anti-Racist Working Group (1983-5). We are still looking through material from a number of other organisations in which Kay Beauchamp or a later Secretary, Maggie Bowdon, were involved.

This is not the place to attempt a full judgement on Liberation's achievements or limitations, but the archive certainly provides much of the evidence. Clearly it did not become a household name to rival Shelter or Oxfam, and it faced some competition from organisations such as the Anti-Nazi League. The archive provides evidence to show where its trade union backing was located, and to indicate why some Labour MPs, who could back it enthusiastically for its anti-racist campaigning or its stances on Chile or Grenada, parted company on other issues such as Palestine or Liberation's failure, as they saw it, to recognise racism or imperialism within the Soviet bloc. Liberation failed to preserve a strong regional presence or a mass identity, and was always bedevilled by lack of funds. Its strength lay probably in its continuing access to sympathisers in Parliament and some trade unions.

John Percy, 2004

References

1. Movement for Colonial Freedom. Extraordinary National Delegate Conference, London, 10 October 1970. Minutes
2. Brockway, Fenner. Towards Tomorrow. London: Hart-Davis, 1977, p.217
3. Liberation (Incorporating Movement for Colonial Freedom). Constitution, 1972
4. A description of the material at SOAS Library is available online. There is also a deposit of Fenner Brockway's own papers at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge.
5. Included in this donation were two interesting letters to Tony Gilbert from Carl Geiser, author of 'Prisoners of the Good Fight', concerning a reunion trip for veterans in 1988.
6. Parts of the conference were published as 'Third World: Change or Chaos', ed. Stan Newens. Spokesman, 1977.
7. Hansard. HC Debates, v.130, 28 March 1988, cols. 763-764.
8. Journal holdings include runs of Chile Monitor (1973-1978); Chile Fights (Chile Lucha) (1973-1990); Chile Solidarity Campaign Affiliates Newsletter (1980-1988).