A Radical Remembered

The end of 2022 marks the twentieth anniversary of a significant moment for a fair few within the EIS and other sister teaching unions north and south of the border. This is because Joe Strummer died on the 22 December 2002, only a few months past his fiftieth birthday. There was a palpable sense of ‘only the good die young’. It was only a few weeks after playing what turned out to be his last ever London gig – a benefit for striking firefighters – at Acton Town Hall on 15 November.

Strummer was – and still is – an inspiration and source of sustenance to many union activists as I found out when carrying out the research for my book about his politics and their influence upon people. The testimonies they gave provided a good sense of the depth and breadth of this influence.

He was often said to have changed people’s lives as a result of not only fronting The Clash but also writing most of the lyrics for the band, especially the likes of ‘White Riot’, ‘Working for the Clampdown’, ‘Spanish Bombs’, ‘Washington Bullets’ and ‘Know Your Rights’. He continued to write and perform progressive, politically-charged songs with his last band, The Mescaleros.

Amongst the many inspired and influenced by Strummer are many in the union movement including activists and officers of the EIS. One in the Central Belt of Scotland has one of Strummer’s most well-known slogans written in big letters on the wall in his classroom: ‘The Future is Unwritten’. It means the world is not set in stone because people can make and unmake the world, this being an encouragement to philosophical and political argument, and activism.

Other teacher union activists in their testimonies recounted that they tried to continually remember, revisit and act on some of his radical dictums like ‘Are you taking over or are you taking orders? Are you going backwards. Or are you going forwards?’ (‘White Riot’) and ‘Let fury have the hour, anger can be power. Do you know that you can use it?’ (‘Working for the Clampdown’).

Strummer was for the whole of his life on the left and for the left even though he became somewhat disillusioned by what he viewed as ‘new’ Labour’s subservience to the Thatcherite agenda of free market reform. He moved from being a hippy to a socialist and then a humanist.

He had a long history of playing benefit gigs for progressive causes. His first gigs with his first band, The 101ers, were for political exiles from the 1973 Pinochet military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government in Chile. With The Clash and his subsequent bands, he played gigs for refugees, sacked miners, community causes and disenfranchised youth, as well as against racism and fascism.

As Strummer said at the Acton gig, public service workers like teachers, nurses and firefighters deserve to be paid decent wages and have decent working conditions because of the important work they do. Those are words that will resonate with people twenty years on as their unions ballot for strike action and take strike action to gain decent pay rises.

Strummer’s passionate performances meant people took seriously what he was saying. So, as The Hold Steady intimated, he became something of an educator, opening their eyes to issues and events that were not necessarily covered in schools in the 1970s and 1980s. In an age before the internet, many went to local libraries to find out more about the Spanish Civil War or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Some of these went on to read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia while others joined the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign – even a few went out to volunteer to work in Nicaragua.

So, it was a case of more than just concurring for Strummer encouraged people to do something about these causes if they agreed with him and felt strongly enough. He was never prescriptive. Individuals could choose how and what they got active in, whether it was a union, political party, social movement or community campaign. But get active they did and we have Strummer and his influence to thank for that.

The punk rock politics of Joe Strummer: Radicalism, resistance and rebellion is published by Manchester University Press, £16.99 https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526148988/

Professor Gregor Gall is an Affiliate Research Associate at the University of Glasgow.