A Canterbury Tale, a Powell and Pressburger classic from 1944, stars Eric Portman as Thomas Colpeper, a magistrate and gentleman farmer who gives improving cultural lectures to the community, but who is then revealed to be the ‘glue man’. This is the glue man who has been pouring sticky stuff into the hair of girls too friendly with the American GIs stationed in the fictitious little town of Chillingbourne near Canterbury in Kent. Colpeper’s rationale for doing this, he says when he is uncovered, is that this will frighten the girls away from fraternising with the outsiders and so glue together the community. In this film Colpeper is, in some sense, the obscene underside of the law, the smear on the community necessary to hold the good moral law in place. In spite of itself, the film reveals something of the dirty often secret violence that holds a clean wholesome community in place, a united community that in this film is configured as a very English ethnic community. It is Bob, an American army sergeant who gets off the train to Canterbury at Chillingbourne by mistake, who links up with Land Girl Alison (played by Sheila Sim) to track down the glue man after she is attacked on the first night.
A Canterbury Tale has become a cult favourite among a small group of devotees who visit Canterbury every year and declaim from the script, visiting Canterbury Cathedral at the end of their visit. They are then able to re-enact the final scene in the Cathedral where the British Army Sergeant Peter (played by Dennis Price) plays the organ after deciding not to report Colpeper to the police. Bob has discovered that letters have indeed arrived to his sweetheart, and Alison has discovered that her boyfriend has not been killed in the war as she feared. Just Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled to Canterbury, Colpeper says, ‘to receive blessing, or to do penance’, so Colpeper and his English community are blessed after having been glued together; the implication being that these desperate measures of deception were necessary after all, and the good that came from them will bear fruit.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) popped into the headlines in 2016 as the mainstream press tried to track down evil Trotskyists who were infiltrating the Labour Party, but their supposed crime of supporting Jeremy Corbyn and taking the Labour Party further to the left is nothing to some of the strange alliances they have made since they were formed. In fact, while they were busy circulating petitions against a ‘witchhunt’ in 2016, they were keen to reassure their hosts that they are very loyal to the party, taking the opportunity to draw a contrast between their own fealty to the party apparatus and the dastardly operations of nasty ‘entrists’ who are not really concerned with unity at all. The AWL appear to operate as poachers turned gamekeepers, but things are more complicated than that; they are, at one moment, poachers who are willing to pretend to be with the gamekeepers, and, at the next, gamekeepers for the unity of a community who will do a little poaching on the side to glue things together.
The mastermind behind the AWL’s twists and turns as they burrow into organisations and then emerge triumphant with a handful of new members out the other side is Sean Matgamna who founded Workers’ Fight in 1967 after a brief faction fight inside the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), forerunners of the Militant Tendency and today’s Socialist Party (SP). He then took the group into Tony Cliff’s International Socialists (IS), forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party, after IS made a unity call in 1968 and invited different organisations on the revolutionary left to come together under one umbrella (theirs). The story that went the rounds is that IS had their eyes on the International Marxist Group, a fairly important organisation at the time which counted Tariq Ali as a prominent member, but instead of Tariq Ali they got Sean Matgamna. IS paid dearly for their mistake, and Matgamna’s Trotskyist Tendency was expelled from Cliff’s group in 1971, and buoyed up with new members scooped out during the adventure.
Unity was now the name of the game for Matgamna, but unity with a twist, which was that each and every other Trotskyist group that made the mistake of responding to the siren calls of his group in good faith got badly bruised. Unity, it seems, could only be brought about by a healthy dose of internal strife. It set a pattern for a peculiar ‘inoculation’ model of entrism in which Matgamna’s comrades join as very loyal members of the organisation they have targeted but then ally with part of the apparatus to attack enemies and so emerge as the winners at the end of the process. Workers Power made the mistake of fusing with Workers’ Fight to form the International Communist League (ICL) in 1975, for example, but things ended badly in less than a year. Matgamna shut down the ICL and its paper Workers Action in 1978 and launched Socialist Organiser, which styled itself as ‘the paper of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory’. Now inside the Labour Party, they managed to persuade Alan Thornett’s Workers Socialist League (formed after the expulsion of Thornett and other comrades from the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1974) to agree to merge with them in 1981 and close down their own paper Socialist Press. It was another bad mistake, and the joint organisation lasted less than a year.
One of the crunch points in the faction fight that spat out the Thornett group again was the 1982 Falklands War and a response by Matgamna to the conflict which has been part of a pattern of adaptation to ethnic unity and notions of ‘community’ before the war and since. Before the Falklands War, Matgamna had already argued inside IS and after his expulsion, and against the anti-imperialist and Irish republication position of most of the British revolutionary left, that the Protestants of Ulster should be seen as a beleaguered community under threat with the right to self-determination. It was an argument that was in tune with some of his old comrades in the RSL back in the mid-sixties (and there are traces of that in the Militant and SP positions on Ireland). True to form, Matgamna argued that the Malvinas were not Argentina’s, but that the plucky Falklands Islanders did, just as Margaret Thatcher always claimed, have the right to self-determination.
The split with the Thornett group left Matgamna in charge to go on to found Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in 1992 after Socialist Organiser had been banned by the Labour Party two years earlier, and the AWL has been proving itself loyal to its host organisation ever since, and loyal to the different nationalist and ethnically-defined communities it has allied with. This is as well as having its newspaper operate as an outlet for Matgamna’s poetry, improving cultural material that is clearly an embarrassment for the poor AWL members who have to sell the thing. Would that Eric Portman were alive today to play the part.
The adaptation to ethnic unity and community identity took another turn when the AWL followed through the logic of Matgamna’s 1986 declaration that a ‘two-state’ solution was the only way forward for Israel, and for the defence of Israel. The AWL went on to forge a strong working relationship with Zionists in the Union of Jewish Students (more fool them, don’t they know it will end in tears), leading them to argue that Israel is not an apartheid state, a position very convenient for its loyal membership of the historically pro-Zionist Labour Party. This is a position that has drawn the accusation that the AWL are ‘revolutionary imperialists’. This particular alliance with Zionism also, rather predictably, led the AWL to publish Islamophobic trash, glue in the hair; an alliance, for unity and community, against outsiders. The AWL line, a weird perversion of the internationalist tradition they were born from, seems to be that community identity is an underlying good, and that a measure of deception and dirty work for the enemy will eventually result in something blessed for all.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.