I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Every now and then the tide of history turns and the forces of good are able to land a knockout blow on the forces of bad. Sadly such moments are rare indeed. As a rule of thumb the forces of bad tend to hold all of the cards that count. Invariably the forces of bad have all the policemen and spooks and lawyers and politicians and media barons on their side. They have the ability to smash faces and then arrest the ones who have had their faces smashed and accuse them of being terrorists and hooligans in the press.

But not always.

Sometimes the forces of good are able to defy the odds and win the day. The key to winning these rare victories is to identify an opportunity and grasp it with total commitment.

It seems to me that such an opportunity is available right now in London’s New Era Estate.

A quick paragraph of background is in order.

In the 1930’s, a charity built the New Era Estate to provide affordable homes for a hundred families in East London. For eighty years everything was done according to the writing on the tin. And then suddenly everything changed. For some reason the charity decided it needed to raise some cash and so it sold the flats to a Wall St private equity outfit called Westbrook Partners. In a doomed attempt to try and add a sheen of respectability to their plans, the boys from Wall St hired a Tory MP called Richard Benyon to front things up. Well that didn’t work out to well as Guardian reporter Aditya Chakrabrotty gutted Benyon like a flailing fish in a magnificently savage piece of writing. Within hours, the over privileged toff found the heat in the kitchen to be considerably warmer than his blue blood could handle and he duly scuttled back to his 3500 acre Berkshire estate like a rat fleeing from a farm cat.

So now the battle lines are well and truly drawn. On the side of good are 93 families, the majority of whom were born and bred in London’s East End. They are regular folk who work in normal jobs for normal salaries and find it hard to keep the balls in the air. Right now they pay £600 a month rent. Well of course Westbrook Partners have much bigger and better things in mind than a lousy £600 a month rent for their new shiny toy. Initially they told the residents that they would have until 2016 before the rent went up to £2400 a month. But now they are changing their tune fast as the public spotlight has started to pick them out in uncomfortable detail. They seem to have decided that the best plan of attack is to get all the bad stuff out of the way as quickly as possible. So the word is that the 93 families will be unceremoniously dumped out onto the pavement early in the new year whilst Westbrook transfers ownership of the flats offshore to make sure they won’t have to pay any tax.

In many ways, the story of the New Era residents is simply another miserable example of blameless little people being trampled by uber-greedy faceless capitalists who hide from view in their downtown offices. There can only be one winner. Westbrook Partners have billions of dollars at their disposal to hire in the best lawyers in town and squads of gym fit bailiffs whose leather jackets stretch at the seams.

So what makes New Era stand out from a thousand other dismal stories of avaricious bullying?

Here's the main thing. The biggest thing. The most important thing.

The divide between good and bad could not be more profound.

On one side are 93 regular families who thought they were safe in homes which had been owned by a charity for eighty years.

On the other side we have a truly ghastly Tory MP and a faceless Wall St hedge fund.

Most important of all is the fact that the story is already well and truly in the public eye.

The big question is what happens next.

Things look like playing out in one of two ways.

The most likely outcome is that Westbrook Partners use their lawyers to smash the feeble resistance of the residents and in a year’s time New Era with have become yet another gated community for those who can afford £2400 a month rent.

A less likely outcome is that all the recent publicity will force Westbrook to come up with some sort of a weasel compromise which will allow the heat to die down. Then in a couple of years time when the New Era estate has disappeared for the public view, they will quietly evict the residents.

There can be a third option on the table and this would be the one which could turn the tide of history.

To come up with such a plan of attack it is important to reach back into history for some guidance.

We need to find examples of other times when the forces of good very visibly on the side of the angels whist the forces of bad had horns growing from the forehead.

The first stop on the journey is India in 1930. Mahatma Gandhi had by this time established something of an international profile as the funny looking bald guy in the loincloth who was standing up to the might of the British Empire.

What he needed was something to shine a light on the brutality and greed of British rule and in a flash of genius, the answer came to him.


For thousands of years the people of India had made their way down to the shore to turn sea water into salt. But the British had put a stop to all that. The British had passed laws making it illegal for any Indian to make salt on the beach. Instead they were required to buy the salt which their Imperial masters had imported from the salt mines of Cheshire. Anyone caught producing their own salt would be beaten black and blue and then sent to jail.

It was a perfect example of the avaricious brutality of British rule and Ghandi saw it as exactly that. What he did was brilliantly simple. On 12 March 1930, he set out with 78 followers to walk 240 miles to the Gujerati coast where he vowed to make salt. Soon the original 79 marchers swelled to an army of thousands which became known in the media as the ‘White River’. Reporters from all over the world flocked to India to see what would happen next. What happened was exactly what Gandhi knew would happen. The British predictably behaved like arrogant brutes and started beating people and locking them up. Soon Gandhi and over 60,000 fellow members of the 'White River' were behind bars and the world looked on with open mouthed astonishment.

On the one side was a smiling little guy in a loincloth whose only crime was that he wanted to go to the seaside to make some salt.

On the other side were the policemen and the soldiers of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen. What kind of people would smash people’s heads open with wooden staves and lock up tens of thousands for the petty crime of salt making? Bad people. Very, very bad people. The British Empire was exposed for what it was and Indian Independence became an inevitability.

The key? Ghandi knew that the British would behave with their usual blind, violent arrogance. They always did. Only this time he made sure that the cameras were on. And then he duly hammered home the point that all the brutality was being committed in the name of forcing the poorest people in the world to buy Cheshire salt.

Next stop.

America 1961.

New federal laws had been passed which made it illegal for a bus station café to refuse to serve a customer who happened to have black skin. It all looked very nice on paper and no doubt the Washington elite happily patted each other on the back. The problem was that the bus station cafes of the Deep South chose to completely ignore the new laws and no politicians were willing to risk losing any votes by making a fuss. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, America was emerging from the racial dark ages and passing new laws to guarantee civil rights.

Once again the sides of good and bad were separated by lots of clear blue water and the forces of good grasped the opportunity with both hands. On May 4 1961, thirteen volunteers – seven black and six white - climbed on board two buses in Washington. Their ‘Freedom Ride’ would take them all the way south to New Orleans. Their plan was to get off the bus at every station, use the bathroom and then go into the café for coffee and pie. At first the café managers of Virginia and North Carolina played it smart and served their unwelcome black customers with faces frozen in hate. But it was never going to last once the buses crossed the state line into Alabama. The bad boys in the pointy hats of the Ku Klux Klan were not about to allow any uppity niggers to enjoy coffee and pie in any of their bus station cafes.

The Klan drew their line in the sand on the outskirts of Birmingham. One of the buses was stopped and its tyres were slashed. The local police chief had arranged for his highway patrolmen to allow the Klansmen a clear 15 minutes to have their fun. The guys in the cartoon ghost suits smashed the windows of the bus, threw petrol bombs on board and then secured to the doors to make sure all of the passengers would be burned alive and duly consigned the even hotter and more permanent fires of Hell. Thankfully one of the patrolmen panicked and drove the men of the Klan back from the burning bus by firing his pistol in the air.

The only thing that was burned to a crisp that day was the bus, but pictures of the immolated vehicle flashed around the world. The veneer of civil rights respectability Washington had carefully painted into place was stripped away and the rest of the world gasped in horror at the primordial Nazi violence of the deep south. From that very moment the men of the Klan were driven back into their box and the road was open for Martin Luther King to march down.

Once again the gap between good and bad was a veritable chasm. Those who organised the ‘Freedom Riders’ knew exactly how the good old boys of the Alabama Klan would react to northern negroes ordering coffee and pie in their bus station cafes. And they knew it would not be a good look.


Back to the New Era Estate and how things might play out. Westbrook will take things to court and the court will grant them the right to throw the residents onto the street. To achieve this Westbrook will engage the services of bailiffs with lots of tattoos and not a lot of hair. And the bailiffs will duly do their stuff and clear the blocks.

But what if…..

What if lots of people in London follow the example of the Indignados in Spain and give their mobile numbers to some sort of central co-ordinator. What would happen next would be very simple and easy to achieve.

  1. The bailiffs turn up.
  2. The residents let the co-ordinator know that the bailiffs have turned up.
  3. The co-ordinator sends a text to all the thousands of people who have given their mobile numbers.
  4. Thousands of people turn up at the New Era Estate and block the bailiffs from doing Westgate’s bidding.
All of a sudden the odds have shifted. Twenty hard faced guys in leather jackets against 93 families is no great contest. Twenty hard faced guys in leather jackets against a crowd of thousands is another thing altogether. So what to the bailiffs do? They ring the cops of course. Come and help us. We can’t do our job. But here is where things get interesting. The cops won’t like the look of things at all. They will find a completely peaceful crowd of good hearted folk who want to do nothing more than keep 93 families in their homes. Will they want to risk another London riot by piling into the peaceful crowd with tear gas and batons? Of course they won’t. So instead they will tell the boys in the leather jackets that they can’t get involved in what after all is a civil issue.

So the bailiffs will have no choice but to go home. Every time they try to return a text message is fired out and within a matter of minutes hundreds of people will be back in place to provide a human shield. At this point the thing will become hugely political. Will any of Westminster’s finest be willing to order the boys in Met Police blue to steam into a completely peaceful crowd to protect the interests of a Wall St private equity fund who have already shifted ownership of the flats offshore to dodge tax. Not a good look, right?

And all of a sudden it would not matter how much money Westbrook Partners has to hire in lawyers and bailiffs. All of a sudden they are completely powerless and friendless. All of a sudden they are completely toxic.

Just like Gandhi was technically breaking the law when he vowed to walk to the sea to make salt, those in human shield would technically be breaking the law by stopping the bailiffs from doing their nasty work. But what politician or policeman would dare to try and enforce that law in front of a watching world.

It could be great victory for good over bad and it could empower people to do more of the same. All of a sudden those shady characters with the money and the lawyers and the offshore billions wouldn’t seem so untouchable any more. All of a sudden they would appear vulnerable.

Before Ghandi’s salt march, the British grip on India seemed vice like.

Before the Freedom Riders, the Klan looked like calling the shots in Alabama for years to come.

Well. In both of those case the forces of good found a way to prevail and secure a permanent change for the better.

What is happening in the New Era offers a similarly perfect opportunity.

Let’s just hope that the forces of good can find a way to take it.    

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