by Theo Russell
Gangrene; Aly Renwick (2017). Merlin Press, London. 256pp. £9.99.
ISBN: 9781854251183; ISBN-10: 185425118X
ISBN: 9781854251183; ISBN-10: 185425118X
If you’ve ever asked yourself the question “Is British society really as bad as I think it is? Or are we actually much better off than most countries?”, then this is a book you should read.
It is a virtual dissection of the thoroughly rotten, stinking heart of capitalist Britain, and along the way it reveals many of the most shameful chapters in recent British history.
Gangrene can be described as a Marxist political thriller that somehow manages to encompass MI5’s role in the war in Northern Ireland, the Kincora Boy’s Home scandal, the miners’ strike, the 1973 coup in Chile, the Falklands War and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.
It somehow manages to weave all these strands into an effective whole through the eyes of low-ranking British soldiers engaged in intelligence-gathering who, although thoroughly reactionary themselves, begin to question the methods and sheer debauchery that MI5 is prepared to sink to.
The central character, ‘Ginge’, recovering in hospital after an attempt to silence him with a car bomb, recounts what he and his mates have uncovered, much of it from the pep talks they receive from senior army and intelligence officers: the MI5/Military conspiracies to overthrow Harold Wilson and subvert Tory ‘wets’ such as Edward Heath.
The plots recall the true life ‘Clockwork Orange’ and the ‘Shield Committee’ plots, which envisaged collaborating with Loyalist paramilitaries to target trade unionists and ‘agitators’ in Mainland Britain.
A single thread links all these issues, coming from the very top (and Britain’s US masters) – the imposition of ‘Chicago School’ economic policies that led inexorably to the Britain we know today: a low-pay economy; austerity; poor schools and housing; a return to Victorian-era class divisions; working people being robbed left, right and centre; increasing social degradation; and the systematic destruction of communities to be replaced with rampant individualism.
In this way Gangrene provides a highly believable account of how we arrived where we’re at in Britain today. To a greater or lesser extent in every capitalist state, we can see ‘Chicago Economics’ in practice – the naked rule of banks and corporations, which now stand above and control mere national governments.
After reading Gangrene the unavoidable conclusion is that we now live under the iron rule of this reactionary doctrine. The Keynesian/welfare state version of capitalism has been ‘deleted’ as an option, with the Chicago doctrine now the only choice available for ‘democratically elected’ governments regardless of their political shade.
The book also describes the ingrained reactionary and racist culture of the British army, in which each individual unit is taught to distrust any other part of the army.
In one pep talk, ‘the Major’ refers to “decades spent clearing up abroad, against blacks, yellows and slant eyes. Now we’re going into action in the UK, after the enemy at home.”
The nationalists in the north of Ireland are “Micks”, civilians are “civvie cunts”, and trade unionists and socialists are “communists”. It is not a pleasant read but unfortunately this is the unpleasant reality: an oppressive, imperialist army designed to serve its ruthless capitalist masters.
The soldiers reveal MI5’s collaboration with Loyalist paramilitaries to turn the Northern Ireland conflict that began in the late 1960s into a full-scale war, with the Major declaring after the 1970 Falls Curfew: “it’s all brewing up nicely.”
Later a new “reaction force” arrives in Belfast to “take the war to the enemy”, represented by an officer they call “Stone Eyes”, who later recounts how he killed communists in Chile whilst seconded from the British Army.
Ginge’s mate Geordie – himself brought up in a care home – hears from his loyalist contacts of rumours in East Belfast that residents of the Kincora Boy’s Home were being sexually abused.
But when he raises this with the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] he is told: “we’ve been warned off all that, it’s your lot who are running Kincora.” “Your lot” turns out to be MI5.
Geordie turns to the Major, who in turns brings in ‘Mr Smith’ from MI5. He describes the Kincora victims as “flotsam and jetsam off the streets” who can’t get in the way of MI5’s objectives. Geordie is ordered to drop his interest in the case.
Geordie later suffers from nightmares about his army experiences, takes to drinking and dies in a car crash.
Ginge is also sent on ‘leave’ during the 1984–5 miners’ strike to gather intelligence on union activists in his own local community. The book goes on to show the rapid economic changes after the strike affecting working people’s lives.
Originally from a village in Scotland, Aly Renwick joined the British Army aged 16 and served in Northern Ireland. He bought himself out after eight years in 1968, and joined the anti-Vietnam War movement.
In 1973 he and other activists founded the Troops Out Movement, and he later became an active member of Veterans for Peace UK. He has also written a well-received novel, Last Night Another Soldier, about the Northern Ireland war, and Oliver’s Army, an account of the British army’s role in Ireland.
Renwick cites Marx’s writings on Ireland and the famous quote “A nation that oppresses another forges its own chains,” as a major influence. He himself sums up Gangrene's plot:
“In the decades after the Second World War, Keynesianism had brought the Welfare State and the NHS, but was then overthrow by ‘free market’ neoliberalism. A furtive political coup d’état brought the coming of the ‘Iron Lady’ (Thatcher) and the new, more virulent, form of capitalism, which affected – and with its accompanying austerity still affects – everywhere and everyone.
“With the Peace Process, the conflict had ended in the north of Ireland, but the propaganda war continued apace.”
It can be hard to follow the book’s structure and frequent changes in periods covered, but it is worth the effort. Mostly based on facts, with some invented but highly plausible episodes thrown in.
It is not a book for those with weak stomachs, but it does weave together a multitude of negative changes affecting British society over the past 50 years that have had extremely destructive impacts on the lives of millions of people.
Whether fighting national liberation movements in Ireland or trade unionists in Britain, or systematically eroding the security of working people’s lives, it shows the absolute ruthlessness of the British ruling class in achieving its aims no matter what the human cost.
Gangrene was published by the London-based Merlin Press in 2017, priced £9.99, and is available in most left wing bookshops and elsewhere.