Rebel with many causes

A “mini-fortress” is how the human rights activist Peter Tatchell describes his south London flat. Looking at the window bars, the steel-reinforced door and the sign warning of CCTV surveillance, it is hard to demur.

An observer could be mistaken for thinking that Tatchell, an Australian by birth but a British citizen since 1989, has taken that well-known adage “an Englishman’s home is his castle” too literally. But the precautions are necessary. Tatchell’s campaigns for gay rights, racial equality, civil liberties and democracy have attracted death threats, bullets and bombs from an unsavoury mixture of homophobes, neo-Nazis and Islamic fundamentalists.

“The bricks now bounce off the windows,” Tatchell jokes, “although I can’t walk outside and feel totally relaxed.” Nonetheless, the man who made front pages around the world in 1999 by attempting a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe remains an indomitable campaigner. He has just returned from addressing the Occupy London camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, which is the kind of “tent city” protest that he proposed three decades ago.

Tatchell’s flat occupies the first floor of an austere, brown-brick housing block in the borough of Southwark, just south of the Thames. The building was erected by the London County Council in the 1930s as part of a slum demolition project. The elevated lawn at the front conceals a second world war air-raid shelter, adding to the sense of fortification. This has been Tatchell’s home since 1978. He moved here seven years after arriving in London, a refugee from the Vietnam draft in Australia. A blue plaque at one end of the block salutes its famous resident: anonymity, even in the name of security, has never been Tatchell’s style.

The blue plaque on the building salutes its famous resident

This pigeonhole apartment also serves as Tatchell’s archive and campaign headquarters. “Cosy and compact,” he calls it. “Or cluttered and chaotic: whichever you prefer.” A stack of correspondence has been moved from the sofa on to the bed in anticipation of my visit but otherwise the sitting room, bedroom and kitchen are crammed from floor to ceiling with letters, books and files. Even the stove is piled high with papers. “Mostly, I eat salads and raw foods,” Tatchell says.

He has incorporated some of this material into the decor. The walls of the sitting room are covered with collages of pictures, pamphlets and placards from Tatchell’s many campaigns, from the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations of the 1970s to the current green movement. A painting by Philip Swarbrick shows Tatchell’s arrest by Russian riot police during a gay rights demonstration in Moscow in 2007.

A painting by Philip Swarbrick shows Tatchell’s arrest by Russian police during a gay rights protest in Moscow in 2007

It was during the Moscow protest that Tatchell was struck on the head by a Russian ultra-nationalist, possibly acting as an agent provocateur for the police. The injury left him with impaired vision, memory loss and co-ordination problems. The perpetrator was never punished. I ask whether he regrets participating in that demonstration. “It was important that I was there to show solidarity with the brave Russian activists,” he replies. “My presence brought lots of media attention. Obviously, I regret suffering these injuries because they have affected me ever since. But my injuries are fairly minor by comparison to what happens to human rights campaigners in Russia.”

Tatchell appears in vigorous condition. Almost 60, he stands tall and trim, with chiselled features and gun-barrel grey eyes. Yet he lives a precarious existence. His apartment is still owned by Southwark Council. “About 12 years ago, I could have bought this flat for £15,000. It’s now worth nearly £200,000. But I decided against it.” Partly, this owed to financial considerations: Tatchell relies on donations from supporters for his campaigns and survives on £8,000 a year. But it was also a matter of conscience. “I thought, if everyone buys council houses, there will be no social housing left.”

In 1981, Tatchell, then a prospective Labour party candidate for the Southwark and Bermondsey constituency, advocated non-violent agitation against the policies of the Thatcher government, including the establishment of a “tent city” of the homeless and unemployed. This clarion cry provoked a crisis in the Labour party that threatened the leadership of Michael Foot. Two years later, Tatchell lost the previously safe Labour seat to the Liberal candidate Simon Hughes in a notorious by-election that was lacerated by violence and intimidation.

Tatchell’s call has a curious prescience. He describes the Occupy London camp at St Paul’s as an act of “creative genius”. “I don’t see it as disfiguring a great national monument. Most successful protests involve doing something new and unique, which is what this camp has done. People feel incredibly angry that, after getting us into this mess, bankers and corporate bosses are still getting huge bonuses.”

In his speeches at the camp, he has outlined a set of reforms designed to establish what he calls “economic democracy”. “Economic democracy is the great unfinished democratic struggle,” he says. “In the economic system, a handful of people – the directors and leading shareholders – have all the votes. The vast majority of people, the employees, have no vote at all.” To this end, he proposes a statutory requirement for all businesses with more than 50 employees to have staff and consumer representation at board level. He also believes that any new share issue should necessarily include employees.

He extends these demands to public bodies like the National Health Service. “The key thing is opening up economic decision-making to a wider range of people, decentralising it, making it transparent and accountable and ensuring that social and ethical values form part of how both private corporations and public institutions operate.” He also believes that all pension funds should be placed under employee supervision and corporate recklessness made a criminal offence.

His most arresting proposal relates to the tax system. To recapitalise the state, he proposes a one-off, 20 per cent levy on the assets of the richest tenth of Britons. “We are not asking them to wander around in sackcloth and ashes. We are saying give up one of your Lamborghinis or your private jet.” He believes this would raise £800bn for the exchequer, clearing the structural deficit and allowing the government to invest in green industries.

Tatchell’s three decades in Southwark have left him acutely conscious of the effects of economic decline on local communities. “When I first came here, the whole riverside was a derelict wasteland of crumbling docks, warehouses and factories. It was like a Mad Max wild urban landscape.” He relishes the area’s rich history – its associations with Chaucer and Shakespeare, whose Globe Theatre lay a few hundred yards from the apartment – along with its less salubrious side. “The area hosted theatres, bear-baiting, abattoirs, tanneries and other disreputable or noxious trades.” But he fears resurgent decay unless the wealthy make sacrifices: “We are asking them to do their patriotic duty to help the country in a moment of crisis.”

Favourite thing

My most treasured possession is a battered miniature embossed leather and velvet case containing a photo of my great grandfather, George Henry Tatchell (1831-1885). It was taken in the 1850s, not long after he arrived in Australia. A young merchant seaman from London, he jumped ship in Adelaide when he heard about the gold rush in Victoria. George never made his fortune on the goldfields. He ended up farming, not very successfully, in the harsh conditions of the outback. It’s important to me because George embodies an adventurous, daring battler spirit that I seem to also possess. Plus, he took the Tatchell name to Australia and I bought it back to England.

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