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The Writers’ Action Group Is a Model for Today’s Fight for the Arts

In the 1970s, the Writers' Action Group campaigned for writers to receive royalties from library loans. Their campaign resulted in Public Lending Right – and is a model to follow in the fight for arts funding.

The novelist and campaigner Brigid Brophy once said she had devoted her life’s writing and thought to—in descending order—art, human and animal rights, and sex. At the height of the most significant campaign in British history for authors to be recognised for their labour, Brophy was asked if the order had changed. ‘No, all that has happened is that the first has slightly blended in my life with the second,’ she told the Contemporary Literature journal in 1976. ‘A trade union for writers is not a very sexy occasion, so to that extent, the third has had to recede.’

Typical of Brophy’s self-deprecating humour, her comment says much about her dedication to the cause. Three years after this interview, the Public Lending Right Act 1979 guaranteed authors a royalty when their books were borrowed from public libraries. Ever since, this law has provided a reliable—if modest—income stream for thousands of writers. Yet the Act’s passage—championed by Michael Foot in the Commons and Ted Willis in the Lords—was far from inevitable. Without the gargantuan efforts of Brophy and the poet and novelist Maureen Duffy, along with a parliamentary campaign which would leave every modern ‘public affairs’ lobbyist green with envy, it would have remained a mere footnote in British history.

For Brophy, the cause was personal. Her ‘middlebrow novelist’ father John had conceived the ‘Brophy penny’ in 1951. This was a proposal for book borrowers to be charged a penny for each loan, with the proceeds going to authors. While Brigid Brophy disapproved of her father’s support for charging borrowers, she wrote in A Guide to Public Lending Right in 1983 that it was ‘natural’ for his time. ‘No tradition yet existed of state patronage of prose.’

But this was a tradition that Brophy was determined to cement into Britain’s public realm. In 1972, she and Duffy formed the Writers’ Action Group (WAG). By now, charging borrowers was ‘politically doomed’ as well as undesirable: Ted Heath’s Conservative government had just faced uproar over museum charges. And so the ‘Brophy penny’ project was transformed into a campaign for ‘Public Lending Right’ (PLR), under which authors would be remunerated from public funds.

Politicians and the arts establishment had spent much of the 1960s discussing ways to compensate authors for library loans. None of their proposed solutions satisfied the WAG. A scheme based on copyright would leave proceeds in the hands of publishing giants rather than authors. The Hookway report of 1972, commissioned under Heath, suggested calculating payments to both writers and publishers based on libraries’ purchase of books. The WAG argued this would discriminate against older writers whose books were already on library shelves – and favour the authors of expensive tomes regardless of public reading habits.

Instead, they campaigned for a scheme made possible by the rapid computerisation of Britain’s public libraries. This made it cheaper and far easier to operate a PLR scheme based on sampling library loans from a selection of council areas across the country. The sample could be regularly rotated to ensure it was not skewed by the popularity of local and special interest books in particular parts of the nation.

More still, both Brophy and Duffy had a keen interest in technological developments. ‘She had some strangely anomalous things [in her life] – she absolutely adored aeroplanes,’ recalls Brophy’s daughter Kate Levey. ‘She had the same kind of thing about computers… they weren’t just new, they were the future. Maureen pursued this computer business I think in greater depth than my mother did. They had the capability to pursue [a new means of enacting PLR] that my grandfather John wouldn’t have had at all.’

The WAG’s unofficial office was Brophy’s flat on the Old Brompton Road in west London – from which she and Duffy carried out the unglamorous legwork of maintaining membership records and distributing newsletters. Levey lived at the flat with her boyfriend at the time, and while regretting her own lack of interest in the campaign, she remembers how it took over family life. ‘One could feel in the flat the tension ratcheting up to these newsletters,’ she says, adding that distribution proved trickier as the membership expanded. ‘Somebody from the Royal Mail came and said it was a serious offence to block up all the post boxes in the vicinity with the WAG newsletter.’

Many WAG members, such as JB Priestley and Harold Pinter, were recognisably of the left or liberal left, but the group also counted Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch—who had by now both drifted to the right—among its number. ‘My mother had such a strong left-wing profile amongst literary people, but she motivated a huge number of people apolitically – they felt the compunction to belong to this thing,’ says Levey. ‘It did unite people of completely different political persuasions, which is where it derived its strength.’

Lord Willis, who after being general secretary of the Young Communist League in the 1940s had become a successful screenwriter and a Labour peer, was an early supporter of the WAG. The founding chair of the Screenwriters’ Guild (later the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain), in 1961 he had secured Britain’s first minimum terms agreement for writers, laying down basic fees for television drama. When a group from within the WAG decided to pursue full unionisation, they secured agreements from the Writers’ Guild to open its doors to book authors for the first time in 1974. Duffy later became its co-chair, and as a Writers’ Guild delegate secured the backing of the TUC for loans-sampling PLR in 1978. The WAG was far less impressed with the long-established Society of Authors, which dragged its feet before coming out for the Hookway report’s purchase scheme.

With little faith in the mainstream media to report accurately on the campaign (Brophy praised Tribune alongside the Morning Star, the Daily Mail, and the Bookseller as carrying the only reliable reports), the WAG spread its message through a series of public meetings and publicity stunts. On St George’s Day in 1975—also thought to be Shakespeare’s birthday—actors dressed as St George and the dragon mounted the portico of the Office of Arts and Libraries and handed over a bouquet of red roses, along with a note imploring Labour arts minister Hugh Jenkins to ‘save English literature from extinction’.

A firm proposal for loans-sampling PLR was finally introduced to Parliament the following year – with Tories such as Airey Neave ensuring it had support on both sides of the House. But in spite of the WAG scheme not proposing loan charges, many librarians felt it could be used to justify introducing them at a later date. Others charged that the likes of Foot were set to profit from PLR as writers. A duo of Tories, the pleasingly-named Roger Moate and Iain Sproat, formed an unholy alliance with Labour leftwinger Michael English to filibuster the 1976 Bill, successfully talking it out until there was no remaining time in the parliamentary session. With the arts minister in the Lords, the Bill had been, Brophy said, ‘tossed to a variety of junior ministers, none of whom had apparently had time to master the subject or the content’. One of these was a young Margaret Jackson, who after her marriage several years later became known as Margaret Beckett.

The WAG resumed campaigning, and in the winter of 1978 a new, strengthened version of the Bill was put before the Commons. The campaign had still failed to reassure everyone that the Treasury would meet its cost in perpetuity. Labour MP Dick Buchanan, a Glaswegian railwayman who was president of the Scottish Library Association, worried that future cuts could put the burden on councils.

At the second reading, where the previous Bill had fallen, Commons leader Foot took charge. But he only spoke for a few seconds of the debate. Foot, according to Brophy, had ‘amassed an arsenal of procedural methods, most of which he never needed to use except as bargaining counters’ in order to outwit the filibusters. The Bill passed into law on 6 March 1979, just weeks before James Callaghan’s government was defeated in a no confidence debate, and it came into effect in 1982.

Libraries across Britain now lie closed due to Covid-19. With many having already fallen victim to austerity, the ongoing squeeze on council budgets has led to fears that some may not reopen after the pandemic. But the principle of free borrowing remains – and it is thanks to Public Lending Right that authors have a tangible stake in the survival of libraries.

Brophy and Duffy used their campaign—and as a result of it, the apparatus of the state—to bring writers together in a collective cause. They showed we can do more than simply defend the arts when they are inevitably pitted against schools and the NHS for funding post-Covid — and instead, we can strive to create something better.