The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

special patrol group

The Special Patrol Group – better known in the early 1980s by its acronym “the SPG” – was a riot busting unit that achieved a degree of notoriety under the first Thatcher government. It was as a result of the activities of the SPG that perceptions of the police began to change dramatically forty years ago. Up until then, most Britons looked on the police as a force for solving crimes and protecting the citizen. But in the late 1970s as protests, industrial action and civil unrest increased, this image changed as people observed the police response. Especially the tactics used by the SPG.

The image of the kindly bobby

In the 1950s, and 1960s, one of the most popular crime drama series on BBC television was Dixon of Dock Green. It ran from 1955 to 1976. An actor played an amiable fictitious police officer called Constable George Dixon. He would introduce that week’s story. The crime would then be dramatised. And at the end, Dixon would reappear to tell us what happened to the naughty criminal after that. Actor Jack Warner, who played Constable Dixon, was a stern but kindly presence. An astonishing 432 episodes were made based in an imaginary east London police station.

But by the 1970s, TV critics were lambasting Dixon as an anachronism. If indeed, such a cosy police force had ever really existed. Well, it certainly didn’t by the 1970s and 1980s. And TV reflected that realisation with grittier British cop dramas like Softy, Softly and The Sweeney – but even they failed to convey the reality of a unit like the SPG. Because to do so would have raised fundamental questions about what kind of a society we really were.

How comfortable would we be with the way the SPG handled protests or its prickly relations with minority ethnic communities – especially black youth?

The Special Patrol Group and the 1979 Southall Riot

In 1979, the SPG came to public attention with a major riot in the Southall district of London. There was a general election pitting the ruling Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan against his Tory opponent Margaret Thatcher (who would go on to win the election). The racist National Front (NF) provocatively decided to hold a rally in Southall – an area with a large Asian heritage community. The government – still Labour at the time – decided it had no legal grounds to ban the NF rally. Older Asian community leaders were prepared to cooperate with the police to reduce tensions. Younger Asian activists wanted the fascists kept out of Southall. Faced with the prospect of civil unrest, the Metropolitan Police sent in the SPG.

Blair Peach, a teacher, attended a counter-demonstration against the NF. Police reports subsequently acknowledged that fourteen witnesses claimed they saw a police officer strike Peach on the head. In the early hours of the next morning, he died in hospital. No other injury was recorded. The SPG stood accused of having inflicted the injury. An official Metropolitan Police complaint response was hardly remorseful:

The funeral of the deceased was akin to a potential demonstration with Left-wing political elements most prominent. Associates of the deceased see it as a ’cause celebre’ and will endeavour to obtain maximum benefit for their purposes and what happened would never be satisfied.

It then cited legal precedent to justify – if necessary – using maximum force to restore public order:

In case of riot or rebellious assembly the officers endeavouring to disperse the riot are justified in killing them at common law if the riot cannot otherwise be suppressed.

The same police response then conceded that in a search of the Special Patrol Group offices at Barnes in west London, a rhino whip, a cosh, and a “black jack” were found in an officer’s locker. This got national press coverage at at the time – especially the rhino whip!

For two decades afterwards, Peach’s partner Celia Stubbs was the subject of police surveillance. This was undertaken by a Metropolitan Police unit that most officers had never heard of – such was its secrecy – called the Special Demonstration Squad. They spied on political groups of concern but also those very publicly campaigning against claimed injustice.

The victory of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in the 1979 general election gave the police a Prime Minister who wasn’t going to ask too many questions. Bent on declaring war against the Trade Unions and the Left, Thatcher fully anticipated a degree of social unrest – as documents released into the public domain decades later show. So a beefed up police force ready to take to the streets against protestors was on the cards.

The SPG and the SUS Laws

Whether Thatcher anticipated the wave of riots that kicked off in every major city in the UK during the summer of 1981 is debatable. One SPG-related cause was the use of the so-called SUS Laws. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars from 1815 onwards, the streets of London and other urban centres saw demobilised soldiers reduced to beggary and theft. Court records of the time offer a grim litany of hangings of ex-soldiers found guilty of stealing.

The government response was to pass the 1824 Vagrancy Act with section four titled: Persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds. It railed against “persons” being idle and disorderly; sleeping in barns; exposing themselves to women (no, really!); exposing war wounds to get money through pity; and frequenting canals, warehouses, and highways. If stopped by a figure in authority, you had to give a good account of what you were up to – or face the legal consequences. The burden of proof was on the accused.

By the end of the 1970s, the Runnymede Trust and other organisations accused the police of using the Vagrancy Act disproportionately against black youth. If this is all starting to have a ring of grim familiarity – it should do. We’re having more or less the same debate today in the UK and United States. Depressing eh?

The SPG was accused of racialising urban spaces. Using an antiquated law to create an oppressive environment in predominantly black neighbourhoods. SUS had several impacts on police-community relations. Older immigrants from the Caribbean – the parents of youth on the streets – would traditionally have assumed the police were in the right and given their kids a cuff round the ear when they got home. But now even the older generation began to question police attitudes. This reduced deference towards the police who now came to be seen as a hostile occupying power.

As early as 1977, one black mother – Mavis Best – organised a group of parents in Lewisham, south London to go and rescue their kids from police stations.

SUS created fear among law abiding black and Asian youth who came to realise that they stood as good a chance of being stopped and searched under the SUS laws as those engaged in criminality. Being treated like a law breaker doesn’t create good citizens. More damagingly, the feeling grew that racism was ingrained in the police – the “institutional racism” that would become such a headline in the aftermath of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in the 1990s. There was a sense that white skinhead thugs and National Front boot boys would always get lighter treatment from the police compared to black teenagers.

1981 Riots and the Special Patrol Group

From April 1981, riots broke out in Britain – first in Brixton then on to Toxteth in Liverpool, Southall again, Moss Side in Manchester and so on. Ironically, while Toxteth and Brixton burned that year, the Thatcher government passed the Criminal Attempts Act in July which…abolished the “loitering with intent” clause of the 1824 Vagrancy Act that had largely caused all the trouble. A report by Lord Scarman into the 1981 riots acknowledged poor police-community relations but didn’t call for the SPG to be disbanded.

The Scarman Report noted how actions by the SPG and wider police had wider ramifications:

Harassment does occur: and in Brixton even one isolated instance of misconduct can foster a whole legion of rumours which rapidly become beliefs firmly held within the community.

Scarman rejected ethnic minority quotas for the police but did state that “racially prejudiced people” should be excluded from the force. He recommended support to find “scientific ways” to identify racists trying to become cops.

Scarman was convinced that the deployment of the SPG in Brixton was a serious mistake that finally tanked relations with the community. But he was adamantly opposed to disbanding the SPG. The Metropolitan Police needed a mobile unit like the SPG though it had to be well managed and greater turnover encouraged to prevent an inward-looking, defensive mindset. Then this jaw-dropping comment from Scarman:

But it is a fair comment that the SPG has become a target of sustained criticism in some quarters not because of its failings, but because of its successes.

In the next sentence, Scarman presented the problem as essentially one of PR. If only people knew about the “purpose and achievements” of the SPG – they’d warm to it a lot more!! There’s then a convoluted piece of logic where Scarman says that the SPG shouldn’t be excluded from areas like Brixton, but that the community should be consulted in advance, though secrecy is essential to the effectiveness of its operations.

While SUS was scrapped in 1981 – the SPG continued until 1987 when it was replaced by the Territorial Support Group.

SUS law

The SPG was so hated that the unit even inspired a punk song by The Exploited.

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