The death of Blair Peach and the Southall riot


In 1979, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan called a general election after dithering for months. The extreme right National Front hoped this would be their breakthrough and organised a provocative rally in Southall, an area of London that had seen the growth of a large Asian community. The result was a violent clash between fascists, anti-fascists and police resulting in the death of a teacher called Blair Peach. This is part of an account I wrote several years ago based on contemporary reports:

The National Front arrived as planned at around 7pm and wound up the crowd with some Nazi salutes from the Town Hall steps.  The party was required to admit members of the media but refused to allow the Daily Mirror in with an NF steward explaining “we are allowing in reporters from decent papers who are not black lovers”.

The NF’s youth organiser Joe Pearce surveyed the sit-in and declared the NF would “send back every single Asian out there”.  Rather more curiously, their parliamentary candidate John Fairhurst promised that if elected he would ‘bulldoze’ Southall to the ground and replace it with an ‘English hamlet’.

Blair_Peach
Blair Peach – died in the 1979 Southall riot

As the NF meeting got underway, a young teacher from New Zealand, an activist in the Anti-Nazi League, sustained a blow to the head from a weapon that left him staggering in to a nearby house.

The impression is sometimes given that Blair Peach died instantly in the street but in fact he was still conscious though very dazed and finding it hard to speak when the ambulance arrived a quarter of an hour after the injury.  There was no blood or external trauma but it’s clear that he was suffering from a swelling in the brain, what’s termed an extra-dural haematoma.

Blair Peach died in an operating theatre at the New Ealing District Hospital at 12.10am.  After his death, Met Police Commander John Cass was asked to investigate what had happened.  His full report was only made public three decades later.

A total of 31,000 man hours would be spent looking in to the circumstances of Blair Peach’s demise but not enough evidence was found to launch a prosecution.  However – Cass performed one action during his enquiry that leaked out at the time.

On 5th June, 1979, he ordered the lockers of SPG officers to be opened and searched.   In court, Cass revealed that he had discovered a range of irregular weapons. These included a sledge hammer, two jemmies, a three foot crowbar, a yard long piece of wood, a metal truncheon with a lead weight at the end and, what really excited the media, a “Rhino whip”.

There was no suggestion that any of these were used against Peach and Commander Cass was at pains to say that he could not prove that these items had been taken to Southall on the fateful day.

But thirty years later, the report by Cass clearly showed that he believed Peach had been killed by an officer in an SPG unit.  He was also convinced that certain officers had obstructed his investigations.

The police handling of the National Front meeting in Southall could have been so different, even by the standards of the late 1970s.  The newspapers at the time contrasted what happened there with a similar situation in Plymouth.  In that town, the NF meeting had been abandoned after Anti-Nazi League members filled the hall ahead of their arrival.

The Sun was unimpressed, seeing this as a breakdown in the police handling of the situation.  But it transpired that the Chief Constable in that part of Britain had taken the view that it was the NF that needed monitoring by the police with a view to bringing charges against them for stirring up racial hatred.

Advertisements

Maggie Thatcher, the Tories and race relations


So what did Maggie think about race issues in the 70s and 80s. One of her key advisers, Alfred Sherman, had views on ethnic minority issues that would be regarded as slightly beyond the pale in our more inclusive times.   One such was that immigration had been from cultures that were alien to English values including “sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law”.

A recurring theme from Sherman was that waves of immigrants from ‘alien cultures’ had resulted in a loss of control of what it meant to be British.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because Margaret Thatcher similarly remarked in 1978 on TV that many Britons “fear rather being swamped by an alien culture”.

Behind Thatcher, on the Tory backbenches, views on immigration and race relations were a touch reactionary.  In one debate on immigration in the House of Commons on 5th July, 1976 –  some rum comments were made.

Winston Churchill’s grandson, who shared the same name but not the same glittering career as the war leader, thought the tolerance and generosity of the British people was being tested to the limit.

“We can not fail to recognise the deep bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire and woke up the next day in New Delhi Calcutta or Kingston, Jamaica.”

During the 1976 debate, Churchill pointed out that a West Indian had told him at his MP’s surgery that he would remove his daughter from a school, which was 75% immigrant, because she had no chance of a ‘proper English education’.  Churchill added, “that man was as black as your coat, Mr Deputy Speaker”.

John Stokes, MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge claimed that a petition to the Home Office might be replied to in six weeks but an “immigrant leader” who wanted to see the Prime Minister would get an audience in two days.

He went on to claim that a vast gap existed between what he called the pro-immigrant camp – made up of race relations people, intellectuals, the media and do-gooders – and “the ordinary people who look to us in the House of Commons for protection”.

“They do not want a multi-racial society.  They do not believe that integration will work.”

And in case anybody thought that by immigration, the Commons debate might be referring to all those who entered the UK, George Rodgers – MP for Chorley – put them on the right track.  “The difficulties revolve around the colour of people’s skins.  We should bear that in mind and recognise the problem, not avoid it.”

And so it went on with Nicholas Winterton, MP for Macclesfield, even demanding that the then Labour government apologise to Enoch Powell for the comments they had made after his notorious 1968 anti-immigration ‘rivers of blood’ speech.

Three years later, the 1979 Conservative Manifesto would include proposals for toughening up of immigration policy directly under its promises on fighting crime.  It acknowledged that the ethnic minorities had made a valuable contribution to the life of the nation.

“But firm immigration control for the future is essential if we are to achieve good community relations”.

The NME visits Liverpool after the 1981 riots


At the start of August 1981 – just days after the July riots had simmered down – the New Musical Express went to Toxteth to find out what locals were really thinking.  Police still patrolled every street corner and there did not appear to be a single shop in the area that had not been looted.  A woman called Anna sat behind a makeshift stall beyond which was a pile of rubble that had once been “Anna’s Fruit Shop”.

“They’ve just created more unemployment by putting shopkeepers and their workers on the dole.  They haven’t hurt the police – it’s just their own community that they’ve destroyed.”

While middle aged and older residents were aghast at what had unfolded in their community, some younger interviewees were enjoying the breakdown in law and order.  There was a cocky bravado at getting goods they couldn’t normally afford free of charge.

“We just do it for what we can get out of it – to see what we can nick.”

“Just ‘cos I enjoy every minute of it.  I only do it for kicks an’ so I can rob cars.”

But there were more thoughtful youngsters who said the situation had been building up for twenty years.  The police had always treated black and white youth in the area with suspicion, searching their bags, getting a bit rough with them.  “People were bound to fight back one day.”

The death of David Moore (the only person to die in the riots, see my other blog posts on him) seemed to validate their actions as he was a defenceless, disabled man mown down by a police van.  So the NME went to talk to the police who, it noted, had received 1,631 complaints (mentioned in their annual report) resulting in formal disciplinary action against just two officers.

In spite of its trendy-left reputation, the paper took an even-handed view towards the constabulary pointing out that while there had been allegations of harassment, the police themselves had been subjected to daily provocation including being spat at and called ‘pigs’ to see if they would react.  As one garage attendant stoically remarked to the NME – “there’s good and bad on both sides”.

Talking to members of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, it became clear that well known comments about the local Toxteth community being the product of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes were now widely attributed to the Merseyside Chief Constable Ken Oxford himself – though he denied it vehemently.

The exchange between the L8DC and the NME was frosty in the extreme and things only got worse when the reporter arrived at the Carribean Community Centre to be told “no white press in here”.  About twenty local youth quickly arrived on the scene to ask why the music paper only came to see them when there were bad times and crisis.

Promoting Merseyside bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark didn’t endear the NME to these black teenagers who saw that as “only another example of discrimination against blacks – in this case by the predominantly white-controlled music business”.

Clearly not having a good time in Toxteth, the reporter then alleged that he had been frisked as he moved along by inept pick-pockets and four other youths were now bouncing up and down on the bonnet of his ten year old Escort van.  Remonstrating with them, he got this stark response.

“You come into a trouble-torn area with your fancy cameras on your back an’ your slick tape recorders an’ fire questions at black people under pressure.  An’ then you wonder why they want to hit you over the head an’ steal your equipment an’ leave you on the ground.”

Describing himself and his cameraman as “white boys in the wrong part of town”, the NME reporter decided to exit the city.

Why a single black mother dreaded Christmas in 1977


The lives of working class black families were a terra incognita for most white British three decades ago.  So it was unusual for the Christmas issue of a popular teen mag called Fab208 in 1977 to lead with a single parent family who were dreading the not very festive season.

“I don’t know how I’ve avoided committing suicide,” Mrs Jones told the magazine ahead of glossier pages on the Bay City Rollers, Starksy and Hutch and the Osmonds.  With her four sons and three daughters, they were crammed in to a cold flat in Wapping with a kitchen gutted by a cooker fire.

Sharon, aged 14, never invited friends from school back home nor went out with them.  “At school I hear them talking about the places they’ve been to and I feel like the odd one out.”

With so little room inside, Mrs Jones hung up the laundry on the terrace by the front door but clothes kept getting stolen.  Sharon had received a pair of jeans for her birthday, worn them once but after a single wash, they had been spirited away.

Yolanda, aged 17, noticed that the thieves went through the laundry looking for the best outfits and left the rest.  As an older teen, she was fed up of the lack of privacy having to share a bedroom with her two sisters.

“You can’t go anywhere in the house and be on your own.  It’s the small things like that which get on your nerves.”

Mrs Jones had fallen in to £200 of rent arrears though she said this was a protest against the GLC, their council landlord, failing to repair the badly charred kitchen.  But being behind on payments meant that the GLC was refusing to re-house the family until they came good on the debt.

With both sides at loggerheads, Mrs Jones pointed out she had never been on social security and worked to keep her family.  “I’m not a sponger.  I wouldn’t like the idea of someone else supporting my children.”

Fab 208 front cover
Fab 208 front cover
A black single mother in the late 1970s
A black single mother in the late 1970s

The race card and the 1981 riots


In my view, only one riot in 1981 could be described as a white v black confrontation and that was Southall where National Front supporters and predominantly Asian youth clashed. But as for Toxteth, Moss Side and Brixton – the frustration of black youth was allied to a furious despair among unemployed whites and their target was mainly the police.

However, the veteran prophet of doom Enoch Powell wasn’t going to let the riots pass without fulminating in parliament  that a race war was round the corner. He banged on that none of this would have happened if the “New Commonwealth” population hadn’t been allowed to grow.  Powell then turned to some familiar fear mongering stating that immigrant areas were forever expanding and the “indigenous population” must “retreat house by house at the same rate”.

Powell was joined in playing the race card by Ivor Stanbrook MP who told journalists he was going to see the Home Secretary to argue for a ‘voluntary repatriation scheme’. Eldon Griffiths MP, parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation, said “who can say today that racial violence does not threaten the social fabric of Britain?”

This didn’t impress Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw. An old aristocratic Tory, he slapped Powell and the others down pointing out that the black community living in Toxteth, Liverpool had been there for 150 years. They weren’t newcomers.  More interestingly, Whitelaw said the racial composition of the rioters in Toxteth had changed night after night – becoming noticeably whiter! These are his exact words to parliament on the 16th July, 1981.

“The first night consisted largely of black youths, children of many generations of Liverpool people, erupting against the police. The second saw a concerted attack on the police by white and black youngsters. The third witnessed a predominantly white crowd of looters exploiting the earlier disturbances, while local black leaders played a major part in keeping their young people off the streets”.

Whitelaw admitted young people in Britain were experiencing deep frustration. He added that violence had already been seen breaking out at football matches and had now burst forth on to the streets.

“The problems of urban decay and deprivation are intractable and deep-seated, particularly in Merseyside, despite decades of efforts to remedy them and the expenditure of very considerable sums of public money”.

 

Scrap the SUS law – a time of poor police and black relations


The SUS laws were a Victorian piece of legislation allowing the police to pick up a suspected person ‘loitering with intent’. Throughout the 1970s, there were growing concerns at the high percentage of black youth being stopped and searched under this law.

The West Indian/African Association in Deptford was one of many organisations that campaigned to scrap SUS. There were meetings between the black community and police liaison officers but nothing ever seemed to be resolved. Things weren’t improved by the fact that black police numbers were so low and every so often, evidence would leak out of what we now call ‘institutional racism’.

Here is a campaign leaflet from that time.