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.

Austerity economics – how it failed 35 years ago


Since winning the 1979 General Election, the Conservatives had embarked on an economic policy described as ‘monetarism’   This entailed rigorous control of the money supply in order to curb the great British disease of inflation.  The outgoing Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, no stranger to cutting government spending himself, had dubbed the new creed as ‘sado-monetarism’.

9780436164859-uk-300The high priest of monetarism was a professor at the Chicago school of economics by the name of Milton Friedman.  Without going too far in to the vast detail that any debate on economics can become mired in, Friedman essentially threw out the conventional Keynesian wisdom that in a depression, governments should spend to keep people in work.

Out of control public spending, he argued, would lead to something called ‘stagflation’ – stagnation with high inflation – which was a prevalent condition of many economies in the 1970s.  The answer was a kind of shock therapy where high interest rates, as one weapon, would make it unattractive to spend money.  This would then lead to restraint in wages and prices, which would result in inflation coming down.

RV-AA080_GALBRA_DV_20100921215155
JK Galbraith

Oh that life was so simple, Keynesians retorted angrily – in many newspaper columns and on the letters pages.  Friedman’s leading Keynesian nemesis on the global stage was the elderly but highly alert J K Galbraith, who had served in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration steering through the New Deal.  He warned over and over again that Friedman’s medicine would lead to idle industrial plants and high unemployment.

Just because it hurt, Galbraith thundered, didn’t mean monetarism was actually doing any good to Britain.

“Suffering must have a purpose: out of much suffering there must come much good.  No one is quite sure how this works in economics; one only knows that the bad times are somehow the price of the good.  Pain and punishment are considered especially salutary for other people.”

pinochet2
General Pinochet – enthusiastic supporter of austerity economics

So agonising were the effects of monetarism that many on the left pointed out that in its most undiluted form, it had only successfully been applied in Chile – which still languished under a military dictatorship.  The implication being that a democracy could not hold the lid down on a population tormented by the rigours of this doctrine.

Within the trade unions, the widespread suspicion was that the Conservatives were using high levels of unemployment deliberately to beat down pay demands.   With an instinctive hatred of state regulation of the economy, Thatcher didn’t want to get involved in imposing incomes policies (as Labour had tried to do in the 1970s) but fear of the dole, it was thought, was her preferred weapon against wage inflation.

In reality, the Conservatives quietly dropped monetarism and adopted a more pragmatic and less doctrinaire approach after 1982.  But not before they would experience a bitter lesson from Britain’s hugely pissed off youth on how far you can pursue an experiment before the subject bites back.

The police with dustbin lids and traffic cones versus rioters


In 1977, a massive riot between National Front supporters and anti-Nazis swept through Lewisham and tied up an estimated fifth of the Metropolitan Police. From 1976, the Notting Hill carnivals had ended in a fracas between police and local youth with a heavily charged racist undertow.

So, unsurprisingly, those politicians who nailed their colours to the law and order mast were calling for a more heavily armed police by the end of the 1970s. The sight of cops holding dustbin lids as shields and traffic cones had become a sick joke in their eyes. Looking back now – with our police having access to very sophisticated protection – it does look rather incongruous.

Here’s a headline from the Daily Mail after the Battle of Lewisham that prepared the ground for a police force with more riot equipment.

Battle of Lewisham

1981 Manchester riot with police station surrounded


Manchester riot
The most violent night in the Moss Side riot

July was the month of riots in 1981 and they came thick and fast from Toxteth, a re-ignited Brixton (which had already rioted in April), Southall and mini-riots from Coventry to Leicester and some very unlikely places like Chigwell in Essex!

The Manchester riot was particularly vicious. I remember driving through Moss Side – having been on a canal trip! It was just after the violence had died down and there was evidence of the destruction everywhere. And a very eerie atmosphere.

Read the Wikipedia entry on the 1981 Moss Side Riot and it could easily be an article in a police magazine. The community leaders failed to stop the youth taking to the streets (as if they had any real power to stop them) and Chief Constable James Anderton was lauded by one and all for his tough measures including driving police vans directly at the rioters (similar tactic resulted in one death in Toxteth) and snatch squads then pouncing on rioters.

In truth, Anderton – who famously brought his religious views very publicly into his work – came under a hail of criticism from both the left and even other police chiefs. His approach was seen as abrasive and antagonistic. Undoubtedly he thought that was just what the situation needed.

The most memorable and chilling moment of the riot was when a police station was surrounded and among the weapons used were garden tools and a crossbow!

Heseltine visits Merseyside after the 1981 riots


Something had to be done about Liverpool as riots continued in the summer of 1981 and it was Environment Minister Michael Heseltine who became de facto Minister for Merseyside.  Making a beeline for the city, his arrival was greeted with warmth from allies, curiosity and derision from enemies.

A group of children at the Toxteth Methodist Centre having an evening of socialising were rather bemused when a four car cavalcade drew up and in to their midst strode the six foot three former guardsman, publishing millionaire and cabinet minister – Michael Heseltine.  Expecting to be rejected by the youth, according to contemporary accounts, he was in fact inundated with their grievances and for their part, the youth seemed rather overawed by this visitation from Westminster. Heseltine’s possibly studied informality disarmed critics like black youth leader Joe Brown.

“The kids told me he was a very genuine guy and that he was really concerned and listened to them, listened really hard. They liked him.”

But the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, formed to demand the release of those arrested, was in a far less accommodating mood.  On the 20th July, they stormed out of a meeting at the YMCA though 48 hours later, requested another encounter with the minister.  It was difficult to ignore the Cabinet member on their turf.

Heseltine behaved like a man on a mission who was learning on the job.  One of his aides told a reporter that the whole experience was changing him profoundly.

“He’d had one hell of an eye opener this week. I doubt if he had any idea what deprivation and appalling conditions can really be like in a city like this.  It’s been one hell of a jolt to his mind.”

Visiting a housing estate in the mainly white working class district of Croxteth, which some statistics suggested had a higher jobless rate than Toxteth, Heseltine was overhead having a rather surreal exchange with a local woman.  She turned to the figure before her.

“Where do you live?”

Heseltine replied:  “Somewhere rather nice near London.”

His 400 acre estate near Banbury in Oxfordshire was calculated to be half the size of Toxteth.  On that Friday, 24th July, he took time out from Liverpool to attend the 18th birthday of his daughter Annabel at their home, Thenford Manor.  The gossip columns reported that the minister spent £20,000 on the party, a fact that unfortunately for him did not go unreported in Liverpool.

The housing charity Shelter stuck the boot in with a scathing editorial in its magazine, Roof.  “There has been something ludicrous in Mr Heseltine’s professions of concern about the problems he has seen on Merseyside, when it was he who savaged the Housing Investment Programme and re-calculated the Rate Support Grant to favour the shire counties at the expense of the inner cities.”

Predictions for Maggie’s future – from 1979


The Economist
The Economist – December 1979

Maggie had been in power for eight months at the end of 1979. The Economist magazine (broadly sympathetic to her aims) was making its predictions for a new decade – the 1980s. So how did The Economist think Thatcher was going to fare in the years ahead?

Well, the next election was due in 1984 and they thought that was way too close for a government rapidly losing the level of popular support it had enjoyed in the May, 1979 General Election.

Like Cameron today, Thatcher was pleading for more than one term in office to achieve her aims but at the end of 1979, the polls were suggesting Labour would come back to power. The Economist thought the Labour faces just rejected by the electorate – Peter Shore, Dennis Healey, John Silkin – would be back in ministerial posts.

And there wouldn’t have been much surprise there. After all, through the 1960s and 1970s, Labour and the Tories took turns in power. Nobody would have thought in 1979 that Thatcher would last to 1990. The Economist believed it was “conceivable” that Thatcher would be dumped as Tory leader before 1984.

Europe was a big problem for Thatcher – senior Tories were horrified by her roughing up of the EEC (as the EU was called then). Foreign minister Lord Carrington was seen as a restraining influence on the Prime Minister (he would resign when the Falklands War broke out).

The Economist wrote that Carrington and Home Secretary William Whitelaw might move to “bell the cat” – put Thatcher under firm control and force her into a U-turn towards more traditional One Nation Toryism. She would be forced to adopt a more Ted Heath approach or resign.

The revival of the Liberal Party made a Lib-Con coalition – similar to what we have now – a real possibility. But The Economist thought that Labour – under Dennis Healey, who by 1984 would have defeated the left wing of the party – was more likely to return to power. The magazine correctly predicted that Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams would form a new political party and for a while, that party would exercise a big influence.

So, how wrong was The Economist? The election was called early in 1983; an unexpected war in the Falklands boosted Thatcher; the Labour left put up a stronger fight and Dennis Healey did not become Labour leader; Thatcher purged her enemies within the Tory party and no bell was put on that cat!

Ken Livingstone and detention camps for political dissenters


Back in 1983, Thatcher went to the country for a fresh electoral mandate after a rocky first term as prime-minister. From 1979 to 1981, unemployment had skyrocketed and large parts of the manufacturing sector had collapsed. The summer of ’81 saw riots and interest rates were fearsomely high. But electoral salvation came in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands giving Thatcher a huge boost in the polls.

So what was going to happen if the Tories got back in? The leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) Ken Livingstone was interviewed by the New Musical Express a few weeks before the general election and he believed political activists could be rounded up and detained. This was by no means an isolated opinion. Many on the left took the view that democracy was being eroded, power was being centralised, the unions emasculated, local councils abolished and the police and courts being used in a more politically explicit manner.

Ken said he thought camps could be established to hold anti-government activists. The memory of internment in Northern Ireland during the 1970s ‘Troubles’ and use of jury free Diplock courts undoubtedly contributed to this fear among many socialists. There had also been the threat of tougher anti-crime measures after the 1981 riots, which Ken references in the article. However, Thatcher was not about to establish a fascist dictatorship.

Ken sees detention camps ahead
Ken sees detention camps ahead
Ken Livingstone interviewed
Ken Livingstone interviewed