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.

The 1981 riots – how we tried to laugh


Private Eye tried to see the funny side of the 1981 riots that shook England from April through to August. Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Southall…and the list went on of inner city areas that were engulfed in violence. This was definitely gallows humour.

 

Oi! skinhead bands clean up their act


Sounds
Sounds magazine was a cheerleader for Oi!

The riots of 1981 and a spate of racist attacks weren’t helped by a small number of bands whose political views were to the right of Hitler and the entire high command of the Third Reich.  One Oi! gig in Southall led to the pub they were performing in being burnt to the ground by Asian youth.

So, in the months that followed the inner city riots of that year, Oi! had its work cut out improving its public image.  The media was branding skin bands as fascist and racist and in part to blame for the violence that had been seen on the streets.

With these accusations ringing in their ears, some skin bands decided to show their anti-racist credentials by taking to the road which would include two anti-racist gigs and an appearance at the Right To Work campaign march.  The Business, Infa-Riot, the Blitz and Partisans duly went off on tour.

Sheffield’s George IV saw the Blitz join the Mo-Dettes for an anti-racist gig while all the bands played an Oi Against Racism concert in the same city a little later on.

The SPG – SUS laws – and 80s riots


I was standing at a bus stop in 1981 when a police car I didn’t realise was Special Patrol Group (SPG) stopped and one of the officers inside asked me what I was doing.   “Waiting for a bus,” I said, bit confused by the question.  “Well get a move on,” he replied.

And that was my one and only encounter with the SPG.

I appreciate that had I been black, my encounter might have been more prolonged and led me to a local cop shop.   I found this in my 80s collection – a leaflet from a group in south London campaigning against the so-called SUS laws allowing police to stop young people and search them in the street.  This became a major cause of the 1981 riots.

So, what was the SPG and why was this police unit problematic?

  • This unit was part of the Metropolitan Police and specialised in public disorder and in the Thatcher era was seen as a highly politicised branch of the police
  • It had been set up in 1961 and was seen as an elite unit that officers would aspire to join
  • The SPG tended to enforce stop and search, referred to as the SUS laws, which came to be seen as disproportionately affecting black youth in inner cities. The enforcement of this law undoubtedly contributed to the 1981 riots in areas like Brixton
  • In 1979, the SPG’s conduct during severe rioting in the Southall area of London came under scrutiny following the death of teacher Blair Peach

The SPG even inspired a punk song by The Exploited.