Month: March 2018

The Poll Tax ‘Riot’: Thatcher, the Met and its aftermath

This is an extract from some work that I have doing with Jac St John, with assistance from the Special Branch Files project and via this project, journalist Solomon Hughes.

The community charge, better known as the ‘Poll Tax’, was introduced by the Thatcher Government as an ideological reform of local council rates, which led to a severe backlash in the final years of her Prime Ministership. First introduced in Scotland in 1989, the flat rate tax was then introduced in England and Wales in 1990, which led to massive backlash, from the Labour Party, but more significantly, from the grassroots.

Although the Labour Party had decided against a campaign of non-payment at its 1988 conference, a number of groups were created by activists on the left to support the non-payment of the tax and assist those who experienced legal troubles as a result of non-payment. The most important of these groups was the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF), organised by Militant, which used the local trade unions to help build a campaign of non-payment. The Socialist Workers Party, the other major far left organisation in Britain at the time, had a much more ambivalent attitude towards non-payment and the ABAPTF, which allowed Militant to become the dominant group campaigning against the Poll Tax. Outside of the Trotskyist far left, several anarchist groups also supported non-payment, especially the Anarchist Communist Federation who produced a pamphlet called Beating the Poll Tax (ACF 1990). The role that these groups played in the anti-Poll Tax campaign led the authorities to identify these groups as particular threats and pre-empt ‘trouble’ when dealing with them, feeding into the ‘outside agitators’ thesis that has been explored above. This has come to light through Metropolitan Police files released via FOI to the journalist Solomon Hughes in 2005 (Hughes has written about these files here).

Prior to the national Anti-Poll Tax march in London at the end of March 1990, the Home Office’s F8 Division noted that there was ‘evidence of Militant and Socialist Workers Party involvement’ at several regional demonstrations, such as Bristol and Haringey, but this involvement was ‘not uniform’ (HO 1990a). The memo suggested that demonstrations were at their ‘most vociferous and active’ when these groups were involved, but also acknowledged that there was ‘no indication of national co-ordination of the demonstrations’ (HO 1990a). Another memo written the following day further implied that it was far left agitators that stirred up trouble with the police, writing:

It is hard to imagine defaulters and/or dissatisfied payers coming together spontaneously in sufficient numbers with intent to cause serious public disorder (HO 1990b).

With this anticipation of violence, the Metropolitan Police prepared for confrontation at the national Anti-Poll Tax demonstration that happened in central London on 31 March 1990. Over 200,000 attended the march from Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square, but as some marchers deviated towards protests at Downing Street and Whitehall, the massive police presence clashed with some protestors. Danny Burns (1992: 89) described the police attack upon those demonstrating at Downing Street:

300 people sat down, and then the police brought in the horses. Mounted riot police baton-charged the crowd. The crowd, angered by this violent provocation retaliated throwing sticks, banner poles, bottles – anything they could find. Young people, armed only with placards fought hand to hand with police. Some demonstrators were batoned down with truncheons, others has riot shields thrust into their faces.

Further clashes broke out at Trafalgar Square, including out the front of the South African Embassy, and some protestors then ran amok through the West End as the evening wore on.

Addressing Parliament two days later, the Home Secretary stated that by the end of the day, 339 people were arrested (mainly for public order offences) and 86 people were injured. Out of 2,198 police officers on duty, Waddington announced that 374 of them had been injured, with 58 requiring hospital treatment. Materially, there were around 250 reports of property damage as well (Hansard, 2 April, 1990, col. 893). Despite the opposition, including Roy Hattersley, Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn, calling for a public inquiry into the riot, the Conservative government were unwilling to allow this, with David Waddington stating that there would only be a criminal investigation into those protestors who broke the law and an internal inquiry ‘carried out by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to see what lessons can be learnt’ (Hansard, 2 April, 1990, col. 895). In reply to people contacting the Home Office to assist with any potential inquiry, the Home Office explained:

The review which [the Metropolitan Police] undertake will be a thorough examination of the police handling of the event right through from the planning stages to the actions taken on the day. It will be very much concerned with operational matters. The Met will not call on the assistance of outside advisers during the course of the review. In the circumstances they suggest that correspondents should not be encouraged (HO 1990c).

Sir Peter Imbert, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, told Thatcher that two inquiries were underway, the first being into ‘those who had conspired to organise the violence and those who perpetrated it’ and the second ‘to learn any lessons for future policing of such occasions’ (Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Colin Walters, 3 April 1990, PREM 19/3021, NA). Briefing the Prime Minister on this meeting with Imbert, her Private Secretary Andrew Turnbull stated that ‘[a]lthough the police were under great pressure and showed great courage, it cannot be said that their handling of the event was faultless’ (‘Meeting with Sir Peter Imbert’, 3 April, 1990, PREM 19/3021, NA).

Stott and Drury (2000: 257) have argued that because the police ‘treated the crowd as a single unit, regardless of any individuals’ prior activities or intentions’, when disorder did break out and a ‘small number of demonstrators actively engaged in conflict’, the police treated these individuals with the same ‘aggressive policing activity’ as those who did not engage in this conflict. For Stott and Drury, ‘the police had the ability to impose their perceptions of a uniformly dangerous crowd upon crowd members through their use of indiscriminate coercive force’. Reading the archival record, the police attempted to portray themselves as unprepared for this disorder. Imbert told Thatcher that they ‘expected around 1,500 trouble-makers’, but ‘[w]hat had been completely unexpected was the degree of violence used’, further claiming that ‘[s]ome of his officers came close to being murdered’ (Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Colin Walters, 3 April 1990, PREM 19/3021, NA). For Imbert, the ‘restraint shown was highly commendable’. In contrast to the police perceptions of the day’s events in its aftermath as revealed in these recently disclosed papers, Stott and Drury’s interviews with police officers involved in policing the march show that the police perceived the crowd ‘as a uniform danger’ and ‘chose to act against the crowd’ in combative manner (Stott and Drury 2000: 261).

In 1988, nearly three years after the riots in Handsworth and Broadwater Farm, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd stated, ‘Public order training has been refined and improved throughout the 80s, and we have provided the police with better protective and other equipment’, meaning, in his eyes, that the police were ‘more skilled and better prepared, both individually and collectively, for tackling disorder and preventing its escalation’ (‘Public Order in the Inner Cities’, 21 June, 1988, PREM 19/3021, NA). However the policing of the Poll Tax riot just under two years later seem to demonstrate that while public order policing had become more efficient, it was still unable to prevent events from escalating to a episode of disorder.

References

ACF (1990) Beating the Poll Tax (London: ACF pamphlet).

Burns, D. (1992) Poll Tax Rebellion (Stirling: AK Press).

Home Office (1990a) Memo dated 7 March.

Home Office (1990b) Memo dated 8 March.

Home Office (1990c) Letter dated 10 April.

Stott, C. & Drury, J. (2000) ‘Crowds, Context and Identity: Dynamic Categorization Processes in the “Poll Tax Riot”’, Human Relations, 53/2, pp. 247-273.

 

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Precarity and overwork in academia

In December last year, I stopped work on all of my research projects. The following week, I compromised with myself and said no primary research (reading archival documents) or writing for the next month, only secondary source reading. I had one conference paper to present at the end of January, so for the week leading up to that, I got back into the swing of things slowly and wrote a 2,500 word paper, but nothing more. For a co-authored piece that needed revising, I asked my co-author to take the lead. I said no to working on a project with a colleague that had an interim deadline of February 2018 (then a major deadline of June). I declined a request to submit an article for a special issue.

For me, this was really hard. A combination of a slightly obsessive personality and the academic culture of ‘publish or perish’ had meant that for nearly decade, I had been unable to switch off. Thinking, researching, writing, publicising, engaging – every waking hour saw academic research creep into my consciousness. Over the past few years, I had been, for all intents and purposes, quite prolific in my field (history), with books, edited collections, articles and book chapters published as both single author and co-authored pieces.

However, my employment was precarious. A series of longer and shorter fixed-term contracts, as well as bouts of casual teaching and research work, meant that I had had to publish profusely in order to be competitive, while doing work for others, writing job applications and sometimes working outside of academia in a 9-to-5 job. This means that except for a 3-year window, all of my research over the past decade had been done in my own time. This is, of course, on top of all the normal life stuff, such as family and friends. During this time, my very understanding partner and I had two children and moved three times.

My experience is far from unique. Informal discussions with my colleagues in Australia, as well as overseas, has revealed that the pressures of publishing and maintaining an active research profile, while at the same time working casually or in a fixed-term position, are felt by many. Overwork by those in precarious work and at the edges of academia is very much the norm.

And it comes as a huge price for those experiencing this, as well as academia as a whole. For many, the pressure, the anxiety and the relentlessness of it is too much. Burnout and disillusionment is a regular occurrence for many of those academics not in permanent employment. While some kind of permanency doesn’t absolve academics of all the pressures they face, those working in casual or fixed-term employment are amongst the most vulnerable.

For my own mental health, I resolved myself to saying no to things and pushing back against both internal and external pressures to publish. However this culture is not something that individuals can overcome by themselves. Institutional pressures may be internalised by the individual, but the solution can’t just be personal resilience. We must recognise that overwork and the compulsion to constantly be working is pervasive within academia. Furthermore, it is those at the margins of academia who are possibly most likely to be unable to resist these compulsions, especially if the outputs of this overwork are held up as desirable for permanent employment. In no way do I put any blame for this on the individual – overwork and the internalisation of this culture is not their fault. There’s enough to feel bad about without the burden of feeling that you need to just absorb the pressure.

Nothing I have written above is new and I certainly don’t have the solutions to this. A discussion of overwork and the pressures on early career researchers and other academics in precarity seems to be emerging in academic circles, particularly after the USS strike in the UK. I just thought I’d publicise my own story and my own struggle with overwork and the internalisation of the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. The more we talk about these issues, the more we can talk about their solutions.

Solidarity with my precarious comrades!

New job, new project

I am happy to announce that last week I joined the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University as a Research Fellow in History, working on the ARC Discovery Project, ‘Managing migrants and border control in Britain and Australia, 1901-1981’. Here is a short description of the project:

This project aims to historicise the creation and control of ‘suspect’ migrant communities and the restrictions on the further immigration of members of these groups by the British and Australian authorities from 1900-81. The project aims to scrutinise the creation of ‘suspect communities’ and the policies of surveillance, community control and restricted entry. The expected outcome is to show that such policies and practices did not prevent Britain and Australia from becoming multicultural societies by the 1970s. This will provide a greater understanding of how Britain and Australia’s border control systems have evolved since 1900 and how past historical policies relate to contemporary practices.

I am working alongside Associate Professor Andrekos Varnava, Associate Professor Marinella Marmo, Emeritus Professor Eric Richards and Dr Ananstasia Dukova. A blog/website for the project will be established in the near future.

If you are working in a similar area, please get in contact!