Drugs

Policing Acid House Parties in 1989: What the new Thatcher Government papers reveal

The latest round of papers from the Prime Minister’s Office have been released, relating to the final years of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989-90. While files on several topics have been opened, this post will look at the file dedicated the policing of ‘acid house parties’ (also known as raves) in 1989.

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As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the phenomenon of acid house swept across the UK in the mid-to-late 1980s and while a number of clubs, such as the Hacienda in Manchester and Shoom in London, attracted large crowds for their club nights, raves exploded into open areas that were typical venues – warehouses, fields and other places left vacant by Thatcherism. For a number of reasons, including the noise generated by these parties and the use of drugs, these raves started to draw the ire of the police and of the authorities. One briefing note stated that the ‘main problem with acid house parties is the nuisance caused by the noise’ and curiously, stressed ‘[d]rugs are not the main issue’.[1] In a letter to the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the new Home Secretary David Waddington wrote that there was also a concern that ‘criminal elements [were] becoming involved’.[2] This concern, ‘coupled with the need to reassure the public that the existing law can be made effective’, Waddington argued, required a new approach.[3] He also noted that 223 parties had been held in London and the South East in 1989, with 96 stopped by the police and another 95 prevented from going ahead.[4]

And so, after a localised and haphazard response by local councils and the police, in late 1989, the Thatcher government proposed a co-ordinated and nationwide effort to clamp down on these ‘illegal’ parties. The aforementioned briefing note outlined that there were four ways to combat these parties:

  1. Under the licensing law that governs public entertainment;
  2. Under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986;
  3. Under the common law powers available to the police to prevent public disturbances;
  4. Under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.[5]

The note stated that all indoor events were subject to licensing laws (particularly the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982), irrespective of venue, and that in some cases, outdoor events were also subject to licensing laws, depending on the local authorities. However the largest problem for regulating raves through this mechanism, operated by the local councils, was that ‘most organisers of acid house parties are flouting the law by not applying for a licence’.[6] A report produced by the Association of District Councils explained the authorities had tried to prosecute party organisers under the 1982 Act in the past, but there were many ‘practical difficulties’ with the legislation.[7] This report suggested that a ‘national code of standard conditions’ be drawn up, similar to the code of practice for music events that had previously been established by the Greater London Council.[8] Interestingly the same document also mentioned that it might be pertinent to take into account the recent report by Lord Justice Taylor into the Hillsborough Disaster.[9]

All involved in this discussion felt that one of the key reasons that the organisers did not seek to obtain licenses for their events was that the penalty was far too low – a £2000 fine and/or up to 3 months in prison. In his letter to Howe, Waddington wrote that the penalties were ‘so relatively light that the organisers of these very profitable acid house parties can afford to ignore the law’.[10] Waddington proposed fines be raised to £20,000 and a possibility of up to 6 months imprisonment, commenting that the Association of Chief Police Officers supported these stricter penalties.[11]

One of the problems facing the authorities was that because these raves could be held in any kind of space, trying to police them was difficult. As mentioned above, indoor events were subject to licensing laws, but outdoor events weren’t always covered. For the police, indoor gatherings were not specifically within their remit, but outside assemblies were, under the Public Order Act 1986. An extension of the Public Order Act to include indoor assemblies was considered ‘contentious’[12] and at this stage, looked like legislative overkill (although similar legislation was eventually passed in 1994 to combat outdoor raves with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act).

In a letter from Home Office official Peter Storr to Margaret Thatcher’s Personal Secretary Andrew Turnbull, he noted that the police were ‘generally relying on their common law powers to prevent a breach of peace’ and that in the past, the police had ‘been able to persuade organisers to pack up voluntarily’.[13] Furthermore, they had ‘on occasion seized sound equipment on the grounds of preventing a breach of the peace’.[14] The aforementioned briefing note acknowledged:

Strictly speaking the police have no power to intervene to stop a party purely on grounds of noise. But if they receive complaints about the noise, they can intervene using common law powers.[15]

However it was argued that the police were often reluctant to intervene in this way, due to the following two reasons:

  1. mainly to the sheer numbers involved in some of the parties – the risk would be too great;
  2. slight nervousness about relying on common law powers alone – this leaves them open to challenge.[16]

It was believed that what was required were greater police powers ‘to act in flagrant cases’ immediately and at the time of night when these parties were occurring. Turnbull wrote to Carolyn Sinclair in the Home Office saying, ‘It will not be sufficient to give local authorities extra powers if they are not around at 3am to enforce [licensing laws]’.[17] The Association of District Councils also called for the police to be given greater powers ‘to seize and remove and apparatus or equipment’ being used by party organisers.[18]

While the primary problem with acid house parties was identified as the public nuisance caused by the excessive noise generated by these parties, the legislation dealing with noise pollution, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 was deemed ‘inadequate to deal with these parties’.[19] It was noted that noise nuisance was a civil offence and the legislation was aimed at factories and other industrial sites, rather than outdoor events. Thus ‘remedy through the courts [was] slow’.[20] The Department of Environment pushed to make noise nuisance a criminal offence,[21] but Turnbull advised the Home Office that Thatcher was ‘doubtful whether greater use of the Control of Pollution Act would be effective as the need was for action at short notice outside working hours.’[22]

Alongside greater penalties under the licensing laws and more explicit powers to allow the police to break ‘illegal’ raves, one of the key proposals made by the Home Office and other agencies was to establish powers to seize profits from party organisers. Powers to seize the proceeds of crime already existed under schedule 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (with a minimum of £10,000 to be confiscated after conviction), and Waddington suggested to Howe that this legislation could be easily amended to incorporate the organisation of these parties into the legislation.[23] On this point, the Home Office’s briefing note stated:

What is needed is a way of hitting at the profit made by the organisers. This should discourage the craze.[24]

It was hoped that these increased penalties and powers of confiscation, as well as more pre-emptive action between the police and local councils, would prevent acid house parties from occurring. The Home Office noted:

No amount of statutory power will make it feasible for police forces to take on crowds of thousands on a regular basis. We cannot have another drain on police resources equivalent to policing football matches.[25]

Incidentally, this was the argument made by Tony Wilson in the final days of the Hacienda – that the police were willing to police Manchester United and Manchester City games, but unwilling to do the same at the famous nightclub to ensure people’s safety.

The following year the Thatcher government passed the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, which increased the penalties for organising an ‘illegal’ party to £20,000 and/or 6 months in prison. As the debate in Hansard shows, these measures were supported by both major parties in the House of Commons. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was also amended to allow the seizure of profits made by party organisers.

However this did not end the phenomenon of the illegal rave and the Major government introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal specifically with raves, which included the seizure of equipment used to put on events deemed illegal. This Act was opposed by many and led to a grassroots resistance by partygoers and activists. But this was a far way off in 1989. We will have to wait a few more years for the internal government records relating to this.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 1, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Letter from David Waddington to Geoffrey Howe, 2 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 1.

[6] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[7] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, 9 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[13] Letter from Peter Storr to Andrew Turnbull, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[14] Ibid.

[15] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Note from Andrew Turnbull to Carolyn Sinclair, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[18] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

[19] Ibid., p. 1.

[20] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Peter Storr, 16 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[23] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[24] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[25] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

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Policing club culture in the UK and the neoliberal city

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This week, famous London club Fabric was permanently closed down after its liquor license was taken revoked, allegedly after police raised concerns for the safety of clubgoers following the deaths of two people this year inside the club. Others have suggested that the Islington Council sought the closure of the club because it was too costly for the police to continue their harm minimisation operations within the club.

Fabric is not the only club to go close down in recent years, as costs for running clubs in the inner city become more and more expensive. Despite the GFC of 2007-08 and almost a decade of austerity in Britain, the rents for venues in London and other cities across the UK have continued to rise. No reports that I have seen so far have suggested that Fabric faced this particular problem and while many have alleged that the real reason for the closure was a desire by the Council for the venue to be turned into luxury flats or office space, the Council did not own the property and would not have made a direct financial gain from this conversion. The counter-argument to this is that in the neoliberal city, the nighttime economy that Fabric was part of was not as desired as that brought by increasing gentrification of London’s inner city boroughs.

A number have likened this to the closure of the Hacienda in 1997 and its eventual transformation into luxury flats in the early 2000s. The Hacienda had its license revoked in June 1997 after the death of a clubgoer earlier in the year, alleged organised criminals working inside the club and the refusal of the Greater Manchester Police to co-operate with the club’s management to conduct operations that would have kept the club open, citing that it was too costly. Before his death, Tony Wilson argued that the Greater Manchester Police conducted large scale operations every weekend to police football crowds, but were unwilling to do so to protect the club’s patrons. But while the Hacienda was eventually sold to developers, the neoliberalisation and gentrification of Manchester’s landscape did not arrive with the closure of the club – it lay dormant for 18 months and work to convert the building only began a few years later. This coincided with the ‘reimagining’ of Manchester’s city centre after a large section of it was destroyed by an IRA bomb in June 1996.

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Adorned on the luxury flats that now occupy the space of the former club on Whitworth Street.

Club culture in the UK had emerged at the periphery of the neoliberal revolution and as I have argued elsewhere, sought to flourish in the spaces that Thatcherism had made vacant, but had not yet occupied. With this brought the attention of the police and the government and under the pretence of a ‘war on drugs’, club culture in the UK became heavily policed and moved into ‘manageable’ spaces, such as clubs like Fabric. But in the ongoing battle between the desires of the neoliberal and nighttime economies, those pushing for further gentrification of the inner city have won out and even these highly policed and contained venues are no longer desirable.

Since the closure of the Hacienda nearly twenty years ago, clubs like Fabric have attempted to work more closely with the police and there has been a shift towards harm minimisation inside these clubs. But while police practices may have changed, the pressures of austerity have discouraged this. So in the end, we may argue that club culture has ended up in the same wasteland after 20 years of trying to ‘regulate’ it and attempts to make it work within the boundaries of ‘the system’.

 

New archival documents reveal potential dangers of Thatcher’s advisers on policing and community relations issues

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The latest round of government papers from the Thatcher era have been released by the National Archives, this time relating to documents from 1986 to 1988. Amongst the papers that have been released is a Prime Minister’s Office file (PREM 19/1783) relating to the 1985 riots in Handsworth and Tottenham, continuing on from these files (PREM 19/1521 and PREM 19/484) which started after the 1981 riots in Brixton (I have discussed these files previously here and here).

One of the things that stood out from reading this file is the continued opinion of Thatcher’s adviser, particularly that of Hartley Booth, that the riots were organised in advance by criminal elements and that those involved were ready to use an arsenal of deadly weapons. As the last tranche of files released by the National Archives showed, in the aftermath of the 1985 riots Booth had claimed in memos to the Prime Minister that criminal elements and outside agitators from the far left had been involved in fanning the flames of disorder. This repeated a claim made by other advisers to Thatcher and the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, that various left wing groups had been involved in the 1981 riots as well.

In a memo written on 8 November 1985 to Thatcher’s Private Secretary, Mark Addison, Booth wrote:

Private reports from the police indicate further likely trouble in Tottenham. A milk float, complete with a very large number of bottles likely to be used in petrol bomb-making has been abducted in the last fortnight. Also, there have been several reports since 25 October that the ingredients for napalm [REDACTED] have been supplied to individuals in the Tottenham area. If Napalm is used, the police will require a new form of protective clothing. In Northern Ireland, the only known defence against Napalm is plastic bullet, which kept the users of this deadly material beyond throwing distance.

However Booth admitted in another memo, written on 19 November, that both of these claims were merely rumour and the police had not yet confirmed either the use of petrol bombs being made in bulk or that there were more than one instance of a rare ingredient (incidentally used in napalm) being purchased in a North London chemist. Booth reported to the Prime Minister:

Home Office and police do not at the moment feel the situation is serious, as there is no confirming evidence of iminent [sic] disorder.

Despite Booth eventually admitting that these use of petrol bombs and napalm by rioters was just a rumour, it does demonstrate that those advising the Prime Minister on matters of policing and public order were liable to believe the worst case scenarios. If taken at face value, this may have led to an escalation of the hostilities between the police and the public. If the government and the police were expecting that these weapons were to be used and that the only option was the pre-emptive use of plastic bullets and other forms of militarised policing, then these rumours could only add to the already existing tension. Plastic bullets had been stockpiled by the Metropolitan Police since the 1981 riots and along with the use of teargas, represented the use of policing techniques developed in Northern Ireland being redeployed on the mainland. Although plastic bullets have never been used in a public order situation in England, Scotland or Wales, the fact that people within government circles believed that they were necessary for police to use against the public (and in the case of Booth’s advice, pre-emptively) is a worrying thought.

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Booth also maintained that the riots in Handsworth in September 1985 were organised by criminal elements and claimed that a police report (not included in the file) supported his view. In a covering memo to Thatcher, dated 26 November, Booth argued:

The degree of organisation among the rioters is well documented in this report… The report boldly concludes that the first riot was orchestrated by local drug dealers. This we suspected at the time, but had formerly been denied by the police.

In the same document, Booth suggested that the riots had an ‘appalling racial element’, stemming from a jealousy amongst West Indian drug dealers relating to the suspected wealth of Handsworth’s South Asian community.

In an interview with journalist David Dimbleby, Lord Scarman, who had led the inquiry into the 1981 riots in Brixton, seemed to suggest something similar and in a transcript included in the file, stated:

In 1981, we were not faced with the intrusion of organised crime, making use of disaffected youth. That is the new factor. It is a very dangerous factor and it has to be tackled…

Booth used this statement to reinforce his argument to Addison and Thatcher that organised criminals had been at the centre of the riots. However a Home Office letter to Addison by Stephen Boys Smith, written in January 1986, admitted that the ‘police view remains that there is no evidence of long term planning of the riot.

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Booth and another adviser to Thatcher, Oliver Letwin, have been lambasted in the media for another revelation in this tranche of released documents for suggesting that government grants to inner cities community groups would be spent on ‘disco and drug trade’ (see here and here). However these documents suggest that Booth’s advice to Thatcher on public order and community policing issues had even more potential for wide-reaching problems, stemming from a prejudiced outlook on Britain’s African-Caribbean communities and the political organisations of the left.

Thinking historically about acid house & early rave culture: The soundtrack to late Thatcherism

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Most discussions of the soundtrack to the Thatcher years concentrates on the early-to-mid-1980s and the rise of Thatcherism. For example, many have referred to The Specials and The Beat at the time of 1981 riots, Duran Duran and Wham! as the Thatcherite hegemony won the 1983 election and Billy Bragg and the Style Council during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. But I want to think about the soundtrack to late Thatcherism (and the early Major years), particularly acid house and early rave culture.

Exported from the United States, house music made its way into the UK club scene in the mid-1980s and acid house became a phenomenon from around 1987 to 1991, before morphing into various strains of rave music in the early 1990s. The rise of acid house coincided with the opening of new wave of clubs across the UK and beginnings of the warehouse and open air ‘raves’, situated against a backdrop of high Thatcherism, which included heightened deindustrialisation and the growth of the high finance capitalism in the City of London

Thatcher was returned to office in 1987 after her third electoral victory and this could be considered the high point of Thatcherism as a hegemonic project. After defeating the trade unions during the Miners’ Strike in 1985, Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatisation and deindustrialisation across the country. Already under pressure, many heavy industries in the north of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, collapsed, leaving to massive unemployment in these regions. Where jobs were available to replace the traditional heavy industries, they were usually unskilled, low paid and short-term, leaving many without the stability of employment enjoyed by the previous generations.

Meanwhile in the south-east of England, especially in London, the economy boomed, fuelled by the deregulation of the finance industry in 1986. Heavy industry, especially around the East End of London and the docks, also dried up and the inner city began its path towards gentrification. The story since the mis-1980s was that London became too expensive for many workers and those who benefited from the boom in the finance industry moved in.

As the north and south of England diverged upon two parallel roads – one towards a post-industrial decline and one towards a post-industrial regeneration – the emerging youth subculture that rose to prominence at this time was acid house and rave/club culture. I believe that the subculture surrounding acid house and the early rave scene reflected this north/south divide and reflected the two Britains that were developing under Thatcher.

Coinciding with the emergence of MDMA (or ecstasy), the acid house and early rave scene became the focus of a moral panic about out of control youth on drugs and gathering en masse to celebrate this fusion of drugs and music. Unlike punk or reggae (or even rap), this subculture was seen to have no redeeming socio-political features and was viewed as just an excuse to indulge in social drug experimentation.

Many viewed acid house and early rave culture as hedonistic and the pretext to (publicly) waste a lot of money of partying. This was probably true to some degree in the south, where the more affluent young people could indulge in this hedonism and spend a considerable amount of money on weekend activities.

But in the north, acid house also exploded – in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and other cities. In the northern acid house scene, it was not just hedonism, fuelled by a large disposable income, but a chance to escape from dreary post-industrial world that had been delivered by nearly a decade of Thatcherism. Not sites of resistance to Thatcherism, but a withdrawal from engagement with it.

Furthermore, with the decline of heavy industry in the north, factories and fields, once the sites of a booming industrial sector, were transformed from empty spaces into potential venues for clubs and raves – the economics of putting on a show was merely finding a suitable sound system. An enterprising person, the kind of whom was praised under Thatcherism, could hire (or buy) a large PA system, bring in some local DJs and with a little promotion, make a lot of money from those entering (and possibly the selling of illicit drugs).

Unlike punk, reggae or folk music, acid house and early rave culture did not really get political and for most, was more an apolitical rejection of the Thatcherite status quo, using music (and the drugs) to collectively cast off the burden that Thatcherism brought down on young people in the late 1980s. Although I would say that acid house was given a political edge by its crossover with the gay scene in Britain in the 1980s. Under Thatcher, gay men and women were persecuted for their sexuality and the AIDS epidemic and Clause 28 were used by those in power to publicly harass gay men and women, arguing that their lifestyles were deviant. Acid house became the dominant sound in many of Britain’s gay clubs and this deviancy and portrayal as the ‘folk devils’ of the 1980s was transformed into a particular subcultural identity, combining the hedonism of acid house culture with the ‘deviancy’ of being gay in Thatcherite Britain.

However the apolitical nature of acid house and rave culture changed in the early 1990s. Concerned about the amount of illicit drugs being allegedly sold and used in the scene, the government and the police cracked down on raves and dance clubs, using the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and a revised version of the Public Order Act 1986 to shut down underground raves and strictly monitor licensed clubs. In 1992, the Major Government started to draft the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill (which eventually became law in 1994), which included an entire section dedicated to the policing of raves. This led to significant political resistance and raves became part of a political battle over the use of public space. Taking some inspiration from the anarchist ‘Stop the City’ protests of the 1980s, a serious protest movement developed, using the method of occupying public spaces and putting on ‘free parties’. This crossed over at stages with the rise of the Reclaim the Streets movement and other green/anarchist protests.

This post has attempted to give an overview of how acid house and early rave culture fits within the wider history of Thatcherism and that of contemporary Britain. What I need to do is delve into primary sources of the period, primarily the documents produced by the subculture itself – the zines, the magazine interviews, the flyers, media reports and government files, as well as any oral history and reminisces of the period. Any suggestions for where to find relevant materials would be greatly appreciated – however, as usual, there are a million other projects that I need to finish beforehand!