Hillsborough

Policing football crowds and the aftermath of Hillsborough: What the new Thatcher papers reveal, pt 2

In my previous post looking at the policing of acid house parties in the late Thatcher period, I noted that the Home Office complained:

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.[1]

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In the same tranche of documents released by the National Archives at the end of last year was a Prime Minister’s Office file dedicated to the policing of football hooligans and the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989. The file is primarily concerned with the Football Spectators Bill that was first debated in Hansard in January 1989. This Bill was wide-ranging and had been in development for three years, responding to the recommendations of the Popplewell Inquiry, which investigated the Bradford City fire and the riot at Birmingham’s St Andrews ground in May 1985. As well as proposing new criminal offences related to hooliganism, the extension of exclusion orders for convicted ‘hooligan’s from football grounds under the Public Order Act 1986 and electronic tagging for particular offenders, the Bill included a membership scheme, which meant that only registered members could attend matches and tickets for away fans to be highly restricted.

While this Bill was still in development, the Hillsborough disaster occurred and the Bill was temporarily shelved, although as the Hillsborough Independent Panel has shown, the Prime Minister and some of her colleagues wanted to press ahead with pushing the Bill through parliament, despite the need for an investigation into the disaster.[2]

Justice Taylor was assigned to investigate what happened that day, but only a month after the disaster, sections of the Thatcher government were commenting that ‘there was considerable disagreement over the cause of the disaster’.[3] For the government, the reason for the disaster was hooliganism and unruly crowd behaviour. The riots at St Andrews and Luton Town and the Heysel disaster in 1985, as well as clashes between Scottish and English fans in May 1989, had convinced the government that the number one problem at football grounds concerning public order was hooliganism. The Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley complained:

On May 13, less than a month after Hillsborough, there was a serious pitch invasion at Crystal Palace which resulted in 26 arrests. 16 people were injured, two of them with stab wounds. Serious incidents took place all over the country that weekend with more than 300 people being arrested, inside and outside grounds… The existing powers under the Public Order Act have clearly not stamped out the problem.[4]

Speaking at the Football Writers’ Association Dinner in May 1989, the Sports Minister Colin Moynihan spoke dismissively of ‘supporters having to be herded into grounds and protected every match day for their own safety by 5,000 or more police.’[5] The Minister lamented that the police could only ‘contain the problem’ and ‘could be far better deployed in the local communities and towns upholding law and order.’[6]

Another document reiterated this point, stating:

In spite of the efforts of the Government and the football authorities, over 5,000 police officers are still needed every Saturday to contain the problem, to protect the true supporters and those living near football grounds.[7]

The file shows that the government felt that it had to take action, and that the football authorities could not be relied upon to ensure public order at football grounds. At his after dinner speech to the Football Writers’ Association, Moynihan announced:

The Government is not going to allow hooligans to run the show if the football authorities cannot do it themselves.[8]

Although they believed that the final report of the Taylor Inquiry was ‘flawed’,[9] Home Secretary David Waddington wrote to Margaret Thatcher in January 1990 that they should take advantage of the report’s condemnation of the Football League. Waddington noted that the report:

places the responsibility for complacency about safety, for decline in the conditions of grounds, and for poor facilities for spectators firmly at the door of the football industry. It suggests in effect that if you treat people like animals, they will behave that way.[10]

Even though one could say that the Thatcher government held similar perceptions about football crowds in the 1980s, the government tried to portray itself as ‘cleaning up’ English football and taking responsibility after the ineffective management of the football authorities. Moynihan wrote to the editor of The Times, in response to an editorial in the newspaper, outlining the actions of the government to combat hooliganism, especially as the press highlighted fears about English fans at the World Cup being held in Italy during the summer. Defending the government’s record, Moynihan wrote:

This is a record of action not apathy but the Government cannot cure all of football’s problems for it. The essential message of Lord Justice Taylor’s Report is that football must at last face up to its own responsibilities.[11]

The final report of the Taylor Report warned against the implementation of the membership scheme set out in the Football Supporters Bill (and pushed for by the Association of Chief Police Officers), concluding:

I therefore have grave doubts whether the scheme will achieve its object of eliminating hooligans from inside the ground. I have even stronger doubts as to whether it will achieve its further object of ending football hooliganism outside grounds. Indeed, I do not think it will. I feat that, in the short term at least, it may actually increase trouble outside grounds.[12]

With the release of this report, the government decided to drop the push for implementation of the membership scheme, but the Football Supporters Bill was finally passed in November 1989. The Act, in practice, focused much more criminal sanctions against suspected, as well as convicted, ‘hooligans’, and ensuring that football grounds were considered ‘safe’ for top flight matches. For the Thatcher government in the wake of Hillsborough, the focus was on crowd control and dealing with unruly elements of football crowds. The actions of the police, at this point in time, were never questioned by the government.

Hillsborough

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the SYP.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 5, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Hillsborough Independent Panel, Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (London: HMSO 2012) pp. 201-203.

[3] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Roger Bright, 9 May, 1989, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[4] Letter from Nicholas Ridley, 22 June, 1989, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[5] ‘Draft Speech for Football Writers’ Association Dinner’, 18 May, 1989, p. 5, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Football Spectators Bill: Bull Points’, n.d., PREM 19/3027, NA.

[8] ‘Draft Speech for Football Writers’ Association Dinner’, p. 8.

[9] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Colin Walters, 23 January, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[10] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Margaret Thatcher, 22 January, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[11] Letter from Colin Moynihan to Charles Wilson, 1 March, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[12] Lord Justice Taylor, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster – 15 April, 1989 (London: HMSO, 1990) pp. 168-169.

Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated

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To Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins, just over thirty years ago is too far into the past for an inquiry into the events at Orgreave in June 1984, when the police reacted violently to striking workers in South Yorkshire and led to the arrest of 95 miners, as well as a number of people injured. Jenkins argues that “we know” what happened at Orgreave on that day, and that it should be left in the past – even though no one in a position of authority has been held accountable for excessive force used by the police against the striking miners. Anyway ‘[t]here were no deaths at Orgreave’, he says, so an inquiry, like those held into Bloody Sunday or Hillsborough, is unnecessary. But this assumes that the only reason to have an inquiry into police actions is when there is a death involved – isn’t the likelihood of excessive force being used by the police en masse enough of an issue to warrant further investigation?

Jenkins is right in that government inquiries often don’t led to any significant reform or ‘lessons learned’. Even the stand out inquiries of Lord Scarman into the Brixton Riots of 1981 and the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry into the Investigation into the Death of Stephen Lawrence have been criticised for their limited impact upon the policing of ethnic minority communities in the UK (especially in the wake of the 2011 riots). But most inquiries held are short term affairs, announced by the government of the day to placate public opinion and often to appear to be ‘doing something’. A swathe of criminological and public policy scholarship has proposed that public inquiries are foremost exercises in the management of public opinion, rather than missions to find the ‘truth’ behind an incident or to determine accountability. Between the Scarman Inquiry into the Events at Red Lion Square in 1974 and the Macpherson Inquiry in 1998-99, there have been numerous inquiries into the actions of the police (and other government agencies) that have resulted in disorder, injuries and even death. Besides the Scarman Report in 1981 and the Macpherson Report almost 20 years later, most inquiries have left little mark on police practice. There are a number of incidents involving the death of people involved in interactions with the police, such as that of Blair Peach in 1979 and Ian Tomlinson in 2009, where there has been a coronial inquest, but no wider inquiry, even though people have demanded it.

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But an inquiry into Orgreave is likely to be much more far-reaching than those held immediately after the fact, similar to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday or the Hillsborough Independent Panel. These inquiries were held after the initial inquiries, the Widgery Report into Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Taylor Report into Hillsborough in 1989-90, were seen to be deficient by subsequent governments. Both of these inquiries were held over years, rather than weeks or months, and had legislation specifically introduced to open many documents that had previously been classified. In the end, these inquiries identified those who should be (or should have been) held accountable for these tragic events and delivered some form of justice to the relatives of the victims. Jenkins suggests that these were merely costly exercises in legal navel-gazing and that the cost of both inquiries could have been better spent on been given to the relatives of the victims and/or to their communities. However what had driven those pushing for the events at both Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough to be re-examined was not compensation, but for those responsible to identified and where possible, held accountable in some way.

This is the purpose of a proposed inquiry into the events at Orgreave on 18 June 1984. Opposite to Jenkins’ argument, we don’t know the full story of what happened on that day. We have footage, we have witness testimony and the paperwork of those who were dragged through the courts, but we don’t have the police side of the story (or at least the full story). Despite thirty years since the event passing, no documents relating to Orgreave have been made open by the National Archives at Kew and the police have refused several previous FOI requests. Like the documents examined by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, all police and government papers relating to the events at Orgreave should be released to an inquiry and at the completion of said inquiry, these documents (with the necessary redactions) should be digitised and made available for public viewing.

Jenkins says there should be a statute of limitations on inquiries into the past, writing ‘History is for historians’. He seems to be proposing that there is a clear line between contemporary politics and ‘the past’, but it is not so clear-cut. Thirty years ago is not that long ago and there are still people who were involved in police actions on that day in 1984 who could be held accountable in some manner. There are still people affected the actions of the police who are looking for some kind of ‘justice’ and official acknowledgment of what occurred, particularly how much was planned and how far the authorities went in the aftermath to absolve themselves of any blame.

Jenkins equates a possible inquiry with Tony Blair’s apologies for the slave trade and the Irish Famine, but this is false. The ‘Battle of Orgreave’ happened within the lifetimes for many of us, not 150-200 years ago. Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated. Let’s hope that enough pressure is put upon Amber Rudd (or her successor) to reverse the decision for an inquiry not to be held.

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Photos by John Sturrock, originally from Socialist Worker.

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Historians and the online archive of the Hillsborough Independent Panel

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the SYP.

An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the South Yorkshire Police. (Ref PR8)

Last week, the jury from the Hillsborough Inquest found that the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Disaster on 15 April, 1989 had been unlawfully killed. This new inquest, established by the Attorney General in December 2012, relied heavily on the uncovering of over 450,000 documents by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, itself established in January 2010 by the Home Office. Part of the function of the Independent Panel was to examine these previously closed documents and create an online archive of this material in an attempt to create a transparent and publicly available record of the disaster.

Published online in late 2012, and now at the end of the most recent inquest, a question that may arise is what purpose does the online archive serve now and how do historians engage with it? The archive is an important resource for historians and the following blog post looks at how this archive can be used by historians.

UNPRECEDENTED ACCESS

The archive offers the historian unprecedented access to documents from the late Thatcher period, albeit around a limited and tragic episode in the history of contemporary Britain. The National Archives at Kew are currently working on transferring documents under the old 30 year rule to the new 20 year rule. As of February 2016, government documents, primarily Cabinet and Prime Minister’s Office, records have been released for the years 1986 to 1988. At this rate of disclosure, we would still be waiting for the relevant documents from the Thatcher government until 2017-18.

However it is not only documents from the Thatcher government that have been disclosed. Many records come from the Sheffield City Council (SCC) and South Yorkshire County Council (SYCC), which are not necessarily bound to the same disclosure schedule as the national government and its agencies. Often contemporary historians have to rely on government records created at the national level as more local records have been kept and released in a much more haphazard manner. The documents disclosed by the SCC and the SYCC for the Independent Panel provide a more comprehensive picture of how the disaster and its aftermath was mismanaged at both the local and national level, and presenting an alternative to the top down view that the archival records usually create.

As well as the records of the Thatcher government, the SCC and the SYCC, the archive also contains many documents disclosed by other agencies, such as the South Yorkshire Police, the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, the Yorkshire Ambulance Service and the South Yorkshire Coroner. These records are usually much harder for historians to access, but are invaluable in providing a more ‘holistic’ view of how government agencies and services operate with each other, particularly in a time of crisis. However at the same time, historians should remember not to view the structure of these agencies as ‘monolithic’ and all having a similar agenda. In our reading of these records, we are reminded that these agencies have a number of competing (and sometimes contradictory) interests and often worked in spite of each other.

CONNECTIONS TO THE WIDER HISTORY OF THATCHERITE BRITAIN

The Hillsborough Disaster was a tragic event in the final year and a half of the Thatcher government and brings together several different aspects of the history of the period. Most obviously it is the culmination of the uneasy relationship between the police and football crowds that had existed throughout the 1980s. In 1985, the Popplewell Inquiry was set up to investigate a fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium that killed 56 people and a ‘riot’ at St Andrews in Birmingham on the same day. The Inquiry’s questions about crowd control seemed to go unheeded and similar disregard by the police led to the deaths of 96 people only four years later.

It also fits into a wider history of the changing nature of the police in the 1980s, in particular the policing of public order. In the 1970s, public order policing in the UK underwent significant changes, influenced by the events in Northern Ireland. This led to a paramilitarisation of the police in the UK, particularly the use of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) to police unruly crowds, such as demonstrations and picket lines. By the early 1980s, the policing techniques used to maintain public order had alienated so many that riots broke out across the country in 1981 (and again in 1985). On one hand, these riots led to supposedly greater police accountability with Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but also marked a precursor to other episodes of police brutality, such as the policing of the miners’ strike in 1984-85 (such as that seen at the Battle of Orgreave in 1984, which also involved the South Yorkshire Police) . In 1986, the Public Order Act was revised and gave the police greater powers, which were then employed throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. For example, one could make links between the policing of demonstrations against the Poll Tax in 1989-90 and the policing of football crowds during the same period.

The Hillsborough Disaster also highlights a wider demonization of the working class in Britain during the Thatcher period. The unionised and industrialised working class were identified in the late 1970s as sites of resistance to Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda and during the following decade, the institutions and structures of the organised working class – the trade unions and the industrial workplace in particular – were dismantled by the Conservatives. For the Tories, the working class was something to fear and to be controlled by the authorities. This attitude can be seen in how the crowds at Hillsborough were treated, and how they were portrayed by the government and sections of the media in its aftermath.

From this, this demonization of the working class further highlights the insidious relationship between the Thatcher government, the police and the Murdoch press in the 1980s and early 1990s. The infamous ‘The Truth’ headline in The Sun a few days after the disaster demonstrates the collective interest in demonising the victims of the tragedy as drunken, unruly and criminal. The archive shows that these baseless claims were continually used by members of the government, the police and Murdoch press journalists to reinforce their prejudices up until the most recent inquiry.

On the matter of inquiries, the archive also has a wealth of material submitted to the original Taylor Inquiry in 1989-90 and fits into a wider history of the role on public inquiries in the Thatcher era. Between 1981 with the Scarman Inquiry and the Taylor Inquiry in 1989-90, there were numerous inquiries into the behaviour of the police and their handling of public order situations. Although these inquiries did have some impact, such as the introduction of the PaCE Act in 1984, the fact that these inquiries continued to be held show that the police were slow to change their ways and the same problems reoccurred time and time again under the Thatcher government.

THE GAP BETWEEN THE ARCHIVAL RECORD AND ‘WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED’

Although the Hillsborough Independent Panel has collated all these primary documents, the archival record cannot definitively tell us ‘what actually happened’. One of the challenges that historians face when dealing with government documents, as well as archival materials in general, is the ‘gap’ between the archival record and ‘what actually happened’ – what Ann Laura Stoler has referred to as ‘silences’ in the archival record. This is something that is particularly relevant in conducting research into public inquiries and has been noted as a point of contention in the previous investigations into the Hillsborough Disaster, where accusations have been made that information provided by various agencies was manipulated or distorted. Historians of the recent past must rely on the documentary evidence and where possible, compare the written record with other sources, such as audio-visual material and oral testimony, but still acknowledge that we cannot fully uncover ‘what actually happened’ and highlight this when required.

DEALING WITH SENSITIVE INFORMATION

As the terms of reference for the Hillsborough Independent Panel state, ‘[t]he Hillsborough disaster was a personal tragedy for hundreds of people’ and this needs to be taken into consideration when conducting research into the archival materials disclosed. While a lot of the personal information has been redacted, sensitive information about particular individuals, including victims and employees of certain government and public agencies, such as the police, the ambulance service and the local civil service, is still accessible through these disclosed documents. Any kind of information along these lines should be handled sensitively and with due care. The website of the Panel reminds those conducting research using the archive that while deeply sensitive material has been redacted, some of the content available is still distressing.

Keeping these issues in mind, the online archive created by the Hillsborough Independent Panel is a valuable resource for historians of contemporary Britain and the Thatcherite era. Although limited in its historical scope, centred around a single tragic event, the archival documents provide great insight into a variety of historical narratives that extrapolate out from the Hillsborough Disaster.

Did the Thatcher Government downplay fascist infiltration of football ‘hooligan’ scene?

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After the collapse of the National Front at the 1979 general election and its split into three competing factions, amongst the football ‘hooligans’ was one of the few in-roads that far right activists made during the 1980s. Both the Official National Front (the ‘Political Soldier’ group under the leadership of Nick Griffin) and the more overtly Nazi British Movement targeted young football supporters and those linked to certain ‘firms’. Many of those who were targeted by the NF/BM were already in the midst of a subculture that involved occasional violence and this made recruitment into organised fascist activism more easy. Shortly before it dissolved in 1981-82, the Anti-Nazi League warned about the presence of the BM on the football terraces:

At many football grounds, particularly in the London area, youngsters giving Nazi salutes have adapted BM slogans to their football chants – ‘Adolf Hitler, we’ll support you evermore’ and ‘There’s only one Adolf Hitler’.

The ANL quoted a former BM member who stated:

The BM and the NF approach groups of skinheads and the smoothies and the guys who just look mean, and say to them ‘Do you want a good ruck? If so come to a march on Sunday.’ I’ve seen them do this on the terraces at Spurs, West Ham, Millwall, Orient, Watford and Chelsea.’

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In the recently released documents from the Prime Minister’s Office for 1985-86 by the National Archives, there were several files relating the policing of football crowds and of ‘hooliganism’ in the wake of the Heysel disaster in Belgium, the Bradford City fire and the riot at St Andrews (Birmingham City’s stadium). These files offer a great insight into how the British government, particularly the Home Office, and the various police forces around the country viewed football crowds as a ‘problem’ and the various ways it sought to deal with them (of course, this offers background to how the authorities mishandled the Hillsborough disaster four years later).

Most of the files deal with the issues of crowd control and public order, but in the discussion of ‘hooliganism’, there seems to be little discussion of how the far right had infiltrated the various supporters’ groups and how this might’ve added to the violence witnessed around the country in the mid-1980s. The Interim Report of the Poppleweill Inquiry (set up to investigate the Bradford City fire and the Birmingham City riot) acknowledged that research into fascist recruitment of football ‘hooligans’ had reported this as a significant phenomenon:

Sociological research on the activities of the politically far right at football matches suggests that many young fans who espouse racist views, or who join in racist chants, have little real idea of the politics of groups like the National Front and the British Movement.

Although Justice Popplewell admitted, ‘I shall need to inquire more deeply in due course into this aspect’.

But despite Popplewell stating that ‘[t]here were found on the Birmingham ground a number of leaflets belonging to the National Front’, the report quoted a local Chief Superintendent who was investigating the riot, who denied the presence of the far right:

During the season just concluded, I have not detected any political lobbying adjacent to the ground on match days. I have not detected political activists recruiting or provoking problems.

In speaking notes drafted by the Home Office for the impeding release of the Popplewell Inquiry report, the government seemed to be hedging their bets on whether the far right were a problem at football grounds. In answering the question ‘what is being done to deal with extreme right wing organisations such as the National Front which instigate football violence’, the speaking notes said:

It is difficult to measure the effect which the presence of political extremists has on the level of crowd violence, but we do not rule out the possibility that this is a contributing factor. Anyone with evidence that political extremists are inciting or organising violence at football matches should draw it to the attention of the police.

Included in the file are examples of the fascist literature from the Young National Front’s paper Bulldog, which featured a regular column ‘On the Football Front’. Although prone to exaggeration, one issue claimed that Bulldog was being sold ‘by the hundred outside football grounds’ (including St Andrews). Another issue of Bulldog claimed that a YNF organiser had been involved in a ‘football race riot’ in Birmingham.

These copies of Bulldog had been supplied by Ted Croker, who was the head of the Football Association at the time. In a reply letter to Croker, a government representative seems to downplay these papers as evidence of the far right’s infiltration of the football ‘hooligan’ scene. Neil Macfarlane from the Department of the Environment wrote:

You will realise, of course, that if anything is to be done to deal with specific instances of violence being initiated or encouraged by National Front members, the police will require firm evidence; the Home Secretary has asked that anybody who has such evidence should make it available to the police. Without such evidence, it is very difficult to take any action, however horrible we feel this overt racism to be.

While the authorities were concerned about football ‘hooliganism’ and violence during the 1980s, the emphasis was on crowd control, rather than tackling political extremism (particularly far right/fascist). This is very similar to how the authorities policed clashes between fascists and anti-fascists in the 1970s and 1980s. The police were often willing to downplay fascist violence until it became impossible to ignore. The policing of football crowds and demonstrations were revamped shortly after this with the Public Order Act 1986, but as the events at Hillsborough in April 1989 showed, public order policing strategies were still framed around suspicion of crowds and little concern for those caught up in them.

Deny, normalise and obfuscate: The Home Office in the 1980s and the abuse of South Asian women

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The ‘missing’ files of the Home Office relating to an alleged child-sex ring given by Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens to Home Secretary Leon Brittan is not that surprising. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office kept silent about a hundreds of thousands of files that were thought to be ‘missing’ or ‘destroyed’ during the decolonisation process that most probably document a number of abuses by British personnel in Africa, Asia, Latin/Central America and the Middle East between the 1930s and the 1970s. Our own research into the abuses suffered by South Asian women at the hands of the British immigration control system shows that the Home Office (along with the FCO) was unwilling to admit to the abuses that occurred during the 1970s and at every turn, Home Office staff tried to obfuscate any independent investigation into these known abuses. We have only started to fathom the extent of the abuses suffered from the archival records released 30 years later. Without the archival record, many of the transgressions of the state would go unnoticed by the mainstream and historians are valuable in making the past wrongdoings of governments known.

As we have written in the introduction of our forthcoming bookRace, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control: Subject to Examination:

The main methodological approach adopted for the research underpinning this book was archival research based on recently opened Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) files held at the National Archives in London (released to the public between 2004 and 2012). This approach allowed us to capture the internal voice of authority – the one that we know it exists but often cannot be reached – representing the secretive side of the state that excludes us unless there is a leak of information (as recent cases linked to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden would suggest). Thus, we must wait an inordinate number of years to access such information, should any trace of it remain. In the case of the virginity testing controversy, we had to wait 30 years to access this side of the story, for more details of what occurred to be released. This practice must also be understood within a wider context of a series of human rights abuses conducted by British state institutions in the 1970s and 1980s (with the relevant files being released in the same timeframe), such as the actions of the British forces in Northern Ireland, the death of Blair Peach at the hands of a police officer in 1979, the policing of the Brixton riots and the response to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. We see in black and white the recurrence of the typical cycle of government evasion of accountability, which usually starts with denial, and is followed by the adoption of a minimisation approach and ‘othering’ strategies. The crude reality of what is known and not shared publicly conveys a sense of uneasiness, and of unbalanced power between those who govern and those who are governed, which can be readdressed by the opening of the archival record.

And further into the book:

This [book] has outlined how the British Government, under both Callaghan’s Labour and Thatcher’s Conservatives, responded to the revelation of the virginity testing practice by The Guardian in early 1979. The initial reaction of the government, led by Home Secretary Rees, was to question whether the tests on South Asian women had taken place in the manner alleged and to claim that any such test was part of a ‘routine’ medical examination to which most migrants were subjected. However, these claims were contested as details emerged that the practice was much more common than first thought, with numerous cases alleged to have occurred in British High Commissions across the Indian subcontinent. The strategy of the Home Office and the FCO was thus to deny publicly the number of examinations conducted (even though internal correspondence reveals that by March 1979 the Prime Minister’s Office knew of at least 80 cases), and to hope that public criticism would be stemmed by the announcement of an investigation into the process of medical examinations of immigrants by Sir Henry Yellowlees.

Soon after the practice of virginity testing was revealed in the mainstream press, the CRE announced that the Home Secretary should allow an independent investigation to pursue allegations of racist (and sexist) discrimination within the immigration control system. However, the Home Office was keen to resist this and challenged the questions raised by the CRE, claiming that discrimination was necessary to ensure the effective control of immigration, as well as launching legal action against the CRE, disputing whether it had the necessary powers to investigate another government institution…

The same strategies of denial, justification and obfuscation were adopted by the Home Office and the FCO when similar questions were asked about the use of x-rays within the immigration control system, with criticisms that x-rays were being performed upon minors not for medical reasons, but to verify their entry clearance applications. The Yellowlees investigation was used by the incoming Conservative government to deflect enquiries about the administrative and non-medical use of x-rays. Although the Yellowlees Report, released to MPs in April 1980, sanctioned the use of x-rays for age assessment purposes, the documents we have uncovered show that the Home Office and the FCO, internally, were in doubt over the usefulness of x-rays and quietly abandoned using them in all overseas posts except the High Commission in Bangladesh. Eventually Yellowlees, for reasons unknown, reassessed his position, and in 1982, Willie Whitelaw announced in the House of Commons that x-rays would no longer be used to determine the age of potential migrants. Since this 1982 embargo, there have occasionally been calls to reintroduce x-rays to verify the claims of potential migrants (and more recently, asylum seekers). 

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And in the book’s conclusion:

As we have shown throughout this book, from the 1960s to the 1980s the British authorities saw (and still see) the strict implementation of immigration controls as necessary for ‘good race relations’, and discriminatory practices – with the burden of proof placed upon the applicant – as necessary for the effective implementation of these controls. The suspicion of foreigners that existed within the system and pressure to scrutinise those who fit the profile of a potentially ‘bogus’ migrant led to the occurrence of various physical (and mental) abuses. This is the context within which the practice of virginity testing operated.

The practice of virginity testing and other forms of intrusive examination conducted upon migrant women from the Indian subcontinent in the 1970s were informed by a mentality of postcolonial dominance. The targeting of this group of women was certainly dictated by the British colonial experience – or misconception – that the female role in South Asian society is submissive. Further, the post-imperial British Government held a conviction, remaining from the colonial era, that people from the Indian subcontinent were untrustworthy. Yet, having admitted many Indian men into Britain for economic development purposes in the 1950s and 1960s, the government had to recognise the need to reunite families as a pressing point of public policy, while at the same time attempting to preserve the whiteness of British society.

The border became a space where virginity testing and other abusive treatments were justified to serve socio-economic and political aims. The increasingly restrictive conditions produced by British immigration control policy saw the authorities seek to apply a formula to create and maintain its idea of the ideal mixed society, whereby the Commonwealth migrant would be accepted on the terms of the host society. In the case of the South Asian women who came to Britain in the 1970s, they were to fulfil the purpose of joining their male family members and creating homogeneous family units in Britain’s South Asian communities, thus replicating the ideals of white British society. To ensure that these women would fulfil this role, and because South Asian migrants were thought to be prone to fabrication (especially women), the body became the signifier of ‘the truth’ for British immigration officials. The combination of all of these elements formed the basis for the conditions under which [many] South Asian women had to endure intrusive tests between 1968 and 1979. This practice was highly discriminatory, with a very select demographic group being the victims; it was an abuse of power and a violation of human rights.

The victims who were subjected to such practices remain mostly nameless and faceless, will never receive adequate compensation and, most importantly for the purpose of a proper healing process, have yet to receive an apology from either the past or current British governments. On this point, when the story broke again in May 2011 in The Guardian, and was widely reported worldwide, the Conservative government did not consider it to be a good opportunity to redress past wrongdoings:

[a] UK Border Agency spokesman said: ‘These practices occurred 30 years ago and were clearly wrong.This government’s immigration policies reflect the UK’s legal responsibilities and respect immigrants’ human rights.’[i]

In a multi-ethnic, globalised Britain, one would assume that this matter would be taken more seriously. Redressing past wrongdoing is the foundation of restorative justice, an underpinning principle embraced by the UN to attest to the importance of acknowledging abuse and the infringement of human rights. Meaningful reparation of wrongdoings does contribute to the healing of victims, and any action in this direction ought to be encouraged…[ii] 

The task of discerning ‘undesirable’ migrants at the border was prioritised over all other economic, social and humanitarian concerns. Did ever the Immigration Officers, who used their discretionary power to argue that more intrusive examinations were needed, consider the implications of their actions? Have they ever looked back? We accept that they followed orders. We also accept that immigration officials may have agreed, up to a point, to perform their duties in a most comprehensive manner because of the government’s broader vision and their background. In other areas of the world, brutalities directed at certain ethnic groups to achieve a better position for the dominant state would be framed in completely different terms. The harmful actions of the British state and its branches and personnel cannot be dismissed in this way… 

As we have written, the archival record is key to uncovering the past abuses by the British state and as this blog post argues, the need for historians to assist in bringing the archival record to the public’s knowledge is increasingly greater. The recent past should not be arbitrarily off-limits. And if the government is reluctant to open its records, historians should learn from journalists and endeavour to make FOI laws work for us.

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[i] A. Travis, ‘Ministers Face Calls for Apology as Extent of 1970s “Virginity Tests” Revealed’, The Guardian 9 May 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/may/08/home-office-virginity-tests-1970s (accessed 9 January 2014).

[ii] Much of Miriam Aukerman’s analysis would apply to this context as well. See M. Aukerman (2002) ‘Extraordinary Evil, Ordinary Crime: A Framework for Understanding Transitional Justice’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 15, pp. 39-97.

 

Thatcher has died. What about Thatcherism?

M-A-G-G-I-E, You ain't go no alibi...

M-A-G-G-I [-E], You ain’t go no alibi…

Margaret Thatcher died today. Her death was bound to be controversial, with many opinions on Thatcher and the legacy of Thatcherism being aired across social media tonight. A number of people on twitter have pointed to Thatcher’s attitude towards the deaths of Bobby Sands, of the crew of the Belgrano, of the victims of Apartheid South Africa and Pincohet’s Chile, and of the 96 who died at Hillsborough as reasons why people shouldn’t be too sentimental over her death. It will be interesting to see the British media over the next week on this issue.

A number of people have also raised the important question – what was Thatcher’s legacy? If Thatcherism represented a shift in British politics, what did it achieve? Did Thatcherism outlive her Prime Ministership and does it still exist today? Many would argue that the current policies of the Con-Lib Dem coalition are the contemporary embodiment of Thatcherism and that Thatcher’s legacy still weighs heavily upon the living (to paraphrase Marx).

It is too late in the evening to write a comprehensive post of the legacy of Thatcherism, so here are some links to earlier posts on this blog on the topic of Thatcher and British politics:

On the ‘uniqueness’ of Thatcherism in British political history

On the early years of Thatcherism and the crisis of the 1981 riots

On government accountability and public inquiries under Thatcher

And a little ditty to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the resignation of Thatcher

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write something more substantial in the next few days. I am sure I’m not the only one scrambling to write! In the meantime, here’s The Smiths…

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Edited to add: For anyone interested in the recent historiography of Thatcher and Thatcherism, I would recommend Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders’ Making Thatcher’s Britain and Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain. I reviewed Vinen’s book here.

Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken? Martin Jacques (1979)

Some thoughts on the characteristics of early Thatcherism and the ‘law and order’ agenda

For a long time I have been searching for an online version of this article from October 1979 by Martin Jacques, editor of Marxism Today and CPGB Executive Committee member. The Marxism Today  archive, for some reason, does not have the Oct 79 issue available online. But I think that this article by Jacques, written in the months after Thatcher’s electoral breakthrough, is a very concise piece that demonstrates the ‘new’ thinking by Jacques, Hall and other ‘Euros’ on the challenge that Thatcherism presented, and I believe that it is very good companion piece to Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, which featured in the same magazine the previous January. I have now found the article here as part of the UNZ online archive of magazines and journals (most of the rest of the stuff in the collection are from the US).

There is one section that I used to quote in my lectures on Thatcherism:

The precise character of Thatcherism is complex. Two clear elements, however, can be pinpointed. Firstly, there is a strong emphasis on a more traditional arguably petty-bourgeois ideology – the virtues of the market, competition, elitism, individual initiative, the iniquities of state intervention and bureaucracy… Secondly, Thatcherism has successfully attempted the organise the diverse forces of the ‘backlash’ – reacting against trade union militancy, national aspirations, permissiveness, women’s liberation – in favour of an essentially regressive and conservative solution embracing such themes as authority, law and order, patriotism, national unity, the family and individual freedom…

Thatcherism thus combines a right laissez-faire economic strategy with reactionary and authoritarian populism. (p. 10)

It is also reminiscent of another superb quote from Stuart Hall on the characteristics of Thatcherism: ‘Make no mistake about it: under this regime, the market is to be Free; the people are to be Disciplined’ (Drifting into a Law and Order Society, Cobden Trust, Amersham, 1980, p. 5)

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On the other hand, one can get carried away with the idea of Thatcherism (especially the ‘law and order’ part of it) as something new and novel in 1979. The politics of confrontation, as seen with the 1981 riots and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, was not just something adopted by the Conservatives upon Thatcher’s assumption of the leadership position and as several scholars have noted, the basis for the shift to the right attributed to Thatcherism had actually existed since the late 1960s. The view that Britain was on the verge of collapse had existed since the industrial militancy and cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and had been exacerbated by the economic crisis of the mid-1970s. Thatcherism was a response to this anxiety about the collapse of British society and was now openly willing to challenge the elements that were seen as ‘threats’ to Britain’s economic recovery and the ‘British way of life’.

It should also be noted that Thatcher could not have implemented any of these confrontational actions without sharing a considerable amount of consensus with the British population. The seminal 1978 work by Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and others, Policing the Crisis, demonstrated how the issues of crime and policing were utilised by the right to present strict criminal justice measures as the effective antidote to the crises of the 1970s. As the economic crisis of the 1970s continued, the police were increasingly used to deal with ‘subversive’ elements of British society, dissatisfied with Labour’s ineffective policies. The perceived lack of initiative of the Labour Government on the economic crisis and the issues of law and order allowed the Conservatives to sway traditional Labour voters with the populist notions of a ‘strong state’ to deal with the trade unions, crime, illegal immigrants and other ‘subversive’ elements. This populist appeal was part of the reason why around a third of trade unionists voted for the Conservatives in the May 1979 General Election, as Hobsbawm stated here (p. 265).

However these populist notions and the result of a more restrictive police presence were not merely creations of Thatcher herself. Paul Gilroy and Joe Sim wrote in 1985 (here) that ‘as far as law and order, policing and criminal justice matters are concerned, the Thatcher governments do not represent a decisive break with patterns in preceding years’, with the elements for a confrontational and politicised police force being present in the ‘fudged social democracy of the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan years’ (p. 18).  But under Thatcher, I think you can see a difference, as the police and other repressive institutions of the criminal justice system were explicitly used against certain demonised parts of society and there was increasing consent for this use amongst large sections of the British public. It is not until the late 1980s, particularly in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster and the police reaction to the anti-Poll Tax movement, that the Thatcherite supporter base become dissatisfied with the excesses of Thatcher’s law and order agenda – before this, those who were on the receiving end of it were often elements that the Tories had calculatedly excised from ‘British society’, but by the end of her reign, the consent of her traditional supporter base had also evaporated.

As we look back over the Thatcher years, I think that it is worth revisiting the early analysis of Thatcherism presented by Hall and Jacques in Marxism Today (and now we can more easily access Jacques’ 1979 piece). As Richard Seymour, of Lenin’s Tomb blog fame, wrote last year on the prescience of ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ for Jacobin:

He understood Thatcherism as not just a type of politics or statecraft, but a popular cultural phenomenon, a moral idiom, a common sense touching on the lived experience of polyglot social layers – somehow, Thatcherism was not just a doctrine of reaction but a hegemonic project, which managed to bind the abstruse dogma of neoliberalism to concrete, deeply felt experience.  And the ground work for this cultural advance had, as he and numerous co-authors at the Centre for Cultural Studies had shown in Policing the Crisis, been conducted since the late 1960s by a ‘New Right’ personated first in Powell then in Thatcher.  It had worked through a series of racial moral panics about crime, to connotatively link the experience of unemployment and depression to a wider narrative of British decline, the breakdown of law and order, the loss of imperial omnipotence, and so on.  The role of nationalism, and ‘Britishness’ in particular, was central to the Right’s appeal.