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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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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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Theresa May and UKIP: A repeat of Thatcher and the NF in ’79?

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While everyone is falling over themselves to make analogies between the Labour Party of the 1980s and that of today under Corbyn (or stressing that it’s not a repeat of that decade), we are also in danger of seeing Theresa May’s time (however long) as Prime Minister through the prism of Margaret Thatcher.

In the post-Brexit world, nothing can be taken for granted anymore when it comes to British politics, so any predictions are fraught with error and future embarrassment. With that, despite the prediction by Norman Tebbit that ‘May will drive Tory members into the arms of UKIP’, I am thinking that Theresa May becoming Prime Minister will split the post-Farage UKIP. While Brexit has not been ensured, UKIP’s most prominent policy has been, more or less, achieved, and in the past, single issue groups have struggled to change their message/strategy once their primary objective has been fulfilled or become irrelevant. Coupled with Farage leaving the leadership spot, UKIP look rudderless and will now try to siphon off the anti-immigration vote from both Labour and the Tories as they will probably re-fashion themselves as the ‘sensible’ anti-immigration party – to the right of the Tories but not associated with fascism of Britain First or the British National Party.

This might continue to be a problem for Labour, but May’s record as Home Secretary and her continued ‘tough’ talk on immigration may attract the ‘soft’ UKIP vote back to the Tories. While Cameron was seen as ‘weak’ on controlling immigration, the Home Office under May made the rules incredibly more difficult for non-EEA migrants and their families (and her comments on the future of EU migrants in the UK have not calmed the fears of many). Some UKIP supporters will think that May has not done enough, but many might be swayed by her track record and ‘effort’ in trying to restrict immigration from the EU and the rest of the world.

This is where the Thatcher comparison comes in. Thatcher’s public pronouncements on immigration in the late 1970s helped make her look ‘tough’ on the issue, particularly her comment in 1978 that people were feeling ‘rather swamped’ by Commonwealth migration. Furthermore, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 1979 election announced that the Tories would introduce ‘firm immigration control’ that would ‘end persistent fears about levels of immigration’. After this, the Tories were able to attract a significant number of voters who might’ve voted for the National Front previously and the NF’s vote was greatly diminished at the 1979 election.*

While I am sceptical about making too closer historical comparisons between May and Thatcher, it is plausible that May’s rhetoric might drive a similar wedge between those who waver between UKIP and the Tories, and those who are ‘rusted on’ UKIP supporters. If a snap election is called, this is certain a possibility. Otherwise, it will depend whether new Home Secretary Amber Rudd follows May’s hardline approach to immigration.