Police violence

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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New edited book on 2011 UK riots: ‘Reading the Riot Act’

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In 2013, the Journal for Cultural Research published a special issue dedicated to the UK riots of 2011, edited by Rupa Huq. This featured an article by myself on looking at the 2011 riots through the lens of 1981. Routledge has now published this special issue as an edited collection, available here in hardback. Alongside my article/chapter, the collection also features contributions by John Hutnyk, Gargi Bhattacharyya and Caroline Rooney (amongst others). Order it now for your university or institutional library!

New article in Journal of Australian Studies: Policing Protest in the Australian Capital Territory

Canberra Times on the first use of the Public Order Act

Just a quick post to let you all know that the latest issue of Journal of Australian Studies features my long awaited article on policing protest in the ACT in the early 1970s. The full title of the paper is ‘Policing Protest in the Australian Capital Territory: The Introduction and Use of the Public Order Act 1971’. The abstract is below:

This article examines the reaction by the Australian Federal Government to the protest movements of the 1960s–1970s and their attempts to use public order legislation to thwart radical discontent in Australia. It argues that the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 was aimed at the threat of “violent” protests, particularly the tactic of the “sit-in”, and that to this end, the legislation was an overreaction to the actual threat posed by the protest movements at the time. It also shows that after a long gestation period, the Act was ill-equipped to deal with the changing nature of demonstrations in the 1970s, such as the problems caused by the erection of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Thus, after an initial flurry of use in mid-1971, the law has been seldom used since.

You can find the article here. If you use academia.edu, you can access the article here.

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.

Appeal for primary source material on British/Irish left & female hunger strikers at Armagh 1980

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Recently the Irish Times has started running a series of articles on the history of the 1980-81 hunger strikes in the lead up to a symposium being held on the subject in London in June 2016. One of the articles by Maria Power discussed the hunger strike undertaken by three republican women in Armagh Prison in late 1980, whose contribution to the hunger strikes has been overlooked by many.

Coincidentally a former student of mine and I are beginning a small project to look at how the British and Irish left, as well as the women’s liberation movement in both countries, expressed solidarity with these striking women. This will be included in a special journal issue on the British left and Ireland currently being put together by Matt Worley and I. The abstract of our article is here:

Intersectional Solidarity: The female prisoners of Armagh, women’s liberation and the left in Britain and Ireland

In 1980, the Republican women prisoners held in Armagh prison in Northern Ireland joined the dirty protest being waged by the male members of the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army in Maze Prison. This eventually evolved into a 53-day hunger strike conducted by Republican prisoners in October 1980, which was shortly followed by the more infamous hunger strike in 1981 that claimed the lives of 10 strikers. Overshadowed by the fatalities of the 1981 strike, the 1980 strike involved three IRA women in Armagh, who challenged the traditional nationalist notion of the strong male warrior fighting for a united Ireland. Both the blanket/dirty protests and the two hunger strikes generated sympathy and solidarity across the globe, including with the far left and the women’s liberation movement in Britain and Ireland. The various groups of the left, the women’s liberation movement and the republican movement all claimed that the women involved represented their competing ideals and agendas and these movements sought to weave their actions into their narratives. At the same time, many within these movements were also highly critical of these women and their links to the Republican movement. This article will look at how the left and the women’s liberation movement in both Britain and Ireland looked to portray these women within their narratives and how the solidarity expressed became intersectional, imbued with contesting connotations of liberation from British imperialism, monopoly capitalism and patriarchy.

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Part of this project has been locating the various publications of the various leftist and feminist groups in both Britain and Ireland. Last month, the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog posted an appeal for primary source material, which was very fruitful. However we’re still looking for more material, so here is the appeal again:

My former student and I are writing an article on the British and Irish left and the female hunger strikers at Armargh in 1980. We have (or are getting) material from the CPGB (Morning Star), the SWP (Socialist Worker and Socialist Review), the IMG (Socialist Challenge), the IRSP (the Hunger Strike Bulletin posted at Irish Left Archive) and Women Against Imperialism (a WAI report from 1980). We are also interested in material from the British and Irish women’s liberation movements and have got material from Spare Rib, the IMG’s Socialist Woman and the SWP’s Women’s Voice.

If anyone has access to material of any other British or Irish left-wing papers/journals from the period, would they be able to check whether there was anything on the strike (lasting from Oct-Dec 1980) or their ‘dirty protest’ (which began in Feb 1980)?

We’d be particularly interested in anything from Militant (or its Irish group), the Communist Party of Ireland or SF-WP, but would welcome any primary source material dealing with the topic.

If anyone has material, please contact me at: hatfulofhistory@gmail.com

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I would like to thank everyone who has helped us find material so far, and hope that people can help us find more!

Thanks to the Bloody Sunday Trust for the archival pictures.

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ and the anti-fascist challenge to the Communist Party

On 13 August, 1977, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ occurred on the streets on south-east London – a confrontation between anti-fascist protestors, the police and (some) members of the National Front, who attempted to march through the borough. In many of the accounts of anti-fascism in Britain in the 1970s, this episode has been characterised as the point where the Socialist Workers Party became the leading group in the anti-fascist movement and overtook the traditional role of the Communist Party. The following post is based on a short extract from my forthcoming book on the CPGB and the politics of race between the 1940s and the 1980s.

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By 1976-77, the Communist Party was at a crossroads over its anti-fascist strategy as the National Front (NF) moved to campaigning in the streets. At this time, the CPGB’s National Student Committee had removed ‘no platform’ as a slogan and acknowledged that the ‘real debate on racialism had been lost in this controversy over “No Platform”’.[i] In the immediate steps to combat the NF, the CPGB called for ‘a ban on all racist activity and strengthen the Race Relations Act against incitement to race hatred’ and to ‘develop the broadest united campaign of all anti-racist forces to resist racist activities’.[ii] However the CPGB’s Political Committee believed that there was still no ‘basis for forming some new, national anti-racialist organisation’ and the Party ‘should not try to form at this stage a national organisation… which presents the danger of being a grouping of Left wing organisations and another area of disruptive activity for ultra-Lefts’.[iii] By the end of 1976, it looked as if the Socialist Workers Party and the Asian Youth Movements were to provide the two forms of political organisation that would confront the National Front on the streets in the late 1970s, although as Anandi Ramamurthy has pointed out the white left and the AYMs disagreed over the centrality of the struggle against racism and the strategies to be pursued.[iv]

The CPGB had traditionally been the dominant anti-fascist force, but by the mid-1970s, they had been overtaken by the IS/SWP. By 1976, the economic crisis had stalled the IS/SWP’s efforts to revolutionise the union’s rank-and-file and ‘in an attempt to bolster its flagging industrial perspective, but without losing its foothold in the union camp’, the SWP launched the Right to Work campaign.[v] The IS/SWP’s concerns were now focused on the Right to Work and combating the NF, announcing that ‘the twin themes of fighting racialism and fighting for the right to work now dominate our immediate perspective’.[vi] This emphasis signalled a significant shift for the SWP, ‘away from established union and political structures and towards the young working class’.[vii] In relation to defining itself as an alternative to the CPGB, Ian Birchall explained that part of this was an appeal to the Communist Party’s heritage, which reflected two things, ‘the hunger marches… and anti-fascist activity, especially Cable Street’ and in the 1970s, the SWP ‘were the ones who were emulating the “golden age” of the CP’.[viii]

In his history of the IS/SWP, Birchall recognised the SWP’s strategy against the National Front was twofold. Firstly they emphasised that ‘racism and fascism were a product of a system of crisis’ and anti-racism ‘had to be combined with a critique of the system as a whole’.[ix] On the other hand, the NF’s marches were part of a fascist attempt to control the streets and build a mass organisation, so ‘organised fascism had to be confronted physically’.[x] The SWP criticised the CPGB for ‘[m]erely shouting ‘One race – the human race’ as those attracted to the NF were ‘fed up with rhetoric from politicians, they are impressed by action’.[xi] To prevent the building of a fascist mass movement required a strategy of ‘uncompromising opposition to any form of publicity, meeting or demonstration’ for the NF, which meant physically confronting the NF in the streets.[xii] The SWP were wary of police protection for fascist marches, but declared that ‘if five or ten thousand people assembled with the clear purpose of physically stopping a nazi march – then the police would probably not allow them to march’.[xiii] As the SWP stepped up their anti-fascist strategy of confronting the NF in the streets, they warned, ‘physical action will become the litmus test for distinguishing those who are seriously attempting to build a revolutionary alternative from those who are merely careerists and hacks’.[xiv] By August 1977, this ‘litmus test’ had come with the major street battle of the 1970s between the NF and the anti-fascist left, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’.

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’ on August 13, 1977, when anti-fascist demonstrators clashed with the National Front and the police in the London borough of Lewisham was a turning point for both the CPGB and the SWP in the anti-fascist movement. Attempting to exploit the recent arrest of a number of young blacks, the NF called for an ‘anti-muggers’ march, to assemble near New Cross station in Lewisham.[xv] In response to this announcement, the anti-fascist movement in Lewisham called for a ban from Home Secretary Merlyn Rees and Metropolitan Police Commissioner David McNee. The Lewisham council appealed to Rees to ban the march under the 1936 Public Order Act, while McNee ‘suggested a three month ban on all marches’.[xvi] However the Morning Star stated that under the Act, Rees could have ordered a ‘one-off’ ban, claiming that the three month period proposed by McNee was a ‘red herring’ and it was only police practice to ban all marches.[xvii] However Commissioner McNee stated that ‘he was turning down calls to ban the NF march because to do so would be to give in to “mob rule”’.[xviii]

The All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) was formed in January 1977, a broad-based alliance, including in its own words ‘conservatives and socialists, church people and trade unionists, blacks and whites’.[xix] Nigel Copsey has noted that at a national level, the CPGB ‘had done little to counter the National Front’, but its members ‘were often key figures in local anti-fascist committees’,[xx] which was the case with ALCARAF. With the refusal to ban the NF march, the Lewisham CPGB branch announced that ‘ALCARAF should encourage all Borough organisations…to support a counter-demonstration… calling for a peaceful, democratic, multiracial society based on social harmony’, as well as, ‘to reject fascism and end unemployment’.[xxi] ALCARAF and the CPGB urged a ‘powerful but peaceful demonstration’, which was scheduled to take place at a different time, away from the location of the NF’s march at Clifton Rise.[xxii] The SWP, on the other hand, announced its own demonstration at Clifton Rise, where the NF were meeting, with the notion of confronting the NF on the streets. The SWP recognised the ALCARAF march, but declared that ‘it will provide no substitute for confronting the fascists directly’.[xxiii] The Morning Star announced that, ‘it almost goes without saying that the Socialist Workers Party has prepared itself for the definitive game of cowboys and indians’.[xxiv]

On the day of the demonstration, around 4,000 people attended the ALCARAF march..[xxv] In the flyer handed out to marchers, the CPGB called for marchers not to attend the SWP demonstration, appealing for them to resist ‘violent confrontation with the National Front or the police’ and remain ‘united and disciplined’, asserting that organisations, such as the SWP, ‘who insist on the ritual enactment of vanguardist violence only damage the hard, patient work that has been put in over the years in the area by anti-racists and anti-fascists’.[xxvi] The SWP distributed its own leaflet amongst the ALCARAF march to join the demonstration at Clifton Rise. SWP District Secretary Ted Parker described the event in Dave Renton’s history of the Anti-Nazi League:

We knew one pivotal thing was to get as many people as possible from the first march up to Clifton Rise… The fascinating thing was that people wanted to march to Clifton Rise, but they just wouldn’t line up behind a Socialist Workers Party banner… Eventually, we found some members of some other groups like the IMG with a banner for some united campaign against racism and fascism. People agree to group behind that. It taught me a lesson for later – many people would support a united campaign, they didn’t all want just to line up behind the SWP.[xxvii]

Around 3,000-5,000 demonstrators congregated at this point, compared with 500-600 NF marches and ‘as police made snatch raids into the crowd…counter-demonstrators retaliated with bottles, bricks, and soft drink cans’.[xxviii] Fighting also broke out between police and counter-demonstrators on Lewisham High Street at the end of the NF march. By the end of the day, 110 people had been injured, including 56 policemen and 210 people detained, with 204 charged with offences.[xxix]

The following week’s Socialist Worker’s headline declared ‘We Stopped The Nazis…And We’ll Do It Again!’[xxx] Thousands of people – ‘black people and trade unionists, old and young, 14-year-olds and veterans of Cable Street, Rastafarians and Millwall supporters, Labour Party members and revolutionary socialists’ – had come out to demonstrate against the National Front. The NF, ‘cowering behind massive police lines’, were ‘forced to abandon their march before it was half completed’.[xxxi] The SWP saw the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ as a major victory, when the ‘Nazi Front got the hammering of their lives’.[xxxii] Central London Organiser of the SWP, Jerry Fitzpatrick described Lewisham as ‘our Cable Street…it was our generation’s attempt to stop fascism. It was rugged, scrappy. It got bad publicity. But it was a real success. The NF had been stopped, and their ability to march through black areas had been completely smashed’.[xxxiii] The black SWP paper, Flame called Lewisham ‘the day that the Black youth gave the police a beating’ and declared, ‘For the black community it was a day of victory’.[xxxiv] The Socialist Worker reported that the ‘angriest anti-fascists were not those who had travelled many miles to take on the Nazis, but the local people, the blacks especially’.[xxxv] The paper quoted the father of one of the Lewisham 21 as saying, ‘I don’t agree with everything the Socialist Workers’ Party says but they were the only organisation to stand up for the rights of black people here’.[xxxvi]

For the Communist Party, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ demonstrated the need for widespread political pressure to ensure that the Public Order Act and the Race Relations Act were used effectively to ban provocative racist marches and in the case of this ban not being implemented, the need for a broad-based counter-demonstration, rather than street fighting. The Party was outraged at Police Commissioner McNee’s refusal to ban the NF march and asserted that instead of police mobilising ‘to carve a way for a few thousand supporters of the National Front’, the NF’s marches ‘must be stopped by police’.[xxxvii] If this did not occur, then ‘political, mass struggle… will be found to finish with the National Front and its like’ and ‘not the staging of ritual confrontations and street fights between the police and handfuls of protestors’.[xxxviii] The CPGB condemned the ‘crass adventurism’ of the SWP to assemble where the NF were marching.[xxxix] While Dave Cook acknowledged the ‘courage and determination’ of those who took part in the protest at Clifton Rise, the ensuring clashes ‘gave the capitalist press the chance to present that day as being a violent struggle between two sets of “extremists”’.[xl] What was needed for a successful anti-racist campaign was a broad-based movement including the labour and progressive movements, as well as the black communities, which had the potential to be isolated by the violent clashes of the SWP. As Dave Cook wrote, ‘The problem about street fighting is that only street-fighters are likely to apply, and it is this which can make it difficult to achieve the mobilisation of the labour movement’.[xli] Some members within the CPGB, particularly those involved in the militant anti-fascism of the 1930s and 1940s, defended the confrontational tactics against the NF, but this was more likely to be support for the local black community in Lewisham, than for their Trotskyist rivals. Tony Gilbert, one of the CPGB’s leading anti-racist activists and a former International Brigades volunteer, ‘commented on the courage of the young blacks’ after Lewisham at a National Race Relations Committee (NRRC) meeting, but stated that the main lesson of Lewisham was that ‘the presence of the Party must always be visible on any anti-fascist demo’.[xlii]

For the CPGB, the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ signalled the end of a ‘primarily defensive phase’ against the NF, where ‘mobilisation reflected the intentions of the fascists’.[xliii] The need was not the ‘occasional dramatic “confrontation”’ with the NF, but a ‘detailed, systematic, painstaking’ campaign to ‘promote propaganda and education… to show the benefits of living in a peaceful multiracial society’.[xliv] For the SWP, Lewisham showed that it was clear that ‘many people outside the SWP were keen to oppose the National Front but wanted little to do with the SWP itself’.[xlv] As David Widgery wrote in Beating Time:

The black community, who had successfully defended their patch, had had a glimpse of a white anti-racist feeling which was much bigger and more militant than the liberal community-relations tea parties might suggest. A lot of ordinary people thought it was a Good Thing that the Little Hitlers had taken a bit of stick. Every racialist was made smaller.[xlvi]

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[i] National Student Committee, ‘National Student Conference’, 17 February 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/PC/14/06, LHASC.

[ii] Morning Star, 12 July 1976.

[iii] ‘Draft for Political Committee’, 1 July 1976, in CPGB archives, CP/CENT/PC/14/01, LHASC.

[iv] Anandi Ramamurthy 2013, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements, London: Pluto Press, p. 38.

[v] Ian Goodyer 2002, ‘The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism’, MA Thesis: Sheffield Hallam University, p. 24.

[vi] IS Central Committee, ‘The Anti-Racialist Fight and the Right to Work Campaign’, IS Post-Conference Bulletin, 1976, in Alastair Mutch Papers, MSS.284, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[vii] Goodyer 2002, p. 25.

[viii] Email from Ian Birchall to the author, 22 May 2005.

[ix] Ian Birchall 1981, Building the “Smallest Mass Party in the World”: Socialist Wirkers Party 1951-1979, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1981/smallest/index.html.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] ‘Fascism in Leicester’, International Socialism, 1/93, November/December 1976, pp. 18-9.

[xii] ‘News from the Nazi Front’, International Socialism, 1/80, July/August 1975, p. 5.

[xiii] ‘Fascism in Leicester’, p. 19

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] David Renton 2006, When We Touched the Sky: The Anti-Nazi League 1977-1981, Cheltenham: New Clarion Press, p. 57; Nigel Copsey 2000, Anti-Fascism in Britain, Macmillan: Houndmills. p. 123.

A police campaign in the Lewisham area had arrested a number of young blacks, which became known as the ‘Lewisham 21’. During a demonstration in support of the Lewisham detainees in early July 1977, a number of demonstrators were attacked by NF members.

[xvi] Morning Star, 10 August 1977.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Morning Star, 11 August 1977.

[xix] All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism And Fascism, Why You Should Support ALCARAF, 1977, London: ALCARAF flyer, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/05/04, Labour History Archive and Study Centre (hereafter LHASC).

[xx] Copsey 2000, p. 127.

[xxi] Lewisham CPGB Branch, ‘National Front Provocation in Lewisham’, 9 July 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC.

[xxii] Lewisham CPGB Branch, ‘ALCARAF Demonstration August 13th’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC; Copsey 2000, p. 126.

[xxiii] Socialist Worker, 13 August 1977.

[xxiv] Morning Star, 12 August 1977.

[xxv] Copsey 2000, p. 127.

[xxvi] ‘A Message From Lewisham Communists to the ALCARAF Demonstration’, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/LEW/02/06, LHASC.

[xxvii] Renton 2006, p. 60.

[xxviii] The Guardian, 15 August 1977.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Cited in, Renton 2006, p. 72.

[xxxiv] Flame, September 1977.

[xxxv] Socialist Worker, 20 August 1977.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Morning Star, 15 August 1977.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Morning Star, 2 September 1977.

[xl] Morning Star, 26 August 1977.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Minutes of NRRC meeting, 19 September 1977, in CPGB archives, CP/LON/RACE/02/06, LHASC.

[xliii] Dave Cook, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, 1978, London: CPGB, p. 23.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Copsey 2000, p. 130.

[xlvi] David Widgery 1986, Beating Time: Riot ‘n’ Race ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll, London: Chatto & Windus, p. 49.

2011 was not 1981. And 2015 is not 1983.

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Back in 2011, I wrote about how many people viewed the riots that swept across the UK through the lens of the 1981 riots. I wrote in this article:

Karl Marx famously paraphrased Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, saying that “all facts and personages of great importance in world history, as it were, twice”, adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 1969, p. 15). Marx’s point was that in periods of great societal upheaval, many of those who observe and attempt to explain these events look to past historical events for an interpretative framework, or as Marx (1969, p. 15) put it, “they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them”. While Marx was writing about the French counter-revolution that occurred after the uprising of 1848, these words could be used to describe any number of rebellions, revolutions or episodes of disorder. The focus of this article is on the riots that spread across the UK in early August 2011 and how most commentaries and analyses of these riots sought to explain them through the prism of the riots that occurred in the UK in 1981 (first in April in Brixton and across the UK in the summer of the same year). While Marx (1969, p. 15) wrote about how those observing the events of 1848-1851 looked back to the “Thermidor” period of the French Revolution, substituting “Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848-1851 for the Montagne of 1793-1795”, those writing on the riots of 2011 looked back to 1981, substituting David Cameron for Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May for Willie Whitelaw and the black, white and Asian youth of 1981 for the black, white and Asian youth of 2011.

The parallels between the events of 2011 and 1981, and their surrounding socio-economic and political conditions, seem, at first glance, to be very similar. David Cameron’s Conservative Government was pushing “austerity” measures to cut public spending and reduce the “debt” inherited from Labour, akin to the monetarist policies sought by the first Thatcher Government, which meant less money for the poorer sections of British society reliant on some form of government assistance and less spending on other public services in poverty-afflicted areas of the UK. In 2011, as well as thirty years ago, these austerity measures, combined with a wider globalised financial crisis, had led to great increases in unemployment, particularly amongst the UK’s ethnic minority communities and amongst young people. Alongside these economic factors, both years saw concerns arise about the powers of the police, particularly in the operation of stop and searches (or “sus” laws in 1981) and the perceived targeting of ethnic minorities by the police, as well as other sections of the lower classes and young people in general.

These parallels were picked up upon by many commentators. For example, Gilroy (2011) remarked in a speech on the riots that there was “a temptation … to say it’s the same game as it was thirty years ago” and citing Stafford Scott, said that “unemployment numbers, school exclusion numbers, stop and search numbers [his emphasis] … In terms of these things, the number are as bad as or worse than they were thirty years ago”. In their research as part of The Guardian and LSE’s Reading the Riots project, Newburn, Lewis and Metcalf (2011) wrote that the conditions for the riots of 1981 were “in many ways similar to those that blighted England this summer”, pointing out that “[b]oth took place while a Conservative prime minister grappled with the effects of global economic downturn and rising unemployment”. Wheatle, the novelist and participant in the 1981 Brixton riots, also wrote in The Guardian (2011) that the circumstances between the two periods of rioting were “remarkably identical”, identifying factors such as “economic crisis, disenfranchised young people, deep cuts in public services and a deterioration between young black people and the police”.

Even before the August 2011 riots, commentators had remarked that the socio-economic and political environment in the UK seemed to mirror that of the early 1980s, and in discussing the thirtieth anniversary of the riots of 1981, there were speculations of the possibility of riots in the near future. An article in The Guardian on the upcoming anniversary of the Brixton riots stated that “some community leaders are warning that similar tensions could, again, spill over into violence”, describing “a toxic cocktail of factors reminiscent of 1981, including rising youth unemployment, cuts to local services and deep suspicion of the police”, as well as “the politicisation of a new generation of anti-cuts protests … and anti-tuition-fees marches” (Walker 2011). The article also quoted Alex Wheatle as saying:

You’re going into dangerous territory, eroding services for young people … I can imagine a repeat of 1981. I can feel the anger. I can feel the resentment towards authority. You’re getting a lot of young people with degrees and big debts, but not jobs. What was really striking in 1981 was the lack of hope. When you have no hope you’re going to confront the police, you’ve got nothing to lose. (cited in, Walker 2011)

Another article on the riots in Liverpool in 1981 in The Guardian quoted a community worker who had experienced the riots as a youngster, who saw parallels between Liverpool in the present day and the city in the 1980s:

First, there was deindustrialisation, now there’s a recession, and you hear people worried about losing their jobs and how they will now in all probability have to work longer for their pensions. It makes some of us quite jealous, because at least you had jobs consistently enough to enable you to build a pension in the first place. I look at these people now and think to myself: “Welcome to our world. Welcome back to 1981.” (cited in, Vulliamy 2011)

However, as Hughes (2011) has said, “[h]istory doesn’t repeat itself exactly” and there is logic in the government assertion that 2011 is not 1981 (McSmith 2011). Many commentators and scholars have noted that there are a number of differences, both in the context from which the riots developed and how the riots actually unfolded, between the riots that have recently occurred and those that happened thirty years before. This article accepts the argument that while these riots occurred quite spontaneously, they did not arise from nowhere and were not completely unexpected, and while one cannot draw a direct line between the riots of 1981 and the riots of 2011, the history of riots, public unrest and civil disorder in the UK does show that there is a precedent for what occurred last year and the riots were not an a-historical episode. The point of this article is that while the recent history of riots that have occurred in the UK since the mid-1970s can provide us with an insight into the most recent outbreak of urban unrest, much of the discourse on the 2011 riots was presented through the prism of 1981. On one hand, the events of 1981 were upheld by some commentators (mostly on the centre-right, but some on the centre-left) to contrast the “criminality” of those participating the most recent riots with the more “political” and “socially aware” riots of the early 1980s. On the other hand, there seemed to be a number of people, particularly on the left, who saw a teleological narrative that formed a direct connection between the events of 1981 with the present era, putting forward that the lessons of 1981 and the struggle against Thatcherism were instructive to how the left should respond to today’s crises. This article does not want to present a guise of political neutrality and certainly aligns itself more closely to the interpretation of the events as put forward by the left, but acknowledges that for political expediency, some of the more nuanced details of what occurred in August 2011 (and in 1981) may be shaped to fit the left’s practical programme. As Smith (2010) has argued, riots and episodes of public unrest do not fall neatly into categories of political struggle and the motives and actions of those involved are open to a multitude of interpretations.

The article concluded:

Power (2011) wrote in The Guardian after the initial burst of public disorder in North London last year that “[i]mages of burning buildings, cars aflame and stripped-out shops may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media … but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur”. This article has looked at how different commentators, journalists, politicians, scholars and activists have interpreted the historical context of the riots that happened across the UK in August 2011, particularly focusing on how the most recent riots have been seen through the lens of the riots from 1981. Although providing a historical background to the 2011 riots helps us to understand that these riots did not occur from out of nowhere or that they were unprecedented in any way, but the comparison of the two events has, in many ways, crystallised how the 1981 riots are perceived in the collective memory. Notions of what “the 1981 riots” or “the Brixton riots” or “the Toxteth riots” have come to symbolise are essentialised ideas of the “noble” or “justified” riots against institutional racism and Thatcherism – in other words, the events of 1981 were explicitly political.

This article has argued that framing the 1981 riots in this way has had two effects on how the 2011 riots are perceived. Firstly, commentators, journalists and politicians on the right (as well as some on the liberal-left) have used the idea of the 1981 riots as expressions of political frustration against “legitimate” targets to condemn the criminal and destructive activities of the rioters involved in the unrest in 2011, arguing that those involved in the most recent riots were motivated by consumerist desire and anti-social behaviour and thus, the response by the authorities should be criminal justice oriented, rather than making political concessions. Secondly, commentator and activists on the left have taken the framework of the 1981 riots as explicitly political actions from the lower classes to show that the riots of 2011 were just as political and represented the anger of the growing “underclass” in the UK. For many on the left and within activist circles, the same neoliberal/monetarist agenda by the Conservatives (resulting in high unemployment and cuts to public services), combined with the institutional racism of the police and the judiciary, were the underlying causes of the riots of 2011 and those that occurred in the early 1980s, and that the lessons of the battles against the Thatcher government are to be heeded.

However, this essentialised version of the 1981 riots, and the comparison with contemporary events, overlooks the fact that the riots that broke out across Britain thirty years ago were not as neat to categorise and interpret as they look in hindsight, and that at the time, there were clear differences in how the riots were understood by different sections of society. Even for those that agreed that the riots were political disagreed on whether the riots were a response by the lower classes to socio-economic policies of the Thatcher government or a response by the black communities to the racism that they faced in Britain on a day-to-day basis. The evoking of the riots of 1981 in the discourse on the August 2011 riots has been used by commentators from both sides of politics to portray the most recent riots in a particular manner, using the supposed explicit political nature of the riots of the past to dismiss or emphasise the political nature of the riots of the present. While historical comparisons are useful for understanding the wider context of events, such as the public unrest of 2011, in too many scenarios, the past is distorted and simplified to fit the political demands of the present.

new labour working

I feel that similar evocations of the past are being made in commentaries on the Labour leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn is not Michael Foot and the 2020 manifesto (if he wins) will not resemble the 1983 manifesto. While it might be more progressive than the 2015 manifesto, no one expects Corbyn to reverse 30 years of neoliberalism inflicted upon the Party. There is not the organised entryism by Militant and Socialist Action that there was between 1979 and 1983 and the threat of a rightwards split seems predicated on the belief that there is the political space for another centre-right party.

As much as it might seem that way, we are not reliving the 1980s.