Scarman Report

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

orgreave3

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.

orgreave1

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.

orgreave2

Photos by John Sturrock, originally from Socialist Worker.

Save

Advertisements

The Communist Party and the 1981 riots

Over the weekend of April 10-12 1981 (34 years ago this last weekend), black and white youth rioted on the streets of Brixton and these riots, along with the riots that spread across the country’s inner cities in July of the same year, became a symbol of the unrest caused by Thatcherism, as well as the long and uneasy relationship between Britain’s black communities and the police. The following post is based on a draft chapter from my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and anti-racism, but is still being tinkered with at the moment – so any feedback is welcome!

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 7.26.19 am

Between the events of Southall on 23 April 1979 and July 1981, there had been increasing riots in inner city areas across Britain, where black and white youth had reacted against the police and in some places, such as Southall, fascist agitation. Although there has been major emphasis in studies of the Thatcherite Government from 1979 to 1990 on Thatcher’s abhorrence of the trade unions and the focus of her Government on destroying an organised labour movement, the riots that occurred across Britain in 1981 have been largely overlooked. While the anti-union legislation and the Miners’ Strike are important elements of the dominance of Thatcher’s neo-liberalism during the 1980s that involved high levels of confrontation between the state and the labour movement, the first major confrontation between the repressive institutions of the state and the ‘subversive’ sections of British society was not with the trade unions, but with Britain’s black population, particularly black youth in the inner cities.

The first major riot was in Bristol on 2 April 1980, followed by a much larger outbreak in Brixton between 10-12 April, 1981 before culminating in riots across Britain in July 1981. These riots can be seen as the reaction to the lack of a political voice by Britain’s black communities and to the racism of the police directed primarily at black youth, as well as against the Conservative Government. The riots were symptomatic of the wider disillusionment, shared by both black and white youth, with the Conservative Government’s repressive police tactics and monetarist economic policies, which contributed to high unemployment. The problem of police racism, at the centre of these riots, was, as Stuart Hall wrote, ‘where blacks and others encounter a drift and a thrust towards making the whole of society more policed’.[1] By the early 1980s, the police strategy in the urban inner cities was making a strong and visible presence of police power under the auspices of maintaining ‘law and order’ and taking a strong stance against street crime. As the Communist Party declared in May 1980, ‘the hawks are in control in the Metropolitan police force’.[2]

The first major confrontation was on 2 April, 1980 in the St Paul’s District of Bristol, when approximately fifty policemen raided a café that was patronised primarily by Afro-Caribbeans, which caused a confrontation between 2,000 mainly black citizens and over 100 policemen.[3] The confrontation was significant because of its scale and intensity, including burning and looting of private property and the racial aspect of the incident.[4] The clash was, Dilip Hiro wrote, a reaction to the confrontational tactics of the police against the black community.[5] The CPGB saw that the events in Bristol ‘were no “spontaneous riot” because there was nothing spontaneous about racial oppression – or its response’.[6] What Bristol demonstrated, Neville Carey predicted in Comment, was that ‘we are heading towards open warfare in deprived areas containing large numbers of unemployed youth’ as the police were being increasingly used to deal with troubles caused by the combination of racism and unemployment.[7] A petition with these immediate demands was circulated by the CPGB following the riot, but Carey admitted that the Communist Party was ‘doing far too little’ in working with the black communities, who mistrusted the opportunism and arrogance of the white left.[8] Carey warned that it would ‘take a great deal of mass pressure from the Left and progressive movements to stop this Law and Order government from encouraging the use of even greater force to deal with social discontent’.[9] But Bristol was only ‘the shape of things to come’.[10] As Harris Joshua and Tina Wallace wrote, ‘the same basic pattern of violence was to be repeated in almost every major city with a black population, precipitating a crisis of race unprecedented in the post-war era, and a crisis of law and order unprecedented since the 1930s’.[11]

On 10 April, 1981, a riot broke out in Brixton after the police stopped an injured youth on the street and the crowd reacted to the heavy police presence. Two events preceded the Brixton riots that contributed to eruption of action against the police. In January 1981, a fire on New Cross Road in Deptford led to the deaths of thirteen black youth. The fire was believed to have been started by a white racist, but the police investigation failed to arrest anyone connected to the fire, further angering the black community.[12] This resulted in large protests by the black communities, with little involvement from the white left and progressive movements, which was different from the political mobilisations of the late 1970s around Grunwick and the Anti-Nazi League. The mobilisation of thousands after the New Cross Fire ‘indicated the extent to which they had been frustrated… from expressing themselves politically’.[13] This mobilisation was against the disinterest and ineptitude of the initial police investigation and the mainstream press until the black protest had ‘drawn attention to the deaths and the official silence by marching through central London’.[14] Paul Gilroy wrote, ‘The tragic deaths set in motion a sequence of events which lead directly to the explosion in Brixton in April 1981, and provided a means to galvanize blacks from all over the country into overt and organized political mobilisation’.[15]

Another event that contributed to the Brixton riots was the strategy launched by the police in the week before the riot. Operation ‘Swamp 81’ was launched by the Lambeth police on 6 April, 1981. The purpose of ‘Swamp 81’ was to ‘flood identified areas on “L” District [Lambeth] to detect and arrest burglars and robbers’ with success, according to the police, depending on a ‘concentrated effort of “stops”, based on powers of surveillance and suspicion proceeded by persistent and astute questioning’.[16] In four days, the squads stopped 943 people and arrested 118, with only seventy-five charged, one with robbery.[17] The fact that so many police were deployed to street patrols in the immediate days preceding the riots contributed to the massive police response to the riots. Even after the first confrontations on 10 April, the operation continued with an extra ninety-six officers deployed to Brixton on 11 April. After the initial confrontation between police officers and a crowd of black youth on the evening of 10 April, 1981, rumours of police violence and several other incidents involving police and youths erupted into rioting across Brixton on 11 April and was finally quelled the following day. In the course of the events over that weekend, around 7,000 police officers were deployed to Brixton to restore order, although as John Benyon claimed, ‘during the worst night of violence on Saturday 11 April it seems that a few hundred people were involved’.[18] In the aftermath, 450 people, including many policemen, were injured, with 145 buildings and 207 vehicles damaged and the total damage bill amounting to £6.5 million.

After the Brixton riots, there was outrage from the Government, high-ranking police officials and the mainstream press, with Lord Scarman appointed to launch an inquiry into the events. But as Dilip Hiro wrote, ‘the root causes which led to the Brixton rioting persisted and Britain experienced a spate of violent disorders a few months later’.[19] Most major cities with black populations experienced rioting of some level, beginning on 3 July in Toxteth and Southall before spreading to Mosside and then to most other cities over the weekend of 10-12 July, 1981. ‘The incidents which ignited the disturbances varied enormously from place to place’ noted Chris Harman, with some incidents sparked by police harassment, others by racist attacks and fascist agitation or elsewhere, ‘the eruptions were “spontaneous” – youth on the streets just started looting and that was it’.[20] The official estimate of the total costs of damage caused during the July riots was £45 million, with £17 million caused to private property.[21] Around 4,000 people were arrested and ‘of the 3,704 for whom data was available, 766 were described as West Indian or African, 180 as Asian, 292 as “other” and 2,466 or 67% were white’, while around sixty six percent were under the age of twenty one and about half were unemployed.[22]

‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’: The Communist Party’s Reaction

The CPGB’s National Race Relations Committee (NRRC) had first begun preparing for a discussion conference, ‘Racism and the Police’ in October 1980, declaring that the ‘role of the police has become a central issue of anti-racist politics…loom[ing] large in any serious discussion of “institutionalised” racism and how to combat it’.[23] The NRRC invited representatives from black organisations, political parties, anti-racist, civil liberties and legal organisations, labour movement bodies and individuals to ‘assist the process of drawing up clear proposals for which the labour, democratic and anti-racist movements can campaign’.[24] The NRRC acknowledged that it would ‘not be a policy-making Conference’, but felt that the issue of police racism ‘urgently needs bringing down from the level of generalities to practical proposals’.[25] The conference was attended by around 160 delegates and put forward a ‘Charter of Demands’, published in Comment on 21 February, 1981 and then reproduced, along with the conference speeches, in a pamphlet Black and Blue, published in November 1981.[26]

The editors of the pamphlet, Dave Cook and Martin Rabstein, emphasised the wide range of groups involved in the conference, although many of the groups were represented by members of the Communist Party. Through this conference, the Communist Party believed it was ‘performing its key role of welding together…toward[s] the construction of the broad democratic alliance’.[27] The Party hoped that the ‘Charter of Demands’ was ‘one component part of a programme to democratise, to force democratic victories in the teeth of what will be the most powerful opposition in various parts of the apparatus of state’.[28]

Keeping with the framework of the broad democratic alliance, the ‘Charter’ called for consultation between the police and ‘genuine representatives of black communities’ as Britain’s black communities needed ‘community policing with democratic accountability and control, not saturation policing’.[29] ‘Hard’ policing, such as Operation ‘Swamp 81’, was seen as keeping the black communities under control, rather protecting it and the ‘Charter’, like the resolutions put forward at the CPGB’s National Congress, called for the removal of ‘SUS’ and the disbanding of the SPG.[30]

Included in the ‘Charter of Demands’ were proposals put forward by the Communist Party previously, calling for ‘race relations and public order law’ to be ‘firmly enforced against racists’ and ‘given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism’.[31] As with the Party’s stance on immigration control, the Race Relations Act and anti-fascism, the repressive and anti-left bias of the state was weighed against the practical use of the state to combat racism. The police, who were at the forefront of the fractuous relationship between the black communities and the state, were widely seen as incapable of mending community relations, but, in line with the ideals of the broad democratic alliance, the CPGB stated its commitment to the ‘rights of the “non-political” individual – the right to be free of harassment, the right to walk without fear on the streets’, which the Party believed needed to be protected by some kind of police force.[32]

After the riots in July, the CPGB’s Executive Committee released a statement, ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, describing the disturbances as a reaction to long-term problems that had developed in the urban inner-cities, ‘in the context of both the deep crisis affecting our economy, and the particular consequences of Thatcher’s policies’.[33] However the Party noted that it was ‘crude economic reductionism’ to simplify the argument to ‘economic crisis = disturbances on the streets’, recognising the ‘important racial dimension’ of the riots.[34] The riots were not an isolated issue of ‘law and order’, but partly a wider reaction to the repressive actions of the police and the monetarist economic policies under Thatcherism, with the CPGB leadership stating:

 Thatcher is blind to the part played by her disastrous economic and social policies in causing the disturbances, and the police chiefs are blind to the connections between their everyday methods of policing and the violence they face.[35]

Therefore, the black and white youth were ‘not rioting against society at large, but were rioting against the police, against unemployment, against racism’.[36] The Party saw the broad democratic alliance put forward in The British Road to Socialism as the necessary strategy for the working class ‘to force democratic victories’ within ‘the most powerful opposition in various parts of the apparatus of state’,[37] which looked to working within the present system for immediate victories while attempting to build popular opposition for long-term reform. The response by the labour movement and the left had to be, the Party declared, more than simply ‘getting rid of the Tories’, instead it was to ‘respond to the immediate demands of the black community’, as the Party urged these organisations to campaign at local level, ‘linked to the need for left alternative policies nationally’.[38]

Lord Scarman’s Report and the Denial of Institutional Racism

Unlike the triumphalism of the state and strong Government celebrated by the Conservatives after the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike, the aftermath of the 1981 riots saw the Government having to partially retreat from its forceful ‘law and order’ position and make concessions that police tactics in the black communities did involve racist and alienating behaviour. Although there was much speculation over the cause of the riots and numerous objections to their violence, many acknowledged that the heavy-handed police actions in the black communities over the previous decade had been a principal factor in provoking such a violent reaction by black youth.

Lord Scarman’s Inquiry was primarily focused on the events in Brixton, although the Government asked Scarman to take the July riots into account, but as Joe Sim noted, ‘This request was not evident in the final draft’.[39] The Scarman Report, wrote Stuart Hall, ‘was no panacea’, but ‘broke the prevailing law-and-order consensus’ that left the police blameless,[40] instead arguing that the ‘problem of policing a deprived, multi-racial area like Brixton cannot be considered without reference to the social environment in which the policing occurs’.[41] In reference to the environment of deprivation that existed in Britain’s inner cities, which increasingly suffered from the monetarist policies of the Conservative Government, the Scarman Report explicitly stated that there could be ‘no doubt that unemployment was a major factor… which lies at the root of the disorders in Brixton and elsewhere’.[42] Scarman acknowledged that the black community face similar problems to the wider working class in areas such as education, unemployment and discrimination, but on a much more severe scale. The result of this was that ‘young black people may feel a particular sense of frustration and deprivation’.[43] Scarman also found the riots to be ‘a spontaneous reaction to what was seen as police harassment’.[44]

However while Scarman criticised some of the actions by the police, the Report, on the whole, stood in favour of the police force. Scarman concluded that ‘the power to stop and search’, one of the immediate factors for racial harassment by the police, was ‘necessary to combat street crime’.[45] From this decision, Scarman found that ‘the direction and policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist’, but did admit that ‘racial prejudice does manifest itself occasionally in the behaviour of a few officers on the streets’.[46] What the Brixton riots did reveal for Lord Scarman was ‘weakness in the capacity of the police to respond sufficiently firmly to violence in the streets’, finding that ‘the use of “hard” policing methods, including the deployment of the Special Patrol Group, is appropriate, even essential’.[47] Scarman concluded that ‘racial disadvantage and its nasty associate, racial discrimination’ still existed in British society, but controversially declared that ‘“Institutional racism” does not exist in Britain’.[48] This denial of institutional racism by Scarman demonstrated, according to Martin Barker and Anne Beefer, that Scarman’s Report was ‘a liberal Report, but one within entirely racist parameters’.[49]

The Scarman Report was criticised by the Communist Party’s National Race Relations Committee for its failure to recognise the existence of institutional racism, describing the Report as ‘full of contradictions’.[50] Some positive elements to the Report conceded by the Party were the connections between the disturbances and the economic crisis, racism within the police, community policing, the banning of racist marches and anti-racist training for the police, although many of these points included criticisms of their weaknesses.[51] Other parts of the Report were described as ‘just plain bad’, with the Party asserting that the Report contained ‘no explicit criticism of the Government’s economic and social policies’, the token gesture of a liaison committee with only ‘consultative’ powers, the negligent mention of racist attacks on black people and most importantly, the denial of institutional racism.[52]

At the CPGB’s National Congress in December 1981, the Party repeated the call for an accountable and co-operative police force, working with the black community, while calling for greater Party work within local communities, particularly in response to unemployment, the police and racism.[53] On the issue of racism, the Party recognised the ‘rightward shift in British politics affecting all aspects of life’ and expressed ‘great concern [at] the growing activities of racist and fascist organisations, and particularly the growing attacks on black people’.[54] The Anti-Nazi League had defeated the National Front electorally but fascists were ‘now returning to [the] traditional policy of street terrorism and underground activity’.[55] In the struggle against racism, the Party stated that it ‘must seek to win many more black members to its ranks’, but recognised that this was difficult and would ‘only happen inasmuch as the Party is consistently involved in fighting on the issues that the black community recognises as the most urgent’.[56] While the CPGB saw potential for the Party and the Young Communist League to help the youth, such as those involved in the riots, to ‘become involved… in non-anarchic, non-individualistic forms of mass action’, the Party failed to make headway in the black community and the Party’s membership continued to decline. Youth unemployment did not propel many youth towards the left, with the ‘overwhelming majority of the young unemployed remain[ing] apolitical’ and as Kenneth Roberts wrote, ‘Rather than being channelled into party politics, their discontents are more likely to be expressed on the streets’.[57] By the time of the 1985 riots in London and Birmingham, Thatcher had defeated the trade unions in the Miners’ Strike, had seen the British Army victorious in the Falklands War and had led a sustained campaign of privatisation of British industry – unlike the vulnerability experienced after the 1981 riots, Thatcherism was now at its hegemonic height.

British Crime - Civil Disturbance - The Brixton Riots - London - 1981

———————————————-

[1] Stuart Hall, ‘Policing the Police’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds), Black & Blue: Racism and the Police, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1981, p. 7

[2] Jackie Heywood, ‘Police Hawks Come Out On Top’, Comment, 10 May, 1980, p. 151

[3] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain, Paladin, London, 1992, p. 85

[4] H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7

[5] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 86

[6] Hackney CP Branch Internal Policy Document, n.d., CP/LON/BRA/09/11, LHASC

[7] Neville Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, Comment, 26 April, 1980, p. 136

[8] N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 137

[9] N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 136

[10] Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14, Autumn 1981, p. 1

[11] H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7

[12] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87

[13] Darcus Howe, ‘Brixton Before the Uprising’, Race Today, February/March 1982, p. 69

[14] P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 130

[15] P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 129

[16] Cited in, Lord Scarman, The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 95, Italics are my emphasis

[17] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87; P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 132

[18] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88; John Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions: The Political Agenda, the 1981 Riots and the Scarman Inquiry’, Parliamentary Affairs, 38/4, 1985, p. 409

[19] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88

[20] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 5

[21] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 90

[22] J. Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions’, p. 410

[23] Conference Invitation to ‘Racism and the Police’, October 1980, CP/LON/RACE/02/11, LHASC

[24] Conference Invitation

[25] Conference Invitation

[26] ‘Racism and the Police’, Comment, 21 February, 1981, pp. 6-7

[27] D. Cook & M. Rabstein, ‘Inner City Crisis’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6

[28] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 32

[29] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 6

[30] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7

[31] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7

[32] D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6

[33] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, Executive Committee Statement, 12-13 September, 1981, p. 1, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC

[34] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 2

[35] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 6

[36] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 9; Italics are in the original text

[37] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 11

[38] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 10; p. 11

[39] Joe Sim, ‘Scarman: The Police Counter-Attack’, Socialist Register, 1982, p. 58

[40] Stuart Hall, ‘From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence’, History Workshop Journal, 48, Autumn 1999, p. 188

[41] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194

[42] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 205

[43] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194

[44] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 195

[45] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 207

[46] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 198; Italics are my emphasis

[47] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 201

[48] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 209

[49] Martin Barker & Anne Beezer, ‘The Language of Racism – An Examination of Lord Scarman’s Report and the Brixton Riots’, International Socialism, 2/18, p. 108

[50] ‘The Scarman Report’, December 1981, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC

[51] ‘The Scarman Report’

[52] ‘The Scarman Report’

[53] ‘Social and Economic Policy’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 39

[54] ‘Racism’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 37

[55] ‘Racism’, p. 37

[56] ‘Racism’, p. 38

[57] Kenneth Roberts, ‘Youth Unemployment and Urban Unrest’ in, J. Benyon, Scarman and After, p. 182

From the newly released NA papers: Thatcher, riots and the aftermath of Scarman in the early 1980s

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 11.01.05 pm The National Archives have just released archival documents relating to the Thatcher government for 1985 and 1986, with further releases in July 2015. There have been many media reports already on many other aspects of the papers (such as the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland, the Anglo-Irish relationship and her love-hate relationship with Australian PM, Bob Hawke) but I thought I’d explore one of the digitised files that has been so far overlooked – a file on public disorder and the aftermath of the Scarman Report on the Brixton Riots, spanning from late 1981 to late 1985 (PREM 19/1521).

As I have written before, the 1981 riots and the inquiry by Lord Scarman signified a low point in the history of Thatcher’s first term as Prime Minister, with public support for the government and for the police greatly dropping amongst large sections of the British population. From this position, the government generally accepted the recommendations of the Scarman Report and on paper, agreed to implement most of its recommendations. The most significant reform was the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (which came into effect in January 1986), but scholars, such as John Benyon, have since argued about the effectiveness of the government’s other initiatives.

The newly released file shows the government’s statements about the extent of their actions in line with Scarman’s recommendations. But the file also shows that the government was still sceptical of Scarman’s suggestion that unemployment, poor housing and declining access to social services were underlying reasons for the outbreak of the riots across Britain in 1981. After further unrest broke out in September 1985 in the Birmingham borough of Handsworth, newly appointed Home Secretary Douglas Hurd made a speech to the Association of Chief Police Officers stating:

Handsworth needs more jobs and housing. But riots only destroy. They create nothing except a climate in which necessary development is even more difficult. Poor housing and other social ills provide no reason for riot, arson and killing. One lady interviewer asked me whether the riots was not a cry for help by the rioters. The sound which law-abiding people at Handsworth heard on Monday night… was not a cry for help but a cry for loot.

Hartley Booth, Margaret Thatcher’s Special Adviser on Home Affairs, repeated this assertion in a report to the Prime Minister in the days after the unrest in Birmingham. Booth criticised Labour MP Claire Short for her statement that ‘unemployment caused the riot’ and said that ‘socialist-style policies’, such as ‘huge state intervention and subsidy’, had failed to quell unrest. Booth reported to Thatcher:

there is overwhelming evidence that [the unrest] was a criminal exercise, carried out by selfish, greedy and idle youths

Booth also suggested that it was outside agitators and groups from the far left that contributed to the riot. As well as proposing that people had come from places such as Wolverhampton, Sparkbrook and Manchester to take place in the riots, Booth also asserted:

The police have clear evidence, as has Special Branch, that a group from Notting Hill with Far Left connections – entitled the Tabernacle Group – were present in Birmingham this week, and were the architects of a demonstration which it was intended should be filmed by the television cameras yesterday outside the Law Courts.

This suspicion of ‘outside agitators’ were responsible for the riots was a subject that Thatcher’s advisers came back to between 1981 and 1985 (I have already written about a report drawn up by Peter Shipley for the Home Office in 1981 which suggested that ‘outside elements’ were involved in the 1981 riots here). Thatcher’s Private Secretary for Parliamentary Affairs, Tim Flesher, wrote a memo in November 1982 that a ‘Trotskyite rent-a-mob’ had attempted to disrupt a meeting of the Brixton Police Community Liaison Committee. Tony Rawsthorne, the Private Secretary for Home Secretary Leon Brittan, wrote to Flesher in July 1983 to outline the risks of public disorder that summer and included the following passage about ‘subversives’:

the assessment from the Security Service is that there is no intelligence to suggest that any black or white subversive groups or individuals are planning civil disturbances or that they are considering how they might exploit any disturbances that might otherwise arise. If disturbances were to break out, some subversive groups would be likely to move quickly to extract the maximum political advantage from them.

After the 1985 riots, Quintin Hogg, the Lord Chancellor, expressed in a letter to the Home Secretary’s staff: I hope the factual account of Handworth [sic] will either confirm or repudiate the impression I get which is that there was an element of deliberate planning there either by drug pushers or left wing anarchists.

The file also has two memos that refer to a special report on subversive groups drawn up by MI5, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence of this report in the digitised file. A memo from Thatcher’s Principal Private Secretary, Clive Whitmore, to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, dated 22 Feb, 1982 mentioned the report:

The Prime Minister was very interested to read the report by the Security Service on exploitation by subversive groups of last year’s civil disturbances which you sent me with your minute AO7560 on 19 February 1982.

I am unsure why this report seems to be missing from the digitised file. Maybe it is something worth FOI-ing in the near future.

From Scarman to Macpherson to Ellison

Since the release of the Ellison report on Thursday that looked at possible corruption and subversive undercover policing in the Stephen Lawrence case, as well as Theresa May’s announcement that there will be an inquiry into undercover police techniques since the 1990s, people have been debating whether the police had progressed in anyway since the Macpherson Report in 1999 described the Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’. Looking back at the progress (or lack thereof) between Lord Scarman’s 1981 report into the Brixton riots and Macpherson’s 1999 report, was it unrealistic for people to think that Macpherson’s findings would alter the way the police functioned (particularly in the relationship with ethnic minorities)? In 1999, Stuart Hall wrote:

Those expecting Macpherson to usher in a new epoch in black/police relations had therefore better think again. The sound of police doors – and minds – slamming shut against the drubbing and exposure they have had to endure resounds across the land.

A post-Macpherson police force coincided with a post-9/11 worldview and while elements of the police hierarchy were keen to comply with Macpherson’s recommendations, in many ways, the police became more combative, more secretive and more discriminatory. In 2009, The Guardian reported that between 2006/07 and 2007/08,  that stop and searches of Afro-Caribbean people had risen 322 per cent, while stop and searches of Asian people had risen 277 per cent. In the Reading the Riots report published in the wake of the 2011 riots, it noted that many respondents felt that the police operated as a criminal gang, with the report saying that there was a feeling that the police were ‘a collective force unto themselves’. Derek McGhee wrote about the police in the post-Macpherson era:

one could conclude that the desire to police ‘street’ criminality, or more accurately, ‘black’ street criminality, through the disproportionate stopping and searching of young African-Caribbean men on British streets has, in the end, overridden the desire to eradicate institutionalized racism from policing practices.

So Theresa May has announced another inquiry into policing procedures. While independent scrutiny of police conduct is always welcome, it is hard to believe that the matter of police corruption, discrimination and inappropriate operational behavior will be in any way resolved by this forthcoming inquiry.

New article at The Conversation (UK): Who will prevent a race to the bottom by UK Border Agency?

The academic commentary site The Conversation (UK version) has published a short article by myself on the announced investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission into the spot checks in London in the hunt for ‘illegal immigrants’. The article looks back at the investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the UK immigration control system in the early 1980s and discusses the parallels with the present day.

You can find the article here.

“Reading the Riot Act”: New special issue of Journal for Cultural Research on UK 2011 Riots available now

The latest issue of the Journal for Cultural Research has just been released titled ‘Reading the Riot Act’, which is a special issue of the UK 2011 riots (available here). Edited by Rupa Huq, the special issue has six articles on the different aspects of the riots, with articles by Huq, Tom Henri & John Hutnyk, Gargi Bhattacharyya, Sivamohan Valluvan, Nisha Kapoor & Virinder S. Kaira, Caroline Rooney and myself (abstract here). The editorial introduction by Huq outlines the reason for the special issue:

This special edition of Journal for Cultural Research  attempts to go beyond kneejerk responses one might hear in the seminar room or street and instead gathers together considered, deliberative academic articles from different geographical locations and disciplinary perspectives to look at the riots one year now that the dust has settled on to some extent. (p. 1)

I’m really excited to have an article included in this special issue, alongside some big names in cultural studies and sociology. I really enjoyed reading the other articles, especially Huq’s mention of The Smiths!

As usual, if you don’t have access to this journal, email me and I can send you a copy of my article.

What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, part two: ‘Race’ and the Police in the 1980s

The Young Ones debuted on British television in November 1982, just over a year after the large scale inner-city riots that swept across Britain. The 1981 riots resulted in some of the biggest examples of urban unrest on the British mainland in the post-war period and resulted in millions of pounds in damage and several hundred arrests. The riots were a reaction to the socio-economic policies of the Thatcherite government, but at the same time, were the product of years of police harassment experienced by Britain’s ethnic communities. The riots have been characterised as a rebellion by African-Caribbean and Asian youth to the racism of the authorities, the criminal justice system and the far right that was a day-to-day occurrence for them. But it was not just African-Caribbean and Asian youth involved in the riots, with many scholars pointing out that 60% of those arrested were white. Hatred of the police was something felt by both black and white youth in the 1980s (I have written about this here). In the aftermath of the riots, Lord Scarman conducted an inquiry that found that relations between the police and Britain’s ethnic communities had broken down and while denying that institutional racism had infected the Metropolitan Police, the Police were susceptible to racist attitudes and behaviours. As a result of Lord Scarman’s findings, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was introduced to regulate police procedures and a complaints body was established. The British Crime Survey, first instituted in 1982 and carried out bi-annually since then, found that people’s ratings of the police decreased during the 1980s. The Young Ones captured these attitudes towards the police and in several scenes, lampooned the racism and authoritarian attitudes of the police.

The first clip (starting at 1.29) is a direct satirisation of the racist attitudes of the police in the 1980s. The policeman has sunglasses on and the person he is addressing is wearing black gloves and from this, the policeman believes he is talking to a black person. Note the threat that he could pull both the person’s arms off and ‘Lord Scarman need never know’. Only when the person removes his gloves does the policeman realise his ‘error’ and then is polite to them. The clip satirises the difference in treatment experienced by white and non-white Britons.

The second and third clip both satirise the police harassment experienced by most youth in Britain in the 1980s. In both clips, the police are shown as quick to anger and use excessive force, using the excuse of a loud party in the previous clip and criticism of the police in the latter. Rudeness towards the police was famously made an offence in 1986 under the revamped Public Order Act and used recently to arrest a student who called a police horse ‘gay’.

The fourth clip also show the police harassing youth, but also satirises Rik, the student-lefty, as the rebellious activist, who can defeat the police with poetry (which does allude to the police as racist through their love of The Black and White Minstrel Show). The clip makes fun of Rik’s earnest activism and ‘right on’-ness defeating the ‘fascist’ police.

While the show repeatedly parodied the police as authoritarian and ‘fascist’ (which many argued in the 1980s), this clip turns around and satirises the idea of the police as ‘fascist’ by portraying the local police recruitment officer as Benito Mussolini. The surreal nature of Mussolini working for the Metropolitan Force emphasises the hyperbole involved in calling the police ‘fascist’, which was a common occurrence by British youth and activists at the time.

The show also addressed the issue of racism in other ways as seen in this clip from the episode ‘Demolition’. Rik asks Neil whether the lentils are South African and that Neil is a totalitarian for using South African vegetables. At this time, there was a boycott of South African goods as the result of the activism of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which grew significantly during the 1980s (This blog is a fantastic resource on this topic). The clip does not really poke fun at the Anti-Apartheid Movement or the boycott itself, but at Rik’s sanctimoniousness and ability to judge Neil as a ‘scab’ out-of-hand before Neil can say anything.

It is worth noting that while The Young Ones did highlight these issues, the cast of the show was almost entirely white. Probably the largest acting role given to an ethnic minority in the series was Lenny Henry’s cameo as a Nazi postman in the final episode ‘Summer Holiday’, as seen in the clip below (from 5.01).

In conclusion, The Young Ones highlighted attitudes amongst British youth towards the police in the 1980s, which had been severely damaged as a result of the 1981 riots, and portrayed the police as racist, authoritarian and quick to use violence against those who they disliked. The police were also portrayed as unintelligent. But at the same time, the show parodied the left’s attitudes towards the police (and other issues of ‘race’) through Rik’s pompousness, although most would agree that the show’s sympathies lay with the opposition to Thatcherism in the 1980s.

Are there any clips that I missed out? If so, please leave a comment below.