1980s >> 1980 >> no-911-july-1980

Death of Blair Peach and the Special Patrol Group

“For me, it was a perfectly standard operation . . .  It was all over in about two minutes” was how Alan Murray, the Inspector who was in command of Unit One Special Patrol Group at Southall on 23 April 1979, and who is clearly a man with unusual standards of normality, described the events which led to the death of Blair Peach. Well what would you expect him to say? — “We rushed down this street clubbing anyone we came across — a right tasty one it was. There was this geezer with a beard who got one on the side of the head and he went down. I’m sorry he died but he was one of the looney left and if he was looking for trouble he can’t complain, can he.”


Since that riotous day, Blair Peach has been canonised into the divine ranks of the left wing martyrs. He was so likely a character for that role that the most maudlin script writer would not have dared to create him. Peach came from New Zealand to teach in the East End of London, which is not renowned for its compliant, attentive, easily controllable school kids. Even more—Peach chose to teach backward, delicate children and the evidence is that he made a skilful, caring job of it. Even his looks were those of a born martyr with his sensitive, bearded face topped by unruly hair—a face which later stared out from the protest posters over the caption “He Fought the Nazis—the Police Murdered Him”.


Although nobody has been—or is likely to be—charged with causing his death, the available evidence is heavily suggestive that Peach was killed by a blow from a radio or some other weapon wielded by someone in that SPG unit commanded by Alan Murray. (One of the apparent mysteries of the matter, which gives much food for cynical thought, is that although the streets were swarming with policemen at the time, Peach’s killer cannot be found.) By the time of the Southall riot, the SPG already had a fearsome reputation, built up by their crowd smashing tactics at Grunwick, Lewisham (1975) and Lambeth (1978). In particular, Murray’s Unit One considered themselves a cut above the rest and tended to irritate the other units with infantile provocations like humming the Dam Musters’ March as they arrived at the scene of the action.


The SPG was first formed in London in 1965, when Wilson’s Labour government had won power on the promise of an abundant, caring society through the technological revolution although they did not mention that speedier, more ruthless policemen would be part of it. Nobody with any experience of left wing doublethink will be surprised that many of the people who are now demanding abolition of the SPG are members or supporters of the Labour Party or—like the Socialist Workers Party—advise workers to vote Labour. The SPG was originally intended as a mobile force which would give help at short notice to local police who were having difficulty in coping with particular problems like an upsurge in street crime. All members of the SPG were volunteers but they got no extra pay; presumably they found their rewards in the extra excitement and the mystique attached to being members of an elite. Inevitably, the SPG developed into a semi-autonomous force, something between the police and the Army, with its own, unpleasant, aura. “We’re the Special Patrol Group”, they announced on arriving to search (fruitlessly) one suburban home, “and we can do anything.”


From the beginning, Southall seemed made to measure for the SPG. It began when the National Front hired the old Town Hall for a meeting in support of their candidate in the general election. The NF did not publicise their meeting — they didn’t need to — and the local Indian Workers Association heard about it by chance from the police. At first it was IWA policy to ignore the meeting apart from asking local shops to close as a mark of protest. But a meeting to co-ordinate plans with other community groups preferred a “peaceful” sit-down outside the Town Hall, in which the demonstrators would accept arrest without resistance.


Apart from those strictly local bodies, there were others which were taking a predictable interest in what was happening in Southall. There were small but ominous differences in their attitude towards the affair: the Anti-Nazi League demanded “Stop the Nazi Meeting”; the SWP aimed to “Shut Down Southall”. Neither of them — and this also applied to Socialist Unity, whose candidate was Tariq Ali— used the word “peaceful” when talking about the demonstration which was planned. As the meeting drew near, the excitement became almost tangible; Southall was set for a battle.


And that, it seems, was how the police also viewed it. In the event the sit-down was not possible because the police cordoned off the area in front of the Town Hall. A running battle developed, over a large area of the town, with numerous examples of sickening violence, most of it from the police. The Daily Telegraph (24.4.79) described one incident:


“Within three minutes police had cornered about 50 demonstrators against the walls of Holy Trinity Churchyard . . .  several dozen, crying, screaming, coloured demonstrators were dragged . . .  to the police station and waiting coaches. Nearly every demonstrator we saw had blood flowing from some sort of injury; some were doubled up in pain.”


Perhaps all of this was enjoyable to the Special Patrol Group and to the hotter headed demonstrators. It was what they had come for and could be added to their other battle honours. Hundreds of people were injured, some of them seriously; over three hundred were arrested; a community was left in a state of high tension and fear. The NF held their meeting, speaking to 40 of their own supporters, 15 journalists and five members of “the public”. An hour or so after it was all over, Blair Peach died in hospital. Ten days later, the NF candidate totted up his votes; 1545 Southall workers had supported that squalid mess of racism and repression. It was a victory for someone but nobody was sure who.


The killing of Peach gave the left wing a propaganda weapon which they immediately seized. The protest meetings, marches, statements, began at once. “Avenge Blair Peach . . . Get These Murderous Brutes Off The Streets . . .  Smash the National Front . . .” screeched the Socialist Worker of 28 April 1979, in words clearly not designed to reduce the tension. The canonisation of Blair Peach, in the cause of left wing hypocrisy, has been a long drawn out affair and promises to last for some time yet. It has received regular stimulus from the anger caused by events like the discovery of the “unauthorised” weapons in SPG lockers, the trials of those who were arrested and the inquest, which inferred that Peach was killed accidentally by a policeman, using reasonable force to quell a riot. Yes, this one will obviously run and run.
Except that this is no stage play. Police violence is a serious matter, with dismal implications for working class liberty. But so is left wing hypocrisy and the hysterical nonsense which is being spouted from them about Peach, the SPG and the National Front does nothing but obscure some essential facts of reality. To look at just three of the issues:


Ban the Special Patrol Group? No left winger ever seems properly to grasp the fact that the police are inseparable from capitalism, are part of its coercive state machine which exists to protect the rights and privileges of the ruling class. As the tensions of capitalism build up, the police are not likely to become less repressive but more so. Increasingly, the British police are being armed as a matter of course and the SPG are not their only specialist elite; there are others like C10, who are expert marksmen. And it should not be forgotten that policemen are themselves members of the working class, even if they have specially anti-working class ideas; a 1975 survey  (The Public and the Police, William A. Belson) on the relationship between the London police and the public, requested by the Metropolitan Police, found 90 per cent of policemen claiming that demonstrators produced problems for them and 51 per cent accepting that society is constantly threatened by a minority dedicated to its overthrow. Such workers are ready to assert their ideas on the heads of fellow members of their class and are not particular about which uniform they wear while doing so. To demand the disbandment of the SPG is an exercise in futility, since the needs of capitalism would ensure that it was quickly replaced with another, similar elite.


Ban Police Secrecy? Capitalism cannot operate on the principle of open administration; imagine a firm telling its competitors about its plans to corner a market, or a government letting its rivals see its latest secret weapons. This also applies to other organs of repression like the police; they are not supposed to let the criminals know when they are coming to capture them. Unless they operate in secrecy, the police would lose their character as part of the coercive state machine-and would be useless to capitalism.


Ban the National Front? Southall exposed the naïveté — and worse — of the theory that political ideas can be beaten out of workers’ heads. How many of the demonstrators have changed their ideas after being beaten up by the police, or because of the death of Blair Peach? Without the protest, the police, the violence, the NF meeting would probably have passed with hardly a mention. As it was, the NF got a lot of just the sort of publicity they are looking for. Workers who are impressed by racism are confused about capitalism, to the point of desperation; they are not likely to be persuaded out of their confusion by violence or repressive laws. An essential part of democracy is freedom of speech; only the left wing are capable of the argument that free speech can be defended by denying it to someone they disagree with. And if the NF is banned, where will it stop? Will the ideas of socialism be next? Free discussion, and openly available information, provide the best conditions for workers to lose their confusion and to learn about socialism. Any attempt to suppress any idea is harmful to this.
Southall was another shameful episode in the history of capitalist repression and of the left wing. On both sides of the police cordon there were those who think that workers have something to gain in such violence as occurred that day; as anti-working class and anti-socialist, there is nothing to choose between them. There was a special irony in the death of Blair Peach and the response to it; as a member of the SWP he must himself have approved the use of martyrs as propaganda weapons, without dreaming that one day he would himself be so used.


There was that day a tragedy greater than Peach’s death and the injuries which were suffered. Everyone there was a worker who was misguided as to where his class interests lie; the tragedy is the contribution Southall made to the political mythology of the working class, which obscures the task before us to bring about regardless of sex or race, our own emancipation.