In 1979 I was a 15-year-old youth in my final year at a sink school in Charlton, a working class district of south east London. The UK was at the time in economic and political meltdown, and I and my fellow students prepared to move directly from school to dole queue. Even ignorant teens could see the writing on the wall: the right was resurgent, and on the streets there was serious civil unrest. Neo-nazis were active in my own manor, and the National Front marched provocatively through areas with large ethnic minority populations.
Cue Southall in west London, on 23 April 1979, less than two weeks before the general election which swept Margaret Hilda Thatcher and her band of reactionary grocers and upper-class barrow boys to power. The National Front had been meeting in the town, and the left reacted with a demonstration which quickly turned into a riot when the strong arm of the law in the form of the “Special Patrol Group” steamed in with truncheons, fists and boots flying.
The Special Patrol Group was the late 20th century police equivalent of the “Black and Tans” – a body of army-trained psychopaths who developed a taste for violence in the trenches of World War I, and later used their skills with relish against the civilian population of Ireland. While the SPG was not issued with military weapons and a licence to kill, its members made up for the lack of guns with such unauthorised tools of the trade as:
Never mind leftist agitators, the SPG instilled fear in the hearts of those who would never go anywhere near a political demonstration. SPG officers were sociopaths and thugs in uniform.
Some 31 years following the Southall riot of 23 April 1979, it has finally been acknowledged that SPG officers were responsible for killing Blair Peach, a 33-year-old schoolteacher and anti-racist campaigner who had been taking part in the demonstration against the National Front. The report is said by Metropolitan Police commissioner Paul Stephenson to make “uncomfortable reading”, and Stephenson has expressed “regret” at the killing. To this day Peach’s killing is officially classified as “death by misadventure”.
State prosecutors have declared that there is no chance of a prosecution of the SPG officers involved in the death of Blair Peach, but the report prepared by commander John Cass has recommended action against three unnamed officers for perverting the course of justice.
Will there be a prosecution? I doubt that very much. Every now and then there is a big scandal followed by righteous indignation and official hand-wringing. Apologies are offered, and then closure is sought by brushing the affair under the carpet. If the Metropolitan Police can get away with the termination with extreme prejudice of a Brazilian visa overstayer, following which the senior officer leading that particular operation is promoted, what hope is there when it comes to some donkey-jacketed Trot on an anti-racist march over three decades ago?
As I’ve said, 1979 was a pivotal year in modern British society, and for some of us who lived through it the memory is burned indelibly and unpleasantly into our synapses. For me personally 1979 was an epiphany: a classic ‘When the veneer of democracy starts to fade…’ moment. Personal politics hardened, and while age has tempered passion and encouraged pragmatism, the years have failed to restore trust in authority and the good intentions of the state, however democratically our institutions appear to operate on a surface level.
The Special Patrol Group was disbanded in 1986, and resurrected a year later as the Territorial Support Group, which Metropolitan Police PRs would have us believe is made up of cultured types who spend most of their time attending training courses on community sensitivity and personal growth. The reality is a little different.
In memoriam Blair Peach (1946–1979)