Charged shows how the police and the wider establishment have attacked protests and the right to protest for the last forty years, finds Chris Nineham

Charged explores in forensic detail the growing state hostility to protest which has emerged over the last few decades in Britain. In what amounts to a warning to activists, civil-rights lawyer Matt Foot and filmmaker and writer Morag Livingstone make their case by examining a series of demonstrations and protests attacked by the police since the early 1980s.

Their story begins with dramatic events at the Warrington Messenger, a tiny printing company that took on the powerful print unions in 1983. Company owner Eddie Shah gained the backing of Observer editor, Andrew Neil, as he tried to break the closed shop at his firm. This led to discrete government support for Shah and the use of the dispute to test out new police tactics against mass picketing. The British establishment was determined never to let be repeated the disastrous episode in 1974, when mass picketing shut down the Saltley Coke works in Birmingham, which led to a decisive victory for striking miners.

The book goes on to examine key battles of the 1980s and 1990s including the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the vicious attacks on the striking printers at Wapping in 1987, the police assault on the anti-Nazi demonstration in Welling in south-east London in 1993, and the battles over the Criminal Justice Act in 1994. It ends with a look at some of this century’s confrontations, concluding with the attack on the student anti-fees demonstration of 2010. 

We get all sorts of interesting insights into how the state works along the way. The book sheds light on how state institutions, while appearing to be independent, again and again reinforce each other to normalise police violence. Outbreaks of police violence are ignored or misreported in the media, then exonerated in the courts. In one well known case, the BBC actually reversed the order of events at the miners’ mass picket at Orgreave in 1984 to make it look as if the pickets started the trouble (p.52). As a result, by the time politicians come to comment, they can get away with blaming the protestors for any violence, turning reality on its head.

All this relies first and foremost on the fact that senior people in these institutions share contempt for protestors and strikers alike, and share also the same basic assumption that the primary role of the state is to defend private property come what may. This is a neat, ‘common sense’ way to justify a class policy in situations of protest or strike.

State collusion and racism

The story told in Charged, however, also shows that this kind of spontaneous collaboration is not sufficient for the job in hand and that there is often active collusion between different wings of the state. Charged recounts a meeting between Prime Minister Thatcher and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch at the start of the miners’ strike in 1984, for example, and explains that Thatcher’s private papers show there was a carefully orchestrated government effort ‘to wean the public away from siding with the miners’ (p.53).

The link between racism and contempt for protestors is a thread throughout the book, but is particularly striking in the account of the police attack on the demonstration against the Nazi BNP in Welling, south-east London in 1994. The special ferocity of this attack is well explained by Foot and Livingstone as revenge for the left’s campaign against police inaction over the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence. The hatred for the anti-racist movement was visceral and went right to the top. The officer in charge, Paul Condon, was centrally involved in the police harassment of the Mangrove café in Notting Hill in the 1960s, so well documented in Steve McQueen’s recent Small Axe film.

In current left discussions of the state, there is often an emphasis on its ‘softer’ functions; the way it generates some kind of consent through propaganda, creating divisions and the appearance of democratic process. Charged serves as a crucial reminder of the violence and repression that lies at the heart of the way that the British state operates.  

The book also shows, on the other hand, that taking on protestors is not always plain sailing. Co-ordination can break down, and the contradictory demands of policing can lead to confusion, even chaos. The authors write vividly from eye-witness accounts about the police attack on the Criminal Justice Bill protestors in 1999 that got out of control, nearly led to catastrophe, but ended in farce. An internal police report found that ‘there was antagonism and even open conflict’ amongst police ranks. It recorded that there was no overview, and that the big picture,

‘had clearly been lost … The situation became more confusing with mounted vehicles … inside the park confronting various hostile crowds. This situation lasted for some time with no-one apparently in control and officers acting independently of others’ (p.172).

This story of incompetence and miscommunication, and dramatic underestimation of the scale of the protests, is a useful reminder of the many difficulties that the police face in trying to reconcile its public image with its central purpose.

Policing neoliberalism

The central theme of the story is the steady increase in police powers that Foot and Livingstone argue began after the 1981 riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Chapeltown and elsewhere. Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw publicly accepted the recommendations of the inquiry into the Brixton riots led by Lord Scarman, which recommended a liberalisation of policing methods.

Behind the scenes, however, Whitelaw took the opposite course. In reality, he increased police powers, codified in a manual written by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). The existence of this manual was only uncovered during the inquiry into the Orgreave police riot of 1985. Since then, it has been regularly updated, progressively increasing police powers, helping to clear the way for the series of assaults on protest well described in the book.

Foot and Livingstone are surely right to link this trend to the Thatcherite neoliberal turn in British politics, and the growing assault on protest in general and the trade unions in particular that this involved. No accident then that as neoliberalism reaches breaking point, as strikes spread, and big new protests loom, a new raft of repressive measures have been introduced with last year’s draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

As Mike Mansfield says, however, in the foreword to the book, ‘it is the power of the people not the people in power that matters most’ (p.xiv), and there is no doubt that the new authoritarianism can be resisted. Missing from the book is any reference to cycles of demonstrations that would have helped to illustrate this. The protests against the Iraq war from 2002 through to 2005 included the biggest demonstration in British history, the biggest protest on a weekday, and the biggest day of direct action ever witnessed in this country. Because of their scale and the support they had from the wider public, the police simply could not attack them, and so the pattern described in the book was halted for a time. There was also a series of massive demonstrations and protests against austerity from 2011 to 2016 which don’t get a mention, and from which in general the police stood back. It would have been interesting to have read a discussion about why this was.

Foot and Livingstone’s warning is timely and important. As they say, the way that the different sections of the state have clandestinely worked together reveals that they are ‘institutionally opposed to protest’ (p.261). Priti Patel’s close alliance with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, saw this collusion against protest reach a new peak. The British ruling class is aware that big new fights are likely and they are getting prepared. Our side must be under no illusions about just how ruthless they can be.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.