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Death of Blair Peach
Clement Blair Peach
(1946-03-25)25 March 1946
Napier, New Zealand
|Died||24 April 1979(1979-04-24) (aged 33)
Southall, London, England
|Cause of death||Head trauma|
Clement Blair Peach (25 March 1946 – 24 April 1979) was a New Zealand-born teacher who died after an anti-racism demonstration in Southall, Middlesex, England. A campaigner and activist against the far right, in April 1979 Peach took part in an Anti-Nazi League demonstration in Southall against a National Front election meeting in the town hall and was hit on the head, probably by a member of the Special Patrol Group, a specialist unit within the Metropolitan Police Service. He died in hospital that night.
An investigation by Commander John Cass of the Metropolitan Police's Complaints Investigation Bureau concluded that Peach had been killed by one of six SPG officers, and others had preserved their silence to obstruct his investigation. The report was not released to the public, but was available to John Burton, the coroner who conducted the inquest; excerpts from a leaked copy were also published in The Leveller and The Sunday Times in early 1980. In May 1980 the jury in the inquest arrived at a verdict of death by misadventure, although press and some pressure groups—notably the National Council for Civil Liberties—expressed concern that no clear answers had been provided, and at the way Burton conducted the inquest.
Celia Stubbs, Peach's partner, campaigned for the Cass report to be released and for a full public inquiry. An inquiry was rejected, but in 1989 the Metropolitan Police paid £75,000 compensation to Peach's family. In 2009 Ian Tomlinson died after he was struck from behind by a member of the Territorial Support Group, the SPG's successor organisation. The Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, released Cass's report and supporting documentation. He also offered an official apology to Peach's family.
The policing of the demonstration in Southall damaged community relations in the area. Since Peach's death the Metropolitan Police have been involved in a series of incidents and poorly conducted investigations—the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, the death of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, the botched 2006 Forest Gate raid and the death of Tomlinson—all of which tarnished the image of the service. Peach's death has been remembered in the music of The Pop Group, Ralph McTell and Linton Kwesi Johnson; the National Union of Teachers set up the Blair Peach Award for work for equality and diversity issues and a school in Ealing is named after the protestor.
Blair Peach was born in Napier, New Zealand, on 25 March 1946. He studied education and psychology at the Victoria University of Wellington, where he co-edited the Argot literary magazine with his flatmate Dennis List and David Rutherford. During his studies he visited Britain and liked the country. After graduating he was employed in several temporary jobs, but was turned down for compulsory military training for having an "unsuitable character". He emigrated to Britain in 1969 and was soon employed as a teacher at the Phoenix special needs school in Bow, East London. In 1970 he entered a long-term relationship with Celia Stubbs; they had first met in New Zealand in 1963 when she was visiting the country. Peach helped raise Stubbs's two daughters from her previous relationship, and the couple regarded each other as husband and wife.
Peach was politically active and joined the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), Socialist Teachers' Association and the local branch of the National Union of Teachers. He was also a committed opponent of racism and was active in the Anti-Nazi League. He had been arrested previously when campaigning on political issues, and in 1974 he was charged with threatening behaviour after challenging a local publican's refusal to serve black customers; he was acquitted.
In the late 1950s—a decade after the partition of India—many of those who had been displaced by the events lost land and savings in the movement of people from their homelands into new areas. Many Sikhs and Hindus left the subcontinent to settle in Greater London, particularly Southall, where shortages of workers at factories, and the employment prospects at nearby Heathrow Airport meant easily obtainable jobs. Many of the early arrivals found work at the R. Woolf and Co Rubber factory and by 1965 all the lower level workers were from Poland or the Indian subcontinent.[a] Racial discrimination in the workplace was common, and 85% of those Asian workers who had been given entry into the UK on the basis of their education or training, were only employed in unskilled or semi-skilled roles. Kennetta Hammond Perry, in her history of post-war immigration, identifies the reasons as being "in part because of perceptions about their level of competence and stereotypes about their ability to speak English". Indian workers also faced discrimination from the white-dominated trade unions, and so formed their own organisation, the Indian Workers' Association (IWA).
During local elections of the 1960s anti-immigration rhetoric was used by some candidates, successfully in many cases. Smaller right-wing parties used immigration as a platform on which to stand, including in Southall. In the local elections of May 1964, the anti-immigration British National Party (BNP) polled 15% of the vote in Southall; in the general election that October the BNP leader, John Bean, received 9.1% in the Southall constituency. Bean won 7.4% of the vote at the 1966 general election. The BNP's successor, the National Front, recorded 4.4% of the vote at the 1970 general election.
In June 1976 the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall—outside the offices of the IWA—led to the former chairman of the National Front, John Kingsley Read stating "one down, a million to go".[b] Chaggar's murder led to the formation of the Southall Youth Movement (SYM) to challenge the rise in racism and attacks from the National Front. Rioting in the area took place between police and Asian youths and members of Peoples Unite, a similar group to the SYM, but consisting of young Afro-Caribbeans.
Special Patrol Group
The Special Patrol Group (SPG) was formed in 1961 as a specialist squad within the Metropolitan Police.[c] It provided a mobile, centrally controlled reserve of uniformed officers which supported local areas, particularly when policing serious crime and civil disturbances. The SPG consisted police officers capable of working as disciplined teams preventing public disorder, targeting areas of serious crime, carrying out stop and searches, or providing a response to terrorist threats. In 1978 there were 204 members of the SPG in the Metropolitan Police Service. They were divided into six units, each of which contained three sergeants and 30 constables. Each unit was commanded by an inspector.
The use of the SPG proved controversial to some. It was involved in the Red Lion Square disorders, when a student was killed from a blow to the head from a blunt instrument; the perpetrator was never identified. Accusations were made that the police were inappropriately violent towards those demonstrating against a National Front march. The former chief constable, Tim Brain, writes "their critics viewed them with suspicion as a force within a force"; the Metropolitan Police history observes that "their presence sometimes came to assume unwanted symbolic significance". The former chief constable Geoffrey Dear states that the SPG "might apparently solve one problem but in its wake create another of aggravated relationships between minority groups and the police in general".
23 April 1979
In the run-up to the 1979 general election, the National Front announced that they would hold a meeting at Southall town hall on 23 April 1979, St George's Day. Southall was to be one of 300 parliamentary seats for which they put up candidates. Prior to the Southall meeting, similar events had resulted in clashes with anti-racist protestors, including in Islington, North London on 22 April, and in Leicester the following day. At both events, police had been injured trying to keep the two sides separate.
A petition of 10,000 residents was raised to cancel the meeting, but to no effect. Ealing Council had blocked previous meetings by the National Front, but, under the Representation of the People Act 1969, they allowed them to use the meeting hall. The day before the meeting a march by the IWA was planned from central Southall, past the town hall, and ending at Ealing town hall. Approximately 1,200 police officers were on duty along the five-mile (eight-kilometre) route, at which 19 people were arrested. Two counter-demonstrations for the day of the meeting were planned: a picket on the pavement opposite the hall, and a seated demonstration outside it. To deal with the potential violence, 2,876 police officers were drafted in, 94 of whom were on horseback; they arrived at 11:30 am and demonstrators began gathering at 1:00 pm in preparation for the 7:30 pm National Front meeting.
As the number of demonstrators at the town hall rose, the crowd contained what the police considered militant elements. There were some clashes between police and protestors and a small number of arrests ensued. The police decided to make a sterile cordon around the town hall, although they still allowed a small, contained demonstration in the High Street. The cordons were set up on Lady Margaret Road, the Broadway, High Street and South Road. Between 2:30 and 3:15 pm, at the High Street cordon, missiles were thrown at the police, who used riot shields to contain the crowd.
According to the official police report, between 5:30 and 6:30 pm violence rose as the crowd at the High Street cordon again began to throw missiles and at about 6:20 pm between 500 and 2,000 protestors tried to breach the police lines. In response, mounted officers were brought in to disperse the crowd. The author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who was present at the demonstration, thought the mood changed when the police tactics changed from containment to disbursement, which triggered the reaction from the crowd.
One house on Park View Road was used as a first aid post; the building was also the headquarters of Peoples Unite. The official police report states that the residents were "a group of mainly Rastafarians" who were squatting at the premises, and that these occupants threw missiles from the house at police in the street.[e] SPG officers entered the house and an altercation broke out in which two officers were stabbed. Those in the house—including those manning the first aid post and those receiving treatment—were beaten with truncheons, and an estimated £10,000 of damage was done to the contents of the house, including the equipment for the band Misty in Roots; the group's manager, Clarence Baker, went into a coma for five months after his skull was fractured by a police truncheon. All those inside were removed from the property, regardless of what they were doing, and there were subsequent complaints of racist and sexist abuse by the police. 70 people were arrested either at or near the address. At the trial of one of those arrested, one of the SPG officers involved reported "there was no overall direction of the police forces at this time" and the situation was "a free for all".
National Front members began arriving from 7:00 pm. At its scheduled time their meeting took place. During the assembly, one of the organisation's speakers called for "the bulldozing of Southall and its replacement by a 'peaceful English hamlet'". Four members of the public were allowed into the hall to fulfil the requirements of the Representation of the People's Act, but the journalist from the Daily Mirror was stopped from entering because the newspaper was "nigger loving". When the meeting ended at about 10:00 pm, some of the attendees gave Nazi salutes on the steps of the town hall before being escorted to safety by the police.
Once the meeting was underway, the police decided to clear the area of demonstrators and allowed them to pass along the Broadway towards the crossroads with Northcote Avenue and Beachcroft Avenue. At about 7:30 pm Peach, along with four friends decided that they would return to their cars and moved along towards the junction. The group had been on the Broadway since they arrived in the area at 4:45 pm. At around the same time a flare or petrol bomb was thrown either at or over a police coach on the Broadway. The driver—with a policeman standing next to him—drove the coach through the crowd; no-one was injured, but eyewitnesses said that the mood of the crowd changed at that point. Two SPG vans drove westwards along the Broadway and collected two crates of bricks and bottles that the crowd left behind as they retreated. Items were thrown at the two vehicles and a police inspector on a building roof radioed to the central control that there was a riot in progress.
Peach and his friends turned off the Broadway down Beachcroft Avenue, thinking they were heading out of the area, but not realising the road only connected to Orchard Avenue, which led back to South Road and the heavy police cordon there. There were a group of 100 to 150 protestors on the corner of the Broadway and Beachcroft Avenue and as the SPG vans of Unit 3 drove to the junction of the Broadway with Northcote Avenue and Beachcroft Avenue to face them. As the officers deployed out of the vehicles they were hit by missiles from the crowd. One officer was hit in the face by a brick which fractured his jaw in three places. The inspector leading the unit radioed "Immediate assistance required".
The official investigation into Peach's death states that the events leading up to this point, while difficult, were relatively straightforward, but that "further description of what happened" is hampered by "conflicting accounts [that] have been given by private persons and also by police". The radio call from Unit 3 was picked up by SPG Unit 1, two of whose vans drove into Beachcroft Avenue from the Broadway entrance and stopped at the corner with Orchard Avenue. They deployed while under bombardment from bricks and stones. The first person to exit the van was Inspector Alan Murray, who had charge of the first van of Unit 1 (called Unit 1-1), and he was followed by constables Bint, White, Freestone, Richardson and Scottow. He and his men were using riot shields and had their truncheons drawn and worked to disperse the crowd. During this action Peach received a blow on the head. Fourteen witnesses state that they saw it happen and say that it was a police officer. One resident told the inquest that she:
saw blue vans coming down Beachcroft Avenue. They were coming very fast − as they came round Beachcroft Avenue, they stopped. I saw policemen with shields come out − people started running and the police tried to disperse them. I saw police hitting. I saw a white man standing there ... The police were hitting everybody. People started running, some in the alley, some in my house ... I saw Peach, I then saw the policeman with the shield attack Peach.
Peach was taken into a nearby house—71 Orchard Avenue—after one of the residents saw him being hit. He was given a glass of water, but could not hold it. His eyes were rolled up to the top of his head and he had difficulty speaking. The residents soon called an ambulance, which was logged at 8:12 pm; it arrived within ten minutes, and Peach was taken to Ealing Hospital. He was rapidly operated on because of a large extradural haematoma but his conditioned worsened through the procedure. He died at 12:10 am on 24 April.
There were 3,000 protesters in Southall on 23 April. The police arrested 345 people. 97 police were injured, as were 39 of the prisoners. 25 members of the public were also injured, of which Peach was one. A member of the National Front was found near Southall train station, badly beaten. He spent two days in intensive care before being released.
Within a day of Peach's death, Commander John Cass of the Metropolitan Police's Complaints Investigation Bureau began an investigation of the events and statements were taken from members of the SPG that day.
The inquest opened on 26 April 1979; John Burton, the coroner for West London, oversaw the proceedings. On the opening day he allowed Peach's family to have a second post-mortem examination undertaken by an independent pathologist; the inquest was then adjourned for a month. It reconvened on 25 May 1979 and again was adjourned after Cass appeared as a witness and said that his investigation would take between two and three months more. By that time, he and his team had interviewed 400 people. Burton said that the inquiry would reconvene after Sir Tony Hetherington, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), had been given the report.
Despite claims by the police and government that the trouble at Southall was caused by outsiders to the area, only 2 of the 342 charged were non-resident of Southall. Instead of holding the trials locally, they were held 25 miles (40 km) away in Barnet. Lalith de Kauwe, writing for Bulletin—the publication of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers—writes that while initially 90% of the defendants were found guilty, this dropped to 70% once the press began to publicise the matter.
On 12 June 1979, the eve of Peach's funeral, his body was laid out at the Dominion Cinema in Southall; 8,000 people filed past it. The following day he was buried at East London Cemetery, where between 5,000 and 10,000 people were in attendance.[f] Three days after the funeral, Sir David McNee, then the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, defended the actions of the SPG and told a black reporter "I understand the concern of your people. But if you keep off the streets of London and behave yourselves you won't have the SPG to worry about."
One member of SPG Unit 1-1 was questioned by Cass's team in early June 1979 after the forensic report started that Peach was probably not killed by a police truncheon, but by a lead-filled cosh or pipe. A search of the unit's lockers found 26 weapons—including police truncheons—many of which were unauthorised, including coshes and knives, as well as sets of keys and a stolen driving licence.[g] Cass's team raided the home of PC Grenville Bint, where Nazi memorabilia and weapons were found. Bint stated he collected the memorabilia as a hobby.
During his investigation Cass held several identification parades, including for Officer F and Officer G and Officer I.[h] These were identified by the barrister and historian David Renton from the inquest as PC Raymond White, PC James Scottow and PC Anthony Richardson, respectively. No witness managed to identify the man they saw hitting Peach. It later transpired that one officer present at the riots shaved off his moustache which he had that day, while Inspector Murray grew a beard and refused to take part in the identity parades. Many of the uniforms that the police wore that day had been dry-cleaned before they were inspected. Cass ran up against misleading stories from the members of Unit 1-1 and in his report he stated "The attitude and untruthfulness of some of the officers involved is a contributory factor." He continued "The action of these officers clearly obstructed the police officers carrying out their duty of investigating this serious matter." Cass considered that he had identified the likely individual who hit Peach, but that there was "no evidence of a conclusive nature":
The officers in that carrier after disembarking, who could have assaulted Clement Blair PEACH were Officer E, Officer H, Officer G, Officer I, Officer J and Officer F, and I give them in that order of possibility.
Renton identified these officers as Murray, Bint, Scottow, Richardson, Freestone and White, respectively. Cass's report was accepted by the police as being accurate, and in his 1983 autobiography McNee wrote "when all the evidence was assembled it showed that Blair Peach had died from a blow to his skull. The evidence pointed to the fact that the blow had been struck by a police officer."
Cass finished the investigation fully in February 1980, and 30 investigators had worked for 31,000-man-hours during that time. He finished his initial report on 12 July 1979, which was sent to the DPP, who, while praising the work he had done, stated that "there was insufficient evidence to justify a prosecution". The inquest reopened a week later. Both Burton and the lawyers representing the Metropolitan Police were given copies of Cass's report, but refused to provide copies to the lawyers representing the Peach family or those representing the Anti-Nazi League. Burton used Cass's report to determine which witnesses to call and which to ignore. Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, examining the case for the National Council for Civil Liberties, observes that as only the coroner and police lawyers had copies of the report, "it was impossible for anyone ... to obtain a complete picture of the evidence". The question of whether the family were allowed to view the reports was taken to a Divisional Court, who ruled that as the report was the property of the police, they had the right to withhold it.
Legal counsel for the Peach family requested that the inquest be held in front of a jury, which Burton rejected; the inquest was again adjourned. The High Court rejected a challenge to overturn Burton's decision, which then went to the Court of Appeal where Lord Denning stated that the inquest should reconvene in front of a jury.
In early 1980 sections of the Cass report were published in The Leveller (January 1980) and The Sunday Times (March 1980). Details included in both publications were the names of Murray, Bint, White, Freestone, Richardson and Scottow. In April 1980—the one-year anniversary of Peach's death—members of the group "Friends of Blair Peach Committee" picketed outside police stations holding posters that named the six members of SPG Unit 1-1 and the words "Wanted for the murder of Blair Peach".
The inquest reconvened on 28 April 1980, and was expected to last several weeks. Both pathologists—David Bowen for the coroner and Keith Mant acting for the family—came to the same conclusions: that death was from a single blow, not a police truncheon, but a "rubber 'cosh' or hosepipe filled with lead shot, or some like weapon". Both stated that Peach had a thin skull, but not, as Mant observed, "pathologically thin". He described the action that caused the injury as "a very severe, single blow".
The inquest closed on 27 May 1980 during which time 83 witnesses were called. A verdict of death by misadventure was given. The criminologists Phil Scraton and Paul Gordon consider that, given the conclusions of the Cass report, unlawful killing would have been a more appropriate verdict. In its leader the following day, The Times said that "the Peach inquest failed to provide a clear and believable explanation of the events in question"; it also stated that Peach's death should continue to be investigated.
The National Council for Civil Liberties expressed concern at the way Burton conducted the inquest. One concern was a theory that he put to the jury: that Peach was killed by "some political fanatic" in order to make him a martyr against the police. During the course of the inquest, Burton wrote to ministers to say that the question of whether Peach was killed by a police officer was a "political 'fabrication'". He also wrote to the home secretary, lord chancellor and attorney general, claiming that there was a conspiracy to spread false information about Peach's death; he accused several media outlets, including the BBC, of producing what he described as "biased propaganda". In 2010 The Daily Telegraph considered that Burton had shown a "lack of sympathy ... towards Mr Peach's death".
After the inquest Burton wrote a seven-page article entitled "The Blair Peach Inquest – the Unpublished Story", which he wanted to publish in the Coroners' Society annual report. In the article he said that some civilian witnesses lied and were "totally politically committed to the Socialist Workers Party", and he thought that some of the Sikh witnesses "did not have experience of the English system" to give reliable evidence. He was persuaded not to publish the account by civil servants, who considered that the report would "discredit the impartiality of coroners in general and Dr Burton in particular".
There were several calls for a public inquiry to examine the circumstances surrounding Peach's death and the role of the police; 79 MPs supported a step, but the calls were turned down by the government. The Peach family also challenged the Metropolitan Police in court for the Cass report and supporting papers to be released. In February 1986 the Court of Appeal ruled that the police should release the statements and supporting papers, but not the report itself. The family also sought to claim damages from the Metropolitan Police and in June 1988, after eight years of trying, they were awarded £75,000. The political historian Mick Ryan observes that the Peach case is an example where "compensation is ... paid in tacit admission that a wrong had been committed." In April 1999 Paul Boateng, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, was the final minister who turned down the request for a public inquiry, saying the event had happened too long ago to be beneficial.
Following correspondence with the Peach family at the time of the twentieth anniversary of Peach's death, Commander Ian Quinn of the Metropolitan Police's complaints bureau undertook a review of investigation in 1999. The family were not told of the investigation or its outcome.
On 1 April 2009, at the 2009 G20 London summit protests, a member of the Territorial Support Group, the SPG's successor organisation, struck Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor, who collapsed and died. That June the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson announced that Cass's report and supporting documentation would be released. The parallels in the deaths of the two men proved to be a catalyst in the release of the Cass report to the public. Stephenson also officially apologised to Peach's family.
SPG Unit 1-1
After Stephenson announced the Metropolitan police would publish the Cass report, Murray stated that he believed that he was the officer referred to in the report as "Officer E", but said that "Under no circumstances was I involved in the death of Blair Peach. I was not involved in his death. I'm as certain as I can be." Murray considered Cass's report to be "pure fabrication to justify his failure to identify the perpetrator of this act". Angered at the handling of the initial investigation, Murray left the police and joined his brother's jewellery business in Scotland before becoming a lecturer in corporate responsibility at the University of Sheffield.
Two days after the Nazi memorabilia and unauthorised weapons were found in his locker, Bint was transferred out of the SPG. Richardson and Freestone were transferred out soon afterwards; Scottow and White voluntarily transferred. All the officers left the police force shortly after the investigation ended.
Following the actions of the police at Southall, the Asian community in the area felt that relations between them and the police had broken down; many saw the police as aggressors. One member of the community said "Our feeling now towards the police is one of shock. In India the police are very brutal, but none of us believed until Monday night that the police here could behave equally brutally." The journalists Mark Hughes and Cahal Milmo see that the action of the SPG "became a symbol of police corruption".
Writing after the release of the Cass report, the leader in The Times opined that following Peach's death, "the Metropolitan Police entered a dark place from which they have been struggling to emerge ever since". In 2010 Andy Hayman, the former assistant commissioner for Specialist Operations at the Metropolitan Police wrote that Peach's death brought the service and the SPG into disrepute. It led to an undermining of confidence in the police and "creat[ed] a distrust of officers that in some quarters, has proved difficult to shake off". The criminologists Chris Greer and Eugene McLaughlin considered Peach's death alongside the Metropolitan Police's actions in relation to the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, the death of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, the botched 2006 Forest Gate raid and the death of Ian Tomlinson; they described the "succession of institutional scandals, cover-ups and botched investigations" that had tarnished the image of the service. Writing in the light of Tomlinson's death, Philip Johnston, a journalist with The Daily Telegraph, observed that Peach was one in a number of incidents where there had been unwarranted police aggression. Johnston wrote that while at the time of Peach's death many people would have sided with the police, that is no longer the case. "Many of those from the countryside who attended the Westminster rally against the ban on fox-hunting bear the scars of a brutal confrontation with the police, which changed their view of them for ever."
Public reaction to Peach's death, and other underlying racial tensions including excessive police use of the Sus law, ultimately led to the 1981 Brixton riot and a public inquiry by Lord Scarman.
A primary school in Southall was later named after Peach. The Blair Peach Award was set up by the National Union of Teachers in 2010 to commemorate the former NUT member and as recognition of exemplary work by current members in schools and Union branches for equality and diversity issues. In 1989 the poet and activist Chris Searle edited One for Blair, an anthology of poems for the young.
The injury to Clarence Baker was commemorated in The Ruts's song "Jah War". The Two-Tone album The 2 Tone Story is dedicated to Peach's memory. Several songs have been written in Peach's memory, or referring to his death, including The Pop Group's 1980 song "Justice"; the 1982 song "Water of Dreams" by Ralph McTell; and "Reggae Fi Peach" by Linton Kwesi Johnson, which contains the lyrics:
Blair Peach was not an English man,
Him come from New Zealand,
Now they kill him and him dead and gone,
But his memory lingers on.
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