One way to see the history of the left in Britain is as a recurring conflict between two ideas of working class politics. In the first conception, the working class is white, and the task of the Labour Party, the trade unions and the rest of the left, is to keep the numbers of black and Asian people to a minimum, or to force them to integrate with the existing structures of the working class. In the second conception, the working class has been multiracial for centuries, and the role of the left is to challenge all racism, including working-class racism, and to show that strong unions and a more generous welfare state will only be won if white workers fight alongside black workers, campaigning not as their saviours but as their comrades and equals.
These alternatives were sharply posed at Southall on 23 April 1979, when a black community was under attack from racists and from the police. This was a community which had been repeatedly targeted by racists in the past: in 1964, when the British National Party’s John Bean stood for election in the constituency and came third with 9 percent of the vote, and again in 1976 when a sixteen year old man, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, was stabbed and killed in Southall by two white men, Jody Hill and Robert Hackman. Within days of Chaggar’s death, a Southall Youth Movement was launched. ‘It was the first time young people,’ one participant Suresh Grover recalls, ‘organised themselves against racial violence and police harassment in Southall.’ The view was widely held in Southall that in 1964 and 1976 the white left had given the local community no adequate support. Unlike these moments of isolation, however, in 1979 white socialists from across London participated as a significant minority in a demonstration against a National Front meeting, and one East London teacher Blair Peach even laid down his own life in the struggle against fascism. On this occasion Peach, and those who fought with him, chose equality over racial subordination.
The events of 1979 took place during the general election which resulted in the election of a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher. It happened at the start, in other words, of a long shift of British politics away from a welfare state consensus, away from union rights, and towards privatisation. How far this shift would take Britain to the right was however not yet decided. In the years leading to the 1979 election, the National Front repeatedly defeated the Liberals at the ballot box and showed every sign of becoming Britain’s third electoral party: at local elections in Leicester in 1976, 44,000 people voted for far-right parties, in May 1977, the Front won 119,000 votes in local elections in London. The Front’s best-known policy was for the repatriation of black and Asian people from Britain. Moreover, it had long enjoyed a base in Southall, as a result of the right’s previous election campaigns.
The direct occasion for the protests at Southall was the decision of the Front to hold an election meeting in Southall; and yet, by April 1979, that party’s popular support among local voters had been significantly challenged by anti-racist campaigns such as Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, and the mobilisation of Southall’s black community, including after the death of Gurdip Singh Chaggar. By the time of the events of 1979, there was already in Southall a very large left, especially well-rooted in organisations such as the Indian Workers’ Association (IWA) and the Asian Youth Movement. John De Witt’s studies of the IWA in Southall between 1965 and 1967 suggest that perhaps as many as half of all Punjabi-born men in this part of West London were members of the Association – a staggeringly high proportion given that the IWA was loosely associated with the Communist Party. And this proportion had not noticeably reduced in the intervening ten years. The Labour and Communist Parties were both well-rooted in the district, as were the Anti-Nazi League which had held an anti-racist carnival in Southall earlier in the year, and Rock Against Racism, which was allied with the local black youth campaign, People’s Unite.
The result of this long period of anti-racist organising was that vanishingly few people, in Southall on 23 April, were actual supporters of the National Front. The police were fighting to keep open a Front election meeting; as few as 20 people were in attendance, barely enough to occupy the police coach in which they were driven. Therefore, the clashes became a conflict not directly between fascists and anti-fascists, but between anti-fascists and the police, with the latter being deployed in vast numbers in order to make possible the Front’s intended meeting. Some 2,875 police officers were on duty, 94 of whom were on horseback.
On the other side, an anti-racist mobilisation began with the decision of the IWA, to petition the local council and demand that the Front’s meeting be cancelled. On Sunday, 22 April, the day before the Front’s meeting, five thousand people marched to Ealing town hall to hand in the petition. On the fatal afternoon, not only was central Southall closed but so were a series of local factories, Ford Langley, Sunblest bakery, Wall’s and Quaker Oats. Any estimate of the numbers mobilising on 23 April must be imprecise: the protests lasted several hours, many people took part at one moment only to return home later. The anti-fascist crowd was dispersed repeatedly by police. But a plausible estimate is that something like between 3,000 and 5,000 people turned out to demonstrate against the Front.
During the evening of 23 April, three main groups were casualties of police violence. First, more than 700 people were arrested for being on the protest. The large majority were from the local community and of Asian descent, many were teenagers. Several were simply abandoned by the police in the roads beyond West London and told to make their own way home. Fewer than half of those arrested (342 people) were charged. In the days that followed they suffered a particularly aggressive form of summary justice, with Ealing magistrates convicting at unprecedented rates. A vibrant defence campaign was set up for them: its successor is today’s Monitoring Group.
Second, police officers broke into the building which was being used as a medical centre to treat wounded anti-racists. Dozens of eye-witnesses complained that police officers aimed with their batons at the heads of doctors, nurses and solicitors, as well as the protesters who had sheltered there. Clarence Baker, the manager of reggae band Misty and the Roots, was among those hit on the head by a police baton. He was so badly hurt that he fell into a coma. Annie Nehmad, a doctor on duty in the centre, writes that “On 23 April, not only were heavier than normal truncheons used but police throughout the demo used these heavy truncheons to hit people on the head. Someone somewhere must have said this was OK. Someone somewhere was prepared to see people killed on a demo in Britain.”
Also caught up in the events at Southall on 23 April was Blair Peach, a 33 year old schoolteacher from New Zealand. Peach taught at the Phoenix School in East London for children with special needs. He had been involved in previous anti-racist protests. His teachers’ association met at a pub on Grove Road in Bow. On learning that the publican refused to serve black customers, Peach had organised a protest for which he was arrested and charged with threatening behaviour but acquitted. Twice in 1978-9 he had been attacked by supporters of the National Front as he cycled home from teaching at the Phoenix School and suffered black eyes, bruising and cuts.
On the fatal evening, Blair Peach travelled to Southall with a group of friends, Jo Lang, Amanda Leon, Martin Gerald and Françoise Ichard. He was part of the crowd that tried and failed to block the Front’s coach from entering the town hall. Shortly before 8pm Peach was on Beechcroft Avenue, where he was attacked by a member of the police’s Special Patrol Group and struck on the head – either by a police radio or by some unauthorised weapon. Another police officer Constable Scottow saw Peach stumbling after the blow and shouted at him to move on. After being taken in by a local family, the Atwals, Peach died in hospital, shortly after midnight.
Rock Against Racism produced a leaflet, Southall Kids are Innocent: ‘[O]n April 23rd the police behaved like never before. The police were trying to kill our people. They were trying to get even with our culture … What free speech needs martial law? What public meeting requires 5,000 police to keep the public out?’
Peach’s death was repeatedly commemorated: in poetry, in songs, and in large public demonstration at the time of his death and on successive anniversaries. Many readers will be familiar with Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Reggae Fi peach, and its refrain: ‘The SPG them are murderers.’ This campaigning finally resulted in 1999 in the belated publication of the Cass Report, which names the group of officers who were present when Peach was struck and identifies his most likely killer.
The most compelling account of Peach’s death was not however a poem, but an interview given by a Southall resident Parita Trevidy who was interviewed by New Zealand’s Listener magazine on the anniversary of Peach’s death: ‘We came here for a better life,” she said. “But now we face racism of the worst sort, from the state, in the form of police brutality, such as happened on April 23. That’s why Blair Peach died. He was in the firing-line … between the police and us.”