Socialist Worker

A history of repression and strike breaking

by Siân Ruddick
Issue No. 2149

Police provoked a riot during the poll tax demonstration in 1990 (Pic: Steve Easton)

Police provoked a riot during the poll tax demonstration in 1990 (Pic: Steve Easton)

From the working class demonstrations of the Chartists in the 19th century to the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements today one thing has remained a constant – police repression.

But policing in Britain has changed over the past 30 years – and these changes were sparked as the police were defeated in battles with the working class. The battle of Saltley Gate in 1972 marked a turning point in policing strategy.

Miners and other trade unionists forced back both scab labour and the 800 police that attempted to contain them as they tried to shut down the Saltley coke depot in Birmingham. For the police, Saltley became a byword for defeat.

Saltley provoked a debate within the ruling class about how best to deal with workers’ resistance. Its eventual solution was to develop a highly-trained riot squad within the police that would have special equipment to deal aggressively with crowds.

These forces were deployed against pickets for the first time in 1983 in Warrington, north west England.

Riot police with shields, helmets with visors, an batons fought pickets at a print works. It had just been set up by Eddie Shah to introduce new working practices and smash the union.

People came from across Britain to stop the production and distribution of the paper, the Stockport Messenger.

On the biggest overnight picket there were 4,000 people outside the printers.

The full force of the riot police was used against pickets for the first time.


Use of riot police on picket lines was widespread during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. The brutality of the police towards miners and their families shocked communities.

But it also politicised people, as they saw that the police were an enemy of the strike and a force working flat out alongside the government to crush it.

The Miners’ Strike showed that hostile attitudes towards workers were widespread among the police.

They criminalised people within mining communities.

Working class people routinely faced roadblocks and house raids – whether they were miners or not.

Police violence on the picket lines was worse than many people had witnessed before.

The widespread use of riot police and batons attempted to terrorise the pickets. Police systematically beat up miners and protected scab labour (see » Miners recognise police tactics).

Yet the police don’t always have things their own way. Despite repeated attacks on unarmed demonstrators protesting against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax in Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990, the depth of anger meant that the police lines could not hold.

On that day, the police suffered a defeat and the poll tax was beaten.

The force’s violence on the day opened more people’s eyes to the true nature of the police.

One protester, a council worker, told Socialist Worker on that day, “Perhaps I’m naive but I really didn’t think the police hit people for no reason. But they came for people who were doing nothing, simply chanting and making their anger felt.”

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