There is new evidence that a Tory government suppressed documents showing the coroner in the inquest into the death of Blair Peach on a 1979 Anti Nazi League demonstration was biased.
Peach, a teacher and member of the Socialist Workers Party, was killed by a blow to the head when police charged a protest against a National Front meeting in Southall, London.
Documents now released to Socialist Worker under the Freedom of Information Act show that the home office tried to suppress an article written by the coroner Dr John Burton because they feared it would reveal his bias.
This revelation would have fuelled calls by campaigners for an inquiry into Peach’s death - calls resisted by Tory home secretary Willie Whitelaw.
In June 1980, Burton sent the home office an article he planned to publish entitled “Blair Peach Inquest: The Unpublished Story”. Senior civil servants said the article should not appear and worried that it might be leaked.
One of the papers seen by Socialist Worker states, “It only needs one leak for a great deal of harm to be done - not only to the standing of coroners, but also in respect of the home secretary’s decision that a public inquiry should be resisted.”
The official added, “An article like this would be a heaven sent opportunity to those who wish to continue to get maximum publicity out of the incident to argue that the coroner was biased and that for this reason the inquest was unsound.”
The papers show that the home office’s worries stopped when they persuaded Burton to abandon his article. Home office papers state that at a meeting with officials the coroner “accepted our advice that the whale which exposes surface invites harpoons and agreed not to publish the account he has prepared”.
Meanwhile Peach’s relatives, the Anti Nazi League and Labour MPs clamoured for an inquiry. The National Council for Civil Liberties formed its own unofficial committee of inquiry, which included Patricia Hewitt, now Labour’s health secretary.
The committee pressed for a public investigation and said that there was “much to criticise” in Burton’s management of the inquest, treatment of witnesses and summing up. The released papers demonstrate a relentless hostility to the Southall demonstrators and talk of an Anti Nazi League “propaganda campaign”.
The home office was well aware of Burton’s bias, even during the inquest. On 17 January 1980, before the inquest had ended, he wrote a letter to the Tory Lord Chancellor, making wild allegations.
Burton linked the campaign around the death of Peach to campaigns over others who had died in police custody such as Liddle Towers and Jimmy Kelly. Instead of viewing the Peach inquest as a way to find out the truth about the death, Burton believed he was facing a “widespread campaign to damage the institutions concerned with the law”.
According to Burton, “Coroners are concerned that the present publicity campaign that is directed against the police, coroners and the director of public prosecutions is getting out of hand.”
He felt this was a coordinated assault as “the activists in this campaign are well organised and must be well funded”. He had already made up his mind that Peach was not killed by the police special patrol group, claiming, “Witness statements show that the story of the killing is a fabrication. This is a matter of fact and not of opinion.”
He added, “Many of the witnesses are totally politically committed to the Socialist Workers Party.”
The papers also show that, when Labour was elected in 1997, bringing into government many MPs who had called for a public inquiry into Peach’s killing in 1980, they turned down a request for a new inquiry. The home office still argued that the inquest had done its job.