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Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest—interview with Matt Foot

Charlie Kimber interviews Matt Foot, a criminal defence solicitor and an author of a new book Charged—How the Police Try to Suppress Protest
Issue 2806
A long shield police unit in riot gear

A long shield police unit in riot gear operated the Handsworth riots in 1985. (West Midlands Police)

People are very concerned about the Tories handing the police more powers. But the book shows this is nothing new. Tell us about the secret police tactics manual from the 1980s.

After the Brixton riots of 1981, Lord Scarman’s review encouraged more liberal community policing. Scarman’s report received the public support of Margaret Thatcher’s government including home secretary, William Whitelaw.  

However, secretly behind the scenes, Whitelaw’s Home Office instigated and implemented a police manual for public order that gave the police paramilitary powers.

Published in 1983 it was available only to senior police officers. The private sanctioning of the manual meant the line between police operational independence and government had been crossed. Parliament had no idea it existed or this shift had occurred. Yet “operational independence of the police” has since been repeated by successive home secretaries.

Six months after the manual’s creation the secret powers were first deployed at Warrington during a printworkers’ dispute. This involved new police formations to split the protest, snatch squad arrests and police in Range Rovers chasing pickets in the dark across waste land. Such tactics were as shocking as they were a surprise to the trade unionists involved.

Colin Bourne, the National Union of Journalists organiser, remembered, “They drove at high speed at us, lights on full, I ran like hell. I didn’t think the vehicles would follow, it was terrorism. It was designed to terrorise those people who were there. It could have had no other purpose.”

The manual first came to light during the 1985 trial of miners for rioting following the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984. It was one of the most violent days of a year-long strike.

The police could now use short shields and batons together and at Orgreave they did. The new tactics sanctioned police to “incapacitate” protesters, apparently just for being there. From then on tactics were developed and others introduced. 

A number from the original manual—horse charges, dogs and shields with truncheons—are still deployed today. During the Miners’ Strike the government encouraged increased criminal charges, and 95 miners at Orgreave were charged with rioting. They had gone from jobs for life to facing a life sentence.

Their trial collapsed when the police evidence was deemed “unreliable”. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign are fighting to this day for an inquiry to uncover the truth for the victims.

Solicitor Gareth Peirce made a prophecy after the treatment of miners at Orgreave about the future impact of these secret rules. She said, “It is probable that by next year Parliament will have abolished any absolute right to peaceful assembly in this country.” Charged shows how that prophecy played out up until the present day with the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests.

What have you uncovered about the policing of the 1993 Welling anti-racist protests and the Stephen Lawrence campaign?

Around 60,000 people attended Welling on 16 October 1993 to demand the closure of the fascist British National Party “bookshop” following racist killings that had taken place in the area, including Stephen Lawrence

It was one of the biggest anti-racist protests in British history. There was violence, which the police blamed on the organisers. Looking through the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report and other material that has come available since, it is now possible to see more clearly who bears the responsibility. The three senior officers in charge of the protest were the very same officers in charge of overseeing the Stephen Lawrence investigation and covered up police failures.

When Paul Condon became Met Commissioner in February 1993 he announced a “more caring and courteous” police force and a drive to raise ethical standards. A week after the Welling demonstration he visited his secret Special Demonstration Squad, or Spycops, and gave each a bottle of whisky as a thank you for the apparent accuracy of their intelligence. One Spycop later claimed he was asked to spy on the Lawrence family, something the Met denies.

Did Blair’s Labour government make any difference as to how protest was policed?

There was tremendous hope when Tony Blair came to power in 1997. The Tories had won the previous four general elections. The Criminal Justice Bill 1994 introduced a swathe of powers to the police.

Despite Labour abstaining on the Bill when Blair was home secretary, people thought he would reverse these increased powers when in office. Not only was nothing overturned, Blair’s government gave the police yet further powers, introducing a new criminal law for every day he was in office.

By the end of his time in office the Tories even saw the opportunity to promote a more liberal agenda on civil liberties than Labour.  Another young barrister at the time, Keir Starmer, criticised Labour in measured terms. He contributed to a lengthy academic paper that complained of Labour’s abstention on the bill for “strategic  considerations”.

Sadly the ex human rights barrister, now leader of the Labour Party, seems to be ploughing the same furrow as Blair. As the Spycops (Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill) bill went through parliament, Starmer’s Labour Party abstained.  On the Police Bill, Labour planned to abstain until its hand was forced following the outcry over the policing of the vigil in memory of Sarah Everard.

How have the police got away with it?

The police “get away with it” because they promote their own narrative over that of what protesters experience. The police have not acted alone. There has been consistent support from people outside their ranks—big business, the media, the judiciary and the civil service. 

Together, often in the background, this state assistance enables the police to either carry out or cover up the use of excessive force seen during protest. On one occasion the Crown Prosecution Service did charge a large number of officers for their behaviour following a mass protest at Wapping in 1987. 

The protest was to defend the jobs of print union members who had been sacked by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. The Met Commissioner Peter Imbert responded with a private visit to home secretary, Douglas Hurd, to pressurise him to drop the charges. 

The cases collapsed after a district judge—who had known the home secretary at Cambridge University—dropped the initial charges, subsequently the remaining cases collapsed.

What relevance has the book today as Patel continues to bring in draconian police powers against protest, and can this be stopped?

The Police Act 2022 provides the police with enormous discretion against protesters. The police can now limit how long a protest can be and outlaw noisy dissent. They are the arbiter on deciding what protests cause significant annoyance, and can act accordingly.

None of the rights we now take for granted, such as the vote were achieved through part time silent demonstration. The suffragettes were often radical in their approach—something rarely mentioned by MPs when they celebrate their achievements.

Despite the attempts to remove our right to protest, there remains an appetite for dissent. Extinction Rebellion and school walkouts have firmly pushed climate change up the agenda. Black Lives Matter brought into general consciousness the notion that history is often presented through a prism and how much we still need to do as a country to address racism.

The poll tax was finished after an enormous 200,000 protest in Trafalgar Square. The Labour Party did not support that protest but nevertheless enormous public opposition turned out and won. 

Around 200,000 people also protested against the Criminal Justice Act in 1994. That protest didn’t win but it did make it much harder for the police to enforce their additional powers.

Draconian police laws introduced by governments over the last 40 years have not shut down protest. And in a period of austerity this authoritarian law is unlikely to stop it returning. 

We need to continue to protest, to reclaim, nurture, protect and rebuild this long established right. The best way to defend the right to protest is to protest.


  • Matt Foot is a criminal defence solicitor. Morag Livingstone is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and author. 
  • Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest by Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone is out 24 May, published by Verso Books, available at bookmarksbookshop.co.uk 
  • Matt Foot and Morag Livingstone will be speaking about the book at the Marxism 2022 festival socialistworker.co.uk/marxismfestival/

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