Release of 1981 Cabinet papers

Lessons to be learnt and questions raised.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The latest government papers to be released to the National Archives under the 30-year rule offer a revealing insight into the ‘management’ of the British state – and not just how things were in 1981.

Those of us who were around at the time will recall that the year was made memorable by mass uprisings against police violence, by the death of 10 Irish republican prisoners on hunger strike for the restoration of political status, and by the election of the hunger strikers’ leader, Bobby Sands, to the British parliament just weeks before his death.

Against the background of a capitalist crisis of overproduction that was causing widespread redundancies, closures and wage cuts, as well as cuts in public healthcare and education provision, police had been acting in the most depressed areas of the country like an occupation force, carrying out summary punishments on the streets. Using their powers under the notorious ‘sus’ and immigration laws, they picked out black and Asian youths for special levels of aggression and intimidation.

Eventually, the communities receiving such ‘special’ attention from the guardians of law and order could take no more, and they fought back spectacularly against the cruel and vindictive treatment of the invading police hordes.

Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, headed a team of economic specialists looking into the ‘riots’ in such places as Brixton, Southall, and Wood Green in London, Toxteth in Liverpool and Moss Side in Manchester. He sent a memo marked ‘secret’ to his boss in which he said “the consensus can be summed up in two words: ‘deeply worried’” adding in brackets “Where next?

The answer to that question came swiftly as Brixton burst into resistance again, followed by Handsworth in Birmingham and Chapeltown in Leeds.

The government of the day, not unlike the present one, tried to blame the uprising on parents not controlling their children, on greed (claiming that the backlash against police brutality was really just about looting shops) and, of course, on black youths not being properly integrated into the ‘wider’ community and alienating themselves because they had no respect for ‘British values’.

Also, lacking today’s technology scapegoats like Blackberry instant messenger, Facebook and Twitter at that time, the TV was blamed for showing pictures of ‘riots’ which supposedly encouraged others to follow suit. This was, in 1981 as it is today, a thinly-veiled call for increased suppression of news and greater censorship.

Tellingly, although these excuses, strongly peddled by media and government spokespeople at the time, were accepted by many British people then, the consensus among all those who have studied the uprisings since is that their primary character was indeed that of an uprising against police brutality:

These were not race riots – riots between races. Rather the conflict was with police as symbols of white authority, with state racism and criminalisation of black communities.” (K Leech, Struggle in Babylon, 1988)

The released papers, however, show that the government was not as out of touch as its above public utterances make them look. They reveal that Sir Bernard Ingham was worried about “the certainty of much worse unemployment figures, and very much worse youth unemployment”.

And in a telling aside on the true nature of public ‘royal’ events he added: “what the royal wedding will bring to unrelieved gloom will be reduced by industrial action and the national atmosphere soured”. Quite apart from the lovely description of capitalism as ‘unrelieved gloom’ this quote really shows how royalty and the pageantry that goes with it is used to help pacify the masses.

The industrial action Sir Bernard referred to was that of public-sector workers trying to resist impoverishment by fighting for higher wages. That the threat of industrial action in the public sector to defend the living standards of the workers was a real worry to the Thatcher government can be gleaned from a letter written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, by John Hoskins, head of the Downing Street policy unit, saying “we should try – implicitly and subtly, not very obviously, to link in people’s minds the moral similarity between high pay claims demanded with menaces and other forms of anti-social behaviour, including rioting and looting”.

This is a very informative insight into the way that capitalist propaganda operates. Having demonised one group of workers, our ‘masters’ then proceed to demonise others by a barely hinted association. This ploy is designed to make the social-democratic, ‘respectable’ leadership of British trade unions and the better-off amongst their members recoil in horror, and to alienate many other workers who might have sympathised and supported them in their struggle.

Actually, though, John Hoskins was right to link the two groups: there is a strong connection between organised workers fighting to protect or improve their pay and conditions on the one hand and workers fighting on the streets against the body of armed men that protect the state on the other! Both groups of workers have the same enemy, and it is only the lies, twisted truths and controls exercised over workers since their birth by the enemy and its agents (both inside and outside the labour movement) that keep them isolated from one another and weak.

Another interesting little snippet that the papers reveal from the discussions of ministers in the aftermath of the uprisings was the view they expressed privately, presumably with some evidence, that “much of the large scale looting in Toxteth, for example, had been carried out by middle-aged white residents who had had no part in the riots themselves”. The public line from these ministers, of course, was that all the ‘offences’ were being committed by black youths.

We can only say that those of us who remember the events know that, although the areas of conflict were mainly black and immigrant areas, both black and white youths fought on the streets against the heavy hand of police oppression, and that unity, limited though it was, was a thing of great beauty to behold.

The environment secretary, Michael Heseltine, anxious to be seen as ‘softer’ than Thatcher and as a potential prime minister himself, pleaded to be allowed to undertake a two-week investigation of Toxteth, talking to locals and empowered to splash around some money (a PR exercise as much for his own good as the government’s). Thatcher, who had herself just visited Toxteth, spending a single hour with community leaders and coming away saying she was “amazed at their hatred for the police”, agreed to the investigation, with the caveat that any money given would be decided by the government.

So Heseltine took his media circus to Liverpool, with himself as the centre of attention of course, and publicly called for a £100m boost for the area. However, this show of ‘bringing harmony’ to the people of Toxteth was not to the taste of all government ministers or the Tory hierarchy. Chancellor Geoffrey Howe wrote to the PM warning of the “need to be careful not to over-commit scarce resources to Liverpool”, adding that “we do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and have nothing left for the possibly more promising areas such as the Midlands or, even the North East”.

And Mr Howe had a further contemptuous and sinister suggestion regarding Liverpool. He wrote, in reference to a study carried out by the Cabinet office think-tank, the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), “I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline, which the CPRS rejected in its study of Merseyside, is one we should not forget altogether.” Not too much imagination is required to get some idea of what ‘managed decline’ would mean.

Another ongoing struggle at that time was the fight of the Irish people for the reunification of their country and the ending of British rule in the north east of the island. When a group of volunteer republican prisoners, led by IRA commander Bobby Sands, decided to carry on the struggle by means of a hunger strike the government publicly put on an air of indifference, but in private they took this brave and bold strategy very seriously.

This pivotal episode in Irish resistance to British imperialist rule, during which 10 heroic volunteers laid down their lives, brought the Irish struggle back into the clear view of the world’s people, triggered a massive new influx of recruits into the republican forces, and eventually led to the peace process that has moved the Irish struggle into its current, political phase.

The released papers bear out this view and in fact tell much more. While publicly declaring that it ‘would not deal with terrorists’, the British government was in fact holding secret negotiations with the republican movement. The released files show just how dangerous the government considered the hunger strikes to be to British imperialism and just how anxious ministers were to end them. There was even Cabinet discussion of a possible British withdrawal following “an erosion of international confidence in British policy” and at “a widespread feeling in favour of British withdrawal” at home.

If the British labour movement had been more supportive of our Irish comrades, instead of lining up with British imperialism (with some honourable exceptions), the withdrawal that was being grudgingly discussed inside the British cabinet might well have become a reality. So worried did ministers become that they discussed intravenously force-feeding the hunger strikers to break the strike.

They knew, however, that this would not work because, as the papers tell us, they realised that “if intravenous feeding led to all the protesting prisoners coming out on hunger strike the authorities would be faced with the enormous task of sustaining them by such methods indefinitely”. Instead, the British government had to sit and watch history move away from it and towards a united Ireland, a direction in which the country is still travelling, despite the dragging of British imperialist heels.

The released papers also document the massive support given by both Britain and the US to creating and maintaining the insurgency that fought against Afghanistan’s new revolutionary government and the Soviet troops that came to assist it.

This support came in the shape of anti-Soviet propaganda manufactured by specially trained cameramen and reporters ‘embedded’ into the mujahideen groups, military training of the insurgents and huge amounts of weaponry.

Lord Carrington, the foreign secretary, wrote in a note regarding a request for anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and .303 ammunition from Ahmed Gailani, leader of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, “from information available to us, I am satisfied that arms are getting through to the Afghan resistance. I do not think therefore that we need or should get into the business of supplying arms to the resistance ourselves. I would, of course, look at any specific requests on their merits.”

We know that arms dealers have always been ‘close’ to British governments of whatever political hue and the merits of that particular request must indeed have been convincing because it is a matter of fact that Britain supplied limpet mines (used against tanks) and anti-aircraft blowpipe missiles, along with much other military equipment.

The released Cabinet papers provide glimpses into many other things that the British government of 30 years ago involved itself in, but there are some subjects deemed not suitable for our eyes even after this length of time. These include the files on Anthony Blunt (a royal aide and Cambridge don who turned out to have been a Soviet spy during the 1930s and ’40s), the taking out of Tory MP Airey Neave (killed by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) inside Westminster just two days before he would have taken office as Northern Ireland Secretary in the new Tory government), and the case of Jeremy Thorpe (a Liberal Party leader who was accused of conspiring to murder his alleged former lover Norman Scott on the eve of the 1979 election, just in time to ensure defeat for the Liberal-Labour alliance at the polls).

While all of these certainly involved national security at the time, it is hard to see that there could be any national security issues that remain today that could possibly excuse the non-publication of the relevant files, at least in redacted form. Withholding this information cannot but incite speculation as to what remains hidden, suggesting the likely involvement of Britain’s secret service dirty-tricks brigade at one level or another.

The fact remains that even after 30 years, when many of the individual criminals that make up any bourgeois government are pushing up daisies, imperialism still needs to try and hide its true nature, so papers released under the 30-year rule are bound to have big gaps and be decidedly sketchy. They can, however, still be of some use in offering insights into the duplicitous behaviour of our rulers, allowing us to draw conclusions about the present-day running of British imperialism, while showing up the reality of a ‘democracy’ that is championed around the world by imperialism at the point of cruise missiles.