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6 October 2021

From the NS archive: Violence at the Tory conference

21 November 1980: While Mrs Thatcher speaks, a protester is beaten unconscious.

By Donald Bruce

At the Conservative Party Conference of 1980, a Socialist Workers Party member called Michael Carver heckled the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, when she started her set-piece speech. According to reports from political journalists present, Carver was instantly felled by a security man and some delegates. He was carried from the conference hall unconscious, and then arrested and detained. No action was taken against his assailants. In a piece for the magazine, Donald Bruce, a life peer and former Labour MP, investigated the assault and scrutinised the Conservative Party’s less-than-frank official response to the incident. Whatever the provocation offered by Carver, a criminal offence had taken place in front of innumerable witnesses and with the police present. Why, asked Bruce, had no action been taken against the assailants?   

The case of Michael Carver – a victim of a violent attack – is unique and of grave significance. Most crimes of violence against a person remain undetected and therefore unpunished: few are committed in the presence of the police and when the police do arrive the assailants have usually left the scene of the crime. The case of Michael Carver is different. Not only were the police there, but also the victim’s attackers, the press corps and, on a platform raised some feet above floor level, the Prime Minister herself, together with the Home Secretary.

Michael Carver was a Socialist Workers Party demonstrator who gained access to the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton on the afternoon of 10 October. He was beaten up, carried unconscious from the hall, arrested without charge and detained for nearly six hours prior to his release. Here, one might think, were the classic circumstances where offenders could have been easily and immediately identified and detained with a view to specific charges being preferred, and where some help could have been given to the object of their violence. Quite the reverse happened. The miscreants were left unidentified and undisturbed, while the object of their attentions was hauled off, unconscious, and arrested himself.

The evidence of the assault is damning and conclusive. It came from four distinguished journalists whose pens are not normally dipped in vitriol when reporting Conservative Party affairs and who saw what happened. Ian Glover-Jones, reporting in the Daily Telegraph on 11 October, described the event as follows: “More demonstrators broke their cover minutes after Mrs Thatcher started speaking. One pulled off his coat to expose the bright orange safety jacket of the Right to Work marchers and shouted: ‘Fight for the right to work.’ He was felled by a blow from a security man and carried out face down. Fred Emery, The Times’s Political Editor, also described the incident the following day: “By that time one young man near me was being dragged unconscious after a pounding on the floor of the central aisle by security men in plain clothes and some Conservatives, including women.” Mr Emery has confirmed this account on two subsequent occasions in the columns of The Times. The Political Editor of the Guardian, Ian Aitkin, indicated in a letter to me on 6 November: “The heckler had every impression of being totally unconscious, was certainly quite limp, and was being carried by the arms and legs as if he were a shot deer.” On 16 October, on Granada’s What the Papers Say, Ian Waller of the Sunday Telegraph declared: “In fact the only real violence of the day took place in the conference hall itself – and the guilty people either party officials or supporters. It happened to one of the hecklers who managed to get through the strict security. . . I saw him carried out face hanging down and being handled with rather less respect than a side of beef.”

All this testimony was recounted by me in the House of Lords on 11 November. It elicited the following comment from Lord Gardiner, a former Lord Chancellor: “This was an assault which nothing can justify. It was a criminal offence. It reminds me of the Olympia meeting of Sir Oswald Mosley. If so, how does it come that no enquiry has been made to arrest whoever was responsible for it? The man himself does not pretend to know – not unnaturally. But these other people know.”

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Now, the government’s first answer to the detailed questioning of the whole incident came from Lord Belstead, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office on 30 October. In reply to a question from me he referred to two separate occasions on the afternoon of 10 October involving protesters, stating: “In each case the man concerned was first approached by the conference stewards and was then escorted from the hall by plain clothes police. . . I understand that neither of the protesters was unconscious when escorted from the hall and neither has complained of an assault”.

This threadbare and inaccurate account – which Lord Belstead said had “been based” on contacts with the Sussex police – was abandoned when Lord Belstead answered my second question on 11 November. On this occasion he said: “The further enquiries that I have made revealed that Mr Carver was carried from the hall by stewards and, possibly, some delegates. They were accompanied by a police officer. I am informed that it is apparent that, certainly from the time he was seen by the police officers, Mr Carver was not unconscious.” The italics are mine, to draw attention to Lord Belstead’s careful distinction between what happened when one officer accompanied Carver and what happened later when he was in the presence of several officers.

Furthermore, writing in The Times, Fred Emery reported that Lord Belstead had omitted from his speech a prepared claim that “he was conscious”. This omission, coupled with Lord Belstead’s equivocation, should be compared with an earlier passage of his speech when he referred to the incident as follows: “It was at this point that an assault upon Mr Carver is said to have taken place. A police officer who was present went through the crowd to Mr Carver who was on the floor. The police officer identified himself and Mr Carver was taken out of the conference hall.”

To whom did the police officer identify himself? To the assailants and those with them, or to the unconscious Mr Carver who, it is now admitted, was “on the floor”? In short, the version of events described by the four distinguished journalists, covering the period while Carver was in the conference hall and still within their view, remains undiscredited.

Although the Government spokesman never denied that an assault had taken place, he sought refuge in the fact that Carver “had at no time made an allegation to the police of assault”.  Certainly he was in no position to do so when unconscious. What, then, is the police’s duty on witnessing an assault? Is it to await the victim’s return to consciousness and his articulation of a complaint before taking steps to apprehend and question and identify his assailant? Clearly, if law and order is to be maintained it is the police’s duty to investigate an offence when it takes place under their noses or in circumstances such as these.

The great unanswered questions are: why was no police action taken immediately after the event and why, given the published evidence, has the matter been allowed to die? There are conflicting versions of what happened to Carver after he left the conference hall and was, therefore, out of sight of the corps of journalists. Carver avers he regained consciousness only at the police station. According to the Sussex police, as relayed by Lord Belstead, “he stood up and walked unaided… about 100 yards” to a police vehicle. During his journey to the police station he talked to the police officer with him and, “in particular, he was interviewed about a conference pass which was in his possession”.

A police vehicle seems a curious place to conduct an “interview”, especially as Carver had not been either charged or cautioned. Lord Belstead’s statement that “Mr Carver was arrested for a breach of the peace” certainly materialised in no charge. A requirement that he be at Brighton police station on 11 November was cancelled six days before that date, soon after my question had been put down for debate. What happened to Carver during the 5¾ hours he was in the police station? He was not charged or cautioned and, after questioning, spent some 2½ hours in his cell before being released. He recalls that the cell was cold and he fell asleep. Although a police doctor was “standing by”, Carver received no medical attention because, we are told, he did not ask for it. Even though he had been seen “on the floor” and was carried unconscious from the hall it was evidently not thought to be a matter for any medical initiative.

Although, as Lord Belstead points out, Carver can make a complaint about his treatment by the police, there are an increasing number of people who are suspicious of the police investigating themselves, especially as the Department of Public Prosecutions has no investigative facilities. And although a victim can take out a private summons, the Home Secretary has no power to intervene in matters of this nature. The police are thus a law unto themselves. There is no equivalent in England to the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland and it was not even possible for Michael English to put down in the House of Commons the identical question which I tabled in the House of Lords. There is, apparently, no ministerial responsibility.

The Conservative Party manifesto, in its section Rule of Law, said: “The most disturbing threat to our freedom and security is the growing disrespect for the rule of law. In government as in opposition, Labour have undermined it. Yet respect for the rule of law is the basis of a free and civilised life. We will restore it, re-establishing the supremacy of Parliament and giving the right priority to the fight against crime.” After the disgraceful scenes at Brighton, these words are at once an impertinence and a challenge.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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