Hitchens archive: Sir David's Flying Wedge

Following the death of Blair Peach in 1979, Hitchens writes about the policing of protests.

In April 1979, a schoolteacher called Blair Peach died from head injuries received during an anti-racism demonstration in Southall, west London.Eleven witnesses said they saw members of the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group (SPG) hitting Peach. Two months later, on 22 June,Hitchens wrote about the role of the SPG in policing protests.

Last year, Sir David McNee became a Grande Oficial in the Ordem do Infante D. Henrique and Inspector Rees captained the Middlesex Wanderers on their association football tour of South Korea. These and other distinguished bobby achievements take up four pages in the annual Metropolitan Police report. In bold contrast, the same report is very modest about the achievements of the Special Patrol Group and of police officers carrying weapons. The SPG rates a third of a page, with a third of that taken up in denouncing "ill-founded criticism from certain sections of the community". Weapon training gets four lines, which tells us that 468 officers qualified in the use of firearms last year.

Very gradually, and without any Parliamentary vote or public consultation, we have acquired an armed police force and the nucleus of a CRS riot police. 'Certain sections of the community' are indeed worried about this, and probably an even wider group would be even more concerned if the subject were better discussed than it is. Sir David McNee, for all his blustering, is not anxious for this to happen. It used to be the case that the Special Patrol Group published figures on how many people it stopped, as well as how many it arrested. Here are the available findings.

stopped arrested

1972 41,980 3,142

1973 34,534 3,339

1974 41,304 3,262

1975 65,628 4,125

1976 60,989 3,773


Figures for convictions are not available, and the police in any case do not give them out. But a gland at the SPG's ratio of 'stops' to arrests makes it easy to understand why Sir David was so swift to discontinue the practice of issuing them. (Last year, the SPG made a record 2804 crime arrests and 1362 others. One wonders how many 'stops' were necessary to generate this new high.)

The statistics can only give a very indistinct impression of what an SPG 'presence' actually is. There is no method of tabulating the impact it can make on a picket line or on public demonstration (one mentions these well-worn examples because the SPG has not as yet been used to swoop on the sanctions-busters, for instance, or those who lied to the Board of Trade in its City investigations). But we do know that, while other departments of policing are under strength, and at a time when the police publicly confess that it is of little use for citizens to bother them about burglaries, the SPG had three volunteers for every vacancy. Perhaps it is the unfortunate effect of too much television, but at any rate something about SPG membership seems to appeal to a certain type of copper.

The original design of the SPG was a little less glamorous. It was intended to be a highly mobile reserve and support unit for those divisions that needed some crime-busting back-up. But by degrees it has shifted from this role to its now notorious one as a flying wedge to use on turbulent citizens.

What this has meant is an increasing contact with areas, such as race relations, industrial disputes and political manifestations, where the police are just not regarded as impartial. The National Front is certainly boasting when it claims to have extensive support among policemen of all ranks but it is a rare policeman who does not regard the visible element in these things - the picket, the black youth or the demonstrator - as "the problem". If political acumen was common among policemen, we would not have a commissioner like McNee, who recently told an editorial conference at the Guardian office that his force was "as racially prejudiced as the society from which it is drawn". That assumption (which must multiply the number of presumed criminals in police ranks for a start) would not surprise some of those who have been on the business end of an SPG operation.

Defenders of the SPG might argue that society is getting to be more violent and dangerous, and that the extra bit of muscle doesn't come amiss. The danger with this kind of argument is that it is open-ended and leads to coshes being found in lockers. (How confident of their immunity from ordinary discipline the un-named SPG members concerned must have felt). More than this, it also leads to cowboy tactics and behaviour better suited to Starsky and Hutch. Two young Pakistanis entered India House in February 1973 to protest about Pakistani prisoners of war. Within a few minutes of the arrival of the SPG, on a scene that cried out for Dixon of Dock Green, the two youths were shot dead. Efficient?

Some of the best researched criticism of the Special Patrol Group has come from immigrant and black organisations to whom the experience of being rousted by uniformed men is a common one*. But these often make the mistake of looking upon the SPG as a force for the specific repression of coloured people. In truth, the SPG does seem to take a special delight in visiting areas of what is sometimes called 'high immigrant concentration'. Their battle honours in Brixton, Lambeth, Hackney and Notting Hill are second to none, and they are well remembered by the locals for their visits.

Indeed, one is bound to wonder whether the two intruders at India House would be dead if they had been white. But concern about the militarisation of our police should not be confined to the Left and the minorities. The slow emergence of a CRS encourages authoritarians regardless of race, colour or creed. And, like the huge increase in armed policemen, it has been done in an oblique, hugger-mugger fashion. So far, the Metropolitan Police SPG is a small force - no more than 204 officers strong. But in the provinces there are many smaller carbon copies, with fewer newspapers to observe them, and even closer ties between the police and the local well-to-do establishment. The Anderton mentality needs watching, and those who used to regard criticism of the police as a subversive tactic in itself must now be taking alarm.

If the number of 'bad apples' in the SPG correlates in any way with the number of people they 'stop' (i.e. never less than ten to one and sometimes more) we are in trouble. Under a Conservative government, there is next to no chance that any real check on the "forces of law and order" will be allowed. So one day we will have our fully fledged gun-toting, dark-glasses-wearing riot police, seen reflected through a perspex shield. Don't you think we might have been asked?

*Police Against Black People, Institute of Race Relations, 247/249 Pentonville Road, London, N1

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.