Reporting for Duty
I used to think that, politically speaking, there was a kind of template to your life: in youth you would be wildly revolutionary, ‘agin the government’, as it was always known in our house; through middle age you would become more comfortably pragmatic, moving towards the centre; and by old age you would be positively queuing up for the Telegraph on your way to the pub for a morning snifter.
It seemed only predictable that, as you grew, gained responsibilities, and life experience, your perspective would change along with your context: the gradual lifelong slide to the right would progress. In some ways, I suppose there might have been a bit of a drift, but, on the publication of the report into Blair Peach’s death this week, I confess to realising there are some things which are immutable – like justice. And that your core political feelings remain strong, whatever your age.
It’s not difficult to recall my anger from 31 years ago. In my mid twenties, and fairly politicised, through the events of 68, the Troubles, and a decade of SNP activism, my politics were firmly republican and socialist, and I wouldn’t have counted myself as naive when it came to expectations about police and state activity. However, the level of denial and refusal to accept responsibility on the part of the police in this situation was quite breathtaking. In a preview of what we would consider the norm during the Thatcher years, it seemed the police had gained the arrogant confidence to tough it out, and large parts of the establishment and media were quite happy to let them. It was maybe the event that signified the start of these islands’ descent towards a situation where those who protested were counted disloyal and not worthy of civil rights, and the majority of citizens decided such a state of affairs just wasn’t worth getting upset about.
So, in the past three decades, the miners, trade unionists, the poor, the foreign, and minorities of every kind, have found that, rather than serve as their protector, the state, whatever hue the government, has been prepared to marginalise, ignore or eradicate them, by whichever method seemed most effective.
The fact that no-one had been brought to task for the death of Blair Peach, that a steady toll of fatalities and injuries in protests and demonstrations over the years since had likewise elicited no concerned response from the authorities, and the various governmental shenanigans related to the Iraq war, must all have been of great comfort to those whose incompetence and negligence led to the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 demonstrations, and to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station. For, by then, they were operating in an established tradition: get it wrong when acting on behalf of the state, and the chances are you’ll be able to avoid accountability.
So, today, I’m wondering how many fatalities and serious injuries caused during public protests and demonstrations, or in times of heightened security fears, could have been avoided, if, 31 years ago, the authorities had had the bottle to investigate thoroughly, unmask those who were lying, accept culpability, and put in place guidelines, not just to ensure the safety of citizens, but to ensure the certainty of acountability and transparency.
Last night the police finally admitted there had been lies and mistakes, and police violence against the deceased, and as they did so, they assured the public that the climate had changed and things were different now. But they still stopped short of admitting responsibility for Blair Peach’s death, and I would imagine that the Tomlinson and de Menezes families will find it difficult to spot the difference in a force where the first instinct still appears to be one of cover up, dissemblance and obfuscation.
It is, of course, far wider than a police or government responsibility. We get the civil rights we deserve, and for too long, the majority in this country have hidden behind the curtains or looked the other way. The lower the level of accountability, the more endangered are our civil rights
It’s time we stood up for them.