Southall, West London, 23rd April 1979:
It was St George’s day, and the far-right National Front had decided to celebrate the feast day of the patron saint of England by holding a provocative meeting in the heart of Southall, an area of west London which was then (and still is) home to several large and vibrant Asian communities.
Unsurprisingly, the situation was tense, made even more so by the presence of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) of the Metropolitan Police. This specialist riot squad had already made a violent reputation for itself, and the events of 23rd April 1979 were the beginnings of its eventual downfall and replacement with the equally nasty Territorial Support Group (TSG).
Just like Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor killed at last year’s G20 demonstrations by a member of the TSG, Blair Peach was attempting to get home when he fatally encountered the police. A New Zealander, Peach was a teacher and anti-fascist activist who had come to Southall that day to protest against the NF.
In the midst of confrontations between protesters and police, Peach was separated from his friends as they tried to make their way out of the chaos. At least ten people saw and later gave consistent accounts of what happened next.
The SPG began chasing demonstrators down a residential street in an effort to disperse them. As he ran from the police, Peach was pushed by an SPG officer’s riot shield and, as he fell to the ground, another SPG officer hit him over the head.
Mortally wounded, Blair Peach was left, dying, on the pavement by the police. Shocked local residents attempted to look after him until he could be taken to Ealing Hospital for treatment – but it was too late, and he died at about 12.10 am the following day.
Appalled by this utterly unnecessary waste of life, thousands marched through Southall in response to Peach’s death. The night before his funeral, his coffin lay in state in a nearby theatre where thousands of members of the local Sikh community came to pay their respects.
The Met began an inquiry under the auspices of Commander John Cass, who headed up the police complaints bureau. It was soon clear that Blair Peach had been killed by a blow to the head delivered by a heavy cosh of some kind. When Cass’s men raided the SPG headquarters, the attitude of the riot cops was laid bare for all to see with what was found in their lockers:
“…a stash of unauthorised weapons, including illegal truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather stick. One officer was caught trying to hide a metal cosh, although it was not the weapon that killed Peach. Another officer was found with a collection of Nazi regalia”
I grew up and still live not far from Southall. I was only three when Blair Peach was killed by these SPG thugs on that suburban street only a few miles from my home, but the pointlessness and violence of his death has a resonance that rightly still echoes locally as well as further afield.
And it is not surprising that the death of Ian Tomlinson last year drew comparisons (according to The Guardian, both Peach and Tomlinson are buried in the same Plaistow cemetery); in fact, it was the controversy surrounding the last moments of the Evening Standard vendor that prompted Blair Peach’s partner Celia Stubbs to launch a new campaign to finally get the official police reports into her boyfriend’s death made public.
Today, and after a thirty year battle fought by Stubbs and the Peach family, the reports have, at long last, been released by the Met. Suppressed by the coroner during the inquest into Peach’s death, the files had been locked away by Scotland Yard – which meant that the SPG officers involved were essentially protected from any legal action against them and were also able to get away with lying to Cass.
I have not yet read all the documents, but the Foreword contains these lines, which are as close to a full admission of police guilt as you are ever likely to get:
“At the time of his death there was a thorough investigation which stated that fourteen witnesses said they saw a police officer hit Blair Peach and that there is no evidence which shows he received the injury in any other way.
This of course is and has always been a grave concern to the MPS.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have provided us independent advice stating that there is nothing which would currently justify carrying out a further investigation”
After thirty years of entirely avoidable heartbreak for Celia Stubbs and the Peach family, even the final release of these reports mean that truth and justice are still being hidden from them. I sincerely hope the same will not also be true of the Tomlinson family in years to come.
So, is this really the final verdict on a case that has been left to linger for more than three decades? Well, yes and no. This is all we are ever likely to get from the Met on the subject of Blair Peach’s death and who was responsible for it, so in all probability (officially) yes.
But despite the names of the SPG officers involved being known (although they are unsurprisingly redacted in the Cass Report), not one of them has ever admitted responsibility or stood trial for the murder of Blair Peach – so no. This cannot be the final verdict until that responsibility is taken, no matter what the CPS has unilaterally decided.