John Forsyth lived in London when Blair Peach was killed in the Southall riots in 1979. He remembers the bitter times that were its backdrop

POLLING day was barely a couple of weeks away then, as now, but the 2010 aftermath of recession and looming public spending cuts greater than anything Mrs Thatcher dared try have not generated a fraction of the boiling anger of 1979.

• A Police Officer arrests a man during the Southall riots. Picture: Getty

In London then we lived normal lives – we went to parties and got on with our pals, enjoyed the dying embers of punk and Rock Against Racism and welcomed the arrival of 2-Tone. It was Madness in all senses. But it's hard to convey the degree to which conflict wove its way into the vocabulary of so many conversations.

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In part, both sides were unresolved about the implications of the imminent destruction of the Labour government and its replacement by a Conservative administration, with its explicit intentions to break the power of the trade unions and restore pride in Britain lost since the humiliating request for help to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1976. Public spending cuts had already led to the (much overstated) Winter of Discontent. What worse could be on its way? What more was needed?

For some on the left – a term that still retained some significance then – there was anger that the unions had overplayed their hand and precipitated the worst of all possible outcomes. Others thought the problem was that the Callaghan government had been too weak in defence of the working classes. He should have told the IMF to go to hell. And among the younger political generation there was rage that the real issues were out there on the streets and ignored or wilfully misunderstood by the mainstream parties.

The focus of their anger was the growth of the National Front during the 1970s in the East End of London and the Midlands, in particular, but they were also visible outside many Tube stations and football grounds throughout London. They were getting enough votes in local government elections and parliamentary by-elections to force their way into mainstream consciousness, but it was their presence on the streets that provoked direct confrontation by anti-fascist groups.

The Anti Nazi League, largely generated by the Socialist Workers Party, vowed to take them on wherever they appeared. Rock Against Racism was the parallel organisation that aimed to give the anti-fascists a better time, rallying fans of the Clash and Tom Robinson to the memorable concert in Victoria Park in April 1978, but also to smaller events throughout the period.

They were angry, bitter and bullying times. Numbers were everything and leaders of left and right, the far left and the far right, took a disturbingly brutal view of the worth of throwing bodies into the fray. First World War generals would have understood the approach – the idea that territory could be gained and reported as success if there were more of ours than of theirs standing at the end of the day. And when the protesters took to the streets, the police took to their task of containing, dispersing and discouraging them from doing it again.

There was a symbiotic element to the growing crudity of the confrontations. The mass pickets at Grunwick film processing laboratories in north London – where workers were trying to get union recognition and the picket lines were bolstered with students, Socialist Workers Party members and even miners – had begun a decade of often violent confrontation that continued until the end of the Miners' Strike in 1984.

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And although the Special Patrol Group had been in existence as a unit within the Metropolitan Police since the mid-1960s, their status was really only established in the mid-1970s. It was a place where officers who wanted to be hard could meet others of a similar bent and get praise for it. There was a waiting list for transfer to the SPG. They were the ones who'd arrive at the scene of an incident in their heavily protected vehicles, with a screech of tyres and smell of burning rubber, to the admiration, they believed, of their uniformed colleagues, and pile into whoever they deemed to be the ringleaders. Often the ringleaders were defined by the fact that they had been piled into. The SPG modelled its tactics on mixing intimidation and "precision" on the snatch teams seen nightly on the TV news coverage of Northern Ireland.

That was the backdrop of the day that Blair Peach was killed, 23 April, 1979. The details of the Met investigation, such as they are, have now seen the light of day, but very little in the report wasn't known very soon after the event as a posse of determined investigative journalists refused to let go.

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At the time I was working shifts on the Agit Prop diary section of London's Time Out listings magazine. Agit Prop listed meetings of a kaleidoscope of left wing and very left wing organisations, from fundraising to "conscientisation". It was enjoyable and rewarding in its own way to know the finer differences between the Revolutional Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency. If a political hair could be split, Agit Prop would record the dissection.

There were many meetings over the ensuing months and years aimed at sharing and gathering information about the events not only surrounding Blair Peach's death, but of the injuries to scores of other demonstrators that day in Southall. Perhaps because they had such a clear focus – of pursuing an investigation that the Met and the DPP seemed so reluctant to complete – they were invariably calm and dignified as well as outraged. It was so offensive to those close to Peach as well as political friends that serving police officers refused to say who had dealt the fatal blow.

By ludicrous coincidence, at the same time I had decided to take the classes that would qualify me to be a football referee. The final exam –and eye test – was held in the basement of the University College, London building in Gower Street. I did notice a shifty looking bloke hanging about the corridor as I made my way in. Half an hour later, as I left with my certificate in hand, the shifty bloke approached me and introduced himself as the referees' secretary of the Metropolitan Police League, and asked if I'd like to do some matches.

Being too nave to wonder why he would recruit only the most inexperienced referees, I agreed.

My very first match in the middle the next Saturday turned out to be a fixture between a police team from Croydon and the Special Patrol Group. I had three players sent off for violent behaviour in the first 12 minutes, at which point I called the captains together and quavered at them that they'd have to get their men under control. The rest is a blur except for the sergeant spectator who approached me at the end of the game and suggested it might be a good idea to check if my road tax was in order.

It is hard to recall the texture of those days before mobile phones, when CCTV was in its infancy. The Bristol and Brixton riots lay ahead, as did the Scarman report into the latter incidents. The Poll Tax riots and the civil war otherwise known as the Miners' Strike had their course to run. My sense is that the Miners' Strike sickened a generation of police, who resented being propelled into mass skull-cracking. Many volunteered for the overtime but not for the violence.

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The Special Patrol Group was disbanded in 1987, but had lost its status long before. Its claim to being the latest tactic was overtaken as surely as today's "kettling" will be. Blair Peach's legacy, long delayed, to politicians and police, is that policing by consent needs regular reminders that everyone is responsible for their actions and no-one is entitled to be beyond the law. Esprit de corps should not be an excuse for refusing to grass.