The 1981 Cabinet Papers: Michael Foot as ‘extremist’
One of the more interesting documents from yesterday’s 30 year rule Cabinet paper release is a ‘Brief for a Debate on Recent Outbreaks of Civil Disorder’, prior to a Commons debate on the 1981 riots( pp. 55-60 of this file).
Section 2 of the briefing is titled ‘Extremists and the Disorders’, and starts by giving details of the recent activities – down to the content of local leaflets – of a number of groups: Militant Tendency, Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton (noted as unrecognised by the Labour party), WRP, RCG, RCP, The Race Collective, SWP, and Labour Party Young Socialists.
The briefing then go to a subheader to this main title: The Labour party and law-breaking. Most of the focus is on Ken Livingstone, and it is clear that his activities were being followed very closely, with detailed records of his local speeches kept.
But perhaps the greatest surprise is what the paper has to say about the Labour leader, Michael Foot:
As Labour Leader, Mr Foot has condemned the recent violence. So, too, has Mr Hattersley. Neither Labour leader has, however, been able to resist the temptation to refer to the high levels of unemployment as a possible cause of the violence. Mr Foot’s record in the past has been equivocal. He gave firm backing to those who defied the Industrial Relations Act, and made, under the last Labour government, some notorious attacks on the judiciary. These include a reference to “judges who stretch the law… to suit reactionary attitudes (ITV, People and politics,, 9th May 1974)) and the remark that “if the freedom of the people of this country has been left to good sense and fairmindendess of the judges, we would have few freedoms in this country at all” (Daily Mail, 16th May, 1977).
All of this begs questions.
Did the Thatcher government really consider the mainstream Labour party, including its leaders in the Commons, to be potential violent insurrectionists, enough for the briefing paper to include them under the main ‘Extremists’ header?
Was the establishment actually scared of widespread insurrection, or was this just attention to the details of small groups just a reflection of civil servants operating to its normal code?
Is this kind of briefing still going on? Is the state still this scared?