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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?

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  1. December 31, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Yes, the Thatcher government was scared then and I suspect that the Cameron 21st century version is too. Ours is a very thin blue line that was stretched by this summer’s activities. As the size of the nothing-left-to-lose part of the population rises, a boiling point may be reached and it won’t just be disaffected and avaricious who take to the streets. The so-called silent majority has already started expressing mumbles of discontent. Perhaps the government (which is most cynical of the last fifty years) has calculated just what it can get away with but it is running the increasing risk that one ostensibly minor event will turn into civil disobedience thence full scale insurrection which will be beyond the combined resources of the police and military. Perhaps Halliburton already have the contract for the return of civil order?

  2. skidmarx
    December 31, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Those were the days.

    I would instinctively answer your questions:
    1.Mostly yes on the potential
    2.With 1974 in mind, it was worth worrying about. Somewhat precautionary. But I am reminded of how it came out that Nixon was obsessed with the size of every Vietnam War protest, worried they were going to bring him down. After the Miners’ Strike, these fears might seem ridiculous, but before not so much.
    3.Probably.No.

    I wonder if those still trying to paint Ken as a wild-eyed extremist will find much materiel for their fantasies.

  3. Edgar
    December 31, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    1. Yes, why are we surprised by this?
    2. Yes and they still are today, as the hysteria over the riots demonstrated. The establishment know that too much austerity will have consequences, this is a good thing. Well done to the rioters.
    3. Absolutely yes, without any shadow of a doubt. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

  4. Chris
    December 31, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    The irony, of course, is that in 1981 it was the Tories who were the extremists. Of course, right wing extremism is the centre ground of politics nowadays and if you reject Thatcherism you’re branded as some sort of Communist.

  5. Chris Kitcher
    January 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    It seems to me that with such official views of reasonable positions we have nothing to loose but our chains in rising up against them

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