After almost exactly 30 years, London’s Metropolitan Police have finally conceded that the report by their own Commander John Cass into the death of New Zealand teacher Blair Peach will be made public. Blair, a good friend and colleague of mine, was killed by officers of the Metropolitan Police at an anti-fascist demonstration in Southall on 23 April 1979. No-one has ever been held responsible for his killing.
The decision to publish the Cass report is an extraordinary victory for Inquest, the campaign against deaths in custody in Britain that was set up by families of the bereaved shortly after Blair’s death, and for Celia Stubbs, his partner. Belatedly, it lifts another layer of camouflage from the secrets, lies and impunity that prevail in large sections of the British state and make such terrible events not merely possible but more likely. There can be little doubt that the death of Ian Tomlinson in similar circumstances at the G20 protests in London last April played a part in the climb-down by the police.
Though the point of principle has been conceded, the Cass report itself has yet to be released. That will happen only ‘later this year’, after it has been ‘redacted’ by the Metropolitan Police. Redaction is now a familiar term in Britain, the object of ridicule since the House of Common’s own public report on MPs’ expenses appeared with much of the key information blacked out. Though there are said to be quite legitimate reasons why some information in the Cass Report should not be made public, there will have to be credible explanations in each instance if it is not.
What is it likely to reveal that isn’t widely suspected already? Probably very little. It was claimed at the time that Cass had left ‘no stone unturned’. So it will be interesting to see, for example, whether he investigated the plentiful evidence that Blair, a prominent anti-fascist in the East End of London, had been subjected to harassment both by the National Front and by the police prior to his death. I know that he became fearful, and with good reason.
The lawless Special Patrol Group (SPG), some of whose members evidently had fascist sympathies, were the prime - in fact the only - suspects in Blair’s killing. They were known to be targeting ‘ringleaders’ at anti-fascist demonstrations, in Brick Lane and elsewhere, at the time. If this stone, presumably marked ‘conspiracy theory’, was left unturned by Cass as a result, then the original claim was false, in this respect at least.
Here there is an irony. We were given to believe that Cass recommended the prosecution of named SPG officers - but the then Director of Public Prosecutions refused, on the grounds (never justified) that there was ‘insufficient evidence’. But what were they to be charged with? We were not to discover. Given that Cass is said to have encountered a ‘wall of silence’ from police officers, there must have been abundant evidence of at least one offence - conspiracy, to pervert the course of justice if nothing else. And if not that, then breach of duty as a police officer. Needless to say, no such stones were ever turned.
But still, what would have been the point of prosecuting individual officers? Certainly not to create scapegoats for what was essentially a political crime. The evidence these officers might have deployed in open court, or that might have been deployed against them by a prosecution, would doubtless have proved ‘embarrassing’ not just for the police, but for the British body politic that employs them and gives them whatever legitimacy they can claim. It’s the same sort of ‘embarrassment’ that keeps British official inquiries uniquely secret, because only then can officials be expected to tell the truth - a perverse inversion of what might more justly be the case.
Nonetheless, the convention in Britain remains that police officers are not above the law - a comforting belief that is observed largely in the breach, since police officers (any more than bankers) in Britain have never been prosecuted in what might conceivably turn out to be politically embarrassing circumstances. Case still follows case in a shameful litany of impunity. And, after all, who wants to discover that someone we prefer to think of as protecting us might in point of fact be a killer? Yet that, of course, is precisely what it would be both more realistic and more sensible to assume, given that in the absence of a prosecution almost any officer in the Metropolitan Police could have turned out to be the one who killed Blair Peach.
Even now I can recall how, when news of Blair’s death reached me, the very first thing I thought to myself was: ‘So they got you in the end.’ As a good friend, there’s no pretending that my responses to his death were anything but subjective.
Well, objectivity is not always what it’s cracked up to be. Right from the start, you could sense how the instincts of the British authorities were to engage in a ruthless tussle with the opposing, somehow disreputable instincts of those who had loved Blair. The chosen weapon of the powerful was time - to delay, divert, postpone, in the expectation that their instincts would outlive those of Blair’s relatives and friends, let alone those of the general public.
What Inquest, Celia Stubbs and countless others around the world - say, the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Disappeared in Argentina - keep reminding us is not just that the instincts of the powerful are wrong, but that they can also be defeated, however long it may take.