Connor Woodman, 2 April 2019

[Return to Introduction] [Part 2: The 1980s, Urban Riots and the Miners’ Strike]

‘Nineteen sixty seven to nineteen sixty nine was a period of particular importance so far as public order, especially in relation to political demonstrations, in this country was concerned, as throughout that period there was a considerable change in the tactics employed by demonstrators. They became increasingly militant following the international pattern of that era and were prepared both to throw missiles at and physically attack police and police horses.’

W H Gibson, Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner, 1975

1968-1975 signalled, for Britain, an intensification of the insurgent energies of the Sixties. Mass demonstrations, industrial militancy and new racial, gender and sexual liberation movements pressed forward, catching power centres off-balance. The police – increasingly guided nationally by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) – created new methods and institutions aimed to restrict these movements, laying the groundwork for the harsh counter-attacks of the 1980s. At the heart of these police innovations lay increased national police coordination and ‘mutual aid’. ACPO files reveal establishment fears and burgeoning police tactics developed in response to political radicalism.

‘Deep interest in high places’: 1968 and the ACPO public order conference

As other stories on this website have demonstrated, elements of the British establishment went into panic in 1968 over the increasingly radical politics of large parts of the population, particularly students. In the wake of violence at a 30,000-strong anti-Vietnam-war rally at Grosvenor Square in March and the French May events, the police and other authorities were looking nervously at the rise of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), the New Left and Black Power. In response, the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch established the notorious Special Demonstration Squad, a team of specialist undercover officers tasked with infiltrating the extra-parliamentary Left.

ACPO, as the highest national police body in the land, took its own interest in these political trends. Some English and Welsh police forces, as a Home Office letter put it in 1968, were ‘faced with this problem on a major scale for the first time’. There was a need for increased national information-sharing and technique dissemination and ACPO held ‘a confidential study of the current and to some extent associated problems of public disorders and student unrest’ during its Annual Conference on September 26, 1968.

Preparing the agenda for the ‘confidential study’ meeting, ACPO’s General Secretary, F W C Pennington of Liverpool and Bootle Constabulary, wrote that there was ‘deep interest in high places and not a little anxiety’. The Home Secretary was said to be showing ‘great personal interest’ in the day, which included speeches from MI5, Special Branch and senior police officers on Britain’s extra-parliamentary landscape, urban riots in the U.S., and intelligence gathering techniques.

How much influence the one-day conference had is unclear, but it certainly signalled the increasing interest by ACPO in issues of national public order. Foreshadowing the developments of the next two decades, the conference represented an early attempt to share information and police tactics on how to deal with political threats at a national level.

Strikes, flying pickets and police ‘mutual aid’

The elite anxiety of 1968 continued into the next decade. So concerned was the 1970-1974 Conservative government that it set up an Interdepartmental Working Group on Subversion in Public Life (SPL) to ‘supervise and direct the collection of intelligence about threats to the internal security of Great Britain arising from subversive activities, particularly in industry’.[1] Two states of emergency were declared in 1970 – in response to dock- and electricity-worker strikes – and two more in 1972 over that year’s miners’ strikes.[2] A four-month-long state of emergency followed in 1973. Three years later, a Labour government formed the Subversion at Home Committee to extend the work of the SPL.[3]

A speech from the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner (Operations), W H Gibson, in 1975 outlined the range of perceived threats the state faced:

As two scholars put it in 1979, ‘a variety of contentious issues ranging from picketing to mugging, squatting to football hooliganism’ were being ‘run together to represent an underlying and unifying malaise’ and ‘incipient anarchical lawlessness’.[4]

The experience of the 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes was seminal for the coercive state. Arthur Scargill, then a National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) delegate in Yorkshire, masterminded a new tactic of ‘flying pickets’ in 1972. This involved striking miners traveling from coal pit to coal pit, massing on roads and workplace entrances to prevent strike-breaking labour from entering. At Saltley coke depot in Birmingham 10,000 striking engineering workers joined the flying pickets, decisively winning the strike’s key battle for the NUM.[5] In 1974, an NUM strike triggered the collapse of the Conservative government.

Of concern to police was the national character of the strikes. The English and Welsh police service is comprised of over 40 different forces, each with primary jurisdiction over its territory. Cooperation and information sharing between the forces can be weak, and result in a poorly-coordinated national response to riots and strikes which cross force-boundaries.

To overcome this challenge, the police developed a system of national coordination: forces with excess officers available would lend these officers to a beleaguered force during mass public order crises. As Gibson, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner, stated at an ACPO conference in 1975:

This project was originally assigned the keyword LUDDITE, a reference to the large-scale industrial resistance which erupted in the north of England in the early 19th century. Ultimately, the state chose a phrase long associated with left-wing anarchism: mutual aid.

Police Support Units and the National Reporting Centre

Two key police institutions were developed to institute this mutual aid project: Police Support Units (PSUs) and the National Reporting Centre (NRC). Saltley was key to this development: as Waddington puts it, ‘When the police … lost, at Saltley, they responded by adopting the technology and the tactics of coercion. “Mutual aid” arrangements were strengthened, the National Reporting Centre was created and the role of Police Support Units was changed from one of civil defence to that of public order’.[6]

First introduced in 1973, PSUs are, according to two police scholars, ‘a paramilitary-style police unit’ trained ‘specifically to deal with incidents of public disorder and to allow for mutual aid across different police forces’.[7] Equipped and trained for riot control, PSUs are available to travel to force territories where major disturbances are underway.

The deployment of these units was to be coordinated by the NRC, an ad-hoc unit only activated in times of major strike and riot activity – first after the 1972 miners’ strike. The NRC was under the control of the President of ACPO, with input from the Home Office, HM Inspectors of Constabulary, and a senior officer seconded from a provincial force being aided. The Centre was staffed by police officers and civilian workers seconded from the Metropolitan Police’s A Branch, according to one 1981 ACPO document. Based at New Scotland Yard, the NRC would collate requests for mutual aid and assign them to forces with additional police officers available. It would also collate information on the movement of rioters, demonstrators or pickets during a disturbance. ACPO was always keen to assure Chief Constables that the NRC would have no formal power to order the movement of police units – the arrangements were  voluntary – in theory. As far as is known, however, no force ever turned down an NRC request.

The NRC was based at New Scotland Yard, according to a 1986 police history of the Centre, in order to ensure ‘immediate access to central government in the event of a total communication breakdown’. The establishment of the NRC can be viewed as constituting part of what Tony Bunyan, writing in 1977, identified as ‘counter-revolutionary preparations’:[8] national-level contingency plans to deal with a feared uprising on the scale of France in May 1968. As one 1981 ACPO report put it, the ‘NRC must be sited close to government departments where any decision is made in time of crisis’.

The NRC was activated for the first time during the 1974 miners’ strike – and wouldn’t be used again until a prison officers’ strike in 1980, marking the beginning of the Centre’s key decade. Crucially, the turn towards nation-wide coordination and information gathering marks early ACPO involvement in national political policing: involvement which would culminate in the establishment of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) in 1999.

For the British police of the 1970s, counter-culture, football ‘hooliganism’, squatters, demonstrations and student occupations all appeared as a growing societal malaise, a breaking down of cherished standards of law and order. In 1969, the Commissioner of the Met lamented ‘the general tendency for members of the public to be more articulate regarding their rights—though not always about their obligations – and more militant in their actions’, and criticised ‘our permissive society, the lack of parental influence on young people and the lowering of moral values’.[9]

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed more assertive Chief Constables, outspoken and forthright in condemning political radicalism and public disorder. ACPO increasingly became the chosen vehicle for channelling their collective voice and coordinating responses to these perceived dangers. This was the context of political struggle which slowly generated an impetus for an ACPO-controlled nation-wide political intelligence unit with undercover infiltration capabilities.

[Return to Introduction] [Part 2: The 1980s, Urban Riots and the Miners’ Strike] 

See also: ACPO in the Hull Archive – files overview

Connor Woodman carried out this research whilst the 2017/18 Amiel & Melburn Trust Research Fellow, hosted by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Connor is the author of the Spycops in Context publications, analysing the undercover policing of political groups. Thank you to the Hull History Centre and Jim Townsend for their assistance during the research phase of this project.


[1] Maguire, T. J. (2015), ‘Counter-Subversion in Early Cold War Britain: The Official Committee on Communism (Home), the Information Research Department, and “State-Private Networks”’, Intelligence and National Security, 30(5), p.664.

[2] Bunyan, T. (1977), The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain, London: Quartet Books, p.54. A UK government can declare a formal ‘state of emergency’ in times of social unrest and national security threats, allowing it a range of powers outside of the normal operation of the law.

[3] Maguire, ‘Counter-Subversion’, p.664.

[4] Burton, F. & Carlen, P. (1979), Official Discourse: On Discourse Analysis, Government Publications, Ideology and the State, Routledge & Kegan Paul Books, pp.9-10.

[5] Milne, S. (2013), The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners, London: Verso Books, p.7.

[6] Waddington, P. A. (1987), ‘Towards paramilitarism? Dilemmas in policing civil disorder’, The British Journal of Criminology, 27(1), p.39.

[7] Hoggett, J., & Stott, C. (2010), ‘Crowd psychology, public order police training and the policing of football crowds’, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 33(2), p.232.

[8] Bunyan, The Political Police in Britain, pp.257-290.

[9] Quoted in Loader, I., & Mulcahy, A. (2001), ‘The power of legitimate naming: Part I—chief constables as social commentators in post-war England’, British Journal of Criminology, 41(1), pp.45-46.

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