Rumours of ‘rent-a-mobs’ and miners taking over – the policing of the Grunwick strike

Jac St John, 4 March 2016

On 23 August 1976 a small number of workers began picketing the Grunwick Photo Processing Laboratories in North London. They were protesting unfair working conditions, mandatory overtime, and the management’s intransigence to recognise their grievances. The strike was unplanned and the predominantly female, South Asian workers were initially non-unionised. But events at Grunwick escalated as the strikers received support from the wider labour movement.

The strike ran for almost two years and during the summer of 1977, mass picketing saw the dispute become a cause célèbre of public disorder. The previous year the strikers had joined the moderate union APEX (the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff) and a strike committee had been formed. However, in June 1977, Grunwick became a symbolic battleground for groups on both the left and the right as the dispute began to escalate. A ‘week of action’ was called for 13-17 June and, as the number of demonstrators swelled, protesters and police came into violence confrontation.

Events at Grunwick became an important moment in Britain’s post-war political history: the dispute was one of a number of events that came to symbolise the anxieties of national decline, and became a rallying point for Margaret Thatcher and the New Right who decried the ‘ungovernability’ of Britain.

The Trotskyist ‘rent-a-mob’

A Special Branch report dated 16 June 1977 provides a summary of how events at Grunwick had developed. Recognising the modest beginnings of the protest, the report notes that, ‘It seemed that the dispute would remain a private fight between APEX and Grunwicks unless other elements intervened.’ However, Special Branch notes that political groups on the ‘far left’ – elsewhere referred to as the ‘rent-a-mob’ – where manipulating the dispute for their own ends:

The belief in a manipulative vanguard – known as the ‘corruption model’ – appears as a familiar assessment within Special Branch reports. The documents show that, in the run-up to the ‘week of action’, the Branch was receiving information about the planned activities of the Socialist Worker Party (SWP). Events at the Grunwick pickets in the following two-weeks became increasingly violent and confrontations between protesters and the police are well documented in the reports:

However, there is a clear distinction between Special Branch reports and those generated by the police; the latter often present only a narrative of events, rarely offering much in the way of analysis. It is significant to note, therefore, that the files released following FOI requests do not include Special Branch reports for the period between 16 and 29 June 1977, the most violent weeks of the dispute.

What the documents do show, however, is that during these weeks Special Branch was receiving information from regional police forces concerning the plans of demonstrators travelling to London to join the Grunwick pickets. A record of a telephone message dated 23 June 1977 notes:

The Commander of Special Branch also received information from a Detective Inspector in West Yorkshire, relying the plans of local miners.

‘There was indeed a crisis’ – Prime Minister James Callaghan

The involvement of the miners significantly escalated the Grunwick dispute. Documents released to The National Archives reveal that concerns for the policing of public order at Grunwick reached the highest echelons of British government. On 23 June Arthur Scargill and members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) travelled from across the country to join the picketers in an expression of workers solidarity. This swell in the number of demonstrators created significant problems for the police; violence erupted and Scargill, among others, was arrested.

As public disorder at Grunwick continued, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police David McNee came under increasing pressure to take preventative action against the escalating demonstrations. Notes from a meeting at Chequers on 26 June 1977, suggest that the Prime Minister James Callaghan encouraged the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees to pressure the Commissioner to adopt a more proactive response to the demonstrations and pickets:

The documents suggest that Callaghan was concerned that the Grunwick dispute would turn into a repeat of the so-called ‘battle of Saltley Gates’ in 1972. There, an appeal by Arthur Scargill had drawn 15,000 flying pickets from across the labour movement who descended on the Coke Depot outside Birmingham and forced the public defeat of both the police and the industry management. The episode had proved to be disastrous for Edward Heath’s Conservative Government. Fearing a repeat of the events, a hand written note by Callaghan told officials that Scargill ‘may have to be warned off’:

‘The National Day of Action’ – 11 July 1977

The next significant Special Branch report held by the Project is dated 30 June 1977 and represents an assessment of a forthcoming demonstration planned for 11 July. The report noted that, though mass picketing in the last fortnight had resulted in nearly 300 arrests, a more stable atmosphere had now returned. It credited ‘firm police handling’ with taking control of the demonstrations, whilst suggesting that disorder had been reduced after the more moderate Communist Party had replaced the Trotskyist SWP as ‘the dominant influence on the pickets’.

Reflecting the concerns of Callaghan and his cabinet colleagues, Special Branch reports began to focus on the involvement of Arthur Scargill and the NUM, and the impact this would have on public disorder:

The report shows that Special Branch were concerned that ‘some 2,000 potentially violent Trotskyists and the like’ would combine with a ‘massive number of trade unionists, Communist Party members and other less extreme demonstrators’, to create an extremely serious episode of public disorder. The report concluded that:

A controversial aspect of the policing response to the dispute was the use of the infamous Special Patrol Group (SPG) to ‘control’ pickets. The SPG represented a move by the Metropolitan Police towards the paramilitary style policing of crime and public order. The documents confirm the SPG’s presence at Grunwick, though the particularities of their deployment remain unknown.

As the ‘national day of action’ planned for 11 July drew nearer, Special Branch reports made efforts to assess the scale and likely radicalism of the demonstration. Amongst the various factions that had rallied around the Grunwick dispute, Special Branch tried to established which groups held the momentum and the effects each would have on public order. The reports note that Special Branch officers were present at the picket lines each day, taking notes of speeches and recording the reactions of the audience. The documents also suggest that officers were keen readers of left-wing newspapers, as many reports include references to how the dispute was framed within these sources. Understanding the complicated theoretical and tactical frictions between these groups – including APEX, the strike committee, the broader labour movement, and various groups on the far left – was no small task, but the reports suggest Special Branch regarded this as vitally important to maintaining public order:

It is unsurprising that the reports of Special Branch and the Metropolitan police make few references to the more covert policing tactics used to assess the intentions of groups involved in the Grunwick dispute. On the BBC’s Today programme in 2007, Jack Dromey former secretary of the Brent Trades Council and now Labour’s shadow policing minister recalled that:

‘I discovered after the dispute, from good policemen who talked to me in the thirty years since, that I was bugged at home, that the trades and labour hall was bugged, that there was a period that, we were followed, some of us in the dispute, and also attempts were made to infiltrate the strike committee, so there was a high degree of surveillance. It was an extraordinary period of political paranoia, the security services tended to put two and two together and make Moscow.’

On the day of 11 July 1977, Special Branch estimated that some 30,000 participants were gathered at different points around the Grunwick site. The reports suggest there was a split amongst the demonstrators as to whether they would maintain a picket and prevent non-striking workers from entering the plant, or whether they would join a march organised in cooperation with the police. Initially, the documents suggest that the picket line was maintained by the support of Arthur Scargill and the miners, who they allege adopted the provocative tactic of charging police cordons behind their union banners. However, after a morning on the picket, Scargill decided to join the march, a decision the reports suggest provoked the ire of those that remained to guard the picket:

Though protest during the summer of 1977 marked the highpoint of public disorder at Grunwick, the strike continued for another year. George Ward, the plant’s managing director, rejected the conclusions of the Scarman Report that recommended union recognition and reinstating the striking workers. As historian Jack McGowan has noted, in the decade that followed ‘Grunwick’ became political and cultural shorthand for the ‘crisis’ of the 1970s. From a policing perspective, the firm response to the mass picketing at Grunwick must be situated within the context of increasing episodes of public disorder in the 1970s, a hard line approach that reached its zenith under Margret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Also see: Grunwick Dispute – Files Overview

This story is based on:

Further reading:

The Special Branch Files Project extends its thanks to Solomon Hughes, who kindly shared these documents with the Project. The author would also like to thank Dr Jack McGowan and Dr Evan Smith for their generous advice.

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