Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Labour seriously considered using the Army against Anti Vietnam War demonstrators in 1968

Feature - Send in the troops - Hunting out low people in high places; 
Solomon Hughes investigates why Labour discussed calling the army in 1968

Solomon Hughes

First published - Morning Star
June 20, 2008 Friday

Gordon Brown argues that there is no threat to civil liberties because his new laws will only grind down on "terrorists." Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said that we mustn't be "lulled into a false sense of security" in the "war on terror."
The problem is that Smith and Brown, like many governments before them, are singing themselves too many lullabies of anxiety.
Because, when the government feels lonely, isolated or unloved, it starts peering out through the Downing Street railings and seeing "terrorists" everywhere. Political challenges get redefined as security challenges.
The government's propensity to view protesters as terrorists and banner wavers as bomb throwers was reinforced by the Police Special Branch papers that I dug out on 1968 British protests against the Vietnam war.
As readers of this column know, the "anti terrorist" police kept the anti-war demonstrators under intense scrutiny. They convinced themselves that the demonstrators were a security threat and put bomb squad officers on the streets, believing that the protesters might use explosives.
In their press-fuelled panic, the police convinced themselves of other dangers.
A "branch note" of "information of use in circumstances where vehicles carrying demonstrators are stopped in the outskirts" reports that "Charles Sandal, News of the World reporter" had told the coppers "that students coming into town for the demonstration will carry eggs filled with acid, in lunch boxes, to avoid detection."
So, the man from the News of the World said that students had acid-filled eggs in their lunch boxes and the police treated this barmy rumour as fact and started an easter-egg hunt through the lunch boxes of terror.
The acid-filled eggs failed to appear, as did the infernal devices.
I have now received another set of papers from the Home Office which show that the panic went higher up the political food chain, beyond Special Branch's paranoid commanders and right into the Cabinet.
Harold Wilson's Labour government seriously considered, although finally rejected, using troops to police anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in 1968.
The Cabinet Office, Home Office and Metropolitan Police have all refused freedom of information requests to open their files on the unruly protest outside the American embassy in Grosvenor Square in March 1968.
However, another protest was called by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign for October, a demonstration which ultimately proved to be both large and more peaceful than the famous Grosvenor Square conflict. Home Office papers relating to this demo include a letter from defence secretary Denis Healey to home secretary Jim Callaghan that reveals the debate about using soldiers.
Healey writes: "Dear Jim,
"As you are aware there has been some uneasiness in my department about the possibility, however remote, that troops might have to be called on to help at the last moment to help with the demonstration planned for 27th October."
Healey is pleased to hear that "the commissioner for police has come to the firm conclusion that he could see no possible circumstances arising" that would "lead him to call for help from the services."
However, even though Healey accepted that soldiers were not needed to help the police face protesters, he went on to discuss how troops could help in a "passive" way.
Healey writes: "It is quite clear that it would be undesirable for troops ever to be used in an active role once a demonstration had got out of hand."
However, he adds: "Troops should only be used, if they are used at all, in a purely passive role in order to prevent a situation getting out of control.
"Examples of the sort of thing which unarmed troops might be able to do are internal protection and security of government buildings or the passive blocking off of an area or street using normal police techniques of the less active kind."
The then defence secretary adds that they would need 'some training in the techniques to be used" and the authorities would have to make sure that there was no "leak to the press."
Healey says: "Once the men were trained, a number could be made available at comparatively short notice in times of difficulty."
A draft reply from Callaghan to Healey shows that his offer of "passive" troops was also rejected because "the consequence of using servicemen even in a passive role could be very serious" and both Callaghan and the police commissioner were "firmly against the idea."
The history books all tell one tale about Callaghan's response to the 1968 demonstrations.
They say that Sunny Jim followed the pragmatic British approach. He stayed calm and let the demonstrations take place. Liberty trumped security.
In fairness to Callaghan, this was the case in the end.
However, the hitherto completely unknown fact that Healey and Callaghan actively and seriously discussed putting troops on the streets in 1968 tells us two things. First, it says that the 1968 protesters shook the Establishment more than we knew. Second, it says that even a Labour government which is way to the left of today's bunch can look at protesters and begin to believe that they are facing some kind of security threat.
The really brave
We don't need to go back to 1968 to see the government using anti-terrorist laws for political gain. The police banned the recent demo outside George W Bush and Gordon Brown'sDowning Street tea party claiming that 'security" was at stake.
After some pressure, the police allowed protest in Parliament Square but placed an exclusion zone around Whitehall.
There is a sense that Bush is a man on the way out, which kept the turnout at the protest low. But Bush isn't going quietly.
His sudden demand that Brown keep troops in Iraq turned up the political temperature.
Thankfully, the demonstrators showed that there is an alternative, while an embarrassed, grovelling Brown grinned fixedly through Bush's demands that Britain stick with Plan Bush.
The police responded in two ways. First, they bopped protesters on the heads with batons. Second, they continued linking protesters to terrorists.
Disgracefully, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison talked about the "threat from terrorism," saying that the protesters "can be used as cover for more sinister criminal activity." So it seems that my 12-year-old son and I are a sinister threat.
Sunday's demonstrators were standing up for the right to demonstrate and against the blanket use of anti-terror laws. David Davis has been described as "brave" for his stand on civil liberties. The protesters who bore the brunt of the police thrashing on Sunday look a lot braver.

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