Feature - Freaking out the fuzz;
Hunting out low people in high places. How the Metropolitan Police convinced themselves in 1968 that anti-Vietnam War campaigners were hell-bent on bringing about a violent revolution in Britain
Solomon Hughes (First Published Morning Star June 6 2008)
Just how deeply did the 1968 events shake the British Establishment? The orthodox history says not much.
The Rolling Stones '68 song Street Fighting Man complains that, while continentals have "riots revolutions" in "sleepy London town," the "game to play is compromise solutions."
The history books agree, saying that "les evenements" shook France but barely wobbled Britain.
However, looking through the eyes of the police shows that the boys in blue were pretty panicked by the British protests of the "red" year.
Opponents of the Vietnam War shocked the Establishment with a forceful, rowdy demo outside the US embassy at Grosvenor Square in March.
Protesters mobilised by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign refused to be told what to do by the police and tried to force their way into the embassy.
Another demo was called for October 1968, a protest that was larger but, ultimately, less confrontational.
The Metropolitan Police still won't release the 40-year-old files on the March protests.
They did send me a two-inch-thick file on the October demo. It shows that they were so worried about "the use of calculated violence as a political weapon" that they mobilised bomb disposal officers in case the marchers hurled explosives.
Police letters say that "arrangements have been made for the four explosives officers to be available, based at Cannon Row Police Station, to cover the whole period up until midnight, Sunday October 27," adding: "Arrangements have been made for a driver and a towing vehicle at Cannon Row to tow the trailer containing the special equipment of the explosives officers."
The explosives officers are identified as "Majors Biddle, Henderson and Wilson and Captain Hawkins."
Geoffrey "the Bishop" Biddle and Major Don Henderson were the Met's top explosives experts, who would later become famous defusing IRA bombs.
There was no terrorist threat in 1968, so Major Biddle and co spent most of their time helping defuse safebreakers' explosives.
The Vietnam protesters, of course, did not use any bombs, but the security forces were so spooked by the new left that the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign inadvertently pulled together Britain's "bomb squad" for the first time.
The papers also show that the police had "four scientists and two scenes of crimes officers for October 27 to deal with any incident of arson, ie the use of petrol bombs etc," on call. They were also unneeded, as the much-predicted batteries of Molotov cocktails were not thrown.
The police arrangements reflected a panic in the Establishment. They simply could not understand the militancy of the new protesters.
The fact that the demonstrators were not only angry about Vietnam but also wanted to change the world, in the language of the time, freaked them out.
According to a Special Branch assessment a few weeks before the March, "in the past few months, a number of revolutionary leaders have produced study papers on this demonstration, the theme is common. It is said that the anti-Vietnam War protest movement is merely part of the continuing struggle to bring about world-wide revolution and that this demonstration can only be regarded as a skirmish before the larger battle.
"The figure of 100,000 demonstrators began to be bandied about - there was general agreement that this number of militant demonstrators would bring about a total breakdown of law and order."
These assessments were apparently based on intense surveillance of the demonstrators. As well as talking about the internal discussions of the demonstrators, the Special Branch files list the employees and addresses of the various campaign groups.
The papers include a five-page "summary of intelligence regarding coaches from the provinces travelling to the October 27 demonstration" from the commander of Special Branch, with details of travellers from as far afield as Edinburgh and Cardiff.
There are incredibly detailed descriptions of predicted travellers to the demonstration, ranging from "four coaches" from Bradford to "two dormobiles, index numbers EBC432C and MBC946F or E, containing about 20 students" coming from Leicester. It is unclear how the police knew the number plates of two private vans coming from the Midlands.
For all their intelligence, the police were remarkably wrong about the protest. There were no infernal devices, no ammonia and no petrol or acid bombs. There were "various missiles, coins, fruit, banner poles and sticks, fireworks etc" thrown, resulting in "minor injuries sustained by police and demonstrators."
The arrest lists are underwhelming, running to "larceny of road lamps" and "possession of a stethoscope."
Part of the problem was that the police deliberately leaked crazy stories about revolutionary violence to the press in the run-up to the demo in an effort to scare people away. This tactic failed and even rebounded.
Ernie Tate, one of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign leaders named in the papers put it best. He told me: "We really had them rattled in '68. In the end, they only frightened themselves with their scare tactics."
The second problem was that the police were shocked by the protesters' ambition but could only understand a desire to change the world in terms of violence. There were no bombs, but 1968 introduced politically explosive ideas.
Special Branch assessments said: "The climate of opinion among extreme left-wing elements in this country in relation to public political protest has undergone a radical change over the last few years.
"The emphasis has shifted first from orderly, peaceful, co-operative meetings and processions to passive resistance and 'sit downs' and now to active confrontation with the authorities to attempt to force social changes and alterations of government policy.
"Indeed, the more vociferous spokesmen of the left are calling for the complete overthrow of parliamentary democracy and the substitution of various brands of 'socialism' and 'workers control.'
"They claim that this can only be achieved by 'action on the streets' and, although few of them will admit it publicly or in the press, that they desire a state of anarchy.
"It is, nevertheless, tacitly accepted that such a condition is a necessary preamble to engineering a breakdown of our present system of government and achieving a revolutionary change in the society in which we live."
I draw two lessons from these papers. First, that they show that the security forces are panicky and deeply conservative, easily confuse protest with terrorism and treat political campaigners like criminals - worth remembering as current "anti-terrorist" legislation bleeds into criminalising protest.
Second, big demonstrations with big political ambitions shake the authorities, which can only be a good thing.