Could it happen again?
In 1842 Britain was a society where parliament sent troops against civilians. But parliament understood the implications of this terrible state of affairs and from then on has largely sought – with the exception of Ireland and which I will return to in due course - to control protests using the police, a civil force with coercive powers – which many people opposed - that began under Sir John Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act 1829 and which resulted in a network of police forces over the following quarter-century with the Lighting and Watching Act 1833, the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 – which enabled the first local authorities to set up borough forces, the County Police Act 1839 allowed the provincial counties to do the same, the City of London Act 1839 similar, The Town Police Clauses Act 1847 clarified police powers and in 1856 the County and Borough Police Act required all local councils to establish forces.
The police had, of course, demonstrated by 1833 that it was capable of spying on political activists and acting brutally as was the case at the Cold Bath Fields Meeting, declared illegal by the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne, of the National Political Union of the Working Classes.
Since then, any regular protestor will tell you that they expect the police to misbehave on protests, that in fact there has always been a shared understanding between police and protestors that the police will resort to unlawful violence at political protests.
Even the Countryside Alliance supporters in 2001 found themselves being roughed up outside Parliament when they protested against Tony Blair’s plans, forced on him due to popular pressure, to outlaw fox hunting with hounds. The attacks on women who attended the vigil earlier this year for Sarah Everard, murdered by the police, came as no surprise to many people.
Returning to the past, on Sunday 13 November 1887, the Met deployed military tactics to prevent a demonstration in support of Home Rule in Trafalgar Square on what became known as Bloody Sunday. 2000 police officers, backed up by troops and cavalry prevented a quarter of a million people protesting and 200 afterwards required hospital treatment. Later many members of the public sought to bring charges of assault against 34 officers.
At the start of the 20th century – November 1910 - the police acted violently and also indecently assaulted numerous members of the Women’s Social and Political Union whose actions included disorder and violence when seeking to breach police lines to gain entry to the House of Commons In total 296 women were arrested. All but 52 defendants later had their charges dropped. The Home Secretary Sir Winston Churchill later refused to hold a public inquiry into events.
Of course, the military were still during this period used where necessary. The Featherstone Massacre of 1893 during the national lock out of miners:-
Here is the Guardian report, dripping with support for the military. It was about nine o'clock on Thursday night when the South Staffordshire detachment first fired on the mobs which were besieging the colliery of Lord Masham and were charging the soldiers with stones. The first shot was only by one file of two men, and these did not take effect. Shortly before ten o'clock one section of the Staffordshires fired two volleys.
So far as could be ascertained seven of the mob were hit. James Gibbs, of Loscoe, was shot through the breast, and expired. James Perkins, knee shot away, died yesterday.
A sculpture was unveiled at Featherstone in 1993 marking the centenary of "the Featherstone massacre", in which it says two miners died.
Then, of course, there was Tonypandy in 1910 where another joint police, involving local forces and the Met, and the army attacked striking miners resulting in the death of Samuel Rhys, who it is believed was hit by a police truncheon.
In August 1911, troops of the Worcestershire regiment shot dead two striking railway workers in Llanelli where strikers, taking part in national action, had already been brutally attacked by the police.
February 1919 – the police and military were jointly used to suppress a strike in Glasgow for 40 hour working week.
In none of these cases did any police officer or member of the military find themselves arrested or imprisoned.
In 1926 the army were used to break the strike by undertaking roles vacated by strikers.
Joseph Foster, interviewed in April 2005, recalled events in Burnhope in 1926 , when he was 14, as “being a terrible time. I saw the worst of the strike. No clothes, no shoes, no food... families couldn’t make ends meet.
Foster remembered an incident in which a delivery van was tipped over by four striking miners, Ted Close, Harry Hobbs, Jim Hobbs and Frankie Armstrong who had all been left angry after they had been forced to dive out of the way when the van was earlier driven at them. The events led to soldiers being sent to Burnhope. “They were walking about with bayonets, with guns.”
There is, of course, a place little more than 100 miles from here where British Troops have regularly been employed to put down demonstrators marching for rights that most people would accept be granted. On 30 January 1972 the largest civil rights (organised by NICRA) march in the history of Northern Ireland was ruthlessly suppressed with 14 killed, none of whom were armed
Later, Lord Saville's report was made public in 2010 and concluded that the killings were "unjustified" and "unjustifiable". It found that all of those shot were unarmed, that none were posing a serious threat, that no bombs were thrown and that soldiers "knowingly put forward false accounts" to justify their firing. The soldiers denied shooting the named victims but also denied shooting anyone by mistake. On publication of the report, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a formal apology on behalf of the United Kingdom. Following this, police began a murder investigation into the killings. One former soldier was charged with murder, but the case was dropped two years later when evidence was deemed inadmissible. This is now subject to appeal.
Bloody Sunday fuelled Catholic and Irish nationalist hostility towards the British Army and worsened the conflict. Support for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) rose, and there was a surge of recruitment into the organisation, especially locally.
Nearer to the current day, what are we to make of the fact that during Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader of the Labour Party we witnessed soldiers filmed using a Jeremy Corbyn poster for target practice.
The video showed servicemen from the Colchester-based Parachute Regiment in a shooting range, believed to be in Kabul, Afghanistan. The soldiers were disciplined but not sacked.