By Peter Taaffe

“It couldn’t happen here!” This is the reassuring myth peddled by spokesmen of the ruling class in relation to the possibility of a coup d’etat in Britain. According to this anodyne view, there are certain special, unique qualities about British society and the British character which, come what may, ensure the survival of British democracy, making the idea of military rule almost ridiculous.

This view is shared by the right-wing leaders of the labour movement. Commenting on the Cecil King/Lord Mountbatten episode, analysed in Ted Grant’s article, A Coup in Britain?  Denis Healey, Labour’s Minister of Defence 1964-70, said:

“I cannot conceive any circumstances in which British officers, however senior, could or would attempt to organise a coup d’etat against the elected government of Britain. The nature and training of the officers in all three services rules it out.”

But the evidence of recent years is to the contrary. Even if we leave aside historical examples—and international experience—there have been several sinister episodes which are a warning of the threat posed to the working class by the state’s “armed bodies of men” if the labour movement fails to carry through a socialist change of society in the next period.

In the very article in which, under the headline Coups and Codswallop, Denis Healey dismisses the King/Mountbatten story (New Standard, 10 April 1981), Healey refers to “seditious muttering among very senior generals” when the Labour government was considering the feasibility of military intervention in Rhodesia. Of course, Denis “immediately called in the ring-leader and gave him my views of his behaviour. That was the end of that.”

Labour activists, however, must take the question far more seriously, as the material set out in our pamphlet demonstrates. The question of the state is fundamental for Marxists, in Britain no less than in other countries. On at least three occasions—in 1968, 1974 and 1979—there have been discussions between top military officers, press barons, prominent businessmen and worthy establishment figures about bringing down the Labour govemment-of-the-day and replacing it with some kind of “Government of National Emergency” backed by the monarchy and the armed services.

The 1968 plot was aimed against a Labour government which came to power in 1964, at the beginning of the economic crisis, when, long before the other major capitalist economies, diseased British capitalism began to reveal all the symptoms of organic crisis. The Wilson government implemented only very limited reforms, and after 1966 adopted crisis measures in the interests of big business. It hardly posed a serious challenge to the system. Nor in the case of the 1974-79 Labour government, which inaugurated monetarism, carried out cuts in social spending, and imposed an incomes policy, was big business facing a serious threat to its wealth and power. Nevertheless, even at that stage, representatives of capital concluded that Labour’s right-wing leaders no longer constituted an “acceptable” government because they were subject to enormous pressure from the working class.

For the capitalists’ serious strategists, talk of coups was premature, the trigger-happy plotting of political mavericks and ageing ultra-right officers. Nevertheless, the “loose-talk” of the “gin-sodden” generals and their associates, dismissed as unimportant by Wilson, Callaghan and Healey, was symptomatic of a significant change in the thinking of the ruling class. As the advanced capitalist countries moved deeper and deeper into crisis, the spokesmen of capital began to reflect gloomily on the future of their system.

Under the system of political democracy the ruling class, while retaining decisive economic power and control of the state machine, was forced to concede democratic rights to the working class. It has again been brought home to them by the crisis that this was viable only on the basis of sustained economic growth. When capitalism is incapable of developing production and improving the living standards of the majority of workers, political democracy becomes, at best, an expensive overhead for big business. Ultimately, it becomes an intolerable liability. In the end, the survival of the capitalist system, which is based on the profitability of the handful of millionaires who own the majority of finance and industry, depends on settling accounts with the working class. The right to strike and form trade unions, and all the other democratic rights the ruling class was obliged to concede by workers’ struggles, constitute insuperable obstacles to the barbarous measures inevitably involved in any attempt to resuscitate a terminally diseased capitalism.

Within the velvet glove of liberal democracy, therefore, the ruling class is beginning to clench the iron fist of naked class rule.

For the time being, moves against an elected government would be jumping the gun. Nevertheless, in the staff colleges senior officers are being prepared to conduct “counter-insurgency” operations in Britain, and the generals clearly regard Northern Ireland as the training ground for methods which they will have to use in the future against mass opposition on the mainland.

The lesson of Chile

The lesson of Chile, where in 1973 the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende was overthrown and the workers’ movement crushed by Pinochet’s bloody counter-revolution, must be taken as a serious warning to the British as well as to the world labour movement. Chile underlines the fatal consequences of taking half-measures which provoke a reaction from the ruling class while failing to give the working class decisive control of the economy and the state. In particular, the lessons of the Allende government’s fundamentally mistaken policies towards the state’s armed bodies of men (see page 39) must be absorbed by the British labour movement.

However, there is no basis for the idea put forward by some pessimists that because of recent moves to strengthen the state apparatus “fascism” or military-police dictatorship is just round the corner in Britain. The Tones would like to fetter the workers’ organisations, and their anti-trade union laws are a step in this direction. But it is one thing to put laws on the statute book and another to implement them. There are dozens of cases already, for instance, in which the Tones’ legal restrictions on picketing have been brushed aside by striking workers. The balance of class forces does not favour the capitalists. While the long economic upswing since 1945 undermined the political consciousness of the working class, the changed conditions produced by the new phase of capitalist development enormously strengthened the working class, in numbers, in cohesion, in organisational strength and in terms of its weight in society. The correlation of class forces is overwhelmingly on the side of the workers.

There is not only the sombre tragedy of Chile, but the brilliant example of France, when in May 1968 over 10 million workers participated in a magnificent general strike. The economy was paralysed and the state suspended in mid-air. When General de Gaulle fled in panic to the headquarters of the French forces in Germany, his commander-in-chief, General Massu, told him bluntly that it would be impossible for the army to intervene against the working class under those conditions. A rapid and peaceful socialist transformation of French society would have been entirely possible. It was only the refusal of the leaders of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party to give the elemental movement socialist aims which allowed French capitalism to re-establish its state power. These and other developments, which are dealt with in Peter Taaffe’s article The Role of the State (page 25), point to the vital necessity of a clear understanding of these questions.

Three of the articles in the pamphlet deal with the role of the police, an issue dramatically raised by the riots in Brixton, Toxteth, and altogether thirty towns and cities in April and July 1981. Underlying the explosion of anger was the frustration of young people, especially young blacks, at appalling conditions and the bleak prospects offered by ever-lengthening dole queues. But the trigger of the riots in virtually every case was aggressive and provocative policing. The riots and their aftermath brought home to many workers the fact that prejudice and racial abuse, arbitrary arrests, bending of the law, and brutality on the part of sections of the police were more than isolated, “unfortunate” incidents.

Major shift

More fundamentally, the events of 1981 highlighted a major shift in the role of the police. While the last vestiges of democratic accountability were being steadily eroded, the police chiefs had step by step introduced new “operational methods”. The formation of groups like the Special Patrol Group, equipped with riot gear and backed up with the latest technology, had given the police a para-military capacity of intervening against demonstrations, mass pickets, and trouble-torn areas. The change was justified by Chief Constables in the name of the “fight against crime”. But it was clear that the approach amounted to a strengthening of the police, not as an effective crime-fighting organisation, but as a repressive force, as an important arm of the state apparatus. As with the new orientation of army training towards “counter-insurgency” operations, this change corresponds to the ruling class’s new perspective of crisis, upheaval and mass opposition.

The very mild criticisms of the police made by Lord Scarman after his enquiry into the “Brixton Disorders of 10/12 April 1981” and his ultra-cautious recommendations for reform have made no real difference to the policies of senior police chiefs. And the hard-line chief constables have been backed all the way by the Thatcher government.

Between 1978 and 1981 spending on the police was increased by 87%. In the coming year, to March 1984, spending on law and order will be increased by £96 million, £64 million of which will go to the police. Police numbers have been increased by over 8,000 since 1979. And while for two years the great majority of public sector workers have been held to pay increases of between 6% and 71/2%, the police have been given rises of 21.3% in 1980/81 and 13.2% in 1981/82. It was admitted by the government in November that since May 1979 the basic pay of police officers has increased by 72%. Fearing the consequences of an economic crisis aggravated by their own monetarist policies, the Tones’ only answer is to strengthen the forces of repression.

The ambush and shooting in London in January of Stephen Waldorf, who was mistaken for an on-the-run criminal, brought a public outcry at the apparently reckless military-style tactics of police involved. But this was only the most dramatic of a series of incidents arising from the increased police use of firearms. Moreover, there are more SPG-type squads, under new names, than ever before.

The only obvious response to Scarman’s call for steps to counter racial prejudice within the police is an extra week of “human awareness” training for recruits. This has not convinced anyone that there has been a real attempt to change the indoctrination and training of new officers.

Nor has there been any official response to Scarman’s call for the independent investigation of complaints. Even the most serious allegations, whether of corruption, perverting the course of justice, or of brutality, are investigated by fellow police officers. Recently, moreover, the police chiefs admitted, after a court ruling, that they had been consistently misinterpreting the 1934 Police Act by refusing to pursue disciplinary action after the Director of Public Prosecutions had ruled out criminal charges. This meant that once complaints had been referred to the DPP, who has very rarely recommended prosecutions against police officers, internal disciplinary procedures were finished. It is hardly surprising, in the light of this, that only a tiny minority of complaints resulted in either prosecutions or disciplinary action actually being taken against accused officers. Yet even now the Tory Home Secretary, Whitelaw, is steadfastly resisting any proposals which would take the investigation of complaints or disciplinary action out of the hands of senior police officers.

Despite Scarman’s recommendation that consultation with community bodies should be given legal form, the police are no more obliged to listen to representatives of the community than they were before. True, even hard-line police chiefs, like Sir Kenneth Newman who has now taken over the Metropolitan Police, now pay lip-service to “community policing”. What they have in mind, however, is evidently increased police penetration of the community, involving local bodies in policing, rather than any genuine democratic accountability.

One of the most ominous of recent developments, however, is the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, now being pushed through Parliament by the Tones. Without offering any new measures to strengthen democratic accountability, the Bill has been drawn up to give the police draconian new powers. If this legislation goes through, police officers will have greatly increased powers of stop, search and arrest; the power to detain suspects for four days without charging them; and new powers of searching homes, taking fingerprints, and gaining access to personal files. The Bill, if passed, would legitimise the arbitrary, provocative—and until now unlawful—methods increasingly used by the police in recent years. Then, as before, the police would inevitably push beyond the new legal limits in an effort to consolidate enormous repressive powers.


The Tories claim that the police must be strengthened in order to fight crime. There is no evidence, however, either from Britain or other advanced capitalist countries that the new police methods have any effect in slowing down the rise in crime, which has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the breakdown of social norms under the impact of capitalist crisis. In fact, in the recent period detection rates—notably in the Metropolitan area—have tended to decline.

As some police chiefs, like the now retired Alderson, have pointed out (page 56), heavy-handed, “fire brigade” policing tends to be counter-productive. Kesorting to the big stick, which is invariably indiscriminate, provokes a reaction from the public, whose goodwill and co-operation are indispensable for any effective measures for combating crime. In fact, Anderton, Manchester’s Chief Constable, let the cat out of the bag (page 57). He makes it clear that the overriding concern of the police and their Tory backers is not crime, which however serious does not threaten the established order, but the threat to the system posed by mass opposition from the working class, particularly the organised labour movement. It is transparent that when they talk about defending “democracy”, the hard-line police chiefs really mean defending institutions which uphold the power and wealth of the ruling class, and it is really the methods they propose to use which constitute the most serious threat to the democratic rights gained by the labour movement in the past.

The changing role of the police and the need for the labour movement to respond with a policy for democratic control is the theme of Lynn Walsh’s article, A Policy of Force (Page 47).

While opposing the repressive role of the police, however, Militant has always rejected the crude anti-police attitude of some groups which claim to be Marxist. It would be absurd for socialists in present society to stand aside and declare that we cannot support the police in taking action to prevent crime and arrest criminals. Marxists in no way condone criminal behaviour, and we utterly condemn crimes of violence, especially when they are inflicted on women, children, the aged, and particularly vulnerable people.

Appalling conditions and the Tories’ own policies push more and more people into crime. But criminal activity in no way advances the movement to change society. On the contrary, it is mainly workers who suffer from violence, theft, and other crimes, while increasing crime provides the police chiefs and the Tories with the pretext they need for strengthened powers which threaten the whole of the working class. Democratic accountability of the police, far from undermining moves against crime, is the only way of ensuring the support and co-operation of workers generally. This, together with steps to eradicate the social roots of crime, is an essential precondition of any real answer to the problem.

Genuine Marxism also rejects the idea put forward by pseudo-Marxists that the police ranks are “one reactionary mass”. In the last few years the police have undoubtedly swung to the right. This is partly the result of their experience of right-wing Labour governments, but reactionary views have undoubtedly been deliberately strengthened by recruitment policy and training. However, as the article Trade Union Rights for the Police (page 43) shows, the police are inevitably influenced by wider events in society. In periods of the radicalisation of the working class the police too have been radicalised. With a correct approach, particularly by taking up the issue of trade union rights for the police ranks, the labour movement could have a decisive influence on the way the police move. No less than in the case of the armed services, the labour movement’s policy towards this arm of the state is of crucial importance.

April 1983