The last time a Tory government pushed university costs onto students in the '80s, a big demonstration ended in police fighting with protesters. But after the clashes Tory ministers entered a bizarre scheme with a Lib Dem peer and leading academic to create a dossier to "point the finger at the SWP" for the disorder. The scheme, which involved leading London University historian Conrad Russell, is revealed in papers released under the Freedom of Information Act. The plan fell apart when Russell's students blamed a police cavalry charge for the violence.
Thatcher's government replaced grants with loans in 1988. Students responded with a 30,000 strong demonstration. The protest ended with the "battle of Westminster Bridge," with police horses charging against students who were trying to reach Parliament. The Mail and Telegraph reported this was a "riot" involving a "mob" and "agitators," but the role of the police soon came under question. The Daily Mirror headline read: "Riot cops charge students at demo: Fury at police brutality." The Times reported: "Police brutal at demo, say MPs." The Metropolitan Police were clearly shaken by the protest and rushed out a report for Home Office ministers the day after the demo blaming "at least 2,000 Socialist Worker Party, Socialist Worker Student Society and 'black' anarchist members" for the disturbances. The police report has a paranoid tinge, shown in this paragraph. "When the march set off 1,000 SWP members had congregated together in the first 2,000 marchers. The remainder which included Greenpeace and the LSE contingent of the SWP had placed themselves in a like formation at the centre of the march. "The anarchist group infiltrated various university groups throughout the length of the march. When close to police observation points the anarchists quickly lowered their black flags so as not to be easily recognised. "This particular organisation circulated throughout the march, as did the more active SWP members. Their tactic from the outset was clear to infiltrate, persuade and later lead the more moderate factions away from the march. "Portable telephones were prominent, regular calls appeared to be made and it is suspected this method of communication was part of the ploy." The documents show that, despite the combined efforts of the Daily Mail and police and their tales of undercover agitators using "portable telephones," home secretary Douglas Hurd received many complaints of police brutality at the demonstration. But his minister Earl Ferrers did get one offer of help from Earl Russell, aka Conrad Russell. He was son of philosopher Bertrand Russell, the first Liberal Democrat peer and a history professor at University College London. Russell wrote to the Home Office to say: "My colleagues at University College have been talking to a lot of our more reliable undergraduates who had the misfortune to be on Westminster Bridge last Thursday. "If it would be any use, we could make a valuable dossier of their statements, which tend to point the finger at the SWP. Is there any use and, if so, to who should we send it?" Ferrers wrote back to Russell, encouraging him as "our information suggests however - as does yours - that there were other elements intent on causing trouble and disorder. "We would of course be interested in any evidence which University College felt we ought to be aware." An internal note from an official in "F8 division" of the Home Office shows that it welcomed the dossier offer as a relief from the many complaints about the policing of the demo. The note for the minister reads: "You sought advice on the attached letter from Lord Russell concerning the SWP's involvement in the student day of action in London on 24 November. "We agreed over the telephone that it would be inappropriate for the department to give any appearance of actively commissioning material of this kind, but that since there is already a post-mortem under way (by means of P[arliamentary] Q[uestion]s and MP cases etc) into the allegedly heavy-handed policing of the demonstration, it was clearly wrong to overlook any evidence which shed reliable light on events." Correspondence about the proposed dossier takes up a considerable proportion of the file on the 1988 demo, suggesting that the Home Office had high hopes of Russell's proposed "evidence." With ministerial encouragement, Russell sent a questionnaire to students about the demonstration, demanding they reply "with scrupulous honesty." The questionnaire does not make clear his intention to "point the finger at the SWP." Russell was a leading historian of the English civil war, but the amateurish and leading questionnaire he prepared doesn't show an impressive approach to historical evidence. Unfortunately for Russell and the Home Office, his students failed to do as expected. Russell wrote to the Home Office on December 15 and expressed his "disappointment" at the lack of evidence against the SWP and at the way his students instead focussed on a "cavalry charge" by the police. Even the earl was forced to admit the use of horses seemed "rather Cromwellian." The police have always denied their horses charged. The Home Office, in its extensive notes on Russell's proposed "dossier" also admits to its disappointment. A note to minister Lord Robin Ferrers from officials in F8 division says: "Lord Russell's intention was to volunteer a dossier confirming that SWP activists were to blame for the disorder which broke out. "The depositions have proved to be less forthcoming in this respect than he had anticipated and a number of them express the same concerns about police action that we have seen in other correspondence." So the papers show that in 1988 Tory ministers spent time and energy working behind the scenes to show a demonstration was all about "elements" causing "trouble and disorder." When the evidence actually pointed to a police cavalry charge as the shocking event of the day, they shuffled their papers and buried the facts. Faced with a new wave of protest, today's Tory government is publicly making the same noises about "agitators" - and presumably privately burying any inconvenient evidence.