Paul Foot

Blair: our brother
our friend

(16 June 1979)

From Socialist Worker, 16 June 1979.
Reprinted in Nick Grant and Brian Richardson, Blair Peach: Socialist and Anti-Racist (London: Socialist Workers’ Party, 2014), pp. 43–44.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

From Manchester to Tolpuddle the martyrs of our movement have been humble people. They neither sought the limelight nor found it. They were unknown except to a close circle of friends and family. They became famous not because of their ambitions nor their vanity, but because of their deaths.

Such was a man called Alfred Linnell. No one knows very much about him. He earned a pittance by copying out legal documents. On 21 November 1887 he went down to Trafalgar Square to join the fighters for free speech in the week after Bloody Sunday, when a great demonstration had been broken up by police truncheons.

While he was standing, unarmed, and unsuspecting, by the side of the crowd, a posse of police, who had orders to keep Trafalgar Square free of demonstrators “by whatever force was necessary”, charged straight into him, breaking his neck with the horses’ hooves.

The police openly despised the people they were charging. They saw them, as the Times leader put it on the day after Bloody Sunday, as “all that is weakest, most worthless and most vicious in the slums of a great city”. These were the “sweepings”, which deserved only to be swept.

But the poor of London flocked to commemorate Alfred Linnell. Tens of thousands of socialists, Irish republicans, radicals, feminists and working people of no party and no persuasion joined in what Edward Thompson described as “the greatest united demonstration which London had seen”. The streets were lined all the way to Bow cemetery with crowds of sympathetic onlookers. The few rather shamefaced policeman who dared to appear were greeted with cries of: “That’s your work”. Very, very few of that crowd knew Alfred Linnell. Yet they hailed him, in the words of William Morris at Linnell’s funeral, as “our brother and our friend”.

He was a representative of the tens of thousands who had nothing, and when they took to the streets to demand something were ridden down and battered by the forces of law and order.

That was nearly 100 years ago and can easily be dismissed as “the sort of thing which happened in the bad old days”. The killing of Blair Peach proves that the same things are still going on today. He was attacked at a demonstration by policeman who, as at Bloody Sunday and its aftermath, were licensed to clear the streets by brutality and violence.

In Southall, as in Trafalgar Square 100 years ago, the police were driven on by a contempt for the demonstrators – “black scum” as one mounted officer so politely put it. No doubt the savagery of the blow which ended Blair Peach’s life was prompted at least in part by the fact that his skin was dusky. And Blair Peach, like Alfred Linnell, has been hailed as brother and friend by thousands of working men and women who did not know him.

On 28 April 15,000 of the Asian people of Southall marched in his memory. They stood with clenched fists over the place where he was murdered. And they chanted a single triumphant slogan – “Blair Peach zindabad – long live Blair Peach”

It was perhaps the greatest demonstration of solidarity between people of different colours but with similar interests and similar purpose that the town had ever seen. Why? Because Blair Peach, like Alfred Linnell, is a representative of all the people all over Britain who see in the strutting perverts of the National Front the broken bodies of black people battered in the street; who can detect further off but no less horrible the awful spectre of fascism looming over all society, and who stand up and say No.

To me and all members and supporters of the Socialist Workers Party, Blair Peach means even more than that. I never knew him personally. But I knew him as one of the party members who kept socialist organisation alive and well during the worst times. They know how to sustain the Anti Nazi League in an area where two or three delegates turn up to a meeting to which 20 had promised to come.

They have endless patience and endurance. They try to excite others into political activity without straining too hard at their patience and endurance. They seem to be at all the meetings and all the demonstrations. They are not in the front when the press cameras are clicking but they are in the front line when the SPG wade in with their coshes. In the last three years – the period by the way in which Blair Peach joined the Socialist Workers Party – these people have been strained to breaking point as more and more of the burden of the organisation of the left has fallen upon them. Blair Peach was killed in the process and that above all is why we honour him.

We march at his funeral not just in sympathy with the people who loved him, nor just out of respect for all he did for us but in anger.

Last updated on 2 September 2014