An unsubstantiated sloppy mish-mash

David Douglass reviews Ian Hernon's Riot (Pluto Press, 2006, pp320, £19.99)

This is a real mish-mash of a book. The subject of riot - along with connected themes of insurrection and rebellion - should have posed unlimited scope for going back to primary sources and rediscovering events and turning points in working class history.

That it fails is largely due to the sloppiness of the author - there is great inconsistency in his referencing, for example. I suspect the better documented areas are due to the easy availability of other authors' research rather than any original digging and spadework by Hernon himself. As we come into contemporary events and near history, we start to experience the 'wall of mirrors' phenomenon, where unsubstantiated statements are given weight by the further unsubstantiated statements of others.

Throughout the work, Hernon seems to be at war with himself and cannot quite make up his mind whether to condemn as futile the efforts of the poor and oppressed or explain their actions as justified in the circumstances in which they found themselves.

The end of an otherwise excellent chapter on 'Captain Swing' and the rural revolts, for example, he concludes that it all achieved nothing! At other times, he even strikes a semi-revolutionary posture and suggests that the workers of both town and country need no justification for revolt.

In the case of the Luddites and Chartists class insurrection itself is treated as serious politics 'by other means' - set neatly against the opulence of the rich and the cruel oppression of the working class and dispossessed. The largely rural 'Captain Swing' guerrilla offensive of the poor agricultural workers is linked to struggles to smash the property of the mill owners and industrialists, who at every turn are throwing their workers into starvation. It coincides with the Reform Bill insurrections - the widespread revolt against the rotten boroughs and parliamentary corruption and graft.

The chapters describing the state's fearful response to these risings are truly blood-curdling. I do not think I have ever read in such detail of the butchery of men, women and children across the country by the state's armed bodies of men. The yeomanry was essentially the hunt in different jackets in many places. Landlords, toffs and local industrialists, kitted out in military attire, armed with guns and cutlasses - Tory supporters to a man - pledged to keep the masses in their place.

I had previously been horrified at the detail of the massacres which attended the defeat of the Jacobites after Culloden, and the merciless vengeance taken on innocent women and children, as well as the inhuman savagery shown to the wounded rebels. But I had not realised this frenzy of blood-letting had also engulfed hundreds and thousands of protesting working class families across the country to the extent depicted in this book.

Riot unveils in contemporary detail the blood-soaked nature of the anti-democratic forces of the state and defenders of the status quo. Whilst historians have tried to play down the massacre at Peterloo by minimising the number actually killed, this book reveals for the first time I have ever seen the carnage - gashing wounds, amputation and slow death - which befell many hundreds of the protesting men, women and children, who had not incidentally been doing anything other than attending a public meeting.

The debate within the class as to tactics - violent resistance or moral force, industrial and civil protest or parliamentary participation - emerges repeatedly with each movement.

Many of the classic uprisings of the working class and their wider political aspirations, as well as the simple struggle for life, are well illustrated here and are a useful reminder of the chronology and progression of struggle and class-consciousness. However, at frequent intervals and in some cases in virtually whole sections, this is totally undermined by throwaway 'facts' apparently plucked from heaven with no attempt to substantiate them.

The chapter on the suffragettes tells us: "Letterboxes became the next targets. A hatchet was thrown at Asquith's carriage during his official visit to Dublin. There were reports of suffragettes practising with revolvers. A group of militants, including three men hatched a plot to kidnap Lloyd George. They leased a cottage near the New Forest heath land on which he regularly strolled, equipped a pantry with window bars and locks, and bought straps to secure their prey. They almost caught him on a golf course, but their car was locked up and the opportunity was missed."

Fascinating, but there is not the slightest clue as to where this information on suffragettes armed with revolvers, the kidnap plot, or anything else comes from.

Although one should not judge a book by its cover, when I discovered that Hernon was a News of the World journalist and his book comes with a foreword by Paul Routledge, I was at once suspicious. Routledge, the man who wrote an unauthorised and, it must be said, hugely inaccurate biography of Arthur Scargill, claimed that the 1984-85 strike had been the work of just one man. So I turned directly to the chapter on the miners' strike and Orgreave.

I might have known what tale that would tell, given the glowing references on the back cover from fellow journalists. The bulk of the chapter seems based upon the 1986 book, The miners' strike 1984-85: loss without limit by Martin Adeney and John Lloyd - quite the most ill-informed and inaccurate publication to come out on the subject. The conclusion of Routledge, along with that of Adeney and Lloyd, is basically that the miners should not have fought - not in 1984, not in 1926 - and that miners and their families are brave but simple folk, who are easily misled by malevolent leaders.

The chapter in Hernon's book seems to show that he had done no research for himself, had checked none of the statements and conclusions of his journalistic colleagues and based his observations solely upon these distorted images. Worse, like some fourth-form essay, 'facts' and figures are just pulled from the air and bold assertions are made with no evidence whatsoever other than the word of the author.

To anyone who has researched the period - still more so, those of us who actually lived through it - much of it is annoying, inaccurate nonsense. Apparently the miners were "relatively well paid in the 1960s" - even though the whole of the 1972 National Union of Mineworkers revolt was actually built upon the abysmally low level of wages. Hernon declares that in 1969 coal provided only 50.4% of the national grid - "the last time it held a slender majority". Entirely wrong.

When he writes about the run-up to the strike, none of his 'who said what to whom' is referenced, leading me to believe it is all pure speculation. For example, he alleges that an (unnamed) area director in Yorkshire jumped the gun by closing Cortonwood without national instructions.

This is a remarkable and previously unknown 'fact' and it would have been nice to have been given some reference as to where this piece of hidden history came from. It is undoubtedly untrue for the simply reason that the whole chronology of these events has been gone through with a toothcomb, and no-one has ever come up with that little detail before.

Kick-starting the strike in Yorkshire was crucial to the strategy of the government to provoke a walkout, while there were still coal reserves. The miners' ongoing overtime ban was, week by week, eating into strategic reserves without comparable loss to the miners.

All the myths are churned out here: Scargill deployed the Yorkshire pickets - untrue; Scargill refused to have a ballot - untrue; Scargill masterminded the strategy, selecting targets and directing pickets - all utterly untrue. Miners will be very surprised to read that after police began to beat their riot shields with their truncheons at Silverwood, this was "quickly banned by police chiefs". Hernon was not actually there, or he would have known this assertion is just stupid.

We are told there were no shortages of power through the winter, and in January 1985 "the highest demand for electricity ever recorded was met without trouble" (no reference, of course). Actually, there were power cuts across the country and the peak surges of demand were only just met by the use of every emergency and standby system available, including jet aircraft engines bolted to floors and nuclear generators way past shut-down point (see D Douglass Tell us lies about the miners Edinburgh 1985).

Hernon describes the last-ditch resistance of the miners against John Major's 92-93 closure sweep as offering "barely a whimper of protest". It actually produced 12 million working days lost in strikes and solidarity action, and the biggest protest demonstrations ever seen anywhere in Europe up until that date - police figures recorded "more than one million" on the streets of the capital (1.5 million over the period of a single week).

In his section on what he titles the "Notting Hill race riots", Hernon dumbfounds me with the bold, but unexplained statement: "The more radical groups of both left and right were openly racist, and attracted poor, white, working class men" (my emphasis). Well, perhaps we might let the second part pass - although a footnote to prove it might have been a help - but the statement that leftwing radicals were racist requires some evidence surely. In fact, white working class men or women in far-left organisations are relatively uncommon, with some small exceptions - at least over the period covered by his terms of reference.

In conclusion, this is good subject, a great feature of history, which Hernon cannot spoil entirely. Even his amateurish and dilettante dabbling uncovers fascinating features of our working class heritage. Some of the detail is new and novel - but unfortunately the book is spoiled for the purpose of any serious study by its tabloid-journalism hearsay style.