1. What Happened?
The building in question was 27 Stamford Hill, which is now a posh nursery. It caught fire in the early hours of Wednesday 3rd June 1987, eight days before the general election.
The blaze severely damaged the three storey building used by Hackney North and Stoke Newington Conservative Association.
The fire started at at about 3 o’clock this morning and completely wrecked the second floor and the roof. Scotland Yard say traces of petrol were found on an internal staircase leading to the basement. Fire investigation officers are now sifting through the debris for more clues.
The Conservatives say valuable computer equipment was lost as well as 45,000 letters containing election literature that was being sent out to voters. They say they have received threats before.Thames News – transcript of clip above. Reporter Christopher Rainbow
Chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit arrived later that day for a press conference outside the building. He remarked on the wider context of anti-Tory violence during the campaign:
Not far from the gutted building in Stoke Newington is a billboard poster which someone has tried to burn down – and four vans displaying Tory posters were set alight near Vauxhall bridge four days ago.
Inspector Peter Turner went on:
A mob of youths damaged cars bearing Conservative stickers outside Stoke Newington Assembly Hall in nearby Church Street earlier in the evening. But we are not linking the two attacks at the moment.
The Gazette also noted that the Fire Brigade had evacuated women and children from the council-run hostel for single mothers next door.
2. Who was Oliver Letwin and how did he end up in Hackney?
Letwin was born in London in 1956. His parents were conservative academics. He went to Eton and then Cambridge University. After a few years of academia, he joined Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit in 1983.
It was Letwin who recommended that the hated Poll Tax be road-tested on Scotland before being inflicted on the rest of the population. (Hackney had its own Poll Tax Riot in 1990 and was number one for non-payment at one point.)
In 1985 he stated (in private correspondence only recently released under the 30 year rule) that the Broadwater Farm riot happened, not because of endemic police racism and poverty, but because of “individual… bad moral attitudes” – and that this was the reason black people were apparently more likely to riot than white people. Therefore these areas should not be invested in as this would “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops” and black “entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade.”. He has since apologised for this.
Letwin is a career Conservative who more recently worked as an advisor to David Cameron, where he distinguished himself by being photographed throwing away more than 100 secret government documents in public bins in St. James’s Park.
I’ve not been able to find out how Oliver Letwin came to be selected as a Conservative Party candidate in 1987. He mentions in his autobiography that he left Downing Street the day he was selected, but he doesn’t say how that happened. What had Letwin done to piss people off so much that he was given one of the unsafest constituencies in England? Journalist Terry Coleman followed him around on the campaign trail: “In the streets a few people yelled at Mr Letwin to fuck off”. The Independent mentions that “he was chased down the street by a knifeman“.
3. What about the election?
Terry Coleman’s book Thatchers Britain is a travelogue covering the 1987 election. The chapter on Hackney is interesting for a number of reasons, but one of them is that Letwin’s voting base featured two distinct demographics. The first were orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill (where Hackney’s sole Conservative councillors are today). The second were people who would usually vote Labour but weren’t going to this time because of the party’s new candidate – Diane Abbott: “‘You see the colour of my face?’, said one elderly white man. ‘That’s where I’ll be voting'”.
Abbott and the SDP-Liberal Alliance candidate both condemned the arson attack in the Hackney Gazette. These two clips show that a few days after the fire there was also vandalism against the Labour Party HQ and that of… Red Front.
The upper clip includes a classic Letwin gaffe: “I’m afraid it’s a very unpleasant place” [awkward pause] “to be campaigning”.
(Lefty trainspotter aside – Red Front was a brief electoral alliance between the middle class academics of the Revolutionary Communist Party and ultra-workerist anti-fascists Red Action. There is an excellent piece about Red Front at New Historical Express. Red Action have cropped up here previously because one of their members who lived in Stoke Newington was convicted for the 1993 IRA bomb attack on Harrods.)
The outcome of the 1987 election in Hackney North and Stoke Newington was definitive. Diane Abbott won with a 7,678 majority. She therefore became the first black woman to be elected to House of Commons and has remained in post ever since. Red Front got 228 votes.
4. So Whodunnit? (aka Wild Speculation)
As far as I’m aware nobody was ever charged with setting the fire, which has lead to some imaginative theories about the identity and motivation of the culprit.
Norman Tebbit was first out of the starting blocks at the press conference in front of the smouldering ruins:
One can only assume if it is arson it was an outrage perpetrated by the extreme Left. I don’t know whether by members of the Labour Party, or the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), or anything else. But what I do know is that all of us in democratic parties would deplore this sort of thing. I’m sure Mr Kinnock would deplore this extremely vigorously. I recollect his vigorous denunciation of violence during the coal strike.Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: a journey through the promised lands (Bantam, 1987)
But there were much more dramatic suspects to point the finger at:
There was no real evidence of who did it. But just down the road, Anarchist posters were pasted on the walls. One said “Never Trust A Politician. They Always Lie”. Another, which showed a Rolls Royce being bashed in, said “Let’s Kick Out The Tories? Let’s Kick Them In”.Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: A Journey through the Promised Lands (Bantam, 1987)
It’s undeniable that there was a huge counterculture of squatting and anarchist and animal liberation activism in Hackney throughout the 1980s. The account of the fly-posters seems real and people I have met reminisce fondly of consistent low level acts of violent subversion against Barclays Bank (hated for its investment in Apartheid South Africa), butchers’ shops etc. But glueing locks and a bit of fly-posting is several notches down from an arson attack on a major political party during an election, you’d think?
Letwin himself doesn’t hold back from speculating about the culprits in his autobiography:
As I came the next morning to the point on the road outside the headquarters, I could see that there was something wrong. Gradually, I focused on the fact that what was wrong was the headquarters building itself. Not to put too fine a point on it, the building wasn’t there any more. It- and all the hand-addressed election manifestoes within – had been burned to the ground.
It was considered to be a case of arson, and it seemed at least possible that whoever had done it might have been associated with, or perhaps inspired by, a now defunct organisation known as Class War. Class War (though not directly participating in the election on the grounds that elections were bourgeois conspiracies) had been campaigning actively under the perspicuous slogan “We will bomb, blast and burn every bourgeois out of Hackney”.Oliver Letwin – Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present (Biteback Publishing, 2017)
It’s also undeniable that Class War were all over Hackney in 1987. Indeed, the edition of the Hackney Gazette which has the fire as its cover story also features, coincidentally, a full page article on Class War and its anti-yuppie campaign. Which itself raises an interesting issue with Letwin’s accusations above.
The language in Letwin’s quoted Class War slogan is a bit off – and I have not been able to find a source for it other than his book. Class War was infamous for its “tabloid” approach to propaganda and its unlikely that they would have used the word “bourgeois” – directing their bile instead at yuppies, cops and the rich. Similarly “bomb, blast and burn” seems like an incitement to individual terror that was out of step with the organisation’s fetishism for collective working class violence (like rioting) – and their understandable desire not to get nicked for incitement.
Also, oddly for anarchists, Class War did actually stand a candidate in the 1988 Kensington by-election – and more recently put up seven candidates in the 2015 general election.
I remain unconvinced that “people associated with” Class War in particular, or non-specific anarchists in general, burned down the Hackney Tory HQ in 1987. I think that’s a bit of neat scapegoating and misjudges the often wide gap between insurrectionary propaganda and actual anarchist deeds. Mind you, I doubt there were many anarchists who were upset by it at the time.
Just as plausible non-anarchist options:
- Far right? Letwin is Jewish and as we have seen, ten years earlier fascists were trying to burn down Centerprise.
- Disgruntled party activist? Being a Hackney Tory must bring its own tensions and internal disputes and who I am to discount an “inside job”?
- Criminal/insurance? The front cover headline of the Hackney Gazette the week after was “Man Dies In Shop Blaze” which the paper feels could have been part of “a string of arson attacks” on empty shop properties in Dalston.
- One of the countless victims of eight years of Thatcherism? The circle of suspicion would be quite wide in an increasingly impoverished borough, where Tories are told to fuck off in street or chased by knife-wielding assailants.
- Spycop? Now, hear me out on this one! We know that Hackney was infested with Spycops in the 1980s and 1990s. Just six weeks after this fire, Spycop Bob Lambert was involved with an arson attack on a Debenhams store in Harrow as part of his infiltration of animal rights groups.
Short of a deathbed confession, it is unlikely we will ever find out…
With thanks to the lovely staff at Hackney Archives.