The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

four Coventry heroes

The summer of riots in 1981 rocked Britain and nearly brought the Thatcher government to its knees. Brixton (London), Toxteth (Liverpool), Moss Side (Manchester), and other urban centres saw massive youth unrest. The causes were a huge spike in unemployment and protest against policing methods deemed to be racist. The rioting hit cities across the UK and Coventry proved to be no exception.

I cover the Coventry riot of 1981 in the biographies I’ve written about two black, British sons of Coventry: Neville Staple and Errol Christie. Well, strictly speaking, Neville was born in Jamaica and Errol was born in Leicester. But Coventry was the place that made them both. It was sometimes a source of deep despair. But it also lifted them high and realised their ambitions. Neville through music. Errol through boxing.

How and why was there a riot in Coventry in 1981?

Although there were riots in many cities during the long hot summer of 1981, each disturbance had its own characteristics. Brixton was very obviously about saturation policing at the use of the detested SUS Laws. Toxteth saw black and white youth explode into violence over the sky high rate of joblessness. Southall in London witnessed Asian youth burning down a pub, fed up of racist abuse from the extreme Right. So what ignited Coventry?

The spark was the murder of a 20-year-old Asian youth called Satnam Singh Gill in the city centre. Frankly, this was not an isolated incident. I grew up in north east London where the local newspapers regularly reported incidents of ‘paki bashing’, as it was called, by skinhead youths. Asians were viewed as a soft target by neo-Nazi boot boys. The Coventry Committee Against Racism organised a peaceful protest against the killing for the 23 May 1981. You might have imagined that the neo-Nazis would have kept a low profile that day but you’d be very wrong. Out they came in force and as the protest made its way into Broadgate, the scuffles and bottle throwing began. Some skins started to give Nazi salutes and shout ‘Sieg Heil’.

FIND OUT MORE: Young, black and British in 1970s Coventry

Boxer Errol Christie on the 1981 Coventry riot

Errol and I discussed the Coventry riot when I co-authored his biography, No Place To Hide (Aurum Press). He described what occurred that day after hearing that the neo-Nazi National Front (NF) were going to be there.

“I heard on the grapevine that the NF were mobilising for a big counter-demonstration; they intended to swarm into the Pool Meadow Bus Station from all over the region. By word of mouth, me and the other guys in Hillfields were told to gather at the old cathedral and be ready to greet the NF supporters as they arrived. Immediately, I realised there would be an almighty bust-up, right in the middle of Coventry.”

Errol was completely up for what was about to happen.

“It wasn’t hard to convince guys like me to go down there and fight: months before, the tension in Coventry had been growing. There was an atmosphere of lockdown, with the police monitoring our every move. Stop and searches were on the increase, we had a harder time than ever getting into the clubs and any jobs that we’d once been able to get, even the lowest-paid ones, had dried up. Everybody was on the dole.”

Even as Errol made his way there, he bumped into a mate who asked: “Going on the riot then, bruv?” Everybody knew instinctively how this was going to end. Busloads of NF skins were arriving in Coventry.

“A skinhead army spewed out of the coaches they’d chartered, giving their familiar Hitler salutes. Some were beefy specimens who looked like they could give a good account of themselves. Others were malnourished, skinny wretches that I could have flicked over. Together, they formed a mass of seething, ugly hatred.”

Two things about the riot stuck in Errol’s mind down the decades. One was the skinheads chanting: “Ain’t no black in the Union Jack!” The black British Coventry boxer resolved to always wrap himself in the Union Jack when he’d won yet another fight – just to make the point that he had put the black in the Union Jack. The other thing was the camaraderie between black and Asian youth on that day. Errol had Asian friends but this kind of bonding was something unexpected to him. A new unity brought about by the racist thugs.

Neville Staple on the 1981 Coventry riot

In the biography I co-authored with Neville, he makes the astonishing observation that some racists – who even came to band gigs – referred to The Specials as “The Specials plus two”. The ‘plus two’ being Neville and Lynval as the black members of the band. In order words, the racists were so thick they didn’t get the point of The Specials – black and white unite. The chequered black-and-white of ska could have been a clue. Or the lyrics of the songs. But no – it passed them by.

In order to bring the city back together again, The Specials organised and played The Peaceful Protest Against Racism gig at Coventry’s The Butts stadium. Headlining along with them was Hazel O’Connor – a daughter of Coventry.

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