The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

In April 1981, Brixton exploded into rioting – releasing a long simmering anger against the hated stop and search SUS laws and a sharp increase in unemployment, especially among black youth. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher brought in veteran judge Lord Scarman to investigate.

Scarman was a veteran of some big public inquiries over the previous two decades. He’d investigated the civil disturbances in Northern Ireland; the Red Lion Square riot in 1974 that led to the death of student Kevin Gateley and the 1977 Grunwick trade union dispute – a strike led by Asian women.

On the Left and among many community organisations, he was seen as a creature of the establishment. Non-cooperation with this inquiry was encouraged by certain groups. But Scarman persisted, appearing in Brixton in person with the demeanour of a kindly undertaker. He always looked to me like somebody who required about five years’ continuous sleep.

But there was no time for sleep in 1981. Hardly had Scarman completed his report into the April riots in Brixton when nearly every other city in the United Kingdom burst into rioting in July 1981. And that included a second round of violence in Brixton.

Rather hurriedly, Scarman updated his report to include interviews with senior police in Liverpool to comment on the upheavals in Toxteth, a very mixed area of the city. And by far, the most costly riot of 1981.

In his report, Scarman was adamant that the outbreaks of rioting were spontaneous. He didn’t see an invisible hand or conspiracy as certain Chief Constables and the media attempted to suggest. The police, in his view, needed to more closely reflect the communities they worked in and that meant increasing recruitment from ethnic minorities. There was also a need for better police training.

Not everybody thought Scarman had got to the bottom of what had caused the violence. Ted Knight, the bellowing leader of Lambeth council said it was “a very small and misleading contribution”. While the Daily Mirror in total contrast claimed it was “one of the great social documents of our time”.  Darcus Howe called it “mere tinkering”.

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