Unemployment had doubled among the young from 1979 to 1981 and quadruped among black youth. Welfare had been cut and traditional industrial jobs had disappeared overnight. The Tory government elected in May, 1979 under Margaret Thatcher was wedded to a monetarist economic policy that regarded inflation as the number one enemy and unemployment as a kind of necessary evil.
So when inner riots exploded in July, 1981 – after initial eruptions in Brixton that April and St Pauls, Bristol the year before – the government was left looking for a suitable scapegoat. Its friends in the media soon alighted on some likely suspects. The whole thing, the violence that had convulsed Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Southall, etc, etc – had been fomented by left wing revolutionaries!
In fact, as somebody who was involved on the hard left of politics at the time, I can say hand on heart that the Marxist left was as surprised as anybody else by the ferocity of the riots that ensued. The Militant – fingered by the press as you can see in the clip below – was not a great fan of spontaneous rioting anyway. What they wanted was a revolutionized trade union movement led by a Marxist party in disciplined fashion to overthrow the capitalist state. Riots were far too chaotic and anarchistic for their liking.
But of course, every socialist had to be seen supporting and empathizing with the ‘youth’. Ken Livingstone, then head of the Greater London Council, went to Brixton to address an Anti-Nazi League meeting. This was immediately spun by Fleet Street as Ken addressing rioters – usual juvenile, stupid knee-jerk stuff from the tabloids.
The Labour leadership, definitely caught unawares by the riots, was left in the invidious position of having to condemn the Tories but also condemn the rioters. Thatcher delighted in their discomfort and goaded them into expelling left wingers within the party.
Here is a media article from the time…