The race card and the 1981 riots


In my view, only one riot in 1981 could be described as a white v black confrontation and that was Southall where National Front supporters and predominantly Asian youth clashed. But as for Toxteth, Moss Side and Brixton – the frustration of black youth was allied to a furious despair among unemployed whites and their target was mainly the police.

However, the veteran prophet of doom Enoch Powell wasn’t going to let the riots pass without fulminating in parliament  that a race war was round the corner. He banged on that none of this would have happened if the “New Commonwealth” population hadn’t been allowed to grow.  Powell then turned to some familiar fear mongering stating that immigrant areas were forever expanding and the “indigenous population” must “retreat house by house at the same rate”.

Powell was joined in playing the race card by Ivor Stanbrook MP who told journalists he was going to see the Home Secretary to argue for a ‘voluntary repatriation scheme’. Eldon Griffiths MP, parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation, said “who can say today that racial violence does not threaten the social fabric of Britain?”

This didn’t impress Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw. An old aristocratic Tory, he slapped Powell and the others down pointing out that the black community living in Toxteth, Liverpool had been there for 150 years. They weren’t newcomers.  More interestingly, Whitelaw said the racial composition of the rioters in Toxteth had changed night after night – becoming noticeably whiter! These are his exact words to parliament on the 16th July, 1981.

“The first night consisted largely of black youths, children of many generations of Liverpool people, erupting against the police. The second saw a concerted attack on the police by white and black youngsters. The third witnessed a predominantly white crowd of looters exploiting the earlier disturbances, while local black leaders played a major part in keeping their young people off the streets”.

Whitelaw admitted young people in Britain were experiencing deep frustration. He added that violence had already been seen breaking out at football matches and had now burst forth on to the streets.

“The problems of urban decay and deprivation are intractable and deep-seated, particularly in Merseyside, despite decades of efforts to remedy them and the expenditure of very considerable sums of public money”.

 

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One thought on “The race card and the 1981 riots

  1. During this parliamentary debate, Powell also said about the Bristol riots a year earlier:

    [W]hen what happened did happen in Bristol at the beginning of April last year, I remembered how, 10 or 12 years earlier, I had received from that precise area of Bristol a mass of information expressing fear and anxiety as to what might occur because of the change in that area and the local concentration of New Commonwealth population (House of Commons, Hansard, 16 July, 1981, col. 1413).

    Interesting to see Whitelaw make those comments (and actually order Lord Scarman to conduct an inquiry into the Brixton riots), because his time as Home Secretary also oversaw the amending of the immigration rules to discriminate against non-European migration.

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