As the level of civil disturbance rose in the 1970s, many police officers complained that too often they only had dustbin lids and traffic cones in their armoury when confronted with urban rioters. In the 1980s, this would lead to the development of the riot police we have today replete with special helmets, fire-resistant uniforms, visors, tasers, etc, etc.
Specialist rapid response units were created as early as the 1960s such as the Special Patrol Group, part of London’s Metropolitan Police. But even they lacked the riot gear we take for granted on demonstrations today. Very often, riot police went into battle on the streets with a traffic cone covering one arm and a dustbin lid in the other.
In 1977, a massive riot between National Front supporters and anti-Nazis swept through Lewisham and tied up an estimated fifth of the Metropolitan Police. From 1976, the Notting Hill carnivals had ended in a fracas between police and local youth with a heavily charged racist undertow.
So, unsurprisingly, those politicians who nailed their colours to the law and order mast were calling for a more heavily armed police by the end of the 1970s.
The sight of cops holding dustbin lids as shields and traffic cones had become a sick joke in their eyes. Looking back now – with our police having access to very sophisticated protection – it does look rather incongruous.
Here’s a headline from the Daily Mail after the Battle of Lewisham that prepared the ground for a police force with more riot equipment.