The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

Southall 1981 riot

In 1981, an Oi! skinhead gig at the Hambrough Tavern in the London district of Southall ended in a violent riot.

Nobody could claim it was a complete surprise but ever since skinheads have alleged they were unfairly targeted while local Asian youth say the gig was a deliberate provocation.

The 1981 Southall riot followed disturbances earlier that year in Brixton and occurred the night before all hell broke loose in Toxteth, Liverpool. From July into the middle of August, several British cities exploded into violent anger – but each riot had its own distinctive flavour.

It’s often been argued that Southall came closest to being a ‘race riot’ in the proper sense of the term. While other riots were fuelled as much by rising unemployment. But these days, I think we can be sophisticated enough to realise ALL the 1981 riots involved a combination of economic and social deprivation with institutional and widespread racism.

Southall was really the culmination of several factors. One was the infiltration of the skinhead scene by the racist extreme Right. No secret was made of the fact that groups like the National Front and the British Movement decided to target the skinhead scene for white working class recruits.

They hoped to replicate the success that the political Left had enjoyed with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League – marrying music with politics very effectively. That is not to say that all skinheads were on the extreme Right – as they were not. And many bands within the so-called Oi! scene even sang anti-racist lyrics.

But…there had been racially motivated attacks by groups of skinheads and activity by the extreme Right caused intense anger within Asian British communities. In front of me at the moment is a 1981 copy of The Sun that includes an interview with a jobless skinhead explaining that Asians were targeted for beatings by him and his mates because they were perceived to be more meek than Afro-Caribbean youth. However, attitudes among Asian British youth were hardening rapidly.

In July 1981, the growing fury bubbled to the surface in Southall – which had already been the venue for a riot two years earlier against a National Front public meeting at the local town hall.

DISCOVER: Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978

That riot resulted in the death of an Anti-Nazi League activist, Blair Peach – from a police truncheon.

The BBC documentary below gives an account of what happened that fateful night in Southall in 1981. For the headlining band, the 4-Skins, the riot was not good news. Air play was denied and record companies turned their backs.

The lyrics of the 4-Skins songs were predictably abrasive. Kicking people with Doc Martens boots features prominently. But there are also themes shared by a wide spectrum of bands at that time about life on the dole (being unemployed) and a general pessimism that hung in the air.

The 1981 Southall riot ended the Oi! scene and looking back, that year – or the year before even – was the high point of the skinhead sub-culture that had re-emerged in the late 70s after a mid-decade doldrums.

I’m keen to hear from any of you who were involved on any side back in those days and non-defamatory comments can be posted below. I’m even open to publishing entire blog posts from those who were witnesses to the 1981 Southall riot.

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