The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

1981 riots

2021 will be the anniversary of three outbreaks of riots in the UK. Back in 1981, the Thatcher government faced a whirlwind of rioting that spread across the United Kingdom over that long, hot summer. In 2001, the Blair government had to contend with what appeared on the surface to be race-based violence in several northern cities. While 2011 bore a closer resemblance to the 1981 disturbances with a background of recession and youth unemployment.

As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, the global economy has experienced a sharp fall not seen in modern times. Front-line agencies that I’ve talked to (mental health, social services, police and community groups) are deeply concerned that young people have experienced all kinds of trauma during lockdown while also falling off the radar.

Thousands have lost their jobs in sectors like retail and hospitality. Queues at food banks now extend down the street. Behind closed doors, families wrestle with the shame and stress of a poverty never experienced before. And at the same time, the conspiracy theorists have belched out a slew of tripe about the causes of Covid and discouraged people from getting vaccinated.

Plus – add to this toxic social mix the rise of alcohol and drug abuse and tense domestic situations.

No repetition of the riots of 1981, 2001 and 2011 – yet

But none of this has led to the urban unrest that was seen ten, twenty and forty years ago – yet. So it might be a good idea to look at those previous upheavals and ask how they happened, can they be avoided and what to do afterwards.

This blog is about the Thatcher era so excuse me if I major on 1981 – two years into Thatcher’s first term. Many of the issues are depressingly familiar while of course, there are significant differences.

1981 riots more widespread than 2011

Easily the worst rioting in 1981 took place in Brixton (twice – April and July) and Toxteth. There had also been riots in the Moss Side district of Manchester, Chapeltown in Leeds and the Southall district in London. Each area had a different dynamic though at the time, the media and most people just saw an unstoppable forest fire of mayhem that leaped from city to city.

Compared to 2011, the duration of the 1981 riots was significantly longer. Take Toxteth as an example. The trouble started with the arrest of a black youth on 3 July 1981. The rioting rose to a fiery crescendo over the next three days. It then seemed to abate before flaring up again on the 28 July when the single fatality occurred. This resulted in ongoing fighting between police and rioters until the 15 August. In contrast, the 2011 riots were over in about four days.

A total of 690 police support units from forty UK police forces were deployed on the streets of Toxteth during the weeks of rioting. About 781 officers were injured and 214 police vehicles damaged. There were hundreds of arrests and one young man, David Moore, was killed. And for the first time in the UK, CS gas rounds were fired at civilians.

Race and the riots of 1981

The Chief Constables of Merseyside and Greater Manchester made comments about the riots – particularly with regards to race – that would be deemed completely unacceptable now. Ditto a slurry of politicians – mainly Conservative – who demanded anti-immigration measures and even repatriation as a solution to the problem.

The Conservative MP Ivor Stanbrook told journalists he would be seeing the then Home Secretary William Whitelaw to argue for an immediate ‘voluntary repatriation’ scheme. Eldon Griffiths MP, a parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation (the police trade union), remarked: “Who can say today that racial violence does not threaten the social fabric of Britain?”

Whitelaw refuses to play the race card over the 1981 riots

Interestingly, William Whitelaw poured cold water on the characterisation of the riots as a purely racially motivated matter. What police told him – and he told parliament as recorded by Hansard – was that the ethnic balance of the rioters changed night by night in Toxteth:

“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”

No social media in the 1981 riots

There was no social media to fan the flames of anger in 1981. But broadcast and newspaper media stood accused in some quarters of ‘glamorising’ the disorders inspiring copycat behaviour.[1] There were requests to newsrooms not to over-report the incidents or sign off with comments like ‘where will it happen next?’

Almost inevitably, that 1970s scourge of television, the campaigner Mary Whitehouse, waded in to claim in the Daily Mail that TV images were fanning the flames of violence. She was incensed at footage of a youth firstly contemplating kicking in a shop window, then doing it and finally calmly deciding what to loot.

“It was that piece of film which finally persuaded me to send a telegram to both the BBC and ITN asking them if they would please consider whether the televising of acts of vandalism and violence did not contribute to the spread of riots by creating excitement, encouragement, imitation and actually teaching the techniques of violence.”[2]

The media took flak from all sides. Politicians accused TV news in particular of fanning the flames. The police were disgruntled by a decade of investigative reporting into 1970s policing that cast them in a less than positive light. And the rioters themselves attacked journalists who they perceived as a tool of the establishment and not merely chroniclers of events.

The media landscape in 1981 was very different. TV was restricted to a duopoly of the BBC and ITV with Channel Four still eighteen months away. The broadsheet and tabloid newspapers featured most of the titles that still dominate today but arguably with far greater influence, especially tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mirror. There was no social media let alone cable TV or rolling news channels.

First hint of rolling news in the 1981 riots

The new media technology of the 1980s was ENG: Electronic News Gathering. The term was used throughout the 80s and 90s in the way that “digital” was employed for a while in the early 21st century when it still enjoyed novelty status. The riots were an ideal test of ENG technology and its superiority over film, which had to be returned to base and processed before it could be broadcast.

Undeniably, from journalists I have spoken to, there was a frisson of excitement over this test of ENG and whether crews could now better keep pace with events. It was even possible to broadcast live on the scheduled evening news bulletins (this was before rolling news channels) but the BBC was averse to showing any footage until it had been filtered by an experienced journalist.

The downside of ENG became obvious pretty quickly. If a rioter who disliked the media brought an iron bar crashing down on part of the equipment, the ability to get content back to the newsroom was impaired if not impossible.

DISCOVER: The 1981 Southall riots – causes and effects

Did Margaret Thatcher anticipate the 1981 riots?

Prime Minister Thatcher had won the 1979 election with the intention of ending post-war consensus politics and curbing the power of organised labour – the trade unions in other words. I’ve quoted speeches on this blog before by her economic guru Keith Joseph and others who viewed a rise in unemployment as not only something potentially beneficial in achieving their wider aims, but also a lesser evil to combatting inflation.

No matter what the social cost.

And some believe Thatcher did recognise that a degree of social unrest would be a worthwhile price for her policies. Though in public she reacted as if the resulting violence was purely a law and order issue and the rioters were simply criminals.

The journalist and author Hugo Young, who was on friendly terms with Thatcher, wrote in his biography of her that the decision to bump up police pay significantly on taking office in 1979 was widely seen as an anticipation of civil unrest ahead.

“The police were a favoured class under Mrs Thatcher, even more conspicuously than in previous Tory times. Cynics, not all of them anti-Conservative, saw this as prudent preparation for the civil breakdown that seemed implicit in high unemployment and anti-union policies


[1] Peplow, Simon, ‘Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain (Racism, Resistance and Social Change)’, Manchester University Press, 2019

[2] Whitehouse, Mary, ‘Images that fan the flames of violence’, Daily Mail, 14 July 1981


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