The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

1979 was a general election year in the UK and Margaret Thatcher was about to become Prime Minister. Tensions were high. The extreme Right saw its support at the ballot box declining and many were reverting to street-based violence. Asian youth were fed up of being attacked. Things reached a head in the London district of Southall. The resulting riot would see a high profile fatality – the death of Blair Peach.

WARNING: There is language featured in this blog post that any decent person would condemn but has been included as it’s relevant to the story. Please be advised now that it may cause offence.

Southall in London was where the extreme Right and an increasingly emboldened Asian British youth movement would clash face to face in 1979 and 1981. Instead of the docility they might have expected, the National Front got a robustly hostile reception from Southall on both occasions. They reacted to this rather like the kid in the playground at my junior school, spluttering with rage that an Asian Briton would dare to hit back.

The steady stream of murders and attacks had built up a reservoir of anger among young Asians as had the skinhead raiding parties into their communities. Asian youth movements emerged that took their cue from the Black Power movement and regarded the term “black” as a unifier of all oppressed ethnic minorities against neo-fascism and racism.[1]

In the 1970s, the key influences on both black and Asian youth organisations was the Black Power movement in the United States and Third World ‘liberation’ movements. These were essentially secular and often Marxist-influenced using the term ‘black’ to cover Afro-Caribbean and all Asian people in Britain.[2]

Suresh Grover had seen a pool of blood on the pavement in Southall. That was outside the Victory pub. An Asian youth, eighteen-year-old Gurdip Singh Chaggar, had been stabbed to death by white youths on the evening of Friday 4 June 1976. Like the two young Asians in South Woodford I referred to in an early blog post, he was also a student, in this case of engineering. The Southall Youth Movement (SYM) was founded on the Monday after the murder resolving to protect the local community from this kind of thuggery.[3]

Interviews conducted with members of the Southall Youth Movement in the late 1970s convinced researchers that these Asian youngsters weren’t interested in teen rebelliousness or even rejecting cultural norms in their community. There wasn’t even much sign of inter-generational conflict. Discrimination had been a fact of life from the arrival of their parents to the UK, but they had reached a breaking point with regards to the violence from racists.[4]

Not that the older generation of Asian Britons was meek, as is sometimes falsely suggested. From the early 20th century, Indian and Pakistani arrivals to the UK, who often went to work in factories and the mills of Lancashire, were engaged in trade union activity and one Indian Parsi trade unionist, Shapurji Saklatvala, won the parliamentary constituency of Battersea for the Communist Party in 1922[5].

The generation before the teenage activists of 1981 had established the Pakistani Workers’ Association, the Bangladeshi Workers’ Association and the Kashmiri Workers’ Association. Definitely putting class before ethnicity, they coordinated to campaign on shop-floor discrimination and even racist attitudes within the main trade unions.[6]

It should be noted that the National Front had trade union organisers in the 1970s and attempted to divide shop floors along racial lines. In one dispute at the Imperial Typewriter factory in Leicester, they succeeded in organising a demonstration by ‘white workers of Imperial Typewriters’ who were paid more than their Asian colleagues and monopolised middle management roles. This led to a counter demonstration of Asian workers.[7]

SYM membership was low for the first year but a membership drive in the months that followed resulted in about 400 members, almost all male Sikhs or Punjabi-speaking Hindus. The SYM had a club facility and on a typical afternoon, there would be sixty local youth using the facilities as a drop-in.[8]

In the aftermath of the Southall murder, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Robert Mark commented, in a way that was all too predictable at the time, that there was no clear racial motive for the crime. Today, if a racial motive is alleged, it’s investigated and then possibly discounted. In the 1970s, the motive would be alleged, brushed aside by the police and the burden of proof, which was almost impossible to confirm after the assailants had melted away, lay with the community.

On the following Sunday, the Indian Workers Association and community elders held an angry meeting blaming the National Front, politicians and the media. But without specific suspects and evidence, the police had no intention of responding to this. Furthermore, Robert Mark had shown a certain impatience in his 1975 annual report with “blacks” reacting “in violent opposition to police officers carrying out their lawful duties”.[9] He was referring more to the events around the Notting Hill carnival but in other police reports at this time, there’s a sense that crime by “black youth” was more of a problem than racially motivated attacks.[10]

The National Front was on the same page though with different motivation and more strident, provocative language. Their literature strove to identify young blacks as ardent muggers and pickpockets. The tabloid media chimed in with stories that seemed to confirm this picture. In my own work on projects countering extreme Right activity in recent years, I’ve seen how groups like Britain First have used media articles that cast Muslims, in Britain and overseas, in a bad light to legitimise their propaganda. And the National Front did likewise in the 1970s.

The National Front, though, went one step further. Their reaction to the death of Gurdip Singh Chaggar was shocking even by the standards of the time. John Kingsley Read was chair of the NF from 1974 to 1976 representing a wing of the party that glorified street violence based on the Nazi Brown Shirt approach and was antagonistic towards John Tyndall, who was viewed as being overly concerned with respectability.

This would eventually lead to Read’s expulsion, challenged in the High Court, and his launching of the Democratic National Party. In 1976, Read and another DNP member would be elected as councillors in Blackburn. But before leaving the NF, Read gave his view of the murder in Southall. It had nothing to do with white assailants in his view:

“Last week in Southall, one nigger stabbed another nigger. Very unfortunate. That’s one down, one million to go.”[11]

He also made reference to “niggers, wogs and coons” in the same speech. This led to a court case in January 1978 for incitement to racial hatred. However, it wasn’t Reed’s words that excited the most interest but the reaction of 68-year-old Australian judge, Justice Neil McKinnon.

Directing the jury, he said that Read had not broken the law, even in using the three deplorable terms. But it was the judge’s demeanour towards Read that excited the most controversy. McKinnon opined:

“In this England of ours at this moment we are allowed to have our own views still, thank goodness. And long may it last.”[12]

Read’s defence in court was that he hadn’t intended to insult anybody while the quoted words were used in a jocular way, eliciting laughter from those present and not resulting in any violence. Opponents outside the courtroom countered that Read’s comments about the killing in Southall were very clearly an incitement to murder.[13]

The case was dismissed with the judge advising Read to “use moderate language” in future and then adding “I wish you well” before rising from the bench. Within two days, a hundred MPs (mainly Labour) signed a motion demanding that Judge McKinnon be dismissed. But in contrast, the Daily Mail carried a notice on its letter page that “Mail readers who have written about the implications of Mr Kingsley Read’s acquittal on a charge of trying to incite racial hatred, support the judge”[14].

Three months later, in April 1979, the National Front decided to hold a rally on St George’s Day in Southall. After months of dithering, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan had called a general election for the 4 May. The NF was able to use the fact it was running candidates to overcome bans on its meetings.

Therefore, with regards to Southall, Ealing Council announced that while it usually would have denied the NF a meeting space, it was required to do so in an election under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 1949. It was even powerless to prevent the NF choosing Southall Town Hall as their preferred venue.

Commentators almost seemed to relish the inevitable confrontation that would result between an Asian community already simmering with anger and the National Front, not yet bloodied by Thatcher’s surging Conservative party at the polls. Once more the BBC news magazine programme Nationwide effortlessly stuck its foot in its mouth reporting that the Southall rally was eagerly anticipated by the NF as their “battle of the Khyber Pass”[15].

On the 23 April, it was the Southall Youth Movement that took the lead in trying to prevent NF members entering the Town Hall. This action was taken independently of a demonstration agreed by a co-ordinating committee of local organisations that had informed the police of proposed activity. The SYM felt that there was too great a risk of the police escorting NF members into the Town Hall and they would position themselves to stop that happening.

The police did permit about thirty demonstrators to occupy the pavement opposite the Town Hall and use their megaphones to assail the NF arrivals. They were numbered at 59 by the Daily Telegraph journalist present. In an act of provocation, the NF members Nazi saluted from the steps of the Town Hall before entering. NF stewards then checked press passes refusing admittance to the Daily Mirror. One steward explained:

“The Daily Mirror supports these niggers and is a Labour rag. We are allowing in reporters from decent papers who are not black lovers”[16].

With thousands of people now milling around the streets and a very large police presence, the small NF gathering inside the Town Hall was a nervous and muddled affair. Having made their point, the NF eventually decided to leave Southall. But by that time, scuffles and missile throwing had broken out between protestors and the police. In the hours that followed, the violence escalated leading to the death of a teacher from New Zealand, Blair Peach, who was also an activist in the Anti-Nazi League.[17]

He had been struck on the head with a truncheon though was still conscious when an ambulance got to him and there was no sign of external bleeding. However, Peach had sustained a large extra-dural haematoma, a swelling of the membrane around the brain, and his skull was fractured. During the operation to alleviate the condition, he died. In the autopsy that followed, a police truncheon was identified as the most likely cause of death given the nature of the injuries.

An investigation by the Metropolitan Police Complaints Investigation Bureau reportedly narrowed their focus to six police officers said to be have been in an SPG van. But they were not viewed as suspects. The Director of Public Prosecutions decided on the basis of what was submitted by the Metropolitan Police that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any police officer for the death of Blair Peach.[18]

However, there was one bizarre postscript to the 1979 Southall Riot that captivated the media. The Metropolitan Police inspected the lockers of the Special Patrol Group and confiscated a number of unorthodox weapons that it took until December of that year to be revealed in the Court of Appeal.

This included a “leather encased truncheon, approximately one foot long with a knotted thong at the end”, “one sledge hammer”, “one leather whip which I would describe as a ‘Rhino whip’”, “one piece of wood about three feet in length” and “one white bone handled knife with a long blade case”[19]. This wasn’t an exhaustive list but needless to say the ‘Rhino whip’ raised eyebrows across the country.

 The death of Blair Peach and the Rhino Whip obscured the events that followed and the impact on the local Asian community. The overwhelming majority of the 345 people who appeared in court on riot-related charges were Asian Britons. They were sent to what was described as a ‘riot court’ in Barnet, north London.

Community organisations felt that those charged were having their cases heard by magistrates in another part of London who were less likely to be sympathetic. And they contrasted the rapid rounding up of rioters with the failure to convict any police officers over Blair Peach. This created a further legacy of bitterness that would fester until another outbreak of rioting was sparked by the extreme Right in 1981.


[1] Ramamurthy, Anandi, ‘Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements’, Pluto Press, 2013

[2] Ibid: ‘The politics of Britain’s Youth Movements’

[3] Cohen, Philip, Bains, Harwant S., ‘Multi-Racist Britain’, Palgrave Macmillan, 1988

[4] Peggle, A.C.W., ‘Minority youth politics in Southall’, New Community, Vol.7, Issue 2, 1979, pp. 170-177

[5] ‘Saklatvala, Communist MP’, British Library, Web

[6] Ramamurthy, Anandi, ‘The politics of Britain’s Youth Movements’, Race & Class, 2006, Web

[7] Fielding, Nigel, ‘The National Front’, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981

[8] Ibid: ‘Minority youth politics in Southall’,

[9] ‘Report of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis for the year 1975,’ Metropolitan Police, 1975

[10] Solomos, John, ‘Black Youth, Racism and the State’, Cambridge University Press, 2010

[11] Stocker, Paul, ‘English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far-Right’, Melville House, 2017

[12] ‘British Judge back right to air Race Views, stirring bitter debate’, New York Times, 13 January 1978

[13] Ibid: ‘British Judge back right to air Race Views, stirring bitter debate’

[14] Ibid: ‘British Judge back right to air Race Views, stirring bitter debate’

[15] ‘Southall 23 April 1979. The Report of the Unofficial Committee of Enquiry’, National Council for Civil Liberties, 1980

[16] Report in the Daily Mirror 24 April 1979 quoted in ‘Southall 23 April 1979. The Report of the Unofficial Committee of Enquiry’

[17] ‘1979: Teacher dies in Southall race riots’, BBC News, 23 April 1979

[18] Ibid: ‘Southall 23 April 1979. The Report of the Unofficial Committee of Enquiry’

[19] Ibid: ‘Southall 23 April 1979. The Report of the Unofficial Committee of Enquiry’

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