The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Who was going to control the Merseyside police? The police themselves or the civilian local authority? That was a big question before and after the riots of 1981. One councillor, Margaret Simey, placed herself right in the middle of this ferocious row.

Every police force area had an independent police authority in 1981. Their role was to consult the local community about policing practice and monitor performance of the force against agreed performance indicators.

They appointed the Chief Constable and senior officers and dealt with some disciplinary issues.[1] However, there were growing tensions between the civilian-run police authorities and some very strident Chief Constables in the early 1980s – most notably in Merseyside and Greater Manchester.

Indeed, declassified documents from 1986 show that the police authority in Greater Manchester attempted to remove their Chief Constable, Sir James Anderton, in 1986 after comments about the AIDS virus where he claimed that victims suffered in “a human cesspool of their own making[2]”.

The documents go on to reveal that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher intervened personally, backing his right to speak out. Even though senior civil servants had become increasingly dismayed at Anderton’s “religious overtones” and “taste for martyrdom”. For example, on being questioned by the Greater Manchester police authority about his heavy-handed tactics during the 1981 Moss Side riots (8 July 1981[3]), Anderton remarked that he felt like the crucified Jesus.

Margaret (Lady) Simey was the Labour chair of the Merseyside police authority in 1981. Already in her mid-70s (she died aged 98 in 2004), I saw this bespectacled figured striding purposefully down Upper Parliament Street on more than one occasion and attended a public police-community meeting that she chaired shortly after the riots.

Glasgow-born, she had come to Liverpool nearly sixty years before to study and was the first female graduate in social science in 1928. For many years, she lived in the Liverpool 8 area encompassing Toxteth and was a councillor for Granby ward.

Her relationship with Kenneth Oxford was notoriously bad in public.[4] But there was reportedly a “sneaky regard” between the two outspoken figures behind closed doors.[5] However, Oxford’s alleged views on the racial composition of Toxteth residents and his authorising of the use of CS gas during the 1981 riots, put him and Simey at loggerheads over that summer.

Nevertheless, I witnessed Simey trying to diffuse police-community tensions at a meeting in Toxteth. Flanked by uniformed police officers, I recall she suggested to the very sullen audience that they consider inviting the police into their homes for a cup of tea. As an act of reconciliation.

“One acid drop or two,” somebody growled from the back. And the idea was swiftly dropped.

Simey could easily have been part of the Bloomsbury Group with the bearing of an elderly Virginia Woolf (had she lived that long) or Beatrice Webb. She was admired for her gutsiness but some on the left in Liverpool disliked Simey’s patrician bearing. The working class, in their view, needed a revolution not Simey’s tea and sympathy. Rather spitefully, she was nicknamed ‘Grandma Hillbilly’ by some in reference to a character in a 1950s American sitcom to whom she bore a tenuous resemblance.

After a solid night of rioting in Toxeth on 6 July 1981, that claimed the Racquet Club, Simey made a statement that would earn her the opprobrium of both the tabloid press and Margaret Thatcher in person:

“For years I have been saying that the conditions are not tolerable. It is not fair play. There is social unrest in the area and I would regard the people as apathetic if they didn’t riot.”[6]

In a 2010 interview on YouTube, Simey showed that her view had not softened over the years. Comparing the Toxteth rioters to the Suffragettes, she said that her experience of heading up the police authority had shown her at first-hand what it was like not to be listened to and not to have the means to be heard.

“Once you’ve grasped that, it’s easy to understand the utter injustice of it. Bit right into my soul I think.”[7]


[1] Myhill, Andy, Yarrow, Stella, Dalgleish, David, Docking, Maria, ‘The role of Police Authorities in public engagement’, Home Office, 2003

[2] Qureshi, Yakub, ‘Revealed: Secret documents show how Margaret Thatcher helped save ex-Manchester police chief Sir James Anderton after row over Aids comments’, Manchester Evening News, 4 January 2012

[3] ‘The 1981 Disturbances’, Mossside81, 21 August 2011, Web

[4] ‘Hillsborough documents leaked: How Kenneth Oxford and senior police colleague ‘briefed’ Margaret Thatcher just days after tragedy’, Liverpool Echo, 16 March 2012

[5] ‘The days of Simey and Oxford were certainly lively politically’, Liverpool Echo, 19 August 2011

[6] ‘Lady Simey’, The Telegraph, 30 July 2004

[7] ‘Interview with Margaret Simey’, YouTube: Notoxteth TV, 3 March 2010, Web

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