The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

I’m going back in time to 1981 – a year when the first-term Thatcher government was looking at disaster in the face. The recession had deepened. Manufacturing was collapsing. Social discontent was at stratospheric levels. So, how did the establishment react to the rioting that year in cities across Britain?

The government was not of one mind on the riots and more generally, policy on race. The Home Secretary William Whitelaw, an urbane oyster-eyed scion of the Scottish landed gentry[1], was reportedly unhappy with Margaret Thatcher’s infamous 1978 comments made while still in opposition about Britain being “swamped” by alien cultures.

On the TV current affairs programme World in Action in January 1978 Thatcher was asked if a government led by her would get tougher on immigration. She immediately remarked that there could be up to four million people from the “new Commonwealth or Pakistan” in the UK by the end of the twentieth century.

“Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture…”[2]

Thatcher then remarked that immigration would not be a “major election issue” but in the same breath noted that it was “driving some people to the National Front”. She denied that these voters were racially prejudiced and characterised them as people concerned that “minorities” which did not share British values were getting too numerically big.

The National Front had been seen as tackling the issue but now the Conservative Party was going to take those voters back. These issues were not toxic or wrong but legitimate areas of concern, Thatcher continued, that her party now needed to take back from the NF.

When the riots broke out in 1981, some voices on the far Right argued that the kind of immigration Thatcher had referred to in 1978 was at the root of the problem. Enoch Powell, now an Ulster Unionist MP having been expelled by the Conservatives a decade earlier over his notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech, warned of a race war in Britain.[3][4]

Powell’s usual parliamentary stance was to pose as a tribune of the voiceless, merely articulating the fear and anxiety of Britons terrified by black and Asian immigration. In a speech full of hints and knowing nudges, Powell said that “New Commonwealth fellow citizens” would be working out their future plans and possibly contemplating self-repatriation in the light of events:

“The question will ever more practically be asked ‘Is it inevitable that we accept a future in which the inexorable increase of that proportion of the population of our cities will drive us into a conflict which neither of us desires, or can we, by humanity and generosity and by a common recognition of the dangers, avoid in all human wisdom what otherwise might befall?”[5]

In an article for The Sun tabloid newspaper during the 1981 riots, he saw “hope in these riots”. He harked back to his rivers of blood speech where he had paraphrased the Roman writer Virgil to warn of “war, horrendous war, and the Tiber foaming with much blood”. He still believed in the prospect of strife “on a scale only describable as civil war” with London rendered ungovernable. But now the riots meant that “repatriation or re-emigration will be taken more seriously”[6].

The Conservative MP Ivor Stanbrook told journalists he would be seeing 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?”[7]

Whitelaw dismissed this talk. He pointed out that the black community in Liverpool was long established going back 150 years. He informed parliament that the ethnic composition of the rioters had in fact 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”[8]

Thatcher viewed the riots very much through a law and order prism. 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.”[9]

In classified documents released from the National Archives under the thirty-year rule in 2011 – another year of riots – it was revealed that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came close to using troops against rioters.[10] As early as April that year, when Brixton first experienced violence, Thatcher was warned that “spontaneous disorder” was “likely” from ethnic minority communities.

As regards the use of CS gas against civilians, Thatcher had no qualms on the issue. She even taunted the Labour opposition leader Michael Foot in the House of Commons on the 15 July 1981 as to whether he had a problem with the use of CS gas or water cannon if required. The intimation was that while she was 100% behind the police, he was balancing between his party rank-and-file and the national interest.

The following day in the House of Commons, Whitelaw made it clear that going forward, water cannon, CS gas and plastic bullets would indeed be part of the police armoury though only to be used as a “means of last resort”. “Neither chief officers nor I wish to see or encourage their use”.[11]

Whitelaw’s more measured tone won him plaudits from the opposition Labour MP and former government minister Roy Hattersley. “Long may he continue in his present office,” Hattersley boomed across the chamber. Hattersley acknowledged that the previous ten days in Britain had seen violence that had exceeded anything “previously seen in this century”.[12]

However, Hattersley in common with nearly everybody in the Labour Party opposed the use of CS gas and plastic bullets and feared that even having these instruments to hand would heighten tension and ramp up levels of urban violence.

Interestingly, Hattersley drew a distinction between the riots in Bristol, Brixton, Southall and Toxteth and subsequent disturbances that followed almost immediately in other cities which he put down to “mindless imitation of what had been seen on television, of provocations by political extremists, and of exploitation by criminals who hoped to loot where others had smashed”[13].

Whereas the Labour Party focussed on economic causation with high unemployment the main factor, Thatcher publicly dismissed poverty or diminished life chances as drivers. And when police behaviour was raised, the Prime Minister and other Conservative MPs turned the question round to focus on the alleged criminality of the rioters. Typical of this was an intervention by Ian Lloyd, the MP for Havant and Waterloo, who asked the Prime Minister:

“Since…there is no necessary or convincing correlation between poverty and the rioting…should we not seek an explanation for those deplorable events in some of the seditious, sociological claptrap that is passed on in our schools as education?”[14]

Thatcher responded that she agreed that poverty was not the cause. She employed the terms “inexcusable” and “unjustifiable”, which in the tense political discourse of those days tended to infer that those offering a socio-economic explanation were endeavouring to let the rioters off the hook.

Liverpool City Council had no one party with an overall majority so the Liberals under Sir Trevor Jones were in charge with support from the diminished Conservative group. Jones was known as “Jones the Vote” having secured a large British city for the Liberals whose fortunes had picked up over the previous decade. He employed the hyper-local Focus leaflets, a conscious Liberal tactic nationally, to erode Labour support by playing on very parochial concerns.

Up until the 1950s, the Conservatives had rotated power with Labour in Liverpool though with a heavy sectarian flavour. Irish politics spilled over into Liverpool in the early 20th century with the mainly Irish Catholic Scotland Road area being represented by an Irish Nationalist MP from 1885 to 1929, the only constituency in mainland Britain to ever have a nationalist MP. While the Conservatives gathered up Unionist Protestant votes in the city, almost by way of a reaction.

I spent a year teaching English literacy at the Vauxhall Neighbourhood Council building, just off Scotland Road, after graduating. As in many parts of Liverpool, there was an incredibly insular attitude with people separated by only two main roads regarding that lot over there as foreigners. The local Labour Party was viewed by the dominant Labour left in Liverpool as a nest of old-school, Catholic “right wingers”, a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s.

By 1981, the sectarian politics had waned, and Conservative representation had collapsed on the council. The Liberals had hoovered up their votes. With his antennae always keenly attuned to the mood of his voters, Jones was unequivocal in his condemnation of the riots. He even asked at one point that troops be sent to defend the city centre.[15]

But his primary concern was a “return to normality” and for the government in London to foot the repair bill. “It would be rough justice if Merseyside ratepayers had to pick up the bill and I doubt the Home Secretary would allow it.”[16]

The local MP in Toxteth, Richard “Dick” Crawshaw, had just defected from Labour to the newly founded Social Democratic Party (SDP) that would soon form an alliance at the national level with the Liberals. He used his newly found independence to round on Labour ex-colleagues over their demands that the Home Secretary should always be consulted before the use of CS gas.

He painted a picture of events on Lodge Lane in Toxteth where “the mob” had been setting alight one shop after another. There were people living above those shops terrified to come out but also in danger of losing their lives. “Is that the kind of instance when one rings the Home Secretary and asks for permission to use CS gas?” [17]

Crawshaw viewed the violence in his constituency as a ‘riot of opportunity’ that boiled down to looting and nothing else. He dismissed the idea of race being a factor and said that from his own investigations, it was a multi-racial act of theft from shops on a huge scale.

While unemployment made have been a “factor”, he believed the more pressing cause was a “breakdown of moral sanctions”. These comments and more gave Labour activists in Liverpool a certain malicious glee at the prospect of removing him at the polls. That came to pass in 1983.

The Toxteth constituency was abolished and Crawshaw made a beeline for the new Liverpool Broadgreen constituency. His Labour opponent, Terry Fields, was an open supporter of Militant. This added a layer of venom to the campaign proceedings. Crawshaw viewed by Labour as a traitor and Fields a target for his connection to the Marxist Militant Tendency.

I remember an almost surreal scene in the 1983 general election when two vans with megaphones passed each other on the road during the campaign. One was an SDP van for Crawshaw and the other was Labour for Fields. This being Liverpool, where shy reservation is an unknown trait, there was a bellicose and expletive-ridden war of words broadcast from both megaphones. The Labour van employed the word “traitor” repeatedly while the SDP van went for “Marxist” and “Militant”.

Fields won the constituency, though was expelled from the party in 1991 for membership of the Militant.


[1] ‘Gartshore and Woodhall Estates’, Archives Hub, Web

[2] Thatcher, Margaret, ‘TV Interview for Granada World in Action (“rather swamped”), Thatcher Foundation, 27 January 1978, Web

[3] Tomlinson, Sally, ‘Enoch Powell, empires, immigrants and education’, Race Ethnicity and Education, Volume 21, 2018, Issue 1

[4] McMahon, Tony, ‘Enoch Powell playing the race card after the 1981 riots’, Thatcher Crisis Years, Web

[5] Powell, Enoch, ‘Civil Disturbances’, Hansard, 16 July 1981

[6] Powell, Enoch, ‘Why I see hope in these riots’, The Sun, 13 July 1981

[7] Ibid: ‘Enoch Powell playing the race card after the 1981 riots’

[8] Whitelaw, William, Hansard, 16 July 1981, Web

[9] Young, Hugo, ‘One of Us’, Pan Books, 1989

[10] Berg, Sanchia, ‘Thatcher ‘considered arming police’ during 1981 riots’, BBC News, 30 December 2011

[11] Whitelaw, William, ‘Civil Disturbances’, Hansard, 16 July 1981

[12] Ibid: Hansard 16 July 1981

[13] Ibid: Hansard 16 July 1981

[14] Benyon, John, ‘Scarman and After: Essays Reflecting on Lord Scarman’s Report, the Riots and Their Aftermath’, Pergamon Press, 1984

[15] Brain, Timoth, ‘A History of Policing in England and Wales from 1974’, Oxford University Press, 2010

[16] ‘Toxteth riots 30 years on: July 7 1981’, Liverpool Echo, 6 July 2011

[17] Crawshaw, Richard, ‘Civil Disturbances’, Hansard, 16 July 1981

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