The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

1970s sweet shop

Woke up in the middle of the night recently and realised I’d been dreaming about a sweet shop that used to be located at the bottom of our road in the 1970s. Norgate’s was one of those truly basic sweetie emporiums swept away by the supermarkets and changing retail habits in the following decades. You walked into a sepia world of cracked lino on the floors and tobacco-stained walls. Mr Norgate sat behind a counter immediately in front of you showing zero interest in your presence with his nose stuck in the Racing Post. Almost completely non-communicative until it came to paying for a Curly Wurly or Sherbert Dab.

Then he’d grumble the price through his walrus moustache and glancing at your disapprovingly through his horn-rimmed specs. Given his age – which could have been anywhere between 50 and 70 – he was almost bound to have done service in World War Two. Which in those days meant viewing a long-haired 13-year-old like me as a potential lout who needed a good dose of National Service in the army and a severe haircut. His wife wore a pink plastic overcoat, dyed black hair and distinctly more friendly.

Like many sweet shops, they stuck to the business of selling chocolates, chewing gum and Dolly Mixtures. A nearby newsagent sold every magazine imaginable so Norgate just flogged the local papers, the Ilford Recorder and the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian piled high on the counter once a week. These local rags were quite substantial publications in the 70s where many future national journalists cut their teeth. I’d be sent down by my mother to pick them up so we could keep across the local scandal and skullduggery on the council.

The sweets were presented in wooden or plastic racks. The Cadbury’s chocolates came in their own wrappers but then you had the unwrapped pick’n’mix selections. This is where your 5p might extend to fill a small brown paper bag with tooth-rotting stuff like flying saucers, Black Jacks, Drumstick lollies, gobstoppers and you could even shovel something called space dust into your mouth. Should note that Black Jacks – like Robertson’s jam – had a logo of a somewhat racist nature that wouldn’t pass muster today.

DISCOVER: Tiswas versus Multi-Coloured Swap Shop

Behind the sweets and out of range of children’s grasping hands were the cigarettes. This being a time when the whole world seemed to smoke. My father in particular who relied on Norgate for his fix of Marlboro. And on the other side of the shop was a small cardboard box cut in half at an angle stuffed with second-hand pop singles. A selection of 45s that had been in the charts but now fallen to number 100 or less. These slightly tatty singles were the mainstay of my early pop music collection and cost 10p each. Occasionally, Norgate would get his hands on some copies of Disco 45 magazine which was sold next to the box. This small mag was packed with the lyrics from the latest Slade, Sweet or Osmonds hits.

Norgate was at one end of a parade of shops that included two butchers, a greengrocer and a coach company for day excursions to Whipsnade Zoo and such places. Though the 70s is much maligned as a gas guzzling decade, many people didn’t have cars and a family trip meant a shared coach with complete strangers. Anyway, at the other end of the parade was Norgate’s nemesis – Basil’s. This sweet shop was run by a guy, most likely in his 40s, called Basil. It seemed like a slicker operation to us kids at the time. Big plastic containers of bon-bons, a Lyons Maid ice cream fridge and a novelty toy dispenser outside. For 2pm, you’d twist a metal handle and some useless little toy would drop out that for some reason gave us a momentary thrill. A day later we’d forgotten about it.

Both shops have long disappeared and to my knowledge, their proprietors have gone to the celestial confectioners up above. Like all kids of that generation, the back end of my mouth is awash with fillings and crowns. And as I’m subjected to another root canal, my thoughts drift back to Norgate and the special little world he created.

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’

The late 1970s saw some shocking racist attacks in east London. But it also witnessed the beginning of a fightback by British Asian youth and a determination to effect change. I can’t claim to understand the challenge that young people in Tower Hamlets and other London boroughs faced. But I’m in awe of what they achieved at that time in the face of a wall of prejudice.

WARNING: There are events and language used below that may cause offence but reflected the reality at the time in the late 1970s – which this blog abhors and welcomes the fact that times have changed.

On the 4 May 1978, a 25-year-old machinist called Altab Ali who had come to the UK from Bangladesh in 1969 was murdered in the borough of Tower Hamlets.[1] This is the borough covering the most iconic parts of London’s East End including Poplar, Whitechapel, Stepney and Bethnal Green. Altab Ali was returning home from his workplace in Brick Lane, Whitechapel when he was set upon by three teenagers. He died from his wounds.

It should be noted that the 4 May 1978 was also the day of the London local elections. A total of forty-one National Front candidates were standing in Tower Hamlets and would attain nearly one fifth of the vote. Labour romped home as usual but the NF polled very close[2] behind the Conservatives across all wards in the borough.

After increasing skinhead activity in the area and brutal attacks on local Asians, the murder of Altab Ali and the growing brazenness of far right ‘boot boys’ called for a grand public gesture. On 14 May 1978, the coffin of Altab Ali was borne aloft in a mass demonstration of Bangladeshi anger into the middle of London ending up in Hyde Park. The 7,000-strong procession brought the reality of what was happening in east London into the centre of the capital.

His killing also led to a largely forgotten London strike on 17 July 1978 by Bengali workers. Hundreds of Bengali-owned businesses also closed for the day in protest at the murder.[3] Those on strike included a bottle labeller called Roomiz Ullah who worked at the Charrington’s brewery in Bow. He was still recovering from injuries sustained on 5 July. Ullah had been clocking off with co-workers when they were attacked outside the brewery by a white gang.[4]

In September 1978 the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council, a trades union organisation, published a grim pamphlet called Blood on the Streets[5]. The front cover had a graphic illustration of a prone figure on the ground with blood gushing from his head. The document was a soul-destroying litany of attacks on Asians in east London. But it also shone a light on attitudes in both white and Asian British working-class communities.

The case studies were furnished by the Bangladeshi Youth Movement, Tower Hamlets Law Centre, Avenues Limited and others. What it revealed was growing incidents throughout the 1970s of what the pamphlet referred to as “Skinhead ‘Paki-bashing’ incidents”.[6]

It painted a very polarised picture of the Brick Lane area in comparison to its hip incarnation today. White skinheads were swaggering with impunity down Brick Lane treating Asian people as if their lives were worthless. Meanwhile the police brushing attacks under the carpet on technicalities or simply ignoring them. Referring to the two students in South Woodford, the pamphlet listed the deaths of Altab Ali, Kennith Singh in Newham and Ishaque Ali. But this, the authors insisted, was only the tip of the iceberg.

“Behind the headlines is an almost continuous and unrelenting battery of Asian people and their property in the East End of London. The barrage of harassment, insult and intimidation, week in week out, fundamentally determines how the immigrant community here lives and works, how the host community and the authorities are viewed, and how the Bengalee (spelling used in the report) people in particular think and act.”[7]

The stance of the local community towards the police was one of suspicion. A police interpreter who helped officers where victims had poor English told the report authors that even he thought most police encouraged complainants to drop their case. In one example cited, a student called Mustafa Siddiqi was stabbed at a Brick Lane butcher shop. The white assailant was arrested then released without being charged while Siddiqi was advised to drop the case in order to maintain “good community relations”.

Those contributing to the report from the Bengali community raised the same alleged features of police investigations. An unwillingness to prosecute; poor note taking if any; witnesses having their immigration status raised by officers and advice to take out a private prosecution for common assault instead of expecting the police to act. The racial motivation of attacks was almost always thrown into doubt.

This was a point made by The Institute of Race Relations in evidence submitted to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure in 1979. It claimed there was a “repeated reluctance” by the police to admit the racial dimension in attacks on black people. This resulted in misleading advice to victims and even charges being brought against the victims themselves.[8]

It would take the murder of the black youth Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993 and the subsequent Macpherson inquiry and report in 1999 to fully re-examine these policing issues raised in Blood on the Streets back in 1978.[9] McPherson addressed police shortcomings recognised by the 1981 Scarman report but on which insufficient progress had been made such as the need for more recruits from ethnic minority communities.

The tendency to play down racial motivation in attacks was also tackled head on by Macpherson. Whereas race was often dismissed by police and coroners up to the Lawrence murder, now Macpherson recommended that the “Police Services and the Crown Prosecution Service should ensure that particular care is taken at all stages of prosecution to recognise and to include reference to any evidence of racist motivation”[10].

In 1999, nearly twenty years after the 1981 riots, Macpherson told the police bluntly that there still needed to be more training on racism awareness and valuing cultural diversity. This should not be a one-off, the inquiry recommended, but subject to regular re-evaluation to assess implementation in daily police work.

Macpherson also addressed the Stop and Search powers of the police that had contributed to the riots in Brixton and Toxteth. The report recognised that these powers were needed to prevent crime but that they needed to be recorded. The record had to include the “reason for the stop, the outcome, and the self-defined ethnic identity of the person stopped[11]”.

The Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane area, part of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, was mainly from the impoverished Sylhet province of Bangladesh. There had been Bengalis in this part of the city since the 19th century working as sailors, referred to as ‘lascars’[12]. Many had worked for the East India Company. But there had been a much greater influx of overwhelmingly male immigrants in the 1960s to work in the ‘rag trade’ (clothing industry).

The Jewish character of Brick Lane was already a dimming memory for me in 1981. As a child I used to buy old coins from orthodox Jewish men running antique stalls. For Jewish friends at school, the East End was somewhere they went to see their “bubbe”, the Yiddish word for grandmother.  By 1976, the former synagogue on Brick Lane was reconstituted as a mosque as the population shifted towards Bengali and Muslim.[13] The eighteenth-century building had started life as a French Protestant chapel before going from synagogue to mosque evidencing how this part of London had absorbed wave after wave of migrants.

Blood on the Streets interviewed white working-class locals who were sympathetic to the problems faced by their Bengali, Muslim neighbours. It should not be assumed that the white population in Tower Hamlets was uniformly racist even though the NF vote in the borough touched twenty per cent in 1977. A recurring refrain from local whites mentioned in the report was that the new Asian arrivals needed to ‘get tough’ just like black Britons had after the 1958 and 1959 Notting Hill riots.[14]

“This attitude is particularly prevalent among working class East Enders brought up in a tradition where from childhood you are expected to fight back. They are puzzled by the passive response from a non-violent people which may even be regarded as ‘unmanly’, or weakness or cowardice that actually invites attack.”[15]

This was a sentiment echoed to me by Errol Christie, the black boxing champion whose biography I co-authored in 2011. He felt that black youth in Britain had, in his own stark terms, busted a few skinhead noses and scared them off. Errol would even show me a scar on his knuckle where the tooth from a skinhead’s mouth had embedded itself and then been extracted in a heartbeat. This, Errol opined, was what Asian youth needed to do.

That message was already landing in 1978, according to Blood on the Streets. A new attitude was emerging among the younger generation of Bengalis. “The ability to fight, the martial arts, the language of ‘self-defence’ and an aggressive self-awareness has taken over from the gentler approach of their elders”.[16] Karate was suddenly very popular.

But, the report warned, a new “machismo” was also prevalent that was further diminishing the role of women and threatening to solidify their subservience. There had been large demonstrations against racism, especially following the murder of Altab Ali, but “the number of Asian women participating can be numbered on one hand”[17].

Fortunately, there were Asian women in the 1970s who struggled for their rights and hit the national headlines. Through the summer of 1976, a strike at the Grunwick film processing plant in Dollis Hill, north west London, was covered by the BBC and ITN news nearly every night. The workforce was made up almost entirely of women from the Indian sub-continent or Asians from Kenya and Uganda and were dubbed the “Strikers in Saris”[22].

Secondary picketing was still legal, and thousands of workers and supporters streamed down to the factory and joined a very rambunctious picket line. It was a long-lasting dispute and nearly a year later in June 1977, up to 20,000 people were standing alongside the women workers. This included Labour government ministers Shirley Williams, Fred Mulley and Dennis Howell and the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill.[23]

The Trades Union Congress and the union to which the women belonged, APEX, eventually withdrew their support on the grounds that the dispute for union recognition and reinstatement of sacked striking workers could not be won. One major downside of Grunwick was that it fired Margaret Thatcher’s resolve to ban secondary picketing by other workers unrelated to a dispute. But on the upside, it finally brought British Asian women out of the shadows and gave them a voice.

[1] Hoque, Aminul, ‘Altab Ali: Bangladeshis in east London reflect on legacy of a racist murder’, The Conversation, 3 May 2018

[2] Taylor, Stan, ‘The National Front in English Politics’, Palgrave Macmillan, 1982

[3] ‘Bengali workers on strike’, Race Today, September/October 1978

[4] Ibid: ‘Bengali workers on strike’

[5] ‘Blood on the Streets’, Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council, September 1978

[6] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[7] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[8] ‘Police against Black People, Race & Class’, The Institute of Race Relations, pamphlet no. 6, 1979

[9] ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’, Report of an inquiry by Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, February 1999, Web

[10] Ibid: ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’

[11] Ibid: ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’

[12] ‘Lascars and the East India Company’, Royal Museums Greenwich, Web

[13] ‘Brick Lane Jamme Masjid’, Historic England, Web

[14] ‘The Notting Hill riots of 1958’, Warwick, Web

[15] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[16] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[17] Ibid: ‘Blood on the Streets’

[18] ‘Nephew asked to cut up meat – QC’, Evening Mail, 15 November 1978

[19] Baker, Bob, Bishton, Sue, Collett, Deborach, Jennings, David, ‘Read All About It’, AFFOR, 1980

[20] NUJ Guidelines and Code of Conduct for the Reporting of Race, paragraph 2 (in 1978)

[21] Khan, Sara, McMahon, Tony, ‘The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism’, Saqi Books, 2016

[22] ‘The strike that brought immigrant women into Britain’s working class’, The Economist, 25 November 2016

[23] Bell, Bethan, Mahmood, Shabnam, ‘Grunwick dispute: What did the ‘strikers in saris’ achieve?’, BBC News, 10 September 2016

In this series of blog posts I’m looking at the problem of the extreme Right in the 1970s and the misery it created for ethnic minorities and LGBT people in particular. The streets could be a dangerous place forty plus years ago. So what motivated thugs to launch unprovoked attacks that in a small number of cases resulted in death. I’ve been trawling through newspapers, research papers and other publications from the time to hear from those on all sides.

WARNING: There is language in this following blog post that some may find offensive – but was very common at the time. This is no way endorses these kind of terms.

As a 12-year-old in 1976, I biked with friends to the M25 motorway underpass ten minutes from where I lived. Chopper bikes, flared jeans, a Harlem Globe Trotters T-shirt and a brown corduroy jacket. That was my mid-70s uniform. We gazed down at the congealed, dust covered globules of blood on the pavement. This had been the very spot where two students, Dinesh Choudhri aged 19 and Riphi Alhadidi aged 22, had been stabbed to death.[1] [2]

They lived at the Queen Mary College halls of residence, three unmissable 1960s tower blocks near my old junior school in South Woodford. After the M25 motorway was built in the early 1970s, the students got to experience a constant roar of traffic and the attendant carbon monoxide fumes from their high-rise rooms.

Each day, Choudhri and Alhadidi would have caught the Central Line tube from this east London suburb to the college in Mile End. On the evening of their death, they were reportedly on their way or coming back from a local Chinese takeaway, the Ping Onn, opposite the ABC cinema. I went to that junior school with a girl who worked there helping her family at the counter from a young age.

In a completely unprovoked attack, Choudhri and Alhadidi were killed. Their assailants were described as a “gang of white youths”. Nothing about this incident surprised us as kids at the time. We were all aware of the horribly termed “Paki bashing” of young British Asians in the 1970s and that these crimes appeared to be consequence-free for the perpetrators.

On the 14 July in the middle of the riots, The Sun tabloid newspaper interviewed a 17-year-old skinhead from Battersea in south London called Steve Viney. His chilling words are a very accurate summation of what we assumed was the mental process of the average skinhead.

He began by professing his hatred of “blacks and queers”. He then rattled off a victimhood narrative where at 13 he had been mugged by a black guy while when he had long hair, he was “approached by queers”. There’s no suggestion that he had ever committed a very serious crime, but he openly described his relationship with British Asian youth:

“I hate Asians – Pakis and Indians. Don’t know why. We chase them and bash them up. It just gives you a bit of a kick when you’re drunk. You don’t touch West Indians because they can get violent, they carry knives and that. But Pakis, they just cower a bit.”[3]

He wasn’t a member of the National Front or British Movement but supported them. However, he had fought alongside black youth at the 1981 Brixton riots and thought the violence on the streets that year was more about unemployment than race.

He also disliked Margaret Thatcher for having put people out of work. In short, the primary grievance he felt was economic exclusion, but the target of his anger was young Asians. And that violence meted out by his fists and boots seemed to be more of a cheap, drunken thrill than to make a bigger statement.

Already at the end of the 1960s, opinions began to diverge within the British Asian communities on how to counter the all too prevalent racism they faced. Organisations like the Pakistani Welfare Association (PWA) and the National Federation of Pakistani Associations (NFPA) strove to tackle the problem through race relations officials and political channels as well as trying to repair police-community relations.[4]

But others wanted to overturn the image of British Asians as passive and compliant.[5] They were influenced by the Black Power movement and other socialist groups as well as the Pakistani Progressive Party (PPP) and the Pakistani Workers’ Union (PWU).[6] Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 and the rise in the electoral fortunes of the National Front in the 1970s necessitated a different approach in their view.

It’s hard to imagine how de-humanised people from the Indian sub-continent often were by racists in the 1970s. I’m blessed or cursed with an elephantine memory and remember several illustrative incidents. At junior school in about 1973, a very clipped posh white kid was horrified when an Asian pupil kicked him after being racially taunted in the playground. The white kid wheeled round to the rest of us, crimson faced:

“Did you see what that paki just did?”

He was incredulous that an Asian Briton would dare to lash out. In another incident at secondary school, a fellow Asian student who was painfully shy didn’t turn up one day to a French class. Our school-bully-in-residence loudly enquired if anybody knew where he was, as if he seriously gave a damn. And to my disappointment, the teacher, who I assumed up to that point to be a lefty like me, commented with a sly grin:

“Probably having a shit in the assembly hall.”

Forty years after the grim scene on the motorway underpass in South Woodford, I read about a young Asian Briton called Suresh Grover who came across what he described as a “pool of blood” on the pavement in Southall, west London in June 1976.[7] It was a sight that would have a dramatic impact on his political outlook.

Suresh’s father was a Kenyan Asian who had left newly independent Kenya in the 1960s after a policy of ‘Africanisation’ made it difficult for Asians to remain[8]. Uganda went one step further in 1972 under its mercurial dictator Idi Amin and formally expelled its Asian population.[9]. These two waves of Asian migration to the ‘mother country’ were exploited to great effect by neo-fascist, racist and far Right groups throughout the 1970s[10].

Suresh Grover left his hometown of Nelson, Lancashire to live in London. One reason was the arrival in Nelson of skinheads in 1973, which had led to him being stabbed by a gang. According to Suresh, no incident report or statement was taken at the police station and there was no follow up to investigate the crime. His father refused to believe at first that an English white boy could have done such a thing, saying it must have been a Muslim as they were a Hindu family. This was a throwback to his father’s memories of the inter-communal bloodbath after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Suresh found himself looking at the pool of blood in Southall, a suburb of London with a large Asian population, and asking a police officer what had happened. Suresh says the police officer was dismissive remarking that it was “just an Asian”. Furious at the officer’s attitude, he built a shrine of sorts at the spot with bricks and a cloth to cover the blood.

The victim in this case was an eighteen-year-old student called Gurdip Singh Chaggar. His death would lead to a large protest that year but also a chain of events and developments leading to major riots in 1979 and 1981 that would make Southall headline news. Two trends would make a clash inevitable. A growing determination by Asian Britons to protect themselves and a movement of the far Right into the skinhead scene looking for white working-class recruits.

I should make it clear at this point to older readers that I understand completely that “skinhead” is not synonymous with “fascist”. The 1960s skinhead scene was aware of its cultural debt to Jamaica in terms of clothes and music. And I have met many skinheads today who are vehemently anti-racist. But facts are stubborn things and from the 1970s (and arguably before), there was a growing and regrettable overlap between violent extreme Right groups and a significant proportion of skinheads.

In my 1970s archive, I found a copy of the local newspaper from where I grew up in the London Borough of Redbridge. It dates from 3 November 1978. Redbridge is the outermost of a group of boroughs that cover east London from the river Thames to the boundary with Essex. There was a large Jewish population in Redbridge in the 1970s but also a growing Asian population that was moving out of inner London boroughs like Tower Hamlets.

The front page of the Redbridge Guardian and Independent led with the story: “Skinhead Attack in Park”[11]. A 14-year-old boy was the victim of a “ferocious skinhead attack” where he had been punched to the ground hit around the face. The assailants were described as “thin” and aged 18.

One had ginger hair and freckles while the other “had black hair and wore crossover braces and black boots”. The 14-year-old victim’s name was Misbaul Islam. A week before, there had been an attack on a couple in the same area witnessed by about 40 people, the newspaper reported. None of them called for help.

A spokesperson for the borough’s Community Relations Council noted that “these attacks seem to be occurring with increasing frequency”.[12] Directly below the article, a brief news item pointed out that the Conservative majority on the local council was sticking to its decision to axe the entire grant to the aforementioned Community Relations Council.

Turn to page 5 and the lead story was: “Campaign Acts to help frightened Asians”.[13] It’s a headline to note because the anti-racist actions of both liberals and socialists often had the sense of being largesse distributed from good people to the oppressed. As opposed to the oppressed having some agency in their own liberation. The article reported that the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) was taking action in response to a “vast sticker campaign” by racists.

This use of old-fashioned, pre-digital stickers to intimidate is still a favoured tactic of the extreme Right. In recent years, the now proscribed neo-Nazi National Action group would drench areas with messages like “White Zone” and “Britain is ours the rest must go”. Two NA members were jailed in 2017 for stickering Aston University.[14]

In February 1978, the National Front intended to march through Ilford, which outraged both my Jewish friends at school and the local Asian community. To do my bit aged 14, still remembering the grim scene I’d witnessed at the motorway underpass, I wrote to the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees asking for the march to be banned.

I was informed in a surprisingly lengthy response that a ban was the responsibility of the Commissioner of Police and the “Home Secretary cannot ban processions unless the Commissioner first decides that a ban is necessary and seeks his consent”[15].  So, it rested with the police and not the civilian authority to decide if fascists and racists could march on the streets or hold public meetings.

It would be the refusal to act against a National Front meeting and march in Southall on St George’s Day that would lead to violent unrest in 1979. Legally, the National Front was perfectly entitled to hold that meeting.

After being contacted by the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Prime Minister James Callaghan, in his last months in office, said it would require a change in the law to stop the NF meeting. Both the local Labour Party and Ealing Council echoed Callaghan’s view.[16] They might have rued their decision in the rioting that followed.

[1] Goodfellow, Maya, ‘Hostile Environment: How Immigrants became Scapegoats’, Verso Books, 2019

[2] Virdee, Satnam, ‘Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider’, Red Globe Press, 2014

[3] ‘Bashing up Pakis gives you a kick’, The Sun, 14 July 1981

[4] Ashe, Stephen, Virdee, Satnam, Brown, Laurence, ‘Striking back against racist violence in the East End of London, 1968-1970’, Race & Class, July 2016 Web

[5] Hiro, Dilip, ‘Black British: White British’, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971

[6] Ibid: ‘Striking back against racist violence in the East End of London, 1968-1970’

[7] Puri, Kavita, ‘The pool of blood that changed my life’, BBC News, 5 August 2015

[8] Vandenberg, Paul, ‘The African-Asian Divide: Analyzing Institutions and Accumulation in Kenya’, Routledge, 2013

[9] Munnion, Christopher, ‘The African who kicked out the Asians’, The New York Times, 12 November 1972

[10] Taylor, Becky, ‘Good Citizens? Ugandan Asians, Volunteers and ‘Race’ Relations in 1970s Britain’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 85, 2018, pp. 120-141

[11] ‘Skinhead Attack in Park’, Redbridge Guardian and Independent, 3 November 1978

[12] Ibid: ‘Skinhead Attack in Park’

[13] Ibid: ‘Skinhead Attack in Park’

[14] ‘Neo-Nazis jailed for posting racist stickers at university’, CPS, Web

[15] Letter from the Home Office to the author, 2 March 1978

[16] ‘Southall riots: 23 April 1979’, ealingnewsextra, April 2019, Web

The Marxist Militant Tendency wielded huge influence in the Labour Party on Merseyside in the 1980s. It operated within the Labour Party and key figures would go on to lead Liverpool City Council during its showdown with the Thatcher government between 1983 and 1986. But what did Militant think about the nihilistic rioting in 1981? It was a case of understanding the grievances but grimacing at this chaotic outburst.

I nursed a well-thumbed anthology of Leon Trotsky’s writings on my lap as the bus made its way from the Carnatic halls of residence to the university precinct via the ruins of Toxteth. My choice of Liverpool as a place to study was mainly dictated by my newly acquired ideological stance.

This was a period on the Left when debate was still framed in broadly Marxist and ideological terms. Defining yourself, knowing who and what you were, was an essential first step to becoming an activist. You might be a ‘social democrat’, a ‘democratic socialist’ or a ‘Marxist’. You could be on the ‘hard left’ or the ‘soft left’. Reformist or revolutionary. And you might be asked to define your position on the still existing and looming large Soviet Union.

I have to pinch myself to believe that I was once a speaker in a debate at university titled: “Soviet Union – state capitalist or degenerated workers’ state”.[1] I was arguing, quite passionately, the latter position. It all seemed incredibly important at the time. Now, it has the relevance of the proverbial angels dancing on a pinhead.

I had joined the Labour Party’s youth movement a few months before, rapidly being identified as a ‘sympathiser’ by Militant. It was then a progression to becoming a ‘contact’, entering into regular discussions with a member, and then blossoming into a full-blown ‘comrade’. I was groomed into Marxism by a very earnest young woman who used to explode at my petit-bourgeois inclinations:

“You gotta see things from a class perspective, Tone!”

Like many young people at the turn of the decade, I shared a yearning for fundamental change. Some people in Britain hoped Thatcher would deliver that decisive break from the post-war consensus in a decidedly right-wing direction while others like me wanted to veer leftwards. Our parents probably just wanted things to work better, but more of the same was not an attractive option to the teenagers I hung out with in 1981.

Liverpool was described by Militant as the ‘Bermuda triangle of British capitalism[2]’. So, it definitely seemed the right place to be. Militant’s view was shared to a degree by the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe who in July 1981 made some astonishing remarks to Cabinet colleagues after the Toxteth riots. In classified documents released in 2011, it was revealed that he argued that Liverpool was beyond any help and should be subjected to a policy of ‘managed decline’[3].

The local Labour Party in the city had slid by degrees under the influence of the Militant via the Trotskyist tactic of ‘entrism’.[4] The logic behind this infiltration tactic went something like this: Marxists should always find themselves alongside the most politicised workers to win them over to Marxism. These workers were to be found mainly in the Labour Party and trades unions. Ergo, Marxists should ‘enter’ those organisations.

Every new member of Militant was leant a dog-eared pamphlet called Entrism. It was loaned and not given because the content was deemed to be so incendiary that it had to be handed back after being read. I still have my copy. Its worn condition was on account of having passed through the eager hands of other initiates. In reality, it was a rather dull anthology of Trotsky’s writings on entrism into socialist parties in the 1930s. But it laid bare what we were all about and our mission.

My drift into Marxism was symptomatic of a sharp left turn among Labour Party members. Though this trend was bitterly resisted by trades unions and the still powerful moderate wing of the party. They believed that the Thatcher government was inherently unstable and that, as The Economist even predicted, by 1983 Labour could be back in power resuming where it had left off before its 1979 general election defeat.

From 1980 I was a member of the Labour Party Young Socialists, the youth wing of the Labour Party, which had come under the control of the Militant Tendency as early as 1972.[5] In effect, the LPYS was regarded by the Militant as its youth organisation, branded as Labour for now. It was even referred to as the “YO” in one internal Militant document that passed under my nose.

I’d started attending LPYS meetings in Epping Forest, near where I grew up. Lord Underhill (formerly Reg Underhill) lived locally and had been national agent of the Labour Party between 1972 and 1979. Beneficially for Militant, he had recommended abolishing the list of proscribed organisations in 1973 – that were incompatible with party membership.[6]

But he then produced a report in 1975 alleging that Militant was a separate organisation within the party having its own parallel organisation. The National Executive Committee considered his report but there was no appetite to return to proscription. Militant responded with a September 1975 front page headline stating: ‘Witch-Hunt Will Fail’.

From 1975 to 1979, Underhill’s position on Militant hardened. In a series of subsequent reports, he alleged that Militant was in reality an independent party called the Revolutionary Socialist League and the editorial board of its newspaper Militant was actually the RSL’s central committee. He wasn’t wrong.

The Militant approach to the Labour Party was articulated in a meeting I was invited to behind closed doors in Liverpool. We were described as a small rock positioned in such a way that we could move a giant lever: The Labour Party. Our strategy would be realised by one of two outcomes. Either we would recruit the best people in the Labour Party and leave. Or we would make life so hellish for the ‘reformists’ and ‘right wingers’ in the Labour party that, like a peeled onion, these outer layers would fall away. That was the analogy used.

Underhill fulminated that the RSL was a Marxist revolutionary party that had adopted the Trotskyist tactic of ‘entrism’ to transform the Labour Party from being a social democratic to a revolutionary Marxist organisation. [7] In the form of the Militant, it had already taken over the party’s youth movement and had a significant presence in many constituency parties and also trade union branches.[8] In 1976, leading Militant and LPYS activist Andy Bevan became the Youth Officer of the Labour Party.

Militant also began to influence party policy. In 1972, the Labour Party conference passed a motion calling for an Enabling Bill to be presented to parliament that would bring into public ownership the top 350 monopolies.[9] The motion had been proposed by Ray Apps and Pat Wall, two leading Militant members. Whether the conference realised it or not, this was the central demand of Militant and would have led in reality to the nationalisation of 85% of the UK economy and the end of capitalism.

When the Toxteth riots broke out, the ruling Liberal party on the council and the local press sought to implicate Militant as instigators of the riots. They formed a connection between the events in Toxteth and the visit to Merseyside of Clare Doyle from the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton (LCDB).[10] She was also on the editorial board of the Militant.

The LCDB was set up by editorial board members Doyle and Lynn Walsh and Tony Saunois, then the LPYS representative on the Labour Party National Executive Committee. This was a textbook Marxist response to a situation it had not initiated but over which it wanted to exert some influence. The LCDB reached out to black residents’ representatives, shop stewards, councillors and Labour Party members. A month later, it was the driving force behind a benefit gig at the local town hall headlined by the pop groups UB40 and Aswad.

In reality, Militant was in the same boat as everybody else scrambling to keep pace with events, though with very different motives. It sought to intervene with its Marxist programme and recruit the ‘best elements’ to Militant. As orthodox Marxists, they shunned the spontaneity of rioting with its lack of organisation and political programme. To Militant, rioting was a form of ‘individual’ terrorism that gave the state a perfect excuse to beef up its police and security powers.

The approach therefore was to sympathise with the grievances behind rioting while diverting the aggrieved to Marxist conclusions and away from this nihilist, inchoate behaviour. Doyle explained in a 2011 article:

“Once the April flare-up began, the LPYS and Militant supporters moved into action. They did not consider burning and looting as the way to combat the policies of Thatcher, but they understood what was behind the rage that was unleashed.”[11]

The LCDB had clearly blipped on the radar of the tabloid press because once Doyle appeared in Toxteth after the rioting, it was announced that ‘Red Clare’ was in town. According to the Militant version of events she was there to update on Brixton and compare the situation in Toxteth. It’s a more sober and equally more likely explanation. The tabloids cast her as an orchestrating influence.

Having been involved in Militant in the years that followed, this misunderstands the approach of a very orthodox Marxist group, which Militant was. Spontaneous riots were not relished. Every ‘comrade’ had to read Lenin from back to front. They knew that the first leader of the Soviet Union had dreaded the so-called “July Days” in 1917 when Russian workers and soldiers swarmed on to the streets. These protestors wanted an end to the war being waged by the pre-Soviet Provisional Government against Germany (the First World War) and were refusing to be sent to the front.

The Bolsheviks had not yet taken power. They also opposed Russia’s involvement in the First World War. But Lenin wanted an orderly seizure of the Russian state as opposed to an inchoate explosion of anger that could be counterproductive. This resulted in a public stance of lukewarm support from the Bolsheviks but in private, furious opposition to the riots that unfolded in Petrograd (now St Petersburg).

“Far from aiming to seize power, the Bolsheviks did their best to restrain the masses”.[12]

Lenin’s formula for a successful revolution was a vanguard party led by strategists steeped in Marxist theory leading the proletariat. Everything else was a potentially destructive distraction.

While the Bolsheviks fretted behind the scenes, the two elements that thrived during the brief July Days were Anarchists and the extreme-right Black Hundreds. Arguably groups with a similar profile can be found playing the same role in today’s protests as de facto agent provocateurs and counterdemonstrators. Their actions gave the state an excuse to clamp down on dissent, which impacted Bolshevik activity for a while.

1917 was not an abstract piece of history to groups like the Militant but a history lesson with immediate relevance. At no point in the years that followed, did I ever hear the 1981 riots being referred to as something to emulate or repeat. Far from wanting to be in the driving seat in July 1981, Militant sought to divert the chaotic energy from the streets into something far more organised and Leninist.

It’s strange to say, but Mary Whitehouse seemed to have an instinctive understanding of the frustration and anxiety that Marxists felt about the riots. The revolutionaries were not controlling events, much as they might have wanted to in the case of the SWP. She blamed TV. Militant blamed the underlying grievances of unemployment and racism. But neither Mary Whitehouse nor the Militant thought riots were a good idea.

There was even a tinge of regret over the destructive power of the violence in Toxteth. The prominent Militant activist Derek Hatton, who went on to become Deputy Leader of Liverpool City council when Labour gained a majority in the 1983 elections, referred to events that summer in Toxteth in his autobiography:

“I know those streets well – places like Upper Parliament Street and Granby Street where I stood watching buildings which were Liverpool landmarks razed to the ground. The Racquets Club in Upper Parliament Street – the preserve of elitist generations of Liverpool businessmen – was reduced to ashes in a night. The old Rialto cinema building on the corner of Princes Road, with its distinctive domes, was burned to the ground in hours.”[13]

[1] Grant, Ted, Silverman, Roger, ‘Bureaucratism or Workers’ Power’,, Web

[2] Taaffe, Peter, Mulhearn, Tony, ‘Liverpool – A City that Dared to Fight’, Fortress Books, 1988

[3] ‘Toxteth riots: Howe proposed ‘managed decline’ for city’, BBC News, 30 December 2011

[4] Grant, Ted, ‘Problems of Entrism’,, Web

[5] Taaffe, Peter, ‘The Rise of Militant’, Militant Publications, 1995

[6] Smith, Evan, Worley, Matthew, ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’, Manchester University Press, 2017

[7] Grant, Ted, ‘Problems of Entrism’,, Web

[8] Ibid: ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

[9] Ibid: ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

[10] ‘1981 Brixton riots’, Socialist Party, 6 April 2011, Web

[11] Ibid: ‘1981 Brixton riots’

[12] Woods, Alan, ‘1917 Russian Revolution: The July Days’, Socialist Appeal, 21 July 2017, Web

[13] Hatton, Derek, ‘Inside Left’, Bloomsbury, 1988

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

To what extent did poor relations between the community in Toxteth and the police on Merseyside lead to the summer of riots in 1981? What’s what I’m going to look at now in this blog post series on Liverpool in that momentous year when the Thatcher government looked as if it might topple.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, Merseyside Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford loomed large as the villain of the piece as far as Toxteth and left-wing opinion was concerned. His post-riot comments were often contradictory, placing blame on local black youth while playing down any racial element to the disturbance in the same breath.

He featured prominently in TV and newspaper coverage as was to be expected. But many of the stories only served to confirm the worst suspicions about the Chief Constable. For example, the Daily Mail front page headline on 6 July 1981 could not have been more stark and provocative: Black War on Police.[1] Oxford was quoted on the same page putting the blame for the violence squarely on “young, black hooligans”, while conceding that some white youth were also involved and that “this was not a racial issue”.

He was keen to differentiate Toxteth from Brixton and Southall and played down the idea that there had been a race riot. “There was certainly no confrontation between black and white”. Instead, Oxford alighted on a “small hooligan and criminal element hell-bent on confrontation”. There was no immigration problem in Liverpool, he added, as the black community was long established.

Oxford had a 42-year career in three of the UK’s major forces that one obituary in 1998 described as “saturated in controversy”.[2] In 1976, he was appointed Chief Constable on Merseyside having been Deputy Chief Constable since 1974. His tenure would be stormy and memorable.

From the point of view of the police at this time, one senior officer described the late 1970s and early 1980s as “battlegrounds between Politicians and Senior Police Officers and between rioters and the less senior Police ranks”[3]. Senior police complained that civilian bodies were restraining their ability to control crime. They felt criminality was rising as a result of “a combination of booming night-time economies and a faltering industries and docks”.[4]

The response in the early 1970s, under the previous Chief Constable Sir James Houghton, was to set up a Task Force modelled on the Special Patrol Group (SPG) in London. The reputation of the SPG among urban youth was such that they featured in songs by the reggae artist Linton Kwesi Johnson and the punk bands The Exploited and Red Alert. In the 1980s BBC sitcom The Young Ones, Vyvyan had a hamster called SPG. It was particularly aggressive and inexplicably spoke with a Glaswegian accent.

The Task Force was drawn from plainclothes officers and others were sent along because they were “difficult to manage”.[5] They were given Jeep-type vehicles, long-wheel based Land Rovers, to roar around the streets. As with the SPG in London, the Task Force were enthusiastic enforcers of what was known as SPL in Liverpool – Suspected Person Loitering.

This was the equivalent of the hated SUS law in London. It was seen as a tactic employed disproportionately against black youth. Forty years later and the use of stop and search by police on ethnic minorities is still a very live issue. The difference now is that there’s a fairly balanced debate but in 1981, the balance of public opinion was to support the police overwhelmingly, regardless of concerns raised by community organisations.

One police officer recounted years later that Houghton would listen to local black community organisations in Toxteth air their grievances with a pained expression of concern on his face. As soon as they left the room, he would turn to a fellow officer and bark: “Get the vans out.”

The elevation of Oxford to Chief Constable was viewed by some in the force as a move in a liberal direction. Not a view shared subsequently in Toxteth. Two examples given of his supposed liberality were the increased use of cautions for unlawful possession of drugs and, more importantly, his decision to disband the Liverpool Task Force.

By the late 1970s, community organisations in Toxteth had coalesced into the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee. Oxford took a less cavalier approach to their complaints than the departed Houghton. Though in personal terms, he managed to have an arguably worse relationship with community leaders. That may have been a combination of his own irascible personality with a hardening of views among Toxteth community organisations.

The Task Force was replaced by a new entity called the Operational Support Division (OSD) and much to the chagrin of some officers, patrols of Toxteth were stopped. The OSD was ordered to focus on shoplifting in the city centre and avoid Liverpool 8. Any officers disobeying would be ‘binned’.

Although most people outside the force saw the OSD as a cynical rebranding of the Task Force, many within the police took it to be a new and unwelcome ‘soft’ approach. If Oxford was hoping this might diffuse tensions between the police and the community in Toxteth, then his own public pronouncements on race would soon undermine that. As one police source summarised the dilemma:

“Here was the crucial difference between Sunny Jim the Smiling Assassin (nickname for Houghton) and Lumpy Head (nickname for Oxford). Houghton took a hard line but avoided conflict. Oxford did the opposite. Despite his attempts at conciliation, the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee viewed him as an aggressive and unsympathetic racist. It was to cost him and the Force dear.”

Oxford had a taciturn bearing. Police sources say he feuded with his deputy, Alison Halford, the first female Assistant Chief Constable ever appointed in the UK. His spats with another women, Councillor Margaret Simey who chaired the local police authority, were well reported. But it was his ill-judged comments on race that have clung to Oxford down the years.

The most damaging incident was in 1978 when the BBC Nationwide programme decided to address the question of race and policing. Nationwide was a magazine programme that ran after the evening news bulletin every day and included regional inserts.

Nationwide reporter Martin Young was embedded with Merseyside police for a month. In the years that followed, Young would go on to be a successful reporter on BBC flagship programmes like Newsnight and Panorama as well as continuing his interest in crime with an award-winning investigative series called Rough Justice.

This assignment resulted in a Mersey Beat insert for the Nationwide programme and an article for The Listener magazine on 2 November 1978.  In the article for The Listener, Young remarked that:

“Policemen in general, and detectives in particular, are not racialist, despite what many black groups believe. Like any individual who deals with a vast cross-section of society, they tend to recognise that good and evil exist, irrespective of colour or creed.”[6]

He went on to note that the local police were “the first to define the problem of half-castes in Liverpool”[7]. The article continued with a quote attributed to Oxford at the time, despite his attempt to disown it, and has been repeatedly put in his mouth ever since. It pursued the thesis that mixed race people were somehow more prone to committing crimes:

“Many are the products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8, the red-light district. Naturally, they do not grow up with any kind of recognisable home life. Worse still, after they have done the rounds of homes and institutions, they gradually realise they are nothing. The Negroes will not accept them as blacks, and the whites assume they are coloureds…the half-caste community on Merseyside, more particularly Liverpool, is well outside recognised society.”[8]

This article led to a demonstration by Toxteth residents through the city centre on 25 November 1978, called by the Merseyside Anti-Racialist Alliance. This organisation had been set up in Toxteth about six months before to address shortcomings in race relations but also the rise of the extreme Right party, the National Front.

The Scarman report into the April 1981 riots hadn’t anticipated another even worse riot in Brixton that July let alone disturbances across Britain including Toxteth. Interview transcripts and comments on these events were added rather hurriedly at the conclusion of the report. Scarman did conduct a visit to Liverpool meeting police, councillors, faith leaders and community groups.

He noted similar tensions in Toxteth to what he had seen in Brixton. As a result, he welcomed the end of the SUS laws though by now, Oxford had shed his one-time liberality and countered publicly that stop and search was an “essential operational requirement”. Scarman was not of the same mind.

Scarman went on to state that relations between the police and black people in Liverpool were in a “state of crisis” and that the youth were “alienated and bitterly hostile”. This wasn’t helped by chronic under-representation of BAME people in all the UK’s police forces.

During the 1981 riots, the police force in Merseyside had only four black officers out of a force of about five thousand.[9] That said, Liverpool City council hardly fared much better with 169 black employees out of a 22,000-strong workforce let alone the dismal picture in the private sector.[10]

The depth of feeling towards Oxford in Toxteth was evidenced in my first term at university when the student Law Society decided to invite the Chief Constable to address under-graduates in the Moot Room.[11] A representative of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee (L8DC) was allowed to read a statement before Oxford spoke. She asked the students to turn him away as he was responsible for the ‘murder’ of David Moore, the use of CS gas and his own report on the riots was a ‘whitewash’.

Her motion to exclude Oxford was declined with a loud ‘no’. Oxford then continued with his speech claiming that the Merseyside Constabulary didn’t go out of its way to recruit racists and that he felt the main obstacles the police faced were a lack of finance and the attitude of the community. He didn’t think there was anything systemically wrong with the force itself.

Oxford never got to finish his speech as about thirty members of the L8DC burst into the Moot Room shouting: “Fucking burn the police!”, “Fucking University!”, “Burn the place down” and “Students are guests in this city!”. Carl Chapman, the vice-president of the Law Society tried to encourage the protestors to leave but they only departed when a crestfallen Oxford also agreed to go.

This part of the university precinct very literally backed on to Liverpool 8, though it could have been a world away. However, in the days that followed, students were reminded just how close their faculty buildings were to Toxteth. They were daubed in big letters excoriating the university as ‘racist’. One building that got special attention was the Economics department overseen by one of Margaret Thatcher’s key economic advisers, Professor Patrick Minford. His monetarist and free market views had not gone unnoticed in Liverpool 8.

[1] Daily Mail, 6 July 1981, front page

[2] Hobbs, Dick, ‘Obituary: Sir Kenneth Oxford’, Independent, 26 November 1998

[3] MacDonald, Ian, ‘Authority & Insurrection 1 – Liverpool City Police’, Liverpool City Police, Web

[4] Ibid: ‘Authority & Insurrection

[5] Ibid: ‘Authority & Insurrection

[6] Belchem, John, ‘Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th-century Liverpool’, Liverpool University Press, 2014

[7] Scraton, Phil, ‘Power, Conflict and Criminalisation’, Routledge, 2007

[8] Ibid: Power, Conflict and Criminalisation’

[9] Hughes, Simon, ‘There She Goes: Liverpool, A City On Its Own: The Long Decade; 1979-1993’, deCoubertin Books, 2019

[10] The Times, 6 July 1981

[11] ‘Moot Room Rumpus’, Gazette, December 1981

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

In these blog posts I’m getting into my time machine and zooming back to 1981. That was the year I went to university in an amazing city. The music. The politics. The vibrancy. It was an incredible place. But there were also huge problems. The riots in the summer of 1981 brought many issues to the surface. And the media struggled to cover it all. As a former print and TV journalist I’m fascinated by just how the media got to grips with a turbulent Britain under Margaret Thatcher.

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]

Whitehouse went on to quote Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who had bemoaned the insignificant influence his ultra-left sect had exercised over the rioters. “It was only extensive television coverage and not the SWP itself that has managed to spread the riots in Britain”, Whitehouse concluded.[3]

Faced with a hail of criticism after the summer of riots, the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority commissioned a report from Howard Tumber of the British Film Institute.[4] He conducted interviews with youth, police and broadcasters concluding that TV had played a minor role in influencing behaviours and attitudes among urban teenagers.[5] Less than 10% of 12 to 19-year olds surveyed watched television news and so were not avidly following reports of riots around the UK.

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. Instead, there was a thriving market in print magazines and periodicals covering every subject under the sun.

Having worked for five years as a BBC News producer in the 1990s, we all operated to a big thick bible of editorial guidelines. Not many people read it cover to cover but the gist was obvious. A gung-ho, gonzo-style approach to journalism was not the Corporation’s ethos. Coming from a print background and having freelanced for the tabloids on occasion, I was berated early on for my use of sensationalist verbs like “smash” and “crash”. Language and content had to be sober.

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. Tumber in his report noted one night of the Toxteth riots where BBC coverage was noticeably lighter because rioters had broken some of the ENG equipment.

The BBC made a point of sending in experienced production crews to cover the 1981 riots who had already done tours of duty in Northern Ireland, where the “Troubles” were in full swing.[6] But even newsroom editors were shocked when crews began to phone in to report that their cars had been vandalised, equipment destroyed and reporters and camera operators attacked.[7]

One news editor remarked:

“The danger of working in certain areas was something even thirteen years of working in Northern Ireland had not prepared us for”.[8]

The BBC in particular were seen by many rioters as part of the ‘establishment’ as opposed to being impartial reporters. At the same time, the police were complaining of two years of ‘biased’ TV coverage of their operations since the controversial tactics used in the 1979 Southall riots that contributed to the death of New Zealand schoolteacher, Blair Peach.[9]

But hostility to the media wasn’t just reserved for the BBC. Independent TV news crews were also subject to attack during the riots, as were print journalists. In 1981, TV and print newsrooms were heavily unionised and so the actions of the rioters were viewed in a dim light by many in the labour movement. Possibly as many of the rioters had never worked, through no fault of their own, they hadn’t imbibed the values of trade union and class solidarity.

Journalists felt as if they were in a war zone. Even the trendy, left leaning New Musical Express (NME) encountered a wall of hostility in Toxteth when it visited to take the temperature. The NME was required reading for any hip and Thatcher-hating youth circa 1981. In a pre-digital age when musical artists had tremendous influence over our lives, the NME and the other music press (Melody Maker, Sounds, Record Mirror, etc) were devoured every week by teenagers.

What David Bowie or Paul Weller had to say about the state of the world was deemed to have earth shattering significance. For us, the advent of punk in 1976 wasn’t just a change in musical fashion but an existential moment for our generation where we declared a kind of Year Zero purging our record collections of pre-1976 impurity. The NME, like the party mouthpiece in a Stalinist dictatorship, told us what was acceptable, and we obeyed slavishly.

NME reporters indulged the patience of their readership with very long thought pieces and interviews peppered with philosophical references to the likes of Carl Jung or Jean-Paul Sartre. And the political stance of the paper was resolutely anti-Margaret Thatcher. But in Toxteth, the NME found no deference.

That August as the riots simmered down, a team from the NME went to the area to find out what exactly had happened. They interviewed a woman called Anna sitting amidst a pile of rubble that had once been “Anna’s Fruit Shop”.[10] Anna was one of those retailers in Toxteth referred to by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whose reaction to footage of the riots was:

“Oh, those poor shopkeepers!”[11]

Anna told the NME:

“They’ve just created more unemployment by putting shopkeepers and their workers on the dole. They haven’t hurt the police – it’s just their own community that they’ve destroyed.”[12]

The NME spoke to the police and were even-handed in their reporting repeating police allegations they had been spat at and called ‘pigs’ to provoke a response from officers during the riots. A garage attendant remarked stoically to the NME that “there’s good and bad on both sides”.

Then things turned uglier for the team as they went to talk to members of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee. This was an alliance of community organisations based in the area.The reception at the Caribbean Community Centre was decidedly frosty with one individual telling the NME: “no white press in here”[13].

About twenty local youth then surrounded the NME team and asked why they only visited when there was trouble. They also berated the paper for only promoting white bands from Merseyside like Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. The reporter’s car bonnet was now being used as a trampoline and the team was being frisked by pickpockets. Then one individual articulated the hatred they felt for the visitors:

“You come into a trouble-torn area with your fancy cameras on your back an’ your slick tape recorders an’ fire questions a black people under pressure. An’ then you wonder why they want to hit you over the head an’ steal your equipment an’ leave you on the ground.”[14]

The reporter described his team as being “white boys in the wrong part of town” and the NME beat a hasty retreat from Toxteth.

As Tumber concluded in his report, young people were getting their news about the riots in informal settings like pubs or on the street. I recall first hearing about the July Brixton riot sitting in a pub in north-east London. A friend, Lisa, ran screaming into the bar demanding we accompany her down to Brixton to retrieve her parked car. After hearing what was going on, we decided to order another pint instead.

Pubs played a much more central role in the lives of young people in the early 1980s. In Liverpool, pubs were known to cater for different youth age bands. Mid-teens knew which landlords would turn a blind eye while later teens would drink in different establishments. There were also under the radar drinking clubs, some of which were clearly not licensed. I recall one being above a derelict menswear shop in the city centre that involved ringing a doorbell, walking past the naked mannequins and going up the stairs at the back.

It was in venues like those and on the streets that information circulated. CB Radio has been cited as playing a role with repeated accounts of “omnipresent hooded motorcyclists with citizens’ band radios[15]”. Even chalked messages on walls were a reported means of communication. To give a snapshot of life before smartphones, I recall being on a bus in Liverpool in 1983 when a youth I didn’t recognise sidled up to me:

“You’re in Militant aren’t ya?”


“Yeah thought so, seen ya before. There’s a rally on tonight. TGWU building.”

And that is how information was shared rapidly between political activists, let alone rioters, in the pre-digital age. Unlike Mary Whitehouse, we were not seated in front of our TVs taking notes during the 5.40pm early evening BBC1 news bulletin.

[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

[3] Ibid: ‘Images that fan the flames of violence’

[4] Ibid: ‘Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain’

[5] Tumber, Howard, ‘Television & the Riots’, British Film Institute, 1982

[6] Ibid: ‘Televsion & the Riots’

[7] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[8] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[9] Ibid: ‘Television & the Riots’

[10] Duffy, Mick, ‘Life in the War Zone’, New Musical Express, 8 August 1981

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

[12] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[13] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[14] Ibid: ‘Life in the War Zone’

[15] Unworth, Clive, ‘The Riots of 1981: Popular Violence and the Politics of Law and Order’, Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1982, pp. 63.85

In these blog posts, I’m casting my mind back to my first year at university in Liverpool. I arrived in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots and a city in ferment. Can’t deny it was very exciting. But it was also a time of massive poverty and sky-high rates of unemployment as well as shocking racism.

For us students, moving out of the halls of residence at the end of the first year normally meant living on the outskirts or slap bang in the middle of Toxteth. Flats were cheap and it was close to the university. The added attraction were the speakeasy-style drinking clubs in collapsing Georgian houses with 1960s neon signs over the door.

A group of us went to one club that was actually in mid-demolition with half the walls of what had once been a merchant’s house missing. I recall what passed for the toilets being under a starry sky. Health and safety considerations were largely absent. The names of these drinking establishments, now shut down, reflected the communities they served: Jamaica House, Yoruba, Somali and the Silver Sands.

DISCOVER: Clubbing in Liverpool in the 1980s

Not that students were necessarily welcomed with open arms in the area. There was a widespread antipathy among many Liverpool youth towards “fockin’ shtewdents” who were seen as well-heeled and insensitive to the city’s plight. One friend of mine, who always dressed in the height of fashion at his own peril, was walking down Granby Street when a local resident threw an enormous animal bone at him!

Unemployment was endemic in 1981 Toxteth. It had been steadily climbing throughout the de-industrialisation of the 1970s. But since 1979, the trend had accelerated dramatically.[1] Manufacturing investment had declined by 20% and unemployment had soared. Young people, and especially black youth, had been very hard hit. Even though the official jobless figure in Toxteth was around 30%, being out of work seemed to be the norm[2].

Three months before the riots, five hundred unemployed people had marched from Liverpool to London, invoking memories of the 1930s Jarrow hunger marches.[3] As a sixth former, I went to Hyde Park to cheer the footsore marchers as they arrived at their destination.[4] Later that year, the TUC (Trades Union Congress) organised the Jobs for Youth Campaign, which saw unemployed teenagers travel around the country by train on the so-called Jobs Express holding regional rallies before a lobby of Parliament in London.[5][6]

It wasn’t just economic policy that hit young people in Toxteth but a racism that wasn’t so much institutional as shockingly overt. Bigoted attitudes among employers were a commonplace. After graduating, I applied for a job with a life assurance company near the Liverpool docks and was offered a post.

I asked a bouffant-haired middle-aged ‘yuppie’ in a double-breasted suit why I’d been accepted. There was a bottle of Kouros after shave placed prominently on his desk to indicate his sophistication and class. “You’re not a scouser (slang for a Liverpudlian), a woman or black.” Apparently, none of these categories, he explained in his Cheshire suburban drawl, knew how to handle money. I didn’t show up on the Monday morning.

The epicentre of the Toxteth rioting was within the so-called ‘Granby Triangle’ bounded by Upper Parliament Street, Lodge Lane and Sefton Park Road. Demographics had changed substantially since the Second World War. The middle class had drifted away half a century before to the suburbs. Many working-class families had been rehoused in the new post-war council estates trading in cramped 19th century conditions for more space.

As a result, the Granby area of Toxteth like other parts of the city saw a sharp fall in population with the percentage of BAME families increasing. The nearby Dingle area was still predominantly white working class. Residents in the Dingle tended to chop and change their local identity. As one political activist from the Dingle observed to me: if it was good news then they were the Dingle but if it was bad news, then they became Toxteth.

One notable building left stranded in the area by the departure of its well-heeled clientele was the Liverpool Racquet Club. This institution opened in 1877 with a subscription of five Guineas. Within its walls, there had been two racquets courts and an “American” bowling alley with a billiards room added later and a private dining room.[7] On the 6 July 1981, it went up in smoke at the hands of rioters.

Another landmark targeted by their fury was the former Rialto cinema. In the 1920s, the cinema could seat 1,305 in the stalls and 500 in the balcony.[8] The walls were covered in murals with romantic views of Venice in the auditorium and the Wye valley in the cafe. Under the management of Gaumont British Theatres from 1928, this spacious venue screened Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” on 4 February 1929.

But as with many cinemas, it struggled after the Second World War and shut its doors in 1964. It subsequently became a furniture warehouse. The tiled hulk of a building, dominating a junction within the Granby Triangle, was razed to the ground by arsonists in the heat of July 1981. It was left in such a poor state that rapid demolition was inevitable. Looking out of the college bus window, we were greeted with an empty space where a grand old cinema had stood.[9]

In the weeks that followed there were all manner of rumours about why certain buildings had been targeted including the Rialto and the Racquet Club. For example, the Rialto was said to have once operated a dance club with a colour bar. This conspiracy theory neglected to point out that at the time of being burned down, the dance club was long gone and there was an employment agency in its basement serving mainly black clients next to a hairdresser specialising in “Afro” styles.

The owner of the furniture warehouse that had taken over the old Rialto building did have his character impugned in post-riot gossip and the Liverpool Wavertree Conservative MP Antony Steen noted darkly to the House of Commons in a debate on the civil disturbance that the warehouse was “owned by a former Tory councillor”[10].

Steen also pointed out that some rioters had journeyed out of Toxteth to smash all the windows at Thatcher’s tea and coffee house, which he had opened in his constituency. This coffee house became a focus for Labour Party Young Socialists’ demonstrations in the early 1980s. While the Tory ladies sliced their Victoria sponge cake and sipped on Earl Grey within, Liverpudlian activists in rubber Thatcher masks gawped and jeered at the windows. These were indeed strange times.

In total, about seventy buildings in Toxteth were utterly destroyed along with about a hundred cars and this mayhem resulted in five hundred arrests. I can’t deny that among the young students staring out of the bus windows, there was a slight frisson of excitement. We had seen the riots on the BBC and ITV news but here was the stark evidence before us.

[1] ‘Unemployment Statistics’, Hansard, 18 November 1981, Web

[2] Cooper, Paul, ‘Competing explanations of the Merseyside Riots of 1981’, The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 25, No.1, 1985, pp. 60-69

[3] ‘Route of Jarrow marchers’, The National Archives, Web

[4] McMahon, Tony, ‘Political Badges from the 1980s’, Thatcher Crisis Years, 30 August 2014, Web

[5] ‘Britain at Work’, London Metropolitan University, 2012, Web

[6] McMahon, Tony, ‘Sandwiches for the unemployed on the Jobs Express in 1981’, Thatcher Crisis Years, 13 January 2013, Web

[7] ‘The Racquet Club History’, Racquet Club, Web

[8] Roe, Ken, ‘Rialto Theatre’, Cinema Treasures, 13 May 2009, Web

[9] ‘Toxteth Riots 1981 background – and how it all began’, Liverpool Echo, 4 July 2011

[10] Steen, Anthony, ‘Civil Disturbances’, Hansard, 16 July 1981