Enoch Powell playing the race card after the 1981 riots


In my view, only one riot in 1981 could be described as a white v black confrontation and that was Southall where National Front supporters and predominantly Asian youth clashed. But as for Toxteth, Moss Side and Brixton – the frustration of black youth was allied to a furious despair among unemployed whites and their target was mainly the police.

Conservative MP Enoch Powell
Enoch Powell – old demagogue plays race card after riots

However, the veteran prophet of doom Enoch Powell wasn’t going to let the riots pass without fulminating in parliament  that a race war was round the corner.

He banged on that none of this would have happened if the “New Commonwealth” population hadn’t been allowed to grow.  Powell then turned to some familiar fear mongering stating that immigrant areas were forever expanding and the “indigenous population” must “retreat house by house at the same rate”.

Powell was joined in playing the race card by Ivor Stanbrook MP who told journalists he was going to see the Home Secretary to argue for a ‘voluntary repatriation scheme’. Eldon Griffiths MP, parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation, said “who can say today that racial violence does not threaten the social fabric of Britain?”

This didn’t impress Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw. An old aristocratic Tory, he slapped Powell and the others down pointing out that the black community living in Toxteth, Liverpool had been there for 150 years. They weren’t newcomers.  More interestingly, Whitelaw said the racial composition of the rioters in Toxteth had changed night after night – becoming noticeably whiter! These are his exact words to parliament on the 16th July, 1981.

“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”.

Whitelaw admitted young people in Britain were experiencing deep frustration. He added that violence had already been seen breaking out at football matches and had now burst forth on to the streets.

“The problems of urban decay and deprivation are intractable and deep-seated, particularly in Merseyside, despite decades of efforts to remedy them and the expenditure of very considerable sums of public money”.

 

Tory attacks on left wingers after the 1981 riots


Unemployment had doubled among the young from 1979 to 1981 and quadruped among black youth. Welfare had been cut and traditional industrial jobs had disappeared overnight. The Tory government elected in May, 1979 under Margaret Thatcher was wedded to a monetarist economic policy that regarded inflation as the number one enemy and unemployment as a kind of necessary evil.

So when inner riots exploded in July, 1981 – after initial eruptions in Brixton that April and St Pauls, Bristol the year before – the government was left looking for a suitable scapegoat. Its friends in the media soon alighted on some likely suspects. The whole thing, the violence that had convulsed Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Southall, etc, etc – had been fomented by left wing revolutionaries!

In fact, as somebody who was involved on the hard left of politics at the time, I can say hand on heart that the Marxist left was as surprised as anybody else by the ferocity of the riots that ensued. The Militant – fingered by the press as you can see in the clip below – was not a great fan of spontaneous rioting anyway. What they wanted was a revolutionized trade union movement led by a Marxist party in disciplined fashion to overthrow the capitalist state. Riots were far too chaotic and anarchistic for their liking.

But of course, every socialist had to be seen supporting and empathizing with the ‘youth’. Ken Livingstone, then head of the Greater London Council, went to Brixton to address an Anti-Nazi League meeting. This was immediately spun by Fleet Street as Ken addressing rioters – usual juvenile, stupid knee-jerk stuff from the tabloids.

The Labour leadership, definitely caught unawares by the riots, was left in the invidious position of having to condemn the Tories but also condemn the rioters. Thatcher delighted in their discomfort and goaded them into expelling left wingers within the party.

Here is a media article from the time…

Militant accused of involvement in riots
Militant accused of involvement in riots

The 1981 riots – how we tried to laugh


Private Eye tried to see the funny side of the 1981 riots that shook England from April through to August. Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Southall…and the list went on of inner city areas that were engulfed in violence. This was definitely gallows humour.

 

The Scarman Report – Brixton Riots


After the 1981 Brixton Riots – veteran judge Lord Scarman went wandering round the area to find out why it had all happened. He cut a rather unusual figure at the time, something from another age. But looking back now, he seemed well meaning in his intent. His report became something of a best seller, put out in paperback through Penguin.

Not everybody thought Scarman had got to the bottom of what had caused the violence. Ted Knight, the bellowing leader of Lambeth council said it was “a very small and misleading contribution”. While the Daily Mirror in total contrast claimed it was “one of the great social documents of our time”.  Darcus Howe called it “mere tinkering”.

The Deptford Fire – months before the Brixton Riots


Thirteen young people died at a house fire in Deptford, south London on 18 January, 1981. They had been at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock, aged 16. Thirteen people died in the inferno including Yvonne and her brother.

Even by the standards of the time, this was a horrific incident. And I say that because house fires claiming lives often got surprisingly little media coverage. In this case, the tone of the media commentary and the attitude of the police played into an already existing sense of grievance among many black people in south London and beyond.

It’s reasonable to say now that this house fire set in train a series of events that would lead to the riots that convulsed cities across the UK in the spring and summer of that year.

A 2001 article in The Guardian details how the police focussed on the idea of something illegal going on at the party – or possible a fight between partygoers being the root cause. In contrast, many black activists believed the fire had been an arson attack with racist motives.

In a way, the cause was overshadowed by the reaction to the event. To many black youth, it seemed that the establishment revealed its indifference. For example, there was no statement of condolence from the prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Whereas now, a tragedy like Grenfell – and similar incidents – are treated with a far greater degree of sensitivity.

Local anger resulted in a Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March, 1981 – new photographs of which were featured in a recent exhibition. It took a long route from Fordham Park in south London, through Peckham and Camberwell, on to Blackfriars and Fleet Street, then finally through the west end to Hyde Park.

Official estimates put the turnout at around 6,000 while the organisers claimed 20,000 – these kind of disparities for demo turnouts were really common at the time. The authorities always wanted to play down attendance whereas the organisers wanted to inflate the numbers. The truth was always somewhere in between.

Tragically, to this day, the cause and motive behind the fire remains a mystery.

A demonstration outside the house in Deptford