Found this in my parent’s attic. A local newspaper report from 1978 describing how two skinheads had beaten up an Asian youth. It was yet another example of something described at the time as “paki bashing” – assaults by racist skins on mainly Asian youth.
While the article below quotes a community relations spokesperson saying attacks like this were becoming more frequent – there’s no mention of this being a racist incident. This was typical at the time. Both the media and police were reticent to point out what was blindingly obvious – that this 14 year old had been hospitalised because of the colour of his skin.
Many of the public also didn’t want to acknowledge the problem. But anti-Asian sentiment had been stoked for years by groups like the National Front and British Movement. The influx of Asians from the former British colonies of Kenya and Uganda, expelled by dictators who had taken power in those countries, was greeted with tabloid press hatred. This provoked appalling and senseless thuggery.
In the early 80s, the Labour Party had two youth organisations that were at each other’s throats. The Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) was under the control of the Marxist group Militant and adopted a hard left programme of nationalisation and the overthrow of capitalism. Since the mid-70s, Militant had been in the LPYS driving seat and even had a representative on the Labour Party national executive.
The party bureaucracy didn’t enjoy this situation so they set up a separate student wing called the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) – under the control of leadership friendly activists.
Militant responded with a spirited attempt to take over NOLS. Every NOLS conference became a battleground between Militant supporters and those aligned to Labour’s leadership. The pro-leadership group was initially called Clause 4 but then re-grouped into a faction called the Democratic Left.
NOLS remained under the control of Clause 4 while the LPYS continued with Militant. Eventually, Labour closed down the LPYS at the same time it carried out large scale expulsions of Militants from the party.
Not long after the 1979 election, Home Secretary William Whitelaw had announced he was going full steam ahead on a key manifesto promise – the Short Sharp Shock.
To a euphoric Tory party conference in October 1979, the urbane and aristocratic Whitelaw told delighted delegates that detention centres for teen lawbreakers would no longer be ‘holiday camps’. This played on widely believed, media stories of young hooligans leading cosseted lives behind bars. “Life will be conducted at a swift tempo,” he assured the party.
The belief was that a regime of early wake up calls, military drill and manual labour over a three month period would shock young offenders out of a life of crime. To break even the most determined spirit, periods of recreation could be denied, silence was the general rule with only 30 minutes of chat between prisoners permitted each day.
The Short Sharp Shock regime kind of resembled the opening half of the movie Full Metal Jacket – a mindless ultra-disciplinarian series of routines that aimed to bury liberal attitudes to offender rehabilitation once and for forever. This was going to be punishment pure and simple and the duly traumatised young criminals would keep their noses clean from then on.
Curiously, prisoners at one of the four Short Sharp Shock centres, Glenochil in Scotland, were referred to as ‘trainees’. They were assessed in the mundane tasks they were ordered to perform, like cleaning the floors, and given colour coded tokens to mark out levels of achievement.
Under the terms of Whitelaw’s 1980 Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act, any young offender banged up for less than four months at Glenochil could expect a regimented hell. Dormitories spotless by 6.45am while prison officers with peaked caps and pulled down shirtsleeves tipped over their bed mattress for any minor infraction and ordered it remade.
Marching was seen to be the idea therapy for these youngsters. Marched to breakfast, marched to their cells, marched to the work areas and then marched to their tea break. They were even forced to jog on the spot until told to stop.
Some of this simply echoed the kind of regimes that already existed in borstals but with greater intensity and over a shorter time period. But it also signaled a view in government circles that a crackdown was needed on Britain’s wayward youth, a reversal of the permissive society kicked off in the 1960s and perceived to have set in train some kind of moral decline.
But it wasn’t morals that these young primarily lacked. It was jobs in the real world. Most of those sent to the designated Short Sharp Shock centres had committed acts of theft or stolen vehicles and something like 90%, according to the Sunday Times, had no work at the time of offending.
In an unfortunate twist for the government, these kids with little by way of a future often found the regime a relief from the drudgery outside. Effectively, it took their minds off how dreadful things had become in their shattered communities.
As one youth mused.
“I can’t say whether I’ll go out and pinch again or not, but I can tell you that drilling hasn’t made any difference. It makes me better, I think. I enjoy it, it passes the time more quickly and it makes us fit. Next time, we’ll just run faster from the coppers won’t we?”
The first night involved scuffles, an arrest and some injuries on both sides but after this Toxteth simmered with a glowering rage. On the following night, an anonymous caller to the police reported a stolen car and officers who went to investigate were pelted with bricks and stones. This was the first skirmish of what would be a very long night of violence.
Eyewitness accounts from the time described a dairy and a car hire shop at the top of Upper Parliament Street providing a fortuitous combination for the rioters. A group of youths took the milk bottles from the dairy and filled them with petrol from the car hire outlet. The police line that was attempting to advance up “Parli” suddenly found itself at the receiving end of blazing Molotov cocktails.
Worse was to come as the actual hire cars were enlisted for use against the police line. Rather like the game of dare with stolen cars in the 1950s movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, youths jammed the accelerators with bricks then drove at pull speed towards the police jumping out before impact. “The police scattered like flies each time a driverless car screeched down at them,” an eye-witness later said. One press report called the action a wild “dodgem game”.
A police officer remembered one car “hit a lamp-post and burst in to flames. If it had stayed on course, it could have killed someone.” But it wasn’t just the cars that were hurtling towards the police line. The Daily Express, in its coverage that weekend, claimed that twelve milk floats from the dairy were driven in a similar manner while two hundred youths built barricades of flaming car tyres sending a pall of smoke rising high above Liverpool.
You have to try hard to remember what young people were thinking in 1979, 1980, 1981 as the UK went through the mother of all recessions. In contrast to the dreary and sullen mood now, there was a rebellious anger in those days mixed with a strong counter-culture rooted in the 70s punk movement.
Demonstrations and rallies sometimes felt like parties and none more than the Jobs Express that brought thousands of youngsters to London to vent their feelings at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
I found this newspaper article from the time in my archives and the two girls interviewed – Sheila and Becky – had very typical views of Labour trending teenagers. Get rid of the bomb – the nuclear bomb needless to say. Put the money from that into creating jobs – not in the arms industry clearly.
The government Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) was hated – after all these kids’ parents had enjoyed apprenticeships in factories. And on the subject of manufacturing, it’s interesting that Becky says Thatcher must go before she destroys BL (British Leyland – the nationalised car maker).
It all seems a long time ago now – and yet mass youth joblessness is back with us in Europe. The People’s March for Jobs in 1981 was a very big march streaming into Hyde Park and made up of many young people who had come from all over Britain. Grim economic times but a real gritty determination to fight back in those days. This leaflet may jog some memories.
There was a dark humour among the unemployed under Thatcher – many knowing they would never, in all likelihood, work again. These were people thrown out of manufacturing jobs and facing a labour market that was unforgiving if you over 35 – let alone unwilling to up sticks.
Graduates couldn’t even find summer jobs in the early 80s as the unemployed competed for shop and bar work. Dole newspapers sprang up all over the north, Midlands and London. This one developed a game for the jobless called Monotony – a skit on Monopoly.