Unravelling the Thatcherite narrative: The 1981 riots and Thatcher’s ‘crisis years’

The Brixton riots, 1981
The Brixton riots, 1981

After coming across this excellent blog the other day, author Tony McMahon’s Thatcher’s Crisis Years, 1979-1983, I was thinking about the characterisation of Thatcher’s first term as a period of crisis. The 1970s have been described by most as a period of crisis – an economic crisis, the crisis of social democracy, etc – but for many, Thatcher’s election in 1979 is seen as the end of the crisis and step towards the stabilisation of British politics. The idea of the seemingly irremovable Tories of the 1980s and the view of the Thatcher’s neo-liberal ‘revolution’ as inevitable has long manifested in the historiography of Thatcherism, where the high point of Thatcherism (around 1985-88) has moulded how those earlier years have been remembered. But as the archival material is now showing, Thatcherism was not as established and insurmountable back then as it seemed a few short years later. It is heartening to see the historical view of Thatcher’s first government as the ‘crisis years’ and I think the anniversaries of important events in these years, such as the 30th anniversaries of the Brixton riots and the Falklands War, will lead to further reassessment of her time as Prime Minister. (I also think that the history of the early Thatcher period is being viewed through the lens of today’s Cameron-Clegg government , but that’s for another day).

Thatcher visiting Liverpool in July 1981 after the riots
Thatcher visiting Liverpool in July 1981 after the riots

With that in mind, I thought I would post a little bit from a paper that I had written back in 2008 for the APSA conference, but never published. The other bits of the paper are on the importance of Stuart Hall’s definition of Thatcherism in understanding the ‘law and order’ agenda of the Tories in the early years, but I have not included them here. Some of this paper ended up in this article, but here are some thoughts on the 1981 riots and Thatcher’s ‘crisis years’:

In most histories of Margaret Thatcher and her time as Conservative Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, the riots that occurred in Brixton and across Britain in 1981 have been given little mention. It has been emphasised that one of the major focuses of Thatcher’s neo-liberal agenda was the deconstruction of an organised labour movement, but this has been at the expense of recognising the other elements of British society that Thatcher viewed as ‘subversive’ and sought to contain. It must be acknowledged that the first major confrontation between the state under Conservative rule and these ‘subversive’ elements was not with the trade unions, but the riots, predominantly led by black youth in the inner cities, that occurred across Britain in 1981. If mentioned at all in these histories, the riots are viewed as merely reactions to the monetarist policies of the Conservative Government, overshadowed by the opposition to Thatcher by the ‘wets’ within the Conservative Party to the 1981 budget and concessions to strike action in the steel industry. (Gilmour, 1992, 30; Seldon & Collings, 2000, 19; Campbell, 2003, 113) In the historiography of Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, the confrontation between the state and the trade unions has been portrayed as the archetype of her decisive use of the state against ‘the enemies within’, while the riots in Brixton and across Britain in 1981 have been, for the most part, overlooked. But these riots should be viewed as central to any analysis of ‘law and order’ under the Conservatives in the 1980s and the use of repressive institutions of the state to deal with the ‘threats’ to the Thatcherite Government. The historiography of the early Thatcher period is determined by its focus upon the over-arching socio-economic effects of monetarism and the importance placed upon the Falklands War and the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike as the symbols of Thatcher’s confrontational stance. This has meant that while the 1981 riots are not completely ignored, they are marginalised in the historiography of modern mainstream British politics.  

The 1981 inner-city riots were the result of institutional racism, police harassment and urban deprivation, although to what extent each factor contributed to the riots can never be measured exactly. Conservative MP John Stokes described the riots as ‘something new and sinister in our long national history’ (UK Parliament, 1981, col. 29) and the events were presented by many in the press as an end to ‘law and order’ or the ‘British way of life’. However as John Benyon (1985, 410) has contended, the riots were ‘neither unique events nor racial disturbances’, which instead ‘indicated serious social and political grievances and frustrations’. As Tara Brabazon (1998, 49) has described it:

For historians researching Thatcher’s first term, Brixton appears an aberrant implosion in the economic rationalist narrative. It was a moment of unravelled consensus, when violent clashes between police and protestors were the only means possible to protect the Thatcherite state.

Unlike the triumphalism of the state and strong Government celebrated by the Conservatives after the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike, the aftermath of the 1981 riots saw the Government having to partially retreat from its forceful ‘law and order’ position and make concessions that police tactics in the black communities did involve racist and alienating behaviour. The stability and ideological fixity of Thatcherism, although based on a long shift towards the right, was not as assured as historians have later portrayed. 

Although there was much speculation over the cause of the riots, many acknowledged that the heavy-handed police actions in the black communities over the previous decade had been a principal factor in provoking such a violent reaction by black youth. After the Brixton riots, Lord Scarman was appointed to conduct an inquiry into the riots, which was underway when the July riots broke out. The importance of his report, released in November 1981, was its investigation into the socio-economic and criminal justice policies of the Conservative Government and the reprimand of some of the more forceful measures undertaken towards Britain’s black communities.  In reference to the environment of deprivation that existed in Britain’s inner cities, which had been exacerbated by the monetarism of the Government, the Scarman Report (1986, 205) explicitly stated that there could be ‘no doubt that unemployment was a major factor… which lies at the root of the disorders in Brixton and elsewhere’. On the matter hard policing in the black communities, Scarman (1986, 195) found that the riots were ‘a spontaneous reaction to what was seen as police harassment’. However, while Scarman (1986, 198) criticised some of the actions of the police and admitted that ‘racial prejudice does manifest itself occasionally in the behaviour of a few officers in the streets’, he ultimately found that ‘the direction and policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist’. Scarman (1986, 209) concluded that ‘racial disadvantage and its nasty associate, racial discrimination’ still existed, but controversially declared that ‘“Institutional racism” does not exist in Britain’. This conclusion saw the Scarman Report make several profound criticism of police tactics and recommendations for improving police-community relations, but this denial of institutional racism limited much of its potential progressive impact, with Martin Barker and Anne Beezer (1983, 108) describing its as ‘a liberal Report, but one within entirely racist parameters’. As Stuart Hall (1999, 193) later wrote, the Report ‘was no panacea’, but ‘broke the prevailing law-and-order consensus’ that left the police blameless.

Opinion polls after the riots showed Thatcher to be a deeply unpopular leader and mistrust of the police was widespread, and not just amongst Britain’s ethnic minority communities. As 1981 ended, it may have seemed to many at the time that Thatcher was going to be a one-term Prime Minister. But over the next year and a half, several factors came together to strengthen her position, such as the Falklands War, the decrease in inflation and the Social Democratic Party splitting from the Labour Party. In the conclusion of his report, Scarman (1986, 210) argued that if social policy was directed towards the elimination of racial disadvantage in education and employment, combined with police co-operation with the local communities, then the likelihood of future riots would decrease, saying if this was not done, ‘unrest is certain and riot becomes probable’. However the government did not heed Scarman’s words and carried on its divisive socio-economic and political agenda, with greater emphasis on confrontation. But this time the government was to be bolder. By the time of the 1985 riots in London and Birmingham, Thatcher had defeated the trade unions in the Miners’ Strike, had seen the British Army victorious in the Falklands War and had led a sustained campaign of privatisation of British industry – unlike the vulnerability experienced after the 1981 riots, Thatcherism was now at its hegemonic height.


Barker, Martin & Beezer, Anne (1983) ‘The Language of Racism – An Examination of Lord Scarman’s Report and the Brixton Riots’, International Socialism, 2/18

Benyon, John (1985) ‘Going Through The Motions: The Political Agenda, the 1981 Riots and the Scarman Inquiry’, Parliamentary Affairs, 38/4

Brabazon, Tara (1998) “Brixton’s Aflame”: Television History Workshop and the Battle for Britain’, Limina, 4

Campbell, John (2003) Margaret Thatcher, volume 2: The Iron Lady, Jonathan Cape, London

Gilmour, Ian (1995) Dancing with Dogma: Britain Under Thatcherism, Simon & Schuster, London

Hall, Stuart, et. al. (1999) ‘From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence’, History Workshop Journal, 48

Seldon, Anthony & Collings, Daniel (2000) Britain Under Thatcher, Longman, New York

Scarman, Lord (1986) The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth


  1. Hi, this was a very good read and useful for my undergraduate dissertation is a comparative analysis of government responses to Brixton Riots, 1981 and Tottenham Riots 2011. I am having difficulty locating government rhetoric from the 80s, wondered if you had a link to the Parliament page which included quote from the Tory MP that you could give me? I also read your academic interests such as racism, imperialism and the british left etc which I am also very interested in researching. I wondered if I could send you my dissertation when its finished for some feedback from someone who is in the field I aspire to research in. It would be great to know if I have the potential to pursue these ambitions further.
    Many Thanks

  2. Hi Harriet

    Thanks for the comment. I’d be happy to have a look at your dissertation. Please send me it to me when you are done.

    The link to the speech in Hansard by John Stokes (13 April, 1981, col. 29) is here: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1981/apr/13/brixton-disturbances#S6CV0003P0_19810413_HOC_222

    If you are interested in comparing the 2011 and 1981 riots, you might want to read my article on this here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14797585.2012.756243?journalCode=rcuv20

  3. […] As I have written before, the 1981 riots and the inquiry by Lord Scarman signified a low point in the history of Thatcher’s first term as Prime Minister, with public support for the government and for the police greatly dropping amongst large sections of the British population. From this position, the government generally accepted the recommendations of the Scarman Report and on paper, agreed to implement most of its recommendations. The most significant reform was the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (which came into effect in January 1986), but scholars, such as John Benyon, have since argued about the effectiveness of the government’s other initiatives. The newly released file shows the government’s statements about the extent of their actions in line with Scarman’s recommendations. […]

  4. interesting points and arguments. I’m doing an undergraduate dissertation on perceptions on gangs and implication on policy making. I’m searching for sources with government reforms on gang issues prior to media frenzy of 2000s till today

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s