What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, part two: ‘Race’ and the Police in the 1980s

The Young Ones debuted on British television in November 1982, just over a year after the large scale inner-city riots that swept across Britain. The 1981 riots resulted in some of the biggest examples of urban unrest on the British mainland in the post-war period and resulted in millions of pounds in damage and several hundred arrests. The riots were a reaction to the socio-economic policies of the Thatcherite government, but at the same time, were the product of years of police harassment experienced by Britain’s ethnic communities. The riots have been characterised as a rebellion by African-Caribbean and Asian youth to the racism of the authorities, the criminal justice system and the far right that was a day-to-day occurrence for them. But it was not just African-Caribbean and Asian youth involved in the riots, with many scholars pointing out that 60% of those arrested were white. Hatred of the police was something felt by both black and white youth in the 1980s (I have written about this here). In the aftermath of the riots, Lord Scarman conducted an inquiry that found that relations between the police and Britain’s ethnic communities had broken down and while denying that institutional racism had infected the Metropolitan Police, the Police were susceptible to racist attitudes and behaviours. As a result of Lord Scarman’s findings, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was introduced to regulate police procedures and a complaints body was established. The British Crime Survey, first instituted in 1982 and carried out bi-annually since then, found that people’s ratings of the police decreased during the 1980s. The Young Ones captured these attitudes towards the police and in several scenes, lampooned the racism and authoritarian attitudes of the police.

The first clip (starting at 1.29) is a direct satirisation of the racist attitudes of the police in the 1980s. The policeman has sunglasses on and the person he is addressing is wearing black gloves and from this, the policeman believes he is talking to a black person. Note the threat that he could pull both the person’s arms off and ‘Lord Scarman need never know’. Only when the person removes his gloves does the policeman realise his ‘error’ and then is polite to them. The clip satirises the difference in treatment experienced by white and non-white Britons.

The second and third clip both satirise the police harassment experienced by most youth in Britain in the 1980s. In both clips, the police are shown as quick to anger and use excessive force, using the excuse of a loud party in the previous clip and criticism of the police in the latter. Rudeness towards the police was famously made an offence in 1986 under the revamped Public Order Act and used recently to arrest a student who called a police horse ‘gay’.

The fourth clip also show the police harassing youth, but also satirises Rik, the student-lefty, as the rebellious activist, who can defeat the police with poetry (which does allude to the police as racist through their love of The Black and White Minstrel Show). The clip makes fun of Rik’s earnest activism and ‘right on’-ness defeating the ‘fascist’ police.

While the show repeatedly parodied the police as authoritarian and ‘fascist’ (which many argued in the 1980s), this clip turns around and satirises the idea of the police as ‘fascist’ by portraying the local police recruitment officer as Benito Mussolini. The surreal nature of Mussolini working for the Metropolitan Force emphasises the hyperbole involved in calling the police ‘fascist’, which was a common occurrence by British youth and activists at the time.

The show also addressed the issue of racism in other ways as seen in this clip from the episode ‘Demolition’. Rik asks Neil whether the lentils are South African and that Neil is a totalitarian for using South African vegetables. At this time, there was a boycott of South African goods as the result of the activism of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which grew significantly during the 1980s (This blog is a fantastic resource on this topic). The clip does not really poke fun at the Anti-Apartheid Movement or the boycott itself, but at Rik’s sanctimoniousness and ability to judge Neil as a ‘scab’ out-of-hand before Neil can say anything.

It is worth noting that while The Young Ones did highlight these issues, the cast of the show was almost entirely white. Probably the largest acting role given to an ethnic minority in the series was Lenny Henry’s cameo as a Nazi postman in the final episode ‘Summer Holiday’, as seen in the clip below (from 5.01).

In conclusion, The Young Ones highlighted attitudes amongst British youth towards the police in the 1980s, which had been severely damaged as a result of the 1981 riots, and portrayed the police as racist, authoritarian and quick to use violence against those who they disliked. The police were also portrayed as unintelligent. But at the same time, the show parodied the left’s attitudes towards the police (and other issues of ‘race’) through Rik’s pompousness, although most would agree that the show’s sympathies lay with the opposition to Thatcherism in the 1980s.

Are there any clips that I missed out? If so, please leave a comment below.

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