‘Outside elements’ and the 1981 riots: The Thatcher government’s profiling of the British left

British Crime - Civil Disturbance - The Brixton Riots - London - 1981

I have recently come across this document on the Margaret Thatcher archive, which publishes relevant documents from the National Archives and from Thatcher’s personal papers, relating to the 1981 riots and the suspicion that ‘outside elements’ were involved in the disturbances. Peter Shipley, a researcher of the British far left and Conservative Party adviser, wrote a minute (titled ‘Left-Wing Extremists and the Riots’) outlining the role of the far left groups in the riots and their aftermath. It is interesting as it reveals right-wing thinking about the far left at the time and overestimates the influence of the far left in some instances.

Shipley rightly points out that the left had ‘no real part in the specific events which trigger[ed] off [the] rioting’, but proposed that they contributed to the disturbances in three ways:

  1. Firstly, ‘they help[ed] to intensify and rationalise anti-police feeling long before the riots’;
  2. Secondly, ‘the Left can intervene in the course of trouble, with offers of support and guidance’;
  3. Thirdly, ‘left-wing groups invariably step in with Defence Committees and all the paraphanalia [sic] of propaganda’

Shipley argued that Trotskyist groups were concentrating their efforts in inner-city areas affected by the riots, like Brixton and Toxteth. Shipley identified the Militant Tendency as the most prominent, but what is interesting is that the other groups mentioned were some of the more obscure left-wing groups around. The Workers Revolutionary Party, the Revolutionary Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Party (precursor to Spiked! Online) were all identified as having a presence in Brixton at the time of the riots. The Socialist Workers Party was noted for its leafleting in Brixton and its role in the Anti-Nazi League in Southall, but it was interesting to see that Shipley did not include them in the list of far left parties with a presence in Brixton. It is also interesting to note that the Communist Party of Great Britain, the largest far left group, received no mention at all.

Shipley also makes dubious links between the riots that were occurring and the ‘trouble’ in Northern Ireland, stating: ‘I wonder what extent any organised element in the Toxteth riots might have been and inspired by the city’s Irish contingent. The balaclava masks were very remiscient of Northern Ireland’.

Parts of this document formed part of a wider document created by the Prime Minister’s department, ‘Extremists and the Disorder’, which can be found in this digitised file from the National Archives. It is interesting to see how much Thatcher overestimated the far left and its pressure groups in the early 1980s.

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