July 3, 1981: The beginning of Britain’s summer on fire

On Friday July 3, 1981 (less than three months after the Brixton riots of April the same year), riots broke out in Toxteth, an inner-city part of Liverpool. Lasting over the weekend, these riots coincided with unrest occurring in Southall in London where large scale fighting broke out between local Asian youth and the police. Over the next two weeks, rioting spread across the British mainland, with disturbances flaring up in most British cities.

As I wrote in this article on interpretations of these riots:

The riots were a forceful recognition of the limited space in which black people in Britain could enter the political sphere, as well as an unplanned reaction to years of racial discrimination, police harassment, violence and economic hardship. The left and black activists recognised that these riots had a political dimension, but there was disagreement as to whether this dimension was characterised by notions of ‘class’ or ‘race’.

And I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, these riots signify one of the lowest points in the Prime Ministership of Margaret Thatcher – a time in her first government when it was possible that she might not have survived another election.

The response of the Conservative Government to this initial weekend of public disorder was to concentrate on strengthening public order policing strategies, which probably contributed to the further clashes between youth and police over the following weeks across the country’s inner cities. The Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, in his parliamentary response to the riots in Toxteth and Southall, reinforced the Tories’ political investment in a tough ‘law and order’ agenda:

This weekend, particularly in Liverpool, the police were attacked with an extraordinary ferocity. Violence at such a level must be firmly met if people and property are to be protected. I make it clear that chief officers of police will have my full support in taking positive action when necessary. In the circumstances of Sunday night, the chief constable of Merseyside had no alternative to using CS gas. Distasteful though this was to him and to me, I believe that he was totally right in that decision.

In the light of the new intensity of the violence I have decided that better protective headgear and fire-resistant clothing must be available to the police, and steps will now be taken with police authorities to this end. The working group that I set up after the Brixton disorders will carry these decisions forward.

This agenda can also be discerned from the internal files of the Thatcher Government and its correspondence in reacting to the July 1981 riots, which can be downloaded here from the National Archives website.

Although I’ve been highly critical of it in my work on the riots, Chris Harman’s long article on the riots for International Socialism Journal is still well worth reading.

As I’ve said many times before, in the historiography of Thatcher, the 1981 riots are often overlooked, but are a serious point of disjuncture in Thatcher’s rule as PM. The archival records are now open; it is up to us historians to challenge the predominate narratives of Thatcherism, and the 1981 riots are an early episode where these narratives can be challenged and reinterpreted.



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