The National Archives have just released archival documents relating to the Thatcher government for 1985 and 1986, with further releases in July 2015. There have been many media reports already on many other aspects of the papers (such as the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland, the Anglo-Irish relationship and her love-hate relationship with Australian PM, Bob Hawke) but I thought I’d explore one of the digitised files that has been so far overlooked – a file on public disorder and the aftermath of the Scarman Report on the Brixton Riots, spanning from late 1981 to late 1985 (PREM 19/1521).
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. But the file also shows that the government was still sceptical of Scarman’s suggestion that unemployment, poor housing and declining access to social services were underlying reasons for the outbreak of the riots across Britain in 1981. After further unrest broke out in September 1985 in the Birmingham borough of Handsworth, newly appointed Home Secretary Douglas Hurd made a speech to the Association of Chief Police Officers stating:
Handsworth needs more jobs and housing. But riots only destroy. They create nothing except a climate in which necessary development is even more difficult. Poor housing and other social ills provide no reason for riot, arson and killing. One lady interviewer asked me whether the riots was not a cry for help by the rioters. The sound which law-abiding people at Handsworth heard on Monday night… was not a cry for help but a cry for loot.
Hartley Booth, Margaret Thatcher’s Special Adviser on Home Affairs, repeated this assertion in a report to the Prime Minister in the days after the unrest in Birmingham. Booth criticised Labour MP Claire Short for her statement that ‘unemployment caused the riot’ and said that ‘socialist-style policies’, such as ‘huge state intervention and subsidy’, had failed to quell unrest. Booth reported to Thatcher:
there is overwhelming evidence that [the unrest] was a criminal exercise, carried out by selfish, greedy and idle youths
Booth also suggested that it was outside agitators and groups from the far left that contributed to the riot. As well as proposing that people had come from places such as Wolverhampton, Sparkbrook and Manchester to take place in the riots, Booth also asserted:
The police have clear evidence, as has Special Branch, that a group from Notting Hill with Far Left connections – entitled the Tabernacle Group – were present in Birmingham this week, and were the architects of a demonstration which it was intended should be filmed by the television cameras yesterday outside the Law Courts.
This suspicion of ‘outside agitators’ were responsible for the riots was a subject that Thatcher’s advisers came back to between 1981 and 1985 (I have already written about a report drawn up by Peter Shipley for the Home Office in 1981 which suggested that ‘outside elements’ were involved in the 1981 riots here). Thatcher’s Private Secretary for Parliamentary Affairs, Tim Flesher, wrote a memo in November 1982 that a ‘Trotskyite rent-a-mob’ had attempted to disrupt a meeting of the Brixton Police Community Liaison Committee. Tony Rawsthorne, the Private Secretary for Home Secretary Leon Brittan, wrote to Flesher in July 1983 to outline the risks of public disorder that summer and included the following passage about ‘subversives’:
the assessment from the Security Service is that there is no intelligence to suggest that any black or white subversive groups or individuals are planning civil disturbances or that they are considering how they might exploit any disturbances that might otherwise arise. If disturbances were to break out, some subversive groups would be likely to move quickly to extract the maximum political advantage from them.
After the 1985 riots, Quintin Hogg, the Lord Chancellor, expressed in a letter to the Home Secretary’s staff: I hope the factual account of Handworth [sic] will either confirm or repudiate the impression I get which is that there was an element of deliberate planning there either by drug pushers or left wing anarchists.
The file also has two memos that refer to a special report on subversive groups drawn up by MI5, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence of this report in the digitised file. A memo from Thatcher’s Principal Private Secretary, Clive Whitmore, to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, dated 22 Feb, 1982 mentioned the report:
The Prime Minister was very interested to read the report by the Security Service on exploitation by subversive groups of last year’s civil disturbances which you sent me with your minute AO7560 on 19 February 1982.
I am unsure why this report seems to be missing from the digitised file. Maybe it is something worth FOI-ing in the near future.