In 2013, the Journal for Cultural Research published a special issue dedicated to the UK riots of 2011, edited by Rupa Huq. This featured an article by myself on looking at the 2011 riots through the lens of 1981. Routledge has now published this special issue as an edited collection, available here in hardback. Alongside my article/chapter, the collection also features contributions by John Hutnyk, Gargi Bhattacharyya and Caroline Rooney (amongst others). Order it now for your university or institutional library!
The latest round of government papers from the Thatcher era have been released by the National Archives, this time relating to documents from 1986 to 1988. Amongst the papers that have been released is a Prime Minister’s Office file (PREM 19/1783) relating to the 1985 riots in Handsworth and Tottenham, continuing on from these files (PREM 19/1521 and PREM 19/484) which started after the 1981 riots in Brixton (I have discussed these files previously here and here).
One of the things that stood out from reading this file is the continued opinion of Thatcher’s adviser, particularly that of Hartley Booth, that the riots were organised in advance by criminal elements and that those involved were ready to use an arsenal of deadly weapons. As the last tranche of files released by the National Archives showed, in the aftermath of the 1985 riots Booth had claimed in memos to the Prime Minister that criminal elements and outside agitators from the far left had been involved in fanning the flames of disorder. This repeated a claim made by other advisers to Thatcher and the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, that various left wing groups had been involved in the 1981 riots as well.
In a memo written on 8 November 1985 to Thatcher’s Private Secretary, Mark Addison, Booth wrote:
Private reports from the police indicate further likely trouble in Tottenham. A milk float, complete with a very large number of bottles likely to be used in petrol bomb-making has been abducted in the last fortnight. Also, there have been several reports since 25 October that the ingredients for napalm [REDACTED] have been supplied to individuals in the Tottenham area. If Napalm is used, the police will require a new form of protective clothing. In Northern Ireland, the only known defence against Napalm is plastic bullet, which kept the users of this deadly material beyond throwing distance.
However Booth admitted in another memo, written on 19 November, that both of these claims were merely rumour and the police had not yet confirmed either the use of petrol bombs being made in bulk or that there were more than one instance of a rare ingredient (incidentally used in napalm) being purchased in a North London chemist. Booth reported to the Prime Minister:
Home Office and police do not at the moment feel the situation is serious, as there is no confirming evidence of iminent [sic] disorder.
Despite Booth eventually admitting that these use of petrol bombs and napalm by rioters was just a rumour, it does demonstrate that those advising the Prime Minister on matters of policing and public order were liable to believe the worst case scenarios. If taken at face value, this may have led to an escalation of the hostilities between the police and the public. If the government and the police were expecting that these weapons were to be used and that the only option was the pre-emptive use of plastic bullets and other forms of militarised policing, then these rumours could only add to the already existing tension. Plastic bullets had been stockpiled by the Metropolitan Police since the 1981 riots and along with the use of teargas, represented the use of policing techniques developed in Northern Ireland being redeployed on the mainland. Although plastic bullets have never been used in a public order situation in England, Scotland or Wales, the fact that people within government circles believed that they were necessary for police to use against the public (and in the case of Booth’s advice, pre-emptively) is a worrying thought.
Booth also maintained that the riots in Handsworth in September 1985 were organised by criminal elements and claimed that a police report (not included in the file) supported his view. In a covering memo to Thatcher, dated 26 November, Booth argued:
The degree of organisation among the rioters is well documented in this report… The report boldly concludes that the first riot was orchestrated by local drug dealers. This we suspected at the time, but had formerly been denied by the police.
In the same document, Booth suggested that the riots had an ‘appalling racial element’, stemming from a jealousy amongst West Indian drug dealers relating to the suspected wealth of Handsworth’s South Asian community.
In an interview with journalist David Dimbleby, Lord Scarman, who had led the inquiry into the 1981 riots in Brixton, seemed to suggest something similar and in a transcript included in the file, stated:
In 1981, we were not faced with the intrusion of organised crime, making use of disaffected youth. That is the new factor. It is a very dangerous factor and it has to be tackled…
Booth used this statement to reinforce his argument to Addison and Thatcher that organised criminals had been at the centre of the riots. However a Home Office letter to Addison by Stephen Boys Smith, written in January 1986, admitted that the ‘police view remains that there is no evidence of long term planning of the riot.
Booth and another adviser to Thatcher, Oliver Letwin, have been lambasted in the media for another revelation in this tranche of released documents for suggesting that government grants to inner cities community groups would be spent on ‘disco and drug trade’ (see here and here). However these documents suggest that Booth’s advice to Thatcher on public order and community policing issues had even more potential for wide-reaching problems, stemming from a prejudiced outlook on Britain’s African-Caribbean communities and the political organisations of the left.
Back in 2011, I wrote about how many people viewed the riots that swept across the UK through the lens of the 1981 riots. I wrote in this article:
Karl Marx famously paraphrased Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, saying that “all facts and personages of great importance in world history, as it were, twice”, adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 1969, p. 15). Marx’s point was that in periods of great societal upheaval, many of those who observe and attempt to explain these events look to past historical events for an interpretative framework, or as Marx (1969, p. 15) put it, “they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them”. While Marx was writing about the French counter-revolution that occurred after the uprising of 1848, these words could be used to describe any number of rebellions, revolutions or episodes of disorder. The focus of this article is on the riots that spread across the UK in early August 2011 and how most commentaries and analyses of these riots sought to explain them through the prism of the riots that occurred in the UK in 1981 (first in April in Brixton and across the UK in the summer of the same year). While Marx (1969, p. 15) wrote about how those observing the events of 1848-1851 looked back to the “Thermidor” period of the French Revolution, substituting “Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848-1851 for the Montagne of 1793-1795”, those writing on the riots of 2011 looked back to 1981, substituting David Cameron for Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May for Willie Whitelaw and the black, white and Asian youth of 1981 for the black, white and Asian youth of 2011.
The parallels between the events of 2011 and 1981, and their surrounding socio-economic and political conditions, seem, at first glance, to be very similar. David Cameron’s Conservative Government was pushing “austerity” measures to cut public spending and reduce the “debt” inherited from Labour, akin to the monetarist policies sought by the first Thatcher Government, which meant less money for the poorer sections of British society reliant on some form of government assistance and less spending on other public services in poverty-afflicted areas of the UK. In 2011, as well as thirty years ago, these austerity measures, combined with a wider globalised financial crisis, had led to great increases in unemployment, particularly amongst the UK’s ethnic minority communities and amongst young people. Alongside these economic factors, both years saw concerns arise about the powers of the police, particularly in the operation of stop and searches (or “sus” laws in 1981) and the perceived targeting of ethnic minorities by the police, as well as other sections of the lower classes and young people in general.
These parallels were picked up upon by many commentators. For example, Gilroy (2011) remarked in a speech on the riots that there was “a temptation … to say it’s the same game as it was thirty years ago” and citing Stafford Scott, said that “unemployment numbers, school exclusion numbers, stop and search numbers [his emphasis] … In terms of these things, the number are as bad as or worse than they were thirty years ago”. In their research as part of The Guardian and LSE’s Reading the Riots project, Newburn, Lewis and Metcalf (2011) wrote that the conditions for the riots of 1981 were “in many ways similar to those that blighted England this summer”, pointing out that “[b]oth took place while a Conservative prime minister grappled with the effects of global economic downturn and rising unemployment”. Wheatle, the novelist and participant in the 1981 Brixton riots, also wrote in The Guardian (2011) that the circumstances between the two periods of rioting were “remarkably identical”, identifying factors such as “economic crisis, disenfranchised young people, deep cuts in public services and a deterioration between young black people and the police”.
Even before the August 2011 riots, commentators had remarked that the socio-economic and political environment in the UK seemed to mirror that of the early 1980s, and in discussing the thirtieth anniversary of the riots of 1981, there were speculations of the possibility of riots in the near future. An article in The Guardian on the upcoming anniversary of the Brixton riots stated that “some community leaders are warning that similar tensions could, again, spill over into violence”, describing “a toxic cocktail of factors reminiscent of 1981, including rising youth unemployment, cuts to local services and deep suspicion of the police”, as well as “the politicisation of a new generation of anti-cuts protests … and anti-tuition-fees marches” (Walker 2011). The article also quoted Alex Wheatle as saying:
Another article on the riots in Liverpool in 1981 in The Guardian quoted a community worker who had experienced the riots as a youngster, who saw parallels between Liverpool in the present day and the city in the 1980s:
However, as Hughes (2011) has said, “[h]istory doesn’t repeat itself exactly” and there is logic in the government assertion that 2011 is not 1981 (McSmith 2011). Many commentators and scholars have noted that there are a number of differences, both in the context from which the riots developed and how the riots actually unfolded, between the riots that have recently occurred and those that happened thirty years before. This article accepts the argument that while these riots occurred quite spontaneously, they did not arise from nowhere and were not completely unexpected, and while one cannot draw a direct line between the riots of 1981 and the riots of 2011, the history of riots, public unrest and civil disorder in the UK does show that there is a precedent for what occurred last year and the riots were not an a-historical episode. The point of this article is that while the recent history of riots that have occurred in the UK since the mid-1970s can provide us with an insight into the most recent outbreak of urban unrest, much of the discourse on the 2011 riots was presented through the prism of 1981. On one hand, the events of 1981 were upheld by some commentators (mostly on the centre-right, but some on the centre-left) to contrast the “criminality” of those participating the most recent riots with the more “political” and “socially aware” riots of the early 1980s. On the other hand, there seemed to be a number of people, particularly on the left, who saw a teleological narrative that formed a direct connection between the events of 1981 with the present era, putting forward that the lessons of 1981 and the struggle against Thatcherism were instructive to how the left should respond to today’s crises. This article does not want to present a guise of political neutrality and certainly aligns itself more closely to the interpretation of the events as put forward by the left, but acknowledges that for political expediency, some of the more nuanced details of what occurred in August 2011 (and in 1981) may be shaped to fit the left’s practical programme. As Smith (2010) has argued, riots and episodes of public unrest do not fall neatly into categories of political struggle and the motives and actions of those involved are open to a multitude of interpretations.
The article concluded:
Power (2011) wrote in The Guardian after the initial burst of public disorder in North London last year that “[i]mages of burning buildings, cars aflame and stripped-out shops may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media … but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur”. This article has looked at how different commentators, journalists, politicians, scholars and activists have interpreted the historical context of the riots that happened across the UK in August 2011, particularly focusing on how the most recent riots have been seen through the lens of the riots from 1981. Although providing a historical background to the 2011 riots helps us to understand that these riots did not occur from out of nowhere or that they were unprecedented in any way, but the comparison of the two events has, in many ways, crystallised how the 1981 riots are perceived in the collective memory. Notions of what “the 1981 riots” or “the Brixton riots” or “the Toxteth riots” have come to symbolise are essentialised ideas of the “noble” or “justified” riots against institutional racism and Thatcherism – in other words, the events of 1981 were explicitly political.
This article has argued that framing the 1981 riots in this way has had two effects on how the 2011 riots are perceived. Firstly, commentators, journalists and politicians on the right (as well as some on the liberal-left) have used the idea of the 1981 riots as expressions of political frustration against “legitimate” targets to condemn the criminal and destructive activities of the rioters involved in the unrest in 2011, arguing that those involved in the most recent riots were motivated by consumerist desire and anti-social behaviour and thus, the response by the authorities should be criminal justice oriented, rather than making political concessions. Secondly, commentator and activists on the left have taken the framework of the 1981 riots as explicitly political actions from the lower classes to show that the riots of 2011 were just as political and represented the anger of the growing “underclass” in the UK. For many on the left and within activist circles, the same neoliberal/monetarist agenda by the Conservatives (resulting in high unemployment and cuts to public services), combined with the institutional racism of the police and the judiciary, were the underlying causes of the riots of 2011 and those that occurred in the early 1980s, and that the lessons of the battles against the Thatcher government are to be heeded.
However, this essentialised version of the 1981 riots, and the comparison with contemporary events, overlooks the fact that the riots that broke out across Britain thirty years ago were not as neat to categorise and interpret as they look in hindsight, and that at the time, there were clear differences in how the riots were understood by different sections of society. Even for those that agreed that the riots were political disagreed on whether the riots were a response by the lower classes to socio-economic policies of the Thatcher government or a response by the black communities to the racism that they faced in Britain on a day-to-day basis. The evoking of the riots of 1981 in the discourse on the August 2011 riots has been used by commentators from both sides of politics to portray the most recent riots in a particular manner, using the supposed explicit political nature of the riots of the past to dismiss or emphasise the political nature of the riots of the present. While historical comparisons are useful for understanding the wider context of events, such as the public unrest of 2011, in too many scenarios, the past is distorted and simplified to fit the political demands of the present.
I feel that similar evocations of the past are being made in commentaries on the Labour leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn is not Michael Foot and the 2020 manifesto (if he wins) will not resemble the 1983 manifesto. While it might be more progressive than the 2015 manifesto, no one expects Corbyn to reverse 30 years of neoliberalism inflicted upon the Party. There is not the organised entryism by Militant and Socialist Action that there was between 1979 and 1983 and the threat of a rightwards split seems predicated on the belief that there is the political space for another centre-right party.
As much as it might seem that way, we are not reliving the 1980s.
Below is something that I wrote as an overview of the book that I have been writing over the last year and with the manuscript finally submitted to the publisher a few weeks ago (and deadlines for other projects looming), I thought I’d post this.
I have recently completed a book manuscript on the CPGB and the politics of ‘race’ (currently with the publishers) which uncovers the prominent anti-racist role that the Party played in the post-war era. The history of the Communist Party’s role in the anti-racist movement in Britain is one of varying degrees of success and failure from the 1940s to the 1980s. As one of the initial political organisations to actively campaign against the racial discrimination faced by black people in Britain, it was at the forefront of the broad anti-racist movements of the 1950s and 1960s (borne out of the earlier anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements that the CPGB participated in). However by the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the Communist Party in the anti-racist movement was surpassed, on one hand by black activists who formed autonomous black-led organisations and on the other by the groups of the far left, such as the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group, who proposed a more radical political agenda, including a more confrontational anti-racist/anti-fascist programme. Although the shift towards embracing the new social movements, centred around those writing for Marxism Today, somewhat reinvigorated the CPGB in the 1980s and possibly promised a potentially more nuanced anti-racist strategy, the Party was on the verge of collapse and did not translate into practical anti-racist activism.
In 1957, Claudia Jones, the West Indian-American communist who had been deported from the USA, wrote in an article for the CPGB’s weekly journal discussing West Indians in Britain:
Our Party is judged among colonial workers by its policy, but much more so by its deeds.[i]
Spanning nearly the entire period of what Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘short twentieth century’,[ii] the Communist Party, throughout its existence, had campaigned against colonialism, the ‘colour bar’ and racial discrimination (and racist violence) in the colonial sphere and in Britain. The Communist Party was one of the first organisations within the British labour movement to have an explicit anti-racist agenda, opposing the ‘colour bar’ in the British Empire/Commonwealth then opposing it in the domestic sphere, as the number of Commonwealth migrants rose in the 1940s and 1950s.
The question that I have sought to answer in my book is how successful was the Party’s effort to help fight racism faced by Britain’s black and Asian communities and how successful was the Party in convincing other sections of the labour movement to take up the anti-racist struggle. In assessing this, my argument is that CPGB were constantly in a balancing act between looking to the trade unions and other labour organisations to spearhead the anti-racist movement, making white workers aware of the fight against racism, and working more closely with the black communities at the grassroots level, where there increasing scepticism over the eagerness of the trade unions to combat racism. As a Liverpudlian Party member asked in a letter to the Party magazine Comment in 1981:
On what terms do we involve the labour movement in the [anti-racist] struggle, as the vanguard taking over the direction of the struggle or as supporters of the black community bringing the power of the movement to bear where the black community itself feels the most urgent need?[iii]
Since the reformation of factory branches during the Second World War, and particularly as the Party’s post-war programme The British Road to Socialism saw them as key to any influence upon the Labour Party, the trade unions were central to the CPGB’s agenda, including in the fight against racism. While the Party was attracting a number of black workers, activists and students from across the Commonwealth in the 1950s, its literature focussed on attempts to convince trade unionists to welcome these fellow workers and campaign against ‘colour bars’ in the labour movement and the workplace. In the pages of the daily newspaper Daily Worker in the late 1950s, Party member Kay Beauchamp stressed ‘the need for the whole Labour movement to take up the fight against colour discrimination, for the trade unions to champion the rights of coloured workers and to make a special appeal to them to join the unions.’[iv] Although the trade unions supported campaigns, such as Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom, at bloc level, getting individual trade unionists to take part in anti-racist activities was a much more difficult task. As others have pointed out, until the mid-1970s, trade unionists favoured a ‘colour blind’ approach that promoted no ‘special treatment’ for people based on ethnicity or nationality, but then offered little assistance to those who needed help in overcoming racial discrimination in the workplace.
The elections of Labour in 1964 and 1966 highlighted the differences between the labour movement and the needs of Britain’s black communities, and the problem that the Communist Party had in attempting to win the ‘mass party’ towards a Labour-Communist alliance and maintaining a credible anti-racist programme. Although Labour did introduce legislation against racial discrimination in public places, housing, employment and in social services in 1965 and in 1968, this was done in conjunction with further restrictions on immigration from the Commonwealth, which tied together the notions of integration with restriction. As Dilip Hiro wrote, this signalled a convergence between Labour and the Conservatives on the issues of immigration and racial justice:
[a]n advanced, albeit minor, on the front for ethnic minorities was conceded by the Conservatives in exchange for a retreat by Labour in the matter of immigration restrictions.[v]
It also signalled to black workers in Britain that Labour’s anti-racist idealism could be countered by the poll-driven necessity to be as ‘tough on immigration’ as the Conservatives. A major part of the Communist Party’s anti-racist agenda throughout the 1960s and 1970s was to campaign for Labour to repeal its commitment to racist immigration control measures and to place further powers in the Race Relations legislation, but the two terms of Harold Wilson in government showed that these were difficult demands to implement. It was absolutely necessary for the Communist Party to oppose these racist actions by the Labour Party, just as much as it opposed those perpetrated by the Tories, but this was juxtaposed with the CPGB’s support for Labour in many other areas, especially in the electoral sphere. This inconsistency convinced a number of black activists and workers that it was better to join black community or single issue organisations, rather than be a minority in the primarily ‘white’ labour organisations. This deviated from the strategy put forward by the CPGB, who were wary that these black community organisations would feed into the ‘black power’ movement and turn black workers away from the importance of the class struggle.[vi]
Even in the 1970s, as the trade unions became more aware of the issues of racism faced by black workers and new networks of solidarity were formed between the labour movement and the black communities, there were still tensions over the direction of political activity in these areas. In his book, Virdee describes the Grunwick strike from 1976 to 1978 and the success of the Anti-Nazi League between 1977 and 1981 as important steps for the British labour movement in overcoming the bifurcation of the working class that had existed in the 1960s and early 1970s,[vii] but these new bonds between black and white workers raised questions over political strategy and the aims of the various people involved in these actions. For example, was strike action at Grunwick primarily about defending the right to strike or combating racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace (or fighting the sexist treatment of South Asian women by the management at Grunwick)? Was the anti-fascist movement more concerned with the threat that the National Front posed to the working class, or did it concentrate on the racial violence and harassment experienced by black Britons at the hands of NF and other fascist sympathisers?
Although the Grunwick strike and the relative success of the Anti-Nazi League showed that the British labour movement could be mobilised around issues of ‘race’ and anti-racism (and both have been celebrated for this in the intervening years since), these achievements came on the cusp of a watershed moment in British history, which upended much of the positive work achieved in the late 1970s. The election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in May 1979 signalled the beginning of a decade long struggle for both the labour movement and for Britain’s black communities. And despite a connection being made between migrant workers and the labour movement at places like Grunwick, many of the younger generation of the ethnic minority communities were still suspicious of left-wing and progressive groups and felt that their problems were not being represented in the political arena. Against this background of disillusionment with the traditional political vehicles open to the ethnic minority communities, large numbers of Afro-Caribbean and Asian youth were involved in public disorder activities across the country in 1980 and 1981.
Meanwhile, as the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and of Eurocommunism developed within the Communist Party during this period, a number of those involved in anti-racist activities acknowledged these tensions and promoted engaging with black workers, activists and youth in other ways. However by this time, the CPGB’s influence within the anti-racist movement had diminished. Other black activist and far left groups, such as the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) and the Race Today Collective on one hand and the International Marxist Group and the Socialist Workers Party on the other, had emerged who were more radical, confrontational and less beholden to the trade unions and the Labour Party. The middle ground that the Communist Party was holding onto was growing ever smaller.
The isolated position of the Communist Party from others within the anti-racist movement was exacerbated by its acceptance, as laid out in The British Road to Socialism, of the potentially positive role of the state. Many on the left eschewed any co-operation with the structures of the capitalist state and this extended to their anti-racist activism, whilst numerous black activists argued that most black people in Britain had experienced the racism of the state in some form and therefore could not relied upon to support an anti-racist agenda. This was particularly the case with the more radical black organisations that appeared in the 1970s, such as the British Black Panther Movement, the Race Today Collective and the Asian Youth Movements. The Communist Party routinely called for the strengthening of the Race Relations Act and for prosecution of those who incited racial hatred or committed racially discriminatory actions. However the uneven prosecutorial history of the Act, which saw black power activist Michael X jailed in 1967, but no case brought against Enoch Powell in 1968,[viii] made the case for others that were sceptical about progressive political movements encouraging the use of the repressive apparatuses of the state to intervene on their behalf. This was reinforced by the violence wreaked by the police against the mass pickets at Grunwick, at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 and against the anti-fascist movement on numerous occasions (which resulted in the deaths of two protestors in 1974 and 1979).
By the early 1980s, the CPGB was promoting the popular idea (amongst the Gramscian and Eurocommunist left, at least) that the Thatcher government had ushered in a new era of authoritarianism and that the working class, particularly black people, suffered at the hands of the police and other state agencies, but still pushed in its ‘Charter of Demands’ for greater state interventions in some areas, such as
Existing race relations and public order law must be firmly enforced against racists. These laws must be given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism.[ix]
The revised version of The British Road to Socialism that was drafted in 1977 also promoted greater co-operation with the state at the local level, with a number of CPGB activists proposing that local councils, particularly those controlled by the Labour Party, could serve as sites of resistance to the Thatcherite neoliberal state at the national level. These local councils became involved in what was described as ‘municipal anti-racism’, which tried to redistribute funding and services to ethnic minority communities and organisations, as well as promoting an ‘acceptable’ form of anti-racism. This was criticised by some, such as the AYMs, for only giving funds to those organisations and campaigns that were willing to acquiesce to the rules of the local council, arguing that this meant that the anti-racism of certain radical organisations was blunted. Others criticised the anti-racist training for buying into the Thatcherite paradigm and viewing racism as a solely ideological and individualistic problem, which overlooked the structural and socio-economic basis for racial inequality and racial discrimination. The result of this was, as Alana Lentin has argued, that independent anti-racist organisations and campaigns became increasingly institutionalised, co-ordinated (and co-opted) by local government agencies.[x] This dissipated much of the radical sections of the anti-racist movement during the 1980s, including the role of the Communist Party, who, for other reasons, was already on the verge of collapse.
In his discussion of the British left and the fight for gay rights, Graham Willett wrote about looking at how these Marxist groups dealt with movements that fought other types of oppression (rather than class oppression) from today’s perspective:
Deciding on these position depends on whether one assumes that socialists can be expected to transcend the limitations of their own times; whether they should be expected to hold to or, alternatively, to move beyond the most advanced politics available.[xi]
Although anti-racism was a much more accepted political objective than gay rights, with the socialist left promoting opposition to racial discrimination since the 1920s, Willett reminds us that those involved in anti-racist activism had to work within a labour movement (and wider political landscape) where racism was not taken as seriously as it is today and we cannot transpose contemporary political values onto the past. Whatever their actions, it is important to remember that the Communist Party of Great Britain was one of the most vocal anti-racist organisations from the 1920s to the 1980s. When black workers started to migrate to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, it was one of the few organisations to consistently campaign for inclusion of black workers into the labour movement, as well as promoting a broader campaign against racial discrimination in British society. There were certainly limitations to this approach, particularly as the CPGB focused heavily upon the trade unions as a force for change within the anti-racist movement, while it seems that the trade unions lagged behind other sections of the movement to wholeheartedly put their weight behind the issue. From the late 1960s onwards, other left-wing and black activist organisations were able to surpass the position put forward by the CPGB, but their reach beyond the anti-racist movement, the far left and Britain’s substantial black communities was limited, while the CPGB had the potential to reach into the more centrist labour movement. The Morning Star, as a widely read daily newspaper amongst many trade unionists, covered anti-racist issues of a regular basis, forming a significant action on behalf of the Communist Party’s anti-racist programme. The fact that the Communist Party had its feet in both the trade union movement, but also inside radical left milieu and other progressive movements meant that in some ways it was in advantageous position, potentially reaching a broad audience for its programme, as outlined in The British Road to Socialism. But it also meant that the CPGB’s message often fell through the cracks – too radical for some, not radical enough for others – and its actions were diluted by this, with its activists being subsumed into larger social movements and organisations (and in the process losing any identity as a CPGB member). This was the case for the Party’s cohort of dedicated anti-racist activists.
At the 38th National Congress of the CPGB in 1983 (the Congress that saw the Morning Star faction break away from the CPGB over the political line put forward by Marxism Today), the Party’s resolution on the issue of racism criticised the Party for its lack of black membership:
The Congress is concerned at the under-representation of black people in the CPGB and believes that this is in part due to residual racialist attitudes and practices inside the Party.[xii]
From looking at the material published by the Communist Party and examining its internal records, it is hard to agree with this assumption made by in this resolution that racist attitudes existed within the CPGB. It is more likely that while nearly all members of the CPGB nominally agreed to an anti-racist programme, only a number were dedicated to anti-racist activism. The preceding sentence in the resolution is more accurate, that Congress ‘is aware that the [anti-racist] campaigning issues referred to [in the resolution] have not become an essential part of regular activity of every Party branch.’[xiii] Parallel to John Callaghan’s response when Marika Sherwood criticised the CPGB of being racist in the 1930s, while Party had ‘undoubted shortcomings’ in its recruitment of black members, it was just ‘not very good at recruiting any section of the population’ during the 1980s.[xiv] Its membership in 1983 was 15,691 (a loss of more than 14,000 members over the previous decade) and as Willie Thompson wrote, the Party was ‘being rendered incapable of doing anything very much apart from operating on its own body.’[xv] The resolution continued to state that ‘[w]hilst Congress welcomes the work of white comrades involved in anti-racist organisations such as CARL [the Campaign Against Racist Laws], this is no substitute for the task of bringing more black comrades into the Party.’[xvi] This highlights the crux of the problem for the CPGB anti-racist activists in the early 1980s – a section of its membership was heavily involved in various anti-racist campaigns and organisations, but this did not translate into tangible gains for the Party, which was in a downward spiral by now. But it also highlights some over optimistic feelings within the Party at the same time as it was unrealistic to expect many new members joining the Party during this period, particularly from a demographic that had been traditionally overlooked within the broader structures of the CPGB and the labour movement.
This post (and hopefully my book as well) has attempted to outline the importance of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the history of anti-racism in post-war Britain and its legacy, but also to highlight the difficulties faced by the Party and the limitations of its strategies. Without understanding the role that the CPGB played in the formation of the modern anti-racist movement in Britain, we cannot understand how the anti-racist movement has developed in the decades since then. The Communist Party was a pioneering force in the anti-colonialist and anti-racist movements from its birth in the 1920s until its slow demise in the 1980s, but it was also a ‘prisoner’ of this time and although sections of the Party promoted reform, it was unable to survive the seismic domestic and international political shifts of the 1980s and early 1990s and was thus was transcended by a new wave of anti-racist, radical and black activist groups. And with this transcendence, the forward march of the Communist Party and its role in the anti-racist movement had been, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, halted.[xvii]
[i] Claudia Jones, ‘West Indians in Britain’, World News, 29 June, 1957, p. 416.
[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 2004) p. 3.
[iii] ‘Letters’, Comment, 17 October, 1981, p. 14.
[iv] Kay Beauchamp, ‘Democracy v Racial Prejudice’, Daily Worker, 16 May, 1957.
[v] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain (London: Paladin, 1992) p. 211.
[vi] Willie Thompson, ‘Black Power’, Cogito, n.d., pp. 4-5, CP/YCL/21/01, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.
[vii] Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) p. 123.
[viii] Robin Bunce & Paul Field, Darcus Howe: A Political Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) p. 30; Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pp. 251-252.
[ix] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds) Black & Blue: Racism and the Police (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1981) p. 29.
[x] Alana Lentin, Racism & Anti-Racism in Europe (London: Pluto Press, 2004) p. 143.
[xi] Graham Willett, ‘Something New Under the Sun: The Revolutionary Left and Gay Politics’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) p. 175.
[xii] ‘Racism’, Communist Focus (December 1983) p. 31.
[xiii] ‘Racism’, p. 31; Italics are my emphasis.
[xiv] John Callaghan, ‘Colonies, Racism, the CPGB and the Comintern in the Inter-War Years’, Science & Society, 61/4 (Winter 1997-98) p. 520.
[xv] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism, 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218; p. 190.
[xvi] ‘Racism’, p. 31.
[xvii] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today (September 1978) pp. 279-286.
Over the weekend of April 10-12 1981 (34 years ago this last weekend), black and white youth rioted on the streets of Brixton and these riots, along with the riots that spread across the country’s inner cities in July of the same year, became a symbol of the unrest caused by Thatcherism, as well as the long and uneasy relationship between Britain’s black communities and the police. The following post is based on a draft chapter from my forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and anti-racism, but is still being tinkered with at the moment – so any feedback is welcome!
Between the events of Southall on 23 April 1979 and July 1981, there had been increasing riots in inner city areas across Britain, where black and white youth had reacted against the police and in some places, such as Southall, fascist agitation. Although there has been major emphasis in studies of the Thatcherite Government from 1979 to 1990 on Thatcher’s abhorrence of the trade unions and the focus of her Government on destroying an organised labour movement, the riots that occurred across Britain in 1981 have been largely overlooked. While the anti-union legislation and the Miners’ Strike are important elements of the dominance of Thatcher’s neo-liberalism during the 1980s that involved high levels of confrontation between the state and the labour movement, the first major confrontation between the repressive institutions of the state and the ‘subversive’ sections of British society was not with the trade unions, but with Britain’s black population, particularly black youth in the inner cities.
The first major riot was in Bristol on 2 April 1980, followed by a much larger outbreak in Brixton between 10-12 April, 1981 before culminating in riots across Britain in July 1981. These riots can be seen as the reaction to the lack of a political voice by Britain’s black communities and to the racism of the police directed primarily at black youth, as well as against the Conservative Government. The riots were symptomatic of the wider disillusionment, shared by both black and white youth, with the Conservative Government’s repressive police tactics and monetarist economic policies, which contributed to high unemployment. The problem of police racism, at the centre of these riots, was, as Stuart Hall wrote, ‘where blacks and others encounter a drift and a thrust towards making the whole of society more policed’. By the early 1980s, the police strategy in the urban inner cities was making a strong and visible presence of police power under the auspices of maintaining ‘law and order’ and taking a strong stance against street crime. As the Communist Party declared in May 1980, ‘the hawks are in control in the Metropolitan police force’.
The first major confrontation was on 2 April, 1980 in the St Paul’s District of Bristol, when approximately fifty policemen raided a café that was patronised primarily by Afro-Caribbeans, which caused a confrontation between 2,000 mainly black citizens and over 100 policemen. The confrontation was significant because of its scale and intensity, including burning and looting of private property and the racial aspect of the incident. The clash was, Dilip Hiro wrote, a reaction to the confrontational tactics of the police against the black community. The CPGB saw that the events in Bristol ‘were no “spontaneous riot” because there was nothing spontaneous about racial oppression – or its response’. What Bristol demonstrated, Neville Carey predicted in Comment, was that ‘we are heading towards open warfare in deprived areas containing large numbers of unemployed youth’ as the police were being increasingly used to deal with troubles caused by the combination of racism and unemployment. A petition with these immediate demands was circulated by the CPGB following the riot, but Carey admitted that the Communist Party was ‘doing far too little’ in working with the black communities, who mistrusted the opportunism and arrogance of the white left. Carey warned that it would ‘take a great deal of mass pressure from the Left and progressive movements to stop this Law and Order government from encouraging the use of even greater force to deal with social discontent’. But Bristol was only ‘the shape of things to come’. As Harris Joshua and Tina Wallace wrote, ‘the same basic pattern of violence was to be repeated in almost every major city with a black population, precipitating a crisis of race unprecedented in the post-war era, and a crisis of law and order unprecedented since the 1930s’.
On 10 April, 1981, a riot broke out in Brixton after the police stopped an injured youth on the street and the crowd reacted to the heavy police presence. Two events preceded the Brixton riots that contributed to eruption of action against the police. In January 1981, a fire on New Cross Road in Deptford led to the deaths of thirteen black youth. The fire was believed to have been started by a white racist, but the police investigation failed to arrest anyone connected to the fire, further angering the black community. This resulted in large protests by the black communities, with little involvement from the white left and progressive movements, which was different from the political mobilisations of the late 1970s around Grunwick and the Anti-Nazi League. The mobilisation of thousands after the New Cross Fire ‘indicated the extent to which they had been frustrated… from expressing themselves politically’. This mobilisation was against the disinterest and ineptitude of the initial police investigation and the mainstream press until the black protest had ‘drawn attention to the deaths and the official silence by marching through central London’. Paul Gilroy wrote, ‘The tragic deaths set in motion a sequence of events which lead directly to the explosion in Brixton in April 1981, and provided a means to galvanize blacks from all over the country into overt and organized political mobilisation’.
Another event that contributed to the Brixton riots was the strategy launched by the police in the week before the riot. Operation ‘Swamp 81’ was launched by the Lambeth police on 6 April, 1981. The purpose of ‘Swamp 81’ was to ‘flood identified areas on “L” District [Lambeth] to detect and arrest burglars and robbers’ with success, according to the police, depending on a ‘concentrated effort of “stops”, based on powers of surveillance and suspicion proceeded by persistent and astute questioning’. In four days, the squads stopped 943 people and arrested 118, with only seventy-five charged, one with robbery. The fact that so many police were deployed to street patrols in the immediate days preceding the riots contributed to the massive police response to the riots. Even after the first confrontations on 10 April, the operation continued with an extra ninety-six officers deployed to Brixton on 11 April. After the initial confrontation between police officers and a crowd of black youth on the evening of 10 April, 1981, rumours of police violence and several other incidents involving police and youths erupted into rioting across Brixton on 11 April and was finally quelled the following day. In the course of the events over that weekend, around 7,000 police officers were deployed to Brixton to restore order, although as John Benyon claimed, ‘during the worst night of violence on Saturday 11 April it seems that a few hundred people were involved’. In the aftermath, 450 people, including many policemen, were injured, with 145 buildings and 207 vehicles damaged and the total damage bill amounting to £6.5 million.
After the Brixton riots, there was outrage from the Government, high-ranking police officials and the mainstream press, with Lord Scarman appointed to launch an inquiry into the events. But as Dilip Hiro wrote, ‘the root causes which led to the Brixton rioting persisted and Britain experienced a spate of violent disorders a few months later’. Most major cities with black populations experienced rioting of some level, beginning on 3 July in Toxteth and Southall before spreading to Mosside and then to most other cities over the weekend of 10-12 July, 1981. ‘The incidents which ignited the disturbances varied enormously from place to place’ noted Chris Harman, with some incidents sparked by police harassment, others by racist attacks and fascist agitation or elsewhere, ‘the eruptions were “spontaneous” – youth on the streets just started looting and that was it’. The official estimate of the total costs of damage caused during the July riots was £45 million, with £17 million caused to private property. Around 4,000 people were arrested and ‘of the 3,704 for whom data was available, 766 were described as West Indian or African, 180 as Asian, 292 as “other” and 2,466 or 67% were white’, while around sixty six percent were under the age of twenty one and about half were unemployed.
‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’: The Communist Party’s Reaction
The CPGB’s National Race Relations Committee (NRRC) had first begun preparing for a discussion conference, ‘Racism and the Police’ in October 1980, declaring that the ‘role of the police has become a central issue of anti-racist politics…loom[ing] large in any serious discussion of “institutionalised” racism and how to combat it’. The NRRC invited representatives from black organisations, political parties, anti-racist, civil liberties and legal organisations, labour movement bodies and individuals to ‘assist the process of drawing up clear proposals for which the labour, democratic and anti-racist movements can campaign’. The NRRC acknowledged that it would ‘not be a policy-making Conference’, but felt that the issue of police racism ‘urgently needs bringing down from the level of generalities to practical proposals’. The conference was attended by around 160 delegates and put forward a ‘Charter of Demands’, published in Comment on 21 February, 1981 and then reproduced, along with the conference speeches, in a pamphlet Black and Blue, published in November 1981.
The editors of the pamphlet, Dave Cook and Martin Rabstein, emphasised the wide range of groups involved in the conference, although many of the groups were represented by members of the Communist Party. Through this conference, the Communist Party believed it was ‘performing its key role of welding together…toward[s] the construction of the broad democratic alliance’. The Party hoped that the ‘Charter of Demands’ was ‘one component part of a programme to democratise, to force democratic victories in the teeth of what will be the most powerful opposition in various parts of the apparatus of state’.
Keeping with the framework of the broad democratic alliance, the ‘Charter’ called for consultation between the police and ‘genuine representatives of black communities’ as Britain’s black communities needed ‘community policing with democratic accountability and control, not saturation policing’. ‘Hard’ policing, such as Operation ‘Swamp 81’, was seen as keeping the black communities under control, rather protecting it and the ‘Charter’, like the resolutions put forward at the CPGB’s National Congress, called for the removal of ‘SUS’ and the disbanding of the SPG.
Included in the ‘Charter of Demands’ were proposals put forward by the Communist Party previously, calling for ‘race relations and public order law’ to be ‘firmly enforced against racists’ and ‘given more teeth to outlaw the advocacy and practice of racism’. As with the Party’s stance on immigration control, the Race Relations Act and anti-fascism, the repressive and anti-left bias of the state was weighed against the practical use of the state to combat racism. The police, who were at the forefront of the fractuous relationship between the black communities and the state, were widely seen as incapable of mending community relations, but, in line with the ideals of the broad democratic alliance, the CPGB stated its commitment to the ‘rights of the “non-political” individual – the right to be free of harassment, the right to walk without fear on the streets’, which the Party believed needed to be protected by some kind of police force.
After the riots in July, the CPGB’s Executive Committee released a statement, ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, describing the disturbances as a reaction to long-term problems that had developed in the urban inner-cities, ‘in the context of both the deep crisis affecting our economy, and the particular consequences of Thatcher’s policies’. However the Party noted that it was ‘crude economic reductionism’ to simplify the argument to ‘economic crisis = disturbances on the streets’, recognising the ‘important racial dimension’ of the riots. The riots were not an isolated issue of ‘law and order’, but partly a wider reaction to the repressive actions of the police and the monetarist economic policies under Thatcherism, with the CPGB leadership stating:
Thatcher is blind to the part played by her disastrous economic and social policies in causing the disturbances, and the police chiefs are blind to the connections between their everyday methods of policing and the violence they face.
Therefore, the black and white youth were ‘not rioting against society at large, but were rioting against the police, against unemployment, against racism’. The Party saw the broad democratic alliance put forward in The British Road to Socialism as the necessary strategy for the working class ‘to force democratic victories’ within ‘the most powerful opposition in various parts of the apparatus of state’, which looked to working within the present system for immediate victories while attempting to build popular opposition for long-term reform. The response by the labour movement and the left had to be, the Party declared, more than simply ‘getting rid of the Tories’, instead it was to ‘respond to the immediate demands of the black community’, as the Party urged these organisations to campaign at local level, ‘linked to the need for left alternative policies nationally’.
Lord Scarman’s Report and the Denial of Institutional Racism
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. Although there was much speculation over the cause of the riots and numerous objections to their violence, 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.
Lord Scarman’s Inquiry was primarily focused on the events in Brixton, although the Government asked Scarman to take the July riots into account, but as Joe Sim noted, ‘This request was not evident in the final draft’. The Scarman Report, wrote Stuart Hall, ‘was no panacea’, but ‘broke the prevailing law-and-order consensus’ that left the police blameless, instead arguing that the ‘problem of policing a deprived, multi-racial area like Brixton cannot be considered without reference to the social environment in which the policing occurs’. In reference to the environment of deprivation that existed in Britain’s inner cities, which increasingly suffered from the monetarist policies of the Conservative Government, the Scarman Report 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’. Scarman acknowledged that the black community face similar problems to the wider working class in areas such as education, unemployment and discrimination, but on a much more severe scale. The result of this was that ‘young black people may feel a particular sense of frustration and deprivation’. Scarman also found the riots to be ‘a spontaneous reaction to what was seen as police harassment’.
However while Scarman criticised some of the actions by the police, the Report, on the whole, stood in favour of the police force. Scarman concluded that ‘the power to stop and search’, one of the immediate factors for racial harassment by the police, was ‘necessary to combat street crime’. From this decision, Scarman found that ‘the direction and policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist’, but did admit that ‘racial prejudice does manifest itself occasionally in the behaviour of a few officers on the streets’. What the Brixton riots did reveal for Lord Scarman was ‘weakness in the capacity of the police to respond sufficiently firmly to violence in the streets’, finding that ‘the use of “hard” policing methods, including the deployment of the Special Patrol Group, is appropriate, even essential’. Scarman concluded that ‘racial disadvantage and its nasty associate, racial discrimination’ still existed in British society, but controversially declared that ‘“Institutional racism” does not exist in Britain’. This denial of institutional racism by Scarman demonstrated, according to Martin Barker and Anne Beefer, that Scarman’s Report was ‘a liberal Report, but one within entirely racist parameters’.
The Scarman Report was criticised by the Communist Party’s National Race Relations Committee for its failure to recognise the existence of institutional racism, describing the Report as ‘full of contradictions’. Some positive elements to the Report conceded by the Party were the connections between the disturbances and the economic crisis, racism within the police, community policing, the banning of racist marches and anti-racist training for the police, although many of these points included criticisms of their weaknesses. Other parts of the Report were described as ‘just plain bad’, with the Party asserting that the Report contained ‘no explicit criticism of the Government’s economic and social policies’, the token gesture of a liaison committee with only ‘consultative’ powers, the negligent mention of racist attacks on black people and most importantly, the denial of institutional racism.
At the CPGB’s National Congress in December 1981, the Party repeated the call for an accountable and co-operative police force, working with the black community, while calling for greater Party work within local communities, particularly in response to unemployment, the police and racism. On the issue of racism, the Party recognised the ‘rightward shift in British politics affecting all aspects of life’ and expressed ‘great concern [at] the growing activities of racist and fascist organisations, and particularly the growing attacks on black people’. The Anti-Nazi League had defeated the National Front electorally but fascists were ‘now returning to [the] traditional policy of street terrorism and underground activity’. In the struggle against racism, the Party stated that it ‘must seek to win many more black members to its ranks’, but recognised that this was difficult and would ‘only happen inasmuch as the Party is consistently involved in fighting on the issues that the black community recognises as the most urgent’. While the CPGB saw potential for the Party and the Young Communist League to help the youth, such as those involved in the riots, to ‘become involved… in non-anarchic, non-individualistic forms of mass action’, the Party failed to make headway in the black community and the Party’s membership continued to decline. Youth unemployment did not propel many youth towards the left, with the ‘overwhelming majority of the young unemployed remain[ing] apolitical’ and as Kenneth Roberts wrote, ‘Rather than being channelled into party politics, their discontents are more likely to be expressed on the streets’. 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.
 Stuart Hall, ‘Policing the Police’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds), Black & Blue: Racism and the Police, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1981, p. 7
 Jackie Heywood, ‘Police Hawks Come Out On Top’, Comment, 10 May, 1980, p. 151
 Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain, Paladin, London, 1992, p. 85
 H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7
 D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 86
 Hackney CP Branch Internal Policy Document, n.d., CP/LON/BRA/09/11, LHASC
 Neville Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, Comment, 26 April, 1980, p. 136
 N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 137
 N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 136
 Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14, Autumn 1981, p. 1
 H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7
 D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87
 Darcus Howe, ‘Brixton Before the Uprising’, Race Today, February/March 1982, p. 69
 P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 130
 P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 129
 Cited in, Lord Scarman, The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 95, Italics are my emphasis
 D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87; P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 132
 D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88; John Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions: The Political Agenda, the 1981 Riots and the Scarman Inquiry’, Parliamentary Affairs, 38/4, 1985, p. 409
 D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88
 C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 5
 D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 90
 J. Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions’, p. 410
 Conference Invitation to ‘Racism and the Police’, October 1980, CP/LON/RACE/02/11, LHASC
 Conference Invitation
 Conference Invitation
 ‘Racism and the Police’, Comment, 21 February, 1981, pp. 6-7
 D. Cook & M. Rabstein, ‘Inner City Crisis’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6
 Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 32
 ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 6
 ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7
 ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7
 D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6
 ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, Executive Committee Statement, 12-13 September, 1981, p. 1, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC
 ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 2
 ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 6
 ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 9; Italics are in the original text
 ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 11
 ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 10; p. 11
 Joe Sim, ‘Scarman: The Police Counter-Attack’, Socialist Register, 1982, p. 58
 Stuart Hall, ‘From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence’, History Workshop Journal, 48, Autumn 1999, p. 188
 L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194
 L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 205
 L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194
 L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 195
 L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 207
 L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 198; Italics are my emphasis
 L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 201
 L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 209
 Martin Barker & Anne Beezer, ‘The Language of Racism – An Examination of Lord Scarman’s Report and the Brixton Riots’, International Socialism, 2/18, p. 108
 ‘The Scarman Report’, December 1981, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC
 ‘The Scarman Report’
 ‘The Scarman Report’
 ‘Social and Economic Policy’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 39
 ‘Racism’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 37
 ‘Racism’, p. 37
 ‘Racism’, p. 38
 Kenneth Roberts, ‘Youth Unemployment and Urban Unrest’ in, J. Benyon, Scarman and After, p. 182
April 2 is the 35th anniversary of the riots that broke out in the St Paul’s district of Bristol in 1980, the first major confrontation between black youth and the police of the Thatcher years. April 10 will be the anniversary of the Brixton riots that occurred the following year. These episodes of public disorder are often overlooked in the history of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, but are important to understanding the confrontational nature of Thatcherism.
I wrote this article back in 2010 on how different histories of the 1980 and 1981 riots have emerged since then and how different black and left-wing activist groups interpreted the riots. And to complement this piece, in 2013 I published this article on how the histories of the 1981 riots informed how various people interpreted the 2011 riots.
That’s it for now. Once I’ve finished this book manuscript, normal blogging should resume. As usual, any feedback or comments is welcome!
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.