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.




Thatcher has died. What about Thatcherism?

M-A-G-G-I-E, You ain't go no alibi...

M-A-G-G-I [-E], You ain’t go no alibi…

Margaret Thatcher died today. Her death was bound to be controversial, with many opinions on Thatcher and the legacy of Thatcherism being aired across social media tonight. A number of people on twitter have pointed to Thatcher’s attitude towards the deaths of Bobby Sands, of the crew of the Belgrano, of the victims of Apartheid South Africa and Pincohet’s Chile, and of the 96 who died at Hillsborough as reasons why people shouldn’t be too sentimental over her death. It will be interesting to see the British media over the next week on this issue.

A number of people have also raised the important question – what was Thatcher’s legacy? If Thatcherism represented a shift in British politics, what did it achieve? Did Thatcherism outlive her Prime Ministership and does it still exist today? Many would argue that the current policies of the Con-Lib Dem coalition are the contemporary embodiment of Thatcherism and that Thatcher’s legacy still weighs heavily upon the living (to paraphrase Marx).

It is too late in the evening to write a comprehensive post of the legacy of Thatcherism, so here are some links to earlier posts on this blog on the topic of Thatcher and British politics:

On the ‘uniqueness’ of Thatcherism in British political history

On the early years of Thatcherism and the crisis of the 1981 riots

On government accountability and public inquiries under Thatcher

And a little ditty to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the resignation of Thatcher

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write something more substantial in the next few days. I am sure I’m not the only one scrambling to write! In the meantime, here’s The Smiths…


Edited to add: For anyone interested in the recent historiography of Thatcher and Thatcherism, I would recommend Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders’ Making Thatcher’s Britain and Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain. I reviewed Vinen’s book here.

23rd anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release

On 11 February, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor-Verster Prison in Paarl, South Africa. To celebrate the anniversary of this event, let’s sit back and enjoy The Special AKA:


On a related note, anyone interested in the campaign to free Nelson Mandela and the Anti-Apartheid Movement should visit this great blog on a project run by Gavin Brown and Helen Yaffe from the University of Leicester, Non-Stop Against Apartheid: Spaces of Transnational Solidarity.

CFP: New Times Revisited? Examining Society, Culture and Politics in the Long 1980s

I received this CFP yesterday and it is being run by a very cool PhD student at the University of Birmingham. If I was in the UK in June next year, I would definitely be there. And so should you all!


CFP New Times Revisited? Examining Society, Culture and Politics in the Long 1980s
University of Birmingham & University of Warwick, 28th-29th June 2013

Plenary speakers: James Vernon (UC Berkeley) and Stephen Brooke (York

How should historians of Britain understand the long 1980s? This conference
takes its name from the discussion of the meaning of New Times in the
journal Marxism Today. ‘New times’ sought to characterise a period during
which ideas of post-war consensus were critiqued, Keynesian economic
frameworks were challenged, identity politics proliferated and class
solidarities shifted. This conference aims to develop and question such a
narrative by asking how a sense of ‘new times’ relates to longer term
cultural and social change. We invite papers examining society, politics,
and culture during the 1970s and 1980s from a local, British and global

We ask: Can the decade be seen as an ‘age of fracture’? To what extent did
Britain feel a ‘shock of the global’? How closely should we associate the
era with the emergence and consolidation of a new hegemonic politics
associated with Thatcherism? How was Thatcherism experienced in everyday
life? Would Thatcherism have existed without Thatcher? What narratives
best encapsulate everyday and ‘ordinary’ experience in the 1980s?

We also welcome discussion of the following themes:

* The crisis of the Left and the emergence of a ‘new right’. Was this the
‘Great Moving Right Show’?

* Britain’s position in relation to the rest of the world.

* What were the key agents in driving political, economic, cultural and
social change in the 1980s? How important were parties, social movements,
supranational institutions, big business and ‘the city’ to the changes of
the decade?

*How were issues such as race and sexuality experienced in ‘ordinary’

This conference is aimed at postgraduate, early career researchers, and
established researchers. It is geared towards creating a research agenda
for those interested in studying a ‘long 1980s’. It is a joint initiative
between the Birmingham Centre for Modern and Contemporary History and the
University of Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

Contact Daisy Payling at dxp720@bham.ac.uk for further information, or to submit a proposal in the form of a 300-500 word abstract or 1,000- 1,500 word panel proposals of up to three papers. The deadline for abstracts and panel proposals is 1 March 2013.

The Selecter came to Adelaide last night

UK ska legends The Selecter played (a very warm) The Gov last night in Adelaide. It was pretty awesome. They played all the hits, and a few newies, including a nice cover of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’. I got to speak to Pauline Black and she called me brave for buying a 2 Tone hoodie on a 40 degree day. She was nice enough to sign my hoodie for me. I’ll just have to wait til I visit the UK in February to wear it.

The Selecter are coming to Adelaide, but Morrissey is not.

Walking through the city yesterday, I saw this poster. That’s right, UK ska legends The Selecter are coming to Adelaide in November. Yay! We already saw The Specials at Thebarton Theatre earlier this year, and The English Beat played at Folwer’s a few weeks ago (although we missed that one) – it’s like a trifecta of 2-Tone bands! (Yes, I know that The Beat weren’t actually signed to 2-Tone, but they were on the Dance Crazy soundtrack) I also missed the Bad Manners show at The Gov in January, but oh well, that doesn’t really count. (I also missed out on seeing Madness two years ago, but did see The Beat with Rankin’ Roger at Enigma Bar back in 2006) Looks like I’ll have to get out the Fred Perry shirt for this one!

In other news, Morrissey has decided to tour Australia, but only do east coast dates. I’m conflicted over what to do. On one hand, he is the Patron-Saint of this blog the man who sang The Queen is Dead and Handsome Devil, but on the other hand, he will probably do a lot of songs from his mediocre post-You are the Quarry albums. I’ll just have to hold onto the memory of seeing him at Trafford Park in 2004, rather than shelling out the megabucks to see him in Melbourne.