Youth culture

Policing Acid House Parties in 1989: What the new Thatcher Government papers reveal

The latest round of papers from the Prime Minister’s Office have been released, relating to the final years of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989-90. While files on several topics have been opened, this post will look at the file dedicated the policing of ‘acid house parties’ (also known as raves) in 1989.

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As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the phenomenon of acid house swept across the UK in the mid-to-late 1980s and while a number of clubs, such as the Hacienda in Manchester and Shoom in London, attracted large crowds for their club nights, raves exploded into open areas that were typical venues – warehouses, fields and other places left vacant by Thatcherism. For a number of reasons, including the noise generated by these parties and the use of drugs, these raves started to draw the ire of the police and of the authorities. One briefing note stated that the ‘main problem with acid house parties is the nuisance caused by the noise’ and curiously, stressed ‘[d]rugs are not the main issue’.[1] In a letter to the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the new Home Secretary David Waddington wrote that there was also a concern that ‘criminal elements [were] becoming involved’.[2] This concern, ‘coupled with the need to reassure the public that the existing law can be made effective’, Waddington argued, required a new approach.[3] He also noted that 223 parties had been held in London and the South East in 1989, with 96 stopped by the police and another 95 prevented from going ahead.[4]

And so, after a localised and haphazard response by local councils and the police, in late 1989, the Thatcher government proposed a co-ordinated and nationwide effort to clamp down on these ‘illegal’ parties. The aforementioned briefing note outlined that there were four ways to combat these parties:

  1. Under the licensing law that governs public entertainment;
  2. Under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986;
  3. Under the common law powers available to the police to prevent public disturbances;
  4. Under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.[5]

The note stated that all indoor events were subject to licensing laws (particularly the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982), irrespective of venue, and that in some cases, outdoor events were also subject to licensing laws, depending on the local authorities. However the largest problem for regulating raves through this mechanism, operated by the local councils, was that ‘most organisers of acid house parties are flouting the law by not applying for a licence’.[6] A report produced by the Association of District Councils explained the authorities had tried to prosecute party organisers under the 1982 Act in the past, but there were many ‘practical difficulties’ with the legislation.[7] This report suggested that a ‘national code of standard conditions’ be drawn up, similar to the code of practice for music events that had previously been established by the Greater London Council.[8] Interestingly the same document also mentioned that it might be pertinent to take into account the recent report by Lord Justice Taylor into the Hillsborough Disaster.[9]

All involved in this discussion felt that one of the key reasons that the organisers did not seek to obtain licenses for their events was that the penalty was far too low – a £2000 fine and/or up to 3 months in prison. In his letter to Howe, Waddington wrote that the penalties were ‘so relatively light that the organisers of these very profitable acid house parties can afford to ignore the law’.[10] Waddington proposed fines be raised to £20,000 and a possibility of up to 6 months imprisonment, commenting that the Association of Chief Police Officers supported these stricter penalties.[11]

One of the problems facing the authorities was that because these raves could be held in any kind of space, trying to police them was difficult. As mentioned above, indoor events were subject to licensing laws, but outdoor events weren’t always covered. For the police, indoor gatherings were not specifically within their remit, but outside assemblies were, under the Public Order Act 1986. An extension of the Public Order Act to include indoor assemblies was considered ‘contentious’[12] and at this stage, looked like legislative overkill (although similar legislation was eventually passed in 1994 to combat outdoor raves with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act).

In a letter from Home Office official Peter Storr to Margaret Thatcher’s Personal Secretary Andrew Turnbull, he noted that the police were ‘generally relying on their common law powers to prevent a breach of peace’ and that in the past, the police had ‘been able to persuade organisers to pack up voluntarily’.[13] Furthermore, they had ‘on occasion seized sound equipment on the grounds of preventing a breach of the peace’.[14] The aforementioned briefing note acknowledged:

Strictly speaking the police have no power to intervene to stop a party purely on grounds of noise. But if they receive complaints about the noise, they can intervene using common law powers.[15]

However it was argued that the police were often reluctant to intervene in this way, due to the following two reasons:

  1. mainly to the sheer numbers involved in some of the parties – the risk would be too great;
  2. slight nervousness about relying on common law powers alone – this leaves them open to challenge.[16]

It was believed that what was required were greater police powers ‘to act in flagrant cases’ immediately and at the time of night when these parties were occurring. Turnbull wrote to Carolyn Sinclair in the Home Office saying, ‘It will not be sufficient to give local authorities extra powers if they are not around at 3am to enforce [licensing laws]’.[17] The Association of District Councils also called for the police to be given greater powers ‘to seize and remove and apparatus or equipment’ being used by party organisers.[18]

While the primary problem with acid house parties was identified as the public nuisance caused by the excessive noise generated by these parties, the legislation dealing with noise pollution, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 was deemed ‘inadequate to deal with these parties’.[19] It was noted that noise nuisance was a civil offence and the legislation was aimed at factories and other industrial sites, rather than outdoor events. Thus ‘remedy through the courts [was] slow’.[20] The Department of Environment pushed to make noise nuisance a criminal offence,[21] but Turnbull advised the Home Office that Thatcher was ‘doubtful whether greater use of the Control of Pollution Act would be effective as the need was for action at short notice outside working hours.’[22]

Alongside greater penalties under the licensing laws and more explicit powers to allow the police to break ‘illegal’ raves, one of the key proposals made by the Home Office and other agencies was to establish powers to seize profits from party organisers. Powers to seize the proceeds of crime already existed under schedule 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (with a minimum of £10,000 to be confiscated after conviction), and Waddington suggested to Howe that this legislation could be easily amended to incorporate the organisation of these parties into the legislation.[23] On this point, the Home Office’s briefing note stated:

What is needed is a way of hitting at the profit made by the organisers. This should discourage the craze.[24]

It was hoped that these increased penalties and powers of confiscation, as well as more pre-emptive action between the police and local councils, would prevent acid house parties from occurring. The Home Office noted:

No amount of statutory power will make it feasible for police forces to take on crowds of thousands on a regular basis. We cannot have another drain on police resources equivalent to policing football matches.[25]

Incidentally, this was the argument made by Tony Wilson in the final days of the Hacienda – that the police were willing to police Manchester United and Manchester City games, but unwilling to do the same at the famous nightclub to ensure people’s safety.

The following year the Thatcher government passed the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, which increased the penalties for organising an ‘illegal’ party to £20,000 and/or 6 months in prison. As the debate in Hansard shows, these measures were supported by both major parties in the House of Commons. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was also amended to allow the seizure of profits made by party organisers.

However this did not end the phenomenon of the illegal rave and the Major government introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal specifically with raves, which included the seizure of equipment used to put on events deemed illegal. This Act was opposed by many and led to a grassroots resistance by partygoers and activists. But this was a far way off in 1989. We will have to wait a few more years for the internal government records relating to this.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 1, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Letter from David Waddington to Geoffrey Howe, 2 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 1.

[6] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[7] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, 9 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[13] Letter from Peter Storr to Andrew Turnbull, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[14] Ibid.

[15] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Note from Andrew Turnbull to Carolyn Sinclair, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[18] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

[19] Ibid., p. 1.

[20] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Peter Storr, 16 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[23] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[24] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[25] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

Policing club culture in the UK and the neoliberal city

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This week, famous London club Fabric was permanently closed down after its liquor license was taken revoked, allegedly after police raised concerns for the safety of clubgoers following the deaths of two people this year inside the club. Others have suggested that the Islington Council sought the closure of the club because it was too costly for the police to continue their harm minimisation operations within the club.

Fabric is not the only club to go close down in recent years, as costs for running clubs in the inner city become more and more expensive. Despite the GFC of 2007-08 and almost a decade of austerity in Britain, the rents for venues in London and other cities across the UK have continued to rise. No reports that I have seen so far have suggested that Fabric faced this particular problem and while many have alleged that the real reason for the closure was a desire by the Council for the venue to be turned into luxury flats or office space, the Council did not own the property and would not have made a direct financial gain from this conversion. The counter-argument to this is that in the neoliberal city, the nighttime economy that Fabric was part of was not as desired as that brought by increasing gentrification of London’s inner city boroughs.

A number have likened this to the closure of the Hacienda in 1997 and its eventual transformation into luxury flats in the early 2000s. The Hacienda had its license revoked in June 1997 after the death of a clubgoer earlier in the year, alleged organised criminals working inside the club and the refusal of the Greater Manchester Police to co-operate with the club’s management to conduct operations that would have kept the club open, citing that it was too costly. Before his death, Tony Wilson argued that the Greater Manchester Police conducted large scale operations every weekend to police football crowds, but were unwilling to do so to protect the club’s patrons. But while the Hacienda was eventually sold to developers, the neoliberalisation and gentrification of Manchester’s landscape did not arrive with the closure of the club – it lay dormant for 18 months and work to convert the building only began a few years later. This coincided with the ‘reimagining’ of Manchester’s city centre after a large section of it was destroyed by an IRA bomb in June 1996.

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Adorned on the luxury flats that now occupy the space of the former club on Whitworth Street.

Club culture in the UK had emerged at the periphery of the neoliberal revolution and as I have argued elsewhere, sought to flourish in the spaces that Thatcherism had made vacant, but had not yet occupied. With this brought the attention of the police and the government and under the pretence of a ‘war on drugs’, club culture in the UK became heavily policed and moved into ‘manageable’ spaces, such as clubs like Fabric. But in the ongoing battle between the desires of the neoliberal and nighttime economies, those pushing for further gentrification of the inner city have won out and even these highly policed and contained venues are no longer desirable.

Since the closure of the Hacienda nearly twenty years ago, clubs like Fabric have attempted to work more closely with the police and there has been a shift towards harm minimisation inside these clubs. But while police practices may have changed, the pressures of austerity have discouraged this. So in the end, we may argue that club culture has ended up in the same wasteland after 20 years of trying to ‘regulate’ it and attempts to make it work within the boundaries of ‘the system’.

 

Full run of IMG’s ‘The Red Mole’ is now online

The first issue of The Red Mole (March 1970)

The first issue of The Red Mole (March 1970)

This is just a quick post to note that the blog Red Mole Rising has been resurrected and is now uploading many new interesting documents relating to the International Marxist Group, the USFI and Socialist Action. As part of this, the blog has uploaded the entire run of the IMG newspaper The Red Mole, alongside most of the run of its predecessor The Black Dwarf. As we wrote in the introduction to our book on the British far left, the IMG had emerged out of an entrist group within the Labour Party in 1965, splitting with the Revolutionary Socialist League that would eventually become Militant. Moving from orthodox Trotskyism towards a left libertarianism (similar in area of the pre-1970s International Socialists), the IMG dived into the radical student movement and the counterculture of the late 1960s, with a particular eye on the ‘Third World’ and anti-imperialism (including heavy involvement in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign). Aligned with those organised around New Left Review, the IMG helped produce an intra-party publication titled The Black Dwarf, which was a mixture of Trotskyism, Third Worldism and ‘soft Maoism’. But by 1970, tensions within the paper over its direction led to the IMG establishing The Red Mole as a dedicated party publication. The Red Mole probably coincided with the height of the IMG’s influence on the British left, with a much more youthful focus than many of its rival publications. It lasted until mid-1973 when the IMG replaced it with Red Weekly, which signalled a change in line for the party.

Flicking through the collection, the thing that struck me was the forthright internationalism present in The Red Mole and the support for national liberation and ‘terrorist’ groups across the globe. The IMG, an influential force in the Troops Out Movement, was particular notorious for its critical support of the IRA during the early 1970s, which is reflected in this paper.

This is now a valuable resource for historians of the British left and I hope that more material follows in the near future. As I have written in the past, we still haven’t seen a recent history of the International Marxist Group!

Thinking historically about acid house & early rave culture: The soundtrack to late Thatcherism

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Most discussions of the soundtrack to the Thatcher years concentrates on the early-to-mid-1980s and the rise of Thatcherism. For example, many have referred to The Specials and The Beat at the time of 1981 riots, Duran Duran and Wham! as the Thatcherite hegemony won the 1983 election and Billy Bragg and the Style Council during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. But I want to think about the soundtrack to late Thatcherism (and the early Major years), particularly acid house and early rave culture.

Exported from the United States, house music made its way into the UK club scene in the mid-1980s and acid house became a phenomenon from around 1987 to 1991, before morphing into various strains of rave music in the early 1990s. The rise of acid house coincided with the opening of new wave of clubs across the UK and beginnings of the warehouse and open air ‘raves’, situated against a backdrop of high Thatcherism, which included heightened deindustrialisation and the growth of the high finance capitalism in the City of London

Thatcher was returned to office in 1987 after her third electoral victory and this could be considered the high point of Thatcherism as a hegemonic project. After defeating the trade unions during the Miners’ Strike in 1985, Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatisation and deindustrialisation across the country. Already under pressure, many heavy industries in the north of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, collapsed, leaving to massive unemployment in these regions. Where jobs were available to replace the traditional heavy industries, they were usually unskilled, low paid and short-term, leaving many without the stability of employment enjoyed by the previous generations.

Meanwhile in the south-east of England, especially in London, the economy boomed, fuelled by the deregulation of the finance industry in 1986. Heavy industry, especially around the East End of London and the docks, also dried up and the inner city began its path towards gentrification. The story since the mis-1980s was that London became too expensive for many workers and those who benefited from the boom in the finance industry moved in.

As the north and south of England diverged upon two parallel roads – one towards a post-industrial decline and one towards a post-industrial regeneration – the emerging youth subculture that rose to prominence at this time was acid house and rave/club culture. I believe that the subculture surrounding acid house and the early rave scene reflected this north/south divide and reflected the two Britains that were developing under Thatcher.

Coinciding with the emergence of MDMA (or ecstasy), the acid house and early rave scene became the focus of a moral panic about out of control youth on drugs and gathering en masse to celebrate this fusion of drugs and music. Unlike punk or reggae (or even rap), this subculture was seen to have no redeeming socio-political features and was viewed as just an excuse to indulge in social drug experimentation.

Many viewed acid house and early rave culture as hedonistic and the pretext to (publicly) waste a lot of money of partying. This was probably true to some degree in the south, where the more affluent young people could indulge in this hedonism and spend a considerable amount of money on weekend activities.

But in the north, acid house also exploded – in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and other cities. In the northern acid house scene, it was not just hedonism, fuelled by a large disposable income, but a chance to escape from dreary post-industrial world that had been delivered by nearly a decade of Thatcherism. Not sites of resistance to Thatcherism, but a withdrawal from engagement with it.

Furthermore, with the decline of heavy industry in the north, factories and fields, once the sites of a booming industrial sector, were transformed from empty spaces into potential venues for clubs and raves – the economics of putting on a show was merely finding a suitable sound system. An enterprising person, the kind of whom was praised under Thatcherism, could hire (or buy) a large PA system, bring in some local DJs and with a little promotion, make a lot of money from those entering (and possibly the selling of illicit drugs).

Unlike punk, reggae or folk music, acid house and early rave culture did not really get political and for most, was more an apolitical rejection of the Thatcherite status quo, using music (and the drugs) to collectively cast off the burden that Thatcherism brought down on young people in the late 1980s. Although I would say that acid house was given a political edge by its crossover with the gay scene in Britain in the 1980s. Under Thatcher, gay men and women were persecuted for their sexuality and the AIDS epidemic and Clause 28 were used by those in power to publicly harass gay men and women, arguing that their lifestyles were deviant. Acid house became the dominant sound in many of Britain’s gay clubs and this deviancy and portrayal as the ‘folk devils’ of the 1980s was transformed into a particular subcultural identity, combining the hedonism of acid house culture with the ‘deviancy’ of being gay in Thatcherite Britain.

However the apolitical nature of acid house and rave culture changed in the early 1990s. Concerned about the amount of illicit drugs being allegedly sold and used in the scene, the government and the police cracked down on raves and dance clubs, using the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and a revised version of the Public Order Act 1986 to shut down underground raves and strictly monitor licensed clubs. In 1992, the Major Government started to draft the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill (which eventually became law in 1994), which included an entire section dedicated to the policing of raves. This led to significant political resistance and raves became part of a political battle over the use of public space. Taking some inspiration from the anarchist ‘Stop the City’ protests of the 1980s, a serious protest movement developed, using the method of occupying public spaces and putting on ‘free parties’. This crossed over at stages with the rise of the Reclaim the Streets movement and other green/anarchist protests.

This post has attempted to give an overview of how acid house and early rave culture fits within the wider history of Thatcherism and that of contemporary Britain. What I need to do is delve into primary sources of the period, primarily the documents produced by the subculture itself – the zines, the magazine interviews, the flyers, media reports and government files, as well as any oral history and reminisces of the period. Any suggestions for where to find relevant materials would be greatly appreciated – however, as usual, there are a million other projects that I need to finish beforehand!

The Communist Party and the 1981 riots

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!

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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’.[1] 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’.[2]

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.[3] The confrontation was significant because of its scale and intensity, including burning and looting of private property and the racial aspect of the incident.[4] The clash was, Dilip Hiro wrote, a reaction to the confrontational tactics of the police against the black community.[5] The CPGB saw that the events in Bristol ‘were no “spontaneous riot” because there was nothing spontaneous about racial oppression – or its response’.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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’.[9] But Bristol was only ‘the shape of things to come’.[10] 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’.[11]

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.[12] 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’.[13] 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’.[14] 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’.[15]

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’.[16] In four days, the squads stopped 943 people and arrested 118, with only seventy-five charged, one with robbery.[17] 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’.[18] 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’.[19] 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’.[20] The official estimate of the total costs of damage caused during the July riots was £45 million, with £17 million caused to private property.[21] 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.[22]

‘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’.[23] 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’.[24] 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’.[25] 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.[26]

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’.[27] 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’.[28]

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’.[29] ‘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.[30]

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’.[31] 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.[32]

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’.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35]

Therefore, the black and white youth were ‘not rioting against society at large, but were rioting against the police, against unemployment, against racism’.[36] 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’,[37] 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’.[38]

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’.[39] The Scarman Report, wrote Stuart Hall, ‘was no panacea’, but ‘broke the prevailing law-and-order consensus’ that left the police blameless,[40] 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’.[41] 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’.[42] 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’.[43] Scarman also found the riots to be ‘a spontaneous reaction to what was seen as police harassment’.[44]

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’.[45] 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’.[46] 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’.[47] 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’.[48] 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’.[49]

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’.[50] 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.[51] 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.[52]

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.[53] 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’.[54] 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’.[55] 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’.[56] 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’.[57] 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.

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

———————————————-

[1] Stuart Hall, ‘Policing the Police’, in Dave Cook & Martin Rabstein (eds), Black & Blue: Racism and the Police, CPGB pamphlet, London, 1981, p. 7

[2] Jackie Heywood, ‘Police Hawks Come Out On Top’, Comment, 10 May, 1980, p. 151

[3] Dilip Hiro, Black British, White British: A History of Race Relations in Britain, Paladin, London, 1992, p. 85

[4] H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7

[5] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 86

[6] Hackney CP Branch Internal Policy Document, n.d., CP/LON/BRA/09/11, LHASC

[7] Neville Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, Comment, 26 April, 1980, p. 136

[8] N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 137

[9] N. Carey, ‘Bristol Police Fail in Take Over Bid’, p. 136

[10] Chris Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981: A Post-Riot Analysis’, International Socialism, 2/14, Autumn 1981, p. 1

[11] H. Joshua & T. Wallace, To Ride the Storm, p. 7

[12] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87

[13] Darcus Howe, ‘Brixton Before the Uprising’, Race Today, February/March 1982, p. 69

[14] P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 130

[15] P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 129

[16] Cited in, Lord Scarman, The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 95, Italics are my emphasis

[17] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 87; P. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p. 132

[18] 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

[19] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 88

[20] C. Harman, ‘The Summer of 1981’, p. 5

[21] D. Hiro, Black British, White British, p. 90

[22] J. Benyon, ‘Going Through The Motions’, p. 410

[23] Conference Invitation to ‘Racism and the Police’, October 1980, CP/LON/RACE/02/11, LHASC

[24] Conference Invitation

[25] Conference Invitation

[26] ‘Racism and the Police’, Comment, 21 February, 1981, pp. 6-7

[27] D. Cook & M. Rabstein, ‘Inner City Crisis’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6

[28] Dave Cook, ‘Charter of Demands’, in D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 32

[29] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 6

[30] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7

[31] ‘Racism and the Police’, p. 7

[32] D. Cook & M. Rabstein, Black & Blue, p. 6

[33] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, Executive Committee Statement, 12-13 September, 1981, p. 1, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC

[34] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 2

[35] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 6

[36] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 9; Italics are in the original text

[37] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 11

[38] ‘Crisis in the Inner Cities’, p. 10; p. 11

[39] Joe Sim, ‘Scarman: The Police Counter-Attack’, Socialist Register, 1982, p. 58

[40] Stuart Hall, ‘From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence’, History Workshop Journal, 48, Autumn 1999, p. 188

[41] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194

[42] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 205

[43] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 194

[44] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 195

[45] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 207

[46] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 198; Italics are my emphasis

[47] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 201

[48] L. Scarman, The Scarman Report, p. 209

[49] 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

[50] ‘The Scarman Report’, December 1981, CP/CENT/CTTE/02/06, LHASC

[51] ‘The Scarman Report’

[52] ‘The Scarman Report’

[53] ‘Social and Economic Policy’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 39

[54] ‘Racism’, Comment, 5 December, 1981, p. 37

[55] ‘Racism’, p. 37

[56] ‘Racism’, p. 38

[57] Kenneth Roberts, ‘Youth Unemployment and Urban Unrest’ in, J. Benyon, Scarman and After, p. 182

New article: Thatcherism and The Young Ones

TYO Agora

This is just a short post to let everybody know that my new article on depictions of Thatcherite Britain in The Young Ones has been published in Agora. A version of the paper can be found here. If you can’t access it properly, send me an email and I’ll ping one your way.

As usual, feedback, critiques and praise is welcome.