Urban riots in the UK 40 years later


In the summer months of 1981, Britain’s city centers exploded with rage, with violent protests and clashes with police. Forty years later, perhaps the time has come to examine and assess how and why it happened, and what lessons should be learned for current and future UK governments to limit the chances of it happening again.

The main areas affected between April and July included Brixton in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Nottingham, although there has also been similar unrest in various other smaller urban locations. Common causes and characteristics included high levels of unemployment, concentrated poverty, racial tensions, and allegations of police discrimination and brutality.

Thatcherism and its impact

The early 1980s marked the first phase of Thatcherism in all its divisive and polarizing impact. In large industrial towns, especially those in the Midlands and northern England, the government’s initial focus on economic downturn had a destabilizing and devastating impact. With the closure and layoff of jobs in many government-supported factories and industries in these areas, unemployment began to rise rapidly. In the Granby district of Liverpool (the Toxteth district where most of the city’s black population lived), male unemployment had risen to 40% in 1981, quadruple the national average of about 10%, while according to community activists it was more like 80% for young black people.


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Indeed, the ethnic minority populations of these large cities were generally concentrated in what were often “ghettos” in the poorest areas with the worst housing and the worst employment prospects, which symbolized a deeply rooted form of social injustice. With many of these citizens having little stake in society amid such a miserable socio-economic outlook, the potential for unrest was evident, and the Thatcher administration can be criticized for failing to realize the likely implications of its policies.

Central government tactics to abruptly pull the British economy out of the stagnation evident in the 1970s ultimately worked in some parts of the country but not in others. Thatcher’s grand scheme of “pushing back state borders” was aimed at generating greater economic efficiency, increased personal freedom and eventual prosperity, but over time his administration was accused of neglecting the most urban areas. poorer.

In more recent times, comparisons have been made with the Cameron-led coalition government austerity program of 2010 which also sought to “balance the books”. Indeed, in the summer of 2011 (thirty years later) urban riot also took place under the Cameron regime, although on a smaller scale than in 1981.

Riots and the political reaction

Despite the ethnic tensions and associated problems previously highlighted, riots have occurred among white and black communities (mainly young people), many of whom shared the unfortunate experience of being unemployed. As riots broke out in various urban locations during the summer of 1981, Thatcher spokesman and moderate Conservative minister Ian Gilmour recalled that “Economically and socially, the government was heading for the rocks‘, and many questioned whether his methods of revitalizing the economy were feasible, appropriate or compassionate enough.

On a more local level, police tactics in these inner-city slums saw black youth disproportionately targeted and harassed, often in very brutal ways, which generated anti-police resentment and mutual hostility between them. local populations and authorities.

Such grim conditions, tensions, and persecution meant that there seemed little to lose in terms of a more vigorous challenge to the status quo in 1981. A Marxist analysis would claim that many were increasingly “alienated” from the conventions of the capitalist system and therefore more inclined to take drastic measures.

Yet, in the face of the government’s more moralistic and neo-conservative mantra that individuals should take personal responsibility for their own actions, the violence that ensued has elicited little sympathy. Indeed, Thatcher cabinet loyalist Norman Tebbit told the annual Conservative conference later that year that his unemployed father did not riot during the hardships of the 1930s, instead: “He got on his bike and looked for work.”

Tebbit’s views were similar to those of the Prime Minister and aligned with “New Right” political orthodoxy, emphasizing individualism and self-help rather than state support. Such a view also advocated strong and “tough” police methods to maintain law and order.

Consequences and sequelae

As the riots were finally brought under control over a period of summer weeks, they left in their wake a wave of destruction costing millions of pounds. However, on a more positive level, he launched various regeneration programs that rejuvenated previously depressed and oppressed urban areas, involving both public and private investments, although these took a long time to be fully executed. .

High-profile examples have included the longer-term regeneration of the once-abandoned port areas of parts of London, Liverpool and Manchester / Salford, which subsequently improved the visual and physical environment while creating important jobs in the process.

While some Thatcherite hardliners advocated ‘managed decline such urban problems, and reluctantly viewed such programs as rewarding violence and crime, more compassionate “One Nation” ministers like Michael Heseltine were keen to take a more interventionist political approach. Heseltine recognized that with hindsight, perhaps the disturbances could have been predicted and that retrospective action was urgently needed.

Overview and Legacy of the 1981 Urban Riots

The urban riots of 1981 left other notable legacies, and in particular set a precedent for other tense episodes of social unrest and violent protests that occurred sporadically throughout the 1980s, in particular the miners of 1984/5 and the local tax riots of 1989 -90.

While they were in different places and involved contrasting issues, they were also a response to the Thatcher government’s attempts to “shrink the state” and reshape British society and its economy in a radical new direction. Such events also raised the specter that all governments have feared throughout history that sustained social unrest can often lead to dangerous revolutionary conditions, although this ultimately did not materialize in the 1980s.

The ongoing police reform was another consequence of this turbulent decade, but again, many ethnic communities continued to feel targeted, and the Macpherson Report called the Metropolitan Police an “institutional racist” following the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

The question for today is how much have these areas changed in the forty years since these major urban riots, and whether the inequalities and discrimination that prompted such a reaction have been truly addressed and eradicated? ?

Downtown regeneration, improved racial integration, investment in housing, police reform, and targeted employment programs have all been obvious approaches over the past four decades (to varying degrees ) to prevent similar generalized disorders.

Some later governments took a more interventionist approach than that of the 1980s, but after a decade of austerity since 2010, various residents of these inner-city communities are emphasizing persistent problems and remain skeptical about whether enough has been done to prevent such extreme urban riots from happening on this scale.

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