The Politics of Protest in Britain: Race Riots in 1980-81

To mark Black History Month 2020, today’s post comes from guest blogger Dr Simon Peplow, senior teaching fellow at the University of Warwick. Dr Peplow is a researcher of modern British race, ethnicity, and migration history and his book ‘Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain‘ was released in paperback this month. In this blog he looks into parliamentary responses to the Race Riots that took place across Britain at the beginning of the 1980s.

In recent months the Black Lives Matter campaign has incited demonstrations and protests on an international scale, including in towns and cities across Britain. The means of conducting such protests have been debated in Parliament and the media, provoking controversy and division. Thus, the politics of protest has been thrust into the public sphere, further complicated by Covid-19 restrictions. Parliamentarians and Parliaments in the past have also come under scrutiny in these debates. The statue of MP and slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol, bringing to the fore a broader ongoing debate about appropriate memorialisation and frustrations between Bristolians and their local authorities. The politics of protest is an ongoing area of debate, and the violent disorders that spread around England in 1980–81 provide a historical demonstration of what can happen when sections of society believe their voices are being wilfully ignored.

Beginning with several hours of disorder in Bristol in April 1980, disturbances subsequently spread around England the following year – most prominently in Brixton, and later reaching Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham, to name but a few locations. With a backdrop of deep-rooted social and economic problems, thousands of people took to the streets to protest as almost 200 disorders occurred around England in July 1981 alone.

Police lined up with riot shields, 1981 Brixton Riots. Photographed by Kim Aldis via Wikimedia Commons

While it is important not to oversimplify or overemphasise the uniformity of events in 1980–81, they can be broadly characterised as anti-police uprisings largely involving Black Britons. In the years since, in some quarters at least, they have acquired something of an air of legitimacy as a rational response to ongoing racism, discrimination, and disadvantage – coupled with a perceived failure of state mechanisms to address the situation. At the time, the Bristol Council for Racial Equality concluded that the disorders displayed a widespread feeling amongst Black people that there was ‘no other way to make their points of view known’. As John Solomos, Professor of Sociology who has published extensively on race and ethnicity, has argued: ‘not all groups enjoy the same opportunity to participate politically through channels defined as legitimate’.

While in 1981 the Labour Shadow Home Secretary, Roy Hattersley, announced in Parliament that ‘the Opposition deplore[s] the violence that took place’, Labour MPs generally took a more sympathetic viewpoint to the disorders than their Conservative counterparts – which is perhaps unsurprising from an opposition Party. Hattersley himself declared that he had ‘no wish to allocate blame or responsibility, but the breakdown of the relationship between the police and the public is an undoubted fact’. John Fraser, MP for Norwood in South London, spoke of the ‘deep disaffection about relations with the police’, and prominent left-wing figure Tony Benn reasoned that increasingly over-relying on the police to ‘deal with problems … fundamentally political and economic in character’ – such as rising unemployment, social deprivation and other inner-city issues – was placing an unfair ‘burden’ on the police. Thomas Cox, MP for the Greater London constituency of Tooting, agreed that such issues, in addition to daily racist discrimination and violence, had made life for many in South London a ‘desert of despair’.

However, particularly during the years of Margaret Thatcher’s often controversial Government, the Conservative Party – the ‘party of law and order’ – were unlikely to accept violent disorders as a ‘legitimate’ form of protest. For instance, Conservative MP Anthony Grant declared in Parliament that ‘the first duty of a democratic Government … is to maintain law and order’. Thatcher herself described the events as ‘criminal’, concluding that ‘nothing, but nothing justifies what happened’, and Home Secretary William Whitelaw concurred that ‘No reason, no explanation, for recent troubles justifies what has occurred’. Conservative MP David Mellor furthered this position in Commons debate by deeming it ‘grossly wrong and unfair to talk about social protest’ when he believed the disturbances should be viewed simply as ‘sheer criminality’ – concluding that ‘the day that we confuse the two is the day that we shall be speaking of the end of civilised society’.

Some members of the Conservative Monday Club, an anti-immigration political pressure group, portrayed the disorders as being the consequence of postwar immigration, and the apparent movement away from a (perceived) previously monoracial society. Harvey Proctor urged the Government to ‘end large-scale, permanent immigration from the New Commonwealth and encourage repatriation’, and John Stokes portrayed ‘these riots [as] something new and sinister in our long national history’. While Whitelaw conceded that many protestors were British-born, he also argued that ‘a large number of those concerned came here between 1957 and 1962, and all of us who were in the House at that time bear a similar share of the responsibility’ – 1962 being the year of the first Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which began to tighten restrictions on immigration.

By disregarding Britain’s long history of violent protest and staunchly retaining long-standing attitudes that racial harmony could best be achieved through stricter controls, this reaction attempted to shift focus away from wider issues or governmental policies and clearly portrayed immigration – and, by extension, migrants and Black Britons themselves – as the cause of this ‘new and sinister’ disorder. Scholars such as Michael Rowe have argued that respect for the law is often considered to be part of the British national character, and that arguments regarding broader social, economic, or political factors are thus generally rejected when such public disorder is regarded as being ‘un-British’.

When a public inquiry, chaired by Lord Leslie Scarman, into the events of 1981 was announced, it was criticised by Conservative MPs who suggested this appeared to have legitimised violence: that such a governmental response signified some form of ‘victory’ for ‘rioters’ who had protested in the ‘wrong way’. However, Whitelaw strongly rejected suggestions that this inquiry ‘encouraged violence on the streets’, and warned: ‘If we do not take action to make this clear to people who feel the bitterness that they do, and if we do not take action to try to overcome that, we shall make the situation more dangerous.’ Despite acknowledging the dangers of inaction, subsequent governmental measures were an inadequate response to the scale of the problems, and further disorders occurred in 1985.

Many recommendations made by Scarman in 1981 were not implemented, and it would take until Sir William Macpherson’s 1999 public inquiry into the ineffectual police investigation of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence before official acknowledgement of institutional racism within the police. Macpherson’s inquiry had only been established after a persistent years-long campaign by Lawrence’s family and supporters, demonstrating the difficulty of obtaining such governmental-established responses and actions. However, events in subsequent years have demonstrated that many of the fundamental issues remain unresolved – including continuing debates on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ methods of protest.


Further reading:

  • John Benyon (ed.), Scarman and After: Essays Reflecting on Lord Scarman’s Report, the Riots and Their Aftermath.
  • Michael Keith, Race, Riots And Policing: Lore and Disorder in a Multi-racist Society.
  • Paul Gilroy, ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation.
  • Trevor Phillips and Mike Phillips, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain.

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