Thirty years ago this July, the streets of urban Britain exploded with violence. While the UK had seen riots and street demonstrations throughout its long and tumultuous history, the disturbances of 1981 represented something new – for they largely involved the frustrations and anger of Britain’s large immigrant populations.
By the early 1980s, a whole generation of people from the British Commonwealth -- India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jamaica, and other places -- had grown up in the UK, becoming part of a visible minority community. Indeed, entire inner-city neighborhoods of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and other big cities had been wholly transformed into immigrant communities.
Concurrent with the growth of immigration emerged the resentment and anxieties of the native white population. Extremist groups like the National Front, as well mainstream politicians from both the Labour and Conservative parties. expressed their alarm over the presence of millions of non-white immigrants in the country.
Tensions simmered for years with periodic bursts of violence, but racial violence did not escalate until the hot days of the summer of 1981 when a confluence of disparate factors (racial hostility; high unemployment; a collapsing industrial/manufacturing base; deprivation; poor housing; incidents of police brutality; and the rule of hard-right Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) lit a fuse that tore across the urban British landscape.
International Business Times spoke with Dr. Victoria Honeyman, lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds, about the 1981 riots and their impact on the UK.
IBTIMES: Do you view the 1981 riots primarily as a conflict between working-class youth (of all races) against the police? Or was it more of a broader “race war” between whites and non-white immigrants?
HONEYMAN: The issues underlying the riots applied across the racial divides -- unemployment and poverty.
The 'stop and search' powers of the police were unfairly aimed at the black (particularly Afro-Caribbean community) but might well have exacerbated the white youth community as well.
The dispute wasn't between whites and non-white immigrants, it was largely between some members of the black community in Brixton and the police. Interestingly, members of both the white and black communities attempted to mediate between the rioters and the police, suggesting that it wasn't simply a racial community issue.
IBTIMES: The four biggest riots occurred in Brixton (South London), Handsworth (Birmingham), Chapeltown (Leeds) Toxteth (Liverpool). Generally speaking, have these neighborhoods become better places to live – in terms of race relations, police conduct, and economics – or are they even worse?
HONEYMAN: Other than Chapeltown in Leeds, I haven't visited any of these places so can't really comment one way or the other.
In terms of Chapeltown, it certainly seems to have improved over the last twenty years (from what I remember) but is not among the most desirable places to live in Leeds.
IBTIMES: In the aftermath of the riots, did the police reform some of their procedures, especially with respect to the notorious stop-and-search ‘sus laws’?
HONEYMAN: Stop and Search was eventually revoked, but has been reintroduced in the last few years, with the justification that it could help to tackle terrorism. The case of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the Macpherson report which was published in 1999 argued that the 1984 Act which brought in various new measures to restore confidence in the police, had been largely ignored. Commentators still vary in their views as to whether the police force are still 'institutionally racist' as Macpherson stated.
IBTIMES: Was unemployment in the UK that summer at a multi-decade high? I believe 2.5-million were out of work. What caused the joblessness at that time?
HONEYMAN: Unemployment was very high, and eventually hit 3 million. It was particularly bad in specific pocket areas, Brixton being one of these, but certainly not the only one. The introduction of monetarism and neo-liberal economics by the Thatcher government had the effect of creating unemployment, something which wasn't viewed as being such a terrible thing. It provided a pool of cheaper labor for employers.
IBTIMES: Do you think the riots inadvertently increased Thatcher’s support – i.e., emphasizing the need for her ‘law and order’ platform?
HONEYMAN: Perhaps, although it would be extremely difficult to prove.
IBTIMES: It seems that in recent years the Black and Asian communities in Britain have turned against each other. But back in 1981, were they more united against white racism and the police?
HONEYMAN: As we don't know who all the rioters were, it is difficult to know this either. There is no evidence to suggest that the black community and the Asian community were united during the 1981 riots, but it is possible.
It is impossible to know and difficult to extrapolate individual experiences to cover a wider, varied group.
IBTIMES: Aside from a disturbance in Handsworth, Birmingham in September 1985, there were no serious race riots in Britain after 1981 until the violence in Oldham and Burney in the north in 2001. To what do you attribute this relative lack of public racial unrest over two decades?
HONEYMAN: It could be argued that the different groups have found ways of co-existing and living together more peacefully, and who wouldn't want that to be the case? Perhaps multi-culturalism is working. It could, however, also be argued that individuals from different ethnic groupings have united in common cause against societal ills, or that they have all benefitted by Britain's improving economic position since the early 1980s.
IBTIMES: Are there more ethnic minorities in British police ranks now?
HONEYMAN: Yes, but that is not to say that the British police force is truly multi-cultural. The police force is still viewed with suspicion by various ethnic minorities and the number of officers from ethnic minorities is still small.
IBTIMES: As I recall, in the 1970s places like Brixton and Tower Hamlets (in East London) were mixed -- that is, many working-class whites living next to black or Asian immigrants. Are these neighborhoods more segregated now due to white flight?
HONEYMAN: It seems likely that there has been some 'white flight' in these areas, but there are still white communities within Brixton and Tower Hamlets.
IBTIMES: It seems that any discussion of immigration and assimilation in UK focuses upon Muslims and on the new wave of asylum-seekers. Are black Britons no longer politically engaged? Are they now apathetic? I don’t recall any major demonstrations regarding the murder of Stephen Lawrence or the horrific axe-killing of Anthony Walker in Liverpool.
HONEYMAN: I don't believe that, as a whole, the black community in Britain is any more politically disengaged than they were previously, although inevitably that requires us to make generalizations about a whole community which is dangerous.
I would argue that the black community are not viewed as being 'dangerous' in the same way that the Islamic community is (largely due to the linkages between Islam and terrorism, not matter how generalized those fears).
The killings of Anthony Walker and Stephen Lawrence were simply not accepted, they were viewed with revulsion and horror by the majority in Britain, but perhaps due to this there was less need for demonstrations or riots, although I am sure there have been marches in honor of these young men.
IBTIMES: Britain is facing a long hot summer this year with unions outraged by the government’s austerity budget and spending cuts. But, this is largely a “middle-class revolt,” isn’t it? It has nothing in common with the race riots from 30 years ago.
HONEYMAN: It has not got a great deal in common with the race riots, because race is not seen as being at the core of the issue. The police are not seen as being racial aggressors, as they were in 1981 (or during the 1984/5 miners strike for example) and therefore it gives marches and demonstrations rather a different flavor.