Margaret Thatcher told to ‘abandon Liverpool’ during the Toxteth Riots.
On the night of the 3rd of July 1981, Liverpool police decided to stop and question a local youth, whom had been riding down Shelbourne Road. With witnesses stating, especially amongst Liverpool’s Black community, that the police used their powers to the point of systematic harassment. For a number of weeks, people stated to reach their limits with the polices, under the ‘sue law’, ‘stop and search’ power of course, with tensions rising, over the next couple days, full scale riots broke out in Toxteth, Liverpool. There were three full days of pitched battles between police and angry crowds, during which police reinforcements were called in from all over the UK. However, other rioters from all over the Merseyside joined in, each with their own grievances against the police. ‘Nick’, a then eighteen year old, said: “What was scary about it was the police standing there with these batons, and then banging the batons on these shields, as if it was a war. I suppose that’s the way they had to try and intimidate people to get them off the streets. But I think it did the opposite. I think people started saying: ‘Look, that’s a gang, and we’re a gang.’”
Of course, with the mob mentality throughout Toxteth at the time, the riots spread like fire; by the end of it, 800 police were injured, 542 people were arrested, and 70 buildings were destroyed. Now, the questions I’m raising here isn’t how the riots began. No, my question is how and why were the riots aloud to get this far? Well, files released by the National Archives show that the Iron Lady’s government urged her not to waste money on the ‘stony ground’ of Merseyside; Sir Geoffrey Howe (Now Lord Howe) thought that using funding to rebuild the riot-hit communities would be a waste of money that would be better spent elsewhere; sending more money to Liverpool was like making ‘water flow uphill’, said the chancellor.
In one instance, the image of the police was destroyed; people knew they could riot and oppose the police, and throughout the UK, especially in Toxteth. Throughout the UK, TV showed the police cowering behind flimsy shields whilst being pelted with bricks and petrol bombs, and were powerless to stop widespread rioting. They appealed for riot gear, which they did eventually get, after days of non-stop rioting; CS gas, which had only previously been used in Ireland, was used for the first time in Britain. While Thatcher and her home secretary agreed sending in the Army ‘could not be contemplated’, even arming the police was considered to put a stop to the rioting. And yet, even though the riots reached the stage where arming the police was considered, Liverpool and Merseyside were still being urged to be left in decline during and after the riots.
So why was Liverpool being urged to be left to ‘managed decline’, and how did Thatcher respond?
To understand why it was considered to leave Liverpool to crumble, you have to realize that the UK was deep in recession during the time of the riots; unemployment was high, and resources were limited at best. In this instance, they simply didn’t have the resources to repair Liverpool, and many other cities, after the riots; too much damage had been done, and in a time of trouble, the UK simply didn’t have the money or the support to rebuild. Thatcher, it seems, didn’t like the idea of leaving Liverpool to fall, despite Sir Geoffrey urging that:
“We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East… It would be even more regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey… We must not expend all out limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.’
With Liverpool not considered a ‘promising area’, how did Thatcher respond to the needs of Liverpool, and to her chancellor’s urges? Thatcher dispatched Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine as ‘minister from Merseyside’, to lead a programme of urban regeneration. This wasn’t a popular choice to her fellow politicians; the assumption was that, to help Liverpool in any way, Heseltine would have to spend money, money that Britain didn’t currently have.
Overall, the Toxteth riots were a turning point, both politically and socially; the public image of the police being unstoppable was shattered, and the Government showed that it was willing to consider letting one of its major cities decline. Surprisingly, that very same city has undergone massive regeneration since the Riots of 1981, becoming Capital of Culture in 2008, the very same city that was considered to be just ‘stony ground’ and not ‘promising’ enough for help.
(Okay, that’s the first story on Liverpool. I didn’t really have time to go into much detail on this story, so excuse it if it isn’t too detailed.)
I found this while looking for eyewitness accounts of the Toxteth Riots.
1981: burning milk float barricade on Upper Parliament Street
2011: the same scene today
Riots are the voices of the unheard
– Martin Luther King Jr
Sunday 5 July, 1981. We live in a top floor flat on Canning Street in Liverpool 8. Around seven in the evening we need some milk, so I pop over to the little backstreet store just behind Falkner Square. Something seems to be going on; there are crowds of people milling around and a lot of noise – shouting and distant crashing sounds. Sudden flurries of people run past, running away from the direction of Upper Parliament Street. I say, ‘what’s happening?’ ‘There’s a riot. The bizzies are getting hammered’.
Disturbances had kicked off two days earlier, on the evening of Friday July 3rd when the police had attempted to arrest a young, black motorcyclist at the junction of Granby and Selbourne Street. An…
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So I found a discussion on the Riots online (you can find it yourself at: http://sluggerotoole.com/2011/07/15/in-july-1981-people-were-rioting-in-toxteth-liverpool-can-we-learn-or-do-better/). Here’s the discussion, which as far as I can tell, was taken from ‘Thinking Aloud’, the Radio 4 Podcast. Between the discussion, commentary was given by the author of the article. Here we go:
[Richard] He tries to shift the agenda back away from policing towards economic regeneration. He sets up a whole series of projects, none of which it’s easy to object to: projects for improving the environment, projects for attracting private investment, They’re all seen as quite welcome, but they’re not focussed on Toxteth, Liverpool 8, not focussed on the real issues. Lord Scarman is running an enquiry. At the same time, bringing policing into focus. But Heseltine is focussed on economy all very well and good, and quite well received, but not really the issue that people locally want him to address.
‘Alongside enquiry and political initiatives, two senior clergy – Bishop David Sheppard(Anglican) and Archbishop Derek Worlock (Roman Catholic) – intervened. (Over time they became known as “fish and chips as they were always together and rarely out of the papers!)’
[Richard] As soon as the riots had taken place, we see both of the bishops in Liverpool essentially joining hands and going out onto the streets. They are asked by the media to condemn the riots, condemn the rioters. They don’t do that. They try to ask why the riots are taking place.
They follow that up with the Anglican church Faith in the City agenda where they identify urban priority areas and they produce a report which is illustrated entirely with pictures from Toxteth. This is the important thing: Toxteth is used to create an agenda which is not just local, but is national. So out of this place of depravation, out of this place where people really haven’t got much cultural capital, they are able to set an national agenda, in terms of thinking about inner cities, in terms of changing police/community relations.
‘(It’s not entirely clear in the programme that ‘Faith in the City’ was a GB-wide Anglican report, on which Bishop David Sheppard served on the commission.)’
[Laurie] When you speak to people, do they want to say – with reference to some of the things that Richard’s talking about – that it was worthwhile, the rioters feel they got something of what they wanted out of it.
[Diane] I think it was a mixed picture. The so called rioters felt that they had little choice. Lady Margaret Simey [councillor, magistrate and chair of Merseyside Police Committee] had said that she thought that the riots were inevitable because of what had been building up, because of economic deprivation.
[Laurie] So when you talk to the people, they say yes conditions have improved. Things are better now. Policing is better.
[Diane] There is a mixed picture. Most of the oral testimonies talk about welcoming the changes, but many of them are consistent in saying that the changes didn’t go far enough, that many of these changes benefitted business rather than the local communities. The Garden Festival was very nice, but again it didn’t employ local labour, it used labour from outside. Policing has shifted. I think Wally Brown – one of the community leaders – talked ten years after the riots about policing having moved on. But still today, people will still argue that policing is still a problem.
[Laurie] The city has improved. Can we talk about multi-culturalism in the city now?
[Richard] Yes. When Liverpool promoted itself as Capital of Culture in 2008 it uses the strapline of “the world in one city” and to me that’s embracing the things Liverpool was afraid of thirty years ago.
‘The remains of a barricade on Upper Parliament Street.’
‘Children exploring after the rioting.’
‘A damaged shop on Lodge Lane. There are pictures of Charles and Diana in the windows, for the royal wedding only weeks away.’
‘A milk float on Upper Parliament Street. After the dairy on Upper Parliament Street was set on fire the floats were driven at the police.’