Two Controversial Stories: One.

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.)


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