Shopkeepers closed early and boarded up their windows. City dwellers barricaded their doors. In newspaper offices and radio stations, reporters struggled to keep track of the riots. Mrs Thatcher’s words suggested she might be shifting from the hard-line approach of attacking unions and dissidents, but it remains to be seen how far she can shift and whether she can stop the splintering of this country.
She clamped down on the lawless, rioting mobs with a month-long ban on marches throughout London; The Royal wedding of course will be exempt. But they are only the symptoms. No one in Britain, Mrs Thatcher included, can come to grips with the causes.
My home in London is equidistant from the Mercedes-studded inner city suburb of Bayswater and the West Indian ghetto of Notting Hill. My kid plays with the black kids down the street. Yesterday I felt the tension in the humid summer air. Down in the Portobello market, the usually cheery Cockney stallholders had only one topic of conversation — the riots. Windows had been broken the night before, and a rumour spread that there would be much worse trouble that night. At the park where the kids play, the attendant was tipped off by his council bosses. Don’t be a hero, they told him, get the hell out. The population is multiracial and relations are generally good. But we were lucky. In our area nobody touched off the powder keg.
It was a different story in Brixton, scene of bitter street fighting last April. More than 300 youths — black and white — looted high street stores and burnt out cars before helmeted police, hunched behind riot shields, restored order. It was a different story in Walthamstow, too. There, a man was seriously injured by an axe-wielding thug. In Southall a gang of youths battled with police only hours after Mrs Thatcher, had visited the area in the wake of a huge punch-up between skinheads and coloured kids the previous weekend.
In Liverpool, home of international rock stars and Europe’s best soccer team, the city council met in an emergency session. Until Friday, the troubles had been confined to London and the big north-west cities of Liverpool and Manchester.
Then, all of a sudden, riots were breaking out all over the place, like houses going up in an Australian bushfire. If it goes on, it could be the breaking of Britain, It could mark the time when they finally throw the “great” out of Great Britain.
What has caused it?
The first riots were called race riots. Then people started to look deeper, blaming unemployment. It’s a combination of these two and other factors. Even when the fires die down, there’s a malaise in the air. In Hull, on the east coast, 400 youths ran riot in the city centre. In Preston, there were reports of firemen being stoned as they struggled to reach blazing houses. Government leaders are split over the cause of the rioting. Employment Minister James Prior agreed with the Opposition that unemployment was the root cause. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe, blamed the “onwards march of public ownership.” He said vast sums of money had been poured into housing and welfare projects in the Liverpool and Manchester suburbs affected by the rioting. The investment had been to no avail.
An MP has called for immediate resignation of the Home Secretary William Whitelaw. John Rymam, Labour member for Blyth, wrote to Mr Whitelaw telling him that he appeared to be “utterly helpless” to stop the violence sweeping across the country. He told Mr Whitelaw: “You should resign your office immediately because you are an honourable man and you must recognise that you have utterly failed in your task of maintaining law and order. Events are now moving towards continuing chaos in many parts of the country. You appear to be utterly helpless to prevent the imminent repetition of the horrific events of violence which have swept across the country and you simply do not understand, and will never understand, the social and economic causes of crimes of this type,” Mr Ryman said.
He described the proposal recently announced by Mr Whitelaw to hold parents responsible for their children’s offences as “a cruel trick upon an anxious civilian population.”
He said Mr Whitelaw knew perfectly well that such legislation would be unenforceable. Mr Ryman said the Labour Party utterly condemned the violence and would give full support to restoration and maintenance of the rule of law. Most people believe that a country once so great could never disintegrate like it is now. Now the question is whether the nation has the resources and willpower to pull itself out of the mire.
Special Branch have launched a hunt for four men thought to have been behind the riots in London, Manchester and Liverpool. It is true that many of the young rioters may have been led. But few people adhere to conspiracy theories — they are the last bastion of desperate people. It is simplistic to blame unemployment alone or race differences alone.
Whites, blacks and Asians have been more intent on making a mess and a fire and fighting police than they have been in fighting one another. True there is racial dislike and distrust. This is fuelled by grinding poverty and unemployment, especially in areas where the young jobless reach 50 per cent of the total.
But Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party — despite criticism from within its ranks — continues the hard grind which it believes will lead to eventual success and reasonable prosperity. The Opposition Labour Party is so divided that no one expects solutions from that quarter. Britain is a leaderless legion. Frustration follows hopelessness. It might blow over, of course. Britain might muddle through after all. Mr Whitelaw said he would call in the Army only in the final resort. But jittery Britons are wondering when, rather than if, that might be. Scotland Yard press officer Mike Cobb told The Sun-Herald last night; “It looks like the Battle of Britain and the blitz down some London streets.”
Mr Whitelaw has also promised to consider demands by Britain’s police
force for armoured cars, riot suits, special training, and the freedom to use anti-riot gas and plastic bullets if they’re to continue combating the sort of mobs which have been raging through the major cities.
Local media reported that the riots came to an end in London on July 17th, when it was announced that police had control of the area, though they did remain on guard for some hours.