Viewpoint: What can we learn from the riots of the 1980s?

Dr Richard Phillips, from the University of Liverpool’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “The riots taking place this week echo events that took place 30 years ago, in Brixton in April 1981 and then in Liverpool and other cities in July of the same year. There are important differences between the two waves of unrest, but we can learn from what took place a generation ago, and how people reacted.

“The mainstream media and politicians including the governing Conservatives at the time were quick to condemn the violence, and looked for ‘community leaders’ to do the same.  When the establishment realised that the riots could not simply be dismissed in this way, government ministers and community leaders started to ask difficult questions about why the unrest had taken place.

“The Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, appointed Lord Scarman to look into policing. An enquiry into the educational experience of ethnic minorities, led by Lord Swann, widened its remit to consider the experience of communities affected by the riots. Swann found the Liverpool-born black community were among the most poorly served by our education system.

“The Church of England launched its own investigation, which led to the Faith in the City agenda. Michael Heseltine came to Liverpool to listen and to launch an urban enterprise project. At the local level, a further wave of enquiries and projects were launched. These began by listening to those affected by the riots. They moved on to propose and implement solutions, which have borne some fruit.

“We have heard journalists and politicians condemning the riots in the UK this month.  Now it is time to move to the second stage and ask the harder questions about why riots are taking place in our cities today. The riots may or may not have less legitimacy than those of a generation ago. But if we don’t ask, we won’t know.”

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