The summer of 1981 saw a tsunami of urban riots against the Thatcher government as youth unemployment soared and long standing grievances against the police came to a violent head. Black and white youth took to the streets. After Liverpool rioted, it was only a matter of time before Manchester followed. And so it came to pass that the Moss Side area descended into an unprecedented riot – the likes of which had not been seen since the 19th century. Culminating in a siege of the local police station by 1,000 rioters. An event that struck terror into the local constabulary.
The night after the Toxteth riot in July 1981 saw the violence jump from Liverpool to Manchester – and specifically the Moss Side district. The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, was arguably more of a hardliner than his counterpart on Merseyside, Kenneth Oxford.
He resolved to end the Moss Side riot within 24 hours.
The Moss Side Riot kicks off
The catalyst for the riot was allegedly a group of white men taunting a group of black men that they were too “chicken” to organise a riot along the lines of Toxteth or Brixton in the city. Well, that was soon rectified in a horrific manner. Very soon after, Moss Side exploded. At one point, a mob descended on the local police station apparently led by a nine-year-old boy. And a police officer ended up being shot through the leg with a crossbow. Rather medieval!
Anderton had clearly hoped that the storm of rioting that had beset Brixton, Southall and Toxteth would pass over Manchester. But on the streets, there was a sense that if London and Liverpool were going to mark the year with serious rioting then Manchester couldn’t be left out. Moss Side obligingly provided the set for the action.
Even though Anderton had a reputation as a hard man, he went for a low profile response to the rioters. Some critics called it a ‘no profile’ approach and bemoaned the lack of officers stopping looters work their way through businesses on Princess Road. There was a rather surreal scene as people were spied hauling three-piece sofa suites down the road towards their homes.
As in Brixton and Toxteth, but arguably more so in Moss Side, there were accusations of mysterious outsiders fomenting the violence. So, accounts began to spread of vans driving around handing out petrol bombs. And rather reminiscent of the Jack the Ripper saga, chalked messages on walls!
Where the police presence was more visible, they were using a tactic employed with fatal consequences in Toxteth and in Northern Ireland – and that was driving police vans at speed towards the crowd to disperse them. As I saw on picket lines and disturbances during the 1980s (yes, I did attend a couple to spectate of course), fire engines were unable to get anywhere near the growing inferno.
Manchester Police move into action
Anderton was desperate to see the riots quelled as quickly as possible. His police officers in turn were watched closely by local youth, black and white, observing their tactics. When police grabbed an Asian couple, a shout of ‘Gestapo’ resulted in one youth being arrested. According to a report in The Daily Telegraph on July 10, 198, an eight-year-old boy was arrested after throwing a petrol bomb at police. Not sure if this is the same boy mentioned above leading a charge at the police station!
The siege of the police station clearly left Anderton badly shaken. He told journalists that it had been organised along “military” lines, which seems unlikely in retrospect.
Rest of the country simmers
As Liverpool and Manchester rioted, other parts of the country seemed to be on the brink of their own disturbances. It was almost as if everybody wanted a piece of the action. At Westminster, a 17-year-old student was wrestled to the ground in the House of Lords garden having scaled the fence to the Houses of Parliament, armed with a knife, and yelling: “I want to get Maggie Thatcher!”
In Woolwich, south London, about 250 youths were dispersed by police after overturning two cars. Twenty-seven arrests were made. Some people reportedly tried to blame the Socialist Workers Party for fomenting the rioting. But I think that rather overestimates the influence of the SWP among working-class youth. There were repeated attempts to blame “leftists” for the rioting but when rioters were asked why they were on the streets, the answers revolved around allegations of police brutality and their lives being generally rubbish.
Moss Side – the aftermath
At the end of that summer, I was on a canal trip going along the Cheshire Ring which passes through Manchester. We’d been shocked enough as middle class southern English sixth formers to see mile after mile of industrial devastation – as the economic recession hit the north very badly.
But then driving back to London, we went through Moss Side and I got a glimpse of what I would see a couple of weeks later in Toxteth. Low level housing burnt out and the evidence of flames that had licked up the side of the buildings.
Anderton insisted that there had been no ‘race riot’ and many on the Left, emphasising unemployment as the main cause, would have agreed in part while criticising community-police relations and the use of stop and search.
As a footnote, some think the white men who taunted the black guys before the riot kicked off were plainclothes police. Or some kind of agents provocateurs. I’ve no evidence to support that claim but tell me what you know!
POSTSCRIPT: On 6 May 2022, James Anderton died. Obituaries reminded us of the nickname he acquired at the time: God’s Copper. The obit in The Guardian noted: His claims that he had divine guidance in his policing duties and his inflammatory remarks about gay people ensured that he became, for a while, the most controversial police officer in Britain.
This was a police officer who actually said the following in public:
Given my love of God and my belief in God and Jesus Christ, I have to accept that I may well be used by God.
This led to him advocating the castration of rapists and the return of corporal punishment. But not just any old corporal punishment. No, more like the beating Christ endured during the Passion. Only this would be for criminals until they repented of their sins. Or as he put it to Woman’s Own magazine – they should be begging for mercy.
LGBT people were “moral lepers” and AIDS was divine comeuppance. Yet despite this, he enjoyed 100% support from Margaret Thatcher who was appalled at the idea that he should clear his public pronouncements with the local police committee first. Goodness no – otherwise we’d have been denied his calls for blooding beatings and divinely ordained killer viruses!!