December 9, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Memories of Liverpool in 1981 – part five

8 min read
To what extent did poor relations between the community in Toxteth and the Merseyside police lead to the 1981 riots? Tony McMahon reports

To what extent did poor relations between the community in Toxteth and the police on Merseyside lead to the summer of riots in 1981? What’s what I’m going to look at now in this blog post series on Liverpool in that momentous year when the Thatcher government looked as if it might topple.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, Merseyside Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford loomed large as the villain of the piece as far as Toxteth and left-wing opinion was concerned. His post-riot comments were often contradictory, placing blame on local black youth while playing down any racial element to the disturbance in the same breath.

He featured prominently in TV and newspaper coverage as was to be expected. But many of the stories only served to confirm the worst suspicions about the Chief Constable. For example, the Daily Mail front page headline on 6 July 1981 could not have been more stark and provocative: Black War on Police.[1] Oxford was quoted on the same page putting the blame for the violence squarely on “young, black hooligans”, while conceding that some white youth were also involved and that “this was not a racial issue”.

He was keen to differentiate Toxteth from Brixton and Southall and played down the idea that there had been a race riot. “There was certainly no confrontation between black and white”. Instead, Oxford alighted on a “small hooligan and criminal element hell-bent on confrontation”. There was no immigration problem in Liverpool, he added, as the black community was long established.

Oxford had a 42-year career in three of the UK’s major forces that one obituary in 1998 described as “saturated in controversy”.[2] In 1976, he was appointed Chief Constable on Merseyside having been Deputy Chief Constable since 1974. His tenure would be stormy and memorable.

From the point of view of the police at this time, one senior officer described the late 1970s and early 1980s as “battlegrounds between Politicians and Senior Police Officers and between rioters and the less senior Police ranks”[3]. Senior police complained that civilian bodies were restraining their ability to control crime. They felt criminality was rising as a result of “a combination of booming night-time economies and a faltering industries and docks”.[4]

The response in the early 1970s, under the previous Chief Constable Sir James Houghton, was to set up a Task Force modelled on the Special Patrol Group (SPG) in London. The reputation of the SPG among urban youth was such that they featured in songs by the reggae artist Linton Kwesi Johnson and the punk bands The Exploited and Red Alert. In the 1980s BBC sitcom The Young Ones, Vyvyan had a hamster called SPG. It was particularly aggressive and inexplicably spoke with a Glaswegian accent.

The Task Force was drawn from plainclothes officers and others were sent along because they were “difficult to manage”.[5] They were given Jeep-type vehicles, long-wheel based Land Rovers, to roar around the streets. As with the SPG in London, the Task Force were enthusiastic enforcers of what was known as SPL in Liverpool – Suspected Person Loitering.

This was the equivalent of the hated SUS law in London. It was seen as a tactic employed disproportionately against black youth. Forty years later and the use of stop and search by police on ethnic minorities is still a very live issue. The difference now is that there’s a fairly balanced debate but in 1981, the balance of public opinion was to support the police overwhelmingly, regardless of concerns raised by community organisations.

One police officer recounted years later that Houghton would listen to local black community organisations in Toxteth air their grievances with a pained expression of concern on his face. As soon as they left the room, he would turn to a fellow officer and bark: “Get the vans out.”

The elevation of Oxford to Chief Constable was viewed by some in the force as a move in a liberal direction. Not a view shared subsequently in Toxteth. Two examples given of his supposed liberality were the increased use of cautions for unlawful possession of drugs and, more importantly, his decision to disband the Liverpool Task Force.

By the late 1970s, community organisations in Toxteth had coalesced into the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee. Oxford took a less cavalier approach to their complaints than the departed Houghton. Though in personal terms, he managed to have an arguably worse relationship with community leaders. That may have been a combination of his own irascible personality with a hardening of views among Toxteth community organisations.

The Task Force was replaced by a new entity called the Operational Support Division (OSD) and much to the chagrin of some officers, patrols of Toxteth were stopped. The OSD was ordered to focus on shoplifting in the city centre and avoid Liverpool 8. Any officers disobeying would be ‘binned’.

Although most people outside the force saw the OSD as a cynical rebranding of the Task Force, many within the police took it to be a new and unwelcome ‘soft’ approach. If Oxford was hoping this might diffuse tensions between the police and the community in Toxteth, then his own public pronouncements on race would soon undermine that. As one police source summarised the dilemma:

“Here was the crucial difference between Sunny Jim the Smiling Assassin (nickname for Houghton) and Lumpy Head (nickname for Oxford). Houghton took a hard line but avoided conflict. Oxford did the opposite. Despite his attempts at conciliation, the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee viewed him as an aggressive and unsympathetic racist. It was to cost him and the Force dear.”

Oxford had a taciturn bearing. Police sources say he feuded with his deputy, Alison Halford, the first female Assistant Chief Constable ever appointed in the UK. His spats with another women, Councillor Margaret Simey who chaired the local police authority, were well reported. But it was his ill-judged comments on race that have clung to Oxford down the years.

The most damaging incident was in 1978 when the BBC Nationwide programme decided to address the question of race and policing. Nationwide was a magazine programme that ran after the evening news bulletin every day and included regional inserts.

Nationwide reporter Martin Young was embedded with Merseyside police for a month. In the years that followed, Young would go on to be a successful reporter on BBC flagship programmes like Newsnight and Panorama as well as continuing his interest in crime with an award-winning investigative series called Rough Justice.

This assignment resulted in a Mersey Beat insert for the Nationwide programme and an article for The Listener magazine on 2 November 1978.  In the article for The Listener, Young remarked that:

“Policemen in general, and detectives in particular, are not racialist, despite what many black groups believe. Like any individual who deals with a vast cross-section of society, they tend to recognise that good and evil exist, irrespective of colour or creed.”[6]

He went on to note that the local police were “the first to define the problem of half-castes in Liverpool”[7]. The article continued with a quote attributed to Oxford at the time, despite his attempt to disown it, and has been repeatedly put in his mouth ever since. It pursued the thesis that mixed race people were somehow more prone to committing crimes:

“Many are the products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8, the red-light district. Naturally, they do not grow up with any kind of recognisable home life. Worse still, after they have done the rounds of homes and institutions, they gradually realise they are nothing. The Negroes will not accept them as blacks, and the whites assume they are coloureds…the half-caste community on Merseyside, more particularly Liverpool, is well outside recognised society.”[8]

This article led to a demonstration by Toxteth residents through the city centre on 25 November 1978, called by the Merseyside Anti-Racialist Alliance. This organisation had been set up in Toxteth about six months before to address shortcomings in race relations but also the rise of the extreme Right party, the National Front.

The Scarman report into the April 1981 riots hadn’t anticipated another even worse riot in Brixton that July let alone disturbances across Britain including Toxteth. Interview transcripts and comments on these events were added rather hurriedly at the conclusion of the report. Scarman did conduct a visit to Liverpool meeting police, councillors, faith leaders and community groups.

He noted similar tensions in Toxteth to what he had seen in Brixton. As a result, he welcomed the end of the SUS laws though by now, Oxford had shed his one-time liberality and countered publicly that stop and search was an “essential operational requirement”. Scarman was not of the same mind.

Scarman went on to state that relations between the police and black people in Liverpool were in a “state of crisis” and that the youth were “alienated and bitterly hostile”. This wasn’t helped by chronic under-representation of BAME people in all the UK’s police forces.

During the 1981 riots, the police force in Merseyside had only four black officers out of a force of about five thousand.[9] That said, Liverpool City council hardly fared much better with 169 black employees out of a 22,000-strong workforce let alone the dismal picture in the private sector.[10]

The depth of feeling towards Oxford in Toxteth was evidenced in my first term at university when the student Law Society decided to invite the Chief Constable to address under-graduates in the Moot Room.[11] A representative of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee (L8DC) was allowed to read a statement before Oxford spoke. She asked the students to turn him away as he was responsible for the ‘murder’ of David Moore, the use of CS gas and his own report on the riots was a ‘whitewash’.

Her motion to exclude Oxford was declined with a loud ‘no’. Oxford then continued with his speech claiming that the Merseyside Constabulary didn’t go out of its way to recruit racists and that he felt the main obstacles the police faced were a lack of finance and the attitude of the community. He didn’t think there was anything systemically wrong with the force itself.

Oxford never got to finish his speech as about thirty members of the L8DC burst into the Moot Room shouting: “Fucking burn the police!”, “Fucking University!”, “Burn the place down” and “Students are guests in this city!”. Carl Chapman, the vice-president of the Law Society tried to encourage the protestors to leave but they only departed when a crestfallen Oxford also agreed to go.

This part of the university precinct very literally backed on to Liverpool 8, though it could have been a world away. However, in the days that followed, students were reminded just how close their faculty buildings were to Toxteth. They were daubed in big letters excoriating the university as ‘racist’. One building that got special attention was the Economics department overseen by one of Margaret Thatcher’s key economic advisers, Professor Patrick Minford. His monetarist and free market views had not gone unnoticed in Liverpool 8.

[1] Daily Mail, 6 July 1981, front page

[2] Hobbs, Dick, ‘Obituary: Sir Kenneth Oxford’, Independent, 26 November 1998

[3] MacDonald, Ian, ‘Authority & Insurrection 1 – Liverpool City Police’, Liverpool City Police, Web

[4] Ibid: ‘Authority & Insurrection

[5] Ibid: ‘Authority & Insurrection

[6] Belchem, John, ‘Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th-century Liverpool’, Liverpool University Press, 2014

[7] Scraton, Phil, ‘Power, Conflict and Criminalisation’, Routledge, 2007

[8] Ibid: Power, Conflict and Criminalisation’

[9] Hughes, Simon, ‘There She Goes: Liverpool, A City On Its Own: The Long Decade; 1979-1993’, deCoubertin Books, 2019

[10] The Times, 6 July 1981

[11] ‘Moot Room Rumpus’, Gazette, December 1981

Leave a Reply