In July 1981 people were rioting in Toxteth, Liverpool … can we learn, or do better?

Doing the dishes and listening to a Radio 4 podcast of this week’s Thinking Allowed, I heard a discussion about the riots in Liverpool more than 30 years on. July 1981 was the first time the UK police used CS gas outside Northern Ireland. Wikipedia sums up the scale of the rioting that lasted nine days:

one person died after being struck by a police vehicle trying to clear crowds, 468 police officers were injured, 500 people were arrested, and at least 70 buildings were damaged so severely by fire that they had to be demolished. Around 100 cars were destroyed, and there was extensive looting of shops

The Conservative government sent Michael Heseltine up to Liverpool to be “Minister for Merseyside”. However, his series of initiatives to address the problem were not entirely successful.

About eleven minutes into Thinking Allowed (available in perpetuity on iPlayer), one the guests picks up the story.

[Richard] He tries to shift the agenda back away from policing towards economic regeneration. He sets up a whole series of projects, none of which it’s easy to object to: projects for improving the environment, projects for attracting private investment, They’re all seen as quite welcome, but they’re not focussed on Toxteth, Liverpool 8, not focussed on the real issues. Lord Scarman is running an enquiry. At the same time, bringing policing into focus. But Heseltine is focussed on economy all very well and good, and quite well received, but not really the issue that people locally want him to address.

Alongside enquiry and political initiatives, two senior clergy – Bishop David Sheppard (Anglican) and Archbishop Derek Worlock (Roman Catholic) – intervened. (Over time they became known as “fish and chips as they were always together and rarely out of the papers!)

[Richard] As soon as the riots had taken place, we see both of the bishops in Liverpool essentially joining hands and going out onto the streets. They are asked by the media to condemn the riots, condemn the rioters. They don’t do that. They try to ask why the riots are taking place.

They follow that up with the Anglican church Faith in the City agenda where they identify urban priority areas and they produce a report which is illustrated entirely with pictures from Toxteth. This is the important thing: Toxteth is used to create an agenda which is not just local, but is national. So out of this place of depravation, out of this place where people really haven’t got much cultural capital, they are able to set an national agenda, in terms of thinking about inner cities, in terms of changing police/community relations.

(It’s not entirely clear in the programme that ‘Faith in the City’ was a GB-wide Anglican report, on which Bishop David Sheppard served on the commission.)

[Laurie] When you speak to people, do they want to say – with reference to some of the things that Richard’s talking about – that it was worthwhile, the rioters feel they got something of what they wanted out of it.

[Diane] I think it was a mixed picture. The so called rioters felt that they had little choice. Lady Margaret Simey [councillor, magistrate and chair of Merseyside Police Committee] had said that she thought that the riots were inevitable because of what had been building up, because of economic deprivation.

[Laurie] So when you talk to the people, they say yes conditions have improved. Things are better now. Policing is better.

[Diane] There is a mixed picture. Most of the oral testimonies talk about welcoming the changes, but many of them are consistent in saying that the changes didn’t go far enough, that many of these changes benefitted business rather than the local communities. The Garden Festival was very nice, but again it didn’t employ local labour, it used labour from outside. Policing has shifted. I think Wally Brown – one of the community leaders – talked ten years after the riots about policing having moved on. But still today, people will still argue that policing is still a problem.

[Laurie] The city has improved. Can we talk about multi-culturalism in the city now?

[Richard] Yes. When Liverpool promoted itself as Capital of Culture in 2008 it uses the strapline of “the world in one city” and to me that’s embracing the things Liverpool was afraid of thirty years ago.

My mind turned to the rioting in East Belfast, Lurgan, North Belfast and beyond that has cursed Northern Ireland over the last two months.

Will we too end up with well-meaning political initiatives that don’t tackle the core problem?

Will the early summer’s trouble trigger some form of cross-denomination intervention that spends more time helping communities build improvements, confidence and hope than condemning bricks that have long since been thrown?

Will Northern Ireland be able to look back in thirty years and say that whatever task forces are set up in the weeks to come will have improved the communities hosting the current set of rioters?

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