Yesterday Lord Leslie Scarman, retired Law Lord and cross-bench member of the House of Lords, died peacefully in his sleep. He was 93. No doubt his career was long, rich and varied. But it is with one event, the Brixton Riots of April 1981, that his name will be forever linked.
In those days Brixton was the racio-political cockpit of Britain, as the Islamified towns of northern England are today. Along Railton Road and on the Frontline/Mayall Road triangle, black council tenants and marginalised white squatters lived cheek by jowl. But they cleaved to their own cultures. The blacks, with their dope, their reggae, their patois impenetrable to white ears, predominated in every visible way. The streets were always filled with activity. Empty houses were taken over for drinking and gambling, and as dope dens and all-night party venues pumping out non-stop reggae.
Street robbery at twice the rate of any other area of London was also part of the life lived there. It was this criminality that impacted directly on white society, and was met by that society in the form of a Metropolitan Police Service unquestioningly dedicated to upholding traditional law and order. But that, naturally enough, was a culturally white tradition. The blacks, living as they do everywhere there are urban black concentrations, had no means by which to squeeze themselves into a white cultural corset. Events had progressed to the historic point where these two forces must clash, and only one could emerge the victor.
The Met launched Operation Swamp 81 to stamp out street crime in the area. The tactic was to stop and search black youths. It would probably have worked as intended, had they been 1950’s Teddy Boys or 1960’s Mods and Rockers. But the targets of the Mets’ attentions on the Frontline already had a habit of protesting against and obstructing police actions. They were savvy and delinquent in ways no other troublesome group of youths had been before.
The fuse was lit when, at 5pm on Friday 10 April 1981, PC Margottia (L 643) tried to assist a black youth who had been severely stabbed. Thinking he was being arrested, and encouraged by three others, this individual struggled free and ran off. Two other officers caught up with him, administered first aid and summoned an ambulance by radio. But before it could arrive a crowd of black youths moved in and pulled the youth away again. He was then taken in a private car to St Thomas’s Hospital.
Meanwhile, bricks and bottles were now being hurled at the officers. Four police cars coming to their aid were attacked. The disturbance lasted an hour and a half, during which time 6 people were arrested and 6 police officers injured.
The incident then became the focus of the local rumour mill. The officers had refused the youth medical help, it was said. They tried to prevent him from being taken for treatment … they had, in fact, inflicted his injuries themselves, and so on.
The following day, Saturday 11th, police vehicles were parked every 50 yards along the principal thoroughfares, their occupants just watching and waiting. The moment had plainly arrived when one culture seeking order and another seeking to do whatever it liked must clash.
It started at about 5pm. Two officers in plain-clothes were braving a small but angry crowd to search a car whose owner they had seen putting something in his socks. For their troubles one of them was “bricked” on the head. Nearby, another arrest was attempted and again bricks were thrown. When police numbers were reinforced with more plain clothes officers a street battle was inevitable. A barrage of bricks flew in their direction. The officers charged, truncheons drawn. The crowd, of course, was far more numerous. Perhaps the officers were counting upon some vestigial respect for the natural order of things. If so it was a serious miscalculation.
As to the rest, this and the photo below will have to suffice.
The police did eventually regain control but only after a horrifying saturnalia of violence, arson and looting … especially looting. Molotov cocktails were thrown for the first time on the British mainland. The Fire Brigade was attacked, and 299 police and at least 65 civilians were injured. A total of 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed, along with 28 premises burned and another 117 damaged and looted. Arrests totalled 82.
In the immediate wake of these events the Conservative Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, appointed Lord Scarman to undertake an enquiry into the causes and make recommendations.
In July race riots erupted in Southall, Toxteth and Moss Side. For the Labour Party and the left-wing press they and, of course, the original riots in Brixton were a godsend. Perhaps the left understood that this was a pivotal moment in “the struggle against white racism”. The right never did and, probably, neither did Lord Scarman. I doubt whether, in 1981, he had the faintest idea about levels of black intelligence, aggression and criminality compared to those of whites. In any case, he would probably have preferred to eat fried banana for a year than examine whether these levels were heritable or of environmental origin or a mixture of the two. Admittedly, it would then have taken a lawyer of Enochian intellectual integrity and disinterest to report that blacks live nowhere as their white hosts do, that their presence here is likely to be a running sore in the life of the nation and it is unreasonable to demand unending accommodations from said hosts on the basis that the white man is the guilty party.
So there could be no surprise when The Scarman Report, published in 1982, concluded that “… racial disadvantage is a fact of current British life. It was, I am equally sure, a significant factor in the causation of the Brixton disorders”. In particular the Metropolitan Police bore a heavy burden of responsibility. “Policing by consent” was the new watchword, and a statutory framework for consultation between the police, local authorities and minority “leaders” was called for. Stopping and searching young blacks on suspicion of criminal behaviour was to be delegitimised. But the key recommendation was to transform the police themselves into a multiracial force. “There is,” Scarman said, “widespread agreement that the composition of our police force must reflect the makeup of the society they serve. A police force which fails to reflect the ethnic diversity of our society will never succeed in securing the full support of all its sections.” This goal is still far from realisation and will forever remain so.
Essentially, Scarman was about the desperate desire to accommodate. Thus it was that the practical impossibility of multiculturalism—surely the lesson of Brixton—never got a hearing. It is only beginning to be considered now, twenty-three years after the sobering events on the Frontline. And that’s happening in Holland, Denmark and Germany—not here.