Remembering Toxteth, 1981 (Part Four)

It was the early hours of Monday morning, following the most destructive actions yet, that the police finally managed to turn the tide. Merseyside Police Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford, drawing on reinforcements drafted from the forces of Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cumbria, Birmingham and even as far afield as Devon, gave the order for officers to deploy CS gas in the fight against the protesters, making it the first instance of CS gas grenades being used in the UK outside of Northern Ireland. The effects saw the crowds disperse bringing the Uprising which had lasted all weekend to something of a close.

In the immediate aftermath, Tory minister Michael Heseltine visited the city to try and comprehend what had caused the devastation and destruction. Heseltine was not the first politician to take an interest in Liverpool and it’s plight; in the Labour government that preceded the Thatcher landslide of 1979, the then Secretary of State, Peter Shaw, had established a project that focused on areas struggling with deprivation such as Liverpool. It was a duty that Shaw passed on to Heseltine as the government changed hands, meaning that, by 1981, Heseltine felt somewhat personally responsible for what had happened in Toxteth. It was not however, a responsibility shared by many Conservatives. Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw saw little merit in Heseltine’s visit to the city, but sent Minister of State, Tim Raison, along to accompany him. In the prosperous, Tory voting Liverpool suburbs, Heseltine was told point blank that he was wasting his time on Toxteth, where there were no votes to be won. Undeterred, Heseltine spoke with the community and promised to listen.

Of course the real problem with Toxteth and Liverpool in general (apart from the racist police of course) was Thatcher’s brand of Conservatism itself – a brand that was underpinned by an economic theory called monetarism, first defined in Switzerland in 1947. The principle architect of monetarism was Freidrich Hayek whose belief was that politics ought to be shaped by the economy, rather than the other way around. Positing that a health economy mean the control of inflation and the containment of money, reducing circulation and thus increasing its value, Hayek’s theory would see a rise in taxes and/or interest rates and a drop in public spending and state support that would ultimately lead to the curtailment of socialism; arguably the greatest threat to the right in the postwar world. This approach placed him in direct contrast to the more favoured Keynesian economic model, named after British economist and campaigner for women’s rights, John Maynard Keynes. Whereas Keynes believed that the aim of work was to provide leisure and that markets must be controlled in order to make capitalism a tolerable alternative to socialism, Hayek believed that the markets must be unfettered and guided by an invisible hand that would encourage entrepreneurial spirit. His free market philosophy of economic winners and losers began to find support both in the US and the UK, creating the perfect neoliberal storm in the 1980s with ‘Reaganomics’ under President Reagan and the similarly immutable monetarism of Margaret Thatcher – a storm we are still weathering to this very day.

Enter Patrick Minford. In 1977, at the age of just 33, he was appointed professor of economics at Liverpool University, whereupon he immediately set to work treating the city as his own personal laboratory to develop monetarist theory. What Minford saw in Liverpool was, he believed, the UK in microcosm; a country suffering from what he called ‘the British disease’ of too much state intervention and socialist ideas like the NHS and the redistribution of wealth. Noting that Liverpool was a staunch union and militant working class city, he argued that rational expectation, the theory that human instinct ensured that the average worker knew best, effectively made union representation redundant. Unions, in his view, only served to stymie the markets and independent free will. His subsequent ‘Liverpool Model’ would be warmly embraced by Thatcher and her cabinet who would go on to recruit Minford as an advisor to the treasury and develop a twisted belief that the laws of monetarism were as an inarguable as the laws of gravity.

In a short pamphlet published in 1981 and entitled The Problem of Unemployment, Minford wrote: “Estimates based on the Liverpool Model suggest that a combination of a 15% cut in real social security benefits … and a reduction in the union [wage] mark-up to its level in the mid-1960s … would reduce unemployment in the UK by around 1.5m by the mid-80s.” It was Minford’s belief that for monetarism to succeed wages must be increased, whilst benefits were greatly reduced and tougher to gain access to.  The flaw in the Liverpool Model soon became clear however; the natural rate of unemployment was not, as they presumed low. Whilst unemployment did fall in May 1979 (to 1,089,100) this was before monetarism was introduced. The subsequent purge of economic inefficiencies led to millions of redundancies rather than the hundreds of thousands the Model predicted, culminating in a peak of 3,133,200 in July 1986. Unemployment was at its worst under Thatcher, and areas that saw their industries being dismantled, such as Liverpool (and much of the North and Scotland) suffered the most. 50,000 Liverpudlians were out of work in 1981, whilst Toxteth saw 39.6% unemployment, with a real figure of some 70-80% of its young black men – the least favoured recruits for any employer at this time – out of work. Minford’s prediction – recorded in his pamphlet – that “the decision to remain unemployed will be a voluntary one” was deeply misguided and utterly incorrect. No wonder that, in Liverpool University, he began to be known as Professor Wrong.

And yet the Conservative government continued in their zealous belief that monetarism was wholly correct and no other way was viable. Whilst Heseltine was in Liverpool listening to the concerns of residents and arguing for regeneration funding that would subsequently rejuvenate the Albert Dock, the treasury (which Minford advised) put forward proposals to cut public spending by a further £5 million. Some of the cabinet revolted, but Heseltine remained selective in his opposition despite knowing full well that further cuts would only place Toxteth in greater hardship. When chariman of the Young Conservatives In Picton reasoned that the riots which erupted across the country in 1981 (not just Toxteth, but Manchester, Brixton and Handsworth too) was a natural reaction to rising unemployment, the then Secretary of State for Employment, Norman Tebbit, icily and ignorantly responded in the House; “I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.” This ignorance is further endemic when you consider that the Liverpudlians Tebbit sneeringly dismissed as workshy and criminal, actually heeded his advice. For the remainder of the 1980s, the population of Liverpool would be reduced by half as unemployed scousers went in search of work across the country. In, an argument that would come to dominate the UK and the issue of Brexit, Bournemouth, Tory MP John Butterfill would protest that outsiders from Liverpool were taking the jobs of locals in his constituency.

But arguably the most damning record of Conservative contempt for Liverpool came to light in 2011 when, in accordance with the thirty-year-rule, a once. confidential government document was released to the archives and the public domain. In a letter to Margaret Thatcher, the then Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, dismissed Hesetline’s calls for regeneration funding and advised the PM “not to over commit scarce resources to Liverpool” and to consider the option of a “managed decline”

“I fear that Merseyside will be the hardest nut to crack,” Howe urged. “We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East. It would be even more regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey. I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.”

The Uprising would gain a brief resurgence, when a second wave of civil disobedience occurred on the  27th July 1981. Protesters once again faced off riot police Upper Parliament Street, but this time around they were significantly outnumbered by a force who repeatedly and rhythmically banged batons against their riot shields in what can only be described as an intimidating act of war lust. In the days between incidents, the police had regrouped and educated themselves. In the race-related disturbances of Moss Side in Manchester, the police had found that driving convoys of vans and Land Rovers at the crowd had led to much success in dispersing them. Kenneth Oxford, who had faced much criticism at his handling of the initial Uprising remarked that “this form of dispersal was preferable to CS gas”. It’s hard to see the friends and relatives of David Moore agreeing that this tactic was in any way preferable.

23 year old Moore was visiting family in Liverpool 8 when the disturbance broke out. Hailing from the Liverpool borough of Wavertree, Moore walked with a heavy limp and at a slow pace following a car accident, meaning it was impossible for him to get out of the path of charging police van as it headed across wasteland towards him and a crowd. The van struck him and he sustained critical back injuries which would later claim his life in hospital. Two officers were charged with manslaughter in relation to Moore’s death, but were cleared just a year later. In the heavy toll of the Toxteth Uprising – it is reported that some 486 to 1,000 police officers were injured and around 500 arrests were made – the death of David Moore stands out. It is a death that brings our tale full circle because, just like the death of PC Ray Davenport at the start of it all – Moore’s death was shunted from the headlines; the royal wedding of Charles and Diana on 29th July dominating the front pages.

The subsequent Scarman Report into the riots of 1981 found that social problems such as poverty and deprivation were the root cause of what he called a series of spontaneous outburst of built-up resentment sparked by particular incidents. Highlighting racial disadvantage, Scarman found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate the ‘stop and search’ laws and recommended that changes in training be made along with a greater recruitment drive for ethnic minorities into the force. However Scarman’s report refused to accept that institutional racism was a problem within British policing, concluding that “the allegation that the police are the oppressive arm of a racist state not only display a complete ignorance of the constitutional arrangements of controlling the police, it is an injustice to the senior officers of the force.” As we have come to see time and time again and are still seeing today through Black Live Matter, Scarman got it completely wrong.

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