Forty years ago, following the most intense and widespread urban disorder in 20th century Britain, the Times journalist Lucy Hodges and I co-wrote a book on the riots of 1981. In honour of Bob Marley, who died that spring, but also to try to convey the immensity of the events, we named the book after Marley’s final studio album: Uprising.
This week, in the wake of his 2020 series Small Axe, Steve McQueen has launched three documentaries with James Rogan covering the New Cross fire and the Brixton riots of 1981. They are broadcast on BBC1 this week. The title of the series is the same as our book, and surely for the exact same reasons: Uprising.
McQueen’s documentaries are hugely important. They have already reached millions more than our book ever did. And, although the films are rooted in events that no one under 40 can remember, they umbilically connect to the divided Britain of 2021.
The New Cross fire, a pivotal event, is at their centre. In the early hours of 18 January 1981, 13 young black people were burnt to death in a house fire in New Cross Road, south London. The deaths remain unsolved. No one has succeeded in proving either of the rival accounts – that the fire was a racist arson attack, as alleged by most survivors; or a fight with catastrophic results, as claimed by police at the time.
In McQueen’s films, the fire becomes the foundational story of modern British racial injustice, and the protest that it triggered – the Black People’s Day of Action, on 2 March 1981 – the foundational community response. McQueen’s status means this is likely to become an established narrative. Certainly, as someone who was present at the Black People’s Day of Action demonstration on 2 March 1981, I can confirm that the point about the response is beyond dispute. A black people’s march of such size was unprecedented. It said that relations between the black community and the Metropolitan police were at boiling point.
They were at boiling point for reasons that resonate unerringly in 2021. The resentment on that march was as much about official indifference as police failures. I can still hear the chant as the marchers came along Blackfriars Road that day: “Thirteen dead. Nothing said.” It was raw and wholly accurate. It was saying, then as today, that black lives should matter.
Only back then they didn’t, at least not enough. The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, never expressed anguish about the fire. She didn’t visit New Cross. Then, when 48 people died in a terrible disco fire in Dublin in February, Thatcher sent instant condolences. The contrast was stark and incriminating. As Gus John, a veteran activist of that era, says in the films, Britain made no effort to own the tragedy.
Nor did most of the media. The fire itself triggered relatively few national headlines. The march six weeks later was another matter. “Rampage of a mob” was the Daily Express headline; “The day the blacks ran riot in London” that of the Sun. That was the way things were, too often. In 1980, the Daily Mail had responded to Robert Mugabe’s election as leader of the soon-to-be independent Zimbabwe with an editorial that began: “We of the white tribe …”
Those were more racist times than now. In 1979, Thatcher had said white people felt “swamped” by immigrants and that this was playing into the hands of the racist National Front party. Repatriation of immigrants was the NF’s central demand in a march through Lewisham in 1980, where supporters chanted, “The National Front is a white man’s front.” Police were accused of being on the Front’s side because of the huge deployments they made to protect such marches. But police racism took multiple forms: violence, stop and search, raids, fitting up and more. In McQueen’s film the then head of the Police Federation, Les Curtis, explains that police should not be dismissed for using the N-word.
Some of these things might – and a few still do – happen today. But not all of them. Thatcher’s speeches and Curtis’s view of the N-word are from another era. That isn’t to say racism has gone, may not revive or – least of all – that it is less important. None of these things is true. But in Thatcher’s day one in three British people supported compulsory “repatriation”, while in 2020 Ipsos Mori found that 93% disagreed (and 84% strongly disagreed) with the statement that to be truly British you have to be white.
It requires caution and conditionality to make the argument for some progress since 1981. But the argument needs to be made. The steps, as Philip Mawer, secretary of the Scarman inquiry that followed the Brixton riots, says in the last of McQueen’s films, have often been small. Sometimes they have not been followed through. But they also tend, albeit over time and not quickly enough, in the right direction. 1981 was the year of Scarman’s inquiry, which pointed the finger at the awfulness of London’s policing with significant effect, and of the Philips royal commission on criminal procedure, which greatly strengthened suspects’ rights in police custody.
Yet neither Scarman nor Philips came out of a clear liberal blue sky. Each was a response to events like the ones that McQueen depicts so powerfully. In that respect, at least, not enough has changed and much is still at risk. As we said in the last sentence of our book: “The subsequent response of British society has not eradicated the likelihood that it will happen again.”
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist