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Thatcher and the Inner City Riots

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In the wake of Baroness Thatcher's demise there is consensus among politicians and commentators of all persuasions that she was the most divisive British prime minister in living memory. Call it irony, call it hypocrisy, call it what you will, but it is the same Conservative party that unceremoniously ousted her from power when she became an electoral liability that is now heaping praise on her and honouring her with a state funeral in all but name.

To my mind, Thatcher was a ruthless class warrior for the ruling class. Her ignominious achievement was the tearing up of the post-World War Two 'settlement', clawing back the gains the working class had won. Her cross-party admiration stems from the fact that she is regarded as the architect of the neo-liberal orthodoxy to which they all subscribe, notwithstanding the dire straits in which the free market dogma has taken the British economy.

How did Thatcher's rule impact the black population? In 1979 when the Conservative party won the general election black people were still being treated as third class citizens, if citizens at all. By then we had been engaged in a three decades-long struggle against racial oppression and marginalisation and for racial equality. Although our parents had arrived in Britain as colonial subjects we were still being treated as aliens. The Thatcher years saw an intensification of our struggle for racial justice. Thatcher will be remembered by many black people of my generation as a bigot and a xenophobe who fanned the flames of racial hatred, giving succour to the fascists who were emboldened to carry out terrorist attacks against black and Asian people. When she ranted on about Britain being swamped by alien cultures, it was sweet music to the ears of the National Front/British National Party brigade. As we approach the 32nd anniversary of the Brixton riots this month, my mind goes back to January 1981 when thirteen young black people died in a racist arson attack on a birthday party in New Cross, south-east London. I remember how the atrocity was covered up by the police and the coroner at the hastily convened inquest. I remember how the parents of the deceased were thwarted by the authorities in their quest for justice. I remember the Black Peoples Day of Action when an estimated 20,000 people took to the streets to demand justice and the Brixton riots that came a month later. I recall the Tottenham riots of 1985 which, like the Brixton riots of 1981 and those 2011, spread throughout inner city areas. I recall that back in the eighties, for young black people, living in an inner city area was like living in a police state.

The 1980s, the Thatcher decade, was one of class struggle and racial conflict. I was the decade when black people had to resort to riots, uprisings and insurrection in order to integrate ourselves into British society; a time when we had to organise and agitate for justice. By the beginning of the 1990s Thatcher had to go, stabbed in her back by her own cabinet and black people began to make some progress in our struggle against marginalisation and for racial equality and social justice.

There are some first and second generation black people who will agree with David Cameron's assertion that Thatcher not only saved Britain from ruin but put the 'great' back into Great Britain. My late Jamaican barber was one her more fanatical supporters and I discovered that my mother had voted for the Tories in 1979. I asked her why and she replied that, at the time, she felt a woman deserved a chance and could not do worse than the Labour administrations of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. She quickly added that, in her 27-year sojourn in England, it was the first and last time she ever voted in a General Election.

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