Britain’s 1981 Race Riots, Citizen Design of Policing, and Me

Brixton riots 1981.

Brixton riots 1981.

You might think that, with my advocacy of Citizen Design of Policing, I’m something of a latecomer to the whole issue of race and policing. Not so much.

Way back in 1981, I served as an Assistant Counsel with the Scarman Inquiry, the body commissioned by the then government of Margaret Thatcher to investigate the race riots which had occurred in Brixton, South London earlier that year.

At that time, I worked for my mate, Hugh Simmonds, the subject of the book I keep touting all over the place []. His law firm, in turn, acted for the diocese of the Methodist Church which ran the youth center generally considered to be at the epicenter of the riots.

Our primary contribution to the proceedings was twofold.

First, Hugh ran a brilliant series of cross-examinations, which established a principle which later became standard protocol in police training. Namely, that reported crimes increase when an exercise is undertaken to target a location with police officers, not because of an increased incidence of crime, but because of the increased numbers of police reporting crime.

Seems obvious now. Wasn’t in Great Britain back then.

Secondly (and this was all me, folks – three days and nights, and thousands of photographs), the police maintained that their approach throughout the riots had been defensive only. Standing passively behind body-length shields, in full and recognizable police uniform. At least, that was their line until I turned up the photograph showing a plainclothes policeman, chasing two black men, with a small round riot shield, marked ‘Police,’ and waving a pick-axe handle. Oops.

The experience of the Scarman Inquiry was an eye-opener for me. I had grown up in a sheltered upper middle class suburb of London. Where it never occurred to me that anyone might be unhappy with the police.

The Inquiry’s proceedings later informed my approach to a speech I was planning to make to the National Conference of the British Conservative Party in 1986.

There is very little that is democratic about the Conservative Party. Least of all how one is chosen to speak at National Conferences. One is picked as a consequence of a year-long process of recommendation and vetting.

If you clear that hurdle, you are allowed to speak. If you do well, you get onto a list of people who don’t have to go through quite so much vetting second time. Do well again, new list, even less vetting. And so on.

I had managed not to offend too many natives on two occasions. So, I was on the ‘put your name in, you’ll get called, no vetting’ list. Except in 1986, I spoke with Hugh (who had spoken well on six occasions, and was on the exalted list of ‘we will drag you drunk out of a bar to make a speech ‘cos a nutcase just gave an awful speech’ list), I spoke with Hugh and asked him to sponsor me through the vetting process.

Don’t need it, Geoff. I probably will, when you know what I want to say. Which is? Well, we have now won two General Elections, we are the natural party of government, we owe it to the electorate to represent everyone, and I want to tell the Conservative Party faithful, in the Law and Order debate, that there are good folk in our inner cities who are more scared of the police than criminals, and we need to do better.

Oh shit.

But, to his credit, he sponsored me all the way through the process, right up to a very special meeting, the week of the Conference itself.

Very special meeting. I was at a reception for one thing or another, in one of the Conference hotels, when I was bustled into a small adjoining room.

Five people were present. The Home Secretary, Douglas (now Lord) Hurd, the Chairman of the Party, the Chairman of the Conference, the regional agent for my area and Hugh.


Hurd made the running. I understand you want to speak in the debate I will be answering tomorrow? What do you want to say? I told him. He didn’t miss a beat. Well, maybe he paused. There are many people in the Party who feel as you do. But now is not the time. I can’t recommend you say that. But it is up to the Chairman of the Conference. What say you?

The Chairman of the Conference offered me a speaking slot in any other debate of my choice. Nope. That debate or nothing.

The Chairman of the Party asked if there was some special problem with my speaking in the Law and Order debate. I will never forget what the Chairman of the Conference said in reply. Yes, he said. I have spoken with our security team. Their view is that, if he makes that speech, they do not have enough team members to guarantee his safety from the podium.

The Chairman of the Party repeated the offer about another debate. I politely declined.

They knew they couldn’t stop me entering my slip to speak in the debate. Hurd looked at the Chairman of the Conference. The Chairman of the Conference looked at the Chairman of the Party. Little nods. Chairman of the Party cleared his throat. We can’t let you speak. But your gesture will not go unnoticed. You will be accompanied to the front of the auditorium by Hugh, acting on behalf of the Home Secretary, and the area agent, acting on behalf of the Party. Those who matter will know you have our support. Even though we can not let you speak.

That was the day I grew up politically. It didn’t start with Citizen Design. It began back in 1981 and 1986.


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