The Scarman Report – 30 Years On

A month on, the riots begin to look like an outbreak of midsummer madness – not the Götterdämmerung as imagined by the right, not the backlash of the oppressed as wishfully thought on the left: but something hard to describe in a political sound-bite. I thought about the disturbances in 1981 and took down my battered Penguin edition of Lord Scarman’s Report on the Brixton Riot in case there was something to learn from it.

The public inquiry announced on 31st August ( should give us a better understanding, and its members appear well qualified. But it’s worth noticing that when Brixton exploded in April 1981, the Home Secretary (William Whitelaw) did not appoint a panel of low-profile technocrats, but one of the most senior and respected Judges of the day, Lord Scarman, to head the inquiry. His report was published only seven months later, and it laid the foundations of the most important changes to police practice in a generation, the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984. It also led to the reforms of public order offences in the Public Order Act 1986, and began to re-set official attitudes to ethnic minorities.

It is worth looking at the facts of the Brixton riot and Scarman’s findings. Both may help to put those terrible August days into context.

Scarman heard evidence from witnesses, in public, for four weeks that summer, followed by a week of written evidence and submissions, also in public, in early September. He visited locations in London, Birmingham and Liverpool. His report was published as a Penguin paperback and was widely read.

Scarman did three things: he gave a full account of what happened before and during the riots; he described the social and economic background; and he made recommendations. His approach was far more subtle than to ascribe causes, but he identified overt racial discrimination and lack of opportunity for ethnic minorities in housing, education and employment as key background features. Young black people felt ‘a particular sense of frustration and deprivation. Spending much of their lives on the street, they are bound to come into contact with criminals and the police’ (8.5). He said ‘the social conditions in Brixton do not provide an excuse for disorder. But the disorders cannot be fully understood unless they are seen in the context of complex political, social and economic factors which together create a predisposition towards violent protest’ (8.7).

In the days before the riot the police launched ‘Operation Swamp’ which sent hundreds of officers in to stop and search the local youth – with no legal requirement at that time of ‘reasonable cause to suspect’ that they were committing a crime or were about to; and when the youth protested, in went the Special Patrol Group. Community policing in areas like Brixton was virtually non-existent at that time. Scarman criticised the police. He thought that ‘they must carry some responsibility for the outbreak of disorder…they were partly to blame for the breakdown in community relations’ (4.97). Junior officers showed racial prejudice and harassed members of the public, and he found that their behaviour gave substance and credibility to the critics of the police. But there was no institutional racism according to Scarman (8.20) – for that finding we had to wait until 1999, with the MacPherson Report into Stephen Lawrence’s murder. With a few exceptions, Scarman did not think that police overreacted to the ‘terrifying lawlessness of the crowds’. Their tactics were generally to be commended, not criticised, although the execution of their plans was not firm enough (8.24). He found that the community and its leaders in Brixton had to take ‘their share of the blame for the atmosphere of distrust and mutual suspicion between the police and the community’ during the 1970s’.

On the first day of the Brixton riots, officers attempted to arrest youths who had stabbed a young man, without success. The victim ran away, not wanting the police’s help, and the officers followed. When they caught up with him he was bleeding profusely. The crowd thought the police had injured him. In the aftermath of  Operation Swamp and those years of mutual suspicion, they were seen as the enemy. What the crowd mistakenly thought had occurred was enough to start battles between them and the police.

Serious looting and arson began on the second day. Scarman found that the looters were white and black. Some were very young, but the whites were ‘generally older and more systematic in their methods’ (3.61). The looters were ‘quite different from the people who were attacking the police. Many of them came from outside Brixton and were simply taking advantage of the disorders for their own criminal purposes’. Any police who ventured into the area where looting was taking place were attacked. Buildings were set on fire but the fire brigade could not reach them because there were not enough police to escort them.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? There’s much in common with recent events: a violent incident between police and a member of the public, which is not properly explained at the start; a background of mistrust between elements of the community and the police in the area; an apparent failure by the police to execute their plans on the street to quell the disorder that the initial incident provoked; then widespread looting, arson and opportunism – by dedicated criminals and hangers-on.

1981 was coincidentally the year when the British Crime Survey began to keep a proper, statistically sound record of the incidence of crime in the UK. In its latest report (July 2011, it reports that figures for 2010-11 were the lowest since the Survey started. Crime peaked in the mid-1990s and has been falling ever since. Now, you can a torture a statistic till it says what you want, but consider this: is a society that is suffering from a ‘slow moral collapse’ likely to experience a steady and consistent fall in criminality at the same time?

Looters came into Brixton from outside because they heard that the opportunity to steal had arisen. They did not have BBM or Twitter, but what’s the difference apart from the speed at which information now travels? The rapid spread of disorder in 2011 into other places far from Tottenham does not exactly replicate what happened in Brixton. But in July 1981, there were riots in Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, and several other parts of London. I remember the sense that these were political, a cry of inarticulate rage against the unfamiliar toughness of the Thatcher government – a toughness that now looks rhetorical and mild in comparison with the anti-liberty stance of New Labour and the present economic policies.

I don’t think the 2011 disorder will be remembered like that, if it is remembered at all.
It was shocking that so many people were willing not just to riot, but to do it in their own streets and foul their own nests. The women recorded here on 9th August ( stole from a local off-licence; they said they had jobs; they blamed ‘the rich’ and the shopkeepers for the rioting. They have no insight whatever and probably no morals. But it’s daft to draw general conclusions from attitudes like theirs about the state of the moral health of society as a whole.

Scarman was a liberal-minded judge – not just by the austere standards of the judiciary of his day, but on traditional even Victorian liberal principles. He was fair and credible and well respected. His report attracted criticism from right and left, but its legacy was the many reforms that were adopted because of his recommendations. Let’s hope that the 2011 inquiry will be as swift and decisive and will make sensible proposals for the future.