The uprising of Moss Side had an air of inevitability about it. Following riots in Brixton, Toxteth and Handsworth, on 8 July 1981 Manchester became the next site of protest. When a small group of young Black men left the Nile Club, then Manchester’s leading black nightclub, they were met with jeers of “there could never be a riot in Manchester” by two white men – provoking what would become the Moss Side riots.
The riots reacted to the United Kingdom’s manufacturing decline and the narrow political support network adopted to manage these new conditions. They were not sudden explosions but upsurges which perpetuated chronic tension. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, saw New Conservatism take a hold of Britain, marking a departure from the post-war consensus that had shaped British politics for the best part of 35 years. A profound political revolution took place that reached boiling point in the summer of 1981.
At the core of the Moss Side uprising was the Conservative government’s unprecedented de-industrialisation, of which working-class Black Britons were most aggrieved. Inner cities, which had the largest concentration of ethnic minorities, bore physical testimony to Britain’s economic decline. Urban deprivation saw unemployment in Moss Side reach a staggering 80%, leaving those of school age with few prospects and their elders devalued by their experience of employment. It was not just mass unemployment, however, that left Moss Side residents “waiting for something to happen”, but Thatcher’s reinforcement of law and order permitted the authorities to respond with open hostility towards dissent. A key component of New Conservatism – the preservation of law and order – became a fundamental state function as it provided the framework for the secure and constant operation of the market. This shifted the political emphasis towards immigration control and anti-discrimination measures designed to pacify existing Black communities towards its immigration control component. The first major policy adopted by Thatcher was increasing police pay, giving rise to increased numbers of ‘stop and search’ which, of course, disproportionately targeted young unemployed members of the Black community, who represented the most familiar police stereotypes of the potential offender. This widely contributed to the discomfort of the Black population in the lead up to the riot, given the widespread conviction that the police force was permeated with blatant, endemic institutional racism. This magnified both the economic and social repression.
Escalations of the tensions into an uprising can therefore be attributed to rising unemployment, provocative policing, and increasing resistance to inner city deprivation. New Conservatism accelerated de-industrialisation which in turn, increased social distress and as racial tensions mounted, policing became characteristically more violent. It can be of no surprise that this surmounted in a three-day uprising involving several thousand people.