Once as History, Twice as Farce? The Spectre of the Summer of '81 in Discourses on the August 2011 Riots

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    The riots which occurred in August 2011 across Britain happened thirty years after the riots that swept the country in the spring and summer of 1981. In the discourses that emerged surrounding the 2011 events, many commentators made comparison between the contemporary disturbances and those that occurred in 1981. This article examines two arguments that emerged out of the comparison between the two events. Firstly, a consensus seemed to have been reached concerning the causes, motives and actions of the 1981 riots, particularly, that the 1981 events were a "legitimate" form of protest against police harassment and institutional racism. This was supposedly in contrast to the "criminality" of those involved in the 2011 events, with the suggestion that those who were rioting nowadays had no legitimate grievances to rebel against. Secondly, amongst those had sympathies with those in "rebellion"; a consensus was formed that the events of August 2011 were repetitions of those which occurred in 1981. For many on the left and within activist circles, the same neoliberal/monetarist agenda by the Tories (creating high unemployment and cuts to public services), combined with continuing institutional racism, were the underlying causes for the 2011 riots and those of the 1980s, and the lessons of the battles against Thatcherism were to be heeded. This article will show how the history of the riots of the 1980s were used by various commentators on the left and the right to interpret why the events of August 2011 happened and what the response to these events should have been. The article will propose that while historical comparisons are useful, the problem of these discourses of the 2011 riots was that they were primarily seen through a historical prism that depended on an interpretation of the history of Britain in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and this was often distorted analysis of contemporary events.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)124-143
    Number of pages20
    JournalJournal for Cultural Research
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013


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