Conflicting Narratives of Black Youth Rebellion in Modern Britain


  • Evan Smith Flinders University



In the late 1970s and early 1980s, several clashes between black youth2 and the police broke out in Britain. As the economic crisis of the 1970s endured and policing tactics in Britain shifted towards more confrontational means, these episodes of rebellion were seen by many in Britain as a prelude to wider revolutionary action. This article will focus on two perceptions of these rebellious acts, which provided often confl icting, but not entirely mutually exclusive, interpretations. One interpretation comes from the (primarily white) British left, who saw these rebellious youth as part of the vanguard against capitalism, a potentially revolutionary section of the working class that could provoke a broader movement against the police, the Government and the capitalist system. The other interpretation is that of radical black activists, who saw these acts of rebellion as part of a struggle by the black communities to assert a collective identity as black Britons in post-colonial Britain, while combating the racism still prevalent in Britain at the time.

This article will examine publications within these two streams to demonstrate how the episodes of youth rebellion were interpreted as acts of class or ethnicity; examining the journals of the British left, primarily those from the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Socialist Workers Party, for the former position and the journals of black activists, primarily those of Race Today, Race & Class and the publications of the Asian Youth Movements, for the latter. The article will conclude that neither of these interpretations is wholly suffi cient and that a hybrid interpretation, based on the work of postcolonial scholars, such as Homi Bhabha, is a more appropriate approach. As the thirtieth anniversary of the 1981 riots draws nearer, this approach can benefi t historians as they negotiate these competing interpretations, where the events have become categorised and essentialised by leftist and black radical writers, while those who were involved in the events discussed are, in actuality, unlikely to be contained within a singular narrative.