Thatcher looked at arming police as cities erupted

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Margaret Thatcher considered equipping police with firearms and was urged by her Chancellor to abandon Liverpool to a fate of “managed decline” after the 1981 riots, according to explosive Government papers made public for the first time.

Files released today by the National Archives in Kew show senior Ministers in the Conservative government urged her not to waste public money on the “stony ground” of Merseyside in the wake of the widespread rioting that struck Liverpool and other cities in the second year of her tenure.

Papers released under the 30-year disclosure rule reveal that after visiting the scenes of the disturbances in Toxteth and Moss Side, Manchester, in July 1981, Home Secretary William Whitelaw warned Mrs Thatcher “emergency legislation could not be ruled out” to deal with the worst public disorder since Victorian times.

The Prime Minister agreed police should have whatever additional equipment they needed, including water cannon and rubber bullets – with army camps being set aside to hold offenders if prisons could not cope.

The only thing she would not contemplate was deploying troops on the streets of the mainland.

“If necessary the police should be properly equipped, and even armed, before such a step was taken,” the official minute of their discussion noted.

Senior police officers, including Merseyside Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford, wanted her to go further, pressing for a return of the 1715 Riot Act to give them sweeping powers to clear the streets.

The Prime Minister acknowledged quick legislation could be necessary, noting there was “a strong case for action before the Royal wedding” between Prince Charles and Lady Diana later that month.

She received a similar message when she visited the Met Police Commissioner, Sir David McNee, emerging with a shopping list including riot shields, protected vehicles, CS gas, longer truncheons, rubber bullets, water cannon, protective head gear and helicopters with surveillance cameras – all unfamiliar on the British mainland.

The following day, Lady Thatcher met community leaders at Liverpool Town Hall and was taken aback by the wave of hostility towards the police.

The community leaders vehemently denounced Mr Oxford’s style of policing, complaining he believed in “slapping people down and keeping them down” and that the Liverpool police “regarded anyone who was black as a criminal and acted accordingly”.

“The Prime Minister said she was very concerned about what the community leaders had said about the police,” minutes reveal.

The following week the Cabinet decided it would ultimately be a “mistake” to rush through a “modernised form of the Riot Act”, and in the event the Royal wedding passed off without trouble.

Mrs Thatcher’s response to the problems in Liverpool was to dispatch Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine in a blaze of publicity as “Minister for Merseyside” to lead a programme of urban regeneration.

But behind the scenes, senior figures were casting doubt on Lord Heseltine’s ambitious plans.

The sceptics were led by the Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who wrote to the Prime Minister warning of the need “not to overcommit scarce resources to Liverpool”.

“I fear that Merseyside is going to be much the hardest nut to crack,” he cautioned.

“We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas.

“It would be regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey.

“I cannot help feeling the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether.”

Sir Geoffrey acknowledged the suggestion that the city could be left to a “managed decline” was potentially explosive.

“This is not a term for use, even privately,” he warned.