David Blunkett: We must learn from riots of the past to halt a new firestorm on our streets

YOU may not have heard of the Brixton riots. You may not have heard of the disturbances in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley. But it is odds on that you will have seen a handful of anarchists dressed in black with masks on at the recent anti-cuts demonstration in London.

These three events are entirely different and throw up quite different questions about the nature of protests, its causes and how best we learn the lessons.

That is why it is worth reflecting on what happened in Brixton 30 years ago today, and the disturbances which hit Bradford and other northern towns 10 years ago, just at the time when I became Home Secretary.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The disturbances back in 1981 triggered copy-cat action right across the country. Just about every major town and city was hit by sometimes quite violent clashes on the street. Clashes between demonstrators and the police, and between on some occasions, different factions, faith groups and races within neighbouring communities.

Sheffield was an exception.

As leader of the Sheffield Council back in the early 1980s, I was very proud that the sense of identity and of belonging which historically marked Sheffield out as what was called the “biggest village in England”. As with most riots, self-destruction was a feature of both 1981 and 2001. People damaging the neighbourhood, the businesses, and even the employment on which they relied.

But the riots of 1981 were materially different to 2001. Thirty years ago, there was a simmering discontent about policies which had already led to a massive increase in unemployment, to friction between different parts of the community, and to a sense of insecurity and economic instability.

There was, certainly in Brixton, another factor. Namely, the clash between discontented and alienated young black people, and the police. Many lessons were and are still being learned from the Brixton riots. Not just the nature of policing, but the way in which the criminal justice system operated and the need for safeguards against abuse – all sprang from those events 30 years ago.

The 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act was part of the learning process and the reaction to those who as it turned out, were right in claiming police abuse. That Act brought in the requirement for interviews to be properly recorded and for the right to have a lawyer present during those interviews.

The events of 2001, on the other hand, taught us very different lessons. Employment was at an all time high and unemployment at a 20 year low. However, policies to help with regeneration had led to a feeling of division between ethnically diverse neighbourhoods and white working class communities. A feeling of “us and them”, of unfairness and of, let us be honest, ineptness in the way in which specific funding to overcome deprivation was being allocated.

The anarchists who broke away from the main march of half a million people on March 25 are a difference kettle of fish entirely. In one sense, they achieved their objective. They diverted attention from the wholly peaceful demonstration against cuts in public services, the danger of a return to large scale unemployment and the threat which many public sector workers see to their future pension entitlement. Whether you agree with the marches or not, whether you have been convinced that the speed and severity of the deficit reduction is needed or not, you will undoubtedly share a common disgust that a handful of individuals can cause such mayhem.

Yet it is just at this moment that we need to be most vigilant. Not because of events of the past, but because today in many towns and cities there is a simmering friction under the surface of our otherwise peaceful society. Not in 2011 simply black on white, but often Asian versus Somali, Somali versus white working class. With one in five 16-25 year olds looking for some form of work, the discontent about the substantial withdrawal from two thirds of young people currently receiving EMAs and, the tripling of university fees, we are on the cusp of either finding a way forward peacefully, or seeing a return to the frictions of the past.

And here is the rub. As with the past, it will be the communities most deprived, those in greatest need of regeneration, who will find themselves in the centre of the maelstrom.

That self-destruction must be nipped in the bud. Councils, schools, the youth service and the police, need now to reflect on the lessons of the past, and on having changed so much over these decades, apply that understanding, sensitivity and where necessary toughness, to ensure that we do not slip, almost by accident, into a firestorm from which no one will emerge unscathed.

Today it is not the National Front, but the so called English Defence League who have started to rally in our northern towns as they did in Blackburn last weekend. The pedlars of hate, the promoters of prejudice, the beneficiaries of alienation and discontent must be seen off by all of us.

Now is the moment to learn the lessons of the past and to avoid experiencing such self-destruction in the present.

* David Blunkett is the Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. He was Home Secretary from 2001-05.