Toxteth riots: Howe proposed 'managed decline' for city

Aftermath of Toxteth riots Sending more money to Liverpool was like making "water flow uphill", the chancellor had said

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Margaret Thatcher was urged to abandon Liverpool to "managed decline" by her chancellor, newly-released National Archives files have revealed.

The confidential government documents, made available under the 30-year rule, reveal Cabinet discussions following the July 1981 Toxteth riots.

But then-Chancellor Lord Howe has said his short letter was misunderstood.

The riots, which lasted for eight days, followed the arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Selborne Street.

Some 460 police officers were injured during the disturbances, which began on 3 July.

More than 70 buildings were demolished or burnt down as tensions boiled over between the police and the district's African-Caribbean community.

'Stony ground'

While ministers such as the then Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine, were arguing for regeneration funding to rebuild the riot-hit communities, Sir Geoffrey Howe, now Lord Howe, thought it would be a waste of money.

He warned Mrs Thatcher "not to over commit scarce resources to Liverpool".

"I fear that Merseyside is going to be much the hardest nut to crack," he said.

Lord Geoffrey Howe: "I wasn't in any sense advocating managed decline"

"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 such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East.

"It would be even more 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 that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill."

He acknowledged the suggestion the city could be left to decline was potentially explosive.

"This is not a term for use, even privately," he warned Mrs Thatcher.

Start Quote

Liverpool had been undergoing an unmanaged decline and we had to see if there were any devices to begin turning the decline around”

End Quote Lord Howe

But speaking to the BBC News Channel on Friday Lord Howe said: "I wasn't in any sense advocating managed decline. The whole of that is based on some misunderstanding of some short letter with specific objectives."

Lord Howe, who had been MP for the Wirral seat of Bebbington from 1964 to 1966, said he was only warning about depriving other areas of resources which might go to Liverpool.

He added: "Liverpool had been undergoing an unmanaged decline and we had to see if there were any devices to begin turning the decline around."

Lord Howe said Liverpool people should not be angered by his letter of 30 years ago as it was only pointing out that decline be managed until it could be reversed, adding: "Managed decline certainly wasn't an objective."

'Hatred of police'

As the government sought to respond to the situation in 1981, Mr Heseltine was despatched to Liverpool. He reported back by phone to Mrs Thatcher on 25 July.

The cabinet papers note: "Mr Heseltine considered the behaviour of the police in Liverpool 8 to be quite horrifying. They were not acting in a racialist fashion. They treated all suspects in a brutal and arrogant manner."

Mr Heseltine also said there were too many young recruits in the area and the local commander had a "fortress mentality".

Speaking to the BBC on Friday, Lord Heseltine said the idea of abandoning Liverpool was never an option.

Lord Heseltine: "I haven't the slightest doubt that we did the right thing"

He said: "It never really got any traction for the simplest reason that the cabinet minister responsible for so much of the policy that affected the city was me.

"I simply wouldn't countenance that you could say that one of England's great cities, a world city, was going into managed decline here."

He added: "I think we should be judged not by all the correspondence and all the arguments, and all the classic sort of responses you get from the Treasury.

"The judgement should be about did we do the right thing? And I haven't the slightest doubt we did do the right thing - and we learned a lot of lessons."

The cabinet documents also reveal the confidential meetings Mrs Thatcher had with civic, community and church leaders.

In a meeting with church leaders she said she was amazed at the hatred for the police in Liverpool 8.

The then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool Derek Worlock said although there was a "profound mistrust" of the police this was not the cause of the rioting.

Instead he told her there was a "silent colour bar" in a city where there were no black councillors and just eight black policemen.

'Time bomb ticking'

Lord David Alton, who was Liberal MP for Edge Hill at the time of the riots, told BBC Radio Merseyside: "Many people guessed that this was the impulse driving politics at the time.

"This idea of managed decline, that you can simply let one of the country's great cities slip into the River Mersey and opt for decay rather than renewal, shows an ambivalence to the north of England which still affects politics to this day."

He said he had made a speech in the Commons warning there was a "time bomb ticking away in the heart of the city as a result of the massive levels of unemployment".

He added: "It was like creating a museum of horrifying example that if you behaved in the way that they claimed that militants were doing in Liverpool, then the warning was that what was happening to Liverpool will happen to the rest of you.

"So I think it was used for very crude political purposes."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    386.TokyoMoscowSeoul - you are fortunate that you didn't have to try and find a job during her time in office. Thatcherism stands for short term profit for a select number at the cost of long term employment stability. The papers released show how her economic advisors thought. In the end she needed to win an avoidable war for her re-election

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    Mrs Thatcher - Just fantastic.

    I was born in her final year in office but, how we need somebody like that today. Anti-establishment, pro-Britain, not scared to make the difficult decisions in the national interest. Not that I am against Cameron but, my oh my she was fantastic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    There are a lot of off-topic posts on here. The topic is about a suggestion which was not acted upon.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    It was a suggestion, and mildly put at that. If nothing can be discussed at all, what is the point of democracy? If I want to buy a very left-wing or right-wing newspaper, that is up to me. I pay the BBC whether I wish to or not so it is the BBC's duty to be professional and report news - this is not news, it is gossip over something that did not happen - very much the reverse happened.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    Thatcher failed to support.The French,with unions as militant as the UKs, supported theirs. As a result they still have 3 major car manufacturers, a major shipbuilding industry, and build (and buy) their own trains.Our mines were closed and the coal fired power stations replaced with gas fired ones using cheap N Sea gas.Now the gas has almost gone like our manufacturing. Thatcher was a failure.


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