Riot-torn sections of the industrial city of Birmingham were calm Wednesday as accusations flew over what caused Britain’s worst civil unrest in four years.
Both Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd rejected claims by opposition politicians and local black youth leaders that high unemployment in the city’s racially mixed Handsworth district was a prime cause of Monday night’s widespread rioting and renewed violence on Tuesday.
The wave of firebombings and assaults, mainly by black youths against the community’s Asian shopkeepers, left two people dead, more than 40 injured, scores of burned-out buildings and major question marks over what many had viewed as a model police community relations program.
Nearly 130 people were arrested in two days, 92 of them Tuesday night. Most were charged with looting and public disorder.
“It is absolutely wrong to say it is the unemployed,” Thatcher said when questioned by reporters during a tour of an engineering yard in northeast England.
She then demonstrated an edginess about growing accusations that both she personally and her government are insensitive to Britain’s record postwar unemployment by turning on her questioners.
Thatcher rebuked reporters accompanying her for asking about unemployment, saying they should be focusing on the positive aspects of the economy “and not always standing there as ‘Moaning Minnies.’ ”
“Now stop it,” she scolded. “I want more jobs; now cheer up and go boost the success and you’re much more likely to get more jobs.”
Speaking on a national television program, Hurd defended the Conservative government’s record, denying that the Handsworth rioters were driven by despair. He said $30 million of public funds had been spent to improve conditions in the district since rioting broke out there when unrest swept more than 30 British cities during the summer of 1981.
Police in the area, apparently caught unprepared for the outburst of violence because of a strong community relations program that had previously won widespread praise, blamed the rioting on criminal elements.
‘Callous Young Hoodlums’
The region’s deputy chief constable, Leslie Sharp, said the unrest was the result of “large-scale criminality by a lot of callous young hoodlums.”
Black youths in Handsworth, however, said they saw the events as a way of drawing attention to their plight and the need for improved conditions.
One self-styled youth leader, David Largie, told a television interviewer that young blacks in the area identified strongly with South African blacks who want improved social conditions.