Historian Kate Bradley on the Riots in English Cities

16 08 2011

Kate Bradley is a lecturer in Social History and Social Policy at the University of Kent. Her latest book is Poverty, Philanthropy and the State: Charities and the Working Classes in London, 1918-1979, published by Manchester University Press.

Today, the History & Policy website posted her opinion piece on the recent riots. It shows that these riots were far from unprecedented.

The 1958 Notting Hill riots erupted out of tension from white youths towards the black community, whilst similar disturbances occurred in Nottingham around the same time. Likewise, the riots of the 1980s exploded out of deep tension on the streets between police and young people from ethnic minorities. All emerged from similar strains and distrusts experienced daily, but were triggered by a local ‘spark’ event. In Notting Hill, a group of white teens set about avenging themselves after losing an argument; in Brixton in 1981, people believed the police were failing to help a young man who had been stabbed; in Tottenham in 1986, because Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died during a police raid on her home. A locality is geographically unique, but its social shape can be replicated many times over.

P.S. History & Policy is a unique collaboration between the History Faculty of the University of Cambridge, the Centre for History in Public Health (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and the Centre for Contemporary British History. Its offices are at King’s College London. 

Since 2006, the H&P website has sought to connect historians doing policy-relevant research to the media and decision-makers in government. Basically, posts on their website boil down the key research findings of historians into short pieces suitable for busy journalists, civil servants, and politicians.

When I was based at a Canadian university I tried to organize a similar website for Canada. Alas, the idea never really got off the ground.  Of course, the problem with ahistorical policymaking isn’t confined to Canada. The mission statement of H&P reads:

We believe that:

  • Too often policy reflects unexamined historical assumptions and clichés
  • History is incorrectly assumed to be less relevant to current policy than the social and natural sciences
  • At best, policy without history fails to learn past lessons and, at worst, repeats past mistakes
  • Given the opportunity, historians can shed light on the causes of current problems and even suggest innovative solutions
  • Historians often have important contributions to make, but need to acquire new information and skills to engage with policymakers
  • There is a reluctance among many policymakers to ‘let historians in’, which needs to be addressed
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