London — Widespread and continuing street violence, much of it with racial overtones, is forcing the British nation into a basic reassessment of the causes and cures of civil disorder.
And it is giving the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher little immediate alternative but to crack down hard on troublemakers by strengthening the law and extending police powers.
As rioting in London and other cities carried on into a second week the government was expected to establish special courts to hand out swift and exemplary punishment to people responsible, including children as young as 10. But already deeper social and economic studies are afoot to try to establish why Britain's streets have suddenly become battlegrounds and to suggest what can be done to cope with the fundamental causes of the disorders.
Mrs. Thatcher has appealed for calm and for public backing for the police as, night after night in many parts of England, they faced bands of black and white youths hurling gasoline bombs, smashing windows, and looting stores.
Police chiefs have been virtually declaring war on troublemakers. The chief constable of Manchester, one of the worst troubled major cities, said he had tried low-profile policing but it had failed. Now he has equipped constables with new protective helmets and pressures are building in London, Manchester, Liverpool, and other cities for police to be given water cannon and CS riot gas as tools to deal with the violence.
Meanwhile, however, even within the government, argument is raging about the deeper implications of the violence. Mrs. Thatcher has argued that unemployment , now nearing 3 million, is not a prime cause of the disorders. But her employment secretary, James Prior, has dissented from this view, and other Cabinet ministers are in agreement with him.
When Mrs. Thatcher appeared in a special television broadcast and spoke about the rioting, her analysis came under fire from The London Times for being inadequate and insufficiently penetrating.
Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, on whom most of the responsibility for shaping new policies falls, has sharply criticized parents who allow their teenage children out onto the streets in trouble areas. He urged parents to consider the dangers to the children and to society as a whole of letting young people go out into the midst of violence.
Measures under urgent study by Mr. Whitelaw include:
* Establishment of special courts in which magistrates could mete out instant punishment to troublemakers.
* Early passage of a new riot act giving police greatly extended powers to deal with street violence.
* Creation of new units within regional police organizations to meet force with force. Police are placing huge orders for special helmets and armor, and there is pressure from right-wing Conservative members of Parliament for police to be equipped with riot gas and water cannon.
Mr. Whitelaw has already banned marches in London for more than a month and asked Lord Justice Scarman, now midway through an inquiry into race riots in Brixton two months ago, to extend the range of his questioning to cover more recent rioting in other parts of London as well as Liverpool and Manchester. Mr. Whitelaw said he could not rule out the use of the Army if the violence worsened.
Among senior Conservatives seemingly unhappy about the Prime Minister's initial response to the riots is Francis Pym, the leader of the House of Commons. At the weekend he spoke of tens of thousands of youths left idle to make trouble.
It is widely acknowledged that there are clearcut differences from area to area in the character of the violence. In some parts of London, violence appears to have been sparked by the activities of white youths taunting blacks. In other cases blacks seem to have started the trouble by challenging police on the beat.
But as rioting continued it was apparent that youth in some places were engaged in what police called "copy cat violence" -- disturbances created for no better reason that it was fashionable to throw gasoline bombs and loot shops.
It was this aspect that convinced thousands of shopkeepers in British cities that it was prudent to board up windows and doors just in case the voilence spread.
Labour opposition spokesman were cautious in responding to the embarrassment caused for the government by the sudden upsurge of trouble. Opposition leader Michael Foot blamed high unemployment for much of the violence, but he and his supporters acknowledge that long- term urban decay and the activities of agitators bent on exploiting social and economic tensions are among the causes.
One symptom of the political stresses created by the violence came in the House of Commons when Mrs. Thatcher was shouted down by MPs when she tried to speak. Observers said Parliament had seldom been in a more violent mood.