THE WORST outbreak of rioting in central London for 20 years is stirring calls for the Thatcher government to rethink the rights of protesters and the methods used by police in controlling crowd violence. Simultaneously the British authorities are launching an urgent reappraisal of prison policy, following a demonstration by inmates of Strangeways jail, Manchester, in which up to 12 prisoners are thought to have been killed.
The two incidents happened on the same day, March 31.
The London riot, which devastated large areas of the British capital's West End, started amid mass demonstrations against the Thatcher government's unpopular local government, or poll tax.
The Strangeways rebellion appears to have been sparked by protests by prisoners angry at overcrowding and alleged rough treatment by prison wardens. Referring to the riot which started outside her official home at No. 10 Downing Street and later spread across London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed her ``absolute horror'' at the actions of ``extreme groups who used violence with no consideration for others or their property.''
Neil Kinnock, the opposition leader, echoed her revulsion, but was criticized by government ministers for failing to curb some of his party's members of Parliament (MPs) who had been urging citizens not to pay the poll tax.
Home Secretary David Waddington, who is responsible for prison policy, came under pressure in the House of Commons to justify holding 1,660 prisoners at Strangeways, a 19th-century prison complex in the heart of Britain's second city. It is designed to hold 972.
At the beginning of what started as a peaceful demonstration by about 70,000 people, police apparently failed to notice that 2,000 to 3,000 anarchists and other extreme radicals had joined the protest.
When this minority tried to storm Downing Street and began hurling missiles at police, officers on crowd control duty summoned police on horseback into the fray. This led to confusion and an escalation of random violence, in which many bystanders were injured.
In the ensuing violence, dozens of shop windows were smashed, cars were overturned and burned, and buildings were set afire. The riot lasted six hours. The violence, which resulted in injuries to 330 police, 86 members of the public, and 22 horses, was described as the worst since antinuclear rallies in London in the 1970s.
George Gaskell, a specialist in crowd behavior at the London School of Economics, said: ``This was the work of a minority who seized an opportunity for destruction. There appears to have been an element of organization in the violence, apparently by extremist groups. It started with a protest against the poll tax, but within minutes it was a convulsion in which many grievances were being aired.''
The sight of mounted police charging the crowds had raised tension and provoked further hostility, he said.
Philip Kelly, editor of the Labour Party weekly newspaper Tribune, said the violent element in the crowd were ``members of an underclass of unemployed, homeless white youths who took advantage of a peaceful demonstration, attacked the police as symbols of authority, and then went on to smash and loot their way through the West End.''
The violence brought calls from police spokesmen to tighten up the laws on demonstrating. Alan Eastwood, chairman of the Police Federation, which represents the interests of policemen, called for the restoration of the Riot Act. Repealed in 1967, the act gave police the right to arrest groups of protesters who refused to disperse within an hour of being told to. Mr. Eastwood's proposal was condemned by Roy Hattersley, the Labour Party's deputy leader, who said people have the right to demonstrate.
Mr. Hattersley said the poll tax, which will greatly increase the amount of money paid by millions of citizens to local authorities, should be dropped because it is unfair and unworkable, as well as unpopular. Opposition to it helped to trigger the London riot, he said.
Mrs. Thatcher seems likely to come under heavy pressure to introduce tighter legal curbs on demonstrating. But some of her own supporters are also known to want her to soften the impact of the poll tax on poor people.
At least 50 Conservative MPs are believed to be deeply unhappy about the impact of the poll tax on their chances of being returned to Parliament at the next general election.
The March 31 protest was organized by a nationwide federation of groups opposed to the poll tax. Its leaders later claimed that their peaceful demonstration had been ``hijacked'' by anarchists and other extremists.
The government's embarrassment over the Strangeways prison riot has exposed widespread overcrowding in British jails.
John Bartell, chairman of the Prisoner Officers' Association, said the government had been ``criminally negligent'' in allowing the riot to happen. He said only five warders were present when 300 prisoners in the jail chapel began a rampage.
A disturbing aspect of the riot was that the prisoners who were killed were mostly sex offenders. Other prisoners gained the keys to the quarters occupied by sex offenders, who are kept separate in British prisons from other inmates. Mr. Waddington has promised ``searching inquiries'' into both the London disturbances and the Strangeways riot.