The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

Irish skinheads

1980 is often seen as the high point of the late 70s skinhead revival and there were plenty of Irish skinheads, rude boys and punks. This film below captures the explosion of youth cults that rocked Britain but also jumped to the Irish Republic.

Had to laugh at the kid struggling with his dual skinhead / ska fan identity. As was typical at the time, the TV interviewer sounds as if he’s just teleported in from the 1950s to disapprove of it all. And I like the punk kid with the Clockwork Orange eye make up who just states, quite reasonably: “I’m an individual.”

Interesting the girl interviewed who says punks are about changing society while skinheads are only violence. That wasn’t, of course, how it started out. She goes on to say the Mod revival youth hated the punks because “a few weeks ago they were disco kids”. There was a lot of migration between youth cults at the time. I was a bit of a dilettante myself between 1978 and 1983 going through New Wave, ska, NWOBHM, new romantics and on to 80s indie. Without a pause for breath!

FIND OUT MORE: Neville Staple – the Original Rude Boy

DISCOVER: 1980 as the Year of the Skinhead

It's a Sin

Veteran screenwriter Russell T Davies has just penned a new TV drama – It’s a Sin – that takes us back to the era covered by this blog. It recounts the lives of several fictional gay characters in the early 1980s – though moving through the decade swiftly. And inevitably it delves into the emotional pain caused by the AIDS pandemic.

Channel 4 is broadcasting It’s a Sin, written by Davies and reflecting his own life experience from that time. The first episode begins in 1981, which was my first year at university. We see some of the characters arriving on campus as students while others are leaving home – or getting kicked out – and having to make their own way in life. It has all the Davies touches of joyfulness and sentimentality in big doses.

It’s a Sin and AIDS

Everybody who lived through those times has a different experience. But there were common themes. At the very start of the 80s, AIDS wasn’t immediately obvious as a threat. We’d just emerged from the disco-drenched late 70s. Pop music embraced androgyny and gay fashion. Despite huge discrimination and social attitudes that were exceedingly hostile, there were reasons to imagine that things could get better.

Then along came HIV/AIDS. This impacts in the first episode with a character dying alone in a hospital ward and treated by the staff like a leper. It’s uncomfortable viewing. What I found difficult to watch was the dramatising of how little sympathy there was in the first years for sufferers. In the media, political sphere and wider society, it was seen as a self-inflicted disease on a hedonistic, immoral underworld.

I can’t actually remember the first time I read about HIV/AIDS. I was certainly familiar with its existence by 1983. And all the stories of some American airline steward passing it on for the first time to an unidentified person in a London bar, etc, etc. AIDS only really became visible to me in the late 1980s when I returned from Liverpool University to London. Then I started to see and experience with my own eyes the evidence in Soho and elsewhere.

It’s a Sin: gay psychology

That whole era seemed to push LGBT rights backwards and encouraged many to remain in the closet. There’s a scene where the main protagonist is asked early on if he’s gay and at first denies it, then blurts out he’s “bisexual”. Before his new female friend drags him from the closet and the rest is history. That I’d say was a scene replicated many times in real life.

Self denial in fact was more psychologically damaging than the external threat of violence and discrimination. Though that shouldn’t be underestimated of course. Many straight people today think they were a lot more tolerant back in the day. But even on the political Left (Ken Livingstone and the London Labour Party aside), bigotry was mainstream. If you came out, it was goodbye old friends, goodbye possibly to your job or employment prospects and don’t even think about getting a mortgage or life assurance. Plus the risk of being ‘queer bashed’ on the streets.

So many young gay men lied to themselves. Maybe flirting with the ‘scene’ on the fringes and having the odd fling. Or simply keeping their real feelings a guilty secret. Some of course going the whole hog and getting married to a woman. This self denial was undoubtedly damaging.

The situation wasn’t helped by the lack of role models. For many gay men, of a more butch disposition, those role models on offer in the media were often unappealingly camp. Now, I’ve got nothing against camp. But for mainstream audiences in the 1980s, a gay man on screen was fine so long as he was a total screamer or in drag. The idea of a gay man being a regular guy – forget it.

Those celebrities who were out and proud were the subject of almost constant lurid reporting in the tabloids and ridiculous anecdotes in pubs and bars. Though I’d say there was and still is a conflicted view of all this among gay men. On the one side, it was tiresome to be depicted as seedy and perverted 24/7. On the other hand, many gay men wanted to undermine bourgeois morality and revelled in their shock value. At a time when the anti-Thatcher side of Britain wanted to be ‘alternative’, then being gay was about as alternative as you could get.

Thatcher and It’s a Sin

Watching episode one of It’s a Sin, I couldn’t help noticing the very popular poster at the time of Ronald Reagan holding Margaret Thatcher in his arms as a spoof of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone With The Wind. And it did make me wonder: where’s the politics? Because like today, the late 70s and early 80s was an intensely polarised and politicised period. Gay people who were out were almost uniformly Labour or on the left.

There were gay Tories and even today, they’re still trying to convince us that Thatcher was both a feminist and gay icon. Her own actions and word suggest otherwise. Thatcher enthusiastically supported and spoke in favour or the loathsome Clause 28 outlawing the imaginary crime of “promoting homosexuality” by local authorities and schools. This piece of dreadful populist hate-filled legislation should never be forgotten. At the height of a pandemic that was decimating gay communities across the United Kingdom, the government stuck the boot in.

DISCOVER: The riots of 1981 – a long hot summer

So how did it all end?

There was a curious dialectic to gay history in the period covered by It’s a Sin. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was grim in its initial impact. Who could possibly forget Metropolitan police officers in 1987 raiding the Royal Vauxhall Tavern wearing rubber gloves? But it also brought gay people centre stage. It spawned a new and more vocal activism. And incredibly, by the early 90s, it forced social and legislative change.

Yes the late 70s and the disco boom were amazing. But it changed little in terms of societal attitudes. It took the hell of the 1980s to create a new world. Sad to say but it’s often war, plague and crisis that spur positive and fundamental developments. Make sure you catch It’s a Sin on Channel 4.

1981 riots

2021 will be the anniversary of three outbreaks of riots in the UK. Back in 1981, the Thatcher government faced a whirlwind of rioting that spread across the United Kingdom over that long, hot summer. In 2001, the Blair government had to contend with what appeared on the surface to be race-based violence in several northern cities. While 2011 bore a closer resemblance to the 1981 disturbances with a background of recession and youth unemployment.

As we emerge from the Covid pandemic, the global economy has experienced a sharp fall not seen in modern times. Front-line agencies that I’ve talked to (mental health, social services, police and community groups) are deeply concerned that young people have experienced all kinds of trauma during lockdown while also falling off the radar.

Thousands have lost their jobs in sectors like retail and hospitality. Queues at food banks now extend down the street. Behind closed doors, families wrestle with the shame and stress of a poverty never experienced before. And at the same time, the conspiracy theorists have belched out a slew of tripe about the causes of Covid and discouraged people from getting vaccinated.

Plus – add to this toxic social mix the rise of alcohol and drug abuse and tense domestic situations.

No repetition of the riots of 1981, 2001 and 2011 – yet

But none of this has led to the urban unrest that was seen ten, twenty and forty years ago – yet. So it might be a good idea to look at those previous upheavals and ask how they happened, can they be avoided and what to do afterwards.

This blog is about the Thatcher era so excuse me if I major on 1981 – two years into Thatcher’s first term. Many of the issues are depressingly familiar while of course, there are significant differences.

1981 riots more widespread than 2011

Easily the worst rioting in 1981 took place in Brixton (twice – April and July) and Toxteth. There had also been riots in the Moss Side district of Manchester, Chapeltown in Leeds and the Southall district in London. Each area had a different dynamic though at the time, the media and most people just saw an unstoppable forest fire of mayhem that leaped from city to city.

Compared to 2011, the duration of the 1981 riots was significantly longer. Take Toxteth as an example. The trouble started with the arrest of a black youth on 3 July 1981. The rioting rose to a fiery crescendo over the next three days. It then seemed to abate before flaring up again on the 28 July when the single fatality occurred. This resulted in ongoing fighting between police and rioters until the 15 August. In contrast, the 2011 riots were over in about four days.

A total of 690 police support units from forty UK police forces were deployed on the streets of Toxteth during the weeks of rioting. About 781 officers were injured and 214 police vehicles damaged. There were hundreds of arrests and one young man, David Moore, was killed. And for the first time in the UK, CS gas rounds were fired at civilians.

Race and the riots of 1981

The Chief Constables of Merseyside and Greater Manchester made comments about the riots – particularly with regards to race – that would be deemed completely unacceptable now. Ditto a slurry of politicians – mainly Conservative – who demanded anti-immigration measures and even repatriation as a solution to the problem.

The Conservative MP Ivor Stanbrook told journalists he would be seeing the then Home Secretary William Whitelaw to argue for an immediate ‘voluntary repatriation’ scheme. Eldon Griffiths MP, a parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation (the police trade union), remarked: “Who can say today that racial violence does not threaten the social fabric of Britain?”

Whitelaw refuses to play the race card over the 1981 riots

Interestingly, William Whitelaw poured cold water on the characterisation of the riots as a purely racially motivated matter. What police told him – and he told parliament as recorded by Hansard – was that the ethnic balance of the rioters changed night by night in Toxteth:

“The first night consisted largely of black youths, children of many generations of Liverpool people, erupting against the police. The second saw a concerted attack on the police by white and black youngsters. The third witnessed a predominantly white crowd of looters exploiting the earlier disturbances, while local black leaders played a major part in keeping their young people off the streets”

No social media in the 1981 riots

There was no social media to fan the flames of anger in 1981. But broadcast and newspaper media stood accused in some quarters of ‘glamorising’ the disorders inspiring copycat behaviour.[1] There were requests to newsrooms not to over-report the incidents or sign off with comments like ‘where will it happen next?’

Almost inevitably, that 1970s scourge of television, the campaigner Mary Whitehouse, waded in to claim in the Daily Mail that TV images were fanning the flames of violence. She was incensed at footage of a youth firstly contemplating kicking in a shop window, then doing it and finally calmly deciding what to loot.

“It was that piece of film which finally persuaded me to send a telegram to both the BBC and ITN asking them if they would please consider whether the televising of acts of vandalism and violence did not contribute to the spread of riots by creating excitement, encouragement, imitation and actually teaching the techniques of violence.”[2]

The media took flak from all sides. Politicians accused TV news in particular of fanning the flames. The police were disgruntled by a decade of investigative reporting into 1970s policing that cast them in a less than positive light. And the rioters themselves attacked journalists who they perceived as a tool of the establishment and not merely chroniclers of events.

The media landscape in 1981 was very different. TV was restricted to a duopoly of the BBC and ITV with Channel Four still eighteen months away. The broadsheet and tabloid newspapers featured most of the titles that still dominate today but arguably with far greater influence, especially tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mirror. There was no social media let alone cable TV or rolling news channels.

First hint of rolling news in the 1981 riots

The new media technology of the 1980s was ENG: Electronic News Gathering. The term was used throughout the 80s and 90s in the way that “digital” was employed for a while in the early 21st century when it still enjoyed novelty status. The riots were an ideal test of ENG technology and its superiority over film, which had to be returned to base and processed before it could be broadcast.

Undeniably, from journalists I have spoken to, there was a frisson of excitement over this test of ENG and whether crews could now better keep pace with events. It was even possible to broadcast live on the scheduled evening news bulletins (this was before rolling news channels) but the BBC was averse to showing any footage until it had been filtered by an experienced journalist.

The downside of ENG became obvious pretty quickly. If a rioter who disliked the media brought an iron bar crashing down on part of the equipment, the ability to get content back to the newsroom was impaired if not impossible.

DISCOVER: The 1981 Southall riots – causes and effects

Did Margaret Thatcher anticipate the 1981 riots?

Prime Minister Thatcher had won the 1979 election with the intention of ending post-war consensus politics and curbing the power of organised labour – the trade unions in other words. I’ve quoted speeches on this blog before by her economic guru Keith Joseph and others who viewed a rise in unemployment as not only something potentially beneficial in achieving their wider aims, but also a lesser evil to combatting inflation.

No matter what the social cost.

And some believe Thatcher did recognise that a degree of social unrest would be a worthwhile price for her policies. Though in public she reacted as if the resulting violence was purely a law and order issue and the rioters were simply criminals.

The journalist and author Hugo Young, who was on friendly terms with Thatcher, wrote in his biography of her that the decision to bump up police pay significantly on taking office in 1979 was widely seen as an anticipation of civil unrest ahead.

“The police were a favoured class under Mrs Thatcher, even more conspicuously than in previous Tory times. Cynics, not all of them anti-Conservative, saw this as prudent preparation for the civil breakdown that seemed implicit in high unemployment and anti-union policies


[1] Peplow, Simon, ‘Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain (Racism, Resistance and Social Change)’, Manchester University Press, 2019

[2] Whitehouse, Mary, ‘Images that fan the flames of violence’, Daily Mail, 14 July 1981


Mary Whitehouse was a socially conservative campaigner who tried to ban what she deemed to be immoral content on TV in the 1970s and 1980s. Here’s a completely surreal bust up between her, the movie director Michael Winner and a bunch of stripped off blokes dressed as Rambo.

A TV clip that took me back to the madness of the early 1980s!

The thing about Mary Whitehouse was that despite her huffing and puffing on the evils of TV, she became an obligatory fixture on the medium she purported to detest so much.

In fact – dare I say it – from starting out as a prim and proper, buttoned-up social conservative, she evolved into an almost sympathetic character on some appearances. That was – until you got the gist of what Mary Whitehouse thought was unacceptable.

Pornography you could take as a given. But her definition of violence extended to trying to censor Doctor Who and even….get ready for this….the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Though, in our more censorious age where content is taken down now for being ‘problematic’, Mary Whitehouse may yet get to have the last laugh – from the grave.

In this clip here, Mary Whitehouse is arguing against Michael Winner. Now, to use today’s millennial parlance, I’m a bit ‘conflicted’. Because some of Winner’s movies were were plain nasty and exploitative. And this is where I suppose feminism and puritanism meet.

His Death Wish movies with Charles Bronson in the lead – recently remade with Bruce Willis starring – hinged on a revenge fantasy where brutality was legitimised as essentially doing the right thing. I tried to watch one of the 1970s Death Wish movies a while back and was actually appalled by the viciously cartoonish assault on a woman in her own home.

But back to Mary Whitehouse. Here she is surrounded by Rambo hunks peddling her usual lines on the disintegration of society due to pornography and social liberalism (for which read equal rights for women and LGBT). It’s actually hilarious to watch.

Southall 1981 riot

In 1981, an Oi! skinhead gig at the Hambrough Tavern in the London district of Southall ended in a violent riot.

Nobody could claim it was a complete surprise but ever since skinheads have alleged they were unfairly targeted while local Asian youth say the gig was a deliberate provocation.

The 1981 Southall riot followed disturbances earlier that year in Brixton and occurred the night before all hell broke loose in Toxteth, Liverpool. From July into the middle of August, several British cities exploded into violent anger – but each riot had its own distinctive flavour.

It’s often been argued that Southall came closest to being a ‘race riot’ in the proper sense of the term. While other riots were fuelled as much by rising unemployment. But these days, I think we can be sophisticated enough to realise ALL the 1981 riots involved a combination of economic and social deprivation with institutional and widespread racism.

Southall was really the culmination of several factors. One was the infiltration of the skinhead scene by the racist extreme Right. No secret was made of the fact that groups like the National Front and the British Movement decided to target the skinhead scene for white working class recruits.

They hoped to replicate the success that the political Left had enjoyed with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League – marrying music with politics very effectively. That is not to say that all skinheads were on the extreme Right – as they were not. And many bands within the so-called Oi! scene even sang anti-racist lyrics.

But…there had been racially motivated attacks by groups of skinheads and activity by the extreme Right caused intense anger within Asian British communities. In front of me at the moment is a 1981 copy of The Sun that includes an interview with a jobless skinhead explaining that Asians were targeted for beatings by him and his mates because they were perceived to be more meek than Afro-Caribbean youth. However, attitudes among Asian British youth were hardening rapidly.

In July 1981, the growing fury bubbled to the surface in Southall – which had already been the venue for a riot two years earlier against a National Front public meeting at the local town hall.

DISCOVER: Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978

That riot resulted in the death of an Anti-Nazi League activist, Blair Peach – from a police truncheon.

The BBC documentary below gives an account of what happened that fateful night in Southall in 1981. For the headlining band, the 4-Skins, the riot was not good news. Air play was denied and record companies turned their backs.

The lyrics of the 4-Skins songs were predictably abrasive. Kicking people with Doc Martens boots features prominently. But there are also themes shared by a wide spectrum of bands at that time about life on the dole (being unemployed) and a general pessimism that hung in the air.

The 1981 Southall riot ended the Oi! scene and looking back, that year – or the year before even – was the high point of the skinhead sub-culture that had re-emerged in the late 70s after a mid-decade doldrums.

I’m keen to hear from any of you who were involved on any side back in those days and non-defamatory comments can be posted below. I’m even open to publishing entire blog posts from those who were witnesses to the 1981 Southall riot.

town gown

First heard the expression town and gown when I visited friends at Cambridge University in the 1980s. There was, shall we say, a degree of animosity between local Cambridge blokes and the university students.

Especially Cambridge blokes from the local army barracks who could pack a punch as they showed at a gig by The Specials where I believe they invaded the stage apart from dishing out some black eyes.

Back in the early 80s, the percentage of young people in Britain going to university was much lower than it is today. And there was often a much higher degree of hostility between local youth and those allegedly privileged sods on the campus up the road.

And the locals had a point, we were much more middle class, ethnically less diverse and generally speaking better off. Though I went to a red brick university, not Oxford or Cambridge, where I never felt particularly cosseted. Graduate unemployment was also high in the mid-80s when I left college.

At Liverpool, the university was often referred to locally as the “hotel on the hill” – not helped that it was literally on a hill looking down, as it were, on the city below. Though behind us was the Toxteth district where most of the rioting happened in 1981 when hundreds of police battled for over a month with rioters.

DISCOVER: Attitudes towards LGBT people in the 1980s

Regrettably, the wrath of the dispossessed did occasionally land on a student through know fault of their own. One favourite tactic was to ask a student the time, just to check if they had a non-“scouse” accent before connecting a fist with their rosy-cheeked face.

Students easily left the land of gown for the land of town in Liverpool. They only had to stray past the economics and sociology department to find themselves in Toxteth, where many of them had digs anyway. And then town might decide to connect violently with gown.

All of this was thoroughly reprehensible but a flavour of the time I fear. Here is the university newspaper reporting on one such incident.

Dave Wakeling of The Beat draws himself
80s popstar draws himself

Dave Wakeling was front man of ska combo The Beat alongside the late and great Ranking Roger.

I have a huge, towering stack of music papers from the 1980s in my study including the NME, Record Mirror, Sounds, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, Fab 208, etc, etc, etc.

And in one edition of Fab 208, the editor had asked famous popstars of the day to draw themselves.

Most noteworthy for me was Dave Wakeling of The Beat who was the only pop star to depict himself in profile. The magazine noted that he feels strong about world problems.

Must say I prefer his music to his art!

The Beat were a very political combo and I had the honour of interviewing the late Ranking Roger for the biography I co-wrote of Neville Staple of The Specials – “Original Rude Boy”. His real name was Roger Charlery and he had some amazing stories to tell about hanging out with punks and skinheads in Birmingham in the late 1970s.

There was something of a falling out between Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, which I found quite sad. The Beat were often too quickly tough the two of them did continue to collaborate for a while with an MTV-friendly group called General Public that also included ex-members of Dexys Midnight Runners.

inflation unemployment

From 1979, inflation doubled in the first year of the Thatcher administration from 10% to 22%. The recession that followed brought the rate down to 5% in 1980. At the same time, unemployment soared to a breathtaking three million – and that was the official figure.

For Thatcher, inflation was always a bigger priority than unemployment. This was unusual at the time because memories of the starving jobless in the 1930s still loomed large in Britain.

Whereas in Germany, memories of hyper-inflation chimed more with the Thatcher viewpoint. That’s not to say British people weren’t fed up with price rises in the 70s – but the spectre that haunted families more was the prospect of the breadwinner being out of work.

To combat inflation, Thatcher embraced an economic theory called “monetarism” that necessitated high interest rates, higher taxes (VAT doubled almost straight away) and sharp cuts in public spending. The result of what one politician dubbed “voodoo economics” was disastrous for millions of people between 1979 and 1981.

It didn’t even work very well as a theory. Inflation was brought under control by 1980 but the money supply continued to grow. So there were further spending cuts that led to calamitous falls in economic output and whole regions de-industrialised. Unsurprisingly – monetarism was dumped by 1984.

FIND OUT MORE: The Great Recession of 1979 to 1981

To get a clearer idea of Thatcher’s thinking on inflation, I found a 1974 speech made in Preston by Thatcher’s economic guru Keith Joseph. He made it very clear that inflation was regarded by the Tories as the main enemy and not the traditional bogey of unemployment.

In fact, he argued, governments had been so spooked by the Great Depression of the 1930s that they thought mass joblessness was always around the corner. So governments spent money and then tried to hold down pay with incomes policies – always unsuccessfully.

Keith Joseph’s words in 1974 make interesting reading given what was to happen in Thatcher’s first two years in power with unemployment leaping:

It is perhaps easy to understand; our post-war boom began under the shadow of the 1930s. We were haunted by the fear of long-term mass unemployment, the grim, hopeless dole queues and towns which died. So we talked ourselves into believing that these gaunt, tight-lipped men in caps and mufflers were round the corner, and tailored our policy to match these imaginary conditions. For imaginary is what they were.

“Inflation is caused by governments” – speech by Keith Joseph in 1974

Already by the mid-1970s, people were shocked by an unemployment level of 500,000. Joseph swept that aside. Inflation was still the main enemy! Public money should not be used to create jobs. And anyway, he went on, a significant percentage of the unemployed were shirkers and scroungers.

There are the drifters and hippies who draw “welfare” but engage in activities to earn money, legal or illegal. From time to time the Ministry carries out local checks, and suddenly the number of registered unemployed melts away. How many fraudulent unemployed there are at any given time can only be estimated, but they probably account for at least a tenth of the registered unemployed at normal times. We ought to do more about such people, but expanding demand will not turn them into honest men.

“Inflation is caused by governments” – speech by Keith Joseph in 1974

In short, unemployment to Thatcher was by far the lesser evil. Whereas inflation was the beast to be conquered. As a result, throughout the supposedly “yuppie” 1980s, we experienced surprisingly high levels of unemployment.

LGBT 1980s
The idea of gay police officers was hilarious to Private Eye in 1981

In the 1980s, attitudes towards LGBT people were majority unaccepting. Gay and lesbian rights activists were derided as part of the “loony left”. And for many LGBT people, the choice was either living in a social ghetto or staying firmly in the closet.

AIDS hadn’t come to prominence at the start of the decade but once awareness of the HIV virus increased, attitudes worsened. This was largely fuelled by tabloid newspaper headlines blaring “gay plague” and a lack of public education – at first.

DISCOVER: Town versus gown in the 1980s

Role models for LGBT people in the 1980s were in short supply. In popular entertainment, gay men were almost invariably effeminate or led tragic lives culminating in some grim death. The idea that gays and lesbians could lead mundane, suburban existences living peacefully with their neighbours was far off.

Homosexuality had been legalised back in 1967 but legal recognition didn’t mean social tolerance. Although cultural phenomenon like disco music in the 70s made LGBT people more visible and arguably confident, things appeared to go into reverse in the 1980s.

The worst expression of this was Section 28 of the Local Government Act in 1988 that included the provision that local authorities were not to “promote homosexuality”. This has now been abolished and nowadays similar legislation only pops up in Putin’s Russia and certain African countries renowned for their homophobia.

nationalised industries

Once upon a time Britain had loads of nationalised industries that ran key bits of the economy like energy, electricity, water, gas, telecoms, transport and car manufacturing. The idea of the private sector doing these things seemed crazy.

I recently discovered an old school exercise book from a subject called Civic Studies that was part of our curriculum around 15 years of age. We had to write out answers to a series of questions that went like this:

Q: Who supplies our electricity? A: The Central Electricity Generating Board

Q: Who runs the country’s mines? A: The National Coal Board

And so it went on. We lived in this curious pre-1979 world where civil servants at the Ministry ran the nationalised industries. I remember a history teacher at school once remarking that water was privately run in the United States and we were horrified and amazed. Water for profit? Good grief no!

DISCOVER: Grim times for LGBT people under Thatcher

This was an economy that could be described more as state capitalist than socialist. Civil servants and professional managers and technocrats ran nationalised industries that successive government in the post-war period believed were essential to the national interest.

Both Conservative and Labour governments presided over publicly owned and managed industries. Two world wars had revealed the need for better run key industries. There was also a perception that the private sector had under-invested and poorly managed many of these assets in recent decades. British capitalism was deemed to have lost the drive and verve that had powered the Industrial Revolution.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party was calling for rail and mail services to be re-nationalised during the 2019 general election. But go back forty years and it would amaze you to see what was under public control – though about to be privatised by the Thatcher government.

Take for example the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC). This was created by a Labour government in 1975 to ensure that the British public would have a stake in any North Sea oil licences and thereby derive a share of the profit from oil and gas exploration.

This approach was very similar to what Norway did with the creation of Statoil – a government owned entity that delivered guaranteed pensions to the Norwegian population. It’s now part of a large multinational called Equinor but at the time of writing, the Norwegian state remains the largest shareholder.

The UK, however, went down a very different route.

Thatcher created a rather mediocre private sector interest called Britoil that was snapped up by British Petroleum (BP). What’s now forgotten is that BP was one of the UK’s nationalised industries up until 1979 – having been created under a Conservative government in the early 1950s. The BP sell-off was huge and managed by the global investment firm Goldman Sachs.

The North Sea OIl bonanza that never was

British Airways (BA) was created by the government in 1974. The world’s favourite airline – as it likes to claim – was state owned and set up to take over the assets of British European Airways (BEA) and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). This was a time when most national carriers were owned by governments in Europe. It wasn’t an early sell-off, only being privatised in 1987.

So, this “mixed economy” of nationalised industries and privately run companies was very different to the UK today. Ships were built by British Shipbuilders. Gas was supplied by the British Gas Corporation. Cars were made by British Leyland.

And you boarded trains run by British Rail. All of these were privatised over a 20-year period from 1979. This dramatically changed the structure of British capitalism and made the idea of public ownership very alien to younger generations.

As I pointed out earlier, these nationalised interests were run by civil servants and professional managers. Relations between the boardroom and workforce could be every bit as fractious as the private sector.

Indeed, some of the biggest strikes of the 1970s were in nationalised industries. And they were often taken into public ownership more out a dire need for reorganisation and urgent bail-out than any grand socialist design.

Such was the case with British Leyland, the car maker. It was created in 1968 by bolting together several auto companies in the hope of creating a British equivalent to General Motors of the United States – and saving troubled brands like Jaguar.

But the company lacked a common purpose and the car designs were naff compared to what Ford and GM were producing. That said, I can remember plenty of people driving British Leyland cars in the 1970s. However – it was broken up and most of the brands are now in overseas hands.

During the economic recession of the early 1980s – coupled with a deliberate policy of “slimming down” state run assets for privatisation – there were mammoth job losses. Regardless of your political views, the impact on cities around the UK was seismic. And arguably the aftershocks are still being felt today.

British Steel saw 82,300 jobs shed between 1979 and 1983. The National Coal Board released 36,500 miners between 1978 and 1983 – with many more to go after the 1984/85 miners strike.

British Shipbuilders made over 20,000 workers redundant between 1979 and 1982. British Airways also lost 20,000 staff in the same period. This changed the very nature of Britain by degrees from a manufacturing, blue-collar nation in the north and Midlands to communities with more white-collar jobs, “flexible” labour and persistent unemployment in the 1980s.