Wearing a CND badge – a leftie Christmas card I received around 1981.
1979 and 1980 were the glory years of the so-called “second wave” of ska music – first wave in Jamaica twenty plus years before and now the 2Tone wave came crashing out of Coventry. The Specials seized the charts by the scruff of the neck with a string of hits. And even WH Smith felt the vibe as the his ad from 1980 shows.
But…by the end of 1981, political pop gave way to bubblegum pop. However, fans of bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat have remained fiercely loyal to the present. And it would be remiss of me not to mention that I co-authored the biography of Neville Staple, front man in The Specials, titled Original Rude Boy.
The start of the 80s saw some monster CND demonstrations in London. The 1981 demo, which I remember well, attracted at least 250,000 people and took five hours to snake through London to Hyde Park. As we approached the park, I could hear Michael Foot’s voice very clearly – the then Labour leader and veteran unilateralist.
Later, outside McDonalds on Charing Cross Road, some old biddy came up to me and said I was as bad as those Peace Pledge Union types in the 1930s who’d have left us defenceless in the face of Hitler, etc.
The reason for the big turnouts on these CND protests was mainly the election of Ronald Reagan, seen as a dangerous militarist by us lefties at the time. The world was dominated by the superpower struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and it seemed to be hotting up. There were widespread concerns in the UK over the stationing of American nukes on British soil with Tony Benn calling for the closure of US military bases here.
In 1979, the Liberals faced a general election that wasn’t going to be good news for the ruling Labour government. And that mattered because the Liberals under leader David Steel had been in a semi-official coalition with Labour since 1978 – the so-called Lib-Lab Pact.
Prime Minister James Callaghan had been expected to go for an election in late 1978 but changed his mind, deciding to hold out till the following year. Bad mistake. That winter saw major industrial unrest – the “winter of discontent” – and Labour’s hopes of winning another general election began to sink.
The Liberals struggled to distance themselves from the horse trading with the Labour leadership. They’d also been dogged in the late 70s by the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Their former leader, Thorpe, had been accused in court of being gay and plotting to kill his secret male lover. In 70s Britain, a far less tolerant place, this was toxic stuff. It still hung over the Liberals in 79.
Within the Liberal Party, their youth wing positioned themselves as a radical libertarian movement – even influenced by anarchist philosophy. Meanwhile, the Tories youth wing was veering rightwards while the Labour Party Young Socialists was under the control of the Marxist Militant Tendency. The Young Liberals published a magazine called Liberator pictured in this blog post.
Anyway, the election happened and the Liberals took a pounding helping Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party surge to power. Steel campaigned on rejecting the “Punch and Judy” politics of Labour and Tories saying the public was tired of swings leftwards and rightwards at every election. But the public decided otherwise – voting in the most right-wing Conservative government of the post-war era.
In the years that followed, the Liberals formed a new party – the Lib Dems – by allying with right of centre Labour politicians who deserted their party to form the Social Democrats.
In 1983, Thatcher called a general election. The Tories had been in power since 1979 and had gone through a very rocky first two years with economic collapse, riots and rumblings within the government against Maggie. But a couple of things played into her hands: the war in the Falklands and a dreadful Labour campaign in 83.
The Labour slogan was utterly uninspiring: Think Positive, Act Positive, Vote Positive. Worse than that, it was abundantly clear to anybody inside or outside the party that the leadership didn’t believe in its own election manifesto. A month before polling, ITV’s “TV Eye” programme took a look at Labour and it wasn’t pretty viewing. Michael Foot is interviewed and I leave you to judge what went wrong.