The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

Boomers 80s

This is a fascinating interview below (see video) with a group of young people on Irish TV in 1983. They would have been born in the early to mid 1960s and like many working class youth in the 80s were out of work and bored senseless. This busts the myth I hear so often today that all young Boomers in the 80s were rolling in wealth, shares, property and opportunity. Some were. Many were not.

Listening to the first chap – the punk – is a strong flashback to the time. He and his mates looked different and so got barred from pubs and clubs – and “discotheques”. Unable to socialise indoors, they’d hang out in a public place and then be reported to the cops as a nuisance. Many youth centres and community venues were the victim of cutbacks in local government spending. So, that option for going out had disappeared. There was a single pub that they could drink in without ending up in a fight.

It’s noticeable that two of the young people are unemployed with clearly no prospect of finding work. The punk guy just seemed to be housebound most of the time and with no money. He was living on about eight pounds a week after giving some of his dole money to his mother. That kind of financial constraint would now be hell on earth but was pretty common at the time.

Teenagers didn’t spend that much on clothes – a tenner a year the punk says – and there was a ‘make do and mend’ mentality. Things were just worn until they fell apart. Although the mod and the fashion student clearly cared more about their appearance but it would have been done on a minimal budget. I remember people relied a lot more on second hand clothes shops, which aren’t really a feature of the high street as they once were.

Attitudes to parents were rather cold and distant by today’s standards. Asked about his Mum, the punk says he has no significant feelings towards her other than the fact that she’s his Mum. Though he does love her.

80s young Boomers – aggro on the streets

What’s very sad is the aggression that these young people faced over the way they dressed. Being a Goth or a punk or a Mod in the early 80s was a green light for some thugs to go into attack mode. The violence was just insane. In the 80s, we wrote it off as being a tribal fashion thing. But looking back, I think there was a weird mix of homophobia, sadism and just outright thuggishness. Born to a degree from the much more macho culture around masculinity. Anybody challenging gender stereotypes was living dangerously in 1983.

And officialdom was so weirdly patronising and insulting. The TV presenter here struggles with the idea of nose studs, make up and dyed hair. Young Boomers in the 80s had to contend with a previous generation that was had gone through national service in the army or even fought in the Second World War. Many thought we should also have forced on to a parade ground to sort us out. There was still very much a “get yer ‘air cut” attitude from older people.

DISCOVER: Irish skinheads, rude boys and punks

But what’s very noticeable is that the fashion student for example is clearly a bright and talented chap with a dry sense of humour who refuses to be reduced to a figure of fun. Like the others, they’re effectively on trial as freaks to be mocked by a mass audience. Even despite the fact they were basically unemployed young Boomers struggling to lead purposeful lives. Personally I find it quite sad to watch – be interested to know what you think.

I’d also like this TV clip and other posts on the blog to once and for all explode this nonsense that all Boomer youth had it good in the 80s. The reality was way more mixed and nuanced.

financial scandals Thatcherism

From 1989 for five years I worked as a financial journalist full-time on a magazine called Money Week – and also freelanced for the national newspapers. Half a decade of sleaze being shared by contacts over lunches in swanky restaurants. It was a great time to be an investigative hack doing business stories. Because the end of the 1980s saw a slew of financial scandals – a somehow fitting epilogue to Thatcherism.

Every week in a column on page three of the magazine, we’d list a grim tally of independent financial advisers (IFAs) being ‘terminated’, suspended or under investigation for mis-selling financial services products or worse. The procession of the shamed never seemed to end. And there were several epic financial scandals that seemed to define the era of Thatcherism.

The collapse of the Barlow Clowes investment scam in 1988 was a case in point. It saw over 14,000 investors defrauded of about £153m. His trial was still ongoing during my first years in journalism until his conviction and imprisonment in 1992. With the money he made, Clowes bought a yacht, four personal jets, a helicopter, a chateau in France and a farm in the Peak District. So 1980s!

This was one of several major frauds exposed largely when the stock market tanked in 1987. What characterises all these stories was the credulity of not only investors but many journalists, commentators and City of London folk. Everybody wanted to believe that the 1980s presented a new paradigm where fantastic wealth could be magically conjured up.

DISCOVER: Inflation and unemployment under Thatcher

Another feature of these scandals was the Thatcher government’s reticence to entertain the idea of compensating investors. Very much in keeping with the time the attitude was: caveat emptor. You wanted to make money. You took a risk. You lost your money. Yah boo sucks! Furious investors – many of them Tory voters in the shires and Home Counties – soon prevailed on the government that not compensating them would have consequences.

This mis-selling of duff products extended far down into the population. One good example was endowment mortgages. These were very mainstream products. You took out an interest only mortgage and alongside, this savings product that would not only pay off the capital sum on your house in 25 years but leave you with an additional payout for your retirement.

It also earned financial advisers additional commission and they sold this guff with predictions of future investment growth based on an eternally booming – or at least robust – stock market. Not that these advisers were being fraudulent. Many had a shaky grasp of the financial complexities or just blindly sold the products on offer to them. It was easy money. Why rock the boat?

DISCOVER: The De Lorean scandal

In retrospect, some now blame the regulators for not requiring them to warn their own clients of the risks. Like they would have thanked the regulators at the time! You tend to find those pointing an accusing finger at the regulators of that period also bemoan ‘red tape’.

The legacy of Thatcherism was self-regulation – which the industry had demanded – but didn’t seem to realise that meant taking responsibility for the quality of their own advice. You can’t have it both ways – light touch regulation then blaming the regulators for not being tough enough!

Of course much of this could have been avoided with a decent regulatory system. Three years before in 1986, the Thatcher government had passed the Financial Services Act (FSA). Ideally that would have created a statutory regulator to monitor the industry. But ‘self-regulation’ was the mantra of Reaganism and Thatcherism and instead of one super-regulator, the financial services industry got five (or more) ‘self-regulatory organisations’ (SROs).

Of course the financial services sector, while chaffing under even this light touch regulation, declared it was better than a stricter rules-based approach. The sort of approach – shudder – that was employed in the United States. Many dreamed of the good old days when City folk told their clients that “my word is my bond”. But the deregulation that followed the so-called ‘Big Bang‘ in the City of London in 1986 created a whole new environment. The world of bowler hats and gentlemanly agreements was well and truly over.

FIND OUT MORE: Britain in the era of nationalised industries

And so the mis-selling of personal pensions, endowment mortgages and inappropriate products continued. I covered one story at the start of the 1990s about a hard-sell financial services firm luring police officers out of their very generous pension scheme and into a much shakier private personal pension with all sorts of promises. They even hired police officers to sell to fellow officers.

Even though the FSA brought light-touch regulation, many financial advisers deeply resented it. The SROs became variously figures of contempt or hatred. They’d be accused of knowing nothing about the industry. While at the same time, industry practitioners bitterly resisted attempts to introduce mandatory financial exams. The reason was obvious enough – many of them would have failed.

The aftershock of the financial scandals that rocked the end of the era of Thatcherism are still being felt today. Defenders of the Thatcher model even claim the City was in fact over-regulated – and that was the real root of the problem. Go figure! Industry voices deny there was mis-selling of financial services products. They say this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

And defenders of the era, point to the rapid expansion of the financial services sector, filling the gap left by the collapse of manufacturing earlier in the 1980s. That rebalancing of Britain towards financial services is heralded as a British success story.

Undoubtedly, Big Bang left the City of London as the world’s leading financial centre alongside New York. But it’s also left a heap of questions about what kind of country we became, the distribution of wealth and how we treat our fellow human beings. It’s also left millions of people unwilling or unable to invest as they once did in what were assumed to be rock solid investment products.

Labour Party 1980s

Let’s get in a time machine and go back forty years to the Labour Party of the 1980s and see how it compares with today’s infighting!

I joined the Labour Party in 1981. Like many teenagers I was on a quest to define myself. I grew up in what was then a very Conservative suburb of London. Woodford Green had been Winston Churchill’s constituency and we even had a statue on the green to prove it. Although, by a curious irony, his Labour opponent Clement Attlee lived in the same constituency. As did the communist suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst.

Today, the London borough of Redbridge is a Labour council with two out of the three constituencies in Labour hands. But back in 1979, Maggie ruled the borough. So when I first decided I wasn’t a Tory, I opted for the Liberal Party. That was before it became the Lib Dems.

As a middle class boy with radical leanings, I needed to find a political home. On the one hand, I didn’t like Thatcher and on the other hand, Labour had been in power since 1974 and implemented a programme of austerity and cuts. The Liberals – especially the Young Liberals – had a progressive, radical veneer and that won me over for a while.

It didn’t make me long to realise I’d made a mistake. The Liberals in reality were a coalition of middle class Tories, who for various reasons couldn’t bring themselves to be in the Conservative party, and libertarian lefties who found the Labour Party too authoritarian. The latter faction expended vast amounts of ink and hot air trying to synthesise William Gladstone and the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The Young Liberal publication, Liberator, seemed to be in the hands of ageing hippies – which offended my punk/New Wave sensibilities. I eventually decided they were talking bollocks.

DISCOVER: How the 1979 general election changed history

Starting the 80s by joining the Labour Party

Making the leap to Labour was quite a big deal for me back then as Thatcherite Toryism was very much in the ascendant. I was invited by a friend to attend the Epping Forest branch of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). What I didn’t realise was that the LPYS at that time was firmly under the control of the Militant – a Marxist group within the Labour Party. That wasn’t a problem. In fact, it made the transition easier. I was able to join the Labour Party while simultaneously hating the old guard in charge who’d been in government between 1974 and the general election defeat in 1979.

Like many people at the end of the 1970s, I wanted to find big answers. We’d been through a stormy decade. Oil crisis, balance of payments crisis, trade deficit crisis, labour relations crisis and a Labour Prime Minister who famously grumbled “crisis, what crisis”. 1979 completed the shit-fest with the country nosediving into a vicious recession. And everybody who thought deeply about politics realised the post-war political consensus was over. The only question was whether we would lurch to the left or the right.

So I gravitated quite rapidly in the direction of the Militant. They seemed serious about “the transformation of society” and more down to earth than some of the swivel-eyed ultra-left sects I’d encountered on demonstrations as a teenager. It didn’t take very long to notice that the Labour Party was sliding into an extremely stormy civil war. Before 1981, this centred on the election for the Deputy Leader of the party which pitted left-winger Tony Benn against the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey. This was truly a heavyweight contest.

FIND OUT MORE: When the Labour Party had two rival youth wings

The thrill of the 80s Labour Party

Being a teenager at the time, I wasn’t really up for being in a placid and docile Labour Party. And I wouldn’t be disappointed on that score.

The next five years were spent at conferences where the hatred between right and left in the Labour Party was on vitriolic display. The annual National Organisation of Labour Students conference was normally held at a university though a gladiatorial arena might have been more fitting. At one conference, the police stormed in to carry people out bodily. The proceedings at these combative gatherings would begin with the ritual bureaucratic attempt to exclude certain delegations on a technicality and moved onto debates where nobody really listened to the other side. We were far too busy seething with rage!

It’s in this fiery crucible that today’s Labour leadership was forged. The downside of this is that they still know what they hate (the left of the party) but I’m not sure they ever spent enough time working out what they like. So if you’ve ever wondered why the leadership of the Labour Party seems to lack an underlying philosophy and stirring vision, it’s because they spent their youth beating up the other half of the party. Not that they weren’t anti-Tory – but hammering the Trots was the primary mission objective.

Return of the 80s Labour Party?

The 1980s ended with a purge of the Marxist left and other groups from the Labour Party. We then had the rise of Blairism, which ran in tandem with a recovery of capitalism. The left made a Faustian pact with the City and Wall Street where we said: you make your super-profits, but we’ll skim the top to pay for better welfare and urban investment. But the 2008 recession brought that project to its knees and ten years later we had the Corbyn-led move to the left.

Corbynism was a revival of the kind of Leftism that dominated London Labour politics in the 1980s – centred on identity politics and radical international causes. But weak on bread-and-butter working class issues. Not that there has to be one without the other – as some seem to argue – but you need both.

The Labour Party has moved rightwards under Keir Starmer but there are dark clouds overhead that were absent in the 1980s. Labour no longer commands tribal working class loyalty in its heartlands – unthinkable over thirty years ago. Social democratic parties have been pummelled or even destroyed across Europe by new forces such as the Greens and populist movements. The trade unions no longer support the right wing of the party as they used to but they’re also a diminished force in British society. And young people are politically volatile in a way I’ve never seen.

Maybe the future of the Labour Party is to step out from its 1980s shadow.

celebrity margaret thatcher

Back in 1979, we gritted our teeth as Thatcher won that year’s general election. This was a seismic political shift for Britain. And for those of us on the losing side, there was the spectacle of certain celebrities publicly supporting Margaret Thatcher.

DISCOVER: Anti-Tory art from the early 1980s

Admittedly, they weren’t the coolest celebrities. But there were some surprises. For example….LGBT alternative and slightly surreal comedian, Kenny Everett. He got up on stage in front of a baying Tory audience with a pair of giant hands and yelled: “Let’s bomb Russia!” And just in case you think that didn’t happen…

The majority of the “alternative comedy” set were left-leaning if not Labour. While traditional stand-ups like Jimmy Tarbuck were ardent Tories. The celebrity supporters of Margaret Thatcher tended to come from the mainstream TV output of the 1970s and not the bubbling up counter-culture that would ascend, ironically, under Thatcher in the 80s. Often as a reaction to Thatcher – take the likes of Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton.

Tarbuck’s love affair with Thatcher continued for many years even though his home city of Liverpool was a hotbed of anti-Thatcher rebellion. Decades later, his Toryism and the alleged Tory sympathies of another scouser, Cilla Black, brought the ire of Liverpudlian Ricky Tomlinson – a definite lefty – down on them.

The irascible actor said that Cilla, as a docker’s daughter, should be ashamed of being a Tory and this led to a spat between them back in 2002. Tomlinson was referencing the closure of docks and factories as a result of Conservative economic policy in the early 1980s.

FIND OUT MORE: Inflation and unemployment under the Thatcher government

For me, one of the oddest appearances at a Tory conference overseen by Thatcher was in 1983 when the late piano popstar Lynsey de Paul popped up at her keyboard singing: “Vote Tory, Tory, Tory/For election glory”. Her previous career high point was representing the UK in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest.

school gym 1970s

On a Facebook page for my old school, somebody posted a picture of one side of the old school gym. The wall was covered in wooden climbing bars with ropes dangling down that could slide out on pulleys across the gym. Immediately I was transported back to P.E. lessons in the 1970s and I’m sure like many of you, there are very mixed memories of those days.

What was it with P.E. teachers in the 70s? The ability to maintain that level of sadistic aggression must have taken incredible effort. About ten years ago, I told my millennial gym trainer what a P.E. teacher, from the Welsh valleys, screamed at me after my javelin throwing on the school field had been below par: “McMahon you s—–c, if you had to hunt for your food, you’d f——g starve!”

My trainer was about twenty years younger than me. And he was so taken by this that he used to repeat this awful phrsae when I reached my limit on the bench press. For him, it was a hilarious eye opener on the 1970s school gym. For me, it was like a voice from the deepest reaches of hell.

Why was physical education made so awful back then?

DISCOVER: How teachers were treated by Margaret Thatcher

Admit it, fellow baby boomer, you shudder occasionally to remember P.E. classes. There was the old-style trampet set at an angle off which we had to launch ourselves over a horsebox, arms outstretched, to hopefully be caught by the P.E. teacher. The murder-ball-style games played with a large, unevenly-shaped, leathery sphere known for some reason as the medicine ball. Why it was called that I have no idea. It was more likely to cause injury than cure you of anything.

Then there was the 1970s gym obsession with gymnastics. Because God knows, we all had an inner Olga Korbut struggling to break out. For younger readers, Korbut was a Soviet gymnast who wowed the world with her 1972 Olympics performance. We poor school kids were then expected to emulate this and failure to do so would result in a severe tongue lashing or worse from our P.E. overlords.

If, for whatever reason, you ‘forgot’ your gym kit in an attempt to avoid 40 minutes of gymnastic hell, the changing room had a box full of mysteriously waylaid kit – completely filthy – that you were forced to wear. We called these disgusting items the “VD shorts” – VD being the acronym for STDs back then (venereal disease). Nobody knew the provenance of the discarded shorts and tops nor why their owners had never claimed them back. They just sat there, festering in the corner.

FIND OUT MORE: How the National Front targeted schools in the 1970s

Then we were herded like sheep into the showers. At one of my secondary schools – I went to two – this area was a communal room. Overhead was a row of nozzles spouting boiling or freezing water – never anything in between. The gym teacher would strip off and join us…..yeah, about that. Mid-shower, he’d turn round to us eleven-year-olds barking: “Pass the buttermilk soap!” Small bars of soap that dissolved at a rapid rate.

On one occasion we’d had to abandon a rugby match because it was raining so hard. Well, the sadist-in-chief made us play for what seemed like an eternity until two of my fellow pupils collapsed deliriously on to the swampy pitch and started chucking mud at each other. Back in the changing room, after we’d spent a few minutes passing the buttermilk soap around in the showers, the same P.E. teacher produced a trainer and gave one of the kids an almighty “slippering”. This meant touching your toes while your arse was thwacked very hard.

DISCOVER: What was School Kids Against the Nazis?

Despite the best efforts of certain P.E teachers I kept up sporting activity throughout my life and I still weight train today. But really, that is DESPITE and not BECAUSE of my experience of the 1970s school gym. Sadly I have many friends who were permanently put off any kind of organised sporting activity for the rest of their lives. I rather hope today it’s a more humane regime for schools kids than it was for us in the 1970s school gym.

This is Olga Korbut – I was definitely not Olga Korbut
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 1979 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.