The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

The wedding of Charles and Diana ended up an unhappy affair. But in 1981, the media proclaimed it as the royal fairy tale of the century. However, there were some dissenting voices. Remember that just four years earlier in 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee had become a target of punk rock ire. Some of that rebellious spirit was still in the air.

And Britain, that summer, lit up for a very different reason to the Royal Wedding. Riots spread like wildfire all over the country as youth unemployment skyrocketed, industries collapsed and long standing grievances among black youth over police tactics spilled over. Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Brixton and many other cities experienced major disturbances. This dominated the headlines in July that year.

Now I was moving in very left-wing circles and hanging out with trendy student types so my view of the wedding of Charles and Diana might be slanted a bit. There obviously was huge public interest and even enthusiasm – especially having the day off of course. But at a time when people were losing their jobs and money was very hard to come by – the sight of such ostentatious display did stick in many throats.

Charles and Diana wedding meets real life

During the Liverpool Toxteth riots, a disabled young man called David Moore was hit by a police Land Rover and after lingering a while, died in hospital the same day as the wedding of Charles and Diana. I remember the local newspaper on Merseyside ran two front page stories that day. Two thirds of the front page devoted to the royal couple and down the side was the news on David Moore with a grainy picture of an awkward looking guy. The contrast – to put it very mildly – was stark.

This seemed to sum up the division in a very polarised Thatcherite Britain. I think it’s hard for people today to understand how the country split so sharply. I would find myself in an Essex pub surrounded by devotees of the Thatcher cult spitting venom at the Left and the trades unions. Then I could be in a boozer in Liverpool where the very name of the Prime Minister was enough to make lips curl in anger. And in this pre-digital age, these two worlds seemed to carry on their own existence almost oblivious to each other.

DISCOVER: July 1981 was a month of severe rioting

Dissent towards the wedding of Charles and Diana

I think some people knew in their hearts that there was a problem with the whole Diana and Charles fairy tale relationship. Spare Rib, the Feminist magazine, produced lapel sized badges with “Don’t Do It!” printed on them.  They cost 30p and came in white on a lilac background. This followed on from the highly popular “Stuff the Jubilee” badges in 1977.

The ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ team of Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson (and Chris Langham, talented comedian but convicted of downloading indecent porn on the internet in 2007) produced a souvenir called…. Not The Royal Wedding.   I have a copy but for legal reasons, I’m not going to reproduce that lest the BBC knock at my door.

Their piece of humour included an appeal for a spoof charity called HAR – Help the Aged Royals.  With an image of the Queen Mother, it said:  “Lizzie is eighty one years old and a widow….Although the Social Security provide her with a home help two afternoons a week, her butlers, maids, footmen, chefs, gardeners and secretariat all have to be paid out of her meagre £286,000 a year pension.”

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