The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, judges and magistrates often made comments in court cases that we would regard as bizarre or just unacceptable now. Racism, sexism, homophobia, union bashing – you name it. Some of these distinguished members of the judiciary seemed to court notoriety. But others clearly had no idea that the world had moved on and their views belonged to another era. So let’s look at some examples of bigoted judges in the 1980s.

Lord Denning on trades unions

When it comes to bigoted judges in the 1980s, they don’t get more narrow minded than Lord Denning (born 1899). He was regarded by most on the Left as Thatcher’s firmest ally in the judiciary. Denning was very prominent in the 1980s curbing the power of trades unions through the courts as Thatcher did the same through the parliamentary process.

In Denning’s view, trades unions were OK up until 1906. When Lord Denning was about seven years old. After suffering persecution for over a century, unions were given legal immunity. This was meant to avoid what happened in the case of Taff Vale Railway Company v Amalgamated Society of Railway Servant (1901). In the legal case, the House of Lords had awarded damages in favour of the Taff Value railway management against the trade union to recoup monies lost as a result of strike action. That effectively made industrial action impossible. Now, under the terms of the 1906 Trade Disputes Act, unions could operate freely with legal immunity and their funds protected.

Well, Denning certainly knew how to nurse a grievance. Even if it had taken seventy years for a Prime Minister on his wavelength to arrive – he was ready to reverse the legacy of the 1906 Act. Believing that the courts should be highly activist in making law where they could, he began to steamroller into the trades unions. In a 1984 lecture, he seethed at the the unions’ ability to “inflict injury and inconvenience on the innocent public”. And reminisced how back in 1926, he had enrolled to be a Special Constable in the General Strike of that year and had kept his truncheon and armband. He noted that during this mass industrial action, soldiers had been on standby “rifles and bayonets at the ready”.

The 1970s were a torrid time for Denning. The 1974 Labour government extending union power. And God forbid – unions took political stances! What especially got his goat was a call by the postal union to “black” (unfortunate choice of word) all letters to Apartheid-run South Africa for a week. “This was plainly unlawful,” Denning fumed, “it was a criminal offence”. And his version of events regarding the 1977 Grunwick dispute is curious. Now recognised as a landmark strike by a mainly female, Asian workforce for union recognition and labour rights, Denning viewed it as “all very regrettable”.

Denning didn’t even pretend to be neutral on the question of trades unions. He enthused over Thatcher’s anti-union legislation in her first term in office and sought to lengthen its reach and impact through the courts. He was almost an advance guard for Thatcher, testing the ground before she swept in enshrining his rulings into statues.

Bigoted 1980s judges give their view of homosexuality

In a House of Lords on 18 December 1986, the Local Government Act was being debated. Denning got himself into a lather over local authorities, especially in London, advocating for gay and lesbian rights. He took aim at the London Borough of Haringey and likened it to the biblical city of Sodom!

“I wish to make a few remarks on more general matters, first, perhaps on religion. I looked up the Book of Genesis again. But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly”. And the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. When I read the article in The Times this morning, I thought of altering those words and saying: But the councillors of the Borough of Haringey were gay, and corrupted the children of the borough exceedingly”. And, I should like to add, after this Bill, The Lords destroyed those councillors”. “

He was proud of having sent gay men to prison in his time on the bench.

“May I say a word on the legal aspect of homosexuality. The common law, as long as it has existed, condemned the abominable offence of buggery. I have tried many cases, adults and the like, and sentenced them to three, four or five years imprisonment for that offence.”

And then this description of homosexuality as a ‘cult’:

We must not allow this cult of homosexuality, making it equal with heterosexuality, to develop in our land. We must preserve our moral and spiritual values which have come down through the centuries.

If anything, Denning’s contribution to the debate that day in the House of Lords was one of the least offensive. Lord Swinfen said that gays and lesbians were “disabled sexually”. And the Earl of Harlsbury, a one-time friend of Lord of the Rings author J R R Tolkien, thundered that gays and lesbians didn’t deserve any of the rights they had been given:

One of the characteristics of our time is that we have for several decades past been emancipating minorities who claimed that they were disadvantaged. Are they grateful? Not a bit. We emancipated races and got inverted racism. We emancipate homosexuals and they condemn heterosexism as chauvinist sexism, male oppression and so on. They will push us off the pavement if we give them a chance.

Two years later, the infamous Clause 28 would be added to the 1986 Local Government Act prohibiting the alleged ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. The last legal gasp of institutional homophobia as it turned out.

Teachers should accept being hit comes with the job

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at this news item from The Guardian in 1982. A teacher had been hit by a parent but when the case went to court, a London magistrate told the teacher that she had:

  • wasted ratepayers’ money by bringing the case
  • being hit was a risk that came with the occupation
  • she could expect to be hit another six or so times in her career
  • the best protection was to have a man around

The whole thing was referred up to Thatcher and the Lord Chancellor when unions went ballistic. But you have to remember, this was a time when the unions would have been accused of being soft or trouble making or politically correct. Here’s the article – see what you think!

Teaching in the 1980s
Teaching in the 1980s

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