The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

nuclear free zone

Nuclear free zones were an early 80s political phenomenon that swept Labour run local councils, student unions and other bodies. They were always derided by the Tories as a vainglorious gesture by grandstanding politicians. However, they captured a widespread anxiety about the threat of nuclear war that was very pervasive in the late 70s and early 80s.

On 5 November 1980, Manchester was the first city to declare itself a nuclear free zone. Slightly ironic given that 5 November is a historic date famous for a plot to blow up parliament in 1605 and celebrated by fireworks ever since. Maybe the explosive nature of the day was chosen deliberately! In the early 1980s, around 200 local authorities declared themselves to be nuclear free. That did this actually mean in practice?

Well, councils declared nuclear free zones refused, for example, to engage in civil defence exercises intended to protect the population in the event of a nuclear war. That may seem very irresponsible, but as I’ve blogged elsewhere – the government’s Protect and Survive campaign is unintentionally hilarious reading now. Lying in a ditch or hiding under the stairs were examples of advice given to avoid radiation poisoning in the event of a hostile nuclear strike on our cities.

As of 1982, the following councils were reported in Hansard – the account of debates in parliament – to be nuclear free zones:

Manchester city, the London borough of Brent, the metropolitan borough of Bury, Derby city, Durham county, Harlow, Kinston Upon Hull city, the metropolitan borough of Kirklees, Liverpool city, North-West Leicestershire district, the metropolitan borough of Rochdale, South Yorkshire county, Worcester city, Wrexham Maelor, Leicester city, Desborough town, Norwich city, Oxford city, the borough of Pendle, Scunthorpe borough, Welwyn and Hatfield district, the metropolitan borough of Tameside, Dyfed county, the borough of Watford, the borough of Camden, Glasgow city, Chesterfield borough, Leeds city, the borough of Langbaurgh, Dwyfor district, the London borough of Greenwich, Crawley borough, Clydebank district, Higham Ferrers town, Nuneaton and Bedworth borough, Ceredigion district, Bassetlaw district, Barnsley metropolitan borough, Gwent county, North-East Derbyshire, Wakefield metropolitan, Leicestershire county, Aberdeen city, London borough of Hounslow, borough of Afan, Strathclyde, Llanelli, Torfaen borough, Hastings borough, Greater London, Llanfrothen community, Nottinghamshire county, Bolsover district, Corby district, city of Sheffield metropolitan, Cannock Chase district, Falkirk district, Middlesbrough borough, metropolitan borough of Calderdale, Amber Valley district, Stirling district, Wansbeck district, Basildon, and Northumberland county.

Here’s an announcement that Merseyside County Council (later abolished by Thatcher along with the GLC and other authorities that were nearly all Labour run) was going to declare itself a nuclear free zone.

Merseyside goes nuclear free!
Merseyside goes nuclear free!

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