The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Ken Livingstone

In 1977, the Tories swept to power in some of the metropolitan county councils as the Labour government nationally struggled with economic crisis. One of the winners was a flamboyant character, Sir Horace Cutler. He lasted until 1981 when a resurgent Labour regained control of what was then called the Greater London Council (GLC) – forerunner of today’s GLA. After a post-election leadership change, Ken Livingstone emerged as the new leader of the GLC. Cutler and Livingstone could not have been more different as they duelled each other. It was rather like Cutler the Cavalier versus Livingstone the Roundhead – if you forgive the English Civil War analogy.

Both men were Londoners. Cutler born in Stoke Newington into a relatively wealthy family. Livingstone from a south London working class family. In 1990, the Comic Strip series on the BBC – a very 1980s ‘alternative comedy’ take on things – had an episode where a Hollywood studio decides to make an action movie based on the GLC. Action movie star Charles Bronson (actually Robbie Coltrane) is chosen to portray Ken Livingstone. While dapper British thespian Leslie Phillips (playing himself) is cast as Sir Horace Cutler. That about summarised the contrast in character between the dour ‘Red Ken’, as he was dubbed by the press, and the bow-tie wearing Sir Horace.

Cutler is a largely forgotten figure now. But in the late 1970s, he was very much a Tory John the Baptist figure blazing a trail for Margaret Thatcher. He foreshadowed council house sell-offs by encouraging the takeover of empty properties in London. And he moved against squatters – which in the 1970s and 1980s was how thousands of young people lived in the capital. I have a faint recollection of going to a party at a squat on Charing Cross Road in the early 80s. Areas of Islington, Clapham and even Chelsea that are now gentrified were squats forty years ago. Well, at least they were affordable!

While most civil leaders want to increase their powers, Cutler didn’t really believe in the GLC. So he spent a great deal of time trying to prove it shouldn’t exist – and farming out its powers to the London boroughs, many of which were Conservative of course. Contrary to what is sometimes inferred, Cutler didn’t build the Jubilee Line on the London Underground – it had started years before he took over – but he did impose the name ‘Jubilee’ in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. He did try to get the line extended into the docklands which at that time were still largely derelict.

In 1981, at the end of a brutal recession under Margaret Thatcher, now Prime Minister, Cutler lost the GLC to Labour – then led by Andrew McIntosh. In an astonishing political coup, Livingstone and his allies overthrew McIntosh 24 hours later. They had followed the party rulebook but it certainly took some chutzpah to shove McIntosh aside. However, Londoners by and large shrugged, despite Thatcher likening it to Eastern European tyranny.

Livingstone acquired a national presence through negative media coverage that London leaders had not enjoyed before. He became one of Thatcher’s many bete-noires. And he seemed to know instinctively how to push her buttons. Declaring London a nuclear free zone; funding a Lesbian and Gay social centre; and cutting London’s tube fares. The Achilles Heel in Livingstone’s policies – and similar stances by other Labour boroughs in London – was a willingness to jack up the rates (local taxes then based on property) to pay for these policies.

FIND OUT MORE: Thatcher destroys the GLC

Here we have Cutler and Livingstone having a TV spat.

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