The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

1982 riot

So here we are in 2022. Some of us may be surprised we made it this far. And of course, there are those of our loved ones who didn’t for various reasons. Let’s climb into the Thatcher Crisis Years time machine and find out what was happening forty years ago because 1982 was quite a year.

I was at university in Liverpool finishing my first year and looking forward to my second. The city had experienced a tumultuous summer of riots the year before. The Labour Party was making electoral gains and in 1983 would topple the Liberal-Conservative coalition that had run Liverpool for several years. The music scene was incredible though some of the youth fads from the turn of the decade like the New Romantics and 2Tone were past their peak. We were in the midst of synth-driven pop, which as a keyboard player satisfied me greatly. But guitars would be back soon enough.

1982 event: The Falklands War

The political event that would dominate the first half of 1982 was the Falkands War. In April, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands which was a British overseas territory in the south Atlantic. Argentinian troops had also occupied the neighbouring South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. The unfolding of this drama was a little surreal to be honest. Not since the Suez crisis, before I was born, had we seen this kind of military adventure – so it was all very odd. Suddenly, friends on campus became flag waving patriots. I was even called an Argie at one point (I’m half Portuguese – we’re not Argentinian).

The war gave UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher a big boost in the polls and undoubtedly contributed to her winning the 1983 general election. I canvassed on the doorsteps during that election for Labour and was depressed to detect the very obvious positive impact the war had for Thatcher. Working class families had sent sons and daughters off to the south Atlantic and were hardly going to take a balanced or nuanced view of the conflict.

The left tied itself in knots. Labour leader Michael Foot tried to support the war without sounding too bellicose but ending up appearing indecisive. Some on the ultra-left became cheer leaders for Argentina – somehow ignoring the fact it was ruled then by a military junta that had crushed democracy, human rights and the labour movement in that country. But these ultra-lefts took the view that the enemy at home – Thatcher – was the worst of two evils. Aside from brushing the Argentine junta’s crimes under the carpet, it also ignored the uncomfortable fact that 99% of Falkand Islanders wanted to remain in the UK.

Since the Tories had won the UK general election in 1979, they had known nothing but crisis and lagged Labour in the polls. Now, they surged and Thatcher milked the war for every drop of positive PR she could get. That included overseeing a victory parade in London when Argentina was defeated.

1982 event: the SDP on the rise

As if that wasn’t bad enough for Labour, the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP), set up by Labour renegades, was overtaking Labour in the polls. On 25 March, former Labour grandee and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins won Glasgow Hillhead for the SDP in a shock result. The polls never translated into seats for the SDP but in 1982, they were giving their former party a scare.

As a Labour activist in Liverpool, I was surrounded by people who despised the SDP. Some Liverpool MPs had defected to the SDP at its formation in 1981. These included James Dunn in Liverpool Kirkdale, Eric Ogden in Liverpool West Derby and Richard Crawshaw in Liverpool Toxteth. The latter was held in particular contempt. I can still hear Liverpudlian Labour activists uttering his name with that scouse drawl – Craaawwww- shaw. Given the Labour Party’s shift to the left, these gentlemen were more than likely facing deselection and jumped before being unceremoniously pushed.

DISCOVER: The turbulent Labour Party of the 1980s

1982 event: unemployment still climbing upwards

The economy was slowly emerging from a recession that had decimated manufacturing industry. But unemployment, always a lagging indicator, was still climbing up to levels not seen since the 1930s. Nobody believed the official figure of around three million. In some parts of the countries, being out of work seemed to be the norm. Young people were especially badly hit.

I taught adults basic literary skills at a community centre in the Scotland Road area of the city three years later and found people in their 20s and 30s who believed they would never hold a paying job again. It’s hard to convey how overwhelming mass unemployment was at that time and the way it affected millions of people psychologically – let alone economically. It just seemed as if anything approaching full employment would never be seen again.

1982 event: the Queen’s LGBT bodyguard

Attitudes on LGBT rights were pretty dreadful at the time. 1982 saw a major scandal when the Queen’s bodyguard Michael Trestrail was forced to resign over a relationship with a male prostitute. The 52-year old stepped down after 16 years of service and became the subject of media mockery. The Home Secretary William Whitelaw was required to give all the salacious details to parliament as they were going to leak anyway.

A subsequent inquiry cleared Trestrail of accusations that he had compromised palace security. This was a common slur thrown at gay men – that their sexuality posed a threat to the security of the realm. Homosexuality doesn’t make anybody less patriotic of course. The real problem was blackmail made possible by widespread homophobia. But in 1982, it was the fault of gay men for leading a “double life” and not other people’s bigotry. Take into consideration that we hadn’t yet sunk into the full horror of AIDS at this point – though it was on the horizon – nor Thatcher’s Clause 28 legislation.

1982 event: Arthur Askey dies

Liverpool comedian Arthur Askey died in 1982 (born 1900). A relic from the music hall era and early years of talking pictures. In his later life, Askey had both legs amputated due to poor blood circulation. I remember this because as a money-conscious student, I went to a very dodgy butcher in Liverpool to buy some mince for a chilli con carne I intended to cook for my housemates. The butcher had three grades of mince. I asked what they were. “This is finest cuts,” the butcher pointed at the most expensive mince, “and this is ordinary mince,” he indicated a cheaper variety and then jabbing his finger at the cheapest, he revealed “and this is Arthur Askey’s legs”. Courageously I bought the late Mr Askey’s legs.

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