The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

De Lorean Laker

During the economic collapse between 1979 and 1983 overseen by Margaret Thatcher, many household name brands disappeared.

In 1982, there were over 12,000 company liquidations – two and a half times more than 1979. Personal bankruptcies were also up about 60% over that period. So, what household name brands were destroyed at this time?

In the air industry, Laker Airways was grounded on 5 February, 1982. Sir Freddy Laker had been a well known face on TV pioneering the idea of cheap flights between London and New York.

DISCOVER: Shocking attitudes to race in the early 1980s

This was a time when the idea of going to the United States was a dream for most people. He launched the “Skytrain” in 1977 and introduced the idea of movies on flights – unheard of before then. Despite his entrepreneurial flair, he could not survive Maggie’s recession.

In the clothing sector, names such as Janet Reger (underwear), Morland (sheepskin), Libro (leisure wear) and Alligator (rainwear) went bust. In the retail sector, some big prestige brands closed their doors for the last time.

This included Swan and Edgar, Timothy Whites, Dicky Dirts, Supasave and the ultra-chic Biba brand. In the world of shoes, it was goodbye to Norvic and Mr Henry.

The toy sector was completely decimated in the UK. Airfix came unstuck – a company that had provided us with model planes and historical figures to glue together throughout our childhood. The auto sector saw big cuts at the nationalised car maker British Leyland. But it was also cheerio to the iconic De Lorean and Hesketh motorbikes.

Even the world of sports wasn’t spared with Wolverhampton Wanderers football club and Hull City rugby league club facing the cliff edge at that time.

economic crisis

One word that I’ve heard too much in my life is recession. Millennials got their first recession in 2008. Before that it was the dot com crash. Go back further and we had the early 90s slump. But the one that is always fresh in my mind is the industrial recession of 1979 to 1981.

Anybody over 50 years of age who lived in the Midlands or North of England and Scotland after 1979 will remember this economic depression that ravaged the industrial heartlands.

I went to university in Liverpool in 1981 just after a summer of riots in that city and can recall well the sight of closed factories and decaying docks. Economic recession was spelt out in urban collapse and social disorder.

So – what on earth happened at that time?

Up until Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979, unemployment had actually been falling for two years. Inflation had been brought to under 10%. Industrial output was finally ticking up as were living standards.

The middle of the 70s had been disastrous. The Labour government of James Callaghan had to grovel to the International Monetary Fund for a bail out. But by the end of the decade, the economic indicators were improving. Plus oil from the North Sea was about to provide a bonanza.

However – Thatcher played to a sense that the post-war political consensus had run into the buffers. Even if the economics looked more favourable, the political and social environment in Britain was very volatile.

Many people were fed up and looking for decisive leadership. And so Thatcher was elected. Unfortunately, she came into power wedded to what Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey described as “voodoo economics”. And thanks to that a downturn became a horrific economic recession.

Pursuing a monetarist economic policy turned a global recession into a British depression. Our unemployment sky-rocketed from 1979 to 1981 from about a million to three million – and that was the official statistics. Those stats were constantly revised in the 80s to massage them downwards.

Big rises in interest rates, indirect taxation (VAT), the exchange rate and cuts in public spending depressed demand and accelerated factory closures and bankruptcies. Every evening, the TV broadcast news would announce thousands of job cuts and names of firms now facing closure. These included household name brands and affected all sectors.

I got used to reciting the figures as a young political activist at that time. Manufacturing jobs slid by 22%. In vehicle production, jobs crashed by 28% – nearly a third of those in work. Young people were disproportionately affected with under-25s making up 40% of the jobless total. Two out of every three school leavers couldn’t find work.

As the economic recession continued, it became clear that the number of long-term unemployed was increasing at an alarming rate. Many who had worked in blue-collar manufacturing, mining and dock work were stuck on the dole.

The incredible cost of this level of unemployment was around £17bn in benefits and lost tax revenues. I’d have to calculate the real cost in today’s money. That is a 1981 figure. It didn’t make economic sense. But it made political sense. For Thatcher, inflation was the real demon and fear of losing your job was a weapon against the power of the trades unions.

Labour SDP

History repeating…as Shirley Bassey might have sung. In 2019, Labour MPs stormed off to form a new party. It was initially called The Independent Group then Change UK then complete oblivion. A similar exodus happened in 1981 when Labour MPs left to form the Social Democratic Party or SDP for short.

Here was Chuka Umunna announcing his departure from the Labour Party in 2019.

SDP defects from Labour in 1981

His new party was destroyed in the 2019 general election and Chuka is now in the Liberal Democrats. Back in 1981, the SDP had a longer lifespan but then they were led by top ex-Labour politicians and the Labour Party was going through a period of massive upheaval after being in power for five years (1974 to 1979) and then losing a general election.

The SDP was formed by the so-called Gang of Four – a reference to a faction within the Chinese Communist Party, which also became the name of a post-punk band of the time.

These ex-Labour minister who now formed the SDP were Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. Jenkins had been Home Secretary in the 1960s and presided over the end of the death penalty as well as the abolition of theatre censorship and the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. Although he didn’t personally push those policies but they happened on his watch.

He was the epitome of a political grandee and disliked in many quarters for being such. That said, he looks like a giant compared to many of our current political intake. A lover of the high life who was the son of a coal miner. A well-regarded historian who was the only Briton to ever become President of the European Commission.

After the Labour Party was defeated by Margaret Thatcher and the Tories in 1979, the party went into some agonised soul searching. And there was a move leftwards with the perception that the party leadership had betrayed the rank-and-file and ‘sold out’ to the International Monetary Fund.

For those on the right of the Labour Party, the choice became quite binary: stick around and tough it out or form a new party. With support from the media and some wealthy backers, the Gang of Four left Labour and set up the SDP. Needless to say it was viewed as the ultimate act of betrayal by many in the party.

What were the policy issues that led the SDP to leave? Essentially, they supported the Common Market (forerunner to the European Union) whereas the Left wanted to leave this ‘capitalist club’. They were against unilateral nuclear disarmament whereas the Left wanted the nukes gone. And they were broadly in favour of restraints on public spending and fuzzy on the issue of privatisation and public spending – whereas the Left wanted further public ownership and no spending cuts.

The final breaking point was the Deputy Leadership bid by left-winger Tony Benn and his proposed reforms of the party constitution. This would have introduced a wider franchise for electing the party leader and the right to deselect sitting MPs. Viewing this as an attack on the right-wing of the party (which it was), the formerly Labour Gang of Four jumped to their new ship, the SDP.

From Gang of Four to The Independent Group

The Gang of Four formed the nucleus of a new political party, the Social Democrat Party (SDP). Twenty-eight Labour MPs and one Tory eventually defected and ran for re-election in 1983 under the SDP banner. Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams were no longer MPs in 1981 (Jenkins had gone off to become President of the European Commission) but won seats in 1983. The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberals and their vote came alarmingly close to Labour, who scored an all time low. Thatcher won a second term.

Today’s Independent Group veered away from forming a new party – probably with the SDP in mind, which went from hubris and electoral surge to eventual collapse into the Liberal Democrat party. But the Independent Group didn’t exist long enough to even experience that cycle of events.

Differences between today and the SDP/Labour split of 1981

Chuka Umunna and Co. left a Labour Party very much in the thrall of the Left under Jeremy Corbyn. But….if they’d waited around…or if they could have waited around long enough…then they might have been rehabilitated under Keir Starmer.

Back in 1981, Labour was still finely balanced between the Left and Right. In fact, Tony Benn’s Deputy Leadership bid failed and Dennis Healey – a right winger who chose to remain in the party – won.

The Left in 1981 was a much more ideological and driven beast than the more nebulous forces of Momentum and others today. They had a stronger determination to unseat MPs and were much more organised, almost in a Leninist manner.

There was also more media and financial backer support for the SDP in 1981 whereas the exodus in 2019 seems to have been regarded as almost a bit embarrassing. Anyway, come 2020 and the Labour leavers had been wiped out whereas back in 1981, the SDP retained a clutch of MPs for several years.

Thatcher LGBT 1980s

The 1980s were a period of crisis for gay people – but emerging from the decade, the LGBT community would make huge leaps forward in the 90s and beyond. However, in 1989, an issue of Gay Times in my archives makes pretty sad reading.

For a start, the Conservative government had introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act which instructed local councils that they could not “promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. It would be illegal to present gay couples as an acceptable form of family life.

The repercussions of this legislation were very real – and intended.

DISCOVER: 1980 – the year of the skinhead

1980s: supporting LGBT rights was “loony”

For years, Labour councils that had funded LGBT events, liaison officers and festivals had been crucified in the tabloids as being party of the “loony left”.

Millennial readers may struggle to comprehend just how unacceptable it was for large swathes of British public opinion to tolerate gay relationships let alone fund anything to do with the LGBT community.

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The Gay Times reported that the Scottish Homosexual Action Group was seeking a judicial review of a decision by Edinburgh District Council to no longer give financial support to open air lesbian and gay festival, Lark In The Park.

A council spokesman agreed it had funded the event before but now couldn’t because of the change in the law. Section 28 had real and very sharp teeth.

1980s: Why did Thatcher dislike LGBT people?

Why were the Tories so hostile to LGBT people at this time? In the years leading up to Section 28, often referred to as Clause 28, the HIV/AIDS virus had hit gay people hard.

Far from receiving sympathy, the tabloids and some very vocal politicians had portrayed the virus as a judgement on a “sick” “lifestyle”. It was referred to as a “gay plague” and in one survey in 1987, three quarters of the UK public stated they thought being homosexual was “always or mostly wrong”.

A “joke” published in The Sun newspaper went like this:

A gay man goes home to his parents and tells them he’s got good news and bad news. The bad news is I’m gay. The good news is I’ve got Aids.

To give you an indication of how bad attitudes were over AIDS on both sides of the Atlantic, a British man was deported from the United States when a small quantity of the drug zidovudine (AZT) and a business card from the Terrence Higgins Trust (an AIDS charity) were found on him by customs.

Henry Wilson was held in a jail cell in Minnesota while on his way to San Francisco to take part in trials for a new anti-viral drug CD4.

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As for Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister throughout the 80s, her supporters have argued in recent years that she liked certain gay men as individuals.

But I’m afraid as a group, she kicked gay men in the teeth when they were already coping with friends and partners dying in their hands. Here she is delivering that kick to the teeth of LGBT people in the 1980s.

When Section 28 was being repealed in 2003, Baroness Thatcher, as she had then become, sat next to Lady Young as she opposed the scrapping of this discriminatory legislation.

In better news back in the 1980s, Denmark became the first country to legalise civil marriage for LGBT couples in 1989. But it was way ahead of the UK and most of the European Union at this time. If anything, the AIDS virus and a political move to the right had pushed LGBT rights backwards.

pocket calculator
calculator

From memory, my first pocket calculator was given to me by Dad around 1977. Like the first mobile phones, it was a clunky bit of hardware. But it seemed magical. Not only could multiplication and division be done rapidly, there was no need for that dog eared log book to calculate cosines or my completely incomprehensible slide rule.

I hated maths. Always preferred arty subjects. But if I had to do maths – which I did to ‘O’ (ordinary) level – then I was going to use my pocket calculator. Or so I thought. Because in the 70s, calculators were viewed as a form of cheating. So in spite of the march of technology, you still had to master the bloody slide rule.

Why? I mean, when I went to the local greengrocers, did the shopkeeper sit there with an abacus to work out my bill? No, there was a till. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out why I was denied the opportunity to take my Texas Instruments pocket calculator into the exam room.

Unbelievably, this debate has rumbled on into the 21st century! There are still stringent conditions about the use of calculators in GCSEs with some papers prohibiting their use. Obviously using a calculator in your smartphone is not allowed as somebody might be texting you the exam answers from outside.

All that aside, pocket calculators were so amazing in the late 70s and early 80s, that the German band Kraftwerk even wrote a song composed on them. I saw this gig at the Lyceum in London in 1981.

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In 1984, the students at Liverpool University saw fit to elect me as Deputy President of the Guild of Undergraduates (student union basically). That summer I began my sabbatical year, which would be far stormier than I could ever have reckoned. Apart from anything else – it coincided with the Miners Strike.

From the spring of 84, the miners had already gone on what would be a one year mammoth strike. This wasn’t your usual kind of industrial action. It was a battle. A war even. Unionised blue collar labour versus Maggie Thatcher.

The miners had brought down the Tories under prime minister Ted Heath in 1974 and forced Thatcher to a climb down in 1981. But….she had bided her time. Coal reserves were built up. And in 1984, Thatcher decided to face down the NUM. For her, this was part of a strategy to break organised labour in the UK. The miners knew this full well regarding themselves historically as a kind of vanguard of the proletariat.

How did our student union help the Miners Strike?

To say the stakes were high would be putting it mildly. So what did we do in the student union? Well, to be honest, students were a bit irrelevant to all the main action. However, my little office soon had a small mountain of old clothes donated by students who wanted to help cash strapped miners’ families.

There were also coaches organised to take students down to picket lines but always rather thinly attended as they did leave at the crack of dawn – around the time most undergraduates were going to bed!

I got to know a couple of miners and one of them, Garry Knowles, was interviewed by me for the student paper. From memory, and I hope I spelt his name right there, he was working at Bold colliery. Bold and Sutton Manor were our two closest pits. Garry somewhat challenged my image of a miner – as portrayed by novelists like D H Lawrence and George Orwell – by being a spiky haired goth.

The middle classes and the Miners Strike

People put up miners in their homes when they went around the UK to speak at rallies and meetings. There was sometimes a clash of cultures, shall we say. I recall one very middle class woman detailing to us how a very large miner had somehow managed to walk through her French windows without opening them – very drunk at the time needless to say. I’ve no idea what injuries he sustained but her windows were beyond repair!

We also wanted to make donations to the miners but as a student union we were barred by the ultra vires laws – because we were a charity and could only give to bodies with educational aims. The Socialist Workers Party were always goading us to breach the ultra vires laws. But we came up with a smarter ruse.

Ultra vires (or not) donations to the miners on strike

Apart from being Deputy President of the Guild – a charity – I was also secretary of the area National Union of Students, a body called MASO that was not a charity. So the Guild made a modest donation to MASO that then passed on this donation to the NUM. Incredibly, the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, wrote to the Treasurer of the Guild telling her to retrieve the money from the NUM as it still bore the “imprimatur” of the Guild.

It was decided by the Guild officers that the Attorney General was talking out of his highly partisan backside and we ignored the letter. Nothing happened. And we all knew that the college Conservative association had put him up to this.

Fun times!

Anti Nazi League

Aged fourteen, I went on the huge Anti-Nazi League carnival in east London in 1978. Pictured above is me in my autumn years (joking!) with the original ANL promo leaflet. It’s become a truly iconic image.

The Anti-Nazi League was set up in 1977 after the so-called ‘Battle of Lewisham‘ where an attempt by the National Front to march through this south London borough was thwarted by an enormous counter demonstration.

The sister organisation to the Anti-Nazi League was Rock Against Racism (RAR) set up a year earlier. Not sure what the politics between the two campaigns were but they seemed to coordinate well during the late 1970s. RAR was set up in reaction to a certain pop star who I won’t name and shame here voicing his support for the National Front and Enoch Powell at one of his gigs.

As teenagers in a suburb of east London, we’d all come into contact with the National Front and other extreme Right groups of one hideous type or another. And we’d seen attacks on Asian Britons and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. All pretty grim – so we wanted to make a big statement.

And along came the Anti-Nazi League Carnival of April 1978!

I turned up late at the tube station and missed my mates so ended up going on my own. Got out at Embankment tube and watched loads of punks vaulting over the barriers while I politely inserted by ticket stub – as you did in those pre-Oyster days.

Then walked up towards Trafalgar Square glancing nervously at the big police vans nearby. I’d never seen anything like this and they were clearly looking for some aggro. The noise in the square was something else. A band was playing and the cheering was deafening.

At some point, we began the very long march to Victoria park in Mile End. I mean seriously, could you get people to go that far these days? Recall passing under the railway bridge near St Paul’s that was taken down in the 80s and then arriving at the park to hear more bands on a big stage including….The Clash!

But a small confession to make. I just don’t remember The Clash on stage at all. What my memories feature are X Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band.

But….here’s The Clash at the Anti-Nazi League carnival and Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 got up on stage with them to read out a statement condemning racism.

Anti-Nazi League carnival

I was at school with the son of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) boss Len Murray and together with a mate of mine, Mark, and some other kids, we all went down to the Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978. It now seems like an epoch ago but was an incredibly exciting day.

So, why did the Anti-Nazi League organise a carnival and why did so many of us go?

Anti-Nazi League Carnival 1978 – the run-up

Racism was on the rise from the mid-70s. The National Front had been doing very well in local elections. The skinhead scene had been infiltrated by both the NF and other more violent extreme Right groups. There had even been a string of murders and very violent attacks on Britain Asian people including in our borough.

The economy was on the slide and there was a kind of national angst about Britain’s declining place in the world. I think the 70s was a time when everybody finally woke up and realised we didn’t rule a fifth of the global anymore. To some people, that was an existential disaster.

Immigration from the ‘New Commonwealth’ had increased since the Second World War and the 1970s saw the arrival of Asians expelled from Uganda by its bonkers dictator, Idi Amin. Many of these Ugandan Asians would go on to very successful in business in the UK but at the time, the knuckleheads amongst us just wanted them to ‘go home’.

DISCOVER: LGBT woes in the early 1980s

Anti-Nazi League carnival gives us a focus

To employ an old cliche, the Anti-Nazi League carnival was an idea that found its time. We all wanted to voice our hatred for the bigots. So, here was a fun day out to do just that.

I’d never seen anything like the Anti-Nazi League carnival in my life and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it since. It wasn’t glossy or glitzy. Bands like The Clash didn’t walk on as celebrities but at least effected humility – though I’m sure they meant it. The crowd was raucous and still full of the rebellious punk ethos of 1976.

This documentary from the time gives a real flavour of how a movement arose through the Labour Party, trade unions and pressure groups to push back against the NF and the purveyors of race hate.

1970s science fiction

When some of your earliest memories are watching the Apollo rockets launching into space and astronauts walking on the moon – it was hardly surprising that 1970s kids were obsessed with science fiction.

Not that today’s kids aren’t equally – if differently – obsessed. But the prospect of space travel and the challenges we would face seemed much more real when we’d put human beings on the surface of the moon and were sending probes to other planets.

This was all part of the Cold War in hindsight. The United States sent up astronauts. And the Soviet Union was sending up cosmonauts. And both were in spacecraft that had less technology than the smartphone in your hand.

Well, maybe a slight exaggeration but I was horrified at an exhibition on the Soviet space program a few years ago in London to discover that a female cosmonaut hurtling back to earth in a crazily small metal sphere had to literally reboot the on-board technology when it failed. Luckily she survived.

1970s TV was full of science fiction from Space 1999 to the very atmospheric UFO series – about a crack team trying to stop an alien invasion of Earth. And then there was good old Doctor Who chugging along and a new early evening sci-fi series on the BBC – Blake’s 7. The latter had a cult following but there’s a reason it doesn’t get repeated much!

ITV got in on the sci-fi act with The Tomorrow People – a rather baffling drama series about young people with special powers in a disused London Underground station solving galactic mysteries. For a while, it featured a character played by the drummer of a real-life pop band called Flintlock.

The 1970s also saw science fiction rule at the cinema. There was an astonishing number of outer space related movies from the obvious E.T and Star Wars through to Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes, Death Race 2000, Alien, Logan’s Run, The Andromeda Strain and so on…

Plus the 1970s gave us a heap of science fiction conspiracy theories with the movie Capricorn One, for example, illustrating how the moon landings never happened. Or did they?

Meanwhile, as a kid in the London suburbs, I collected Brooke Bond picture cards of space related stuff and stuck them into the album supplied. Found the album the other day and it’s such a cool, retro piece of 1970s science fiction kitsch. God I loved that decade!

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Back in 1979, the lawless and only recently financially bankrupt city of New York spawned a group of vigilante do-gooders called the Guardian Angels. But their attempt to set up in London was a bit weird. To be honest, the sight of them on the London Tube used to annoy people greatly. Vigilantes are just not a very British thing.

In New York, the idea was that these trained young individuals would ride the city’s subway system looking out for any wrongdoing. Like anybody else, they could make a citizen’s arrest.

Their early activity in New York got quite a bit of publicity in the UK media at the end of the 1970s. This was an era obsessed with the perceived threat of muggers and robbers. The founder was a New York called Curtis Silwa who subsequently became a conservative radio talk show host and apparently is planning to run for mayor of New York as a Republican at the next election.

DISCOVER: Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978

Guardian Angels get a thumbs down in London

The reason it didn’t take off in London is I think we Britons have more fixed ideas about who dispenses law and order. There’s less of the frontier spirit and toleration of weapon ownership that you get in the United States. So, even though the Guardian Angels were unarmed, the idea of non-police standing guard on tube trains and telling you what to do flies in the face of the British way of things.

Anyway, it didn’t work. You’d be on the tube and these guys in their T-shirts and berets would be standing at the end of the carriage like an ominous and looming presence. It was too weird and alien for Britain and mercifully the whole Guardian Angels thing petered out.