The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

I went to university in Liverpool in 1981. It was just after the summer of riots that had swept through Toxteth. So, what did I – a middle-class southerner – discover in my first weeks. Well, quite a lot as it goes. In the next few blog posts – I’m going to cast my mind back to those stormy events.

The Toxteth district of the city had been rocked by a summer of riots. Even compared to similar disturbances in Brixton, Moss Side in Manchester and Chapeltown in Leeds, Toxteth stood out for its raw, lethal energy. We were not informed as newly arrived students that police from all over the country had been billeted in our rooms through July and August to put down this huge upheaval.

The duration of the Toxteth riots is notable. The violence began with an arrest on 3 July 1981 rising to a fiery crescendo over the next three days, abating slightly until fighting on the 28 July between rioters and police led to the single fatality. And then a further resurgence up until the 15 August. In contrast, the 2011 summer riots across England were over in under four days.[1] While the 2001 riots had a similar duration but smaller in scale and restricted to northern towns[2].

A total of 690 police support units from forty UK police forces were deployed on the streets of Toxteth during the weeks of rioting. About 781 officers were injured and 214 police vehicles damaged. There were hundreds of arrests and one young man, David Moore, was killed. And for the first time in the UK, CS gas rounds were fired at civilians.[3]

The next morning, still ignorant of a copper having slept in my bed, I boarded a college double decker bus from the Carnatic halls of residence site to the university precinct. Fifteen minutes later we were in Toxteth. We southern, middle class students sat slack-jawed as the bus trundled down Upper Parliament Street. Or what was left of it. It was as if a fiery tornado had ripped down this Victorian boulevard leaving once grand merchants’ residences gutted.

What had happened was relayed to me in anecdotes from local political activists over the next few months as I immersed myself in Liverpool politics. Tales of the young daredevils who drove milk floats at speed into police lines bailing out like James Dean at the last moment. One press report described this spectacle as a wild “dodgem game”.

Glass milk bottles from the same dairy filled with petrol from a nearby car hire outlet, cloth packed in the top and the resulting Molotov cocktails rained down on the riot police. To get close enough to the forces of law and order, a JCB digger was used by the rioters to hide behind before lobbing their fiery missiles. This and the blazing car tyres strewn across the roads as barricades sent a grim pall of smoke over the city.

One police officer shuddered to recall that infamous JCB: “It was like a big metal T-Rex, it was snapping its jaws and I thought ‘we’re not going to stop this’”[4].  He added that “builders spikes” were being hurled like javelins from behind the digger and that one police officer drafted in from Greater Manchester was speared through the leg.

This officer concedes there was a lot of fake news during the 1981 riots. Both rioters and police spread exaggerated or conflicting accounts. The spear that went through the police officer’s leg shot through his head in another account that circulated widely.[5] The officer was told by fellow police that a colleague had been killed, somebody had their legs chopped off and yet another person had been decapitated with a spade.[6] None of these stories were true.

Once on riot duty, the same officer was confronted by a crowd he noted was racially mixed. And by the second night of rioting, “there were very few black faces[7]”. This somewhat contradicts the inflammatory Daily Mail frontpage headline on 6 July 1981 that declared: Black War on Police.[8]

It also calls into question the claim made by Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford that the blame for the bulk of the violence rested with “young, black hooligans” though in the same breath and the same issue of the Daily Mail, Oxford conceded that white youth were also involved and that “this was not a racial issue”.[9]

Oxford was keen to differentiate Toxteth from Brixton and Southall, playing down the idea that there had been a race riot. “There was certainly no confrontation between black and white”.

DISCOVER: Toxteth riot aftermath – university students attacked

Oxford alighted on a “small hooligan and criminal element hell-bent on confrontation”. Liverpool did not have an immigration problem, he added, as the black community was long established. The same point was made by Home Secretary William Whitelaw in response to Conservative Party hardliners who wanted tough anti-immigration measures and even repatriation of ‘New Commonwealth’ immigrants after the riots.[10]

However, no matter how well-established the black community of Toxteth was, it was by no means fully integrated into the rest of the city. What struck me in my first few months in Liverpool, especially coming from London, was the absence of black faces in the main central pedestrian precinct either as shoppers or behind shop counters. There seemed to be an invisible line drawn between Toxteth and the centre of the city, a twenty-minute walk away, segregating the population on racial lines.

The late Margaret Simey, a City councillor for a Toxteth ward in the 80s, echoed this concern. She wrote that not only were there no black faces in the middle of the city but that some of her fellow councillors representing suburban Liverpool couldn’t point to Toxteth on a map. The area and its population were simply invisible to them.[11]

[1] ‘UK shaken by worst riots in decades’, Press Association, 9 August 2011, Web

[2] ‘Bradford counts cost of riot’, BBC News, 8 July 2001

[3] Scraton, Phil, ‘Power, Conflict and Criminalisation’, Routledge, UK, 2007, pp. 26-28

[4] ‘Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’, BBC News, 3 July 2011, Web

[5] Kettle, Martin, Hodges, Lucy, ‘Uprising! Police, the People and the Riots in Britain’s Cities’, Macmillan, 1982, UK

[6] Ibid: ‘Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’

[7] Ibid: “Merseyside Police officer recalls 1981 Toxteth Riots’

[8] ‘Black War on Police’, Daily Mail, 6 July 1981

[9] Ibid: ‘Black War on Police’

[10] Vivekanandan, B., ‘Riots in Britain: An Analysis’, India Quarterly, Vol. 38, No.1, 1982, pp. 51-63

[11] Nassy Brown, Jacqueline, ‘Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool’, Princeton University Press, 1st Edition, 2005, pp. 81-85

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.

We worry today about various kinds of extreme Right activity – especially online. The impact it has on young people. The divisions it creates in communities. The violence it inspires. During the 1970s, British fascism experienced a horrific upsurge on the back of rising unemployment and fears stoked around immigration. It offers a lot of sobering lessons to us today.

Looking back at the 1970s (in my teens in the late 70s), I have to remind myself that we were only thirty years away from the end of the Second World War. All my head teachers (or “headmasters” as they would have insisted on being called in those days) had fought in the war against Hitler. Born in the 1920s, they were scarred by the experience of the Great Depression and had witnessed Europe fall under the heel of fascism. And yet – despite that strong memory of the war and Hitler – the 1970s saw a very marked revival in fascist activity.

Exit Oswald Mosley

Of course, it had never gone away. Oswald Mosley was the leading light of British fascism from the 1930s to the 1960s. Younger audiences will have been introduced to him via the drama series Peaky Blinders. A hugely ambitious figure who got into parliament as a Conservative, crossed the floor to become a Labour MP before setting up a semi-militarised fascist party. Mosley’s dangerous charisma was never matched by the oddballs who came after him.

The emergence in the 1960s of new figures like Colin Jordan has been dramatised by the BBC recently in another series, Ridley Road. Two of Jordan’s lieutenants would go on to become almost household names in the 1970s: John Tyndall and Martin Webster. The gaunt Tyndall and obese Webster could have been mistaken for Laurel and Hardy on a foggy day. But there was nothing very amusing about them. To terrifying effect, they managed to briefly unite British fascism around one party: the National Front (NF).

DISCOVER: The NF in Bradford in the 1970s

Tyndall and his ‘youthful indiscretion’

Born in 1934, Tyndall was a grammar school boy with a patchy academic record who served in the Royal Horse Artillery between 1952 and 1954. In 1962 he was convicted and served six months in prison after a police raid on the offices of the National Socialist Movement, a Hitlerite group of which Tyndall was national organiser. Evidence was discovered that Tyndall and others were involved in building a paramilitary organisation plotting violent attacks.

Tyndall in the 1970s would brush this aside as a youthful indiscretion.

DISCOVER: Southall riot in 1981 began with skinhead gig

Tyndall and Webster take over British fascism in the 1970s

Compared with far right political groups today, the NF was stridently white supremacist, anti-Semitic and vehemently opposed to feminism and LGBT rights. Its tactics veered from provocative demonstrations laced with violence to participation in local and national elections. Their overtly racist message was bolstered by the so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech delivered by the maverick Conservative politician Enoch Powell with dire predictions of what would happen if Britain became a multi-racial society.

And one issue was a godsend – the admission of thousands of people of south Asian descent from the former British colony of Uganda, in east Africa in 1972. President Idi Amin ordered a massive expulsion of the Asian population as part of a xenophobic Uganda for the Ugandans campaign. Ironically, the response of the NF wasn’t a million miles from Idi Amin’s position! Just replace Uganda with Britain.

Their virulent stance on the Ugandan Asians saw the NF win 18% of the vote in Leicester – ironically a city that would be transformed (positively) by…..Ugandan Asian businesses.

Much of the NF’s propaganda was echoed in the tabloid press – not because journalists or media proprietors were NF supporters but for the simple reason that newspapers fed their readers’ prejudices and in those days, comments that would now be unacceptable or even illegal, were read by millions of people.

The NF, though, took the prevalent racism of the time to new lows. In one pamphlet, they claimed that British Asian families living in London burned their dead and scattered the ashes on the Thames “while British families picnicking on the banks looked on in amazement” (sic). And that Nigerians were running a cannibal’s kitchen in North Kensington. The NF also had no qualms about spreading discredited theories about the supposed intelligence of different races. Some of the NF’s visuals on posters are still shocking today.

Europe, hanging and ‘spongers

In the mid-1970s, there was growing anxiety as post-war economic growth faltered. Unemployment began to soar and inflation climbed upwards created a very 1970s phenomenon: ‘stagflation’ = inflation + stagnation. The NF responded with populist slogans calling for a ‘crack down on law and order’, ‘bring back hanging’ and ‘stop the sponging on social security’. Many NF supporters were on the dole in the late 70s but they never regarded themselves as ‘spongers’. That term was reserved for non-white Britons claiming benefits.

The NF also adopted a fiercely anti-Europe stance as the UK voted in 1975 on whether to join the Common Market (forerunner of the European Union). The vote went in favour in stark contrast to the 2016 Brexit referendum on Europe. Much of the language used by the NF on Europe wouldn’t look that out of place today. It’s sadly moved into the mainstream.

Despite becoming in effect the fourth political party in the UK after the Conservatives, Labour and Liberals, the NF was constantly riven by tensions within its own organisation. Whether to favour street-based intimidation over elections. And conflict between those who were more overtly Nazi (in private) hankering for a global fascist order versus ultra-nationalists.

Splits and the British Movement

From the mid-1970s, those who liked their fascism more in tune with the Third Reich and with a jackbooted edge, gravitated to the British Movement (BM). The BM had no interest in running for elections and losing deposits. Its British Patriots Publications propaganda arm produced a catalogue in 1980 with the Nazi slogan, misspelt: ‘Eind Volk, Eind Reich, Eind Fuhrer’. Predictably it sold copies of the anti-Semitic Tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s autobiographical rant, Mein Kampf.

The BM arguably more closely resembled the white supremacist organisations that typically get banned in the United Kingdom and United States today. It engaged in Holocaust denial and was very active in recruiting among white skinhead youth. Having seen the success of the political left in harnessing music and pop culture to oppose fascism during the 1970s (the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism), it set out to do the same on the post-punk skin scene.

On the even more violent fringe, the UK saw two other groups emerge in the 1970s, Column 88 and SS Wotan.

It’d be lovely to say that this is all ancient history – but as we are only too aware, it’s definitely not.

Boomers 80s

This is a fascinating interview below (see video) with a group of young people on Irish TV in 1983. They would have been born in the early to mid 1960s and like many working class youth in the 80s were out of work and bored senseless. This busts the myth I hear so often today that all young Boomers in the 80s were rolling in wealth, shares, property and opportunity. Some were. Many were not.

Listening to the first chap – the punk – is a strong flashback to the time. He and his mates looked different and so got barred from pubs and clubs – and “discotheques”. Unable to socialise indoors, they’d hang out in a public place and then be reported to the cops as a nuisance. Many youth centres and community venues were the victim of cutbacks in local government spending. So, that option for going out had disappeared. There was a single pub that they could drink in without ending up in a fight.

It’s noticeable that two of the young people are unemployed with clearly no prospect of finding work. The punk guy just seemed to be housebound most of the time and with no money. He was living on about eight pounds a week after giving some of his dole money to his mother. That kind of financial constraint would now be hell on earth but was pretty common at the time.

Teenagers didn’t spend that much on clothes – a tenner a year the punk says – and there was a ‘make do and mend’ mentality. Things were just worn until they fell apart. Although the mod and the fashion student clearly cared more about their appearance but it would have been done on a minimal budget. I remember people relied a lot more on second hand clothes shops, which aren’t really a feature of the high street as they once were.

Attitudes to parents were rather cold and distant by today’s standards. Asked about his Mum, the punk says he has no significant feelings towards her other than the fact that she’s his Mum. Though he does love her.

80s young Boomers – aggro on the streets

What’s very sad is the aggression that these young people faced over the way they dressed. Being a Goth or a punk or a Mod in the early 80s was a green light for some thugs to go into attack mode. The violence was just insane. In the 80s, we wrote it off as being a tribal fashion thing. But looking back, I think there was a weird mix of homophobia, sadism and just outright thuggishness. Born to a degree from the much more macho culture around masculinity. Anybody challenging gender stereotypes was living dangerously in 1983.

And officialdom was so weirdly patronising and insulting. The TV presenter here struggles with the idea of nose studs, make up and dyed hair. Young Boomers in the 80s had to contend with a previous generation that was had gone through national service in the army or even fought in the Second World War. Many thought we should also have forced on to a parade ground to sort us out. There was still very much a “get yer ‘air cut” attitude from older people.

DISCOVER: Irish skinheads, rude boys and punks

But what’s very noticeable is that the fashion student for example is clearly a bright and talented chap with a dry sense of humour who refuses to be reduced to a figure of fun. Like the others, they’re effectively on trial as freaks to be mocked by a mass audience. Even despite the fact they were basically unemployed young Boomers struggling to lead purposeful lives. Personally I find it quite sad to watch – be interested to know what you think.

I’d also like this TV clip and other posts on the blog to once and for all explode this nonsense that all Boomer youth had it good in the 80s. The reality was way more mixed and nuanced.

financial scandals Thatcherism

From 1989 for five years I worked as a financial journalist full-time on a magazine called Money Week – and also freelanced for the national newspapers. Half a decade of sleaze being shared by contacts over lunches in swanky restaurants. It was a great time to be an investigative hack doing business stories. Because the end of the 1980s saw a slew of financial scandals – a somehow fitting epilogue to Thatcherism.

Every week in a column on page three of the magazine, we’d list a grim tally of independent financial advisers (IFAs) being ‘terminated’, suspended or under investigation for mis-selling financial services products or worse. The procession of the shamed never seemed to end. And there were several epic financial scandals that seemed to define the era of Thatcherism.

The collapse of the Barlow Clowes investment scam in 1988 was a case in point. It saw over 14,000 investors defrauded of about £153m. His trial was still ongoing during my first years in journalism until his conviction and imprisonment in 1992. With the money he made, Clowes bought a yacht, four personal jets, a helicopter, a chateau in France and a farm in the Peak District. So 1980s!

This was one of several major frauds exposed largely when the stock market tanked in 1987. What characterises all these stories was the credulity of not only investors but many journalists, commentators and City of London folk. Everybody wanted to believe that the 1980s presented a new paradigm where fantastic wealth could be magically conjured up.

DISCOVER: Inflation and unemployment under Thatcher

Another feature of these scandals was the Thatcher government’s reticence to entertain the idea of compensating investors. Very much in keeping with the time the attitude was: caveat emptor. You wanted to make money. You took a risk. You lost your money. Yah boo sucks! Furious investors – many of them Tory voters in the shires and Home Counties – soon prevailed on the government that not compensating them would have consequences.

This mis-selling of duff products extended far down into the population. One good example was endowment mortgages. These were very mainstream products. You took out an interest only mortgage and alongside, this savings product that would not only pay off the capital sum on your house in 25 years but leave you with an additional payout for your retirement.

It also earned financial advisers additional commission and they sold this guff with predictions of future investment growth based on an eternally booming – or at least robust – stock market. Not that these advisers were being fraudulent. Many had a shaky grasp of the financial complexities or just blindly sold the products on offer to them. It was easy money. Why rock the boat?

DISCOVER: The De Lorean scandal

In retrospect, some now blame the regulators for not requiring them to warn their own clients of the risks. Like they would have thanked the regulators at the time! You tend to find those pointing an accusing finger at the regulators of that period also bemoan ‘red tape’.

The legacy of Thatcherism was self-regulation – which the industry had demanded – but didn’t seem to realise that meant taking responsibility for the quality of their own advice. You can’t have it both ways – light touch regulation then blaming the regulators for not being tough enough!

Of course much of this could have been avoided with a decent regulatory system. Three years before in 1986, the Thatcher government had passed the Financial Services Act (FSA). Ideally that would have created a statutory regulator to monitor the industry. But ‘self-regulation’ was the mantra of Reaganism and Thatcherism and instead of one super-regulator, the financial services industry got five (or more) ‘self-regulatory organisations’ (SROs).

Of course the financial services sector, while chaffing under even this light touch regulation, declared it was better than a stricter rules-based approach. The sort of approach – shudder – that was employed in the United States. Many dreamed of the good old days when City folk told their clients that “my word is my bond”. But the deregulation that followed the so-called ‘Big Bang‘ in the City of London in 1986 created a whole new environment. The world of bowler hats and gentlemanly agreements was well and truly over.

FIND OUT MORE: Britain in the era of nationalised industries

And so the mis-selling of personal pensions, endowment mortgages and inappropriate products continued. I covered one story at the start of the 1990s about a hard-sell financial services firm luring police officers out of their very generous pension scheme and into a much shakier private personal pension with all sorts of promises. They even hired police officers to sell to fellow officers.

Even though the FSA brought light-touch regulation, many financial advisers deeply resented it. The SROs became variously figures of contempt or hatred. They’d be accused of knowing nothing about the industry. While at the same time, industry practitioners bitterly resisted attempts to introduce mandatory financial exams. The reason was obvious enough – many of them would have failed.

The aftershock of the financial scandals that rocked the end of the era of Thatcherism are still being felt today. Defenders of the Thatcher model even claim the City was in fact over-regulated – and that was the real root of the problem. Go figure! Industry voices deny there was mis-selling of financial services products. They say this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

And defenders of the era, point to the rapid expansion of the financial services sector, filling the gap left by the collapse of manufacturing earlier in the 1980s. That rebalancing of Britain towards financial services is heralded as a British success story.

Undoubtedly, Big Bang left the City of London as the world’s leading financial centre alongside New York. But it’s also left a heap of questions about what kind of country we became, the distribution of wealth and how we treat our fellow human beings. It’s also left millions of people unwilling or unable to invest as they once did in what were assumed to be rock solid investment products.

Labour Party 1980s

Let’s get in a time machine and go back forty years to the Labour Party of the 1980s and see how it compares with today’s infighting!

I joined the Labour Party in 1981. Like many teenagers I was on a quest to define myself. I grew up in what was then a very Conservative suburb of London. Woodford Green had been Winston Churchill’s constituency and we even had a statue on the green to prove it. Although, by a curious irony, his Labour opponent Clement Attlee lived in the same constituency. As did the communist suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst.

Today, the London borough of Redbridge is a Labour council with two out of the three constituencies in Labour hands. But back in 1979, Maggie ruled the borough. So when I first decided I wasn’t a Tory, I opted for the Liberal Party. That was before it became the Lib Dems.

As a middle class boy with radical leanings, I needed to find a political home. On the one hand, I didn’t like Thatcher and on the other hand, Labour had been in power since 1974 and implemented a programme of austerity and cuts. The Liberals – especially the Young Liberals – had a progressive, radical veneer and that won me over for a while.

It didn’t make me long to realise I’d made a mistake. The Liberals in reality were a coalition of middle class Tories, who for various reasons couldn’t bring themselves to be in the Conservative party, and libertarian lefties who found the Labour Party too authoritarian. The latter faction expended vast amounts of ink and hot air trying to synthesise William Gladstone and the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The Young Liberal publication, Liberator, seemed to be in the hands of ageing hippies – which offended my punk/New Wave sensibilities. I eventually decided they were talking bollocks.

DISCOVER: How the 1979 general election changed history

Starting the 80s by joining the Labour Party

Making the leap to Labour was quite a big deal for me back then as Thatcherite Toryism was very much in the ascendant. I was invited by a friend to attend the Epping Forest branch of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). What I didn’t realise was that the LPYS at that time was firmly under the control of the Militant – a Marxist group within the Labour Party. That wasn’t a problem. In fact, it made the transition easier. I was able to join the Labour Party while simultaneously hating the old guard in charge who’d been in government between 1974 and the general election defeat in 1979.

Like many people at the end of the 1970s, I wanted to find big answers. We’d been through a stormy decade. Oil crisis, balance of payments crisis, trade deficit crisis, labour relations crisis and a Labour Prime Minister who famously grumbled “crisis, what crisis”. 1979 completed the shit-fest with the country nosediving into a vicious recession. And everybody who thought deeply about politics realised the post-war political consensus was over. The only question was whether we would lurch to the left or the right.

So I gravitated quite rapidly in the direction of the Militant. They seemed serious about “the transformation of society” and more down to earth than some of the swivel-eyed ultra-left sects I’d encountered on demonstrations as a teenager. It didn’t take very long to notice that the Labour Party was sliding into an extremely stormy civil war. Before 1981, this centred on the election for the Deputy Leader of the party which pitted left-winger Tony Benn against the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey. This was truly a heavyweight contest.

FIND OUT MORE: When the Labour Party had two rival youth wings

The thrill of the 80s Labour Party

Being a teenager at the time, I wasn’t really up for being in a placid and docile Labour Party. And I wouldn’t be disappointed on that score.

The next five years were spent at conferences where the hatred between right and left in the Labour Party was on vitriolic display. The annual National Organisation of Labour Students conference was normally held at a university though a gladiatorial arena might have been more fitting. At one conference, the police stormed in to carry people out bodily. The proceedings at these combative gatherings would begin with the ritual bureaucratic attempt to exclude certain delegations on a technicality and moved onto debates where nobody really listened to the other side. We were far too busy seething with rage!

It’s in this fiery crucible that today’s Labour leadership was forged. The downside of this is that they still know what they hate (the left of the party) but I’m not sure they ever spent enough time working out what they like. So if you’ve ever wondered why the leadership of the Labour Party seems to lack an underlying philosophy and stirring vision, it’s because they spent their youth beating up the other half of the party. Not that they weren’t anti-Tory – but hammering the Trots was the primary mission objective.

Return of the 80s Labour Party?

The 1980s ended with a purge of the Marxist left and other groups from the Labour Party. We then had the rise of Blairism, which ran in tandem with a recovery of capitalism. The left made a Faustian pact with the City and Wall Street where we said: you make your super-profits, but we’ll skim the top to pay for better welfare and urban investment. But the 2008 recession brought that project to its knees and ten years later we had the Corbyn-led move to the left.

Corbynism was a revival of the kind of Leftism that dominated London Labour politics in the 1980s – centred on identity politics and radical international causes. But weak on bread-and-butter working class issues. Not that there has to be one without the other – as some seem to argue – but you need both.

The Labour Party has moved rightwards under Keir Starmer but there are dark clouds overhead that were absent in the 1980s. Labour no longer commands tribal working class loyalty in its heartlands – unthinkable over thirty years ago. Social democratic parties have been pummelled or even destroyed across Europe by new forces such as the Greens and populist movements. The trade unions no longer support the right wing of the party as they used to but they’re also a diminished force in British society. And young people are politically volatile in a way I’ve never seen.

Maybe the future of the Labour Party is to step out from its 1980s shadow.

celebrity margaret thatcher

Back in 1979, we gritted our teeth as Thatcher won that year’s general election. This was a seismic political shift for Britain. And for those of us on the losing side, there was the spectacle of certain celebrities publicly supporting Margaret Thatcher.

DISCOVER: Anti-Tory art from the early 1980s

Admittedly, they weren’t the coolest celebrities. But there were some surprises. For example….LGBT alternative and slightly surreal comedian, Kenny Everett. He got up on stage in front of a baying Tory audience with a pair of giant hands and yelled: “Let’s bomb Russia!” And just in case you think that didn’t happen…

The majority of the “alternative comedy” set were left-leaning if not Labour. While traditional stand-ups like Jimmy Tarbuck were ardent Tories. The celebrity supporters of Margaret Thatcher tended to come from the mainstream TV output of the 1970s and not the bubbling up counter-culture that would ascend, ironically, under Thatcher in the 80s. Often as a reaction to Thatcher – take the likes of Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton.

Tarbuck’s love affair with Thatcher continued for many years even though his home city of Liverpool was a hotbed of anti-Thatcher rebellion. Decades later, his Toryism and the alleged Tory sympathies of another scouser, Cilla Black, brought the ire of Liverpudlian Ricky Tomlinson – a definite lefty – down on them.

The irascible actor said that Cilla, as a docker’s daughter, should be ashamed of being a Tory and this led to a spat between them back in 2002. Tomlinson was referencing the closure of docks and factories as a result of Conservative economic policy in the early 1980s.

FIND OUT MORE: Inflation and unemployment under the Thatcher government

For me, one of the oddest appearances at a Tory conference overseen by Thatcher was in 1983 when the late piano popstar Lynsey de Paul popped up at her keyboard singing: “Vote Tory, Tory, Tory/For election glory”. Her previous career high point was representing the UK in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest.

school gym 1970s

On a Facebook page for my old school, somebody posted a picture of one side of the old school gym. The wall covered in wooden climbing bars with ropes dangling down that could slide out on pulleys across the gym. I was transported back to P.E. lessons in the 1970s and I’m sure like many of you, there are very mixed memories of those days.

What was it with P.E. teachers in the 70s? The ability to maintain that level of sadistic aggression must have taken incredible effort. About ten years ago, I told my millennial gym trainer what a P.E. teacher, from the Welsh valleys, screamed at me after my javelin throwing on the school field had been below par: “McMahon you s—–c, if you had to hunt for your food, you’d f——g starve!”

My trainer was about twenty years younger than me. And he was so taken by this that he used to repeat this appalling insult when I reached my limit on the bench press. For him, it was a hilarious eye opener on the 1970s school gym. For me, it was like a voice from the deepest reaches of hell.

Why was physical education made so awful back then?

DISCOVER: How teachers were treated by Margaret Thatcher

Admit it, fellow baby boomer, you shudder occasionally to remember P.E. classes. There was the old-style trampet set at an angle off which we had to launch ourselves over a horsebox, arms outstretched, to hopefully be caught by the P.E. teacher. The murder-ball-style games played with a large, unevenly-shaped, leathery sphere known for some reason as the medicine ball. Why it was called that I have no idea. It was more likely to cause injury than cure you of anything.

Then there was the 1970s gym obsession with gymnastics. Because God knows, we all had an inner Olga Korbut struggling to break out. For younger readers, Korbut was a Soviet gymnast who wowed the world with her 1972 Olympics performance. We poor school kids were then expected to emulate this and failure to do so would result in a severe tongue lashing or worse from our P.E. overlords.

If, for whatever reason, you ‘forgot’ your gym kit in an attempt to avoid 40 minutes of gymnastic hell, the changing room had a box full of mysteriously waylaid kit – completely filthy – that you were forced to wear. We called these disgusting items the “VD shorts” – VD being the acronym for STDs back then (venereal disease). Nobody knew the provenance of the discarded shorts and tops nor why their owners had never claimed them back. They just sat there, festering in the corner.

FIND OUT MORE: How the National Front targeted schools in the 1970s

Then we were herded like sheep into the showers. At one of my secondary schools – I went to two – this area was a communal room. Overhead was a row of nozzles spouting boiling or freezing water – never anything in between. The gym teacher would strip off and join us…..yeah, about that. Mid-shower, he’d turn round to us eleven-year-olds barking: “Pass the buttermilk soap!” Small bars of soap that dissolved at a rapid rate.

On one occasion we’d had to abandon a rugby match because it was raining so hard. Well, the sadist-in-chief made us play for what seemed like an eternity until two of my fellow pupils collapsed deliriously on to the swampy pitch and started chucking mud at each other. Back in the changing room, after we’d spent a few minutes passing the buttermilk soap around in the showers, the same P.E. teacher produced a trainer and gave one of the kids an almighty “slippering”. This meant touching your toes while your arse was thwacked very hard.

DISCOVER: What was School Kids Against the Nazis?

Despite the best efforts of certain P.E teachers I kept up sporting activity throughout my life and I still weight train today. But really, that is DESPITE and not BECAUSE of my experience of the 1970s school gym. Sadly I have many friends who were permanently put off any kind of organised sporting activity for the rest of their lives. I rather hope today it’s a more humane regime for schools kids than it was for us in the 1970s school gym.

This is Olga Korbut – I was definitely not Olga Korbut
Irish skinheads

1980 is often seen as the high point of the late 70s skinhead revival and there were plenty of Irish skinheads, rude boys and punks. This film below captures the explosion of youth cults that rocked Britain but also jumped to the Irish Republic.

Had to laugh at the kid struggling with his dual skinhead / ska fan identity. As was typical at the time, the TV interviewer sounds as if he’s just teleported in from the 1950s to disapprove of it all. And I like the punk kid with the Clockwork Orange eye make up who just states, quite reasonably: “I’m an individual.”

Interesting the girl interviewed who says punks are about changing society while skinheads are only violence. That wasn’t, of course, how it started out. She goes on to say the Mod revival youth hated the punks because “a few weeks ago they were disco kids”. There was a lot of migration between youth cults at the time. I was a bit of a dilettante myself between 1978 and 1983 going through New Wave, ska, NWOBHM, new romantics and on to 80s indie. Without a pause for breath!

FIND OUT MORE: Neville Staple – the Original Rude Boy

DISCOVER: 1980 as the Year of the Skinhead

It's a Sin

Veteran screenwriter Russell T Davies has just penned a new TV drama – It’s a Sin – that takes us back to the era covered by this blog. It recounts the lives of several fictional gay characters in the early 1980s – though moving through the decade swiftly. And inevitably it delves into the emotional pain caused by the AIDS pandemic.

Channel 4 is broadcasting It’s a Sin, written by Davies and reflecting his own life experience from that time. The first episode begins in 1981, which was my first year at university. We see some of the characters arriving on campus as students while others are leaving home – or getting kicked out – and having to make their own way in life. It has all the Davies touches of joyfulness and sentimentality in big doses.

It’s a Sin and AIDS

Everybody who lived through those times has a different experience. But there were common themes. At the very start of the 80s, AIDS wasn’t immediately obvious as a threat. We’d just emerged from the disco-drenched late 70s. Pop music embraced androgyny and gay fashion. Despite huge discrimination and social attitudes that were exceedingly hostile, there were reasons to imagine that things could get better.

Then along came HIV/AIDS. This impacts in the first episode with a character dying alone in a hospital ward and treated by the staff like a leper. It’s uncomfortable viewing. What I found difficult to watch was the dramatising of how little sympathy there was in the first years for sufferers. In the media, political sphere and wider society, it was seen as a self-inflicted disease on a hedonistic, immoral underworld.

I can’t actually remember the first time I read about HIV/AIDS. I was certainly familiar with its existence by 1983. And all the stories of some American airline steward passing it on for the first time to an unidentified person in a London bar, etc, etc. AIDS only really became visible to me in the late 1980s when I returned from Liverpool University to London. Then I started to see and experience with my own eyes the evidence in Soho and elsewhere.

It’s a Sin: gay psychology

That whole era seemed to push LGBT rights backwards and encouraged many to remain in the closet. There’s a scene where the main protagonist is asked early on if he’s gay and at first denies it, then blurts out he’s “bisexual”. Before his new female friend drags him from the closet and the rest is history. That I’d say was a scene replicated many times in real life.

Self denial in fact was more psychologically damaging than the external threat of violence and discrimination. Though that shouldn’t be underestimated of course. Many straight people today think they were a lot more tolerant back in the day. But even on the political Left (Ken Livingstone and the London Labour Party aside), bigotry was mainstream. If you came out, it was goodbye old friends, goodbye possibly to your job or employment prospects and don’t even think about getting a mortgage or life assurance. Plus the risk of being ‘queer bashed’ on the streets.

So many young gay men lied to themselves. Maybe flirting with the ‘scene’ on the fringes and having the odd fling. Or simply keeping their real feelings a guilty secret. Some of course going the whole hog and getting married to a woman. This self denial was undoubtedly damaging.

The situation wasn’t helped by the lack of role models. For many gay men, of a more butch disposition, those role models on offer in the media were often unappealingly camp. Now, I’ve got nothing against camp. But for mainstream audiences in the 1980s, a gay man on screen was fine so long as he was a total screamer or in drag. The idea of a gay man being a regular guy – forget it.

Those celebrities who were out and proud were the subject of almost constant lurid reporting in the tabloids and ridiculous anecdotes in pubs and bars. Though I’d say there was and still is a conflicted view of all this among gay men. On the one side, it was tiresome to be depicted as seedy and perverted 24/7. On the other hand, many gay men wanted to undermine bourgeois morality and revelled in their shock value. At a time when the anti-Thatcher side of Britain wanted to be ‘alternative’, then being gay was about as alternative as you could get.

Thatcher and It’s a Sin

Watching episode one of It’s a Sin, I couldn’t help noticing the very popular poster at the time of Ronald Reagan holding Margaret Thatcher in his arms as a spoof of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone With The Wind. And it did make me wonder: where’s the politics? Because like today, the late 70s and early 80s was an intensely polarised and politicised period. Gay people who were out were almost uniformly Labour or on the left.

There were gay Tories and even today, they’re still trying to convince us that Thatcher was both a feminist and gay icon. Her own actions and word suggest otherwise. Thatcher enthusiastically supported and spoke in favour or the loathsome Clause 28 outlawing the imaginary crime of “promoting homosexuality” by local authorities and schools. This piece of dreadful populist hate-filled legislation should never be forgotten. At the height of a pandemic that was decimating gay communities across the United Kingdom, the government stuck the boot in.

DISCOVER: The riots of 1981 – a long hot summer

So how did it all end?

There was a curious dialectic to gay history in the period covered by It’s a Sin. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was grim in its initial impact. Who could possibly forget Metropolitan police officers in 1987 raiding the Royal Vauxhall Tavern wearing rubber gloves? But it also brought gay people centre stage. It spawned a new and more vocal activism. And incredibly, by the early 90s, it forced social and legislative change.

Yes the late 70s and the disco boom were amazing. But it changed little in terms of societal attitudes. It took the hell of the 1980s to create a new world. Sad to say but it’s often war, plague and crisis that spur positive and fundamental developments. Make sure you catch It’s a Sin on Channel 4.