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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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!
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.
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.
The first two years after Labour lost to Margaret Thatcher in 1979 saw all out war in the party. And it was a finely balanced battle between Left and Right. The whole thing hinged on the 1981 Deputy Leadership election between left-winger Tony Benn and right-winger Dennis Healey.
The result was the slimmest of victories for Dennis Healey. But it signalled an end to a phase when the so-called “Bennites” thought they could take control of the party. Think of them as the Momentum of the early 1980s.
Tony Benn had begun life as a fairly centrist minister in a 1960s Labour government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. But he’d moved leftwards over the years – the opposite direction to most Labour MPs who started on the Left and moved to the centre.
Benn became the standard bearer for those in the party who thought that the 1974-79 Labour government had fallen because it was insufficiently socialist – and had capitulated to business interests and the International Monetary Fund.
Healey had started life as a Communist Party member at university but by the end of the 1940s was a staunch anti-Communist and a leading member of the moderate Fabian Society.
In the 1974-79 Labour government, Healey couldn’t have been less popular within the party as Chancellor of the Exchequer pushing through curbs on pay and cuts in spending.
Benn and Healey were two formidable characters. Benn pushed through reforms to the Labour Party constitution that created an electoral college for choosing the party leader and deputy leader. This broadened the franchise from just the parliamentary party to the trades unions and the constituency parties.
And then in 1981, Benn announced he would run against Healey to be Deputy Leader of the party. Healey already held the post and was the choice of MPs. Benn gambled that the wider labour movement, which now had a vote, wouldn’t be so positive towards him.
At the same time, a group of right-wing Labour MPs and their supporters quit the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). So, Benn must have felt that the leakage of these right-wingers benefited his chances.
The constituency parties swung behind Benn big time. But the trades unions weren’t so easily seduced. You have to remember that trade union membership was much higher in 1981 and encompassed large swathes of the private sector and the nationalised industries.
The trade union bosses – often referred to as ‘barons’ – tended to support the centre ground. All they wanted was a return to the world before Thatcher, who’d only been in power since 1979. That world was one where they went to Downing Street and sat round a table with industry bosses and politicians and planned the economy, to put it crudely.
‘Beer and sandwiches’ at Downing Street was their dream. And there was a widespread opinion that Thatcher was screwing up the economy to such an extent that a Labour victory in 1983 was possible. Therefore, don’t rock the boat.
But in addition, Benn was a Marmite personality. Plenty of trade union barons just didn’t like him. Either he was too posh, too divisive or too much a part of the trendy London left. Rather like Jeremy Corbyn, his persona and the way he was portrayed in the media took its toll in the party.
When the Deputy Leadership election was held in 1981, Benn lost by a tiny margin. In the second round of balloting, Benn got a third of MPs, which was respectable. He took over 80% of constituencies. But when the trades unions cast their block votes, Benn got 37.5% of union support with the rest going to Healey. The electoral college maths meant that he lost by 49.6% to Healey’s 50.4%.
In any normal election contest – certainly if there had been one person, one vote – Benn would have romped home. But with a system that he himself had helped to create, he was denied victory.
This film captures the intensity and vitriol that was unleashed at that time.
In the summer of 1981, riots gripped every major city in Britain – but with particular ferocity in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool. However – there had been some dress rehearsals in the years immediately previous. Throughout the late 1970s, Notting Hill Carnival always seemed to end with a riot. Some of the following account contains language from that era that obviously I do not endorse.
Notting Hill Carnival has come to be regarded as a very big and noisy celebration of multi-cultural London in recent years. In the late 1970s, it was annual demonstration of how bad relations had become between the Metropolitan Police and black youth in the city.
Police stop and search powers – the SUS laws as they were known – were believed to be used disproportionately against black people Unemployment among BAME youth was climbing. And Notting Hill carnival had grown in size but so had feelings of resentment against it. All of which added up to a riot every year.
In the run up to the 1976 carnival, the Carnival Development Committee faced opposition to the big event from several quarters. Chief Superintendant Ron Patterson was photographed for the local newspaper holding up a long roll of paper – a petition by local residents to stop the carnival.
“It was handed to me by a North Kensington housewife. She said it was a token of support for the police by the ordinary people of North Kensington.”
Local councillors suggested moving the event to White City stadium and the Chief Superintendant thought Battersea Park would be an acceptable alternative. The top cop even took a member of the carnival committee for a walk in the park to convince them that it would be a better venue than the streets of Notting Hill.
But the committee decided to stand firm on the now almost traditional carnival route over the August Bank Holiday and one might say that battle lines were drawn. The black community wanted its festivity while councillors, residents and the police were either hostile or distinctly lukewarm.
Notting Hill carnival – did more police provoke a riot?
Through the Spring, the carnival organisers and police had increasingly intemperate meetings over the route, stewarding and liquor licensing. What became clear was that in 1976, the police presence would be upped in spite of a warning from the Black People’s Information Centre that this would be an explosive move.
The very fateful day arrived and before long, tens of thousands of people had thronged the streets. Estimates of the eventual numbers on the streets vary from 150,000 to 200,000 so the carnival was already a major event in Britain.
One young guy remembered the steel bands playing and drifting away from his friends, found himself at the corner of Acklam and Portobello Road.
“Across the ‘bello flies a highway and under the fly-over the heavy dub groups were staging their section of the carnival, belting out the sounds of bass guitars.”
The followers of various sound systems were in attendance including one called Prince Melody. But the young black reveller didn’t have much time to take in the sounds as he walked in to a large group that already had about thirty policemen on the run. All around, he could see people picking up whatever was to hand and throwing it at the cops.
Somebody selling revolutionary pamphlets decided that this was one barricade he didn’t wish to stand on and packed up. Nearby, loudspeakers were blaring ‘Chase Them Crazy Baldheads Out of Town’. And to cap off this surreal scene of mayhem, a black woman was shouting in to a megaphone: “Yeah, lick them.”
Notting Hill carnival police poorly equipped for a full on riot
As photographs of the time testify, the police had indeed turned out in force but once the heat was turned on, many of them had only dustbin lids and bottle crates for defence. There were no riot helmets, padded uniforms or shields. Instead, many had zero head protection, were in rolled up shirtsleeves and just swinging a truncheon around.
But if the crowd thought this was a rout for the police, they were about to be disabused. They had been surprised by the ferocity of the crowd reaction but the retreat was a moment to regroup not leave.
The young guy now saw a ‘rastaman’ standing in front of five hundred youth and shaking a red, green and gold stick in the air urging them to “burn the wicked”.
“I walk through fire,” he yelled, strutting towards the cowering officers. Behind him, more cautiously, came the youths still hurling bricks and bottles. But suddenly things changed dramatically.
The cry came from the police lines and a phalanx of dustbin lid clutching Metropolitan officers hurtled forward, truncheons chopping the air in all directions. The rastaman disappeared in the melee and the young guy was bundled in to a police van with four others.
Coats covered the windows and he claimed a police inspector poked his head in the head door and barked an instruction to a subordinate.
“Take down the coats, they mightn’t stone us if they see niggers inside.”
Though there would be several stages towards the development of the riot police we know today, this was an early milestone. After the 1976 carnival, the police returned – minus their Chief Superintendant who had moved on – with much better equipment.
Instead of flooding the area haphazardly and relying on bottle crates for defence, the police returned with shields, helmets and even night goggles. Battle re-commenced with an expectant media having pretty much earmarked an annual carnival riot in their planning calendars.
The media would not be disappointed. All hell broke loose in the 1977 Notting Hill carnival with a distinctly unpleasant riot between police and revellers inside the Mangrove Restaurant on All Saints Road. The restaurant had turned away a gang of youths they felt were looking for trouble and was full of revellers watching the steel bands go by.
Eye witnesses claimed that a large force of police entered All Saints Road from Lancaster Road and sealed off that point of exit and the Westbourne Park Road end as well. Beating on their riot shields, the police advanced down the road towards the Mangrove.
The owner of the premises, Frank Critchlow, tried to persuade the police not to enter but earned a truncheon blow for his efforts. Stewards that had been appointed by the restaurant to keep order in the area now found themselves pushing against the doors to the Mangrove to prevent the police entering but they eventually got in.
Everybody was told to leave in no uncertain terms and resistance was met with more truncheon blows. One DJ, Basil, stood by helplessly while his sound system, Black Patch, was smashed to pieces.
The anguish of people like Basil was of little concern to the Daily Mail, which went in to fulmination mode in the aftermath.
“If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy, then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival.”
The Daily Express was reminded of a different group of blacks on its front page the day after.
“War Cry! The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu.”
On the floor of the Mangrove lay the remnants of Basil’s hi-fi and the broken vinyl pieces from forty-eight singles and five LPs. This was the kind of memory that would be stored then unleashed in a torrent of violence three years later.
The years of riot at Notting Hill carnival would be reflected in every city across Britain during 1981 – a year of civil disturbances.
Since winning the 1979 General Election, the Conservatives had embarked on a kind of austerity economics called ‘monetarism’ This entailed rigorous control of the money supply in order to curb the great British disease of inflation. The outgoing Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, no stranger to cutting government spending himself, dubbed the new creed as ‘sado-monetarism’.And it ended in failure.
The high priest of monetarism was a professor at the Chicago school of economics by the name of Milton Friedman. Without going too far in to the vast detail that any debate on economics can become mired in, Friedman essentially threw out the conventional Keynesian wisdom that in a depression, governments should spend to keep people in work.
Out of control public spending, he argued, would lead to something called ‘stagflation’ – stagnation with high inflation – which was a prevalent condition of many economies in the 1970s. The answer was a kind of shock therapy where high interest rates, as one weapon, would make it unattractive to spend money. This would then lead to restraint in wages and prices, which would result in inflation coming down.
Keynesians warn of austerity failure
Oh that life was so simple, Keynesians retorted angrily – in many newspaper columns and on the letters pages. Friedman’s leading Keynesian nemesis on the global stage was the elderly but highly alert J K Galbraith, who had served in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration steering through the New Deal. He warned over and over again that Friedman’s medicine would lead to idle industrial plants and high unemployment.
Just because it hurt, Galbraith thundered, didn’t mean monetarism was actually doing any good to Britain.
“Suffering must have a purpose: out of much suffering there must come much good. No one is quite sure how this works in economics; one only knows that the bad times are somehow the price of the good. Pain and punishment are considered especially salutary for other people.”
So agonising were the effects of monetarism that many on the left pointed out that in its most undiluted form, it had only successfully been applied in Chile – which still languished under a military dictatorship. The implication being that a democracy could not hold the lid down on a population tormented by the rigours of this doctrine.
Was austerity failure just a tool to bash the unions?
Within the trade unions, the widespread suspicion was that the Conservatives were using high levels of unemployment deliberately to beat down pay demands. With an instinctive hatred of state regulation of the economy, Thatcher didn’t want to get involved in imposing incomes policies (as Labour had tried to do in the 1970s) but fear of the dole, it was thought, was her preferred weapon against wage inflation.
In reality, the Conservatives quietly dropped monetarism and adopted a more pragmatic and less doctrinaire approach after 1982. But not before they would experience a bitter lesson from Britain’s hugely pissed off youth on how far you can pursue an experiment before the subject bites back.