The Thatcher Crisis Years

An era of protest and fury

Mary Whitehouse was a socially conservative campaigner who tried to ban what she deemed to be immoral content on TV in the 1970s and 1980s. Here’s a completely surreal bust up between her, the movie director Michael Winner and a bunch of stripped off blokes dressed as Rambo.

A TV clip that took me back to the madness of the early 1980s!

The thing about Mary Whitehouse was that despite her huffing and puffing on the evils of TV, she became an obligatory fixture on the medium she purported to detest so much.

In fact – dare I say it – from starting out as a prim and proper, buttoned-up social conservative, she evolved into an almost sympathetic character on some appearances. That was – until you got the gist of what Mary Whitehouse thought was unacceptable.

Pornography you could take as a given. But her definition of violence extended to trying to censor Doctor Who and even….get ready for this….the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Though, in our more censorious age where content is taken down now for being ‘problematic’, Mary Whitehouse may yet get to have the last laugh – from the grave.

In this clip here, Mary Whitehouse is arguing against Michael Winner. Now, to use today’s millennial parlance, I’m a bit ‘conflicted’. Because some of Winner’s movies were were plain nasty and exploitative. And this is where I suppose feminism and puritanism meet.

His Death Wish movies with Charles Bronson in the lead – recently remade with Bruce Willis starring – hinged on a revenge fantasy where brutality was legitimised as essentially doing the right thing. I tried to watch one of the 1970s Death Wish movies a while back and was actually appalled by the viciously cartoonish assault on a woman in her own home.

But back to Mary Whitehouse. Here she is surrounded by Rambo hunks peddling her usual lines on the disintegration of society due to pornography and social liberalism (for which read equal rights for women and LGBT). It’s actually hilarious to watch.

Southall 1981 riot

In 1981, an Oi! skinhead gig at the Hambrough Tavern in the London district of Southall ended in a violent riot.

Nobody could claim it was a complete surprise but ever since skinheads have alleged they were unfairly targeted while local Asian youth say the gig was a deliberate provocation.

The 1981 Southall riot followed disturbances earlier that year in Brixton and occurred the night before all hell broke loose in Toxteth, Liverpool. From July into the middle of August, several British cities exploded into violent anger – but each riot had its own distinctive flavour.

It’s often been argued that Southall came closest to being a ‘race riot’ in the proper sense of the term. While other riots were fuelled as much by rising unemployment. But these days, I think we can be sophisticated enough to realise ALL the 1981 riots involved a combination of economic and social deprivation with institutional and widespread racism.

Southall was really the culmination of several factors. One was the infiltration of the skinhead scene by the racist extreme Right. No secret was made of the fact that groups like the National Front and the British Movement decided to target the skinhead scene for white working class recruits.

They hoped to replicate the success that the political Left had enjoyed with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League – marrying music with politics very effectively. That is not to say that all skinheads were on the extreme Right – as they were not. And many bands within the so-called Oi! scene even sang anti-racist lyrics.

But…there had been racially motivated attacks by groups of skinheads and activity by the extreme Right caused intense anger within Asian British communities. In front of me at the moment is a 1981 copy of The Sun that includes an interview with a jobless skinhead explaining that Asians were targeted for beatings by him and his mates because they were perceived to be more meek than Afro-Caribbean youth. However, attitudes among Asian British youth were hardening rapidly.

In July 1981, the growing fury bubbled to the surface in Southall – which had already been the venue for a riot two years earlier against a National Front public meeting at the local town hall.

DISCOVER: Anti-Nazi League carnival in 1978

That 1979 riot resulted in the death of an Anti-Nazi League activist, Blair Peach – from a police truncheon.

The BBC documentary below gives an account of what happened that fateful night in Southall in 1981. For the headlining band, the 4-Skins, the riot was not good news. Air play was denied and record companies turned their backs.

The lyrics of the 4-Skins songs were predictably abrasive. Kicking people with Doc Martens boots features prominently. But there are also themes shared by a wide spectrum of bands at that time about life on the dole (being unemployed) and a general pessimism that hung in the air.

The 1981 Southall riot ended the Oi! scene and looking back, that year – or the year before even – was the high point of the skinhead sub-culture that had re-emerged in the late 70s after a mid-decade doldrums.

I’m keen to hear from any of you who were involved on any side back in those days and non-defamatory comments can be posted below. I’m even open to publishing entire blog posts from those who were witnesses to the 1981 Southall riot.

town gown

First heard the expression town and gown when I visited friends at Cambridge University in the 1980s. There was, shall we say, a degree of animosity between local Cambridge blokes and the university students.

Especially Cambridge blokes from the local army barracks who could pack a punch as they showed at a gig by The Specials where I believe they invaded the stage apart from dishing out some black eyes.

Back in the early 80s, the percentage of young people in Britain going to university was much lower than it is today. And there was often a much higher degree of hostility between local youth and those allegedly privileged sods on the campus up the road.

And the locals had a point, we were much more middle class, ethnically less diverse and generally speaking better off. Though I went to a red brick university, not Oxford or Cambridge, where I never felt particularly cosseted. Graduate unemployment was also high in the mid-80s when I left college.

At Liverpool, the university was often referred to locally as the “hotel on the hill” – not helped that it was literally on a hill looking down, as it were, on the city below. Though behind us was the Toxteth district where most of the rioting happened in 1981 when hundreds of police battled for over a month with rioters.

DISCOVER: Attitudes towards LGBT people in the 1980s

Regrettably, the wrath of the dispossessed did occasionally land on a student through know fault of their own. One favourite tactic was to ask a student the time, just to check if they had a non-“scouse” accent before connecting a fist with their rosy-cheeked face.

Students easily left the land of gown for the land of town in Liverpool. They only had to stray past the economics and sociology department to find themselves in Toxteth, where many of them had digs anyway. And then town might decide to connect violently with gown.

All of this was thoroughly reprehensible but a flavour of the time I fear. Here is the university newspaper reporting on one such incident.

Dave Wakeling of The Beat draws himself
80s popstar draws himself

Dave Wakeling was front man of ska combo The Beat alongside the late and great Ranking Roger.

I have a huge, towering stack of music papers from the 1980s in my study including the NME, Record Mirror, Sounds, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, Fab 208, etc, etc, etc.

And in one edition of Fab 208, the editor had asked famous popstars of the day to draw themselves.

Most noteworthy for me was Dave Wakeling of The Beat who was the only pop star to depict himself in profile. The magazine noted that he feels strong about world problems.

Must say I prefer his music to his art!

The Beat were a very political combo and I had the honour of interviewing the late Ranking Roger for the biography I co-wrote of Neville Staple of The Specials – “Original Rude Boy”. His real name was Roger Charlery and he had some amazing stories to tell about hanging out with punks and skinheads in Birmingham in the late 1970s.

There was something of a falling out between Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, which I found quite sad. The Beat were often too quickly tough the two of them did continue to collaborate for a while with an MTV-friendly group called General Public that also included ex-members of Dexys Midnight Runners.

inflation unemployment

From 1979, inflation doubled in the first year of the Thatcher administration from 10% to 22%. The recession that followed brought the rate down to 5% in 1980. At the same time, unemployment soared to a breathtaking three million – and that was the official figure.

For Thatcher, inflation was always a bigger priority than unemployment. This was unusual at the time because memories of the starving jobless in the 1930s still loomed large in Britain.

Whereas in Germany, memories of hyper-inflation chimed more with the Thatcher viewpoint. That’s not to say British people weren’t fed up with price rises in the 70s – but the spectre that haunted families more was the prospect of the breadwinner being out of work.

To combat inflation, Thatcher embraced an economic theory called “monetarism” that necessitated high interest rates, higher taxes (VAT doubled almost straight away) and sharp cuts in public spending. The result of what one politician dubbed “voodoo economics” was disastrous for millions of people between 1979 and 1981.

It didn’t even work very well as a theory. Inflation was brought under control by 1980 but the money supply continued to grow. So there were further spending cuts that led to calamitous falls in economic output and whole regions de-industrialised. Unsurprisingly – monetarism was dumped by 1984.

FIND OUT MORE: The Great Recession of 1979 to 1981

To get a clearer idea of Thatcher’s thinking on inflation, I found a 1974 speech made in Preston by Thatcher’s economic guru Keith Joseph. He made it very clear that inflation was regarded by the Tories as the main enemy and not the traditional bogey of unemployment.

In fact, he argued, governments had been so spooked by the Great Depression of the 1930s that they thought mass joblessness was always around the corner. So governments spent money and then tried to hold down pay with incomes policies – always unsuccessfully.

Keith Joseph’s words in 1974 make interesting reading given what was to happen in Thatcher’s first two years in power with unemployment leaping:

It is perhaps easy to understand; our post-war boom began under the shadow of the 1930s. We were haunted by the fear of long-term mass unemployment, the grim, hopeless dole queues and towns which died. So we talked ourselves into believing that these gaunt, tight-lipped men in caps and mufflers were round the corner, and tailored our policy to match these imaginary conditions. For imaginary is what they were.

“Inflation is caused by governments” – speech by Keith Joseph in 1974

Already by the mid-1970s, people were shocked by an unemployment level of 500,000. Joseph swept that aside. Inflation was still the main enemy! Public money should not be used to create jobs. And anyway, he went on, a significant percentage of the unemployed were shirkers and scroungers.

There are the drifters and hippies who draw “welfare” but engage in activities to earn money, legal or illegal. From time to time the Ministry carries out local checks, and suddenly the number of registered unemployed melts away. How many fraudulent unemployed there are at any given time can only be estimated, but they probably account for at least a tenth of the registered unemployed at normal times. We ought to do more about such people, but expanding demand will not turn them into honest men.

“Inflation is caused by governments” – speech by Keith Joseph in 1974

In short, unemployment to Thatcher was by far the lesser evil. Whereas inflation was the beast to be conquered. As a result, throughout the supposedly “yuppie” 1980s, we experienced surprisingly high levels of unemployment.

LGBT 1980s
The idea of gay police officers was hilarious to Private Eye in 1981

In the 1980s, attitudes towards LGBT people were majority unaccepting. Gay and lesbian rights activists were derided as part of the “loony left”. And for many LGBT people, the choice was either living in a social ghetto or staying firmly in the closet.

AIDS hadn’t come to prominence at the start of the decade but once awareness of the HIV virus increased, attitudes worsened. This was largely fuelled by tabloid newspaper headlines blaring “gay plague” and a lack of public education – at first.

DISCOVER: Town versus gown in the 1980s

Role models for LGBT people in the 1980s were in short supply. In popular entertainment, gay men were almost invariably effeminate or led tragic lives culminating in some grim death. The idea that gays and lesbians could lead mundane, suburban existences living peacefully with their neighbours was far off.

Homosexuality had been legalised back in 1967 but legal recognition didn’t mean social tolerance. Although cultural phenomenon like disco music in the 70s made LGBT people more visible and arguably confident, things appeared to go into reverse in the 1980s.

The worst expression of this was Section 28 of the Local Government Act in 1988 that included the provision that local authorities were not to “promote homosexuality”. This has now been abolished and nowadays similar legislation only pops up in Putin’s Russia and certain African countries renowned for their homophobia.

nationalised industries

Once upon a time Britain had loads of nationalised industries that ran key bits of the economy like energy, electricity, water, gas, telecoms, transport and car manufacturing. The idea of the private sector doing these things seemed crazy.

I recently discovered an old school exercise book from a subject called Civic Studies that was part of our curriculum around 15 years of age. We had to write out answers to a series of questions that went like this:

Q: Who supplies our electricity? A: The Central Electricity Generating Board

Q: Who runs the country’s mines? A: The National Coal Board

And so it went on. We lived in this curious pre-1979 world where civil servants at the Ministry ran the nationalised industries. I remember a history teacher at school once remarking that water was privately run in the United States and we were horrified and amazed. Water for profit? Good grief no!

DISCOVER: Grim times for LGBT people under Thatcher

This was an economy that could be described more as state capitalist than socialist. Civil servants and professional managers and technocrats ran nationalised industries that successive government in the post-war period believed were essential to the national interest.

Both Conservative and Labour governments presided over publicly owned and managed industries. Two world wars had revealed the need for better run key industries. There was also a perception that the private sector had under-invested and poorly managed many of these assets in recent decades. British capitalism was deemed to have lost the drive and verve that had powered the Industrial Revolution.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party was calling for rail and mail services to be re-nationalised during the 2019 general election. But go back forty years and it would amaze you to see what was under public control – though about to be privatised by the Thatcher government.

Take for example the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC). This was created by a Labour government in 1975 to ensure that the British public would have a stake in any North Sea oil licences and thereby derive a share of the profit from oil and gas exploration.

This approach was very similar to what Norway did with the creation of Statoil – a government owned entity that delivered guaranteed pensions to the Norwegian population. It’s now part of a large multinational called Equinor but at the time of writing, the Norwegian state remains the largest shareholder.

The UK, however, went down a very different route.

Thatcher created a rather mediocre private sector interest called Britoil that was snapped up by British Petroleum (BP). What’s now forgotten is that BP was one of the UK’s nationalised industries up until 1979 – having been created under a Conservative government in the early 1950s. The BP sell-off was huge and managed by the global investment firm Goldman Sachs.

The North Sea OIl bonanza that never was

British Airways (BA) was created by the government in 1974. The world’s favourite airline – as it likes to claim – was state owned and set up to take over the assets of British European Airways (BEA) and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). This was a time when most national carriers were owned by governments in Europe. It wasn’t an early sell-off, only being privatised in 1987.

So, this “mixed economy” of nationalised industries and privately run companies was very different to the UK today. Ships were built by British Shipbuilders. Gas was supplied by the British Gas Corporation. Cars were made by British Leyland.

And you boarded trains run by British Rail. All of these were privatised over a 20-year period from 1979. This dramatically changed the structure of British capitalism and made the idea of public ownership very alien to younger generations.

As I pointed out earlier, these nationalised interests were run by civil servants and professional managers. Relations between the boardroom and workforce could be every bit as fractious as the private sector.

Indeed, some of the biggest strikes of the 1970s were in nationalised industries. And they were often taken into public ownership more out a dire need for reorganisation and urgent bail-out than any grand socialist design.

Such was the case with British Leyland, the car maker. It was created in 1968 by bolting together several auto companies in the hope of creating a British equivalent to General Motors of the United States – and saving troubled brands like Jaguar.

But the company lacked a common purpose and the car designs were naff compared to what Ford and GM were producing. That said, I can remember plenty of people driving British Leyland cars in the 1970s. However – it was broken up and most of the brands are now in overseas hands.

During the economic recession of the early 1980s – coupled with a deliberate policy of “slimming down” state run assets for privatisation – there were mammoth job losses. Regardless of your political views, the impact on cities around the UK was seismic. And arguably the aftershocks are still being felt today.

British Steel saw 82,300 jobs shed between 1979 and 1983. The National Coal Board released 36,500 miners between 1978 and 1983 – with many more to go after the 1984/85 miners strike.

British Shipbuilders made over 20,000 workers redundant between 1979 and 1982. British Airways also lost 20,000 staff in the same period. This changed the very nature of Britain by degrees from a manufacturing, blue-collar nation in the north and Midlands to communities with more white-collar jobs, “flexible” labour and persistent unemployment in the 1980s.

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.