The start of the 80s saw some monster CND demonstrations in London. The 1981 demo, which I remember well, attracted at least 250,000 people and took five hours to snake through London to Hyde Park. As we approached the park, I could hear Michael Foot’s voice very clearly – the then Labour leader and veteran unilateralist.
Later, outside McDonalds on Charing Cross Road, some old biddy came up to me and said I was as bad as those Peace Pledge Union types in the 1930s who’d have left us defenceless in the face of Hitler, etc.
The reason for the big turnouts on these CND protests was mainly the election of Ronald Reagan, seen as a dangerous militarist by us lefties at the time. The world was dominated by the superpower struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and it seemed to be hotting up. There were widespread concerns in the UK over the stationing of American nukes on British soil with Tony Benn calling for the closure of US military bases here.
London and the south east had a swing to the Tories in 1979 that was 50% higher than the rest of the country. The GLC was already in Tory hands under the leadership of Horace Cutler. He was looking forward to a close working relationship with Thatcher around issues that would eventually move in his direction: the development of Canary Wharf, sale of council houses, the Jubilee line and a third airport. Cutler also thought his party would support an Olympics bid for 1988.
The GLC had traditionally been heavily involved in the provision of social housing but Cutler handed over stock to local boroughs and pushed for council house sales ahead of Thatcher coming to power and in the teeth of opposition from Labour, the left and housing groups.
Cutler believed London had given the Tories a huge endorsement and looked forward to a “happy time”. Unfortunately for him, Londoners turned on Cutler’s Conservatives in 1981 after two years of recession and the GLC ended up with Labour in control and Ken Livingstone.
Livingstone was able to link up with other Labour held metropolitan authorities like Merseyside and South Yorkshire. These sprawling urban councils had swung to Labour in 1979, defying the Thatcherite wave. The prime minister got her revenge in 1986 when she abolished all these authorities including the GLC.
Here is a punk rant against Cutler’s GLC from The Members
The whole saga around the Greater London Council in the early 80s doesn’t exactly cover Margaret Thatcher in glory. It’s arguably the worst example of her political centralising tendencies.
In 1977, the GLC had switched from Labour to Conservative control – under the flamboyant Sir Horace Cutler. Under him, many of the ideas that would become national Conservative policy after Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election were tried out – in particular, the sale of council houses. Cutler also transformed Covent Garden from a fruit and veg market to a chic shopping experience that incidentally banned shops selling denim!
By 1981, Londoners were ready to bring Labour back and the party won under Andrew McIntosh. In a very daring and controversial move, Ken Livingstone representing the left of the London Labour Party then deposed McIntosh and was installed as the new leader of the GLC. This began several years of Livingstone taunting Thatcher over the rising level of unemployment and a very strident defence of minority rights. There was also a campaign around keeping London Underground fares down.
Thatcher detested the GLC and in 1986, she abolished it along with six other metropolitan county councils – Merseyside council for example. Even by the standards of the time, this was a shockingly partisan move – an attack on authorities that were all Labour controlled. Needless to say the official excuse was that bureaucracy was being trimmed. But I don’t think anybody bought that line.
Back in 1983, Thatcher went to the country for a fresh electoral mandate after a rocky first term as prime-minister. From 1979 to 1981, unemployment had skyrocketed and large parts of the manufacturing sector had collapsed. The summer of ’81 saw riots and interest rates were fearsomely high. But electoral salvation came in 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands giving Thatcher a huge boost in the polls.
So what was going to happen if the Tories got back in? The leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) Ken Livingstone was interviewed by the New Musical Express a few weeks before the general election and he believed political activists could be rounded up and detained. This was by no means an isolated opinion. Many on the left took the view that democracy was being eroded, power was being centralised, the unions emasculated, local councils abolished and the police and courts being used in a more politically explicit manner.
Ken said he thought camps could be established to hold anti-government activists. The memory of internment in Northern Ireland during the 1970s ‘Troubles’ and use of jury free Diplock courts undoubtedly contributed to this fear among many socialists. There had also been the threat of tougher anti-crime measures after the 1981 riots, which Ken references in the article. However, Thatcher was not about to establish a fascist dictatorship.
The BT Tower near Goodge Street in London has to be one of the most neglected and overlooked monuments in the city – an unloved relic of the 1960s. And yet I think it’s fantastic. Really iconic, bold and in your face. It was built at a time of huge forward looking confidence – how that would all change in the 1970s!
Originally called the Post Office Tower, it had a restaurant at the top – and I’ve recently found an advert for it in an old bookshop in Portugal, of all places. This is from about 1970 – because in 1971, the IRA put a bomb in the restaurant and the public was no longer able to go up there. And it’s been closed pretty much ever since.
A friend has been to the old restaurant for a private function and they can still make the top of the building rotate. Back in the 60s, you dined while watched London revolve below. The machinery is now a bit cranky and he said the whole floor shook as it got going – but why on earth don’t they re-open this again?
I know this falls outside the time limit of this blog but I do break the rules for a picture as good as this.
1983 was not a good year for the King of New Romantics – Steve Strange. In fact, I think it would be true to say it was the year when the writing was firmly on the wall. His pop glory years were behind him though the Camden Palace continued to do a roaring trade. I went that year with my Liverpool buddy Austin Muscatelli and a good time had by all – even if we couldn’t find a night bus and ended up sleeping on Hampstead Heath. Oh, happy memories.
But Mr Strange was interviewed that year and said he’d been offered a part in a new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber that involved going round on roller skates – Starlight Express?? Anyway, Steve was too busy for that.
He then said he’d been offered a TV film part for a version of My Fair Lady where a Malcolm McLaren type would spot him on the streets, take him to the top of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) and show him London. “One day, this will all be yours.”
I’m trying to decide whether it’s a shame or a relief that film was never made.