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.
July was the month of riots in 1981 and they came thick and fast from Toxteth, a re-ignited Brixton (which had already rioted in April), Southall and mini-riots from Coventry to Leicester and some very unlikely places like Chigwell in Essex!
The Manchester riot was particularly vicious. I remember driving through Moss Side – having been on a canal trip! It was just after the violence had died down and there was evidence of the destruction everywhere. And a very eerie atmosphere.
Read the Wikipedia entry on the 1981 Moss Side Riot and it could easily be an article in a police magazine. The community leaders failed to stop the youth taking to the streets (as if they had any real power to stop them) and Chief Constable James Anderton was lauded by one and all for his tough measures including driving police vans directly at the rioters (similar tactic resulted in one death in Toxteth) and snatch squads then pouncing on rioters.
In truth, Anderton – who famously brought his religious views very publicly into his work – came under a hail of criticism from both the left and even other police chiefs. His approach was seen as abrasive and antagonistic. Undoubtedly he thought that was just what the situation needed.
The most memorable and chilling moment of the riot was when a police station was surrounded and among the weapons used were garden tools and a crossbow!
Wood Green is dominated by a great red brick hulk of a 1970s shopping centre, called Shopping City (or at least it was when I lived there in the 1990s). It’s been Riot City in the past. One major disturbance was in 1977 when the far right National Front marched through an area that then, as now, was ethnically mixed and very cosmopolitan.
The result was inevitable. Throughout the late 70s, fascists and anti-fascists faced off up and down the country as racist parties thrived in an atmosphere of economic decline and growing unemployment. The Wood Green clash led to fifty arrests and thirteen injuries as a result of broken bottles, stone throwing and smoke bombs. Reportedly, something resembling a bullet was fired through a shop window and one witness claimed a National Front marcher had been aiming at two black children – an unsubstantiated allegation I should point out.
One press report said the Wood Green incident was the biggest “race demonstration” since a notoriously violent fracas in Red Lion Square in 1974 when a student was killed fighting the NF. In Wood Green, the police line broke several times and demonstrators got to lash out at each other at close range.
During the 1979 General Election, the NF continued to be a very vocal presence and provoked a riot in Southall, London. But after the Thatcher victory, the NF diminished as a force and after various splits and fall outs, the British National Party would eventually emerge as the main far right party.
The lives of working class black families were a terra incognita for most white British three decades ago. So it was unusual for the Christmas issue of a popular teen mag called Fab208 in 1977 to lead with a single parent family who were dreading the not very festive season.
“I don’t know how I’ve avoided committing suicide,” Mrs Jones told the magazine ahead of glossier pages on the Bay City Rollers, Starksy and Hutch and the Osmonds. With her four sons and three daughters, they were crammed in to a cold flat in Wapping with a kitchen gutted by a cooker fire.
Sharon, aged 14, never invited friends from school back home nor went out with them. “At school I hear them talking about the places they’ve been to and I feel like the odd one out.”
With so little room inside, Mrs Jones hung up the laundry on the terrace by the front door but clothes kept getting stolen. Sharon had received a pair of jeans for her birthday, worn them once but after a single wash, they had been spirited away.
Yolanda, aged 17, noticed that the thieves went through the laundry looking for the best outfits and left the rest. As an older teen, she was fed up of the lack of privacy having to share a bedroom with her two sisters.
“You can’t go anywhere in the house and be on your own. It’s the small things like that which get on your nerves.”
Mrs Jones had fallen in to £200 of rent arrears though she said this was a protest against the GLC, their council landlord, failing to repair the badly charred kitchen. But being behind on payments meant that the GLC was refusing to re-house the family until they came good on the debt.
With both sides at loggerheads, Mrs Jones pointed out she had never been on social security and worked to keep her family. “I’m not a sponger. I wouldn’t like the idea of someone else supporting my children.”
In the two biographies I’ve had published – with Neville Staple (Original Rude Boy) and Errol Christie (No Place To Hide) – the same question came up of night clubs that operated a race bar back in the 1970s and early 1980s. That is, in breach of legislation, they refused or curtailed entry to people on grounds of skin colour. You wouldn’t believe this could have happened in England within living memory – but oh yes it did.
The proof? Well, in 1978 the Birmingham night club Pollyanna’s was ordered by the Commission for Racial Equality to stop restricting black and Chinese people from attending its functions. Unbelievably the club not only admitted what it did but tried to justify it. Their argument was that in the interests of “a happy situation”, racial quotas had to be imposed. This included telling a university lecturer not to bring in a group of Chinese students!
Errol Christie told me that several Coventry clubs as late as 1981 operated an effective colour bar making it almost impossible for black youth to enter the premises. Ironically, the aforementioned Pollyanna’s did become a meeting place for Brummie punks and skinheads including a certain Ranking Roger, later of The Beat….who was black.
Londoners of a certain age remember the two massive Anti Nazi League carnivals in 1978 with glowing nostalgia. But Manchester was in on the act too. Let’s not forget that. Here was the Mancunian ANL carnival with acts like Steel Pulse, the Buzzcocks and China Street.
I loved Steel Pulse’s Jah Pickney with that song’s delightful lyrics about hunting the National Front. Check it out on YouTube. Buzzcocks – we all know them! But I’d quite forgotten China Street, a favourite of John Peel and on the EMI label for a while.
The march was sponsored by the north west region TUC. The trade unions were very much a backbone of the whole anti-racist push against the National Front at that time.
For years, I remembered the 1978 Anti-Nazi League carnival in Victoria Park, Mile End with a big warm glow – The Clash, Tom Robinson Band and X-Ray Spex and many others played. I was fifteen years old and it was amazingly excited.
The demonstration started in Trafalgar Square and when I arrived at Embankment tube station, loads of punks leaped over the barriers while tube employees tried to hold them back. Round every street corner were big police vans full of coppers waiting to pounce.
And then Trafalgar Square. In those days, Nelson’s column was covered in soot and the buildings seemed darker and greyer – they all got a clean up in the 1980s. But it was the noise that gripped my attention.
Somebody yelling on a megaphone and then X-Ray Spex belting out a number. The whole mass of people moved off and we marched for what seemed like an eternity to Mile End.
There wasn’t just the one carnival that year. Another carnival rocked south London and – I’d quite forgotten – there was a Walthamstow carnival. This followed a racial attack in the area, one of several acts of thuggery by racists against the local Asian community. Here was the poster from that Walthamstow event – some bands on it I really can’t recall.