Those CND demos in the early 80s

IMG_6241The 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.


1982 – what issues gripped the left?

The first term of Thatcher – 1979 to 1983 – was many things politically but never dull. For the Labour Party, there was a move to the left among the rank and file after what was felt to have been lost years under Wilson and Callaghan from 1974 to defeat in 1979.

I remember being at meetings where you could divide the party members present into those that wanted to nationalise the top 25 monopolies and those that wanted to nationalise the top 250 monopolies (Tribune for the lower figure and Militant for the higher).

New Socialist was a monthly magazine in the 1980s and in this June 1982 issue you get a snapshot of what vexed the left. Norman Tebbit – the Chingford Skinhead (or Conservative MP for Chingford and government minister if you prefer) – dominated the front page with his bovver boot about to stamp on the trades unions.


From 1979 to 1981, Jim Prior had been employment secretary. A more consensual Tory grandee, he fitted in with a view that the Conservatives should have some kind of modus vivendi with the trades unions. This view was chucked out of the window by the more suburban petit-bourgeois Tebbit who had no qualms about taking on organised labour.

Other articles in this issue of New Socialist included a debate between Frank Field on the right and Pat Wall on the Marxist left about who should own the soul of the Labour Party.  Both were MPs in the 80s with Wall being a Militant supporting MP in Bradford.

The militarisation of the police, the terrorising of women by the Yorkshire Ripper, Ronald Reagan and the “problem” of Europe were the subjects of other articles. The latter is interesting because the left hadn’t yet bought into the idea that Europe was a friend of the left. Europe – whether it was the Common Market, European Economic Community or European Union – was seen as a ‘capitalist club’ by many socialists in the early 1980s.

The Falklands – as the war was seen back in 1982

Papers just released under the 30 year rule show that Thatcher was completely amazed when Argentina invaded the Falklands. I remember seeing the first news of the war broadcast on ITN and it was a bit surreal. There was the footage of Argentine ships heading towards the islands with some admiral on deck with his binoculars.

We look back on the war from the post-1982 world where the Iron Lady looks utterly resolved to defeat the damned Argies. Don’t believe a word of it. The government was caught in headlights. Foreign minister Lord Carrington resigned. There had been warnings about Argentina’s intentions since 1977 and the British embassy in Buenos Aires had been alerting London for months. But when Argentina struck – the Tories initially reeled.

Students of the Thatcher years may wish to investigate what the Tories would have done to the Falkland islanders if the war hadn’t happened. President Reagan and the US establishment wanted Britain to reach some kind of accommodation with the then military dictatorship in Argentina. In those days, the US had installed anti-communists military juntas in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America – no talk of democracy back then!

Also, the idea of the British sending troops into the Americas made many in Washington feel a little queasy – wasn’t this what 1776 had been all about stopping?

Here’s some of the stuff that came out during the Falklands War from my extensive archive…

Liverpool Echo on the Falklands
Liverpool Echo on the Falklands
How Marxists viewed the Falklands
How Marxists viewed the Falklands
Students vexed over whether to serve
Students vexed over whether to serve
Students said view of Thatcher unchanged
Students said view of Thatcher unchanged
London Evening Standard front page
London Evening Standard front page
Carrington was about to go
Carrington was about to go

Thatcher and Reagan in ‘Gone With The Wind’

Thatcher and Reagan in 'Gone With The Wind'

This poster was produced around 1980/81 by Socialists Unlimited and advertised in the Socialist Worker.  It was proudly displayed on my wall in the hall of residence during my first year at Liverpool University until somebody walked off with it – blu-tack and all.   Well, property was theft in those days and he/she was just liberating it from my grasp.  Hmmm.

CND – big demos in 1980 and 1981

There was a survey some time around 1980 when CND had a monster march in London.  It found that most young people thought they were going to die in a nuclear war.  You just can’t imagine that so many teenagers really believed they would be incinerated in a thermo-nuclear blast in their own lifetimes.

‘Jobs not Bombs’ became a very popular slogan.   There was a rather blood curdling song I heard on one demo that went something like…

“What shall we do with Ronald Reagan?  Put him in the shuttle and take the tiles off.”

That would have been around 1981.  Suffice it to say, that was five years before the shuttle explosion caused by…erm…a tile coming off – and a teacher at the wheel (first civilian astronaut).  Another ditty went…

“What shall we do with Maggie Thatcher?  Put her in a police van and send it to Brixton.”

Subtle humour was not flavour of the month that year.  There’d just been riots in Brixton and Thatcher was greeted with the cry of ‘Ditch the Bitch’.  I was at a Labour Club meeting at college where the rad-feminists went ballistic at the use of ‘bitch’ to describe the prime minister.  But the more proletarian elements at the Labour meeting accused the feminists of being petit-bourgeois and not understanding working class anger.   Strange times indeed.