Forty years ago, 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.
Role models for LGBT people 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 gay 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.
Anybody over 50 years of age who lived in the Midlands or North of England and Scotland after 1979 will remember the 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.
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”.
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 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.
The 80s 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 to 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.
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. 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 80s, 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.
In 1979, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan called a general election after dithering for months. The extreme right National Front hoped this would be their breakthrough and organised a provocative rally in Southall, an area of London that had seen the growth of a large Asian community. The result was a violent clash between fascists, anti-fascists and police resulting in the death of a teacher called Blair Peach. This is part of an account I wrote several years ago based on contemporary reports:
The National Front arrived as planned at around 7pm and wound up the crowd with some Nazi salutes from the Town Hall steps. The party was required to admit members of the media but refused to allow the Daily Mirror in with an NF steward explaining “we are allowing in reporters from decent papers who are not black lovers”.
The NF’s youth organiser Joe Pearce surveyed the sit-in and declared the NF would “send back every single Asian out there”. Rather more curiously, their parliamentary candidate John Fairhurst promised that if elected he would ‘bulldoze’ Southall to the ground and replace it with an ‘English hamlet’.
Blair Peach – died in the 1979 Southall riot
As the NF meeting got underway, a young teacher from New Zealand, an activist in the Anti-Nazi League, sustained a blow to the head from a weapon that left him staggering in to a nearby house.
The impression is sometimes given that Blair Peach died instantly in the street but in fact he was still conscious though very dazed and finding it hard to speak when the ambulance arrived a quarter of an hour after the injury. There was no blood or external trauma but it’s clear that he was suffering from a swelling in the brain, what’s termed an extra-dural haematoma.
Blair Peach died in an operating theatre at the New Ealing District Hospital at 12.10am. After his death, Met Police Commander John Cass was asked to investigate what had happened. His full report was only made public three decades later.
A total of 31,000 man hours would be spent looking in to the circumstances of Blair Peach’s demise but not enough evidence was found to launch a prosecution. However – Cass performed one action during his enquiry that leaked out at the time.
On 5th June, 1979, he ordered the lockers of SPG officers to be opened and searched. In court, Cass revealed that he had discovered a range of irregular weapons. These included a sledge hammer, two jemmies, a three foot crowbar, a yard long piece of wood, a metal truncheon with a lead weight at the end and, what really excited the media, a “Rhino whip”.
There was no suggestion that any of these were used against Peach and Commander Cass was at pains to say that he could not prove that these items had been taken to Southall on the fateful day.
But thirty years later, the report by Cass clearly showed that he believed Peach had been killed by an officer in an SPG unit. He was also convinced that certain officers had obstructed his investigations.
The police handling of the National Front meeting in Southall could have been so different, even by the standards of the late 1970s. The newspapers at the time contrasted what happened there with a similar situation in Plymouth. In that town, the NF meeting had been abandoned after Anti-Nazi League members filled the hall ahead of their arrival.
The Sun was unimpressed, seeing this as a breakdown in the police handling of the situation. But it transpired that the Chief Constable in that part of Britain had taken the view that it was the NF that needed monitoring by the police with a view to bringing charges against them for stirring up racial hatred.
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 had ended in violence. Some of the following account contains language from that era that obviously I do not endorse.
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.
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.”
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 duly broke loose in 1977 with a distinctly unpleasant bust up 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.
Since winning the 1979 General Election, the Conservatives had embarked on an economic policy described as ‘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, had dubbed the new creed as ‘sado-monetarism’.
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.
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.
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.