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.
In July, 1981, David Moore was killed during the Toxteth riots. A disabled man, he was one of a small number of fatalities during that year’s summer of violence. Using several sources from the time, I’ve pieced together his story. It’s a unique insight into the stormy events of the summer of 1981:
As a baby, Liverpool born David Moore developed the condition enteritis – an inflammation of the small intestine normally caused by ingesting something contaminated. He wasn’t expected to live but somehow managed to pull through. In many ways this early brush with death presaged what was to come in his short, unhappy life.
At eight years of age, David was waiting at a bus stop in the Dingle area, where he came from. The Dingle was in the ‘South End’ of the city, cheek by jowl with neighbourhoods in Liverpool 8 where most of Liverpool’s black population lived. Together with the grand villas circling Sefton Park, a vast green space created by philanthropic Victorians, this area comprised a district called Toxteth.
As David waited for the bus, some girls were messing around on the pavement nearby. An outwardly anxious boy, he might have been a target of their ridicule or else the misfortune that now befell him could just have been a random accident. David was shoved by one of the girls and fell in to the path of the oncoming green and yellow double decker.
His right leg was crushed under its wheels and with it any hope of leading the semblance of a normal, cheerful life. In the years that followed, he would have to endure one hospital appointment after another involving corrective surgery and physio. The efforts of medical staff could not prevent David walking the rest of his days with a pronounced limp. Friends even noted his left foot always seemed to point downwards as if he was forced to walk on his toes.
Clearly this meant he couldn’t move all that quickly.
“In fact,” his brother in law John Flynn would note, “I hardly ever remember him running.”
Compounding his physical problems was his inability to learn quickly. With a crushed self-esteem, it was hardly surprising that David did not achieve academically. Sent to Dingle Lane Special School, he became something of a loner without friends. Unable to socialise successfully, he would slink off home and play with his toys hiding away the lame leg that caused him so much shame.
Desperate for some social acceptance, he found himself as a teenager trying to impress other youths with acts of idiotic bravado. It made him feel ‘big’ when he came to the attention of the police and he hoped it would make the street gangs like and even respect him a bit.
“He was really like the story book child,” his mother Agnes said, “when he was good, he was very good. But when he was bad, he was up to all kinds of mischief. But there was no badness in the boy.”
As both the port and factories shed jobs in the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, David would have considered himself lucky to have a job in the council’s parks and gardens department. Then, and even more so now, the public sector was a major employer in the city and the ‘Corpy’ – city corporation – was a lifeline to thousands of Merseyside families.
David earned around £50 a week, a king’s ransom compared to being on the dole. He’d give his mum about £30 of that sum to cover his living costs and help with her budgeting. When the parks and gardens job came to an end, he tried his hand on building sites but not being physically strong meant his time as a ‘brickie’ was short lived.
Increasingly, David was consigned to ever-longer periods on the dole queue along with most of his age group. Being without work was becoming the norm whether you were a black youth in Liverpool 8 or a white working class kid in the neighbouring Dingle. In a 1983 parliamentary response to a question from a Merseyside MP, the secretary of state for employment Peter Morrison made it clear that state intervention was no longer considered an answer to chronic levels of unemployment.
“Jobs will come to Merseyside when companies produce goods which customers will buy. I have great confidence that the people of Merseyside will rise to this challenge.”
While on the dole, David halved the amount he gave to his mum so now she got £15 a week. Always keen to make money in any way he could, David would go door to door asking people if they wanted their hedges cut or windows cleaned but the sight of this awkward looking young man led to the door being shut more often than not.
One usual routine he had was to visit his eighty one year old Auntie Ann. She lived on the second floor of a block of flats in Speke, quite a way out of the city centre. Mrs Ann Green wasn’t David’s real aunt but a companion he had made who he called his ‘auntie’. It didn’t really matter to the young man whether she was formally a member of his family or not.
Like so many who had been forced to fill in Unemployment Benefit Form 40, David was bored stupid without work and any friendly and chatty company was sought out and nurtured. For the past three years, he had brought Auntie Ann Christmas and birthday presents and in between time, just watched the TV at her house exchanging small talk.
David had redecorated the chimney breast in the living room and the two had agreed that if she could get her hands on some paint, they would do up the bathroom together. If necessary, he could stay overnight in the room he slept in most Sunday nights as part of a routine that had developed. This small space with the posters he put up on the walls was a refuge in to which he could retreat from the outside world.
But on one fateful weekend, he decided not to make his usual stay and instead to go back home to his mum. It might have been the reports of rioting in Liverpool that on the local TV news that made him want to return. So leaving the small, elderly lady, they shared one last joke then he turned away.
“I’ll see you on Sunday Auntie Ann.”
The violence between youth and police, or “bizzies” in the local Scouse slang, had already been going on for three weeks – an unprecedented period of disorder not seen elsewhere, even in Brixton. The epicentre of the trouble was Upper Parliament Street – or the “Parli”. This was a haunting Victorian boulevard lined with chunky bourgeois properties that were either derelict or subdivided in to bedsits and student digs. It still has a vibe to me of Malcolm X Boulevard, the long nineteenth century street that links Harlem to Central Park in New York. Unlike Brixton, Toxteth had wide streets and grassed open spaces that meant the riots were spread over a bigger area, were harder to contain and resembling something approaching a battle.
The Parli was the heart of the city’s black community, a long-standing neighbourhood with a large mixed race element that seemed strangely divorced from the rest of the city. Only a short bus ride from Upper Parliament Street brought you in to the University precinct or down in to the main shopping area of Liverpool. Yet as a Londoner arriving as a student in Liverpool in 1981, I was immediately struck by how few black faces I saw in the town centre or in bars and clubs.
Official figures confirm that out of 22,000 people working for Liverpool City Council at the time of the riots, only 169 were black. It was estimated that unemployment was running at something like 60% in the black community and in areas where blacks had been employed elsewhere in the UK, like public transport, there was hardly a black face to be seen. In Liverpool’s schools, only two governors were black and poor academic performance was endemic.
April of 1981 saw an anti-crime police drive in Brixton, south London – Operation Swamp – ignite several nights of violence. Three months later, on Friday 3rd July, it would take the arrest by police of 20 year old Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Shelbourne Street in Toxteth to provide the spark for a riot that would match Brixton in scale and intensity. The youth had been chased on a motorbike and fallen off as the police caught up with him. As they tried to question the young man, a small crowd pulled him away and tempers quickly heated. He was later arrested and appeared in court charged with wounding with intent to harm three police officers.
The first night involved scuffles, an arrest and some injuries on both sides but after this Toxteth simmered with a glowering rage. On the following night, an anonymous caller to the police reported a stolen car and officers who went to investigate were pelted with bricks and stones. This was the first skirmish of what would be a very long night of violence.
Eyewitness accounts from the time described a dairy and a car hire shop at the top of Upper Parliament Street providing a fortuitous combination for the rioters. A group of youths took the milk bottles from the dairy and filled them with petrol from the car hire outlet. The police line that was attempting to advance up Parli suddenly found itself at the receiving end of blazing Molotov cocktails.
Worse was to come as the actual hire cars were enlisted for use against the police line. Rather like the game of dare with stolen cars in the 1950s movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, youths jammed the accelerators with bricks then drove at pull speed towards the police jumping out before impact. “The police scattered like flies each time a driverless car screeched down at them,” an eye-witness later said. One press report called the action a wild “dodgem game”.
A police officer remembered one car “hit a lamp-post and burst in to flames. If it had stayed on course, it could have killed someone.” But it wasn’t just the cars that were hurtling towards the police line. The Daily Express, in its coverage that weekend, claimed that twelve milk floats from the dairy were driven in a similar manner while two hundred youths built barricades of flaming car tyres sending a pall of smoke rising high above Liverpool.
“There was a hail of missiles,” Constable Chris Gregory, as he then was, recalled, “We were asked to go forward. It took us all our time to hold the thin blue line and protect ourselves. It was like Belfast.”
One witness saw a JCB digger used as a “tank” with Molotov cocktail wielding rioters edging gingerly behind it until they were close enough to throw their missiles with deadly effect. The JCB would then retreat before another onslaught. It was also alleged that the heavy-duty vehicle was used to take chunks out of buildings, accounting for a small number of the two hundred properties that would be razed to the ground or burnt down in the days of rioting ahead.
Kenneth Oxford, the even more dour than usual Chief Constable of Merseyside, called on forces in Cheshire and Lancashire to come to his assistance. Ironically, finding common cause with many of the political Left, Oxford dismissed claims that the disturbances were a race riot. But that’s where the overlap in analysis abruptly ended. For the Left, it was proof that growing unemployment had driven the youth to the streets. To Ken Oxford, there was a wholly different reason.
“The situation is anti-discipline and anti-authority. It is the action of a band of hooligans who do not want to live in a civilised society.” Oxford denied claims that police had harassed local black youth and, as with similar allegations made against police in Brixton, that he had deluged the area with officers in the run up to the violence.
But local activist John Arboin of the Jamaica House community group countered that the growing police presence in the area had been seen as a provocation. With very poor relations between the forces of law and order and the people of Toxteth, this could only be seen as an act of aggression. “There was nothing going on,” Arboin said, “People were ringing up asking for them to be withdrawn.”
One of those officers drafted in by Oxford came from across the Mersey, picked up by a police van trawling for as many officers as could be mustered at speed. Jeff Ashcroft was from Wallasey on the Wirral peninsula, a part of Merseyside that had always slightly resented being carved out of more posh Cheshire when the metropolitan county was created. Ashcroft was looking forward to a “cold pint of bitter” after a day shift but now found himself driven to the Parli.
“We could hear this strange animal-like howling mixed with the sound of breaking glass. In hurried amazement and fear we lined up and were quickly given a riot shield, something I’d only seen before on the news from Belfast. Following a very nervous sergeant, we walked around the corner into hell.”
What he saw was the line of police officers and beyond that, the fires beyond. Then he clapped eyes on his first Molotov cocktail.
“Like a small meteorite, I watched in awe as it arced down over the tops of the officers, to fall with a smash and flash of fire onto the street between them and me.”
He was then told that he and his colleagues had been brought in to relieve those on the front line. His “stupid little plastic face guard” gave no protection from the missiles that rained down including stones and bits of iron railing. There was no shortage of iron railings in an area clogged with grand old Victorian houses.
During the fracas, there seemed to be a breakdown in command as dawn broke and Ashcroft claimed the officers ignored orders to hold the line. Instead, instinctively and fed up, they drew their batons and charged – some throwing away their shields as they made for the rioters. By 7am, something resembling order had been achieved amid the smoking ruins and debris.
Withdrawal was not an option for Oxford. Sunday saw no let up in the action and by 2am on Monday morning, there were so many fires burning that a police spokesman said it was as “bright as day”. 140 police had now been injured with one “speared” in the head by a railing used as a javelin at the police line.
Sunday night to Monday morning was arguably the worst night thus far. The Racquet Club, an anachronistic relic from the area’s more salubrious past, went up in flames but the inferno threatened the Princes Park Geriatric Hospital whose patients were still within the building. Ambulance workers appealed to the rioters for a halt while they ferried out the elderly occupants, one ambulance at a time.
It was during this break in the action that Oxford made a momentous decision. In his subsequent report, the Chief Constable wrote that “the single offensive tactic we possessed, the baton charge, proved increasingly ineffective”. He now gave the order to use CS gas – the first time this had been deployed in mainland Britain. The New Statesman claimed nearly a fortnight later that a total of fifty-nine gas projectiles were fired in to the crowd to disperse them.
I can remember people telling me that they were in local drinking clubs in the small hours of Monday morning when CS gas wafted in from outside and left everybody choking. One story had it that a canister rolled through a grate and in to a basement club clearing the place. Obviously, all these anecdotes have to be taken with a requisite pinch of salt but nobody doubts that the air of Toxteth reeked of a foul smelling, choking gas.
The fear that Oxford claimed motivated his decision was the fact that Upper Parliament Street was a thoroughfare that led directly to the heart of the city. The rioters could not be allowed to break out of Liverpool 8 and in to Liverpool’s commercial heart.
But the Home Office authorised use of CS gas specifically to flush out armed gunmen, not as in this case to be directed at a crowd. Civil liberties campaigners, the New Statesman and Labour politicians, made this point in the days of heated debate that followed. Oxford countered that the canisters had been fired at walls and other objects like cars and anybody injured had been the unintended victim of a ricocheting canister. If this was the case then Phil Robins was spectacularly unlucky in that he was hit twice, in the chest and back, with one wound the size of an “egg shaped hole”.
The first night of the Toxteth riot coincided with a pitched battle between skinheads and Asian youth in the Southall district of London. After the first weekend of chaos in Liverpool, the Moss Side area of Manchester obligingly erupted with a one thousand strong mob surrounding a police station. From there, it was one so-called “copycat” riot after another across the country.
In Liverpool, a furniture warehouse owned by a former Conservative councillor went up in flames while more discerning rioters, according to the Conservative MP for suburban Wavertree Anthony Steen, even looted works of art. Steen’s local association operated a tea and coffee house called Thatcher’s that had all its windows smashed at a cost of £800 to replace. I recall this tea house being picketed by young Labour Party members in Thatcher masks to the consternation of the blue-rinse ladies within.
Having left his Auntie Ann in Speke, David felt he better check in on his sister Morag and her husband, John Flynn, as the riots had been happening very close to where they lived. All this talk on the TV of clashes on the streets made him extremely nervous. David was prone to bouts of anxiety and chewed his fingernails to the bone. To calm himself, David had a few drinks in the pub before knocking on Morag’s door.
He eventually got to John and Morag’s flat and watched the telly for a while with them. He then left but barely quarter of an hour later there was an insistent knocking at the front with David asking to be let back in. There had been trouble in the Grove Street area and he wanted to be accompanied to the bus stop.
David might just have been thrown off balance after finding out that his usual bus, the 72, had been re-routed away from the northern side of Upper Parliament Street and towards Smithdown Road and Lodge Lane. In order to get the right bus, it would have been more judicious to walk towards the city centre and away from the rioters but unknowingly, he and John decided to find a stop still in use on the Smithdown Road.
As the two men walked briskly past a new housing development, the land rose slightly in to a small grassed over hill. These patches of green masked an absence of houses either bombed away by the Luftwaffe or fallen victim to post-war town planners.
It was on this mound that a terrifying vision presented itself. First there was the sound of missiles thudding off the side of police vans and Molotov cocktails being thrown and exploding on impact. Cries of ‘Get Them!’ coming from either rioters or police, it was hard to tell.
A dark blue police van was engaging in a familiar riot control tactic of charging the demonstrators to disperse them. As it sped forward, the rioters bolted directly towards David and John. The expressions on their faces were full of anger and the two men froze in the face of the oncoming spectacle.
As the crowd overwhelmed them, they were separated with David trying to run but it was more of a pathetic hopping movement. John stayed on the grassy hill to avoid the police van but David craved the flat pavement where he could find his balance more easily.
John thought he heard David call to him as the van moved in the disabled man’s direction. With headlights full on and hovering between the grass and pavement, the vehicle was moving in David’s ill-chosen spot. All around, rioters were frantically climbing fences in to the housing estate to get away.
“I heard a sound like a soggy thump,” John would later recount.
As if in a bad dream, John moved towards the small crowd that had formed on the pavement and looked down. Four times, he claimed, he stared towards the prone figure but only on the fifth occasion could he assure himself that it was David.
The left side of his face was swollen and a gash had opened up on the right side leaving large fingers of blood streaked across his face. John tried to make sense of the contorted pattern on his brother-in-law’s neck before realising they were tyre marks.
Local Labour councillor Pauline Dunlop crouched over David in a scene that had an almost Pieta-like pathos. Captured on camera, Pauline looked in to the lens with a blank despair, recognising that very little could be done for the youth at her feet.
“He was unconscious and then regained consciousness for a few minutes before he went in the ambulance. He just said that his leg hurt, that he didn’t want this to happen, that he was not doing anything.”
Accounts of what had actually happened to David were embroidered with every telling. The most reliably witnesses saw him hit once at speed by the van. But that didn’t stop one teenager telling a journalist a more gruesome and widely circulating story.
“My mate seen it with his own eyes. The van ran over him once and then reversed and ran over him again on purpose.”
David’s mum was at home watching the TV when a firm knock came at the front door. The police officer found it almost impossible to relay the true situation and fumbled for a line about David being slightly injured and could Agnes Moore, known to her friends as ‘Nance’, ring the hospital to see if her son was being discharged soon.
Incredibly David was still alive and in great pain but his condition was extremely grave. As Charles and Diana processed down the aisle of Saint Paul’s cathedral in front of a global TV audience of 750 million, the most watched programme ever, Britons enjoyed a public holiday to mark the occasion.
The comedy team from the BBC’s ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ produced a pretty tame spoof souvenir programme called ‘Not the Royal Wedding’ with Griff Rhys Jones in drag as an unlikely Lady Di and Rowan Atkinson as Prince Charles. But most commentary was unreservedly glowing for the first marriage of a Prince of Wales since 1863. The multi-thousand guest list brought together the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan with comedian Spike Milligan and Nancy Reagan, wife of the US president in what was undeniably a glittering occasion.
For Agnes Moore though, the day brought the untimely death of her son. As news of this swept through Liverpool 8, youths gathered on street corners with renewed intent. Once again, the air filled with petrol bombs, stones and pieces of wood hailing down on police lines in what was to be the most severe outbreak of rioting since the first weekend in July.
Those who had seen David’s fatal accident didn’t seem to know what to make of it with 59 year old Lillian Pearse, a resident on St Nathaniel Street saying that the driver must have known he’d hit David but just drove on “at a hell of a speed”.
“If this lad had run away with the others down an alleyway he would have been all right.”
Ken Oxford, clearly stung by criticism of his previous tactics, pointed out that the tactic of driving at rioters, something he readily admitted was done, had to be preferable to using CS gas. “I would much rather use this form of dispersal,” he added.
David had the posthumous distinction of edging the Royal Wedding to one half of the front page of the Daily Post, Merseyside’s other main newspaper. “In Love” was proclaimed in bold, large type above an image of Charles and Diana kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. But next to the fairy tale romance was a smudgy image of David with the more sober warning “New Riot fears as man dies”.
For David’s mother, his passing away proved to be yet another hammer blow on top of so many that she had endured. Just two years earlier, her oldest son Malcolm had died at just 24 years of age of a sudden inflammation of the brain. He had been serving with the British Army in Northern Ireland, a familiar route out of dole misery for many working class boys.
In December, 1980, her husband had suffered a fatal heart attack while working as an engineer for the state run rail network, British Rail. And now, only seven months later – Agnes had to take on board the loss of David. The boy she had always enjoyed a close bond with as the weakest child of seven who needed that much more love and care.
For Auntie Ann, the pain was unbearable.
“My nerves just went. I went a bit hysterical then. I was screaming, top note. I’m sure the neighbours must have thought I’d hurt myself.”
For the rest of her life, Ann kept the bedroom that David slept in most Sunday nights as a kind of shrine. Agnes, meanwhile, got in to spiritualism having been informed by a medium that her disabled son was sitting in a chair in the house trying to speak to her. One of the last gifts David had given his mum was a yucca plant.
“It’s growing like anything,” she said admiringly, “he must come down and see to it himself.”
Emptying out my parents’ attic as they downsize, I opened a tatty plastic bag and out fell a load of political badges from the 1980s. These were worn with pride on my lapels at various demos back in the day. They date from about 1979, when I’d have been 16 years old through to around 1984 and the miners’ strike. As a snapshot of what we fought, cared and fretted about – they’re truly fascinating. And the language now seems a bit dated on some of them.
Take a look at the photos below and I’ll just chat through some of them. Nuclear arms – big obsessions. There were surveys at that time where most young people honestly believed there would be a nuclear catastrophe in their lifetime. Remember we had the Soviet Union versus Uncle Sam and in 1981, I went on the massive CND demo to Hyde Park. I remember one old dear screaming at me that I was as bad as those Hitler loving pacifists in the 1930s Peace Pledge Union. Another big demo that year was the People’s March for Jobs and you can see a big badge there for that.
The 1981 Brixton riots put the focus on the SUS laws – stop and search by police, which impacted on black kids a lot more than white. And it’s still an issue today – how depressing! The anti-racist badge saying “will you choose to abuse” seems a bit patronising and corny now – your views? Note the brilliant badge with Home Secretary William Whitelaw and his detergent that would whitewash police tactics over Brixton – still think that’s amusing.
On the global front – you had Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and of course we all know how much Thatcher liked him. There’s also a Polish Solidarnosc badge as the movement against Stalinism in that country took hold – then faltered. Spain had emerged from the Franco dictatorship and the socialist party – the PSOE – was about to take power. Though the promised socialist revolution never materialised.
Rhodesia gave way to Zimbabwe at the end of the 70s and you can see a badge there. Ireland and the ‘Troubles’ were a constant feature with bombings in the north and on the mainland UK. In 1979, Lord Mountbatten was blown up. Thank goodness that all seems like ancient history now.
Above all else – there was a visceral hatred of Thatcher. When I watch all these 80s progs saying we were all yuppies in that decade, it makes me furious. Nobody who was there would recognise that narrative. We were heavily polarised as a country. You either loved Maggie or hated her – and your style of dress and badges reflected that.
Two parties brought the Labour government of Jim Callaghan to its knees – the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists. Both might have ended up wondering if they’d done the right thing. The SNP was furious at Callaghan for not pushing through Scottish devolution.
Callaghan had let Scotland have a referendum on the condition that 40% of the electorate had to vote for devolution in order for it to progress. There was a majority at the ballot box for looser ties between Scotland and London – but the threshold wasn’t met. So Callaghan refused to take the matter further. The SNP tabled a no confidence vote and expected Liberal support – as they had now scrapped the Lib-Lab pact that had kept Callaghan’s minority government in power.
Callaghan joked rather drily that the SNP were the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas. As it turned out, Margaret Thatcher wasted no time tabling her own no confidence vote, which was passed and the Labour government was forced into a general election.
The result of this for the SNP was disastrous. Hard to believe now but Tories took Scottish constituencies like Galloway, Perth, Aberdeen East, Argyll, etc. The SNP was crushed down to two MPs from a high point of eleven MPs in the 1974 election. I remember that for much of the 1980s, the SNP were taunted as ‘Tartan Tories’ for their part in bringing Callaghan down.
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.
We all know that Thatcher defeated the miners in 1985 because Meryl Streep told us so. But Maggie’s fight with the National Union of Mineworkers didn’t go without some major hiccups along the way.
When the Tories came to power in 1979, they were determined on revenge for the perceived role the miners had in bringing down the 1970-1974 Ted Heath Conservative government.
The NUM was seen as the militant vanguard of the labour movement and if it could be cowed, then it would be a lot easier to push through the Thatcher agenda.
The government was determined to reduce subsidies to the nationalised industries, which in those days covered car making, steel, transport, gas, electricity and coal mining – amongst other things. So in 1980, legislation allowed Thatcher to remove operating subsidies from the coal industry. By 1981, the Coal Board was begging for more cash. The response was to announce the closure of 23 pits.
The NUM was led by Joe Gormley, who had been leader of the union in the Ted Heath years, and he demanded a reduction in coal imports and the restitution of subsidies to the industry. In a rare climbdown, Thatcher gave in. This was hailed as her first big U-turn since coming to power. So why did she do it?
You can rest assured it had nothing to do with the persuasiveness of Gormley’s arguments. What has since emerged was the existence of a plan drafted by right wing Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley – called the Ridley Plan.
Drafted after the 1974 miners strike, he secretly urged Tories to prepare with almost military precision for a titanic battle with the NUM. Coal stocks would have to be upped, imports of coal increased, money cut off for strikers, etc.
The reality in 1981 was that these preparations were not nailed down. Thatcher needed more time to prepare. And by 1984 – when she announced 20 pit closures – she was ready for the year long battle that ensued.