The economic rises of the 1970s and the prolonged period of high unemployment in the 1980s put a great stain on social cohesion.
Social tensions were intensified and attitudes polarised. The ideology of Thatcherism, with its emphasis on individualism and Thatcher’s claim ‘there is no such thing as society’, seemed to be a direct attack on the ideas of the welfare state and civic responsibility. At the same time, long-term economic trends were changing Britain’s industrial society. The old, labour-intensive industries were facing challenges from foreign completion and from technological innovation.
The combination of political pressures from above, and social and economic changes from below resulted in recurrent social upheavals: the winter of discontent, serious urban rioting in inner cities, the great miners’ strike of 1984-85, and the emergence of radical extra-parliamentary opposition.
The three factors affecting demographic trends in Britain after 1975 were:
1979: 7.1 1981: 6.1 1984: 5.3 1987: 5.1 1990: 5.0
Long-term trends were shifting economic activity towards London and the south, changing the face of many towns and cities and fundamentally altering perceptions about class loyalties.
The population of Britain increased from 56 million in 1975 to 58 million by 1990. However, there were periods of stagnation. In the three years from 1975 to 1978, the population actually began to fall. These fluctuations in the population reflected the economic and social background of the time. For five years running in the 1980s, more than 3 million people were unemployed.
Immigration continued to be a source of social concern. There was a steady flow of immigrants from the sub-continent. Indians came mostly from an urban background and tended to assimilate more easily than those who came from rural Pakistan. There was also a sudden rush of immigrants from Bangladesh after its breakaway from Pakistan in 1974. By the late 1970s, the Brick Lane of London was known as ‘Banglatown’ because so many immigrants were concentrated there. The Asian population of Bradford reached nearly 50,000.
The National Front became very active in parts of London where immigrants had settled, such as Brick Lane and Southall. Alongside the key issue of unemployment, race was also a factor in the urban violence that occurred in 1981 and 1985. The Thatcher government acted on the belief that immigration was a growing problem; a new Immigration Act was passed in 1981. Conversely, it was clear that British life simply could not have carried on functioning without the migrants’ contribution. The Transport system, hospitals and the hotel industry were heavily dependent on recruiting workers from abroad. Many local communities would have had few if any restaurants or corner shops if it had not been for the Asians from the Indian sub-continent or Hong Kong.
The social impact of Thatcherism
Impact of privatisations and the sale of council houses
A key aim of the Thatcher government was to turn Britain into a property-owning democracy. This was part of ‘rolling back the state’ and placing emphasis on self-reliance and the private sector.
The privatisation of previously state-controlled industries involved intense public campaigns designed to increase share ownership by ordinary people. Between 1979 and 1990, the number of individuals owning stocks and shares went up from 3 million to 9 million. Privatisation brought a great deal of revenue for the government and was popular with most of the middle classes. It did, however, make life more insecure for many employees. Some lost jobs as the privatised enterprises cut back on staff. Others found that they could no longer rely on long-term job security and reliable pension provision.
The enterprise culture aroused hostility from those working in the public sector. The unions representing public sector workers, such as COHSE and NUPE, became more militant. The teachers’ union, never previously associated with industrial unrest, carried on a lengthy dispute over working conditions until the mid-1980s.
The Housing Act of 1980, giving the ‘Right to Buy’ to council house tenants, was enormously successful in that huge numbers of people opted to buy their homes. By 1988, approximately 2 million new homeowners had taken advantage of the scheme to buy the homes they had previously rented. One reason the Right to Buy was so popular was due to the generous discounts: the purchase price was much lower than on the open property market. The 1980 Act is regarded as one of the most successful of all of Thatcher’s policies, a big step towards social mobility and a ‘property-owning democracy’. The Labour Party initially opposed the Right to Buy but later dropped its opposition because it was so popular with the public.
However, the sale of council housing was predominantly in better-off areas and did not have a great impact in less desirable estates. Councils were ordered to use the profits from council house sales to reduce debts, not to build new council housing. The number and quality of homes available for rent was sharply reduced. With no programme to rebuild the stock of council housing, waiting lists for rented homes grew longer. Many people were housed in emergency B & B accommodations which was expensive for councils to provide and not always suitable for the families involved. In 2005, such problems caused the Scottish Executive to terminate the Right to Buy in Scotland.
By 1975, the old traditional union bosses were beginning to lose control over their membership. Local wildcat strikes became much more common. Moderate union leaders came under pressure from younger radical activists. The rash of public sector strikes in the winter of discontent was a symbol of these changes.
The role of unions was constrained by new laws and the determination of some employers to keep the unions out of their workplaces. In 1977, strikers at the Grunwick photographic laboratories in Warrington faced a bitter struggle against their employer, who was determined to exclude union members. Newspaper proprietors, led by the Australian press baron Rupert Murdoch, went all out to reduce the power of the print unions. There was a major confrontation at Murdoch’s Wapping plant in 1986. Over the next few years the old Fleet Street monopoly in newspaper production disappeared forever.
Workers found their traditional skills were not in demand because they had been rendered out of date by mechanisation or by flexible working practices. The longest and most symbolic episode in the industrial struggles of this period was the miners’ strike in 1984-85. The failure of the strike led to massive pit closures and job losses. The defeat of the strike reduced the influence of the whole union movement, not just the NUM. By 1990, the total trade union membership had fallen by 30 per cent since 1975.
In areas that had never known anything else but coalmines, shipyards and steelworks, people faced painful adjustments. There was high male unemployment; in many homes women became the main breadwinner. There were increased problems of ill health and depression, and also alcoholism and drugs. Young people could no longer expect to follow their fathers into work. Many were forced to move away.
Arthur Scargill launched the miners’ strike in a bid to prevent the downsizing of the coal industry. The strike was highly politicised and there were numerous confrontations between striking miners and the police such as June 1984’s Battle of Orgreave where 5,000 mass picketing miners were faced by up to 8,000 police.
The outcome of Scargill’s campaign to prevent pit closures was utter failure. In 1979, the coal industry employed 200,000; by 1990, the total was down to 60,000 and still falling. By the 1980s, ‘King Coal’ was supplying only 20 per cent of Britain’s energy needs, far less than oil and gas. The future seemed to be more about ‘clean’ nuclear power than ‘dirty’ coal.
The industrial changes that lay behind the miners’ strike were reflected in many social trends in the 1980s. There was urban decay of many inner city areas and the intensification of social problems, including youth violence. These problems were exacerbated by high unemployment. Even before the violent confrontations of the miners strike, a series of violent urban disturbances had seemed to indicate that social cohesion was breaking down.
In 1980 and 1981, serious rioting in Bristol, Liverpool and south London led to a public enquiry headed by Lord Scarman. The Scarman Report criticised both the police and the government and highlighted the issue of race relations - according to the report, ‘radical disadvantage is a fact of British life’ - and called for greater emphasis on community policing. There were further outbreaks of violent rioting and attacks on the police in 1985, in Brixton again and in Tonnenham, north London.
From 1958, the most significant protest movement in Britain had been the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. CND continued to attract a great deal of support and was giving a new lease of life by Thatcher’s determined backing for the policy of deterrence and stepping up the arms race against the USSR in the so-called New Cold War of the early 1980s. Other protest movements reflected the polarisation of attitudes in response to Mrs Thatcher and the widespread perception that the weakness of the opposition political parties had left a void that needed to be filled by direct action.
Among these movements were charities such as Shelter and Age Concern. The Church of England, so often seen as part of the Establishment, began to intervene in the public debate over social breakdown. Throughout the 1980s, the Catholic and Anglican bishops of Liverpool, Derek Worlock and David Sheppard were very active in campaigning for more action to help the poor and to maintain social cohesion.
The Animal Liberation Front switched from non-violence to ‘ecoterrorism’ from 1982. There were arson attacks on pharmaceutical companies that tested drugs on animals and letter bombs were sent to public figures, including Mrs Thatcher. Support for environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth went up. Other supporters of the trend towards direct action were the Greenham women and the anti-poll tax protesters.
In 1979, the decision was taken to station American Cruise missiles at bases in Britain. In reaction to this, CND organised mass protest marches reminiscent of the Aldermaston marches twenty years earlier. This time the epicentre of protest was RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire. In September 1981 a group of women protestors set up a camp outside the Greenham Common base. Other women joined them there as the camp became a focal point for feminism as well as pacifism; the camp was to remain in place for nineteen years.
In April 1983, when the Cruise missiles were due to arrive, a 14-mile human chain of protest stretched from Greenham to Aldermaston. The Greenham women attracted a great deal of publicity and did much to dramatise the role of feminism in the protest movement. In 1984, the Newbury local council evicted the women and demolished the camp. The women returned after dark and rebuilt it.
In her third term from 1987, Thatcher was determined to push through a major reform of the system of financing local governments. She wished to move away from rates (paid according to the value of people’s homes and businesses) to a system based on a ‘community charge’ paid by individuals. Who paid the charge would be decided by reference to the electoral register, hence the name ‘poll tax’. In one sense, this system would be fairer: for example, it would prevent elderly pensioners from paying high rates because they happened to live in a large house. In another sense, it could be seen as extremely unfair because everyone liable too pay would pay the same, no matter how wealthy they were. Whatever its merits, the poll tax became wildly unpopular. Thatcher’s determination to push it through, in spite of being strongly advised not to by many of her ministers, was a significant factor in the collapse of the Conservatives in the opinion polls in 1990.
In November 1989, the Militant Tendency set up the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. On 31 March 1990, the weekend before the community charge was to come into operation, a huge demonstration was planned to take place in Trafalgar Square. It was expected that 60,000 people would turn up but the number was around 200,000 - 250,000. The surrounding streets were choked by the crowds. Fighting and scuffles broke out. The disturbance escalated into a major riot. Nearly 5,000 people were injured, mostly rioters but also numerous police officers and many bystanders who had nothing to do with the demonstration. Cars were overturned and set on fire. Many shop windows were smashed, followed by extensive looting. Over 300 arrests were made. The police were seen to have lost control.