The Eighties: Another country

From the Falklands and the miners' strike to Diana and Live Aid, it was a decade that changed our world. And the legacy of the Eighties lives on, argues Andy McSmith
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The Independent Online

The angry noises wafting out of Manchester, where trade union leaders are holding their annual conference, has naturally prompted people to ask whether we are about to be plunged into a round of social and industrial conflict reminiscent of 30 years ago. Is life under this Coalition Government really going to be like it was under Margaret Thatcher?

Nostalgia for the 1980s is back in a big way, taking all manner of forms, most of them less alarming than the prospect of a revival of industrial unrest. For a long time, the 1960s swept all before them in the nostalgia market, as baby boomers tried to remember whether the Beatle era really was as groovy as they have been told, or as dull as their recollections. But Sixties nostalgia has become as dated as flared trousers. You need to be about 60 years old to be able to boast that you must have been there, because you can't remember them. People who were born 20 years too late to put flowers in their hair have now reached their forties, and have the money and influence to dictate fashion.

The moment when they passed from childhood into their teens was at the time when there was a woman Prime Minister, when there was a war fought over some faraway islands called the Falklands, when the Aids virus made its first deadly appearance, and hours upon hours were expended trying to solve the Rubik's Cube. It was the decade that saw CDs, home computers, video recorders, bar codes, satellite television and mobile phones as heavy as bricks enter everyday life, and Britain's biggest superstar was a young woman who was famous for one thing only – that she had married a prince.

In the USA, the 1980s are called "the decade of greed", typified by the corrupt Wall Street financier Ivan Boesky, who told an audience in California that "you can be greedy and feel good about yourself". In the UK, the story of the decade is more layered. In the latter part of the Eighties there was an outbreak of what became known as the "loadsamoney" culture. The British did not have a real-life capitalist villain to embody the new mood, but we did have a comic character created by Harry Enfield, a plasterer who had so much ready cash and so revelled in his wealth, that when the cash machine saw him coming it leapt off the wall and legged it down the street to escape him.

There was a lot of ready money around in the latter part of the 1980s available to those lucky enough to be employed. People could borrow huge sums, in a way that had been impossible a few years earlier. More people owned their homes and held shares than ever before, and there was a vast selection of new gadgets on sale at affordable prices.

But that is not the full story. The 1980s was a decade of two halves. In the second half, the majority enjoyed a standard of living way above what had been available for their parents' generation. The first half was a time of riots, strikes and civil strife, when an epic battle took place over how the country was to be governed and what sort of society Britain was to be.

The short answer to those who wonder whether the old battles are about to be refought is "no, not in the foreseeable future". Because the outcome of the struggles waged in the early 1980s was so conclusive that what was settled then has never been seriously challenged since. The way our political and economic system works now is determined by a settlement reached 25 years ago.

At the beginning of the 1980s, there was a continuing struggle between competing political systems. East of a line that ran through Germany, people lived under the Communist system, which appeared to be unchanging and irreversible. West of that line, there was inflation, recession and civil unrest. People seriously wondered how long capitalism would survive under the strain. Tony Benn and the authors of the Labour Party's 1983 election manifesto, the leaders of the 1985-86 miners' strike, and some of the council leaders who became embroiled in a confrontation with central government in the mid-1980s were not just trying to improve the way the capitalist system worked; they were hoping, in the long run, to nudge it out of existence and replace it with something better.

None of the current contenders for the Labour Party leadership has set his or her sights so high. They, and most of the union leaders assembled in Manchester, would be content to make a few improvements here and there. These days, the word "capitalism" hardly crops up in conversation, because there is no visible alternative. It is implicitly assumed capitalism will last for ever.

None of this was true in the frenzied atmosphere of the early 1980s, when politics was so pervasive that it even invaded the music charts. The television show Spitting Image, featuring hideous latex puppets, indulged in political satire more savage than anything the BBC would have dared broadcast in the 1960s. Ben Elton thought nothing of turning a political diatribe into a comic monologue on Friday Night Live.

The riots that tore Brixton apart in April 1981 were played out to the musical accompaniment of an extraordinary track called "Ghost Town" by The Specials, a haunting evocation of inner city decay which made it to No 1. Nothing quite like it has topped the charts since.

The Vietnam War, which had never troubled the British charts in the 1960s, made its appearance in the No 1 slot in 1985, in the form of "19", by Paul Hardcastle. The song's title was the average age of US soldiers in Vietnam. Among other musical curios from the same half-decade we find "Stand Down Margaret" by The Beat, from Birmingham, which represents the only occasion in history in which a demand for the prime minister's resignation has graced the charts. Another Birmingham band, UB40, took its name from the form Unemployment Benefit 40, with which too many fans were familiar. Their debut album, Signing Off, made No 2.

In 1982, a member of the Communist party, Robert Wyatt, made a hit out of "Shipbuilding", written by Elvis Costello, based on reports that run-down shipyards were suddenly back in business because of the Falklands War. Earlier, Paul Weller had been so enraged by images of Eton pupils jeering at Right to Work marchers that he wrote "Eton Rifles", which reached No 3.

In 1985, Billy Bragg and his manager, Pete Jenner, launched Red Wedge, a loose association of young artists whose avowed aim was to secure victory for the Labour Party in the 1987 general election. This was partly a reaction to the troupe of generally older performers who had come out for the Conservatives in 1983. They included, notoriously, Kenny Everett, who went on stage at a Conservative rally to declare: "Let's bomb Russia" and "Let's Kick Michael Foot's stick away" – the latter a reference to the 70-year-old leader of the Labour Party, who used a walking stick.

Red Wedge failed to make a dent in the Conservative majority in the House of Commons, but they had a lot of fun on the way to a failure, drawing in a crowd of performers that included Paul Weller, Jimmy Somerville, Tom Robinson, Morrissey, Suggs, Lenny Henry, Harry Enfield, Ben Elton, and many more.

But even as an unusual number of artists were engaging in politics, others were consciously refusing to, in reaction to the times. Commercially, one of the most successful groups of the decade was Duran Duran. Its members were united in their ambition to dress beautifully and make as much money as they could. "The champagne-swilling, yacht-sailing Duran Duran touted 'playboyeurism' and a new pop superficiality," their rival, Boy George, who was a more complex figure, wrote in his memoirs. "Suddenly it was OK to be rich, famous and feel no shame. Some saw it as the natural consequence of Thatcherism."

Despite this scathing verdict, Boy George, who came from a large London-Irish working-class family understood perfectly that people who are struggling by with bleak prospects do not necessarily want to be reminded of their circumstances, especially if they are young. They want an escape, to be sold a dream, which is what groups like Duran Duran and Culture Club did for them, in a way that The Specials did not.

So did Princess Diana, Duran Duran's most famous fan. Though she was pure aristocracy by birth, her attitude to life, shaped by reading tabloid newspapers and the romantic novels of Barbara Cartland, made Diana seem like an ordinary 19-year-old than she actually was. Teenage girls who had not the slightest prospect of marrying anyone with a fraction of Prince Charles's wealth could identify with the nursery nurse who looked shyly out on the world from behind the protective cover of a blonde fringe.

The popularity of the British monarchy, generally, is in inverse proportion to how well things are going in society at large. In times of crisis, the Royal Family is a reassuring symbol of unity and continuity; when things are quiet, it looks more like a pointlessly expensive pageant. In the early 1980s, British society was very divided indeed, and Diana's entry into the royal soap opera made the monarchy more popular than at any time since the war. The truth about her dysfunctional relationship with Charles did not seep out until the 1990s.

In one month, July 1981, police used CS gas for the first time on mainland Britain to disperse a riot in Toxteth, in Liverpool; there were also riots in Southall, Birmingham, Blackburn, Derby, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Preston and Wolverhampton; in Belfast, three more IRA hunger strikes in the prison complex known as H Block died of starvation, bringing the toll since the death of Bobby Sands in May to seven. Each death set off a riot. Dublin saw its worst disturbance in 30 years on 18 July, when 15,000 demonstrators clashed with police. None of these events evoked half as much interest or comment as the breathless speculation that surrounded the royal wedding. Were the couple truly in love? What did Diana's ring cost? Will she wear something borrowed and something blue? Will she vow to "obey" Charles? Should we watch the television at home or in the pub?

Such were the big issues that the nation discussed while Toxteth and Belfast went up in flames during the run up to the day itself, 29 July, which was declared a national holiday. A crowd of 600,000 lined the streets along the route to Westminster Abbey. An estimated 650 million worldwide watched the event on television.

The troubled years came to a sudden end in 1985. By then, the political left had suffered a sequence of defeats, partly because the Labour Party was at war with itself, but mainly because economic progress had overtaken them. Privatisation, the sale of council houses, the spread of share ownership and the soaraway success of The Sun newspaper were encouraging people towards individual aspiration in place of collective action. The capitalist system was spilling new inventions into the home, while the only invention to come out of the stagnating Communist bloc was the Rubik's Cube, the brainchild of a lone Hungarian professor.

The seminal political event of 1985, and indeed of the whole decade, was in March, when the miners went back to work after a strike that had lasted an entire year. The National Union of Mineworkers, led by the charismatic Arthur Scargill, had been the strongest union in the country, the battering ram of the socialist movement. When the miners were beaten, the left knew that – for now – the game was up.

It is often written that Tony Blair expunged the idea of state ownership from Labour's programme when he took over the leadership in 1994; actually, all he did was draw attention to something that had already happened. The party that had been founded on the declared purpose of securing common ownership of the means of production abandoned that idea in the late 1980s.

Very soon after the defeat of the miners, there followed one more sensational event – the Live Aid concert of 13 July 1985, which is reputed to have been watched on live television by 1.5 billion people, and raised £30m in a single day towards famine relief in Africa. It brought together the political rock stars, like Paul Weller, and those who had consciously shunned politics, like Spandau Ballet, whose drummer, on being asked to say something about famine-ridden Ethiopia, apologised for the fact that the band had not toured there yet. Everybody – left wing, right wing, or apolitical – could agree that famine in Africa was bad. It was also a pleasant demonstration that after so much strife, and with Thatcher triumphant, the British could still put on a display of world beating generosity.

Andy McSmith's book 'No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s' is published by Constable (£14.99). To pre-order a copy for the special price of £13.49 (including free P&P) visit