1981: Four riots and a royal wedding

A turning point in history It was 25 years ago today that millions bought into the fairytale when the Prince of Wales walked up the aisle with Lady Diana Spencer. It was, of course, all too good to be true. DJ Taylor looks back on an era when harsh reality began to catch up with the British people
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The average decade, Zeitgeist-hungry historians insist, rarely comes to an end at its precise chronological finishing straight. The pleasure-seeking 1920s, for example, are always supposed to have juddered to a symbolic halt on Monday 21 September 1931, the day Ramsay MacDonald's government announced that Britain would be leaving the gold standard, thereby inaugurating an era of austerity budgets and mass unemployment.

So when - to move forward half a century - did the 1970s end? On 3 May 1979, the day of Margaret Thatcher's first general election victory? On 2 April 1982, the day the Argentine army occupied the Falkland Islands? No, all the evidence suggests that this grim and unlovely stretch of time rolled into extinction 25 years ago today - on or at least around 29 July 1981 - marked, if not actually precipitated by, the marriage of a certain Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor, bachelor, and a ravishing scrap of English girlhood named Diana Frances Spencer.

Quite a lot of the young people lining the route or watching from the sofa that day would be older than the bride, herself only a month out of her teens. Three weeks in sight of my 21st birthday, back home from college for the long vacation to a back garden already parched by early-summer sun, most of what I remember about the day - a national holiday - is incidental: above all, a moment when, as the procession rolled triumphantly up the Mall, the television cameras dwelt for a moment on the carriage occupied by the King of Tonga.

His Majesty - gargantuan, beaming and clearly enjoying himself no end - was accompanied by a small, wizened personage in a morning suit, doubtless some kind of secretary or factotum. "Who's that then?" wondered one of the pub cognoscenti. "That," murmured my friend James with maximal political incorrectness "is his lunch".

For myself, traditionally-minded monarchist that I was, I can remember approving of the pageantry while appreciating the wider implications (how relieved Mrs Windsor must be at getting this somewhat problematic son off her hands) and thinking, even then, that there was something faintly odd going on.

A girl I met at Oxford had come across Lady Di at boarding school and remembered that, even at 14, her study bedroom was plastered with pictures of the heir to the throne. This suggested calculation. A few dissenting voices clamoured here and there - the feminist lobby produced some "Don't do it, Di!" badges and the Morning Star commented that the bride was the only unemployed school leaver with a single O-level pass that summer to walk into a job for life - but most people appeared to believe that a royal wedding was just the thing to ginger up and, however fleetingly, unite a nation that over the preceding six months had been subject to all kinds of unexpected frets and fractures.

The big pop hit that summer was "Ghost Town" by the Specials, a thoroughly eerie lament about urban blight. A month or two before it had been the Jam's "Funeral Pyre". Each, in its way, operated as a soundtrack to mounting national disquiet.

The unemployment figures were in excess of 2.5 million. As well as the summer sporting highlights - Botham's match-winning 149 not out against the Australians at Headingley, Sebastian Coe's world 800 metres record - the evening news bulletins tended to feature angry young men throwing petrol bombs at poorly protected policemen. Brixton, Southall, Toxteth and Moss Side went up in flames.

Elsewhere, the Queen had been shot at - blank cartridges, but even so - during the June Trooping of the Colour ceremony. Early May had brought the death of Bobby Sands, IRA hunger striker and very briefly, before his starvation-induced death, MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, running on an "anti-H-Block" ticket. Even Oxford undergrads - especially Oxford undergrads - weren't immune to the feelings of deep unease that these events unleashed. St John's College, which I attended, had a particularly lavish ball that summer.

"The unemployed Cowley mechanic who walks up St Giles next week ranting about the 'fucking students' has my sympathy," I can remember writing in some campus news-sheet. Even at this point jobs for arts graduates - that comfy niche at the BBC, those agreeable mornings spent devilling for some publisher or other - were becoming horribly thin on the ground. Everywhere you looked, from Fleet Street to the other side of the college quadrangle, the future had stopped being a rosy blur and become sharp, hard and tangible.

What were people so cross about? Mrs Thatcher had by this stage in her career been in office for a little over two years. The obvious answer, then, is to say that the insurgents on the streets of SW9 were making their opinions felt about "Thatcherism" - here defined as free-market economic liberalism, a firm hand on the money supply, contempt for organised labour and relative indifference to the fate of all those lame-duck public sector industries cheerfully draining the public purse.

And yet by early 1981, what the world now knows as Mrs Thatcher's legacy barely existed. The lady herself, although already not for turning, presided over a cabinet mostly assembled from the retinue of the man she had deposed: James Prior, Francis Pym and Norman St John-Stevas - Tory "wets", in the terminology of the time, who could not yet be dried out for fear of disturbing the fragile balance of a party that was moving rapidly rightward while trying to maintain its One-Nation sheen.

The economic situation, meanwhile, still looked like a desperate rerun from the era it had surpassed. The Tories came to power in May 1979 with an inflation rate running at 10 per cent and the first substantial chunk of North Sea oil revenues about to flow into the exchequer.

On the other hand, the Shah of Iran was about to go down at the hands of the mullahs, once again - as in 1973-74 - destabilising the world energy supply. Worse, all the pay disputes set simmering during the winter of discontent that had preceded Labour's fall were now coming to the boil. Worse still, in the pre-election feeding frenzy, the Conservatives had committed themselves to accepting the recommendations of the Clegg report into public-sector pay, which turned out to mean a roster of 20 per cent pay increases.

Come 1980, in other words, the Thatcher government was not so much leaning forward to embrace the challenges of a new decade as trying desperately to clear up the jumbo-sized mess left over from the previous 10 years of drift: high inflation, unchecked public spending and the pound turning into an over-priced petro-currency. All through 1980, as Mrs Thatcher and her allies tried to win the economic battle against their cabinet colleagues, jobless figures sky-rocketed while manufacturing output collapsed.

The first signs that this struggle had been concluded came with Geoffrey Howe's swingeing Budget of spring 1981 and the cabinet reshuffle, later that year, which brought such Thatcherite trustees as Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson to the No 10 table.

Not until October 1981 in fact could it be said that Mrs Thatcher was properly in control of her own administration. Two months after this, several thousands of miles away across the South Atlantic, a hitherto obscure general named Galtieri was sworn in as president of Argentina. The rest you know.

And if the nation's governing party was rapidly realigning itself to find the room for manoeuvre its manifesto had promised, so too was the opposition. Labour, having made the disastrous mistake of electing Michael Foot as leader in place of Denis Healey, was suffering serial desertions to the newly formed Social Democratic Party. I saw David Owen in action before the Oxford Fabians a month or so before he left and it was wholly electrifying: you had the feeling - a cliché, I know, but no other phrase quite sums up the sparkle of Owen's contempt for some of his erstwhile colleagues - that history was being made. By mid-1981 the SDP had concluded a full-blown alliance with David Steel's Liberals and were limbering up for their first by-election victories.

Twenty-five years later, in a world of relative political inertia, a landscape controlled in any case by the corporate battalions rather than individual politicians, it is difficult to convey the excitement - and also the deep unease - of being 20 in 1981. Each morning's paper brought some revelation that seemed ripe to dismember the body politic: another stash of petrol bombs in Coldharbour Lane; another Labour MP ostentatiously crossing the floor; another harangue from Mrs T about the futility of printing more money to pay for things the country couldn't afford; the 364 economists writing to The Times to disparage government economic policy.

Even down on the normally sedate walkways of the arts something seemed to be stirring; everywhere about, ancient procedural decencies were ready for superannuation. Channel 4's launch was in sight. The big novel of 1981, eventually scooping the Booker after a tremendous head-to-head with D M Thomas's The White Hotel, was Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which in an environment previously crawled over by such luminaries of the form as Kingsley Amis and John Fowles seemed an almost revolutionary artefact.

I can remember, not long afterwards, Rushdie attending an arts festival in Oxford where he sat on a panel with Malcolm Bradbury and Melvyn Bragg. Was it not the case, an earnest young undergraduate - myself, as it happens - demanded of these gentlemen, that the modest works of social realism espoused by Mr Bragg here were irrevocably washed up on the rocks of Rushdie-style innovation? Bragg argued manfully in his defence, Rushdie was politely non-committal, but the hint was clear. In the world of books, just as in politics, the writing, to use James Prior's phrase, was on the wall.

The writing was on the wall, too, though we didn't yet know it, for that monarchical consensus picturesquely symbolised by that celebrated kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony. The next 15 years would bring a tide of horror stories - the bulimia, the suicide attempts, the adulteries, the three-person marriage - all calculated to demonstrate a fact that the royal public relations machine had kept sedulously under wraps for a century - that members of the Royal Family are subject to the same passions and frailties as anyone else.

At the time, though, it was still possible to believe - or perhaps only possible to want to believe - that this diffident and uncomfortable royal princeling and his Bambi-eyed bride represented some curious abstract assemblage of statehood that we could all of us - rich man in castle, poor man at gate - cling to and admire.

In retrospect, nearly everything that happened in the period 1979-81 was a pivot for some dramatic revolution in our national life, from the way in which people read books to the way in which they thought about kings and queens.

Gramsci's famous epigram about the past being not yet dead, the future not yet born and a variety of morbid symptoms emerging to beguile the interim is a bit too over-quoted these days, but that was how it felt to be a concerned young person in the summer of 1981: a frisson that was both collective and personal, hedged about with the thought that, to paraphrase Anthony Powell, so many hitherto unfamiliar forces in one's life were now about to become uncompromisingly clear.