On the last Sunday of 1980, Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary Bernard Ingham forwarded a newspaper clipping to his boss. It concerned the latest edition of Old Moore’s Almanack, which had been forecasting the future for almost three centuries.
Looking forward to 1981, the almanac was in bullish form. After years of decline, it claimed, Britain’s ‘prestige and reputation in the world’ were about to undergo a dramatic recovery.
And Old Moore knew who would deserve the credit. ‘There are rare moments in history when one man or woman can, almost alone, shape the future of a nation,’ it said. ‘Now is such a moment. Margaret Thatcher is such a woman…it is impossible to imagine that she will pass from power before her mission to heal and regenerate Britain is complete.’
On the last Sunday of 1980, Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary Bernard Ingham forwarded a newspaper clipping to his boss. It concerned the latest edition of Old Moore’s Almanack, which had been forecasting the future for almost three centuries. Looking forward to 1981, the almanac was in bullish form. After years of decline, it claimed, Britain’s ‘prestige and reputation in the world’ were about to undergo a dramatic recovery
This was stirring stuff. At the time, though, it seemed merely a blackly ironic curtain-raiser for the bleakest 12 months in Britain’s post-war history.
Today, with Parliament paralysed by Brexit, the Supreme Court blowing a hole in the Government’s strategy, our MPs screaming and howling across the Commons, the Prime Minister besieged by accusations that he incited violence, the Labour Party proposing to seize private property and the entire political atmosphere poisoned by tribalism, extremism and intolerance, it is often said that our country has never been in such a wretched condition.
More from Dominic Sandbrook for the Daily Mail…
But despite the disgraceful scenes in the Commons this week, this diagnosis is not true. For the events of 1981, which saw the economy in ruins, the dole queues mounting, the inner cities torn apart by violent rioting and Northern Ireland convulsed by sectarian bloodshed, make the Brexit convulsions look like a vicar’s tea party.
Britain had entered the 1980s in a miserable condition. For more than a decade, the public had been battered by one bad headline after another.
And although most people were better off than ever, the national experience in recent years looked like a long nightmare of post-imperial retreat, economic indiscipline and industrial decline.
Abroad, Britain was routinely lampooned as the Sick Man of Europe.
The American travel writer Paul Theroux, who had moved to London, told his compatriots that ‘Britain has a relatively low standard of living, a poor choice of consumer goods, bungling and slowness at all levels and a mañana attitude that infuriates even Spaniards’. In the summer of 1979, the Press got hold of a leaked Foreign Office cable by Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain’s ambassador in Paris.
‘You only have to move about Western Europe nowadays to realise how poor and unproud the British have become in relation to their neighbours,’ Henderson wrote.
‘It shows in the look of our towns, in our airports, in our hospitals and in local amenities; it is painfully apparent in much of our railway system.’
Few people disagreed with his analysis. ‘We are not a society at peace with ourselves,’ lamented the journalist Louis Heren in his state- of-the-nation survey Alas, Alas For England. ‘Most of us are no longer proud of being British.’
This was what Margaret Thatcher, the Grantham grammar school girl, had been elected to fix.
‘I can’t bear Britain in decline. I just can’t,’ she told the BBC just before the 1979 General Election.
Yet, in 1981, Margaret Thatcher faced wide scale rioting across Northern Ireland following the deaths of Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers
‘We who either defeated or rescued half Europe, who kept half Europe free, when otherwise it would be in chains! And look at us now!’
But within months, Mrs Thatcher’s rescue mission had turned into an unmitigated disaster. With interest rates soaring, the economy had lurched into a devastating recession. Every month thousands of people joined the dole queues; almost every week brought a shattering new factory closure.
As British industry buckled under the pressure of falling international demand and excruciatingly high exchange rate, an entire way of life was crumbling into dust.
Every single day brought more job losses: 740 tractor makers in Doncaster, 125 engineers in Derby, 500 potters in Stoke-on-Trent, 600 diesel-engine makers in Darlington, 9,000 truck makers in Lancashire, 680 Massey Ferguson employees in Coventry, 1,600 paper millers in Ellesmere Port …on and on and on.
As unemployment surged towards three million, a beleaguered Prime Minister insisted that this was merely a brief episode of shock therapy before the inevitable recovery.
But that was not how it seemed at the time. And despite her Iron Lady reputation, she often cut a lonely, insecure figure, the victim of events rather than their master.
In Basle on May 30, 1981, Switzerland beat England 2-1 in a World Cup Qualifier which led to rioting bringing shame upon the nation
The year 1981 began with a challenge from the National Union of Mineworkers, who were outraged by plans to close 23 loss-making pits. Contrary to her fearsome reputation, Mrs Thatcher blinked.
With coal stocks too low to survive a strike, she told her ministers to back down. ‘The lady said she was not for turning,’ gloated the leader of Nottinghamshire’s miners, ‘but now she has become an expert in doing double somersaults.’
In March her Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, presented his latest Budget, which piled on the pain to cut government borrowing.
Not only did Howe put up taxes on petrol, beer, wine and cigarettes, he refused to increase income tax allowances by 15 per cent in line with inflation. ‘You Name It —He’s Taxed It!’ howled one tabloid headline.
By now Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was in desperate trouble. No fewer than 364 eminent economists, including five former government chief economic advisers, signed a letter to The Times insisting that her harsh medicine would turn the recession into a new Great Depression. At Westminster, rumours swirled of an imminent coup by her Tory critics.
After a trip to Number 10, her old speechwriter Ronald Millar told a friend that he ‘thought MT was pinched, thinner in the face and had obviously been under a lot of strain. She needed a boost to her morale.’
But no boost came. Instead, things got even worse.
Also in 1981, there was rioting in Brixton, which the destruction of property in south London. More than 450 people were injured and 200 cars were destroyed
Muggings, burglaries, assaults and homicides surged to record levels — and many people wondered what had gone wrong.
In his diary, Carry On star Kenneth Williams recorded that it was ‘getting a more barbaric world in every way, compared with the world I knew in my youth’.
And as travel writer Paul Theroux journeyed along the British coast, he was struck by the alienation, the graffiti, the sense of looming physical threat. ‘England — perhaps the whole of Britain,’ he wrote, ‘was changing into a poorer, more violent place.’ Fears of violence reached a climax in the spring of 1981 as a succession of horrifying events suggested the very fabric of the nation was being ripped apart.
The first came in Northern Ireland, where for more than a decade, the British Army had been embroiled in a dirty, vicious sectarian conflict between IRA terrorists and thuggish Loyalist vigilante groups.
On becoming Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher had inherited from Labour a policy of treating IRA prisoners like common criminals, denying them political status. But in March 1981, the inmates of the Maze prison, Belfast, began a hunger strike, hoping to force her to yield their political status.
But they had disastrously underestimated her. ‘Murder is criminal. Violence is criminal. It will stay that way. That hunger strike will achieve nothing,’ she said five days later. She meant every word.
Muggings, burglaries, assaults and homicides surged to record levels — and many people wondered what had gone wrong
As the weeks went by, the hunger strikers’ march of death continued towards its inevitable conclusion. In the early hours of May 5, their leader, the 27-year-old Bobby Sands, died in the hunger strike. In Belfast rioting broke out almost immediately, with petrol bombs thrown at police stations and factories.
Throughout the day, the Government’s Northern Ireland office reported news of ‘petrol and acid bombs, barricades, hijackings, malicious fires and even bolts from a crossbow’.
In the most shocking incident, a Protestant milkman, Eric Guiney, and his 14-year-old son Desmond died when their float overturned after being attacked by a mob.
But the world had eyes only for Sands. In the next few weeks, during the rioting after his death, it seemed as if British society was crumbling under the pressure of the economic downturn.
On May 30, England’s footballers were in Basel to play lowly Switzerland in a World Cup qualifier. Embarrassingly, they lost 2-1. But the next day’s front pages belonged to their rioting fans, who not only attacked dumbfounded Swiss supporters but battered a security man with — of all things — a Union Jack flagpole.
Even in an era of apparently uncontrollable hooliganism, it was a genuinely shocking story.
All this was bad enough. Yet the fighting in Belfast and Basel was merely a taste of worse to come
As one paper put it, ‘we leave our mark in Europe not through the skill of our players but by the riots, wreckage, vandalism, arrests and deportations of those who follow them’. The Union Jack, said another, had become a ‘flag of shame’.
All this was bad enough. Yet the fighting in Belfast and Basel was merely a taste of worse to come.
For years, people had been warning that the growing tension between the police and immigrant communities in rundown inner-city areas was bound to produce an explosion. Places like Brixton, South London, and Toxteth, Liverpool, were already badly scarred by crime, poverty and unemployment, with the jobless rate among young black men approaching 80 per cent.
Black and Asian Britons complained of harassment and intimidation by the police, who made no secret of their racist prejudices. ‘Most n******’, one Met constable told an interviewer, were ‘just dirty, smelly backward people who will never change in a month of Sundays’.
In April 1980 there had already been a grim warning in St Paul’s, Bristol, when 25 people were badly injured after a night of fighting between black residents and the police. But this was as nothing compared with the anarchy in Brixton a year later.
After days of rising tension, the explosion came on April 11, 1981, when fighting broke out between young black men and the Metropolitan Police.
One policeman thought it ‘looked like World War III. Cars blazing, people running everywhere’. Another said it was ‘like Beirut, not London. It was like another country’.
The Brixton riots were the most violent disturbances of the 20th century, with more than 450 people injured, 207 vehicles destroyed, 145 buildings burned or vandalised and 354 people arrested. Then, a few weeks later, in Toxteth, came the inevitable sequel.
The police seemed powerless. They were ready to face bricks and stones; they were not prepared, however, to face rioters with axes and sledgehammers, trying to run them down with cars and fire engines, or dousing them with petrol and trying to set them alight.
‘No amount of training can prepare you for that. I hope to God I never see anything like it again,’ one officer said. ‘I realised, standing there with a shield, that people out there wanted me dead.’
Britain seemed to be spiralling into an endless cycle of violence. Next came rioting in Southall, West London, and Moss Side, Manchester.
The police seemed powerless. They were ready to face bricks and stones; they were not prepared, however, to face rioters with axes and sledgehammers, trying to run them down with cars and fire engines, or dousing them with petrol and trying to set them alight
Then came reports of fighting in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Southampton, Portsmouth, Luton, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Blackburn, Preston and Blackpool, as well as countless other cities and towns across the country.
Here, it seemed, was more proof that Britain was trapped in a terrible cycle of national decline. But now it was clear that the disease was as much moral as it was economic, the symptoms bloodied policemen, burned-out cars and looted shops.
For years, people had reassured themselves that Britain was ‘still one of the most pleasant countries in which to live, a comfortable society renowned for tolerance and gentleness’. Not any more. ‘Now that too seems to have been exposed as a false dream.’
For Mrs Thatcher, the riots were a disaster. Ireland, inflation, unemployment; rioting, fighting, demonstrations.
It felt like the 1970s on fast-forward, the Government lurching from crisis to crisis, the headlines ever more depressing, the atmosphere ever more embittered.
From his concrete fastness in Grosvenor Square, the U.S. Ambassador, John Louis, filed a bleak report on the ‘troubling political, social, and economic drift’ in Britain
From his concrete fastness in Grosvenor Square, the U.S. Ambassador, John Louis, filed a bleak report on the ‘troubling political, social, and economic drift’ in Britain.
Mrs Thatcher had clearly ‘lost her grip on the political rudder’, while the Labour Party ‘could prove harmful to our security interests’.
Whatever happened next, the ambassador reported, Britain was facing a future of ‘political turbulence’ that could seriously damage ‘the country’s reliability as a U.S. ally’.
It was no accident that the ambassador identified the Labour Party as a serious problem. For even as the cities were burning and the dole queues lengthening, Her Majesty’s Opposition was tearing itself apart.
After losing the 1979 General Election, Labour had lurched towards the hard Left.
A year later its party conference voted to scrap Britain’s nuclear weapons, shut down all U.S. bases and pull out of the Common Market.
At the end of 1980 the party’s MPs elected the veteran Left-wing firebrand Michael Foot as their new leader. That prompted moderate rebels, led by Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, to form the breakaway Social Democratic Party.
But the Labour Party’s dominant figure was the evangelical Tony Benn, a former viscount who had appointed himself as the tribune of the plebs.
In April 1981, Benn launched a hugely controversial campaign to topple Foot’s deputy Denis Healey.
His platform was the ultimate hard-Left wish list: the imposition of import controls and a siege economy, a massive spending spree on health and welfare, the restoration of trade union privileges, the abolition of the House of Lords, withdrawal from the European Community, unilateral disarmament and the removal of all American bases.
But what was really extraordinary about Benn’s campaign was the heady, almost hysterical atmosphere, typified by an open-air mass meeting in Birmingham in September, which ranked among the least edifying moments in Labour’s history.
First, Michael Foot spoke, and was booed by hecklers shouting about Northern Ireland.
Then came Benn, who launched into a blistering attack on the media. The crowd loved it, chanting his name. Then came Healey. Even before the former Chancellor stepped on to the platform, people were chanting: ‘Out! Out!’
He managed a few sentences before he was drowned out by the screams of ‘Tory, Tory, Tory!’
Foot took the microphone and remonstrated with the crowd. But it was no good.
When Healey returned, the jeers redoubled. Eventually he had to give up.
As his colleague Roy Hattersley wrote a few days later, ‘the screaming mob that shouted Denis Healey down spewed its contempt for free speech into half the homes of Britain. The orgy of intolerance must have cost Labour a million votes.’
In the end, Benn lost his deputy leadership bid by less than one per cent.
Had he won, the history of the Labour Party — and perhaps of Britain — would have been very different.
But to some of his hard-Left supporters, his defeat was merely a blip on the long road to a socialist revolution.
Chief among them was a young man from Islington who insisted that it was time to punish Labour’s treacherous MPs, who should ‘expect some discomfort from the rank and file in their own constituencies’. His name was Jeremy Corbyn.
Not all the news that summer was equally bad, of course. The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at the end of July, watched by an estimated 750 million people worldwide, was a welcome break from the terrible headlines.
So was the England cricket team’s comeback to win the Ashes, led by the rampaging, all-conquering Ian Botham.
Indeed, amid the euphoria, it was easy to forget that Botham had been stripped of the captaincy only weeks earlier after a series of atrocious performances.
The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at the end of July, watched by an estimated 750 million people worldwide, was a welcome break from the terrible headlines
In his astonishing comeback, there was an omen for the captain of Westminster’s first XI.
Yet at the time, the chances of Margaret Thatcher turning things around seemed impossibly remote.
By Christmas, only one in four people said they were satisfied with her performance, the worst figure for any Prime Minister in history.
In public she maintained the mask of defiance. In private, her husband Denis told a friend that ‘she doesn’t know who to trust. Her authority is being eroded… she feels like jacking it in.’
As 1981 drew to an end, even the weather seemed against her. As Christmas approached, blizzards left hundreds of thousands of homes in Wales and the West Country without electricity.
Then, after days of freezing fog and driving rain, the snow came down.
From the highlands of Scotland to the suburbs of London, roads were closed, trains and flights cancelled and thousands of motorists stranded.
The New Year came, and the bad news continued. The snow continued to fall.
Every month, with the inevitability of death, more people joined the dole queues. Recovery seemed impossible. Britain, it appeared, was doomed.
Then, on March 18, a group of Argentine scrap metal dealers landed on the remote island of South Georgia.
And in that moment, everything changed.
- WHO DARES WINS: BRITAIN 1979-1982 by Dominic Sandbrook is published by Allen Lane on October 3 at £35. © Dominic Sandbrook 2019. To order a copy for £28 (offer valid until October 6, 2019; p&p free), call 01603 648155 or go to www.mailshop.co.uk.