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Life in 80s Liverpool – How the City Survived Thatcher’s Government

Life in 80s Liverpool – How the City Survived Thatcher’s Government

Liverpool fans outside wembley in 80s with flag saying "Merseypride'

Liverpool was once one of the greatest cities in the British empire but it no longer feels like it is in England, if it ever did. It had retreated as a significant port after the Second World War and by 1979, it was already on the brink. What it needed was support but instead, a Conservative Party with aggressive new ideas allowed it to slide.

Thirty-years after the Toxteth Riots, classified government papers revealed that the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was urged to abandon the city and embark on a programme of ‘managed decline’. Why did Liverpool’s fortunes change so dramatically? Why did it fight back when other cities did not?

In his enlightening new book, There She goes: Liverpool, A City on its Own, the talented author Simon Hughes strays away from his usual topic writing about Liverpool FC, to answer these questions in a fascinating account of the untold story of the city from 1979 to 1993, woven together through in-depth research and interviews with prominent figures from that period, such as the key politicians involved at the time, as well as the people who lived in the city that were affected by the issues facing them over those years.

We spoke to Simon recently about how the book came about, what gave the city its unique capacity to fight back against the multitude of problems it faced and how Liverpool is perceived these days.

The MALESTROM: What prompted you to write the book?

Simon Hughes: There were two main reasons. The first one is there’s a lot of books that have been written about moments in Liverpool’s modern history which touch on other elements of the city’s story around the period without necessarily connecting the dots of these big moments that have come to define how the people inside and outside the city feel and think about it. So I felt the story in its entirety hadn’t been written before.

The second reason was over the last ten years there’s been this acceleration of ‘scouse not English’ feeling in the city, it’s almost been like an awakening in the city among people who feel differently than those who lived through the 80s. I was conscious that those who had lived through the 80s were almost quite possessive of it because they were the ones who were there.

I was born in 1983, my generation lived with the consequences of what happened in that decade and maybe in many cases, we weren’t able to fully form our opinions about the environment in which we lived. Even though the shadow of that decade was still around us every day, whether you were inside or outside of the city.

I remember a mate of mine, quite a left thinking person, said one night, “why does everybody hate Thatcher? Is it just the cool thing to do?” I said that there was a reason why people think that way, and we had a long discussion with our other mates there, and it soon became quite clear that some of the other lads didn’t really understand either. So I thought something needs to be done about this and people need to realise what happened.

Margaret Thatcher gives the final address of the Conservative Convention in Brighton on October 14, 1988

It was also about filling in the gaps for younger people. A lot of people in the city, including me grew up with this anti-Thatcher feeling. My dad worked in a power station in Widnes and that was one of the first things he taught me. I remember feeling this loathing of Thatcher before I even had any real interest in football. So that was a big deal for me. It was never really explained in its entirety why that was. So I’d say it was written for a slightly younger audience to help them understand. I think those were the main driving reasons behind the book.

TM: How did the interviews and research you did inform the content of the book?

SH: One of the first interviews I did for the book was with Tony Nelson the former dock worker and proprietor of the Casa. Speaking to him made me realise how much the city’s existence revolved around the sea and everything that happened in Liverpool could to some degree be explained by the activities of the docks. If the docks are thriving, in theory, everything economically in Liverpool was better.

I also realised the history of the city had been written in large by the elite. There was this idea that Liverpool was a wealthy city and it was, but only for a very small number who benefitted from it, so there was an unbelievable amount of poverty that was never really taken with any amount of seriousness. That led to this desperation to change by the mid to late 70s. Liverpool has always been a left-leaning city, but never in an organised sense.

Obviously, if you look before the 1979 election, it swung between all the parties. For a long time, it was actually a Tory city, if you came from Liverpool and you had some money you were a Tory. I think the best way to describe Liverpool is a city in opposition. I think that explains why with a lot of the issues it’s had; it’s never had friends in government.

liverpool city 80s - Aerial view

I did think the hardest people to track down were going to be the Tory’s who were driving the national agenda at the time, but they proved to be quite open to talking. People like Norman Tebbit who I spoke to, he was up for a bit of a wrestle, which was a very weird afternoon I must admit. I spoke with him first, then Heseltine and others, that set the base for the challenge of Liverpool over the next decade. It was pretty intense getting the number of voices that I wanted to get into the book.

I don’t think you can be definitive in a lot of ways, because everyone has different memories, the book could easily have been 3000 pages long with the amount of people you could speak to. But I think you have to look at an overview and try and let the readers draw the conclusions from the interviews with the people that had the most influence.

TM: What did you learn from the prominent politicians of the time that you spoke with? Did anything they said change your opinion on anything?

SH: I wouldn’t say they necessarily changed my opinion, if anything they probably reinforced my views. Tebbit was everything I thought he was going to be, plus a bit more. The one that I found quite chilling in many ways was Patrick Minford. He’s this sort of professor who was juggling with Liverpool’s fortunes from a quite clear viewing point having worked in the city. I thought it was important to tell his story. Economics is quite a dry subject to talk about, but it really did drive the Thatcher machine, after 1981 at least.

People have asked me with Heseltine is there such a thing as a good Tory? I think he has a conscience; you can tell that in the way he speaks. I don’t think he’s a liar, but he’s obviously more driven by his political conscience than his social one. I spoke to quite a few people before interviewing him, and Brian Reade told me to try and wind him up a bit, to ask him whether he was in the wrong political party as he’s very liberal?

When I asked Heseltine, he said, “that’s preposterous!” And he went into this big long spiel about the greatness of the Conservative Party. So he sort of hung himself there, but ultimately that’s what he is, he’s a Tory. In many ways, he gave with one hand and took away with the other.

Lord heseltine

On the other side of the fence, you have Dereck Hatton and Tony Mulhern, who passed away a couple of weeks ago. Tony was a formidable figure, Liverpool has a lot to thank him for in many ways. People will have different views on what Militant did, but he was the idea man behind the fightback.

It was inevitable that this was going to happen in Liverpool in many ways, the fight was necessary. Militant back then engineered one of the great economic-political heists when they managed to withdraw some money out of the Conservative government. At the time they were one of the only local councils to do so.

If you look at a lot of the places that didn’t fight, look at where they are now as cities. Many are struggling. I think it explains Brexit in many ways. If you date it back to why people feel fed up and left behind, it’s because of Thatcherism and her economic policies. I do wonder had Liverpool not made a stand, the city wouldn’t have had the confidence in other big moments that happened subsequently in that decade to continue to fight back. In Liverpool, there’s a desire for fairness and if people think something is unfair or unjust they will stand up and shout about it.

TM: What gives the city that fight?

SH: There are all sorts of reasons in the makeup of the city that contribute towards why that is. I think there’s its relationship with Ireland and the sort of conspiratorial culture that exists in the city. For a long time people here were divided through religion, it was only really after WWII when people were moved out of the slums and put in council estates that the working class realised they’d got a lot more in common than they thought.

That was when the union disputes in the docks increased. The city suffered from the drive towards more trade with Europe rather than the Empire which had gone at this point. So Liverpool was positioned on the wrong side of the country. I think people in the city at that time were fighting back, but didn’t really know how to organise themselves.

It was disorganised labour and that comes from the cities docks where casualisation existed, people didn’t know from one day to the next whether they were going to be working. Whereas in Manchester there was shift work in the mills and other heavy industry that existed there. That made the working class easier to regulate is suppose.

So if there was a problem here, people thought I’ve nothing to lose, f**k this. I certainly think in the 80s in Liverpool the individual became the collective because of the way it was viewed on the outside. It was under fire all the time and we were the ones leading the fightback with others not wanting to join in. I do think after Heysel, when Thatcher talked about Liverpool being a particularly violent part of the country, that’s when a common identity formed in 80s Liverpool. It didn’t matter about your religion, or what football team you supported, at that period it became more of a collective.

Rob Bremner pic of kids in the 80s in Liverpool
Credit: Rob Bremner

TM: How much did the Heysel Stadium Disaster go towards isolating the city?

SH: It played a big part. There’s no surprise that in that same time where the Militant council is fighting back against the Tory leadership, by punishing Liverpool as a football club and as a city through her decision to encourage the ban and by everyone else getting punished, from smaller towns where clubs have maybe overachieved who had their chances of playing in Europe robbed. She’ll have appreciated the social repercussions of that and how people would view it. She wasn’t stupid was she? So, I think it certainly isolated the city.

There was no other way for the city to respond apart from quiet acceptance of guilt around what had happened. And of course what happened was appalling, but I think the discussion was focussed too much on Liverpool and not really on why it happened, because there were more reasons than the actions of a relatively small number of people. In the end, you’d probably say that too few people actually got punishment for what happened there as there was a lot more rioters.

It also happened slap bang in the middle of the decade, so it felt like there were a lot of things leading up to this point. Liverpool had had tough times through Toxteth, but the football teams were doing well, Militant were gaining. But by that point, when you’ve got blood on your hands, it’s very difficult to have a rational discussion about the city’s problems.

And from that point onwards there were other things that happened where it felt like Liverpool was constantly in the dock. Anything that happened in Liverpool was Liverpool’s fault. There was very little analysis of how and why the place had been cut off from the national debate.

TM: In football terms, Liverpool and Everton at that time were the leading forces, but at the same time the city was being massively marginalised…

SH: That generates jealousy in itself, the fact that Liverpool and Everton were so dominant in that period. I don’t think football supporters realise what a powerful force they could be if they stuck together a bit more rather than letting partisan shit get in the way of common struggles. But as a city being so dominant made it a target for a lot of people.

Liverpool fans outside wembley in 80s with flag saying "Merseypride'

There was a cultural of hooliganism in football at the time and although Liverpool and Everton weren’t regarded as being the worst, there were far bigger and more organised groups at other clubs, but clubs and people are only ever remembered for their worst moments unfortunately and the context behind that story gets lost very quickly when something as tragic as the outcome was at Heysel.

TM: One thing that stuck out in the book was the perception that Liverpool was a ‘self-pity city”.

SH: It’s just a total myth. You can take it back to Tebbit when he talks about getting on your bike and finding work. People in the city did that in massive numbers. The city’s population shrank dramatically and that contributed towards what Heseltine saw as a lack of leadership in the city, cause there was a talent drain away from the city. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves people moved to other parts of the country or Europe to find work. So this idea of self-pity was wrong. When James Bulger got murdered and the national press descended on Liverpool, the city again was in the dock.

So Liverpool put up a defence as a reaction, understandably given the context of the previous 14 years. People who were coming to the city, who wanted to stick the knife in about Liverpool were looking for reasons why maybe Liverpool had contributed in some way to this terrible outcome. Very few people were looking at the absolute horror of it all through sympathetic eyes. Things got out of control in the way Liverpool was written about in that period.

It’s a difficult thing to write about as it may seem like you’re trying to excuse what happened – because obviously you’re not. But you can try and help people understand better so that it never happens again.

TM: How do you think Liverpool is perceived currently? It’s had a lot of money pumped into it for regeneration in the last ten years…

SH: I think younger people from other parts of the country are more sympathetic than they were maybe ten years ago. Because they’re a lot wiser now and the country is a lot more politically engaged than it was 10-15 years ago with everything going on. So I think people are questioning authority more than they ever have done before, certainly younger people. But I do think old prejudices still exist, there’s a lot of people who grew up pre-1980s and lived through it who benefited from Thatcher.

Let’s not forget the rest of the country, while Liverpool went one way, they went a totally different way. So that still has an impact on the way people think about the city now. These days you can have a conversation with someone a similar age as me, I’m 35, and they tend to be very well informed about Liverpool’s history and more sympathetic compared with ten years ago.

There She Goes: Liverpool, A City On Its Own by Simon Hughes published by De Coubertin is out to buy now.

Cover of There she goes book written by Simon Hughes

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