How I Survived the 1980s
The Scotsman, April 9th 2011
It certainly feels like ‘Back to the Future’. Tories presiding over cuts; Labour in their comfort zones. A Royal Wedding as unemployment mounts. And household living standards falling for the first time since 1981.
Is it really back to the 1980s, the era of ‘two nations’, the defining era for a generation of Thatcher lovers and haters, or is the past more complicated?
The 1980s were not all grim. Recently I reflected on how I survived the 1980s as a young man growing up in Dundee. And the truth was that for all the difficulties with Mrs. Thatcher winning three elections, mass unemployment and the familiar story, there was a counter-story of the decade which aided some of us getting through the period.
There was a dynamic alternative left culture. There were independent radical bookshops such as First of May in Edinburgh and Clyde Books in Glasgow. There were thoughtful, iconoclastic radical magazines such as ‘Marxism Today’ and ‘New Socialist’ which spoke beyond the ghetto to a genuine community of ideas.
There was an Indian Summer of radical leftist thought in Britain in the 1980s: angered by Thatcherism, and inspired by the explosion of 1970s creativity in feminism, new left and trade union activism.
Across Britain there was Bennism and the dream of socialism in one country (and even in one Parliament!). There were SNP young turks like Alex Salmond and a small home rule movement which became more visible as the decade wore on.
We had an alternative music scene. This was the age of post-punk shaped by ‘the indie scene’ and aesthetic where earnest young men could find solace. There was a host of artists associated with this. Bands such as the Smiths, New Order, the Fall and Cocteau Twins were some of my favourites. All of them were on independent labels away from the major companies to have artistic freedom and to make a political point.
There was a whole soundtrack of anti-Thatcher and leftist sentiment, ranging from the Labour inspired Red Wedge to the Smith’s republican magnum opus, ‘The Queen is Dead’. The Specials ‘Ghost Town’ got to number one in the singles chart as unemployment hit three million and Charles and Diana got married at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Pink Floyd recorded a whole album of anti-Thatcher songs, ‘The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream’. Even Bucks Fizz got in on the act, ‘Land of Make Believe’ – one of their biggest hits was supposedly a savaging of Thatcherism!
In Scotland, music gave expression to a rising civic nationalist sentiment and frustration with Westminster mainstream politics through bands such as the Proclaimers, Hue and Cry, Deacon Blue and Runrig.
Then there was the alternative football world of Scotland from the late 1970s to mid-1980s. This was a time when ‘the New Firm’ of Aberdeen and Dundee United challenged ‘the Old Firm’ under the influence of their driven managers Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean.
As a United fan this played a part in some of the most evocative, memorable experiences I had in the 1980s and which will stay with me long after the anti-Thatcher rhetoric fades away. I saw United win the league in the last game of the season at Dundee’s Dens Park days before Thatcher won her second election in 1983. And then four years later just before the 1987 election United got to and lost a UEFA Cup Final.
This different Scotland of football carried greater resonance, as it tapped into what looked like a deeper shift economically and socially from the West to the East. Glasgow and the West of Scotland were particularly hit hard in the 1980s, whereas Aberdeen and the North East (if not Dundee) were booming from the affects of oil. And that different story on the football pitch gave us respite from the same old wearing story of ‘the Old Firm’s’ claustrophobic embrace.
The 1980s weren’t all about Thatcher, the Falklands war, Scargill and smashing the miners, and privatisation. There is a powerful counter-story and alternative version of the decade.
This world is acknowledged by some right wingers furious at David Cameron’s ‘detoxing the brand’. Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion argued that the 1980s advanced the thesis that ‘to be a Conservative carried a stigma: the mean, bad, ‘nasty’ party’.
He believes that the Cameroon Conservatives have bought completely the left wing version of the 1980s, which blames Thatcher and the Tories for everything. This may sound insane to some, but it has a point in it, recognising the potency of the other 1980s. This wasn’t a decade which can be as some try reduced to greed, selfishness and ‘the me generation’.
This takes us to the present day. For a start we are going to have to experience the age of austerity without a vibrant alternative left culture, music and political scene. All of these have retreated or vanished, pressurised by the power of commercial logic and costs, and the appropriation of alternative ideas and slogans in the mainstream in books, music, slogans and wider culture.
Then there is the demise of the traditional left, which was already creaking in the early 1980s, but which had one final wave before the decade ended. This culture collapsed due to the Cold War, Thatcherism and Reaganism, the demise of the Soviet bloc, and socialism’s own failings. Many will lament its passing, but what it does leave is a vacuum and search for an alternative to the market.
If we can accept a more nuanced picture of the 1980s that should help us from retreating to the bunker today. The 1980s were about more than Thatcher, Loadsamoney, yuppies and shoulder pads. It wasn’t all ‘Class War’ and shutting down Ravenscraig.
We need to recognise that the past is always more complex than we choose to remember, and is filled with as many choices and ambiguities as today.
There will be several versions of the current decade, and we can be sure it wont all be about bashing Tories and Lib Dems, enjoyable though that is.
And in Scotland given our propensity to equate Tories with evil, almost pantomime style villains, it would be useful if we could avoid another retreat into the simplicities of black and white thinking when the future is going to be so challenging. Accepting a less monochromatic past would be a help in us embracing a more pluralist, nuanced version of today.