The Swingeing (cuts) 80s: Lessons from The Ghost Town Generation

They were playing the jaunty TV theme tune to “Jeeves and Wooster” on Monday night when guests walked into the Financial Times summer party at Lancaster House near Green Park in London. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed the escapism of that show on Sunday nights in the early 90s when many of my friends, all in our early 20s, were losing their jobs in the terrible recession then.

Party venue Lancaster House (photo from NATO)

Politicians, city Financiers, journalists, a historian, and even that bloke who wrote The Sloane Ranger Handbook shared the summer evening on the terrace while a major public sector strike looms in the world outside. Retail billionaire Sir Philip Green, he of the Monaco-registered company, who advises the Government on more efficient tax spending, was discussing buying four pairs of very special shoes with a group of business men, while the staff served oysters, foie gras and champagne with no apparent irony.

So far so 80s – the stereotype of the superrich living in another Britain to the broken  industrial towns.

A History of the 80s in 1 handbag. (photo: PA)

Just as the 60s was to my generation reduced to a collection of heavily edited images and symbols – moptops, the Pill and flower power – so the 1980s throws up totems like The Specials’ Ghost Town (number one 30 years ago); the Iron Lady’s hand bag (auctioned for charity for £25,000 on Monday), symbol of the supposed wrecking of much traditional British industry, and the Yuppie – regarded as the shiny suited, mobilephone toting leech of the new financial services industry.

Anyone who remembers Arthur Scargill, leading miners into a major strike as they headed in to spring and summer 1984, might see a superficial parallel in the decision of teachers now to strike at the end of the summer term after the end of GCSEs and A-Levels.
Ed Miliband seemed to have cottoned on to the comparison, warning of the dangers of a re-run of dark aspects of 80s political culture: a divided nation and internecine conflict within the Left. But ideologically, the big divisions are long broken down. Labour shadow ministers at the FT party were very careful to warn of the dangers of Scargill style union “extremism”. It was Gordon Brown who invited Lady Thatcher to  Downing Street. A few months ago I noticed Arthur Scargill’s name on a court list at the High Court (Employment division) in a long running, but quiet legal wrangle with the National Union of Mineworkers.
Geographically, the jobs split between the southeast – especially financial services-dominated London – and the North seems to be growing anew, but nowhere near the scale of the shutting down of jobs and traditional industries of the early 1980s recession. Jonathan Porter, who was himself a very political student at Oxford in the 80s, now at the independent National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) says the scale of job losses has been far smaller, and the “pain” of cuts far more evenly distributed across income groups than in the 80s; a situation which he says, one could argue is technically “fairer”. But the sense that the financial services sector, has evaded paying for its mistakes and sponged off tax payers is what sticks in the craw of many who have long given up on a final salary pension scheme or a job for life.

The most startling difference between then and now is how the political classes are nervous of being seen to be posh. Margaret Thatcher learned to talk posh, but these days 20 yr olds cannot remember a time before Tony Blair dropped his h’s and we were invited to think of David Cameron as ”Dave”.  Public resentment now is of not of self made wealth itself, but of excessive tax avoidance and suspicion of the authenticity of empathy claimed by the Chancellor and Prime Minister pushing through severe austerity measures, while living off or standing to benefit from inherited fortunes.

At the start of the 80s , The Sunday Times rich list was dominated by inherited wealth. A strange parallel to the 60s is that much of the swinging in London, when you look closely, was done by aristos and old money, partying with the working class heroes who we choose to remember, at the hip art galleries and music venues. Check out the story behind the lyrics to A Day in the Life, if you don’t believe me.

And what of the parallel 80s Royal Wedding? With her 1 O-level and a modest nursery assistant post at the “Young England” kindergarten, Lady Di may have been mocked at the time, but she did hold the kind of entry level job that’s disappearing for so many modern school leavers. By contrast, one could argue that royal Housewife Kate Middleton’s part taxpayer- funded University education hardly seems worth it.

A proper schoolleaver job

As for Lady Thatcher, Oxford dons famously snubbed the former Somerville research scientist in 1987 by refusing  to grant her an honorary degree, because of her government’s higher education cuts. The gesture was criticised by some then, too as the arrogance of a privileged elite on the grocer’s daughter who challenged such cabals – the medical profession was another. But now it’s only the medical establishment that’s managed to fight off the brunt of NHS ideological changes. The Dons’ grand gesture seems almost comic when compared to the cuts inflicted by the LibDem backed Tory coalition.

Ideological game playing with the futures of the young continues at a breathtaking pace.  Even as some universities are slashing degree courses to cope with funding withdrawal, Universities’ Minister David Willetts announced on Wednesday plans for manipulated market “competition” among them.  Student protests were ignored last year, as much as in 1984, when mounted police charged those on Westminster bridge, protesting over the introduction of tuition fees.

And what could be more bizarre a contrast with the Specials’ anthem for doomed youth, Ghost Town, than UKUncut demonstrators being wrestled to the ground protesting U2’s tax avoidance at Glastonbury?  Where the early 80s saw inner city youth riots over obvious triggers – the loss of many traditional starter jobs, police racism – school leavers now appear to be in danger of turning into an atomised generation. Trapped living with parents for years more, fearing the size of university fees, and the lack of worthwhile jobs, they might not riot, but internalise their anger. Depression, alcoholism, domestic violence, even suicide? How would you know? When they turn the 2010s into a sequence of visual snapshots for one of those nostalgia shows, I wonder if that will register?

To finish, where I started, it’s worth reviewing Privilege from maverick film maker, Peter Watkins. His vision of popstars exploited by the political and Religious Establishment may seem heavy handed, and is certainly not a literal prediction come true; particularly given the steep decline in influence of The Church of England. But in his dark view of media manipulation and propaganda there is something to ponder. Jerusalem is of course the anthem they sang at the Royal Wedding in April.

Further reading: Oxford in the 80s: The truth about The Jam Generation

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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