thatcher and liverpool – thirty years on

Adam Ford writes on revelations that the Thatcher government discussed a ‘managed decline’ of Liverpool.

Ah, the summer of 1981! The spectacle of a ‘fairytale’ royal wedding was a distraction for some as a Conservative PM led a ruling class offensive and unemployment skyrocketed, while riots shook the inner cities. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’, some have commented today, as government documents from those days are released under the thirty year rule.

toxteth riots, 1981

Amongst revelations that the government lied about negotiations with the IRA during the hunger strikes and that Thatcher – shock! horror! – paid for her own Prime Ministerial ironing board, we are given a glimpse of the Thatcher cabinet’s reaction to rioting in London, Bristol and – in particular – Liverpool. It turns out that Thatcher played referee in a policy battle between then Chancellor Geoffrey Howe and then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine.

Heseltine believed the riots showed that something needed to be done in Liverpool. Of course, he didn’t advocate a redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom. Still, his It Took A Riot report argued for significant resources to be dedicated to regenerating the areas in which some of the poorest lived. This was a product of his ‘one nation conservatism‘ – a philosophy based on fear that the poorest will rise to challenge capitalism as usual if they are left to rot.

But even then, one nation conservatism was on the wane, as speeding globalisation and a falling rate of profit compelled the ruling class to break with the social democratic consensus which had been part of the post-war settlement with the working class.

“I fear that Merseyside is going to be much the hardest nut to crack,” he said. “We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East. It would be even more regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey. I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.”Thatcher had been put in power to make that seismic break with social democracy, and she wasn’t about to let a few nights of insurrection shake her will. Something close to her position was articulated by Howe, when he warned her “not to over commit scarce resources to Liverpool”.

In short, for Howe and much of the ruling class, Liverpool’s wounds were largely “self-inflicted”. Of course, by Liverpool they meant the Liverpudlian working class, and by “self-inflicted” they meant that it was historically characterised by industrial militancy. Minutes of a key meeting show it was believed that: “The Liverpool dockers had caused the docks to decline by their appalling record of strikes and over-manning. Likewise, many companies had been forced to run-down their plants because of labour problems.” This was unforgivable from a bourgeois perspective, and the city’s population should not be encouraged by having “limited” cash squandered on them just because the people of Liverpool 8 had – to use a favourite local term – ‘kicked off’.

Liverpool people know that Howe and Thatcher prevailed. Heseltine was made unofficial ‘Minister for Merseyside’, but his impact was generally limited to the garden festival of 1984, the commercialisation of the Albert Dock and the planting of new trees down Princes Avenue, as the government took on the local Militant tendency and ultimately won. Meanwhile, heavy industry was allowed to decline, culminating in the shutdown of the docks in the 1990s. Commercialism and culture were billed as rescues, but these waves began to recede in 2009, once the recession hit and the ‘Capital of Culture’ festivities were over. Liverpool’s population continues to shrink, and “managed decline” would indeed be a fitting description of the last thirty years.

As I wrote following the riots of August this year, which again lit up the streets of Toxteth: “Liverpool of 2011 is very different to the Liverpool of 1981. Back then we’d only had six years of the neoliberal assault. Now it’s thirty-six. The latest crises of capitalism have created a generation of ghetto children with even less to lose.”