There’s echoes of the Eighties recession in these austere times

Mention the Eighties and most people think of a ‘me, me, me’ society and a spend, spend, spend mentality. A time of big egos, big hair and big budgets.

However, the truth is the decade of decadence showed no indication of its propensity for largesse when it staggered into being amid a severe recession.

Indeed, looking back you can’t fail to notice that the first three or four years of the 1980s bear striking similarities to today’s austere economic climate.

The UK actually entered recession ahead of the rest of the world in 1979. It coincided with the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ during which there were widespread strikes by trade unions demanding larger pay rises for their members as Jim Callaghan’s Labour government attempted to maintain a pay freeze to control inflation.

Industrial action included an unofficial strike by gravediggers which left bodies unburied for weeks and strikes by refuse collectors which led to rubbish piling up on the streets.

Elsewhere, NHS ancillary workers formed picket lines to blockade hospital entrances – forcing many to admit emergency patients only.

These events prompted The Sun to publish its now infamous ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ headline – off the back off an ill-advised quip by Callaghan – and it was against this backdrop that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government swept to power in May 1979.

The political change heralded a cataclysmic shift in policy.

Maggie and her Chancellor Geoffrey Howe inherited an economy with inflation up at around 27 per cent.

This led them to combat the recession in a thoroughly uncompromising fashion.

They sparked outrage by raising taxes and cutting public spending – all of which will sound awfully familiar for anyone who has been listening to the Coalition government over the last 12 months or more.

At the beginning of 1981 the recession held the UK firmly in its grip: Unemployment was approaching three million and manufacturing capacity fell by a fifth. At the same time genuine household incomes (what people have left, after taxes, to spend or save) fell – as they did in 2010.

Thirty years ago the average house price was £24,188, petrol was 35p per litre, a packet of cigarettes cost 80p, a pint of beer 53p, a loaf of bread 39p and a pint of milk just 20p.

Millions were forced to tighten their belts and the battle to bring down inflation raged on.

Discontent was rife, and culminated in urban riots during the summer – with the main trouble flaring in the Brixton area of London, Handsworth in Birmingham, the Chapeltown area of Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool.

There was, of course, no internet or social media to fan the flames of civil unrest back then. The riots of 1981 were more about inner-city deprivation and rising racial tensions than the naked desire for the latest designer trainers or plasma screen TVs.

In early 1983, Britain became a net importer of goods for the first time – mainly due to the loss of heavy industry and manufacturing.

Areas such as the West Midlands, Tyneside, Yorkshire, Merseyside and South Wales were particularly badly hit and saw soaring unemployment rates.

It wasn’t until the mid-Eighties that the recession eventually petered out but by then the damage was done and the landscape had changed.

Britain’s trade unions had been neutered, its mining industry had been dismantled, hundreds of factories had been closed and gone was its proud reputation as the ‘workshop of the world’.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Eighties recession I reckon that it is probably that things will probably get a lot worse before they get better.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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