Friday, 30 December 2011

Liverpool - Thatcher's Social Experiment?

Secret governmental files dating from 1981 have now been released for public viewing.  Most of the press seem fixated on trivia, such as Margaret Thatcher's alleged squabble over the purchase of an ironing board.  However, of real interest is the documented deliberate financial crippling of the city of Liverpool.

Liverpool in the 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s was a tough place to live.  It was probably the most difficult place in the UK to find work.  The city shopping area was limited; wander away from Bold Street and the Bold Street end of Church Street, or the smatter of shops on London Road, and you'd pass empty buildings which swiftly faded into dereliction.  It was a place where long-term unemployment was the norm, where those who had jobs were looked upon as lucky or treacherous, depending on your politics. 

It is estimated that the city lost one third of its population as people relocated in search of better lives.  Added to this was the stigma given by the British press, which labelled all Liverpudlians as thieves, trouble-makers, lazy dole-scroungers who'd go on strike at the drop of a hat.  If sweeping statements like these were made about other specific groups of people, it would be called racism or similar.

Boys from the Blackstuff, the play written by Alan Bleasdale, caught the mood of the times despite mostly being written a year or so before Thatcherism began its climb.  For many, the character of Yosser Hughes perfectly summed up the desperation felt after prolonged unemployment.  When Yosser's refrain of "Gizza job!" became a joke used by TV comedians, outsiders failed to understand Liverpool's annoyance.  Too many people from the city knew too many real-life Yossers.

People talked of a deliberate crippling of their city, and suspected their lives were part of a secret social experiment. This was dismissed as being typical of Scouse whinging.  Now it seems such suspicions were totally justified.

I moved to Liverpool in the late 1980s, having got a job in the Religion and Philosophy Library in Central Library.  Liverpool then was a depressing place; the sandstone buildings were black with grime, and an atmosphere of stoic misery hung over the city.  People used to ask why Liverpudlians had a sense of humour, and the usual response was that a person needed a sense of humour to live there.  

I resigned from the library job to go to art school.  After art school, I was unemployed for around five years.  I enrolled on various job creation schemes and attended Job Club but  my situation remained unchanged.  Each day, a bundle of paper slips arrived at Job Club with details of all the latest vacancies.  We'd immediately phone to enquire, only to be told the job had already gone.  This happened with such frequency we finally suspected that these jobs hadn't existed in the first place.

I'd have to choose between putting the fire on and eating.  As it was, I could only afford two meals a day and one of those was breakfast cereal, eaten mid-morning in an attempt to balance out hunger.  I was living in a tiny flat whose windows were padded with scrunched-up newspapers to keep the wind out.  Silverfish ran over the kitchen worktops, and everything had woodworm.  The only room for the waste bin was in the bath, and the bathroom was right next to the kitchen.  The immersion heater, if left on for an hour, warmed two inches of bathwater only before running cold again.  The downstairs hall light didn't work so I had to keep a torch next to the front door.  There was no money to move elsewhere.  There was no money for new clothes or shoes; I walked through snow and rain with cardboard patching up the holes in my shoes.  It was usual to see people with plastic bags sticking out of the top of their worn-out boots to keep their feet dry.  

I recall a Tory MP - though his name escapes me - who lived on unemployment benefit for two weeks to prove it could be done.  His experiment was announced as a roaring success even though he quit early.  And the simple facts that his kitchen cupboards and freezer were already well-stocked with food, his fuel bills paid, his car maintained, his clothing in good repair, his hair cut, his health good, his house not in need of immediate attention etc, were omitted from his experiment.

So many people were unemployed!  Official figures today claim there were only three million people out of work, which is so false it's almost comical.  I wonder when, if ever, the true figures will be revealed?  I recall estimations of ten million, but who knows the truth of it - apart from the secret governmental files still locked away. 

Anyway, today Liverpool is a very different city.  Massive amounts of cash have come into the city; huge regeneration projects have transformed the look of the place.  Old buildings gleam.  New buildings are everywhere.  Once-empty warehouses are now luxury homes.  Skyscraper hotels are appearing.  Designer shops fill the Liverpool One shopping quarter.  A new multi-screen cinema is about to be built.  International business is pouring into the city, and its population is rising.  Prospects look good.

But the Thatcher years have not been forgotten in this city.  And no-one cares about her ironing board.

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Anonymous said...

I heard this on the news at lunchtime today (30th December 11) and I was appalled but not entirely surprised- I lived in West Yorkshire for ten years. It is not common knowledge but during the Miners' strike in 1984, the Thatcher government experimented with the concept of a police state, in the small mining communities around Fitzwilliam, Hemsworth, and other villages on the Wakefield/Barnsley border. There were whole districts where the citizens were little more than mice in a laboratory, being watched to see how they behaved.

Adele Cosgrove-Bray said...

I will add that my husband was unemployed for eleven years. He eventually opened his own business, which he's been running for nineteen years. He's seen huge changes for the better in Liverpool, but memories of those times run deep.