John Harris

Journalist & Author

How Thatcherism politicised the arts in Britain

Margaret Thatcher may have had no understanding of the arts but her ideas created a cultural earthquake

In February 1982, the English band The Jam appeared on Top of the Pops to promote a single that had just become No 1 in the national charts. These were the days when two songs could go together to form a so-called double A-side, and the band were granted the rare honour of performing both their offerings: Precious, and Town Called Malice. The former was a murky, enigmatic piece about the existential contortions of love and desire, largely lost to history. The latter has long been a part of the pop canon, still played by its songwriter around the world. “It’s a funny thing, that song: it’s become public property, almost,” said Paul Weller in 2012. “And wherever I play, people go mad for it.”

Whether latter-day audiences truly understand its lyrics is an interesting question, because Town Called Malice is not one of those supposedly “classic” songs whose lyrics can mean anything to anyone at any time. Its words are a razor-sharp commentary on a specific social moment: the austere, strife-torn years of 1981 and 1982, when deflation was let loose, riots tore through English cities, unemployment headed towards three million, and Britain lost a fifth of its manufacturing capacity. Weller’s words evoked it all: “Rows and rows of disused milkfloats stand dying in the dairy yard/And a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts … To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear/It’s a big decision in a town called Malice.”

It remains pop’s most accomplished portrait of the Thatcher era, though it was not short of competition. The Specials’ brilliant Ghost Town had been number one the previous summer, just as the riots reached their peak. Just around the corner was the miners’ strike, and the decisive arrival of Billy Bragg, singing penetrating songs about the misrule perpetrated by the government, and advising his listeners that “wearing badges is not enough, in days like these”. At the time of the Falklands war, Elvis Costello sang a magnificently moving song titled Shipbuilding, and eventually followed it with an imagining of Thatcher’s passing called Tramp The Dirt Down. The latter represented a strand of music that was as personal as political: The Beat’s Stand Down Margaret, another Weller song titled The Lodgers (subtitled She Was Only a Shopkeeper’s Daughter), and Morrissey’s Margaret On The Guillotine. By way of a punchline, there was the punk collective Crass’s admirably subtle post-Falklands piece, Margaret Thatcher How Does it Feel To Be The Mother Of A Thousand Dead?

“With Thatcherism, you were very definite about where you stood, weren’t you?” Weller later told me. “It radicalised a lot of people. You couldn’t sit on the fence, seeing what was being done to the country: the dismantling of the trade unions, and the unemployment, and break-up of communities – the whole thing, really. So you came down on one side or the other, and that was reflected in my work.”

He was hardly alone. In our own age, hard times and a government pledged to roll back the state have prompted only a smattering of politicised art, drama, literature and music, but the 1980s were awash with it – partly because just about everything that happened could be associated with a woman who might have tested the imaginative powers of even the most fanciful creative mind. But there she was: the living embodiment of no end of very British qualities, from swingeing moralism to the economics of the kitchen table. Thatcher herself had almost no cultural appetites – famously, she enthused about the joys of re-reading Frederick Forsyth novels, and said her favourite single was Telstar, the 1962 instrumental by the Tornados. Hanif Kureishi rightly claimed that she had “no understanding of what a central place the arts have in British life, or how good Britain is at producing books, films, theatre and music”. The paradox, then, was delicious, because Thatcher, her ideas, and their impact on society all served to create a cultural earthquake.

To even begin to list examples is to be hopelessly arbitrary. But anyway: the social reality of the early Thatcher period was captured by Mike Leigh’s fascinatingly grim film Meantime – much the same world portrayed in Town Called Malice, acted out by Phil Daniels, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. On television, Alan Bleasdale came up with Boys From The Blackstuff, a portrait of a Liverpool all but killed by the 1980s downturn, in which Bernard Hill’s Yosser Hughes intoned a phrase that was a byword for its time – “Gissa job”. A new breed of alternative comedians, most of whom have long since become contented members of the cultural establishment, made it obligatory to do routines focused on the people Ben Elton called “Thatch” and “Normo Tebbs”. Even innocuous-looking stuff was full of socio-political substance: witness the underrated comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, which began in 1983: the tale of a gang of émigré British building labourers, whose story spoke volumes about a working class laid waste.

Perhaps most fascinating, though, were the cultural items that documented Thatcherism’s passage from being a matter of politics to something close to an ideal for living. Martin Amis’s Money was among the earliest examples, with a subtext that depicted, as the journalist Nick Cohen later put it, “the old, liberal establishment of social-democratic Britain being pushed out of the way by cruel and rapacious brutes from the new Tory order”. In the brilliant film My Beautiful Launderette, the character of Omar was another embodiment of Thatcher’s idealised vision of capitalism: Kureishi wrote the screenplay, and acknowledged it was partly “a satire on Thatcherite enterprise”, as well as capturing the undertones of race, class and sexuality that swirled around Thatcher’s time in office. One thinks also of Caryl Churchill’s play Serious Money, and Margaret Drabble’s novel The Radiant Way, both published in 1987. It featured a TV executive called Charles Headleand: “Previously, he had been aggressively out for himself,” Drabble wrote. “Now that had widened, had become an article of faith: self-interest was the guiding principle of life, the market was supreme, and people who disregarded that fact were heretics, or plain ignorant.”

Further towards the mainstream, much the same idea defined a comic character who became a household name: Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney. According to the writer Alwyn Turner’s 1980s history, Rejoice! Rejoice! , one critic called him “Thatcherism’s shameless Golem”. Each week, he would swagger on the set of the Channel 4 comedy show Saturday Live and bellow: “Shut your marf and look at my wad.” Just to ensure the whole story was told, Enfield also created a Geordie alter-ego called Buggerallmoney.

One aspect of Thatcher’s impact on the arts is easy to overlook, given that it largely became apparent after she had left office. But if the message going out from government throughout the 1980s was that enterprise and initiative were the only way forward, that was bound to have all kinds of cultural manifestations. In 1983, the Thatcher government introduced the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, whereby £40 a week was paid to people who could pass themselves off as small-scale entrepreneurs, and among the beneficiaries were the founders of the comic Viz, Tracy Emin and the Mancunian band Happy Mondays. The latter’s mentor, Tony Wilson, once explained to me that his charges – some of whom were part-time drug dealers – were a breed apart from the kind of musicians who endlessly protested against the Tories: “Even with Thatcher, the Mondays were very open: ‘Yeah, she’s all right. She’s a heavy dude.’” In retrospect, this was no surprise: by 1989, the band would be among the figureheads of the hedonistic upsurge called Acid House, based around illicit “raves” run by people who were following the Thatcherite gospel to the letter.

In turn, some of the late Thatcher period’s entrepreneurial energy would define the moment that was rather tawdrily labelled Cool Britannia. Meanwhile, a very interesting cultural development was afoot: the quiet rise of a new Tory generation who had pulled off an amazing act of doublethink – worshipping Thatcher while also immersing themselves in a subculture that defined itself against her.

In 2008 I spoke to some of them while putting together a Guardian feature that jumped off David Cameron’s famous love of The Smiths, a band who had leant their support to a range of anti-Thatcher causes and whose music still evokes the cold, polarised atmosphere of much of the Thatcher era. Among my interviewees was the Tory culture minister Ed Vaizey, who reeled off a long list of his 1980s leftwing favourites and reminded me that when he first heard the aforementioned Stand Down Margaret, his first reaction was to wonder why The Beat were having a pop at the Queen’s sister.

“I had to lead this double life,” he told me. “It’s hard to explain, really; some of the political messages went over my head. But I thought Thatcher was fantastic, and I was listening to a lot of bands saying she was destroying the country. I suppose I like passion, in politics and music, and these were the passionate bands who were around.”

Paul Weller, I reminded him, had recently called Thatcher and her followers “absolute scum”. “That hurts,” Vaizey said, as he once again conjured up images of young Tories frugging around to songs about unemployment and dead Argentinians. “The Jam were the band that defined my teenage years. I absolutely adored them.”

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