Expanding on the Eighties

Speakers: Amy Edwards, Daisy Payling, Sam Wetherell

Chair: Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite

This panel seeks to build upon some of the ideas that resulted from the New Times Revisited: Examining Society, Culture and Politics in the long 1980s conference in 2013. As such it takes the long 1980s as its focus and seeks to question what it can tell us about the ‘new political and cultural forms [which] transformed the nature of political and social life’.

Politically, socially and culturally, what do the changes and continuities of the 1980s reveal about the relationship between the individual and the state, and the type of subjectivities that were being expressed by the end of twentieth century? Explorations of consumer society and the changing position of the consumer in financial services, of the intersections between class, race, gender, and sexuality in left-wing activism, and of the reframing of ideological interventions in housing policy as technocratic common-sense, all speak to the changing state of social democracy in Britain.

The drives and mechanisms of change in this period are complex, often complicated by the diverse agents involved, whether as opponents, supporters or ideologically indifferent drivers of neoliberal reform. These papers look to explore the uneven pace and domains of change as the neoliberal agenda of the new right enmeshed with Britain’s social democratic settlement to better understand how participation was articulated and constrained during the late twentieth century.

Panel Abstract 1: ‘Manufacturing Capitalists’: The Wider Share Ownership Council and the problem of Thatcherism, 1958-1992

Amy Edwards, University of Birmingham

Popular capitalism has been widely recognized as an integral part of Thatcherism.  The growth of the number of private shareholders was a defining feature of the 1980s, one undoubtedly facilitated by successive Conservative government policies such as privatization and deregulation.  However, historians have yet to comprehensively explore the underlying drives and mechanisms of Thatcherism in the realm of popular share ownership. This paper takes a small pressure group, the Wider Share Ownership Council (WSOC), as a case study to question current narratives of the 1980s, and particularly the extent to which Thatcherism was a strictly ideological endeavour.

The WSOCs ideology was based on an ardent belief that wider share ownership was the best way to create a nation of well-informed capitalists, enfranchised in the economic life of the country and supportive of a free-market system. However, loyalty to this agenda eventually alienated it from the project of Thatcherism and certain financial institutions by the end of the 1980s. It is in the intensely ideological motives of the WSOC that the relative ideological indifference of much of the City and many of the proponents of Thatcherism is revealed. This paper will argue that, seen as a set of institutional reforms, Thatcher’s economic revolution was based on the defence of financial capitalism, as opposed to the advancement of consumer capitalism.

Panel 2: ‘So it wasn’t for me’: negotiating political participation in 1980s Sheffield

Daisy Payling, University of Birmingham

In the 1980s Sheffield was known as the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. This reputation for radicalism was constructed by the Labour-led City Council searching for alternatives to Thatcherism. The Council called for ‘like-minded’ activists to come to the city and collectively remembered past victories of the labour movement. Despite fears of the ‘forward march of labour halted,’ many activists came to Sheffield to live and work in a ‘real working class city’ and be part of a strong labour movement. Whilst many of these activists would describe themselves as ‘left-wing’, ‘socialist’ or ‘alternative’, many of them were active in very different movements.   Shared resource centres, large demonstrations, and a focus on collectivism brought many activists in contact with each other but each movement had its focus and support to others was not always freely given.

This paper takes the activism in one city in the long 1980s and uses it to test the notions of crisis and renewal that dominate representations of the British left in this period. By using oral history interviews with activists from a number of movements alongside archive material, this paper produces a nuanced account of how activists from different movements and political backgrounds interacted with each other. While this is not a simple story of exclusion and inclusion, the way that class, race, gender and sexuality intersected in Sheffield’s politics does point to a hierarchy of values on the left that, in this period, was in flux.  That this hierarchy of values placed limits on how far the left could unite in the face of Thatcherism is unsurprising, and the possibilities of class uniting with identity politics was the focus of much theorising at the time. Yet this paper pushes past the fixed notion of ‘identity’ in ‘identity politics,’ and shows that the activists involved in Sheffield’s politics expressed complex subjectivities that speak to how the left was changing in the 1980s.

Panel 3: ‘Privatization Beings At Home’: Rethinking the End of Mass State Housing in Britain

Sam Wetherell, UC Berkeley

The termination of Britain’s once extensive high-density public housing programme in widespread denigration and a handful of high-profile demolitions is a well-known story. Historians attempting to understand the strange death of the British tower block have looked to either the whims of policy makers or to the shoddiness of construction techniques to make their case. This paper is an attempt to move towards a new explanation. It will show how a new set of psychological and criminological assumptions about the relationship between space and ownership emerged in Britain and America in the 1970s and 80s to undermine high density housing projects. It will discuss the work of Alice Coleman, a British conservative geographer and Oscar Newman, an American criminologist, who were leading academic critics of high density housing programs. Together they concluded that the high rates of poverty and crime among the residents of such housing developments was primarily determined by the walkways, courtyards and stairwells of the environments they inhabited.

The effect of Coleman and Newman’s work, and the criminological ideas and practices that followed in their wake, served to codify a host of new essentialist ideas about the relationship between space, ownership and crime for the residents of public housing programs. Their work helped to remove debates about housing from politics, rendering privatization a commonsensical technocratic intervention, rather than an ideological undermining of Britain’s social democratic settlement.


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