Much like in the 1980s, Britain is facing a period of mass unemployment. Matthew d’Ancona looks back to then – and ahead from now
If you want to know what a society afflicted by mass unemployment looks and feels like, go to YouTube and watch the video of The Specials’ 1981 hit ‘Ghost Town’.
The great two-tone band’s song spent three weeks at the top of the charts, and – more than any other record – captures the particular mood of despair, dereliction and decay of its time.
The members of the group are huddled in a 20-year-old Vauxhall Cresta, driving through the empty streets of London, their blank faces a haunting tableau of broken fatalism: “Government leaving the youth on the shelf…. No job to be found in this country.”
As Dylan Jones recalls in his new book about the music and culture of the period, Sweet Dreams: “This was an apocalyptic portrait of inner-city oppression set to a loping beat, offset by an unsettling and vaguely Middle Eastern motif…. The single sounded like the fairground ride from hell, complete with strident bass, madhouse wailing and dub-style breaks.”
I remember buying that single, and I remember its unsettling significance in a year of rioting (Toxteth, Brixton, Handsworth) and National Front marches that you could see from our porch, heading towards the multi-ethnic estates of Lewisham in London.
It was the first phase of the Thatcher era, and the beginning of an age of great upheaval, years of astonishing transformation, economic reform and prosperity – the flipside of which was the emergence of a new underclass of the long-term unemployed, and a form of social division that was vivid, brutal and far-reaching in its consequences.
Such memories matter because so many years have passed since we have faced joblessness on this scale. In recent decades, our crises of employment have been mostly connected with the quality of work: poverty pay, the gig economy, insecurity, zero-hour contracts, illegal sweatshops. These are all serious and painful pathologies. But mass unemployment changes the very texture of a society, pumping the scent of fear and anger into the air.
Joblessness peaked at 11.9 per cent in 1984. In August this year, the Bank of England was already predicting that the level of unemployment would reach 7.5 per cent by the end of 2020 (around 2.5 million people out of work) – and that was before the second wave of coronavirus forced the latest round of localised lockdowns and Tier-3 restrictions, all of which imperil businesses that were already struggling, and make it more likely that the eventual tally of redundancies will be even worse than forecast in the summer.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the bitter, unforgettable fruit of economic turbulence and deindustrialisation was a burst of ferocious DIY culture. Punk might still have happened without lengthening dole queues, but it would have been very different.
As early as 1977, the Clash expressed the surging rage in ‘Career Opportunities’: “They offered me the office, offered me the shop / They said I’d better take anything they’d got / Do you wanna make tea at the BBC? / Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?”
In ‘God Save the Queen’ (also 1977), the Sex Pistols described their generation as “the flowers in the dustbin” with “no future”. The following year, the anarchist band Crass screamed out: “Do they owe us a living? Of course they fucking do!”
Feargal Sharkey was lead singer of one of that period’s best groups, the Undertones, whose song ‘Teenage Kicks’ (1978) was regarded by the late John Peel as the greatest single ever recorded. As Sharkey tells me, there was undoubtedly a mains cable linking the crisis of unemployment to the turn taken by culture.
“I was lucky, I had a job. The same can’t be said for my friends. In 1970s Derry, Catholics accounted for more than 60 per cent of the unemployed. It was in Derry that I witnessed first hand the indignity of exploitation, that ugly ruthlessness of a state policy which demands that the most vulnerable of us carry the burden of social and economic reform. It’s an approach that festers pain, breeds resentment, fuels anger. At the time it may have been an anger that helped give birth to one of the greatest creative moments in history, punk rock. But since when has the seedy prostitution of the poor been considered necessary, just so that someone could write a few good pop songs?”
Which, as Sharkey makes clear, is always a great pitfall of cultural memory: the glamorisation of hardship as a source of creative energy, even the assumption that life on the dole gives you the leisure to produce art.
Orwell warned against such delusions in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): “[the unemployed] have all the leisure in the world; why don’t they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude – and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home – you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.”
The most authentic art that arises from hard times is unsparingly honest about the cloud identified by Orwell. Walter Greenwood’s depression-era novel set in the industrial slums of Salford, Love On the Dole (1932) – and the play that followed – inspired comment in the House of Commons. It remains a painful hymn to emasculated desperation. As one of the characters frets as he traipses the streets: “Ah hope. Ah do. Aw, God, let me gerra job, will y’?”
Fifty years later, Alan Bleasdale’s unforgettable character Yosser Hughes (Bernard Hill) made exactly the same plea – “Gissa job” – a line that became one of the mantras of the 1980s (the counter-point, if you like, to Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good”). In the five-part BBC drama series, Boys from the Blackstuff (1982), Bleasdale portrayed a group of men in Liverpool driven to illegality, hatred and even death by the sudden lack of work.
Yosser, pale as a corpse with his three truanting children in tow, is a study in psychosis competing with defiance. He will do anything to regain the dignity of labour. Even as he makes a mess of bricklaying, leaving clumsy gaps, he insists: “It’s for ventilation.”
Though Bleasdale was the undisputed laureate of 1980s unemployment, Mike Leigh gave him a run for his money in Mean Time (1983). The Channel 4 television film is now mostly recalled for its gallery of future stars: Alfred Molina, Tim Roth, Phil Daniels and (as the obnoxious skinhead, Coxy) Gary Oldman. But it is also a compelling portrait of a council-estate family in which two generations are stuck in unemployment, and go to the dole office together to sign on.
In one of the film’s most electric moments, Daniels as the smart, cynical elder son Mark tells the DHSS clerk that he is doing secret work for the government. She refuses to join in the joke and asks impatiently for her pen back. He roars: “Our pen!”
The point being: the pen belongs to society, not to the clerk, nor to the state. In Leigh’s film, it becomes a pathetic but memorable symbol of residual collective responsibility – at a period in history when it often seemed that only individual self-reliance and enterprise were celebrated.
What will it be like this time? As the true economic toll of this virus, and the measures taken to stop it, becomes clear? Not as bad, one hopes. Yet it is salutary to remember how bad it can get.
We have become so remarkably good at forgetting: it is one of the great new talents, if that is the word, of the digital era. Our collective memories are those of goldfish; we have allowed the muscles of historical knowledge to atrophy.
So let the culture of the past send its own message of caution through the decades. The nature of work changes all the time. But the pain and indignity of worklessness? That stays the same.
To those who, like the sacked Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, lose their jobs and much else besides, “attention must be paid”. How a society responds to hardship and what it does to those who fall prey to indigence is always a matter of choice. Which is to say that the road ahead, testing as it may be, need not lead back to the hopeless streets of the Ghost Town.
Images: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns, Getty Images, Amazon