Liverpool… And “managed decline”….
The old year came to an end with the annual release, under the 30-year rule, of a cache of official papers by the National Archives. This year’s treasure trove included the official documents relating to the Toxteth Riots of 1981. The letters shed a great deal of light on how Margaret Thatcher’s Government dealt with some of Britain’s worst ever urban violence. In the light of the 2011 riots, contemporary policy makers might take instruction from the dos and don’ts of thirty years ago.
In 1981 I was a young new Liverpool MP and had warned that a “time bomb” was ticking away in the heart of our cities – where a dangerous mixture of high levels of unemployment, inappropriate policing, racial tensions, criminality, drugs culture, festering alienation and disaffection had combined to create a fertile breeding ground in which extreme elements were prospering.
The riots began after the arrest of my constituent, Leroy Cooper, following an incident with the police. By the time the riots were over, 460 policemen had been injured, more than 70 buildings were torched, and many others were looted.
Whilst it in no way exonerated those responsible, or acted as mitigation, all this had been waiting to happen. I had been genuinely surprised, indeed, scandalised, by the scant interest of central Government in this deeply rooted social malaise – and the newly released documents give some clues as to why this was.
What they reveal is that Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe, had secretly urged the Prime Minister to abandon Liverpool to a fate of “managed decline”; that Liverpool was “stony ground”, that attempts at regeneration would be like “trying to make water flow uphill”; and that using public funds to tackle urban decline in the city would not be a “good use of scare resources”.
“We do not want,” he said, “to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas…It would be even more regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey.”
How many of these sentiments were genuinely his own and how many of them were the work of his Treasury officials is any body’s guess – and it is intriguing that with the passage of time Geoffrey Howe now says that he couldn’t imagine what led him to express these sentiments. After all, in an earlier incarnation he had himself been a Merseyside MP – for the Wirral seat of Bebbington.
Be that as it may, these are official records of views which were expressed at the time to the Prime Minister. They point to three things.
First, they betray a mindset and ambivalence to the north of England – “is there life north of Watford?” – which still affects politics, and especially the Conservative Party, to this day.
At the time of the Toxteth riots Liverpool still had two Conservative MPs. Two years later it had none and, along with many other parts of the north (to say nothing of Scotland), David Cameron has been unable to recapture that lost ground. The one nation party became a half nation party and the Prime Minister need look no further than the small print of these official papers to understand why he has failed to reconnect to vast swathes of urban Britain. Before the last General Election I wrote that the north would cost him an outright victory, and so it did.
Second, the papers remind us how quickly ideology can usurp the role of wise, responsible government. There is an element of cynical political calculation here, too: there are more “promising” parts of the country – ones which would reap greater political dividends – so why not let Liverpool go to the dogs?
The idea that any Government might simply allow one of Britain’s great cities to slip quietly into the Mersey and to “manage its decline” betrays a dismal mindset affected by fevered ideology. Geoffrey Howe went on to tell the Prime Minister not use the phrase publically as it was “much too explosive” and “negative.” So the advice was to say one thing, but to do another.
Our current Chancellor, George Osborne, should ponder on these 1981 exchanges and reflect that his officials are probably whispering much the same sort of defeatist treason – for that’s what it is – into his ears today. Contrast the sight of Winston Churchill weeping over the bombed ruins of London’s East End and his instruction to his Minister for Housing, Harold MacMillan, to “build the homes the people need” – which he did – with this willingness to write off an entire metropolis as not worth the effort.
And, third, it’s worth considering what actually happened. Although she did not give Michael Heseltine the £100 million budget he asked for the Prime Minister sent him to act as Minister for Merseyside. He began by admitting he “didn’t know that conditions such as this existed in England.” The regeneration of the city, leading to its status as European Capital of Culture, its designation as a World Heritage Site, and a whole host of positive employment and housing initiatives began with that appointment.
This could have been claimed as a compassionate, just and hopeful response. But, instead, the Government snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, preferring the thinking and the rhetoric revealed by these 30-year-old papers rather than the achievements of intervention. The consequence was their own “managed decline” as a political force in northern England.