Unemployment

2011 was not 1981. And 2015 is not 1983.

brixton

Back in 2011, I wrote about how many people viewed the riots that swept across the UK through the lens of the 1981 riots. I wrote in this article:

Karl Marx famously paraphrased Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, saying that “all facts and personages of great importance in world history, as it were, twice”, adding, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 1969, p. 15). Marx’s point was that in periods of great societal upheaval, many of those who observe and attempt to explain these events look to past historical events for an interpretative framework, or as Marx (1969, p. 15) put it, “they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them”. While Marx was writing about the French counter-revolution that occurred after the uprising of 1848, these words could be used to describe any number of rebellions, revolutions or episodes of disorder. The focus of this article is on the riots that spread across the UK in early August 2011 and how most commentaries and analyses of these riots sought to explain them through the prism of the riots that occurred in the UK in 1981 (first in April in Brixton and across the UK in the summer of the same year). While Marx (1969, p. 15) wrote about how those observing the events of 1848-1851 looked back to the “Thermidor” period of the French Revolution, substituting “Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848-1851 for the Montagne of 1793-1795”, those writing on the riots of 2011 looked back to 1981, substituting David Cameron for Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May for Willie Whitelaw and the black, white and Asian youth of 1981 for the black, white and Asian youth of 2011.

The parallels between the events of 2011 and 1981, and their surrounding socio-economic and political conditions, seem, at first glance, to be very similar. David Cameron’s Conservative Government was pushing “austerity” measures to cut public spending and reduce the “debt” inherited from Labour, akin to the monetarist policies sought by the first Thatcher Government, which meant less money for the poorer sections of British society reliant on some form of government assistance and less spending on other public services in poverty-afflicted areas of the UK. In 2011, as well as thirty years ago, these austerity measures, combined with a wider globalised financial crisis, had led to great increases in unemployment, particularly amongst the UK’s ethnic minority communities and amongst young people. Alongside these economic factors, both years saw concerns arise about the powers of the police, particularly in the operation of stop and searches (or “sus” laws in 1981) and the perceived targeting of ethnic minorities by the police, as well as other sections of the lower classes and young people in general.

These parallels were picked up upon by many commentators. For example, Gilroy (2011) remarked in a speech on the riots that there was “a temptation … to say it’s the same game as it was thirty years ago” and citing Stafford Scott, said that “unemployment numbers, school exclusion numbers, stop and search numbers [his emphasis] … In terms of these things, the number are as bad as or worse than they were thirty years ago”. In their research as part of The Guardian and LSE’s Reading the Riots project, Newburn, Lewis and Metcalf (2011) wrote that the conditions for the riots of 1981 were “in many ways similar to those that blighted England this summer”, pointing out that “[b]oth took place while a Conservative prime minister grappled with the effects of global economic downturn and rising unemployment”. Wheatle, the novelist and participant in the 1981 Brixton riots, also wrote in The Guardian (2011) that the circumstances between the two periods of rioting were “remarkably identical”, identifying factors such as “economic crisis, disenfranchised young people, deep cuts in public services and a deterioration between young black people and the police”.

Even before the August 2011 riots, commentators had remarked that the socio-economic and political environment in the UK seemed to mirror that of the early 1980s, and in discussing the thirtieth anniversary of the riots of 1981, there were speculations of the possibility of riots in the near future. An article in The Guardian on the upcoming anniversary of the Brixton riots stated that “some community leaders are warning that similar tensions could, again, spill over into violence”, describing “a toxic cocktail of factors reminiscent of 1981, including rising youth unemployment, cuts to local services and deep suspicion of the police”, as well as “the politicisation of a new generation of anti-cuts protests … and anti-tuition-fees marches” (Walker 2011). The article also quoted Alex Wheatle as saying:

You’re going into dangerous territory, eroding services for young people … I can imagine a repeat of 1981. I can feel the anger. I can feel the resentment towards authority. You’re getting a lot of young people with degrees and big debts, but not jobs. What was really striking in 1981 was the lack of hope. When you have no hope you’re going to confront the police, you’ve got nothing to lose. (cited in, Walker 2011)

Another article on the riots in Liverpool in 1981 in The Guardian quoted a community worker who had experienced the riots as a youngster, who saw parallels between Liverpool in the present day and the city in the 1980s:

First, there was deindustrialisation, now there’s a recession, and you hear people worried about losing their jobs and how they will now in all probability have to work longer for their pensions. It makes some of us quite jealous, because at least you had jobs consistently enough to enable you to build a pension in the first place. I look at these people now and think to myself: “Welcome to our world. Welcome back to 1981.” (cited in, Vulliamy 2011)

However, as Hughes (2011) has said, “[h]istory doesn’t repeat itself exactly” and there is logic in the government assertion that 2011 is not 1981 (McSmith 2011). Many commentators and scholars have noted that there are a number of differences, both in the context from which the riots developed and how the riots actually unfolded, between the riots that have recently occurred and those that happened thirty years before. This article accepts the argument that while these riots occurred quite spontaneously, they did not arise from nowhere and were not completely unexpected, and while one cannot draw a direct line between the riots of 1981 and the riots of 2011, the history of riots, public unrest and civil disorder in the UK does show that there is a precedent for what occurred last year and the riots were not an a-historical episode. The point of this article is that while the recent history of riots that have occurred in the UK since the mid-1970s can provide us with an insight into the most recent outbreak of urban unrest, much of the discourse on the 2011 riots was presented through the prism of 1981. On one hand, the events of 1981 were upheld by some commentators (mostly on the centre-right, but some on the centre-left) to contrast the “criminality” of those participating the most recent riots with the more “political” and “socially aware” riots of the early 1980s. On the other hand, there seemed to be a number of people, particularly on the left, who saw a teleological narrative that formed a direct connection between the events of 1981 with the present era, putting forward that the lessons of 1981 and the struggle against Thatcherism were instructive to how the left should respond to today’s crises. This article does not want to present a guise of political neutrality and certainly aligns itself more closely to the interpretation of the events as put forward by the left, but acknowledges that for political expediency, some of the more nuanced details of what occurred in August 2011 (and in 1981) may be shaped to fit the left’s practical programme. As Smith (2010) has argued, riots and episodes of public unrest do not fall neatly into categories of political struggle and the motives and actions of those involved are open to a multitude of interpretations.

The article concluded:

Power (2011) wrote in The Guardian after the initial burst of public disorder in North London last year that “[i]mages of burning buildings, cars aflame and stripped-out shops may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media … but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur”. This article has looked at how different commentators, journalists, politicians, scholars and activists have interpreted the historical context of the riots that happened across the UK in August 2011, particularly focusing on how the most recent riots have been seen through the lens of the riots from 1981. Although providing a historical background to the 2011 riots helps us to understand that these riots did not occur from out of nowhere or that they were unprecedented in any way, but the comparison of the two events has, in many ways, crystallised how the 1981 riots are perceived in the collective memory. Notions of what “the 1981 riots” or “the Brixton riots” or “the Toxteth riots” have come to symbolise are essentialised ideas of the “noble” or “justified” riots against institutional racism and Thatcherism – in other words, the events of 1981 were explicitly political.

This article has argued that framing the 1981 riots in this way has had two effects on how the 2011 riots are perceived. Firstly, commentators, journalists and politicians on the right (as well as some on the liberal-left) have used the idea of the 1981 riots as expressions of political frustration against “legitimate” targets to condemn the criminal and destructive activities of the rioters involved in the unrest in 2011, arguing that those involved in the most recent riots were motivated by consumerist desire and anti-social behaviour and thus, the response by the authorities should be criminal justice oriented, rather than making political concessions. Secondly, commentator and activists on the left have taken the framework of the 1981 riots as explicitly political actions from the lower classes to show that the riots of 2011 were just as political and represented the anger of the growing “underclass” in the UK. For many on the left and within activist circles, the same neoliberal/monetarist agenda by the Conservatives (resulting in high unemployment and cuts to public services), combined with the institutional racism of the police and the judiciary, were the underlying causes of the riots of 2011 and those that occurred in the early 1980s, and that the lessons of the battles against the Thatcher government are to be heeded.

However, this essentialised version of the 1981 riots, and the comparison with contemporary events, overlooks the fact that the riots that broke out across Britain thirty years ago were not as neat to categorise and interpret as they look in hindsight, and that at the time, there were clear differences in how the riots were understood by different sections of society. Even for those that agreed that the riots were political disagreed on whether the riots were a response by the lower classes to socio-economic policies of the Thatcher government or a response by the black communities to the racism that they faced in Britain on a day-to-day basis. The evoking of the riots of 1981 in the discourse on the August 2011 riots has been used by commentators from both sides of politics to portray the most recent riots in a particular manner, using the supposed explicit political nature of the riots of the past to dismiss or emphasise the political nature of the riots of the present. While historical comparisons are useful for understanding the wider context of events, such as the public unrest of 2011, in too many scenarios, the past is distorted and simplified to fit the political demands of the present.

new labour working

I feel that similar evocations of the past are being made in commentaries on the Labour leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn is not Michael Foot and the 2020 manifesto (if he wins) will not resemble the 1983 manifesto. While it might be more progressive than the 2015 manifesto, no one expects Corbyn to reverse 30 years of neoliberalism inflicted upon the Party. There is not the organised entryism by Militant and Socialist Action that there was between 1979 and 1983 and the threat of a rightwards split seems predicated on the belief that there is the political space for another centre-right party.

As much as it might seem that way, we are not reliving the 1980s.

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Special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly on UK 2011 riots (featuring Paul Gilroy)

riots

The latest issue of South Atlantic Quarterly has a section dedicated to articles on the UK 2011 riots, edited by Ben Trott. There is a great mix of articles from David Harvie & Keir Milburn, Rodrigo Nunes and Sarah Lamble, as well as an interview with Reading the Riots author Paul Lewis by Trott. But the stand out article for me is by Paul Gilroy, which compares the 2011 riots with those that occurred in 1981 and 1985. Access to the issue seems to be free at the moment, so I suggest you check out the articles as soon as possible!

(And if you are interested in other analyses of the riots, the special ‘Reading the Riot Act’ issue of the Journal for Cultural Research can be found here – with my own article on the comparisons between the 2011 and 1981 riots)

What can Men Behaving Badly teach us about post-Thatcherite Britain? A guest post by Lauren Piko

Following on from my series of posts on The Young Ones and history, PhD student at University of Melbourne, Lauren Piko, has written this guest post on popular culture in the John Major years, focusing on the portrayal of work and unemployment in 1990s sitcom Men Behaving Badly. I hadn’t paid much attention to the show when it aired here on the ABC, but Lauren’s analysis is fabulous. Hopefully she can provide more of the same in the future! As usual, I do accept guest posts on this blog from time to time, but they do have to be on-topic. So now for the main event…

Work and unemployment in Men Behaving Badly 

Men Behaving Badly screened on British TV from the years 1992 to 1999, and positions itself as a sitcom exploring ‘lad culture’, gender roles, and the differences and similarities between men and women. Yet less obviously, alongside this explicit gender focus, Men Behaving Badly illustrates changing trends in cultural representations of work and unemployment during the 1990s. In particular, the characters of Tony and Deborah in series 3 through to 6 go through experiences of unemployment which indicate some tendency towards the phenomenon being normalised. On the one hand, Tony’s experience of carefree unemployment represents a shift towards the greater acceptability of unemployment as an economic reality. Yet on the other Deb’s experience is much darker, and the show doesn’t flinch from describing her depression and soul-searching after losing her job. Moreover, Gary’s steady job is presented as unfulfilling, further complicating the picture and suggesting that ‘jobs for life’ are not necessarily an ideal outcome.

The ideal of full employment was generally accepted by both Labour and Conservative governments as a political goal during the early postwar years.  The rising unemployment figures in the 1970s were reported on with apocalyptic intensity as numbers reached one million. As this figure rose dramatically, there grew some level of acceptance even amongst the Labour Party that unemployment was, or even should be, a permanent feature of the economic landscape. This view was consolidated under the Thatcher government, where relatively high unemployment was redefined as an economic necessity and as evidence of the government’s fearlessness in taking tough measures against inflation. (See Evan’s post here)

Series 3 of Men Behaving Badly was broadcast in 1994, while the British economy was still experiencing the effects of the 1987 financial crash. While the British economy was officially out of recession by 1993, this growth was shaky and unemployment levels were at nearly 3 million. In this series, Men Behaving Badly first started to deal with the unstable job market.

Tony’s working life is fairly itinerant, describing himself as having had 72 jobs in the last 15 years (S5E6). He is repeatedly unemployed throughout series 3 to 6. This begins when his record stand at the covered market literally ‘collapses’ (S3E2):

Deborah: What happened to your record business?

Tony: It just collapsed, you know.

Deborah: It’s the recession, isn’t it.

Tony: No, I mean I came back one lunchtime and half the stall had collapsed and smashed most of the records.

He appears essentially happy with his unemployed life, watching children’s tv and eating cereal during the day, and describing his lifestyle as ‘brilliant’. He gets a job as a barman at their local pub the Crown in Series 3 Episode 4:

…only to lose it when the bar is unexpectedly closed down (S5E3). Tony is re-employed at the new Crown in the following episode. These jobs are represented as underemployment, in which he continues to financially rely on Gary for rent and expenses. He takes a long break from work in order to backpack around Europe with no mention of how he funds this or what effect this long holiday has on his employment. There is no mention of his receiving any kind of government benefits or support at any time, and considering the morally condemnatory framework placed around drawing on National Insurance during the Thatcher years, it is perhaps unsurprising that the show’s creators sought to avoid what had become explicitly political territory. The implication is that he is fully supported financially by Gary, with Gary suggesting that his work with Tony qualifies him for charitable status (S5E6 – jump to 6 minutes in):

Gary: Well Tony’s my charity, isn’t he, he never pays me any rent. I’m running a one-man shelter group here, I could get a grant from the council for my work with Tony.

Deborah’ experience of unemployment is arguably much more realistic and presents a darker counterpoint to Tony’s story. Deborah is made redundant from her job as a restaurant manager at the same time as Tony loses his job, (S3E2) and considers selling her flat to make ends meet. She describes her life as ‘empty’ and she becomes increasingly depressed at her life being on hold while ‘most of her friends are settling down and moving away.’ When she shares her frustrations and feelings of pointlessness with Tony, also unemployed at this time, their responses indicate how different their experiences are:

DEBORAH: I haven’t worked for ages, I don’t do anything all day, if it wasn’t for worrying about bedsores I probably wouldn’t get out of bed at all.

TONY: Me too. Brilliant.

She gets another job quickly but is made redundant again between series 4 and 5. She becomes depressed again, closing herself in her flat in the dark ruminating over her unpaid bills (S5E1).  Deborah resolves this not by getting another job in the restaurant industry, but by choosing to go back to university to study psychology – effectively taking the opportunity to spark a career change. This decision to embark on further study was increasingly common over the 1990s for those with financial means to do so. It also reflects Deborah embracing an adaptive stance in an environment where the idea of a steady job for life, or even career path for life, is no longer something that she expects.

The world of steady employment, most frequently seen through Gary’s job in a security firm, is not necessarily seen as ideal, secure, or happy. Gary’s job is not a source of pleasure to him, yet he has given most of his life to it, starting as an office junior straight out of school, and working up to the position of regional manager. George and Anthea, Gary’s employees who have been with the company for decades, are pleasant but self-consciously dull characters who are resigned to their lot in life. When Gary is discovered to have saved £33,000 over the course of his working life, while his hoarding is criticised by the other characters who attempt to get their share, Dorothy recognises too that this has been Gary’s reward for “spending 15 years in a job you hate”. Unlike Deborah, Gary does not consider career change despite being bored at work; while not trapped in this job, it is presented chiefly as a tool for Gary to pursue his main interest of getting drunk after work.

Yet ultimately the show is centred around a celebration of the leisured life Gary can lead because of his job. Gary’s, and indeed Tony’s leisure depends on Gary’s labour. Gary’s endurance of tedious, unfulfilling work is the foundation on which the series rests, facilitating the very ‘lad culture’ which appears to reject the notion of responsible work. In the post-industrial Britain of Men Behaving Badly, increased leisure is built into the economic structure, not only through the celebration of consumption, but also through the redefinition of unemployment as both necessary and potentially positive. While on one level Men Behaving Badly celebrates this relationship of work to leisure, the darker realism of Deborah’s experiences of unemployment challenge the idea that Gary’s lifelong job, and general lifestyle, is perpetually secure or sustainable. As such the economic concerns explored in Men Behaving Badly are more complex than might immediately appear when exploring the gendered reading the show elicits on the surface. Its depictions of work, leisure, and unemployment are ambiguous at times, with its supposed celebrations of ‘lad culture’ undercut by a sense of living on borrowed time. Men Behaving Badly is ultimately an uneasy celebration of post-Thatcher Britain, one which relates to its economic setting with trepidation as well as acceptance.

What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, pt 4: Neo-liberalism, market populism and crony capitalism

The previous post in this series looked at theme of unemployment on The Young Ones as a key feature of Thatcherism, while this post will look at broader trends in economic thinking under Thatcher. Nigel Lawson in his autobiography (via Wikipedia) described Thatcherism as standing for:

Free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, ‘Victorian values’ (of the Samuel Smiles self-help variety), privatisation and a dash of populism.

This encouraged many to believe in the supremacy of the market and for laissez-faire capitalism to be embraced by many in the middle class, who invested heavily in property and shares. It also encouraged consumerism at an unprecedented level and for ‘cultural capital’ to be obtained by many through the acquisition of consumer goods – what Stuart Hall described in this article as ‘consumer capitalism’. Getting rich quick (and showing it off) became a key idea amongst significant sections of the British population, often at the expense of others. The Young Ones, while critiquing Thatcher herself in several episodes, also satirised other examples of neo-liberal capitalism and the ‘get-rich-quick’ hedonism of the 1980s.

In the first episode ‘Demolition’, the group are facing eviction from their home as the council have revoked the status of their house as protected housing for students (at 2.37 and 7.27). This reflects the effects of the Housing Act 1980 which saw councils across Britain sell off many of their council housing, many under the ‘right to buy’ scheme, but also to investors who started the process of property redevelopment that has fed several housing bubbles in the UK since the early 1980s.

With the fall in affordable housing under Thatcher, exacerbated by the effects of the Housing Act, many lower class Britons fell prey to the slum landlord, which we can see represented in the same episode by Jerzy Balowski (played by Alexei Sayle). Balowski enters the house without permission and demands his rent on the spot (at 4.05).

In the final episode ‘Summer Holiday’, Jerzy Balowski makes a re-appearance for a surprise inspection. After charging exorbitantly for damages caused by himself (as well as an elephant mask left over from a previous sketch), Balowski evicts the group for not having the money to pay for these ‘damages’.

Alexei Sayle also plays another ‘get rich quick’ type in the guise of ‘Harry the Bastard’ in the episode ‘Nasty’. Harry, the manager of the local Rumbelows and who may or may not be a local gangster, allow Mike and Vyvyan to rent a VCR overnight with a fine of £500 if it is not returned first thing the following morning in working condition. In order to get this £500, Harry dresses up as a South African vampire, which causes the group to forget about returning the VCR in the morning and Harry surprises them by asking for his money in the graveyrard, popping up from the Habitat sofa-coffin (at 5.32).

But most of the ‘get rich quick’ schemes featured on The Young Ones come from Mike ‘the Cool Person’ himself. In the episode ‘Oil’, we see two examples of this. Firstly, Mike finds Buddy Holly hanging upside in his room, apparently being there since 1959. Mike quickly gets Holly to play a song, which he records on his cassette recorder and while Holly plays, Mike is seen calculating the money he’d make from selling this new Holly song. Unfortunately for Mike, Holly’s parachute straps come loose and he falls into the floor, thus dying.

Secondly, when Vyvyan discovers oil the basement of the new house, Mike establishes himself as ‘El Presidente’ (a mixture of Arab dictator, such as Gadaffi, and Latin American junta leader) and owner of the oil’s potential profits. Mike employs Vyvyan as his head of security and forces Rik and Neil to dig for the oil. This may also be seen as a critique of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, who became a friend of Thatcher’s during the Falklands War and the authoritarianism experienced under the junta.

In the episode ‘Bomb’, Mike also sees the potential of making money in selling the bomb they discover in the kitchen, with Mike auctioning of the bomb between various criminal organisations and dictatorships – very much in a similar way to what the Thatcher government were doing in the arms trade in the 1980s (Mark Phythian has written that the Conservatives under Thatcher had a ‘very permissible approach to arms sales’) In one scene, Mike is seen trying to get hold of Colonel Gadaffi in Libya and in another tells Neil that the CIA, the Mafia and the Chinese are all interested in purchasing the bomb (at 8.30).

In ‘Bomb’ we also see another of the Balowski family involved in illicit trading, with Reggie Balowski acting like a dodgy East End geezer who calls himself an ‘international arms dealer, scrap metal merchant and French cabaret chanteuse’. But in the colour red, Balowski isn’t interested in buying the nuclear weapon.

One of the problems that the British left encountered under Thatcher was explaining why so many working class and lower middle class people, who usually supported Labour, voted for the Tories between 1979 and 1992. One of the reasons why these sections of the British population may have voted for the Conservatives was that they believed in the rhetoric of self-sufficiency and ‘rewarding’ hard work, which Thatcher tapped into with her ‘no such thing as society’ comments. This is addressed in The Young Ones when Rik talks about his father voting Tory in the episode ‘Summer Holiday’:

And Daddy, alright, so he’s an old square. And maybe he does vote Tory. He’s got where he is today by hard slog, and he’s got to put tax concessions first.

But while many working and middle class people endeavoured to make more money for themselves under Thatcherism, it was the super wealthy (colloquially now known as the ‘one per cent’) that benefitted the most of under Thatcher and under the neo-liberal economic agenda that has endured for the last 30 years. The Young Ones parodies the influence and world outlook of this class in the episode ‘Bambi’ when the Cambridge Footlights come on University Challenge to ‘smash the oiks’. In this episode, the ‘toffs’ are seen bribing the show’s host, being given the answers to questions answered wrongly because the host ‘knows his father’ and declaring themselves the ‘richest person in the world’, as well as complaining that the only job for them was chairperson of the BBC and buying the Socialist Workers Party.

As the host of University Challenge says, ‘the posh kids win, they always do’ – an apt sentiment for the neo-liberal agenda that the Tories have pursued since 1979.

Thanks to @_The_Young_Ones for the topic suggestion.

What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, part three: Unemployment

‘Unemployment haunted British culture in the early 1980s’, wrote Richard Vinen,[1] and this is evident in The Young Ones. The Conservatives had campaigned in 1979 on the high level of unemployment under Labour (famously captured in the pictures of the dole queue under the banner ‘Labour isn’t working’), but it significantly increased under Thatcher during her first term in office. Ruth Levitas notes that when Thatcher entered 10 Downing St, the unemployment level was 1,299,300, but by January 1982, it was 3 million.[2]  Remaining high until 1986, high unemployment was seen by the Thatcher government as a necessary evil and the price to be paid for curbing inflation. In her autobiography, Thatcher herself wrote about this:

Other ministers, however, saw little that was positive in this picture. The believed that unemployment over three million – the figure now predicted – was politically unacceptable and that higher government spending should be used to accelerate and strengthen economic recovery. My own analysis was entirely different: the way to achieve recovery was to ensure that a smaller proportion of the nation’s income went to government, freeing resources for the private sector where the majority of people worked.[3]

In The Young Ones, the issue of unemployment was referred to in several episodes and became the focus of one episode (‘Cash’).

In the episode ‘Demolition’, the ‘yoof’ TV program Nozin’ Around does a segment on unemployment. The female presenter Maggie explains it this way:

Hey, yeah! Really great! And now, I’m gonna be looking at what it’s like to be a young unemployed adult! Because–more young adults are becoming unemployed on account of they can’t find work! Basically, the problem is this: if you haven’t got a job, then you outta work! And that means only one thing– unemployment!

The other presenter Baz (played by Ben Elton) interviews Roland Perceval, Career’s Officer at East London College, who offer the bland words of encouragement:

Well, surely, Baz, your mates must realize that there definitely is a point…

But adds the caveat, which would eliminate most unemployed youth:

Oh, I should stress that you do have to have a degree…

This reflects that youth unemployment (particularly amongst school-leavers and lower class youth who were entering the search for work without qualifications) was far higher than the national average and that demands for young people searching for work to have degrees only alienated and demotivated them.

In the second episode ‘Oil’, the high level of unemployment is referred to off-handedly by Rik in another sanctimonious moment (at 5.15):

Rik: Oh, ha ha, very funny. I suppose you think it’s very clever to laugh with three million people on the dole!

Mike: Yeah.

But the issue of unemployment is mainly focused on in the episode ‘Cash’ when the group decides that Neil needs to get a job, firstly to pay for food and then to provide for Vyvyan’s impending baby. After looking through the ‘situations vacant’ section of the paper, it emerges that the only job advert is for the Army. The ad says (at 6.03):

JOIN THE PROFESHIONELS, IT’S GREAT! YOU CAN HAVE A GUN IF YOU WANT! AND THERE’S MONEY IN IT (NOT THE GUN). H.M. ARMED FORCES

After being rejected from the Army for stating that he was a pacifist, the group sign Neil up to become a police officer (there is a sign outside the police station saying ‘We take absolutely anyone’). This exchange with Benito Mussolini was mentioned in the previous post.

This episode highlights the dire economic situation faced by many in Britain under Thatcher and the lack of suitable employment for many youth. The Army and the police were two institutions of the state that did not receive the same level of spending decreases as other government agencies under Thatcher and traditionally were avenues for those jobseekers with no qualifications or experience, so were seen as an option for many unemployed youth.

But even if you did have a qualification, finding a job in the 1980s was difficult, as demonstrated in the episode ‘Summer Holiday’. In the final episode of the series, Rik, Vyvyan, Mike and Neil find themselves homeless and living on the streets. Rik blames Thatcher for this (at 3.13):

Thatcher’s Britain. Thatcher’s bloody Britain! Look at me. I’m young, I’m pretty. I’ve got 5 O Levels. Bloomin’ good grades as well, considering I didn’t do a sod of work cause I’m so hard. And look at me now! Homeless, cold, and prostitute.

But after successfully robbing a bank and escaping on a double-decker bus, Rik is more optimistic  and looks to throw off the shackles of Thatcherism:

Who needs qualifications? Who cares about Thatcher and unemployment?! We can do just exactly whatever we want to do! And you know why? Because we’re Young Ones. Bachelor boys! Crazy, mad, wild-eyed, big-bottomed anarchists!

However in the end, Rik’s optimism is short-lived as Neil drives the bus through a Cliff Richard billboard and off an actual cliff a few seconds later. So the TV show portrays the only way out of the miseries of Thatcherism are crime and death – a positive and reaffirming message for all, don’t ya think?


[1] Richard Vinen, Thatcher’s Britain: The Political and Social Upheaval of the 1980s (London: Pocket Books, 2010) p. 125.

[2] Ruth Levitas, ‘Fiddling while Britain Burns? The “Measurement” of Unemployment’, in Will Guy & Ruth Levitas (eds), Interpreting Official Statistics (London & New York: Routledge, 2005) p. 44.

[3] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years 1979-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p. 148.