Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was urged by her advisers to abandon Liverpool and let it decline in the wake of riots that struck the city and much or urban England during the spring and summer of 1981, according to official papers and government archives released after thirty years.
Rioting erupted in the poor and largely black neighborhood of Toxteth in Liverpool as an expression of frustration over poverty, economic disadvantages, racism and police brutality.
Following the riots, Thatcher’s Conservative ministers, including-then Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, suggested that it would be a waste to spend public money on places like Liverpool.
In a letter to Thatcher, Howe wrote that she must not “over-commit scarce resources to Liverpool, adding that the Merseyside region would be “the hardest nut to crack.
Howe said in the letter: We do not want 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 such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East.”
He also added: 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 [River] Mersey. I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.
Instead, Thatcher sent Michael Heseltine, then the Environment Secretary, to Liverpool on a fact-finding mission in order to formulate a plan for urban re-generation.
However, senior Tory advisers in London did not see the point of Heseltine’s endeavor.
John Hoskyns, a senior aide to Thatcher, wrote to the Prime Minister: This money is likely to be money wasted. Neither the chosen minister nor Whitehall [government] as a whole, will have much idea of how to tackle the real problem-solving task, as distinct from the [important] political gesture.
Government documents also revealed that Thatcher’s top ministers said the economic decline of Liverpool was self-inflicted, particular with respect to the city’s famous docks.
According to the Liverpool Echo newspaper, the archives stated: “The Liverpool dockers had caused the docks to decline by their appalling record of strikes and over-manning. Likewise, many companies had been forced to run-down their plants because of labor problems. Against this, it was argued that central government had made Merseyside’s problems worse. For example, it had imposed charges on the Port of Liverpool that were tougher than on other ports. More generally, the decline of Merseyside was extremely complex, and went back a long time. A key problem was the lack of leadership.”
However, Howe, (now Lord Howe) has responded that he could not remember writing any such letter to Thatcher suggesting letting Liverpool waste away.
He told the BBC: “I don’t recall how that argument got into the discussion at all. It certainly doesn’t sound very considerate. But certainly I think the Chancellor is so often arguing against spending money as being the only answer. As I say, Michael Heseltine and I together introduced enterprise zones in Merseyside as well as in many other places which was a better way if you like of making help available as quickly as possible.”
Howe added that since he has served as the MP for Bebington in the mid-1960s: “Certainly, as a former Merseyside Member of Parliament, I am surprised to find myself ever having argued quite as I am quoted to have done on Liverpool.”
Similarly, Lord Heseltine also rebuked the notion of abandoning Liverpool.
He told UK media: “It never really got any traction for the simplest reason that the cabinet minister responsible for so much of the policy that affected the city was me. I simply wouldn’t countenance that you could say that one of England’s great cities, a world city, was going into managed decline here. That would simply be unthinkable to the approach that I believed to be necessary to a very important part of our history.”
However, Labour politicians in the Liverpool area were outraged by the revelations.
Liverpool City Council leader Joe Anderson described Howe’s comments as “absolutely shocking” and suggested that with the current government’s spending cuts; Liverpool continues to suffer from neglect.
“With the funding allocation we have got now, it certainly strengthens the argument that nothing has changed in 30 years,” he told the Echo.
“That is the reality of what people in Liverpool feel. In these economic times we are being treated the worst in terms of spending cuts.”
Anderson added: “I think it all confirms what everyone knew at the time – the scale of decline and the level of deprivation and the problems in this city were underestimated by many. Thirty years later, we are still having to deal with the legacy of the decline in manufacturing and the docks. It shows the ideology and philosophy of the Tories was to concentrate on the south and the prosperous areas – let the rich get richer and the poor get poorer Their view was ‘Middle England is all to fight for and the North will just vote Labour’. They have not had the courage to do what is right and tackle the imbalance, not worry about votes.”
Former Liverpool Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle commented to the Echo: “I think the papers show an honest reflection of Tory thinking. You cannot get away from that. They were not in the business of trying to intervene in society in any shape or form other than to manage the decline of Liverpool. I frankly do not think they cared. They thought they were electorally immune and did not anticipate what was to happen – a complete rejection of Conservatism not only in Liverpool but in other northern cities.”
Kilfoyle added: “Cities like Liverpool are very dependent on the public sector. The last government, for all its faults, did try to funnel jobs into the northern cities rather than concentrate more in London.”
Other released archives revealed that Thatcher also considered arming the police during the riots that engulfed Britain that summer, rather than sending in the army to restore order.