The 1980s - World Events Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The 1980s - World Events

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As with any decade, for the people who lived through it the 1980s was a decade of huge upheaval, great upset and some truly sensational news stories. But it was also typified by a whole culture of selfishness, with Thatcher and Reagan in power and yuppies on the rampage. Suddenly it was great to be a greedy. This section looks at some of the events through the eyes of the people who remember them, or who were there.


On 8 December, 1980, I was only seven years old and just learning that there is a world outside the bosom of my family. My dad was working a three-day week, but I couldn't understand why he was so miserable. My middle sister had just started school and I couldn't understand why she was miserable. My eldest sister had just had a Farrah Fawcett Flick. I fully understood why she was miserable.
But for me the 1980s started with the bang that came from the gun that shot John Lennon. I was playing on the lounge floor, the news flash came on that Lennon had been shot by the Dakota building in New York. My mother cried, my father grew silent and also wept. I had heard of the Beatles, sure, but it was that moment that brought it home just how important they were, and remain, to people of my parents' generation. It was the first time I had seen my mother cry.

The Falklands Conflict

At the time the Falklands broke out, I was so turned by the propaganda I decided then and there I wanted to join the Navy - four years later I nearly did! 20 years later, I still don't know if it was done for the right reasons.
The Falklands War - I remember people talking about the enormous cost of the torpedoes and missiles, and the 'QE2' heading into the South Atlantic packed with troops.

The Thawing of the Cold War

My most vivid memory is all the 'two minutes to midnight' stuff going on with the Cold War, the women at Greenham and those two 'aftermath-of-nuclear-war films' that came out at the time - The Day After was the American one, while the BBC made Threads, which offered a horrific vision of Britain in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
I remember 'Star Wars'. Not the Lucas film but the antinuclear deterrent with satellites shooting down ICBMs. Basically an idea that Reagan got from a 1950s film he starred in. Terrifyingly, history is rewriting itself with George 'Dubya' Bush resurrecting the idea for the 21st Century.
I remember nearly every other thing on the news on TV and a fair number of programmes on Australia's ABC channel kept banging on about the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war and the resulting holocaust. The thing I never understood was why everyone assumed that the Soviets would strike first (given recent events, isn't it more likely to be the other way?). A number of films made at that time seemed to take that line - Red Dawn being the best/worst example, where the US was taken over by the Soviets. Mad Max 3 was another example though why people seemed to worry about petrol more than water I never understood. This seemed to leads to the idea that civilisation was doomed, any time now would be Armageddon. Not the most cheery of thoughts when you're growing up.


The Hunger Strikes - In southern Ireland, the North usually seemed separate and distant, but not when the inmates in Long Kesh decided to stop taking food, and eventually started dying. I remember black coffins nailed to walls all over small towns in the local area, and some pretty aggressive slogans against Mrs T [Thatcher] on bill posters everywhere.

The Miners and their Strike

With the recent retirement of Arthur Scargill as head of the miners' union, memories of that dark and restless era at the beginning of the 1980s came flooding back. It was a time of great change in the UK, mines were closing at a rapid rate and alternative sources of fuel were being looked for. The miners put up one of the greatest fights against the UK government of the 1980s.

What I really remember of growing up in the '80s was the Miners' Strike (lorries thundering past my house every day, seemingly for ever), the end of the Cold War, Tiananmen square, Challenger, Chernobyl (The end of rabbit pie from the local poacher), vast numbers out of work (certainly when my dad became unemployed it felt like the whole world was) and my learning of politics. I don't know whither it was a particularly turbulent time politics wise, but I felt that everywhere I turned there were strikes, and extreme views of either shade while over it all hung a quiet fear of nuclear war.

Protecting British Interests

One of my memories of the 1980s is spending Christmas 1986/87 on a minesweeper in the Persian Gulf, protecting 'British Interests' and shipping from the 'evil' Iranian navy and airforce who were attempting to blockade the Straits of Hormuz, effectively cutting off oil supplies to the rest of the world... Who were the good guys in this conflict... The Americans, the British and that well known democratic state with its mainly British-trained military... Iraq.

The Riots in Toxteth and Brixton, UK

Something else important for British Researchers - the inner city riots of the early '80s. In the '70s, discontent was largely expressed through political means (ie, strikes). But in 1981, it evolved into physical violence and destruction. Brixton, London, and Toxteth, Liverpool, were torn apart by mass rioting, looting and general destruction. There were other areas too, but I can only remember those two.


We were all concerned that radioactive dust would reach us here, and I think (maybe I am wrong) that once we were warned not to go out.


I also remember when Reagan got elected, and my aunt, a nun living in the US at the time, declaring that the whole place would go to hell in a handbasket if he ever got in.

My Other Car Is Also a Porsche - the 1980s and Money

The 1980s were, a horribly destructive time. It was the decade of Thatcher and Reagan: the time when, in Britain, unrestrained capitalism became the order of the day, the power of trade unions to protect employees was destroyed, and any sort of collective spirit was deeply unfashionable. It was the age of the yuppie, the time when greed was declared to be good, and it became respectable to look after number one and not to give a damn about anyone who was left behind.

It might have been a great time for some people in London, but it was a nightmare for northern England. Many in the north of England had to leave their home area to have a prayer of getting any work. And Britain certainly still hasn't recovered from it. Thatcher succeeded by appealing to the lowest, most selfish side of human nature; by making life better for just enough people so that (from her point of view) it didn't matter about all the people who were locked out of the party. To this day, the Blair government is extremely nervous about the idea of increasing taxes to pay for decent social services, because the echoes of Thatcherism linger on.

Whether the 'Me' decade was good, bad, or in between, one thing for certain is that its legacy lives on in the new century, and it will take us some time to recover.

It seems that some of us though had the time of our lives...

Oh, I loved the '80s - especially the Big Bang years. I was young, ambitious, computer-literate, had loadsamoney and a credit rating that beggared belief (remember Access, your 'flexible friend' credit card?). Like all my 'Yuppie'1 chums, I power-dressed for the office, wore my ra-ra skirt for cruising the wine bars of the City and West End of London, adopted 'Sloane Ranger' wear for days in the country (twin-set and pearls and pleated skirt, with Barbour and green wellies in the boot of the Porsche 911 in case the weather turned for the worst), went 'New Romantic' for parties or donned a huge-skirted satin ballgown for more up-market events. From 'Tree-Hugging Hippie' to 'Hooray Henrietta' in the space of five years...

As mentioned above, it was the decade of greed, of excess and of high flying. The following stories from our Researchers are of hope through the darkest period of recession.

The thing about conspicuous consumerism was that sometimes it just happened to you... I went down to London in 1987 for a 3-month contract programming (in BASIC!) and was paid £400 a week in my pocket. That was equivalent to the monthly wage - before tax - in my previous job in Aberdeen. I'm not greatly motivated by money, but when it just appears like that there's nothing to do but 'go with the flow'! I was wearing the suit and red tie (occasionally yellow tie) combo beloved of new Yuppies everywhere, drinking champagne out of a pint glass on a Friday night and generally enjoying it while it lasted.
I still never considered myself a Yuppie, though. My favourite memory from that time was a deluge of rain one afternoon... I was in the launderette, and stopped at the traffic lights outside was an archetypal Yuppie - aged about 20, Armani suit and lots of sparkly gold pins and rings, in an open-topped Ford Escort RS Cosworth. The rain had been really heavy for about ten minutes already (this coming from an Aberdonian should give you an idea of how bad it was! The spray was bouncing back two feet from the pavement...) and he was trying not to acknowledge the water as it slowly filled the bottom of his car. He stared ahead with a fixed expression, ignoring the smirks of passers-by as the rain visibly splashed back up from the inside of the car. (It was one of the 'hard-top' models, and one can only assume he'd left the roof in the garage that morning...)
But then came the stock market crash, the property crash, the recession and unemployment... Ah, I didn't let it get me down - I may not have had the money any more, but at least I had all the stuff! So, in 1988, I decamped from London and joined the ranks of the self-employed, doing what the Tory Government dubbed 'telecottaging' before they realised that the 'cottaging' could have quite another meaning... Anyway, somehow my technology and I survived the bleak decade that followed and together we've built a thriving business - and it all started with that Amstrad 1640.

When Local Government Became 'Interesting'

The '80s had to be the decade in which local government suddenly became interesting. It was a time when Britain became as politically polarised as it's possible to be in a democracy. Westminster had one of the most right wing governments ever, and in answer, many local authorities headed towards 'The Loony Left'. The biggest thorn in Thatcher's side was Ken Livingstone (current Mayor of London) and the GLC, with their famous banner strung up across the front of County Hall in full view of the Palace of Westminster, reminding the government just how many people were unemployed.

Local authorities in London and around the country were falling over each to be the one with largest number of groups they didn't discriminate against in their job ads - 'We are an equal opportunities employer. We do not discriminate in regard of age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, prison record...'

The London Borough of Lambeth openly elected a black lesbian as council leader - something which would have been unheard of a few years previously, but which is still used as an extreme of 'political correctness'.


Thatcher wanted to grind down the power of the unions, the unions fought back, culminating in the miners' strike (see above). All kinds of minority groups were expecting, indeed demanding, equality. The more right wing the government became, the greater the left wing backlash, and the greater controls Thatcher tried to put upon them. Eventually she overstepped herself with the introduction of the poll tax - a move which it's generally accepted was her downfall.

What I remember most about Thatcher was the way she had the almighty gall to quote St Francis of Assisi on her election and promptly set about replacing what had been a long-standing post-war consensus with constant confrontation. She told us that there was no such thing as society, and displayed contempt for the very idea of social justice.
Regardless of the economics, we are still suffering from the damage that she did to our society - many of the communities that were devastated in the '80s have never recovered. I shall never forgive her.

The Big Disease with a Little Name

As far as AIDS is concerned it was the death of Rock Hudson, movie heart throb, that brought it to the attention of the world and gave it the celebrity backing that every worthy cause needed. But Back to AIDS - people didn't know how to react - the Don't Die of Ignorance campaign was a huge failure - scaring more people than it taught. The gay audience was ignored by the subsequent campaigns, people died at an alarming rate. Gaetan Dugas will go down as patient zero - the man who was at the centre of the first study into how the virus spread...

In an age where communication en masse was being pioneered, the powers that be failed miserably to communicate the simple message that unprotected sex can kill - regardless of sexual orientation, age or class.

In Sweden we didn't really realise what was happening until a well known entertainer, Sixten Herrgârdh, stepped forward and announced that he had AIDS. Until then, it was just a diffuse illness happening somewhere far away, but he gave it a face and brought it so much closer to home.
I remember in college the difficulties our journalism classes had in dealing with this. As the next generation of reporters we were supposed to know what to tell people about AIDS. But as late as 1987 we were taught that AIDS 'is most often transmitted through sexual contact, mostly between homosexual males.' We were taught other means of transmission as well, but the 'mostly between homosexual males' part seems really shocking today. The Associated Press later revised this to take that part out.

The Iron Curtain

For many, the fall of the Iron Curtain was the event of the decade. The whole of 1989 Autumn had been turmoil with first the Berlin Wall then one by one the communist states falling. Many thought that come the Christmas holidays, the remaining three would never fall (Romania, Albania and China)...

My memories of significant events during the later '80s seem to be clouded (probably because of new found interests in alcohol and girls), but the most significant one was the end of the Berlin Wall, and the fascinating events that lead up to it. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I was living through a really historical period.

The Ceaucescus

The 1980s might have started with one gun shot, but it ended with two:

Christmas Day, 1989 I was 16 and was startling more aware of the world thanks to what the 1980s threw up - Star Wars (arms not the Film), AIDS (which had directly affected our family and would throughout the '90s), the Falklands, Recession, the disappearance of Suzie Lamplugh and Live Aid. On this day, Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu, the leaders of Communist Romania, were executed in front of a TV crew. The images were broadcast the same day. The dilemma this posed for me was the fact that I was, and still am, against taking the life of anyone... but the death of the Ceaucescus brought to an end a tyrannical and bloody regime - by executing two people, the lives of thousands were saved.
I remember we had guests around when the news was on Christmas Day 1989 I recognised Nicolae Ceaucescu's face as it had festooned the book stores inn Siniai where I had been skiing almost two years earlier in February 1988. So I stopped the conversation and said this is important and turned the volume up.

'Challenger' Ends US Space Race

The spaceship Challenger flew from 1983 till its final flight on 28 January, 1986. For the Challenger's final launch everyone wanted to watch it. On this flight they'd sent a teacher along, and this opened the idea that 'regular' people might actually get into space in the not-too-distant future. For a minute everything was normal, and then people realised that something had gone wrong when the vapour trail changed and the bright flame suddenly flared and started to fall. The world went very quiet... we were all stunned by that news. Then people started to cry. It was like the death of a dream as well as the death of the people aboard.

Their names as they appear on the memorial to all astronauts killed in flight.

  • Francis R Scobee (Commander)
  • Michael J Smith (Pilot)
  • Judith A Resnik
  • Ellison S Onizuka
  • Ronald E McNair
  • Gregory B Jarvis
  • Sharon Christa McAuliffe (A teacher who was to be the first civilian in space)
28 January, 1986. As with Columbia years previously I was looking forward to the wonder of the Shuttle taking off. I suppose being a bump when man landed on the Moon made me a real Space Age kid. But It was so shocking the suddenness of it all and the deafly silence until the commentators realised that instead of what was a normal procedure was an international news story and they quickly regathered their stride and started to look for answers to questions no one thought they would ever have to answer.
I remember that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was dedicated to them and the next shuttle mission to fly after the hiatus had seven stars on their patch to represent the seven who had gone before.
I grew up in Satellite Beach, Florida and usually went outside to watch the launches from the Kennedy Space Center. It was a normal part of life to hear and feel the rumble and then step out and watch whatever was being sent up arc into the sky.

The Great Storm of 1987, Great Britain

A woman phoned in worried that there is going to be a hurricane tonight. Don't worry, there won't be...
- BBC Weatherman Michael Fish, 6.25pm, the evening of the 1987 storm.

We all know that weather reporting is not an exact science, but this has to be one of the greatest weather gaffs of the 1980s. The storm that hit Great Britain was not technically a hurricane, but it was the strongest and the worst storm on record since 1703. The reason the weathermen missed it was because the weather ship which should have spotted the approach of the storm across the ocean had been retired due to Margaret Thatcher's cuts in Government spending. Below are some Researcher experiences of that very windy day:

Oh, that had to be, with hindsight, one of the funniest events... we used to have an orchard of apple and pear trees (about 15 trees in total) all bar one were uprooted and we literally lost three of them...
We could have been the people down the road though - they lost their roof, most of which landed on their car.
The car of actor Gordon Kaye, famous for playing Rene in the wartime sitcom 'Allo, 'Allo, was hit by a falling tree; Kaye was found in a coma and spent some time in hospital, though thankfully he later made a full recovery.
I remember that well. My mate got blown over a wall walking home from school and when I got there I saw the back wall of my house disappear.

And Seven Oaks in Kent will never be the same again....

Sevenoaks actually has more than one set of seven oak trees. The ones that fell victim to the storm ringed the ancient Vine Cricket ground (reputably the oldest ground in the world but definitely the place where the third stump was introduced). They had been planted in 1902 to commemorate the Coronation of King Edward VII.
Only one survived the storm and 'Blue Peter' came down to plant seven new saplings. The local youth showed what they thought of this and seven slightly young trees were planted in their place. So there are actually eight oaks on the Vine now.
We have lots of ancient woodland near us and the damage was horrendous. To give you an idea, I lived in the town and was unable to get to school ¾ of a mile away because so many trees were down. In the rural areas around the town it was bedlam. Actually it was not all bad news, because while the storm damage in the Sevenoaks area is still highly visible 15 years on, it has changed the local ecosystem to the extent that plants, insects and birds unseen in the region for hundreds of years, are coming back. This is probably due to the increased amount of sunlight reaching the ground.
1'Young Urban Professionals'.

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