Thirty Years: from the Berlin Wall to Brexit

By Kenn Taylor

My earliest real memories are of 1989. I can vividly recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had of course no understanding of the geo-political context, but the powerful images of people dancing on the graffiti covered wall as it was smashed down, have always stayed with me.

So too do the very different memories I have of that year’s Hillsborough disaster. I was not at the ground – as a family of Evertonians, our focus was on the simultaneous FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. However, though young and, again, not fully understanding, I do remember the mood afterwards, the grim television images of the empty terraces.

There for me, the two sides of what followed, in the 1990s and 2000s, are laid bare. The freedom and optimism, the darkness underneath.

One impact the fall of the Berlin Wall played out in Birkenhead, where I’m from, was the end of the Cold War meaning a cut in naval orders for the Cammell Laird shipyard. With the Thatcher government having focused so much of UK industry on defence, this meant the closure of the yard around which the town had been built. The year the yard closed in 1993, in parts of Birkenhead – one of the poorest areas in Europe – the male unemployment rate was 52%. Economic decline and its social effects ate away at the local fabric. Many people moved away to seek work. My father, who worked for British Rail as a maintenance engineer, itself being decimated by cuts, had to work away for several years in the Midlands due to a lack of local opportunities.

Of course, when something is all you know, it’s all you know. It was only as I grew older that I became more aware that others lived differently. Not only were we a poorer region, many people elsewhere thought it was hilarious that our community had declined, jobs had gone, poverty had increased, that decay eroded our buildings and infrastructure, and that our cultural institutions were run down and closing. Not only did they find it funny, they thought this had happened not because of a complex range of political, geographic and economic factors over a long period of history, but that it was our fault because of our deficient character. As I consumed more media I saw this was rife, from Loaded magazine to the Sunday Times to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who said in a speech as an attempt at a joke: “You know scousers, always up to something.”

His comments were symptomatic of how easy it was to get away with this sort of prejudice in that era. On the football terraces, meanwhile, you could hear: It could be worse / You could be scouse / Eating rats in your Council House. And much worse. The towns many of the football supporters who sang the above and similar lived in, these days have worse poverty and unemployment rates than Merseyside, but those fans continue to sing it.

This was of course fuelled by the right wing corporate media. It couldn’t be denied that Government policies had helped impoverish certain areas, that life in them was getting worse. So, it suited the Government and its media supporters to pretend that places like Glasgow and Liverpool were poor through their own choices and, as such, were irrelevant, not to be worried about, that they even deserved it. Places to be wholly dismissed, certainly in cultural terms. However, let’s not just blame hacks like The Sun’s Kelvin Mackenzie, that lets people off too easily. A large proportion of the British public lapped it up and ran with it. They wanted to be told, even if they were on a low wage elsewhere, that they were still better than the Scousers or the Scots. This reached its grimmest culmination in the public reaction to the Hillsborough disaster. Of course now, finally, after decades of hard grassroots campaigning, most of the public has a very different view of what happened in that disaster.  Yet until the Hillsborough Independent Panel reported, this was not the case. Even as a young adult, long after the Taylor Report and Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough, upon hearing I was from Merseyside, random people would make snide comments relating to the disaster. 

Looking back, I think it’s something to do with a particular deficiency of the British national character, the need to always think we’re better than someone else. Even those who consider themselves liberal-left often revel in sniffing at the tastes of others. This is fuelled of course by the fact that, in order to keep the current system ticking over, we need to keep buying into lifestyles that we think make us better or different from other people. From city centre dwellers who spend a lot in independent coffee shops to suburbanites straining to pay a mortgage they can’t afford for a double garage: We may be struggling but at least we’re not like them lot.

By the time Labour got into power in 1997, I was mid-way through my high school years in a tatty secondary modern in the Wirral suburbs. Educational resources in the borough were of course all diverted to the grammar schools in this 11 Plus area. My dad was a trade unionist. My family Labour. We’d been brought up to believe that things could only get better. Even in our school, not the kind to have a debating society, someone on the day after the Labour election victory stole a Vote Labour sign and propped it above one of the main doors.

It was a time of optimism, further fuelled by the opening up of many countries after the fall of the wall and other profound changes like the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Culture in many ways was booming too, especially the wild and hedonistic kind, embodied by the rise of dance music after the ‘second summer of love’ in 1989 and later the ‘Cool Britannia’ world of Brit Pop, all documented by a rising number of glossy magazines. All the sugar high joys of our consumer society, growing since the 1980s. Public spending went up after 1997. There were more university places. New technology it seemed would create new jobs to replace those lost. It doesn’t matter, we were told, if your old ways, your old towns, are doomed. Go to university, live in a regenerating city, get a new job in a new industry.

It felt like there was a new growing and exhilarating openness then. We could mix with a wider circle, helped by the ever expanding world of the Internet. With the advent of cheap flights, we could see more of the world. Borders seemed to be falling everywhere. It seemed too, we hoped, that racism, homophobia, misogyny, were at least on the retreat, even if still prevalent. Sexuality too was, a little, more fluid. What we lacked in declining security, was made up for in the appearance at least of more freedom, more options. The idea of a traditional structured life, deemed irrelevant, old fashioned, just as it was becoming slowly more unobtainable. The Government, media, society, did its best by and large to encourage you to look away from how shallow though a lot of this was and dream instead of the computer generated futures on the hoarding boards of regeneration projects.

Of course though, for people like us, in a place like Merseyside, things did not really get that better that much. Labour brought in Education Maintenance Allowance, but also Tuition Fees. It invested in the regions, but didn’t undertake serious economic reform, thus seeing ever more of the regional economic base of Britain slip away. Many Labour voters became sceptical of the party around the Iraq war. For those of us in small post-industrial towns, the scepticism began much earlier.

That era I think was never better described than by Sue Townsend, the creator of Adrian Mole, referring to it in the title of her book, The Cappuccino Years – it was all so much froth on the surface. While it seemed things were getting better, underneath, the rot of the 1980s continued to eat away at our economy and civil society. Those of us from working-class backgrounds were I think more sensitive to how thin much of all this was. Despite being just as into the cheap thrills on offer, we could not forget what happened to those at the vulnerable end of society in the 1980s and 90s, even if we had no faith in what had been lost returning. At the lower end of the economy where insecurity was normal, the gaps in the system were easier to see. It was also felt by many of us though, that we had fought, and we had lost. That some posh academics still wanted to pick over trade union banners and the like, tried to invoke a supposedly more glorious past, seemed tasteless. That culture, our culture, had been beaten to death. Leave it be, let’s embrace what little, unintentional good that came out of that destructive revolution: the dance music, the style, the freedom, the openness. We had no industries anymore, our towns had lost their reason to be, but at least we were no longer trapped by their traditional strictures. All we had was a small degree of liberation amongst the corruption and we were going to embrace it, because that’s all that was left.

Some would occasionally raise flags; the numerous unresolved injustices of the past, the unlikeliness, if you had even a scant knowledge of history, of this boom being sustained, that economies were still declining in more regions than ever, but so often to do so was to be seen as boring, a throwback, a crank.

On the eve of the credit crunch in 2008, I had a junior insecure job in the cultural sector, while Liverpool was caught up in the whirlwind of the being European Capital of Culture. It was all a lot of fun, much of the programme was really good too, but running around at the bottom of the cultural system, it was easy to see it was on shaky ground, with money being spent wildly with little thought to the long term. A booming culture sector built on the sand of money flowing into the economy from high finance. Of course, the culture sector saw only a fraction of the cash compared to what was being thrown around elsewhere. Culture was, as it does, merely reflecting the wider system, from the financial markets to the construction boom and all interconnected. Don’t stop that carousel! Because so many people deep down knew that as soon as the music stopped, everything would start to fall apart. And so it did. Those at the bottom were the ones to really suffer, while so many who had kept the Ponzi scheme going, ran off or had enough stashed to keep themselves afloat.

I wrote an article in 2009, soon after the credit crunch started to kick in, about what the future might hold for the UK. The recession was biting but the public cuts hadn’t come in, the wheels were still spinning just slowing down. I could not of course predict how long, how deep, how fundamental the decline would be, but I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride ahead. My piece was deliberately over the top, the theme of the publication was ‘apocalypse’, but I think I managed to capture some things that have, sadly, turned out to be true ten years on:

“Although many of these events have been happening on a global scale, the crisis has also served to highlight Britain’s inherent weaknesses and its seemingly terminal decline. Pretty much the same path it has been on for decades. We can now see the 90s as simply an opiated high amidst abject squalor.”

“Life would become much cheaper. Ignorance and disease would grow. Social mobility would become almost non-existent.”

I was far from alone in seeing some of this on the horizon. We couldn’t predict that the crunch was merely one of the more dramatic stages in a more fundamental shifting of tectonic plates. However, while people who had been spared the worst of 1980s and 90s thought it would just be a blip, like the dot com bubble of the early 2000s, then things would return to ‘normal’, those of us who could recall the bitter devastation of the 80s and early 90s to much of Britain could see the cracks spreading more easily. So much of the UK though was still in thrall to its supposed ‘betters’, the ‘leaders’ and ‘entrepreneurs’. They still wanted to be told the problem was that lot, over there and that lot would be the only ones to suffer. They wanted to be told that they would still be fine. Yet it all kept on falling, until it started to catch up with even those who’d been alright at the first hurdle. Those who thought they’d be okay.

For me, the tragedy of Britain in my lifetime wasn’t that Merseyside got worse, in many ways it has improved from the nadir of the early 90s. The tragedy is that so many other places have experienced the same decline or worse.  The economic decline of the majority of UK regions and its inverse, the overheating of London on the gilded roulette wheel of high finance to make it increasingly unliveable for ordinary people, has spread to impact on everyone.

But don’t say people in places like Liverpool didn’t warn everyone more than 30 years ago about all this and were mocked for it.

Now, over 10 years further on from 2008, people are starting to turn around and say ‘no more’. But the battle is so much harder. So much has already been lost. The anger being felt across the nation is from people feeling cheated. However, many people were being cheated a lot more for a longer period of time.

I visited Poland soon after the credit crunch and, by accident, ended up being taken around Krakow by someone around my age. We talked of the horrors of the past. The new openness. That we would have not been able to meet just a decade or so previously. It felt good. Just another personal anecdote, but these are the things we need to cling too. We must remember the fall of the wall. We need to remember too though the decades of darkness that accompanied its construction and how it came to be. And, indeed, remember that there was an emptiness underneath all that openness after the wall came down. Many people were still getting thrown under the bus even during the boom. Often forgotten by the mostly well-meaning, well-educated technocrats who had become much of the political class. Those who had absorbed the idea and parroted back to us that ‘There is no alternative’. When that system did, as they all do in the end, collapse, they had no idea how to respond. Other than wasting years propping it up hoping the magic would return while they were overrun by smarter and more cynical disaster capitalists who wanted to make sure, as ever, that they benefited from the chaos.

Meanwhile the dreams of ordinary people lay shattered and ever further out of reach. At the same time though, as the propulsive positivity of the Berlin Wall falling receded, hope grew elsewhere. The unrelenting, never give up attitude of the people behind the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, who should to a man and woman get OBEs for fighting every prejudice; against football fans, against Scousers, against the working-class, managed to turn the tide around the Hillsborough disaster. A campaign driven and led by those at the bottom with the least resources. We should not forget that in the case of the Berlin Wall and Hillsborough, it was ordinary people who led the path of change, taking down walls of different kinds.

Really, a lot of what is happening in Britain, is the scales falling from people’s eyes. We as a nation have to face up to our problems, not ignore them. The previous model of allowing just enough people with ambition to get on and giving everyone else just enough to get by and not cause any trouble has collapsed. In the end it always benefited those with the most and abandoned those with the least. We don’t need to try and ‘get back to normal’ because, while things may have been much better than they are now, really there was just a thin veneer over a set of huge challenges that helped us avoid facing up to the issues. What we need now is to go forward, address those challenges, acknowledge that the race to the top, the throwing of whole communities under the bus has not only screwed them, but ultimately, screwed the whole country and undermined the wider world.

Drunk on the freedom of the individual, too many people forgot about those who were, one way or another, losing their freedom. The great feeling of loss that this country has experienced will carry on and get worse unless we realise we aren’t atomised individuals. We need to remember, acknowledge where things went wrong, who has suffered and goes on suffering. Brexit, whatever it ends up meaning, approaches and things are more uncertain than ever. They may well get worse. We cannot forget the need for solidarity though, the need for working together, fighting injustice, not letting the weakest be crushed, because, the alternative is unthinkable. Things can be turned around again. If I live for another 30 years at least, I dare to hope, we may get back some of what we have lost. Perhaps even, gain some new things as well. Walls will still be built of course, and we will still need to make them fall.