Simon Parker looks at the government’s response to civil disorder in Liverpool in the 1980s and specifically at the policy of “managed decline”. This, he explains, involved the abandonment of a damaged part of the city in order to preserve the healthy remainder. Such strategies still influence policy circles, and therefore remain a threat.

Alone, every night … I would stand with a glass of wine, looking out at the magnificent view over the river, and ask myself what had gone wrong for this great English city. The Mersey, its lifeblood, flowed as majestically as ever down from the hills. Its monumental Georgian and Victorian buildings, created with such pride, still dominated the skyline. The Liver Building itself, the epicentre of a trading system that had reached out to the four corners of the earth, stood defiant and from my perspective very alone…everything had gone wrong.

Lord Michael Heseltine, former Environment Minister.

When Michael Heseltine was appointed “Minister for the Mersey”, the City of Liverpool had just experienced some of the worst scenes of urban disorder in the history of the United Kingdom. Following nine consecutive nights of violence that began on 3 July 1981 and which resulted in 500 arrests, 470 injured police officers and one death, the fate of this once great port city hung in the balance. As the clean up began, rival factions within Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet locked horns over a policy of strategic abandonment or “managed decline” as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe termed it. This was opposed to Heseltine’s more interventionist approach that favoured replacing democratically elected urban governance by business-led, centrally appointed urban development corporations with the view of breathing new entrepreneurial life into Merseyside and Britain’s other declining post-industrial metropolitan cities.

Michael Heseltine’s report into the Liverpool disturbances “It Took A Riot” offers a fascinating insight into how Thatcher’s Cabinet attempted to make sense of a country wracked by poverty, unemployment and racial divisions, and where the police were struggling to maintain civil order. “I opened this report”, Heseltine writes, “by referring frankly to the inescapable connection between the riots and the visit [to Liverpool] I was asked to make. I cannot stress too strongly that my conclusions and proposals are not based on my fear of further riots. They are based on my beliefs that the conditions and prospects in the cities are not compatible with the traditions of social justice and national even-handedness on which our Party prides itself … I have not expanded on the concept of a tactical retreat, a combination of economic erosion and encouraged evacuation.”

Heseltine’s rather cryptic reference to “the concept of a tactical retreat” referred to a series of interventions by Geoffrey Howe. In a letter dated 4 September 1981, Howe set out the Treasury’s approach to Britain’s troubled inner-cities in surprisingly bold terms: “[W]e need to get to grips with the problem. This has implications for urban policy. Should our aim be to stabilise the inner cities … or is this to pump water uphill? Should we rather go for ‘managed decline’? This is not a term for use, even privately”.

Sir Geoffrey was effectively advocating what I and my co-authors Rowland Atkinson and Emma Morales have described previously as autotomy – the conscious abandonment of a damaged or diseased part of the body politic in order to preserve the healthy remainder. We argued that this practice had first emerged as a strategy of containment in heavily Republican “no go” areas at the height of the “Troubles” in the early 1970s, despite its disavowal by a series of Northern Ireland ministers, but that there was also evidence of the practice in more recent urban informality containment strategies in Mexico City among other “divided cities” around the world.

What is striking about these rival urban policy field positions (a term that we derive from Pierre Bourdieu) that emerged in Cabinet discussions during this period and following the 1985 riots in London and Birmingham, is that the Prime Minister and several of her colleagues seemed willing to ascribe the socio-economic problems of these predominantly black and minority ethnic inner-city neighbourhoods to some underlying flaw in the character of the residents and their locally elected representatives rather than more long running structural economic factors. Thus Thatcher warned her Cabinet at their meeting on 9 July 1981 that, “We have poured money into big employments in Merseyside; a failure”. Instead she pointed the finger of blame for inner city strife at Labour authorities that had created “horrible housing, high rise, etc.” and on the lifestyles of the non-working poor—“We have a whole generation brought up on 5h a day of TV”.

Oliver Letwin, a political advisor to Margaret Thatcher at the time of the 1985 riots in Brixton and Tottenham, wrote a paper with Hartley Booth which made the racial aspect of this characterisation of an inner-city dwelling counter-public more explicit. The authors advised the Prime Minister that “lower-class unemployed white people had lived for years in appalling slums without a breakdown of public order on anything like the present scale”. While in a later communication Booth warned Thatcher that setting up a £10m communities programme to tackle inner-city problems would do little more than “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops”.

What this discourse served to promote is a justification for at least divesting from, and in extremis abandoning, those parts of the UK that had come to display morbid symptoms of what the government identified as political extremism, industrial unrest, civil disorder, ethnic diversity and “alternative lifestyles” (characterised by a predominance of single parent households and high welfare dependency) that also happened to be located among economically declining geographies with little prospects for endogeneous growth.

Far from being a momentary lapse of Treasury groupthink, the notion of “managed decline” remains a salient policy narrative that continues to attract support from academics and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic in the context of diminishing support for welfare pluralism and the championing of spatial competition by global financial and corporate interests. A “tactical retreat” from supporting distressed urban regions that is likely to quicken as Britain enters the rougher waters of post-European Union global trading conditions.


Note the above draws on the author’s published work (with Rowland Atkinson and Emma Morales) in Territory, Politics, Governance.

About the Author

Simon Parker is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of York.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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