Between 1971 and 1981 alone, the population of Toxteth fell by more than a third. In extreme form, the area exemplified the wider decline of Liverpool. Since the Edwardian era, the city’s commercial zenith, its long chain of working docks – with their colonnaded quays and warehouses like palaces – had been thinning and corroding. Britain’s maritime trade had moved steadily to other ports on the east coast not the west, closer to Europe.
Since the 1970s, the factory jobs that were meant to replace the dock work had been disappearing too, with Liverpool plants increasingly regarded as disposable branch facilities by manufacturing conglomerates based elsewhere. Since the 1950s, Liverpool’s population had been dropping faster than in any other city in the country: from a peak of almost 900,000 to under 500,000 in 1981.
Much of Liverpool was still handsome, with its bright estuarine light and its steep city-centre hills, stacked with centuries of grand buildings from past booms. It still had cultural leverage and charisma, with its ongoing tradition of clever pop music from the Beatles to mouthy new bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen; and a quick-passing football team, Liverpool FC, that was in the middle of a period of unprecedented dominance of both the English and European games. Yet all this swagger was, at best, inadequate compensation for, and at worst a distraction from, the depopulation and the decaying economy. Early 1980s Liverpool, even more than the country’s many other tatty, depopulating cities, could be seen as a warning: the fall of Britain writ large.
“It was just like having a case study on your doorstep,” Minford told me. “The British disease in its terminal phase. Productivity – hopeless. Union militancy – very strong. Living on benefits – the norm. I saw whole streets doing that at first hand.” On weekday lunchtimes, he and Liverpool University colleagues used to go to a pub on the northern edge of Toxteth. “You had to be a bit careful. But in many ways it was very instructive.”
© Georgina Rowlands, all rights reserved