The heroin ghost towns still haunted by Thatcher

by Michelle La Guilla

Note: This post is part of our series on the continuing legacy of Thatcher.


The early 1980s saw the nascent Tory government, led by Margaret Thatcher, introduce the “Right to Buy” council house scheme.  Championed as the democratization of property ownership, empowering the deserving poor to achieve security and social mobility, it was nonetheless widely seen as counterproductive, a cynical back-door boost to government coffers and an incitement to debt.  The consequences of the shortage of social housing left behind can be clearly seen today in the furore over the Bedroom Tax, whereby those deemed to be underoccupying have literally nowhere to go.

Thatcher had also set out her stall regarding the miners early on in her premiership.  In 1984 the government announced its intention to close 20 “uneconomical” pits.  This was the catalyst for the miners’ strike of 1984-85.  Thatcher declared the miners “the enemy within” and with the rabidly Thatcherite tabloid press on side the government went all out to crush the miners, denying them benefits and employing the police as a political army.  Police brutality was endemic but rarely reported while violence by the miners was exaggerated in attempts to demonise and discredit them.  The government wanted to destroy the political power of the unions once and for all as they were seen as anachronistic and a threat to the party’s free market ideals.

So it came to be that in the early 1980s there was a backdrop of civil unrest, mass unemployment and job insecurity, deprivation and in the former mining communities, a sense of rejection, anxiety and a complete loss of community identity.  Into this vacuum, increasingly, flooded heroin, with reports that heroin use in ex mining communities exceeded the national average by 27%.

The epidemic was gathering pace all over Britain, concentrated in areas of high unemployment and deprivation.  Parker et al concentrated their investigations in the Wirral, where hopelessly poor areas sit cheek-by-jowl with middle class, “respectable” neighbourhoods.  This was also an area, following the Toxteth riots of 1981, slated for ‘managed decline’ under Thatcher; ‘let it burn’, she was urged.  Parker et al clearly link heroin use and social deprivation: “. . . they shared with ‘new’ users throughout the country the characteristics of unemployment and relative poverty. Therefore, assuming that the supply of heroin remains strong, it is reasonable to predict that future levels of heroin use will continue to mirror any increases in unemployment or poverty.” (Parker et al, 1988, p.25.)


Pearson et al (citing 1981 Census Small Area Statistics,1987, p.62) compared “target areas” where heroin use was at its highest density against four indicators of deprivation – unemployment, unemployment amongst under-25s, one-parent families and having no access to a car.  So for example, in the “target area” in Merseyside’s Docktown ward, unemployment was at 53% and 60% for the under-25s (as compared to 34% and 40% for the ward overall), one-parent families accounted for 38% and 92% had no access to a car (compared to 24% and 78%.)  Their statistics for four other wards in the North of England similarly reflect this sharp increase in deprivation markers in areas where heroin use is at its highest, supporting the hypothesis that heroin addiction and deprivation are often close bedfellows.

It is important to note that in the 1980s there was no cohesive drugs strategy, and first responses to the problem tended to go down the criminal justice route, in contrast to the British System in place until 1968 whereby doctors could prescribe heroin to known addicts, with the ethos of the system summed up thus:  “Doctors should be allowed to prescribe narcotics to wean patients off such drugs, to relieve pain after a prolonged cure had failed and in cases where small doses enabled otherwise helpless patients to perform ‘useful tasks’ and lead relatively normal lives.” (Rolleston, cited in Durlacher, 2000, p.65.)

The end of the British System had the effect of criminalising heroin use, creating a huge black market in the drug and pushing up acquisitive crime as users struggled to raise cash to feed their habits.  This was certainly true in the Wirral, where the crime rate soared in parallel with the heroin explosion there; at twice the rate of other areas in the region since 1979.

Wirral between 1984 -86 is a useful microcosm of wider responses to the epidemic, with policing and sentencing being employed unusually heavily.  The borough saw an unprecedented clampdown, a major police exercise in arresting users and dealers.  The cycle that we still see today, of addiction born of high youth unemployment and hopelessness, and young people criminalised and labelled by the very system that has impoverished them, was signalled by dawn raids and doors kicked in by police boots.

However, this route proved both costly and ineffective – the campaign in Wirral did produce a localised drought, but new trading sites simply emerged elsewhere and addicts found no bar to their habits in prison.  As Parker et al point out: “What it has done is criminalise and imprison a large population of predominantly young men and women and, by the police’s own admission driven the whole drugs scene underground.” (Parker et al, 1988, p.110.)

Meanwhile, the response of many G.P.s to the flood of new cases was to refuse to treat them, understandable given that most had been given no special training.  Of those who did, the options were methadone maintenance or benzodiazepines to relieve withdrawals.  Methadone, then as now, deeply divided opinion and addicts were ambivalent:  “The availability of methadone had undoubtedly enabled a small circle of heroin users in this town to stabilise their lives to some extent, and some had eventually become abstinent.  But for others this was rather a listless sort of accomplishment, and there was little evident motivation to become opiate free other than a fitful lip service to reducing their methadone dosage.”  (Pearson et al, 1987, p.25.)

Methadone was part of harm reduction, seen by many as a more realistic approach than prohibitionism and draconian policing.  It involved three categories: safer methods of drug use, alternative methods of altering mental states, and recognition of and response to drug related problems.  It included needle exchange schemes and education about the dangers of sharing needles resulted in a substantial decrease in the spread of blood-borne viruses amongst users.

It is interesting to examine implications today.  Many mining towns have never recovered – Worksop, a once thriving community, is now the subject of an inquiry into official failures regarding the town, which counts 1 in 3 unemployed and is home to widespread heroin addiction (Worksop Guardian, 2010).  Deprivation and the legacy of right-to-buy linger on marginalised, ghettoised council estates where many are now second or third generation addicts, with no experience of anything different and no opportunities: “The Thatcher government took our working class life away from us but they didn’t replace it with anything . . . unless we solve this, we’re going to finish up with ghettos controlled by an underclass unable to imagine a better life.” (Observer, 2003).  In these ‘geographies of deprivation’ (Parker, 2010) the coal board was often previously the sole employer; now there is nothing left.  Additionally, in smaller urban and rural areas, there is often no specialist provision, no support for families of addicts; generic health services with little or no specialist knowledge of addiction bear the brunt.  In the case of Worksop, an enquiry by MP John Mann concluded that treatment services were a ‘shambles’.  (BBC, 2000).

Addiction, of course, keeps the poor and forgotten docile.  Those who might rise up are instead chasing the next fix before they are hit by withdrawals.  It is politically convenient in other ways too: it means that those failed by the brave new world of free markets (a world which, ironically, keeps so many enslaved, whether in workfare schemes or zero hours contracts,  sweatshops or working poverty due to sub living wages; or to the needle or the bottle) can be conveniently labelled and demonised: divide and rule at its best.  As Wacquant (2009) says: “The law and order merry go round is to criminality what pornography is to amorous relations: a mirror deforming reality to the point of the grotesque that artificially extracts delinquent behaviours from the fabric of social relations in which they take root and make sense, deliberately ignores their causes and meanings, and reduces their treatment to a series of conspicuous position takings.”

We have a cycle of boom and bust, mass unemployment, a years old recession that shows no sign of going anywhere.  We have a Thatcherite politician – George Osborne – making savage cuts and holding fast to utterly discredited and failing austerity policies, at the cost of thousands of human lives; and another, Iain Duncan Smith, whose mania to find the sick or disabled ‘fit for work’ has no answer to the problem of where that work is going to come from.  Addicts on sickness benefit make his job easier, of course; always a convenient scapegoat, the Daily Mail can scream about how reform (meaning cuts) is overdue when thieving scroungers are rolling in taxpayers’ money and spending it on heroin.  (It’s too much to hope that the rabidly right wing British media would take a nuanced or empathic view and ask where that addiction came from, how it grew, how people become so hopeless and desperate that they end up losing limbs from injecting).  Social exclusion and heroin addiction are on the march again, and it seems likely that those cemeteries in ex mining towns, full of the headstones of teenagers and young adults which bear witness to pain and waste, the senseless loss of young lives and potential, will be joined by many thousands and millions of others.

Further reading: http://

Punishing the Poor: the Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009) by Loic Wacquant.

Living with Heroin (1988) by Howard Parker, Keith Bakx and Russell Newcombe.

Young People and Heroin: An Examination of Heroin Use in the North of England (1987) by Geoffrey Pearson, Mark Gilman and Shirley McIver.

Mentor UK Coastal and Ex Mining Areas Project: A Review of the Literature (2005) by Doctor Simon Parker.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s