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Wednesday, 14 March, 2001, 09:44 GMT
The dole remembered
Jobs have long been a hot election topic
The rise of mass unemployment in the 1970s still casts a social and political shadow, one which has helped shape the attitudes on the left and right.

The British public has become used to considering the nation's unemployed as a legion of millions.

The official number of those seeking work in the UK has now dipped below one million for the first time in 25 years.

A Job centre
One out of work a tragedy, one million a statistic?
The fear of winding up on the dole may have receded for many of us, but the mass unemployment seen in the late 1970s and early 1980s continues to cast a shadow.

Bitter memories of "Maggie's Millions" - as the unemployed became known as Thatcherism took shape - are perhaps one of the reasons the latest government figures have been given such prominence.

The million milestone doesn't impress Sir Alfred Sherman, the still controversial co-founder of the Centre for Policy Studies - a pet project of Margaret Thatcher herself.

"Why is a dozen more noteworthy than 11?" he asks.

Headline figure

"Having one million unemployed makes headlines in the press. As prime minister in the early 1970s, Ted Heath was frightened of those headlines. Instead of selling-off state-owned concerns, he propped them up by lashing out money."

Sir Alfred says increased unemployment was "a consequence" of restructuring the UK economy. "The Conservatives bit the bullet in the 1980s, and New Labour are now enjoying the results of that."

Mrs Thatcher enters No 10
Mrs Thatcher: Reformer or job-snatcher?
Full employment was a promise made to servicemen during the Second World War by left-wingers such as Ernest Bevin, a promise post-war governments had little idea how to make good, says Sir Alfred.

The number of job seekers, particularly in the 1980s, has been over-emphasised, he says.

"Unemployment has always been low here, compared to the rest of the world. It's just been made a lot of by the press and the Labour Party."

Philip Saville, director of the seminal 1980s BBC TV series Boys from the Blackstuff - which examined the human cost of the snaking dole queues - says the era was "very trying" for ordinary people.

'Gizza job'

"I remember it very clearly. I was up in Liverpool shooting. It was a real unemployment blackspot. There was incredible bitterness towards the then Tory government."

Mr Saville says mass job losses struck at the heart of the "very proud people" of the city.

"Being unemployed affected the whole personality. One character in the series, Yosser Hughes, would go around saying to anyone he met the now immortal line: 'Gizza job, I can do that.'"

The director says there were many men like Yosser, each desperate to make ends meet as more and more employers laid off their workers.

Brixton riot
Riots erupted across the UK
"The black economy was huge. Men weren't afraid to involve themselves in illegal activities to support their families," says Mr Saville.

Unemployment also attacked men's masculinity, he says. "They had to come to terms with their wives. These women saw the men they married, their heroes, their breadwinners, crushed.

"Unemployment reduced men to robbing and stealing so they could come home with some extra money so they could hold their head up."

Young and jobless

While unemployment blighted entire communities, especially those reliant on ailing heavy industries such as coal mining, Mr Saville says its effect was particular pronounced on the young.

"The youth found it very difficult. Our film crew were always being asked to take on trainees. The lack of jobs bred an arrogance among young people, a belligerence, a sense the world owed them a living."

Coal miners
Coal mining was hit hard
This bitterness and disillusionment had its destructive face. Rioting erupted periodically - indeed Mr Saville arrived in Liverpool just after the Toxteth riots.

Mass unemployment has left another legacy, particularly in northern England. Despite the recent fall in unemployment, more and more manufacturing jobs have been disappearing, with call centres replacing coal mines across the region.

And if male unemployment is down, many men now in their 50s have failed to find work, taking early retirement or a disability pension.

Whatever happens to the current figures, the controversy about unemployment is unlikely to go away soon.

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