The Geographical Journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

The Geography of Thatcherism: 1979-1983

By Benjamin Sacks

Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). © Wikimedia Commons.

Irrespective of one’s opinion of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister, few would disagree that her policies and legacies deeply impacted the British Isles, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and much of the developed and developing world. Her domestic and overseas endeavours altered our geographical focus, highlighting new lands, peoples, and conceptions of the world even while others faded from view. But this presents us with new, underlying questions: how, where, and why?

To begin our investigation, one must go back in time, before Thatcher’s famed 1979 election, to 1973, a year that would symbolise heightened, competing tensions. That year, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark officially joined the European Community (later European Union, or EU). Britain’s ascession marked the end of a turbulent decade in colonial relations. Since the early 1960s, the country had pulled out of Kuwait, Aden, much of Africa, and the Caribbean. Increasingly, Britain’s economists, industries, and politicians looked to Europe and the United States for a solution. Watching Britain’s imperial retreat from his office in New Zealand, that year historian J G A Pocock called for a new approach to British history and international affairs, which he termed ‘New British History’. He sought to remind the British of their international responsibilities and legacies, their historically intimate and fluid relationships with the so-called ‘settler colonies’ – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the British West Indies, and South Africa (India is often included as well) (p. 431), and pondered on where Britain’s path lay next. For early observers, the answer was unpredictable at best.

What is most evident from this period was the Thatcher movement’s profound influence in determining where geographers would focus their attention and resources, as well as what areas slipped into relative negligence. It is therefore possible to construct a geopolitical ‘roadmap’ of 1980s British geographical scholarship, demonstrating that, in an effort to maintain their relevance and avail themselves to the broadest possible audience, geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, and political experts largely published in lockstep with upcoming trends and changing situations at home and abroad. In the aftermath of the government’s struggle with mining unions, scholars took advantage of national attention on the North to publish a series of related studies. These articles, importantly, were not narrowly limited to union organisation, nor to mining, but rather sought to engage with broader geographical and ethnographic themes. In 1980, for instance, Alec H Paul and Paul Simpson-Housley published ‘The Novelist’s Image of the North’, reminding audiences of the region’s immense natural beauty and cultural clout. I M Evans stuck to a closer, geopolitical analysis in his examination of how the then-international steel crisis had affected other EEC states, rather than simply Britain. Two years later, John North and Derek Spooner returned to Northern England, to re-examine the wider implications of the Coal Board’s investment programme in the heavily-affected (and marginalised) Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire regions.

The Falklands War directly catalysed a flurry of investigative discussions and scholarly explorations of the contested British territory. As a previous Geography Directions article discussed in detail, the war presented the RGS-IBG with a unique opportunity: to educate itself, the government, and the public about a series of islands that had already been in Britain’s continuous (but largely ignored) possession for over 150 years in 1982. Similarly, the United States’ invasion of Grenada – a Commonwealth Realm – in 1983 spurred a similar rush to, as Brian J Hudson suggested, ‘Put Grenada on the map’. In response to his September 1985 Area article, however, Rex Walford conducted a series of impromptu surveys with British and American audiences to determine whether recent popular and academic coverage of the invasion (and of the island more generally) had actually resulted in greater awareness of Grenada’s location, society, and affairs. The answer, Walford discovered, was certainly not encouraging. ‘At only one venue (a joint RGS/GA lecture at Hull) has a majority of the audience identified the island [of Grenada] correctly[!]’ (p. 57). John S Brierley, then an associate professor of geography at the University of Manitoba, preferred a less humorous, more serious approach, arguing that the social and economic development programmes created by the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada, led by Maurice Bishop, should be closely examined to determine what lessons could be learned. He uncovered that some social welfare initiatives could prove quite useful in other Caribbean states. Writing nearly a decade later, Robert Potter recalled Brierley’s assessment, and reminded contemporary development anthropologists, geographers, and planners of how ideas gained from Grenada, brought by the RGS-IBG in the war’s aftermath to public attention, could be incorporated into current grassroots/NGO/small government schemes.

books_icon Armitage, David, 1999, Greater Britain: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?, The American Historical Review 104.2, 427-45.

books_icon Paul, Alec H and Paul Simpson-Housley, 1980, The Novelist’s Image of the North: Discussion, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 5.3, 174-84.

books_icon Evans, I M, 1980, Aspects of the Steel Crisis in Europe, with Particular Reference to Belgium and Luxembourg, The Geographical Journal 146.3, 396-407.

books_icon North, John and Derek Spooner, 1982, The Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Coalfield: The Focus of the Coal Board’s Investment Strategy, The Geographical Journal 148.1, 22-37.

books_icon Hudson, Brian J, 1985, Putting Grenada on the Map, Area 17.3, 233-35.

books_icon Walford, Rex, 1986, Finding Grenada on the Map, Area 18.1, 56-57.

books_icon Brierley, John S, A Review of Development Strategies and Programmes of the People’s Revolutionary Government in Grenada, 1979-83, The Geographical Journal 151.1, 40-52.

books_icon Potter, Robert, 1995, Urbanisation and Development in the Caribbean, Geography 80.4, 334-41.


Sacks, Benjamin, 2012, (Re)Introducing the Falklands: The March 1983 ‘Geographical Journal’, Geography Directions, 18 February.

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