The Political Backdrop in the 1980s

Paul Hartnoll

On May 4, 1979, the daughter of a grocer from Grantham, Lincolnshire, became the first female Prime Minister. Her right-wing administration was to retain power for eleven years, bring about poll-tax, crush union activity, privatise vast swathes of the public sector and lay the building blocks for the acid house explosion of 1988.

Margaret Thatcher’s government focused on the individual over the collective and she gushed forth with speeches about entrepreneurialism, including her famous epitaph for the Eighties: “There’s no such thing as society – there are individual men and women.” These words echoed through the decade as yuppies emerged from her ideological framework and the anarchistic punk movement was homogenized and swallowed by popular culture, to be replaced by middle-of-the road musical drivel, such as Lionel Richie, Paul Young and the aptly named Dire Straits.

But in the late-Eighties the foundations of a new sub-culture and musical movement were being laid as a reaction to Thatcher’s individualist politics. Acid house was starting to emerge with its heavy emphasis on the collective. It was to be a means of escaping Eighties Britain where the rich and upper-middle class prospered at the expense of the rest of the nation, which was plunged into poverty, negative equity and unemployment, with police brutality and race riots rife.

The movement was about a shared consciousness brought about by the repetitiveness of the music and – in no small part – the drug of choice, ecstasy, which had loved-up ravers fashioning their own micro-society, so sadly lacking under the Tory administration. The drug – originally used as an appetite suppressant in the First World War – removed inhibitions and diminished aggression allowing mingling across class, race and sexual boundaries, which had been polarised by the conservative political climate.

For the first time in musical history, not only were the fans brought together in a communal experience, but artists were subsumed to the collective. The DJs and musicians weren’t the stars, they were just the means through which music was relayed and the divide between performer and audience was smashed down. Paul Hartnoll of Orbital says: “It was like we were craftsmen, rather than stars; we used to dance in the audience before we played and we’d be straight back in the crowd afterwards. I suppose politically acid house wasn’t about Thatcher’s idea of being at the top of the pile, it was a socialist idea of everyone being in the same boat together.”

Whereas previous sub-cultures had rallied in direct opposition to dominant social norms, Thatcher’s illegitimate children were to use acid house as a means of escapism, rather than an assault on values. Rave culture wasn’t intended to bring down drab Eighties society, it was a form of liberation from it.

“Whereas punk seemed to be anti-government with this idea of trying to overthrow the system, house music was more a feeling that we’d had enough and were going to do something positive,” says Hartnoll. “It was a way of escaping and that’s what we did.”


You can visit to listen to and purchase a selection of the Acid House classics discussed in our retrospective.

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