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Life in the UK in March 1982 – the last time inflation was 9%

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wears earphones during an interview at the BBC’s Broadcasting House in March 1982 (PA)
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wears earphones during an interview at the BBC’s Broadcasting House in March 1982 (PA)

Inflation levels may have been similar, but the UK was a very different place in March 1982 – the last time the cost of living was estimated to be rising as fast as it now.

The unemployment rate stood at 10.4%, the highest for 50 years, compared with 3.7% today.

The basic rate of income tax was 30%, 10 percentage points higher than where it is now, while the standard rate of VAT was 15%, five points lower than the current rate.

POLITICS Statement
(PA Graphics)

Tackling inflation was the one of the top priorities of the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, with levels in spring 1980 having reached the equivalent by today’s standards (as estimated by the Office for National Statistics) of nearly 18%.

The Government hoped to reduce the amount of money in circulation by simultaneously cutting spending and raising indirect taxes.

Inflation did start to come down, but not before the UK economy spent the whole of 1980 and early 1981 in recession.

ECONOMY Unemployment
(PA Graphics)

These events led to a drop in support for the Conservatives.

By March 1982, Margaret Thatcher was nearly three years into her first term as prime minister, but her party was averaging around 31% in the opinion polls.

This was low enough to place the Tories behind both Labour (32%) and the Alliance (34%) – a recently-formed pact between the Liberal and Social Democratic (SDP) parties.

Roy Jenkins – London
Members of the SDP outside the House of Commons in March 1982, including Roy Jenkins (third left) who had recently won a by-election in Glasgow, along with co-founders (left to right) David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams (PA)

Politics in the UK appeared to have become a genuine three-way fight – very different from today, where two parties dominate the polls (with Labour currently averaging 39% and the Tories 34%), far ahead of smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru.

Away from Westminster, everyday life in March 1982 might seem somewhat primitive to a visitor from 2022.

All large shops were closed on Sundays by law, and many closed for a half a day on Wednesdays.

New BT phones
Sales officer Deborah Eden demonstrates the latest range of British Telecom telephones in November 1981 (PA)

The entire telephone system was run by the publicly-owned British Telecom, though later in 1982 a licence would be granted to Mercury Communications to operate the country’s first ever privately-run network.

The UK’s gas, electricity, coal and water industries were all in public hands, along with the Royal Mail, British Rail, British Airways, British Steel, BP, Rolls-Royce and British Leyland (later known as the Rover Group).

ECONOMY Inflation
(PA Graphics)

The population had only four UK-wide radio stations to enjoy – Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 – and just three television channels to choose between, BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, though Channel 4 would launch later that year in November.

Breakfast television had yet to begin, so BBC1 and ITV did not typically start broadcasting on a weekday until lunchtime, while BBC2 filled most of its daytime schedule with programmes for the Open University.

Around 14 million households watched television on colour sets, while four million still watched in black and white.

Television – Queen visit to Coronation Street – Granada Studios
The Queen visits the recently rebuilt set of ITV’s Coronation Street in May 1982 and meets some of the cast; from left to right: Jack Howarth, William Roache, Anne Kirkbride, Eileen Derbyshire and Thelma Barlow (PA)

The most popular TV programmes in March were This Is Your Life and Coronation Street – both on ITV and both of which attracted audiences of around 17 million.

Top of the album charts for most of March 1982 was Barbra Streisand with Love Songs, a collection of some of the American singer’s best-known material that also included a version of Memory from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s recent hit musical Cats.

Number one in the singles chart for almost the whole of March was a novelty version of the traditional song The Lion Sleeps Tonight, performed by the three-piece dance act Tight Fit.

TIGHT FIT : 1982
Tight Fit pictured in 1982: Carol Dean (left), Vicky Pemberton and Steve Grant (PA)

But there was plenty for others to enjoy in the top five during the month, including hits by The Jam, Haircut 100, Bananarama, Bucks Fizz, Chas & Dave and Julio Iglesias – proving that while tastes may have changed in the past 40 years, the pop charts were just as diverse then as now.