Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden (1969-1976; 1982-1986). Social Democrat and Peace Campaigner.
Olof Palme, Prime Minister of Sweden (1969-1976; 1982-1986). Social Democrat and Peace Campaigner, he was murdered on the streets of Stockholm, 28 February 1986.

Many of us, sat in the pub or in another social context, have googled the Number One record of the week in which we were born. Some are especially embarrassing, leading us to question the sanity of the music-buying public of the day; others are of genuine brilliance, dominating to this day the music tastes of that particular generation. But if we zoom out and think of a year as a whole, what then comes into view? Historians don’t often engage in this kind of microhistory, perhaps because few calendar years really merit it. To that end only 1914, 1968, and 1989, have really been considered in great detail in a transnational way. I’ve long been interested in my birth-year of 1986, although never for musical tastes: I’m not sure I’ll ever reconcile George Michael to the world of ‘good music’! Yet it was a year of extraordinary and often traumatic change affecting the world in ways that we’re still coming to terms with. Today’s blog, then, takes a closer look at 1986, one of the most important of the 1980s.

January 1986 can only be defined by one event: the Challenger disaster which took place on the 28th. Given the presence on the mission of Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher into space, the launch had a large television audience and significant international interest. In those days there was no rolling news channel in Britain and the news broke during the hours devoted to children’s programming. It fell to the BBC’s children’s news programme Newsround to break the news of the shuttle disaster to the nation, with John Finn delivering these fateful words to stunned children and parents.

Mass-Observation volunteers provide us with a fascinating insight into contemporary reaction to the disaster in Britain offering emotional but occasionally cynical attitudes. One man wrote ‘The first feeling of shock [changed] quickly to one of inevitability of such a happening. We had all become rather blasé about shuttle flights and forgotten, to a large extent, exactly how dangerous … such launches were’. Another wrote of ‘watching it over and over on the TV’. She continues: ‘I remember I was horrified, yet fascinated at the same time. The American dream, of getting to the stars, up in smoke’. And then there was the mother who wept with her children ‘as the breakfast time news showed film of the disaster’. The Space Shuttle Program was suspended for nearly three years: it was sudden halt in American dominance of the stars and the impact was strengthened just three weeks after the disaster when the Soviet Union successfully launched its space station, Mir, the first man-made ‘home’ in space.

If the Challenger disaster shook American confidence and directed greater scrutiny onto the Space Program, events in Stockholm on the evening of February 28, 1986, had even greater impact on its own society exposing Sweden to the kind of introspection it had not experienced in its modern history. That night, after attending the premiere of Bröderna Mozart with his wife, Lisbet, the 59-year old Prime Minister, Olof Palme, was walking home along Sveavägen, one of the central boulevards of the city. Just after twenty-past eleven, Palme and his wife were shot at close range but an unknown assailant. A few minutes later a police patrol arrived at the scene having been alerted by a taxi driver. Palme was rushed to hospital but despite emergency surgery was pronounced dead just after midnight. Since the end of the Second World War, in which Sweden had been a neutral country, Palme had been a key figure in the social democratic party and closely tied to the welfare state that had been advanced in Sweden and across Scandinavia. Sweden was a safe, happy society, at least in the minds of most commentators. There had been critics, of course, such as crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö whose novels in the 1960s and early 1970s had done much to shed light on the increasing violent aspects of contemporary Sweden, with rape, terrorism, violence, arson, and murder all present.

Palme was a significant figure on the European left, indeed on the global left, and had been since the time he first became Swedish Prime Minister in 1969. He had spoken out against the war in Vietnam and been openly ostracised by the United States, particularly after his speech on 23 December 1972 following the Hanoi bombings. Here’s a flavour of his speech (my translation):

‘These bombings are an atrocity. We have many examples through modern history. We know them by name. Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, Treblinka. There violence triumphed. But, in the aftermath, the verdict has fallen hard on those responsible. Now we add a new name. Hanoi – Christmas, 1972’.

In the immediate aftermath of the speech the Swedish ambassador was ejected from the United States and there was to be little open diplomatic contact between the countries for over a year. That the United States never really forgave Palme for his criticism was immediately apparent at his funeral, with only the Secretary of State, George P. Shultz, present. Typical diplomatic relations would have ensured the attendance of the Vice President, George H. W. Bush, at the very least. Ronald Reagan’s brief statement offered condolences to the Swedish people and reflected that ‘Palme was one of the world’s most respected leaders, a man who made compassion the hallmark of Swedish policy’. The British government response was less dignified: Margaret Thatcher appeared on the news on 1 March to express her ‘total shock’ and proceeded to sign the book of condolence at the Swedish Embassy on 3 March but, to the ire of several Labour MPs, at no stage did the government make an official statement on Palme’s assassination and the government representative at the funeral hardly reflected enthusiasm on the Conservative Party’s part. As the Guardian pointedly put it, ‘Britain could muster only Deputy Prime Minister Lord Whitelaw’. Indeed Thatcher was the only Western European leader not to be at the funeral.

Palme’s funeral took place in mid-March, just a few days after an event which gained almost no attention in Britain at the time but which set the course for the explosion in computer technology that now governs our lives. On 14 March 1986, Microsoft offered their first public offering. With the development of the Windows operating software, Microsoft came to dominate home and office computer technology and made Bill Gates one of the richest men in the world, indeed the richest from 1995 to 2009. The first version of Windows had been released to the public on 20 November 1985. Here’s Steve Ballmer enthusiastically selling its virtues:

It doesn’t really need me to explain the sheer importance of Microsoft to the modern world, of course, but 1986 marked the beginnings of the corporation’s overwhelming financial rise and stands out as a singular event in March 1986. That nobody really noticed at the time isn’t really surprising: computer technology was simply out of the reach of most Britons whose focus was on different things. Yes, as you can see in the clip, Ballmer might have pointed to the cost of Windows as attractive – $99 (the equivalent of around $200 today) – but we didn’t get a Windows PC in my primary school until the year I left in 1997.

The world did notice the next major event in the world, although the Soviet Union would rather that they had not. My own life is particularly linked to this event because it took place on my birthday, namely the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Although Hollywood later transformed the disaster into a science fiction parable – the destruction of the Praxis moon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – at the time the disaster focused minds on the dangers of nuclear power and on the contemporary desire to get rid of fossil fuels in favour of the ‘clean’ energy of nuclear power stations. Here’s a mass observer: ‘Britain should not build more nuclear power stations but should build coal fired ones’. Another insisted that ‘the horror of Chernobyl must never be allowed to happen here’. But there was also the sense that ‘for such a dramatic event it seems to have fade from people’s minds quite quickly’. This reflects, perhaps, a fairly typical turn in modern society – events gain a great deal of coverage at a particular moment but then slip out of the foreground. Chernobyl was not admitted to the public until 28th April after abnormally high radiation readings were reported across Scandinavia, beginning with nuclear plants in eastern Sweden. News programmes at the time struggled with the difficulties of getting information out of the Soviet Union, showing just how much has changed in the nearly thirty years since the event. It’s hard to imagine today such an event being hidden for fully 48 hours.

By the summer of 1986 attention had moved from the traumatic events of the first part of the year to the heights and summer climes of Mexico City, where the 1986 World Cup was being held. The event was won by Argentina with their charismatic, talented, and controversial captain Diego Maradona and is broadly remembered in Britain for the ‘hand of god’ incident during Argentina’s 2-1 victory over England on 22 June. The England team on that occasion would come to dominate English football for the next two decades and contained stars such as Gary Lineker, Glenn Hoddle, Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle, and John Barnes. The match was set alongside the aftermath of the Falklands War of 1982 and Maradona made overt reference to it in a speech after the game: ‘we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge’. The tournament is perhaps also notable for being the last time (to date) that the Northern Ireland national side has qualified for a major tournament. Elsewhere in the sporting world the Montreal Canadiens won their 23rd Stanley Cup, their first since 1979. They would go on to win it again in 1993 and have failed to win it since; but then again, neither has any other Canadian NHL franchise.

Politics of course did not just overshadow individual football matches but the entirety of the Commonwealth Games, held that year in Edinburgh. A matter of weeks after the death of Nelson Mandela it’s interesting to reflect on a tournament which was marred by an entirely avoidable boycott by the majority of the members of the Commonwealth. In all 32 nations of the eligible 59 refused to attend because of the British Government’s attitude towards Apartheid South Africa. Just as the Thatcher government had shown its colours over Olof Palme’s funeral, so too did it show its colours with regard the sporting boycott of South Africa and the UN General Assembly’s International Convention Against Apartheid in Sports passed in December 1985. The Prime Minister herself faced a barrage of questions at the Vancouver Expo in July but remained firm in her stance, however misguided:

I am very sorry that in Vancouver, at EXPO, when I am trying to sell Britain, that that is the first question I have had. As it is—and in a free country I am not able to fashion the questions or formulate them—it does not matter who pulls out of the Commonwealth Games, it will not help to end apartheid in South Africa.

In the end, however, it did not help the Games organisers, either, who faced debts of several million pounds, which were not paid off until 1989.

Of course, debt is a rather big thing today as we live in the era of the Great Recession, an era sparked by the greed of the City and the weakness of politicians. That they can so destroy the world and the lives of ordinary people is because of one major event which took place in October 1986: the so-called ‘Big Bang’. On 27 October 1986, financial institutions were deregulated by the Thatcher government in an effort to restore London’s dominance as the world’s financial capital. The effects of deregulation were immediate and saw the City explode in size giving rise to the gluttony and loadsamoney attitudes that have come to characterise the Thatcher era. Just as bus deregulation outside London earlier in the year had caused chaos for provincial bus routes and would result in consolidation of bus routes into those that were ‘profitable’, so too the Big Bang resulted in the rise of mega banks with interests only in profit and not in the social purpose of banking. Little need be said of its impact here, of course!

And now, to bring this quick survey of the year to something of a close, I want to pause and note the passing in December 1986 of Harold MacMillan, the last of the British Prime Ministers to have been born in the nineteenth century and the last of the One Nation Conservatives to have made any kind of difference. If, in his later years, Supermac lived a relatively quiet life, he made an extraordinary impact in November 1985 in a speech to the Tory Reform Group. Criticising, albeit obliquely, the raft of disruptive Tory policies then being implemented by the Thatcher government he came to sum up precisely the problem with Britain in the mid-1980s. It had lost something, perhaps not its innocence as Sweden had with the death of Olof Palme in February 1986, but something nevertheless. Of course most of the year, for most of the people living in Britain and elsewhere in the world was about ordinary, everyday struggles. Here I leave the words of one older woman writing in her diary towards the end of 1986. The fact that it sounds almost like it could have been written yesterday tells us how exactly how far we’ve come in nearly 30 years:

At my age it feels good to still be ‘needed’ and I can feel genuinely sorry for the young unemployed. The media may say that young people are lazy but I believe that the vast majority would love to work. There are some very poorly paid jobs advertised locally here and by the time all the stoppages and fares are take into account, the reward is too small for the task. […] Talking of aggression brings me to Mrs Thatcher!! What a mess she has made of this country. Again the comments I hear daily about her are often un-repeatable.