"IS it worth it?" The first four words of Elvis Costello's elegy to the dignity of labour summed up many worker's response to the economic policy of Margaret Thatcher.  

Thatcherism created vast wealth in the City of London but at what cost to communities in the North-East?

Costello, arguably British pop music's most accomplished wordsmith, penned his song Shipbuilding, which contained what he described as "the best lyrics I've ever written", shortly after the 1982 Falklands conflict.

Shipbuilding is an anti-war declaration, which was not a popular stance to adopt at a time when jingoism ruled. But its message is more subtle and asks deeper questions than typical protest songs. Lamenting the 255 British souls lost in the South Atlantic, Shipbuilding also considers the role played by the men who'd built the ships that helped to sink the cruiser General Belgrano, that resulted in the death of 322 Argentine sailors.

For struggling Northern shipyards, such as Swan Hunter on the banks of the Tyne, the naval expedition to protect a rocky outcrop of the British Empire had offered a temporary lifeline. By the early 1980s the heavy industries which had supported generations of families - coal mining, steel making, manufacturing and shipbuilding - were all suffering a steep decline and any new orders were welcomed with open arms.

"Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards. And notifying the next of kin. Once again," Costello wrote. The song questions a government that appears to have scant regard for lives squandered on the battlefield or in the workplace. 

Costello was no fan of Thatcher. His bilious Tramp the Dirt Down released in 1989 makes it plain what he planned to do after the Tory icon was laid to rest. While that song is nasty Shipbuilding is nuanced; pulling off the trick of being both provocative and thoughtful. It looks at the conflict of emotions faced by shipyard workers whose skills are called upon to support the war effort. 

"Is it worth it? A new winter coat and shoes for the wife, and a bicycle on the boy's birthday," the song asks - summing up the same moral dilemma of weighing personal ethics against earning cash to keep a family clothed that striking miners faced two years later.  

When the song was released as a single in May 1983, featuring a spine chilling vocal performance by Robert Wyatt, it barely scraped into the top 40. A gloomy ballad about a dying industry was always going to struggle against feelgood hits like Spandau Ballet's True; Candy Girl by New Edition and Michael Jackson's Beat It, which dominated that week's chart. Most listeners wanted pop music that lightened their mood rather than reminded them of the day-to-day grind in a country where more than three million people were looking for work.

Not many mainstream artists shared Costello's ethical concerns. A year after Shipbuilding failed to grab the nation's attention rock band Queen defied a United Nations boycott and trousered a reported $2m to perform shows at the whites only Sun City resort in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated on Robben Island. Scores of Queen's musical peers had declined lucrative offers to play at the venue that was a symbol of apartheid. But for Freddy Mercury and his bandmates "Is it worth it?" was a question they answered with a resounding "Yes."