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Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s, By Graham Stewart
This top-down portrait of a momentous decade takes the side of its divisive heroine
If there is no period so remote as the recent past, as Alan Bennett once claimed, then the 1980s have almost about sailed far enough away from the present for the fog of false memory and partisan clamour to lift.
It was an eventful decade, open to wildly different interpretations. Graham Stewart, official historian of The Times and author of a gripping account of the rivalry between the Churchill and Chamberlain families, is the first in what will doubtless be a line of professional historians seeking to get to grips with the period. He reckons that "compared with the decades that preceded and succeeded it, the eighties truly exploded with a decisive bang."
The changes that interest him most concern the extent to which governments once felt entitled to restrict the way in which people could spend, borrow or move money. In 1979, it was accepted across the political spectrum that the state had a legitimate role in controlling prices and wages, and that they could set a limit on how much money a British citizen could take abroad, though it could do very little to discourage union members from striking for higher pay. Other rules determined who was permitted to trade in shares, or how much a building society could lend to house buyers. On a world scale, two vast nuclear armed camps competed for dominance, with eastern Europe under a communist system that looked as if it would last forever. By 1990, all this was all gone.
British politics in the 1980s were also unique in the UK in that they were dominated throughout by one person. Margaret Thatcher, to cite Stewart again, was "the politician who personified [the decade] to an extent that might be thought more usual in a dictatorial regime" than in a functioning democracy." Because Baroness Thatcher is still so divisive, this densely detailed tome perhaps ought to carry a health warning: this is a Thatcherite's take on the decade.
That is clear from an early chapter, from the way he describes the 1978-79 wave of strikes, during which, he writes, "rat-infested rubbish started piling up in the streets" and in Liverpool "corpses started to be piled in a disused factory". That is how the "Winter of Discontent" was described year after year from the rostrum at the Conservative Party conference. Stewart does not appear to have wondered whether such a description might be at all exaggerated.
A startling sentence leaps out from one of the later chapters. During the bitter dispute that blew up after Rupert Murdoch sacked 5,000 printers and other staff and moved his newspapers to the East End, Stewart claims, "24 January 1987 saw 12,500 demonstrators descend upon Wapping, many throwing petrol bombs". Hurling petrol bombs at the police would have been a serious escalation of picket-line violence indeed. Had it happened, it would have been in the interests of government ministers to say so but when a Home Office minister, Earl Caithness, was questioned in Parliament on 26 January 1987, the answer recorded in Hansard was clear enough – "No petrol bombs as such were thrown."
Stewart is not a "popular" historian. His focus is on the people who held power and the decisions they made, not on recreating what it was like for ordinary people to live through the period. He does not waste words on things he does not consider very important, no matter how much they caught popular attention then or later.
Live Aid, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, or the Hillsborough disaster are allocated little more than a paragraph apiece. Music has a chapter, but mainly about who ran the industry and the impact of changing technology. The pages of raw data at the back of the book are more catholic, offering everything from the year by year unemployment rates, broken down by region, to a full list of Madness hit singles.
Over Hillsborough, Stewart goes further than either of the official inquiries in exonerating the police. Acknowledging that they may have strayed into "human error", he suggests that their mistakes arose from "the regular experience of having to deal with hooliganism" and that "if lessons were learnt by the police, the same cannot be said of those who remained bent on a violent search for identity."
His absence of curiosity about subjective individual experience comes through in the account of the Falklands War. Only one book, from the vast number written by journalists and servicemen in the south Atlantic at the time, has found its way into Stewart's footnotes and bibliography. He does not mention Simon Weston, whose disfigured face has become the single most familiar image from that conflict. Instead, he has relied heavily on Sir Lawrence Freedman's official history and on a secondary account by Hugh Bicheno, a former intelligence officer whose book was described by the BBC's Robert Fox as "eccentric and snide", to produce an analysis of how the war was won, rather than an attempt to describe what it was like to be there.
The book's greatest strengths are in its meticulous account of the economic crisis that confronted the incoming Thatcher government in 1979, and how it was resolved, and its masterly description of the reform of the City, which culminated in the Big Bang that gives the book its title. He does not deny that the Thatcher revolution had unforeseen consequences, including a sudden increase in the gap between richest and poorest, but gives her full credit for having a radical solution to problems that had defeated her three predecessors, and for sticking to her course through stormy times. "Her difference," he writes, "was her determination to deliver on her promises." It is a book you can recommend to anyone who wants to have their admiration for Margaret Thatcher reinforced. Those waiting to dance on her grave might want to avoid it.
Andy McSmith is author of 'No Such Things as Society: a history of Britain in the 1980s' (Constable)
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