Atlantic, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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."

Get a discount on this book at the Independent online bookshop

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)

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker