Ronald Reagan wrote the first of many letters to Margaret Thatcher on 30 April 1975 – the day that Saigon fell to the Viet Cong. It looked as though everything that Reagan and Thatcher believed in was finished. The Tories had lost power in 1974. Gerald Ford was stumbling towards defeat, and Kissinger could only comfort him with the assurance that Britain was "reduced to begging, borrowing and stealing until North Sea oil comes in".
Now everything has changed. The Communists in Saigon look like an amusing relic, Reagan is regarded by many Americans as their "greatest ever president", and Gordon Brown hints that we are all Thatcherites now.
Mark Garnett's history of "the British experience 1975-2005" sets out to describe how life changed during "the long 1980s". He has the wide angle of vision one would expect of a man who has both written a biography of Keith Joseph and contributed to Viz. He deals with pop music, television and emblematic news stories. The whole thing is arranged into chapters with snappy titles: lust, fear and greed.
For all its promise, I felt that this book did not come off and, judging by its disjointed feel, I wondered whether the author might have lost interest in it. It is not clear that there was a single "British experience" . Different people give different accounts. A Treasury minister wrote that many friends believed that autumn 1976, when Britain went begging to the International Monetary Fund, was the worst time of their lives, but surveys show most British people seem to have happy memories of 1976. In spite of his title, Garnett himself is rather sceptical about the notion that the 1970s were characterised by "anger" or recent times particularly marked by "apathy".
The use of emblematic episodes to illustrate national mood raises awkward questions. We are told that Tracey Emin's "'My Bed', which featured the names of the numerous individuals who had shared it" failed to secure the Turner Prize but was later bought by Charles Saatchi. Looking more at this episode might tell us something about Emin or Saatchi (both interesting subjects), but Garnett does not have much to say about either. Emin's work has made so little impact on Garnett that he is unaware that "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With" (1995), with the names inscribed on a tent, was different from "Bed" (1998).
Garnett has views on almost everything. Often, however, they are banal – do we need to be told that Elton John's remake of "Candle in the Wind" for the Diana grief fest was a bit naff? Sometimes, like many banal opinions, they are also wrong. Consider this passage: "British philosophers had given up any attempt to change the world; thanks largely to Wittgenstein, they now preferred to argue about the meaning of language. Later they would jump aboard the postmodernist bandwagon on its self-declared journey from nowhere to oblivion." This is just the kind of thing you might hear from any dinner-party pseud. Is it true? Anyone who checks out the website of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at Garnett's own university might suspect the real shift in British philosophy has been towards "relevant" subjects, such as medical ethics.
The propensity for glib assertion is most exasperating when it involves the area that Garnett knows best – political history. On the Falklands War, "the Argentine invasion would never have taken place if the 'Iron Lady' had not been so determined to trim the defence budget". This interpretation sounds plausible - perhaps because it is advanced so frequently. But, given the state of the economy, did the UK government have any choice but to slow the increase of military spending? Given the threat from the East, could it be expected to maintain expensive warships in the west Atlantic?
As for the Argentines, if General Galtieri had been an intelligent man he might have been influenced by British defence cuts, in which case he would have delayed invasion until they came into effect. However, he was a stupid man and his hand was being forced by the need to distract his population from economic problems. The Falklands illustrate the difficulties of writing about the 1980s. No one can blame Garnett for not having all the answers, but someone with his record of serious and interesting work ought, at least, to have raised some of the questions.
Richard Vinen's 'A History in Fragments' is published by Abacus
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