No Such Thing As Society, By Edward Pearce

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The Independent Culture

Margaret Thatcher matters, for good or ill. She achieved her central objectives, retreat of the state and advance of money. However, the "Society" of Andy McSmith's title, the society which she didn't think existed, is more interesting. The strength of McSmith's compendium of vividly readable detail in this history of Britain in the 1980s is that it regularly gets away from political clan warfare to other fascinating things: football, television, riots and sex – society in fact.

Sometimes they conflate with straight politics. Margaret Thatcher, born 1926, readily slipped into racial attitudes, polite but patronising, most kindly called "thoughtless". She thought apartheid excessive, but greeted its fall with anxiety. By contrast, Elizabeth II, born 1926, has never let fall a prejudiced word.

The Prime Minister was aggressively patriotic and had a 360 degree antipathy to Germany, oblivious to its enlightened constitution, practical sense and hard-money helpfulness to Britain in EU spats. Yet the barbarity into which patriotism readily turns was brought home to her – by football. At the Belgian Heysel stadium, in 1985, Liverpool fans charged, causing the deaths of 39 trampled foreigners.

When England played Germany in the World Cup, English supporters gave the Nazi salute and shouted "Two world wars and one World Cup". Interestingly, Thatcher was horrified and apologised earnestly to Chancellor Kohl. Yet the same lady, at an Anglo-German Friendship gathering in Koenigsberg above the Rhine, would announce, from the separate table requested by the prudential FO, that it would "take the British another 40 years to forgive the Germans". The contrast is instructive. The patriotism to which, in phrases like "we are a lion-hearted people," she jarringly returned, readily inspires all the resentment, threatening style and irrationality which – in the travelling football hooligan – puts boot into face.

Thatcher lived in a state of anger – with the feckless lower classes (the feckful ones were always "staunch"), with academics, the BBC and about half her Cabinet. Accordingly, Thatcherism attracted rage and people up for rage. We hear of the incredible Paul Johnson snarling at Max Hastings, editing the Daily Telegraph. Max, who from time to time really is incomparable, had valiantly thought the shooting dead of the Gibraltar IRA bombers counter-productive and martyr-making. "You are," said the encrimsoned old parody, "a swine and a guttersnipe of the lowest sort. And what's more, if you weren't a coward as well, you'd hit me for saying that!"

Thatcher suffered from a view of herself somewhat on the complacent side. One remark, never catching the attention lavished upon "There is no such thing as society", was her TV response to the suggestion that a particular undertaking might prove tricky. "It will. But then, I'm Maggie." Such majestic self-celebration went with "the resolute approach", by which, especially in Northern Ireland, she could make bad perceptibly worse. But guardians of the legend cherish the resolve and garland the hubris.

This splendid book glitters with useful (and injurious) information, but one omission is regrettable. McSmith describes entry into the ERM in 1990, obtained by Douglas Hurd and John Major, as "a decision that would bring catastrophe to the Conservative government two years later". This will be read as "Their fault, her wisdom". It wasn't. The catastrophe wasn't entry, but the valuation of sterling.

Thatcher, giving way on entry itself, chose the terms: a high pound – not for "lion-hearted people" reasons, but from fear of inflation. It was a respectable reason, also horribly wrong.

Edward Pearce's 'Pitt the Elder: Man of War' is published by Bodley Head