Book review: Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

The Sunbang-a-history-of-britain-in-the-1980s

Make no mistake: 1979 was a very long time ago. Let’s not have any of this “it seems like yesterday” bollocks. If it really does seem like yesterday, there is something seriously wrong with you.

Despite its name, this book actually begins in 1979. It is now 2013. The same amount of time has passed since 1979 as had passed between it and the end of the Second World War in 1945. When the same amount of time has passed again, it will be 2047. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find things have changed a fair bit. In 1979, you wouldn’t be reading a blog on your phone, a laptop or anywhere else,

Consider:  in 1979, the Labour Prime Minister (a man born before the First World War) was still at ease sitting round the Downing Street table with leading trade union figures. This was a time when some such union leaders spoke openly of Marxist revolution in Britain and believed this was apparently a realistic prospect. Leading Labour figures like Tony Benn spoke of nationalising almost all of British industry to enthusiastic mostly male smoke filled Labour conferences.

Flash forward to 1990 when this book ends and things start to see a lot more familiar. Not the same but a lot more like now. Seventies fashions had lost their grip.  Nobody had IPods yet but they had Walkmans at least and CDs were already replacing vinyl.  Mobile phones were still rare and huge but they did at least exist. Channel 4 was now on air and a small minority could now watch BSkyB (although a common joke of the time was that the average person was more likely to get BSE – the human form of mad cow disease- than BSkyB).  EastEnders was on.

Meanwhile, strikes were a rarity. The SDP had been and gone. The Labour Party, although still firmly out of power were also a lot more recognisable. Behind the scenes, Peter Mandelson was hard at work. The smoke filled conference halls were gone. Neil Kinnock, although never a popular figure with the public, was smartly dressed and in command, a far cry from the decent but scruffy Michael Foot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then in their late thirties were advancing fast up the Labour ranks. New Labour was on its way.

In my view, the 1980s transformed Britain more than any other peacetime decade in the last 150 years, except perhaps for the Sixties.

Much of this is doubtless due in no small measure to the personality and politics of Margaret Thatcher, who Stewart seems rather a fan of. I am rather less keen. The Lady was undeniably a fine war leader and by the Eighties, union power clearly needed curtailing.

But this was a bad decade for the British economy. Before the Winter of Discontent wrecked Labour for more than a decade, the Callaghan Government had been doing a fine job of pulling the UK back from the oil shock, the Barber Boom and the errors of Wilson’s final two years. But Callaghan’s gains and those made by the discovery of North Sea oil were squandered by Thatcher’s Monetarist experiment. Soon more than a fifth of the nation’s industrial base had been wiped out forever and high unemployment hung over the rest of the decade like a curse.

This was also the decade where the unrestrained power of the markets took hold and Rupert Murdoch was permitted unprecedented media power by the Thatcher Government. Both of these problems should have been addressed later by Major, Blair or Brown. But the Lady (as the late Alan Clark would lovingly refer to her) is the original source of responsibility here. Crime soared, the health service suffered and homeless levels rose unforgivably under Thatcher. A simple comparison of how the UK fared under her watch and that during Tony Blair’s decade (1997-2007) is damning.

By 1990, she had grown tremendously in confidence to the point of mental instability. Having seen off the Argies, the miners and Labour (three times: under Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock), she seemed convinced of her own infallibility. She even began speaking about herself using the royal “we” (famously: “we are a grandmother”).

But when she linked her destiny to that of the hated and ultimately unfair Community Charge (or “Poll Tax”) even the Tories recognised she had to go. John Major secured one more win for the Tories in 1992. But twenty three years on, the Tories have not recovered from her fall. No Tory leader since Major has won a General Election.

This is a slightly badly structured book with hard going chapters about monetarism rubbing shoulders with those about pop music and the singles of Madness. But it’s a story worth retelling especially if you want to terrify your left leaning children before they go to sleep.

Just remember: don’t have nightmares.

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