That turbulent decade

Published in The Spectator (October 23rd, 2010)

No such thing as society: a history of Britain in the 1980’s by Andy McSmith (Constable)

On 2 January, 1980, a new decade was ushered in with a strike by steelworkers. It was their first national stoppage for half a century, and after three tense months they were rewarded with a 16 per cent pay rise. Once again, a strike seemed to pay off, with weak managers sacrificing long-term gain to avoid short-term pain, whatever the costs ultimately to their industry or to the economy.

But then, in a clear sign that the Eighties were going to be rather different to the tortured decade that had preceded it, the Government sacked the chairman of British Steel. He was replaced by a tough Scottish-born banker from Wall Street called Ian MacGregor, who immediately began challenging the old order and slashing the workforce. The union was too exhausted to respond, and within a year there were 17,000 fewer steelworkers, leaving a third of the workforce unemployed in some towns.

This was a fitting portent to the decade, one that would see so many bitter struggles across the industrial, political and even cultural landscapes. The most famous, of course, was the miners’ strike, but few areas of life in this country were left untouched, as Margaret Thatcher unfurled her unique brand of revolutionary fervour. By the end of the decade, the Britain that we live in today had emerged stumbling from the shambles of the Seventies.

As someone who began the Eighties as a fresher at university and ended it as a reporter on The Sunday Times, many of these battles are etched into my memory. But it is easy to forget what they were really about: a dismal national decline and a mood of decaying hopelessness. No Such Thing as Society, an enjoyable romp through the decade by the veteran political reporter Andy McSmith, offers a timely reminder. And what a faraway land is revealed in its pages.

Take telephones, for example. Before the privatisation of British Telecom, it could take three months to get one installed in your home, while public call boxes were usually broken. McSmith offers a nice vignette of Midge Ure in 1981 with two singles in the Top Ten but no telephone, calling his management from a phone box reeking of urine. And there was no MTV, of course — if you wanted to watch television there were just three channels in 1980. Channel 4 began broadcasting two years later, rubbished by everyone on its launch.

Banking was an ossified cartel, so a quarter of the working population had no bank accounts and were paid in cash. Incredibly, all cheques were taken daily to a central hall in London to be redistributed to the relevant banks. The City seemed to belong to another century, with its ancient customs and rigid class structures before the Big Bang blew them away. Meanwhile racism was rife, while in the courts judges told women in rape cases that they should just cross their legs.

For the writer of any book on Britain in the 1980s, there is a powerful symbolism in the fact that Margaret Thatcher took power just before that decade began and was driven out of Downing Street just weeks before it ended. For a writer on the Left, even one as fair as the author of this book, it ensures that almost everything is seen through that prism. Sometimes this is overdone. But if this book has a central failing, it is in the author’s inability to understand Thatcher’s own vision of society which, to echo one of her successors, was simply not the same as the state.

Despite this scepticism, McSmith does not give the decade the unifying paranoid menace that lurks on every page of Francis Wheen’s recent dissection of the Seventies. Instead, he has crafted an entertaining popular history which lurches happily from finance to the Falklands, from comedy to CND, from the monarchy to the media. Sometimes the joins are too obvious in his rush to squeeze everything in, and he is clearly more comfortable writing about politics than popular culture, but the chapters on the miners’ strike and feminism are particularly absorbing.

He concludes that by the end of a turbulent decade, the great political battles were over. Liberal capitalism had triumphed. The political and social landscapes were altered irretrievably and the shape of Britain laid out for succeeding decades. This, he says, was the most significant transformation of the time.

But was it? In the spring of 1989, a British scientist in Switzerland called Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal to create the means to exchange information around the world by computer. He called his invention the World Wide Web and the first successful communication took place on Christmas Day, 1990. Ultimately, this may prove the decade’s greatest agent of change — and this modest man may prove to be far more of a revolutionary even than Mrs Thatcher.

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