Monday 26 February 2018

Strikes, riots and Thatcher – it's Britain in the 1980s

There was no shortage of drama, confrontation and polarisation in 1980s Britain, a time characterised by Graham Stewart in this thorough and very readable book, as one of "primary colours, clashing ideologies and divisive personalities".

Towering over the decade was Margaret Thatcher, the longest serving prime minister since the 18th Century. She dominates this book for two reasons – her time in office, beginning in 1979 and ending in 1990 "almost perfectly framed the decade as if it were her own" and because of the extent to which "the character and policies of the prime minister seeped into almost every aspect of national life".

A lively chronicler of the politics of the era and its bitterness, Stewart offers a portrait of Thatcher that is sympathetic and admiring. While acknowledging her arrogance, hubris and mistakes, he is also captivated by her sheer longevity and determination as a politician. He challenges the existing portrayals of Thatcher as the prime minister who changed everything and supposedly smashed the post-war consensus that had dominated British politics. Instead, he sees her as someone who was ideologically driven in many respects but also pragmatic and not always harsh.

While she attacked some of the consensus, some of it was kept in place and untouched or even encouraged. Despite her association with privatisation and the free market, the National Health Service, the education system and the railways and mines continued to be state-run.

Her contention in 1987 that "there is no such thing as society" was used as a stick to beat her, then and since, but Stewart suggests that her assertion was selectively quoted and taken out of context. What she had meant, as is evident in the full interview, was "the confusion of society with the state as helper of first resort". But as Stewart points out, "what she could not satisfactorily answer was why the accusation that she wished to destroy society had gained such traction".

The reasons it did are clearly elaborated on in the book, a widening gap between rich and poor, urban decay, rising crime and hooliganism and the undermining of family and community values were aspects of the British 1980s. While there is no agreement on the causes and consequences of these changes, they can hardly be divorced from the politics of the period.

Thatcher's initial few years as PM were a struggle, the embrace of monetarism – government managing the growth of the money supply – was deemed not to be working and harshly criticised by economists. But economic growth soon began and the control of inflation was a crucial success with, in time, the expansion of credit, lowering of taxes, the development of financial services and "none of the old British coyness" about making money. For some, there was a hell of a lot of it to be made.

Allowing local authority tenants to buy their own houses was also a success and referred to as "one of the greatest transfers of property from state to citizens in British history". It also contributed to many working class voters embracing the Tories at the expense of Labour, which spent much of the decade tearing itself apart.

Thatcher reaped much benefit from the Falklands War – every step of which is recorded in detail – and asserted at its end that the war, which in total may have cost £4bn, was designed to give two fingers to "the people who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did", a nauseatingly self-serving assertion after a thousand unnecessary deaths.

Another notable development was that a country that was "internationally notorious" for being strike-torn became "a model of industrial peace". This was done by restricting the powers of trade unions and confronting their strikes – most notoriously the miners for 51 weeks after they reacted to a proposal to cut the workforce by 44,000. It provides for a gripping chapter, recounting the running battles, fears, hopes and eventual defeat.

For Thatcher there was a simple economic logic to closing mines: a 1983 report showed that they received an annual state subsidy of £1.3bn and still managed to record an annual loss of £250bn. The future was deemed to lie in Russian gas and Middle Eastern oil fuelling Britain's power plants.

New policies created inevitable victims, with 9.4 million Britons living on or below supplementary benefits by 1985, an increase of 54pc since 1979. Tensions, riots and racial strife were also a part of the fabric of 1980s Britain as were protests against nuclear weapons in the dying years of the Cold War.

One of the strengths of the book is its account of the cultural life of the country, including TV, music and architecture (though sport is ignored). It was the era of the daring new Channel 4, satellite TV, alternative comedians and reliance on the synthesiser.

Pop stars were open to experimentation with sounds and looks, summed up in the lyrics of an Adam Ant song: "Ridicule is nothing to be scared of." The rave scene and the ecstasy drug were on offer for those seeking to disconnect from convention and there were no shortage of moral panics including around Aids, where the Tories had the wit to ignore idiotic claims by The Sun that it could not be transmitted through heterosexual sex and instead adopted a practical instead of moral approach under the title "Don't die of ignorance".

Greater sexual and educational equality and opportunities in the workplace were evident, but Stewart concludes that "where there was discord, nobody brought harmony", signalling Thatcher's failure to deliver on her famous promise in 1979.

It is too early to write a history of the 1980s from archival documents, and for that reason there are no startling new insights in this book, and not enough attention is given to the experience of ordinary Britons, but Stewart has produced a very impressive account of a colourful and divisive decade.

However, those looking for material on Ireland or Anglo-Irish relations will be disappointed. While the hunger strikes of 1981 and the IRA's campaign receive some coverage, there is nothing new. It's interesting also that there is no mention of Charles Haughey's first meeting with Thatcher in Downing Street in May 1980, where he presented her with a Georgian silver teapot. Haughey described this teapot summit as "wonderful"; it doesn't appear to have had the same impact on Thatcher or those writing about her.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD. His most recent book is Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, published by Profile.

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