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Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the 1980s, by Richard Vinen, Pocket Books, RRP£8.99, 402 pages
No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s, by Andy McSmith, Constable, RRP£14.99, 342 pages
Rejoice! Rejoice!: Britain in the 1980s, by Alwyn W Turner, Aurum, RRP£20, 426 pages
A psychiatrist told me in 1985 how he discovered that Margaret Thatcher was unlike any other politician of his lifetime. For years he had tested people suffering from dementia by asking them to name the prime minister. Previous leaders scored poorly but after 1979 every one of his patients knew about Thatcher.
Many of us had a similarly obsessive fascination. Philip French, a Booker Prize judge in 1988, reported that no fewer than 18 of the novels submitted were “voyages through Thatcher’s Britain”. He added: “No politician this century, perhaps ever, has so engaged contemporary writers.” In Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses she was “Mrs Torture” (who, within a year, would be protecting the unfriendly author from the Ayatollah’s assassins). Other novels had her as “Mrs Finchley” or “Her Malignancy in No 10” or “a woman who cannot hear the cries of the oppressed for the rattle of the cash till”.
Decades do not always obey the calendar. Historians cannot agree whether what we now know as “the Sixties” began in 1956 or 1963. But the 1980s in Britain are easy to measure and define: they begin with Thatcher’s election in 1979 and end with her overthrow in 1990. The title of Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the 1980s makes explicit what the titles of the other two books imply by using phrases attributed to her: Thatcher was the 1980s. When i-D magazine summarised the decade in 1989, it concluded that she was “almost a fact of nature”.
We still live in her shadow. The cover image for Simon Jenkins’s study Thatcher and Sons (2006) illustrated the point by showing John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown walking a respectful couple of paces behind the woman who had become Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. As Boris Johnson said recently, it is a measure of her totemic status that some people even managed to blame her for the credit crunch.
For a long time it seemed that a creature so cloaked in myths could be dealt with only in novels or plays or films. As with Karl Marx during the cold war, she had to be either divine or demonic; what both sides agreed was that she couldn’t be human, with all the fallibilities and contradictions that would imply.
Now, almost 20 years after her eviction from Downing Street, three recent books suggest that a more considered assessment is possible. Richard Vinen, a historian at King’s College, London, recalls where he was when it all began: during an O-level Latin class on May 4 1979 his teacher turned on a radio so the pupils could hear Thatcher recite “some words of St Francis of Assisi” as she entered No 10: “Where there is discord may we bring harmony, where there is error may we bring truth ... ” He and his classmates thought the speech “pretty mad”.
Vinen proposes that a little humility is now in order: “Many of us claimed repeatedly that the government’s policies were so obviously wrong-headed that they were bound to bring some signal disaster. We should now have the grace to recognise that the signal disaster never arrived and that, at least in its own terms, the government was often – though not always – successful.” Even Andy McSmith, a political journalist who spent part of the 1980s as a Labour Party press officer, acknowledges the scale of her achievement in his book No Such Thing as Society: “Out of political chaos, Britain arrived at a settlement that lasted, for better or worse. The way we live now follows directly from the tumultuous times of the 1980s.”
Alwyn Turner isn’t so sure. Readers of his book about the 1970s, Crisis? What Crisis?, will know of his talent for interpreting the politics of an epoch through its popular culture. He relishes the irony that beneficiaries of Thatcher’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme included the scabrous comic Viz, Creation Records (home of The Jesus and Mary Chain) and Jazzie B’s group Soul II Soul. Even if many Britons eventually accepted her economic remedies, he infers in his history of the 1980s, Rejoice! Rejoice!, “culturally the country was unconvinced”. Ideals of enterprise were all very well but winning at all costs, with no thought for the loser and no care for the way one played the game, “seemed somehow wrong”. The British still sided with heroic failures and doomed underdogs such as the hopeless ski-jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards.
Vinen, from his loftier academic perspective, also doubts whether she was as all-conquering as Thatcherite legend would have us believe. His main thesis is that she did not, contrary to received opinion, destroy the postwar consensus. She never reformed the National Health Service (ignoring zealous disciples who wanted it scrapped altogether) or the Whitehall bureaucracy; nor did she introduce school vouchers or smash the comprehensive education system. On the right, her admirer TE Utley deplored the word Thatcherism as a “monstrous invention” that made her government seem more original than it really was – an opinion echoed in New Left Review, which complained that socialist intellectuals had created a “monstrous monolith” by presenting Thatcherism as a coherent ideology.
All this is true and worth saying but Vinen is so taken by the continuities between Thatcher and her predecessors that he downplays her distinctiveness. Her immediate predecessor, the Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan, got the point earlier than most. “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics,” he told a colleague on the eve of the 1979 election, at which his party would be banished from office for 18 years. “There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”
Andy McSmith describes her arrival in Downing Street as “a milestone in British political history, as significant as the Labour victory in 1945”. But this was not apparent at the time to many people other than Callaghan. There were the same old familiar faces round the cabinet table (Willie Whitelaw, Lord Carrington, Jim Prior, Francis Pym) and the same old familiar problems confronting them – strikes, inflation, unemployment. The slogan on the Saatchis’ election poster, “Labour Isn’t Working”, seemed just as applicable to the new Tory crew: the jobless total of 1.1m at the time of Thatcher’s victory would never be that low again in her 11 years at the helm. A government committed to reducing inflation at all costs quickly succeeded in doubling it.
The following spring there were riots in Brixton, Southall and Toxteth. In July 1981, the month of Prince Charles’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer, the bleak background music was provided by the Specials’ chart-topping single “Ghost Town”: “No job to be found in this country, can’t go on no more, people getting angry ... ” went the lyrics. As if to prove the point, further riots erupted in 10 more British cities that month.
Vinen doesn’t mention “Ghost Town”: he is concerned solely with high politics, and more specifically the relations between Thatcher and her ministers. But anyone wanting a broader history of the 1980s in Britain will find an abundance of telling detail in the hugely enjoyable studies by Andy McSmith and Alwyn Turner, both of whom have sharp eyes for the social and cultural texture of Thatcher’s realm.
Having routed the Argentine forces in the Falklands, reinvented herself as a warrior queen and then trounced Labour at the 1983 election, in her second term she abandoned the sermons about thrift and good housekeeping. Privatisation, deregulation, the rise in property prices and the sale of council houses at a huge discount all offered what she would previously have said was impossible – money for nothing. McSmith and Turner both present Harry Enfield’s comic creation “Loadsamoney” as the emblematic figure of the age, a swaggering slob waving a fistful of banknotes while yelling, “Look at my wad!” Two million people applied for BT shares in its 1984 sell-off – including two Tory MPs who entered into the spirit so enthusiastically (with improper multiple applications) that they had to leave the Commons.
Hours of fun can be had teasing out Thatcher’s contradictions, especially if you are in the company of one of her idolaters. Vinen points out that her father, a Methodist lay preacher, regarded the Stock Exchange as a godless gambling den. What would he have thought of his daughter’s deregulation of the City in 1986, the “Big Bang” that erased the dividing line between jobbers and brokers? A prime minister who had come to power talking of the need to live within one’s means was the impresario for the most astonishing credit spree the country had ever seen. In the 10 years to November 1988, mortgages increased from £6bn to £63bn; non-housing loans in the same period rose from £4bn to £28bn. “Sexy greedy is the late Eighties,” says a character in Caryl Churchill’s play Serious Money (1988).
Even her victory in 1985 over the National Union of Mineworkers – “the enemy within” – is rich in political ironies. Many Conservatives who did not want the miners to win nevertheless admired them, perhaps because – as Vinen suggests – the NUM was in a curious way conservative, defending a traditional way of life against revolutionary upheaval, while the brutal efficiency with which she thwarted them (massed ranks of police, road blocks, centralised power) seemed somehow “unEnglish”. But then the truth is that Thatcher was never much of a conservative. She had no respect for hallowed national institutions – the BBC, the Church, the professions, the ancient universities. When the Greater London Council annoyed her by installing a socialist administration she simply abolished it.
Thatcher had her own version of permanent revolution: she slept for four or five hours a night and seldom took a holiday, apparently convinced that socialism would creep out of the wainscoting the moment her back was turned. To maintain this perpetual motion, however, she needed fuel and by the third term she was running on empty. She had already worsted Arthur Scargill, thrashed General Galtieri and sold off much of Britain’s public housing and public utilities. What next to inspire the faithful? Her answer, fatefully, was to replace local council rates with a poll tax: everyone from a duke to a dustman would pay the same amount. At the same time she upped her anti-European rhetoric (“No! No! No!”), driving Nigel Lawson and Sir Geoffrey Howe from the cabinet by her refusal to set a date for joining the European Union’s Exchange Rate Mechanism. She vowed to go “on and on”, perhaps even until the millennium.
And so came the dramatic denouement of November 1990. Although she has described her ousting as “treachery”, both McSmith and Vinen argue that it wasn’t necessarily a betrayal. Her mission to “roll back the frontiers of socialism” had been accomplished. “Thatcher”, the old Labourite McSmith admits, “had beaten the left.” By the time of her resignation, Soviet troops were pulling out of eastern Europe, the power of the unions was broken and more than a million council houses had been sold. “The problem for this most unconsensual politician,” Vinen writes, momentarily forgetting his original thesis, “was that she had created a new consensus.” Like Winston Churchill in 1945, she stood revealed as a magnificently defiant leader at times of conflict but one whose belligerence was no longer required in peacetime. Tory MPs suddenly but understandably decided that she had served her purpose.
Francis Wheen is the author of ‘Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia’ (Fourth Estate)