There is the spirit of a bygone age in the air. Hundreds of thousands of Britons scramble to buy shares in a once-respected public utility. Tenants who have struggled to get a foot on the property ladder are given a lift by a new government initiative. Important trade unions are threatening to strike, and ministers accuse them of disloyalty to the nation.
The music charts are invaded by tinny synthesised sounds, sweeping away the lugubrious guitar bands that find themselves out of touch with the times. The country is fixated by a costume drama. A precocious pop star takes all her clothes off, and causes outrage among mums and moralists.
Remind you of anything? Is it beginning to feel like the 1980s all over again?
We should be wary of trite comparisons, in the cultural sphere at least. Downton Abbey, with its clunky dialectical view of Britain in the post-Edwardian era, is little match for the polished and poignant Brideshead Revisited. Miley Cyrus, the latest music sex-sensation from across the water, is no Madonna. Pop culture thrives on rehashing successful tropes for generations who do not remember them the first time around. This is superficial re-enactment, no more, no less, with negligible social impact.
But in the world of politics there is a more telling sense, as the sportsman’s apocryphal interview has it, of déjà vu all over again. For the right-to-buy legislation that turbocharged Margaret Thatcher’s recession-blighted first parliamentary term, read David Cameron’s Help to Buy policy, designed to enable buyers to obtain a mortgage.
There are obvious analogies, too, between the sale of British Gas shares in 1986 and the privatisation of the Royal Mail. This week 700,000 people apply for shares, many of them hoping to make an immediate paper profit.
The education secretary Michael Gove’s description of the teaching unions as “the enemies of promise”, in the meantime, is a trenchant shot across the bows of the labour movement. Complaints elsewhere over pay, pensions and workloads are multiplying. Are we heading for a new climate of turbulence in industrial relations?
Those lucky to be young enough not to remember the 1980s should pause for breath here. There may be some similarities between the two eras, but their tones are strikingly different. The changes that Thatcher made to British society were radical and deep rooted.
The right-to-buy laws were transforming events for the 1m council house tenants who had bought their own homes by 1987. Help to Buy is altogether less intense, less controversial, less ambitious; a friendly nudge rather than a wrenching redefinition of the relationship between property and citizenship.
The famous campaign that persuaded more than 4m people to buy shares in British Gas – the “Tell Sid” storyline– was directed at the large sector of the country’s population who had never dreamt of indulging in the stock market. This was the very invention of popular capitalism.
Those clumsy advertisements today seem as dated as the government “Duck and Cover” warnings of the 1950s, urging you to crawl neatly under a table in the event of nuclear attack. (Lovers of dramatic irony will note that in one of the commercials, a postman is knocked off his bike in the rush to “tell Sid”.) Everyone gets the message now. Market economics has been, at this level at least, demystified.
The industrial relations wars – there is no other word for it – of 30 years ago made telling and lasting changes to Britain’s political landscape. Mr Gove’s skirmishes with the teachers are, by comparison, like common-room rows over the coffee rota.
While the politics of the 1980s were grounded in friction and genuine ill-feeling, today’s strike a note somewhere between pastiche and pantomime. “Red” may conveniently rhyme with “Ed”, but is there anyone who seriously associates the Labour leader Ed Miliband with the deranged visions of Bolshevism? For arguing for a freeze in energy prices?
In truth, the central messages of the 1980s do not need to be replayed, because they have never gone away. The unembarrassed consumerism and primacy of individual desires that marked the Loadsamoney age are still with us, less embarrassed still, and shriller in their deployment.
True, we have social media. But they require an awful lot of “me” time with the laptops, tablets and smartphones that have become our immediate interlocutors.
As the values of the 1980s have become entrenched, so have the decade’s brightest figures been embedded into today’s establishment. David Bowie, who set the cultural tone of those years with the groundbreaking video for his 1980 hit “Ashes to Ashes”, was this year the subject of an acclaimed exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Morrissey, whose fey ways with a daffodil so charmed us back then, has his autobiography published next week by no less an imprint than Penguin Classics, sharing spine space in the bookshops with Aeschylus and George Eliot. It is either, according to your point of view, a brilliant act of subversion, or the grotesque devaluation of an important cultural brand.
What is being replicated from the 1980s is not its politics or its culture, but its psychic temperature. Not the least of Thatcher’s achievements was to persuade the nation that it was moving into a thrilling new world of glamour and self-enrichment. The foe she vanquished most comprehensively was the deathly pallor of the 1970s, which was missed by no one.
Mr Cameron wants people to forget too: to persuade them that the years of recession are consigned to the past, and that Britain is bouncing back. So he returns to the trusted weapons of his party’s finest hour: a smidgen of privatisation; a bunk up to the first step of the property ladder; some choice bellicose rhetoric for those who would deflect him.
All that is missing is Duran Duran cavorting in the Caribbean, the breeze of limitless possibility guiding them, and us, to a brighter tomorrow.
The writer is the FT arts correspondent
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