I find this a most peculiar book. Its thesis is that everything changed between 1980-82 and after the election of Margaret Thatcher. The author frequently refers to all the changes as “Thatcherism” but it is by no means a Thatcherite book. The flyleaf describes it as:
The extraordinary untold story of Britain’s revolution in the head: a shift in mass consciousness in which an old, self doubting nation was transformed into something else: outward looking, materialistic, colourful, lonely and cruel.
The author who writes for the Guardian and has previously written books on Pinochet and the 1970s tells us that he was 10 at the time and from an military family that seemed to be very conscious of British decline.
It is odd for me to read an account of years I consciously lived through that has such a different flavour than my experiences. The frequent references to a sense of British decline are presumably led by regret at the end of empire. Coming as I do from Irish origins, I see this decolonisation as a great historical advance and feel proud that it happened in my lifetime. Of course the 1970s were difficult years, largely because of the oil price hike and inflation escalating in Britain and elsewhere. But the late 1960/70s were also the least unequal years in British history which gave my generation the confidence to be hopeful and undeferential. And I remember going home during the three day week and eating with friends over candle lit tables and the memories feel rather pleasant and romantic. In fact productivity increased dramatically during the three day week and when Edward Heath called an election asking who governs Britain, the people chose the side of the miners rather than the government.
The book is made up of journalistic investigations which sit oddly together. From the launch of the Metro– a car sold as the great British revival: the marriage of Charles and Diana and the film Chariots Of Fire. There are sympathetic chapters on the riots in Toxteth that spread nationwide in the face of the terrible rise of unemployment as a consequence of the ideologically driven imposition of monetarism. Later we are given a description of the development of Docklands and the launch of Channel 4. The book feels like an interesting muddle of stories with very little analysis of why change was happening or what were the underlying economic and technological forces at work.
We are reminded The frequent references to a sense of British decline are presumably led by regret at the end of empire. Coming as I do from Irish origins, I see this decolonisation as a great historical advance and feel proud that it happened in my lifetime. of the dangers of an escalating nuclear arms race with a full descriptions of the advice given by government to the public to prepare for nuclear war ” if an attack is expected… you and your family must take cover at once… if you were caught in the open lie down… you may have to stay in your home for 14 days… “. Advice was provided to build a fall-out room inside the home to protect from nuclear fallout “It should be away from walls or roofs..” and be made of piled up mattress and to be stocked with food, mostly in tins and supplied with a bucket with a seat if possible. There is also a detailed account of a big scam over nuclear bunkers for sale. Later in the book there is a sympathetic account of the Greenham Common protests against the installation of a US base for nuclear armed cruise missiles.
Our author moves to an account of Ken Livingstone’s takeover of the GLC based on interviews with Ken and also focuses on of the work of the GLC women’s committee which, despite press attacks, he suggests caught the zeitgeist of changing times. There is also a brilliant chapter on the failings of policy that led to the Falklands War. A very unpopular Thatcher government then won the 1983 election but actually with less votes than in 1979. It was helped of course by the formation of the Social Democratic Party which split the Labour vote. David Owen who was interviewed for the book says that the important achievement of the launch of the SDP was that it changed the Labour Party. The author points out that The government was lucky in the Falklands and also in inheriting the bonus of the North Sea oil.
Overall the book has some very interesting reportage and is based on interviews with some of the major players of the times. It is an easy read and the commentary is intelligent but for me it explains very little of the changing times and attributing it all to “Thatcherism” is simply lazy. But for a nostalgic reminder of the turbulent times many of us lived through and the changes that came about in those years, it is worth a read. And if nothing else I strongly recommend the chapters on the Falklands campaign which explain clearly how the government was at fault in risking the Argentinian invasion, totally confused about what action to take, rescued by the plans of the first Sea Lord and enormously lucky in the outcome. I remember the mood that gripped, almost all the men of the nation. Our author also claims that the ease with which modern Britain goes to war is largely a legacy of these years. But he does not mention the fundamental changes brought about by the end of the Cold War and the tumbling of the Berlin Wall.