A history of 1980s Britain that rings hollow

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s - review.

Margaret Thatcher visits the Falkland Islands in 1983.
Margaret Thatcher visits the Falkland Islands in 1983. Photograph: Getty Images

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s
Graham Stewart
Atlantic Books, 560pp, £25

In a New York bar on 1 September 1939 – or at least in his poem titled for that date – W H Auden wrote:

As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade . . .
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

It is arguable whether the 1970s were a “low dishonest decade”, but certainly the unmentionable odour of death hung in the air in parts of Britain in 1979, as corpses languished unburied during a gravediggers’ strike. Add the lorry drivers, the railwaymen, the nurses and many more, and you have a Winter of Discontent, which is where Graham Stewart’s account of the 1980s begins. It was a very different Britain then: a third of Britain’s houses were owned by the council and trade union leaders popped round to “Sunny Jim” Callaghan’s farm for dinner to advise on when he should call a general election.

Those union warhorses counselled sooner rather than later and Callaghan should have listened. He waited until May and his chances withered during that discontented winter; the rest is several volumes of popular history. Stewart’s addition to the literature is very much in the spirit and style of writers such as David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett, and follows two recent volumes that cover the same period –Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice!and Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing as Society. Stewart’s book lacks such a neat title, though. It is hard to discern the relevance of “Bang!” to the decade. Surely “Wham!” would have been better?

With Callaghan gone, Margaret Thatcher emerges as the main figure of the 1980s, for the duration of which she was prime minister. Not since Pitt the Younger had a prime minister held office for a whole decade. Stewart’s is a rounded portrait; he points out, for instance, that although she may have done away with free school milk as education secretary, she also saved the Open University against the wishes of most of her cabinet colleagues.

Such generosity is to be expected. Stewart is a former Times leader writer and assistant to the Tory roué Alan Clark and clearly a man of the right. You smell it in his analysis of the Northern Irish Troubles, where a distaste for the republicans simmers throughout, and in his glib claim that the union leader and Spanish civil war veteran Jack Jones was a paid-up Soviet agent, based on some tittletattle from Oleg Gordievsky in the Daily Telegraph (a similar slur about Michael Foot in the Sunday Times by the Russian double agent resulted in a large out-of-court settlement in Foot’s favour). In his chapter on the nuclear threat, Stewart spends more time discussing how many lesbians were at Greenham Common and how they were banned from local pubs for being whiffy than on analysing what life there may have been like. He is strong, however, on the Falklands conflict – “the last old-fashioned war”, in that both sides were evenly matched and used the same fairly primitive technology, and where Britain fought alone for its own cause.

While I was reading Bang!, documents pertaining to the Falklands war became available for the first time under the 30-year rule. Many commentators were shocked to discover how parlous the situation had been, how strong the Argentinian position was and how worried Thatcher was. Stewart shows that it was by no means a foregone conclusion to defeat a powerful, albeit conscripted, army thousands of miles from home with the shortest of windows before the South Atlantic winter made the thing unwinnable.

Yet Bang! isn’t all juntas and public-sector borrowing requirements. As you would expect, pop culture muscles its way in with padded shoulders. There is a long and generally sound résumé of synth-pop and Stewart is also surprisingly insightful on the Smiths, offering a far more sensitive and nuanced portrait than many specialist rock writers have managed. But it all unravels a little with the alternative comedy boom, where there’s a vague and rather antique objection to all this newfangled, “right-on” malarkey. The racist comedian Bernard Manning was not “deemed unfit” for television, with all the metropolitan condescension that implies. It simply and rightly became unacceptable for an “entertainer” to appear in the living rooms of a multicultural Britain and rail against “nignogs” and “Pakis”. Stewart also castigates the makers of Spitting Image for not lampooning the Politburo as savagely as they did Reagan and Thatcher. This, surely, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of satire – it’s meant to be funny, not fair, and its prime objective should be to humble our own leaders, not do their job for them.

So much of this has been the stuff of clipheavy, analysis-light television documentaries in recent years that it threatened to wash over me in a wave of red braces and Adam Ant videos. I found myself enjoying the less obviously attractive sections, such as the chapter on the economics of North Sea oil. Stewart explores how it affected us as compared to the similarly richly endowed Norwegians and concedes that better investment would have kept us buoyant.

By page 313, though, at least one reader’s patience was wearing thin. There is a long, hand-wringing, Jarndycean apology for Thatcher’s notorious remark “There is no such thing as society”. This elides into a highly partial account of the Toxteth, Brixton and Handsworth riots, which, apparently, had more to do with revolutionary communist agitators and the anarchists of Class War than with urban decay and bullying police tactics. After this comes worse: Hillsborough is dealt with in a cursory paragraph that boils down to “Well, what do you expect?” and in essence exonerates the police of wrongdoing. This is golf club punditry masquerading as history and it rings callously hollow today.

But even though Bang!’s presiding spirit of extended apology and strained decency can pall, it is a largely consuming book, crammed with detail, anecdote and juxtapositions, if hamstrung by that tic of conservative editorialising. Stewart writes well, too; only one clunker of a sentence leapt out: “Sir Ian Gil - mour and Christopher Soames struggled to conceal a de haut en bas disdain for the arriviste Thatcherites who, they believed, were upsetting a settled social order and ruling without recognising the duty of noblesse oblige toward those they stepped over.”

It is the little details recorded en passant (as Stewart might say) that fascinate. When, as controller of Channel 4, Jeremy Isaacs introduced a red triangle on screen and in listings to indicate adult content, it was intended to warn, not to entice. But why else, on its first use, did 2.4 million viewers stay up after midnight to watch Themroc, an avant-garde French film about modern cave-dwellers, with no dialogue? The idea was soon abandoned. The bracingly adult experiment called Thatcherism endured rather longer.

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