Apathy in the UK

<strong>From Anger to Apathy: the British Experience since 1975</strong>

Mark Garnett <em>Jonathan

On the front cover, an Austin 1100 and an overturned police van going up in flames. On the back cover, an empty supermarket trolley awaiting its horde of goodies. No prizes for guessing that, like Andrew Marr in his recent History of Modern Britain, Mark Garnett thinks the latest chapter in our island story is the one about how we have become a nation of shoppers. But whereas Marr adduced dozens of moral positives to set against that vision of contemporary Blighty's spendthrift solipsism, Garnett sees nothing but decadence and degradation. You'd call him a glass half-empty type were it not for the suspicion that what really bothers him is that he never got a full pint in the first place.

Given its title, From Anger to Apathy might be either a Tory lament about the loss of national pride or a call to arms from a disappointed lefty. As it happens, it is neither of those things. While the book is given focus through its sympathy for the idea of protest - Garnett makes it clear he felt as aggrieved for the hunting lobby as he did for the striking miners - its author's politics are hard to pin down. Though he more than once criticises Tony Blair for not seizing the opportunity his original 179-seat majority gave him and breaking with Thatcherism, he does so only because he believes consensus politics engender the apathy that makes him so angry. Garnett is no existentialist hothead, but nor does he believe there is any being without doing.

The New Economics Foundation's findings that "1976 had been the best year to be alive in Britain [since the war]" notwithstanding, Garnett kicks things off with a discursive temperature-taking of the British body politic in 1975. That, after all, was the year when the hike in oil prices ushered in record inflation and mammoth pay claims and the social democrats who ran the Labour Party (and the country) began to wonder if the Keynesian game was up; the year the Freedom Association and the Sex Pistols were born; the year the once-pragmatic Conservative Party was hijacked by arriviste ideologues bent on changing the character of a nation; the year, in short, when the postwar settlement fell apart.

Some of the book's best pages are given over to a detailed account of the 1975 referendum on our membership of the European Community. Garnett gives a wonderful summary of where the big shots - Wilson (pro), Benn (anti), Thatcher (pro), Powell (anti) - stood on the issue, and he is eye-openingly good (at least to a writer too young to have taken an interest, let alone to have had a vote) on how the oil crisis was used as a weapon by the nay-sayers. Now that we're about to produce our own oil, the sceptics argued, what's the good of us signing up with a group of states who'll only want a piece of it? In the event, of course, the vote went against them, although by some perverted genius the Europhobes still managed to squander the oil. The bulk of its revenues were paid out to the three million-long dole queue begotten by what we were told to call Margaret Thatcher's economic miracle.

Not that Garnett is a conspiracy theorist. While he is in no doubt that the Tory governments of the Eighties were responsible for the worst economic chaos in half a century, he has no time for the idea that the party either wanted or welcomed that chaos. Thatcher did not, he argues, "anticipate [sic] that her policies would devastate entire communities where manufacturing industry was the sole employer, provoking lasting antipathy towards her party". Nor does he give any credence to the notion, aired most recently in Naomi Klein's paranoia-fuelled The Shock Doctrine, that Thatcher, facing the fight for re-election as the most unpopular British prime minister in living memory, engineered the Falklands War. In fact, Garnett reminds us, the war was prompted not by conspiracy but by cock-up: one of Thatcher's numerous Budget cuts meant that there was no longer the money for a ship to patrol the islands. The Argentines, understandably enough, took this as a sign that the British were no longer interested in defending this tot of a territory.

Garnett's own territory is a little narrow. Though he is a dab hand at quoting from pop lyrics and TV sitcoms, he doesn't range wide across the culture. Equivalent III, Carl Andre's infamous assemblage of firebricks, is the only work of visual art that gains a mention, and while Alan Ayckbourn has spent the bulk of the past half-century explaining this country to itself, the only play Garnett touches upon is Howard Brenton's asinine piece of agitprop The Romans in Britain. As for the novel, Martin Amis and Malcolm Bradbury get a mention, but the only literary form Garnett seems genuinely interested in is the newspaper. Could this lecturer in politics be a frustrated hack? If so, he ought not to be. Written on the hoof (its closing pages deal with Tony Blair's long resignation), From Anger to Apathy could hardly be a definitive study of the past 30 years, but it is still rather more than journalism's first rough draft of history.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever