The former Labour foreign secretary David Owen’s four-storey Georgian house in Limehouse, east London, features prominently in Andy Beckett’s long and methodical book about the political and cultural upheavals of the early 1980s. The location of the house suits the author’s purposes just so, because the tale of the Docklands Development Corporation and the transformation of the area that became known as Docklands, with its gleaming glass towers and international investment banks as well as its displaced locals, is one of the stories he wants to tell about those years when, as Beckett euphemistically puts it, “Britain had a burst of energy”.
Owen bought the house for a bargain £3,000 in the mid-1960s as the East End docks decayed and atrophied. Over the years, as Beckett writes, Owen and his “socially adept wife” transformed it into one of “London’s most envied middle-class residences”. It was from this house late one afternoon in January 1981 that Owen, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams emerged to announce that they were leaving the Labour Party. The “Gang of Four” had wearied of trade union militancy and the leftist turn of Labour politics, then in the grip of Bennite mania.
Beckett’s account of the so-called Limehouse Declaration and its antecedents is all the more resonant because of the present unrest and divisions in the Labour Party, which seems intent on repeating the mistakes of the past, even on adopting many of the positions and policies of Michael Foot, such as unilateral nuclear disarmament. (Jeremy Corbyn is not mentioned in the book but the Bennite wars and the circumstances that shaped his politics are covered at length.)
The foundation of the Social Democratic Party by the four Labour moderates divided the left for a generation and created the conditions for the long period of Tory rule that changed Britain in ways we are still struggling to understand. All of this we know, of course. But what most interests Beckett is the psychology of those early Thatcher years, when she led what was, in effect, a counter-hegemonic assault on the postwar consensus, with all the intended and unintended consequences.
On a visit to Docklands in 1987, in a “revealingly stream-of-consciousness speech”, as Beckett calls it, Thatcher described how the area was full of vitality and “reminded me very forcefully of everything which we have tried to do, of my fundamental belief that if governments create the background and we free things up as much as possible, then the great talents of the British public and the British people will take over”.
Among the fascinations of Thatcherism were its many palpable contradictions. As a social conservative, Thatcher never really understood the forces of hedonistic individualism that her economic liberalism unlocked or, in her words, freed up.
Beckett puts it well when he speaks about a “revolution in the head: the shift in mass consciousness, haphazard but enduring”. Stuart Hall, the late Marxist historian, put it even better in an interview with the New Statesman in 2012 when he said that Thatcher was what Hegel called a “historical individual”: her politics and contradictions “instance or concretise in one life or career much wider forces that are in play”.
It is these wider forces that are the subject of Beckett’s book. I’m a couple of years older than he is and I remember the early 1980s well enough; indeed, I consider them to be perhaps the most exciting period of my life, not least because they coincided for me with mid-adolescence, when the world suddenly enlarges and quickens. It wasn’t that, growing up in a quiet cul-de-sac in an Essex new town as I did, I thought “everything is possible”, as Jim Kerr sang in Simple Minds’ “Promised You a Miracle”, the 1982 pop single from which the book takes its title. It was more that the old ways were breaking down – in politics, pop, the media, business, fashion – and a new spirit of enterprise and risk-taking was at large in the country. After the struggles and decline of the 1970s, many people “wanted to hear a new national story”. Just as importantly, the worst excesses of Thatcherism had not yet hardened into permanent effect. So this is a book about shifts and transition; about the end of an era and the beginning of something altogether different.
It is often forgotten or ignored just how close Margaret Thatcher came to failure. The first two years of her first government were stricken by crisis, with her own cabinet plotting against her, unemployment rising rapidly and the processes of deindustrialisation laying waste to swaths of the north of England and Scotland, for which the Tories were not fully to blame but for which they have never been forgiven. Without the euphoria created by the Falklands war and the bonanza of North Sea oil, Thatcher would not have won a landslide election victory in 1983, even if the Tories were fortunate in having as their chief opponent the veteran leftist Michael Foot. But Beckett’s book is not an exercise in counterfactual history: he does not want to dwell on what might have been. Rather, he wants to capture the atmospheric pressure of events and to re-create the mentality of those times.
I’ve often thought that the 1980s have been misunderstood, wrongly caricatured as a time of ostentatious consumption and selfishness, personified by Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney” chancer and the get-rich-quick City yuppie. What can be forgotten is that the decade began and ended with recessions. Musically, the 1980s began with post-punk and new wave, morphing into futurism and new romanticism, and ended with acid house and the rave scene. Economic renewal coincided with – or perhaps enabled – artistic and cultural renewal. Writers and artists had something against which to define themselves – the hegemony of Thatcherism.
A constant through the decade (one not mentioned by Beckett, who seems largely uninterested in sport apart from cricket) was football hooliganism. As a teenager, I was used to encountering violence on the terraces and on the streets surrounding stadiums. Today, football has become a symbol of aggressive meritocracy and one of the most powerful engines of hypercapitalism and globalisation – the ultimate Thatcherite product, if you will. In the early 1980s it was nothing of the kind. In fact, like so many other British industries, it was failing and neglected: a national embarrassment.
Promised You a Miracle is structured as a series of long set pieces that read almost as if they had been written as discrete magazine articles and then stitched together for the purposes of the book. Beckett catches up with and interviews many of the actors in the central dramas of those times. He talks to them about what they did then and how they feel about it now.
From the world of politics he interviews Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s first, monetarist chancellor and later her willing assassin; John Hoskyns, the former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit; the economist Patrick Minford, one of her most loyal free-market cheerleaders; Ken Livingstone, whose cheeky “loony left” Greater London Council was abolished by Thatcher in an act of vindictiveness; Valerie Wise, who ran the widely ridiculed women’s committee at the GLC; Norman Tebbit, the Thatcherite strongman whose family life was altered catastrophically by the murderous 1984 IRA attack on Brighton; and so on.
From the world of pop he meets Martin Fry, the singer-songwriter of ABC, the Sheffield group whose slick and stylised 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, so thrilled the author when he was on the cusp of adolescence. He talks to designers and marketeers, architects and urban planners. He meets former peaceniks and anti-nuclear campaigners. He has two gripping chapters on the Falklands war, about which I thought I didn’t ever want to read again. Along the way, there are sections about the failure of the British car industry and an account of the making of British Leyland’s Austin Mini Metro. We encounter Lady Diana, speeding around the streets of west London in her Metro, already being hunted by the paparazzi. (You can imagine the juxtaposition of archive footage of the production line at British Leyland’s Longbridge plant with images of Diana driving her Metro, to the musical accompaniment of one of the pop hits of the time, in the TV programme that might have accompanied the book.)
We read about the Toxteth riots and then, in passing, about other riots that broke out in English towns and cities throughout 1981. We are taken on a trip to Greenham Common, where women set up their peace camp to protest against the presence of US cruise missiles on English soil. We drop in to Headingley to see Ian Botham – who, in a single overheated paragraph, is likened both to a “village cricketer on steroids” and to “Obelix, Asterix’s mountainous sidekick” – inspiring England to an improbable Ashes victory in the summer of 1981. “Like Thatcher, he [Botham] relished confrontations,” Beckett tells us.
There are extended riffs on the success of Chariots of Fire and the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, both of which had a profound influence on the fashion and style of the day, as any episode of Top of the Pops from those times shows. Beckett’s liberalism is impeccable but he resists the temptation simply to denounce Thatcher, about whom he seems genuinely ambivalent. In the long section on Right to Buy and the Tory aspiration to create a democracy of homeowners, he rightly explains how the failure to replenish the council accommodation that was sold off at knock-down prices created today’s housing crisis. Only occasionally do ripples of liberal condescension disturb the smooth surface of Beckett’s prose, as in his concluding paragraph on Right to Buy, the full cost of which, he writes, was less apparent in the early 1980s than “the new front doors, new kitchens and bathrooms, new paint jobs and fireplaces, the new pebbledash and stone cladding, new garden balustrades and double glazing, new porches, conservatories and mock-Tudor panels that began to appear across the previously muted and communal landscape of British municipal housing”.
Beckett is, on the whole, a bashful presence in the narrative. He scatters the merest fragments of autobiography, informing us that he grew up in an army family and was educated at private schools, including Marlborough (also attended by the Middleton sisters and Samantha Cameron, wife of the Prime Minister). He suggests that he was conscious, even as an 11-year-old in 1980, of the currents of change flowing through Britain after the election of Thatcher. There is one mention of an old girlfriend. But this resolutely is not a memoir.
Where Beckett is more present is as an ostentatious stylist, describing and passing comment on those he sees in his travels around Britain. A deluxe newspaper feature writer, he has mastered the techniques and formulas of American-style, long-form, narrative non-fiction storytelling. He writes unhurried, thickly descriptive sentences. His metaphors are few but his adjectives are many, perhaps too many. This sentence on the 1976 Labour leadership contest is characteristic: “And there were no fewer than four candidates from the right – the calculating Jim Callaghan, the expansive Roy Jenkins, the domineering Denis Healey and the cerebral Tony Crosland.” In an adjacent sentence, we are introduced to the “mercurial” Michael Foot and the “relentless” Tony Benn. At one point, David Owen’s Limehouse residence is described as “delicate”, which doesn’t seem to be quite the apposite word. Favourite adjectives include “brash”, “plush” and “scuffed”, as in the “scuffed north London suburb of Kilburn”. He likes calling buildings and houses “broad-” or “heavy-shouldered”, as in Martin Fry’s “broad-shouldered and discreetly plush” terrace or “Canary Wharf looming heavy-shouldered in the near distance”.
He favours excitable adverbs such as “famously” and “thrillingly”, as in the “famously right-on Sussex University” and “Salisbury Plain, the famously bald and comfortless plateau used by the British army for training”. After a hundred pages or so, this kind of writing starts to feel mannered and formulaic. Beckett cannot introduce someone without first sketching his or her physical appearance in compressed but elaborate brushstrokes. When he meets the former defence secretary John Nott, he goes into overdrive: “Bespectacled, professorially balding, narrow-shouldered verging on weedy, he had a downbeat, metallic, slightly grating voice that switched barely perceptibly between seriousness and man-of-the-world mockery.” If this isn’t enough, he tells us that Nott “might have been a retired civil servant or an ex-undertaker”. Why not settle on one or the other rather than offer us both? A paragraph later, we encounter Admiral Henry Leach, who “had a stare like a searchlight and a mouth like a torpedo slit”. This is the language of the airport concept thriller.
Promised You a Miracle is clearly not rigorous social history in the style of David Kynaston’s minutely detailed, magisterial books about postwar Britain. Like Dominic Sandbrook or Alwyn Turner, Beckett is more a specialist in what one might call nearly-history, or the higher journalism – or a fusion of the two. He takes the long view and likes the broad sweep. He prefers the face-to-face encounter to archival research. It’s all very well done, even if the overwriting irritates.
How to quantify the passing of time? How to make sense of the transformations through which we live and begin to understand sometimes only in retrospect, if we ever fully understand them?
We all like to divide the past into measurable units – months, years, decades, centuries, millennia – so as better to contain the flux of human experience, to identify the economic and psychological turning points, to decide what we got right and wrong. The appeal of Beckett’s book is that he succeeds in showing rather than merely telling us why his chosen period was pivotal in the life of the nation. For those who lived through all the turbulence, as I did, it reawakens memories and helps reconnect you with the person you once were. For those who did not, or who cannot remember, it recounts well how an old nation roused itself from slumber and dared to change the course on which it seemed set. As Thatcher said, things were indeed freed up as much as possible, for better and for worse.
Promised You A Miracle: UK 80-82 is by Andy Beckett, published by Allen Lane, 436pp, £20
This article appears in the 09 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles