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A tale of two weddings

The impending nuptials of Kate and Wills remind the <em>New Statesman</em> editor of another royal w

Towards the end of the 1970s, as rubbish lay uncollected on the streets during yet another industrial dispute and you peered at the world through a fug of cigarette smoke - bizarre now to think how we lived under the dictatorship of the smoker, with people free to puff away with impunity on public transport and in offices - James Callaghan sensed that Britain, the wheezy "sick man of Europe", was poised for a period of prolonged socio-political upheaval.

“You know there are times," the Labour prime minister said, in a much-quoted remark, before he lost the 1979 general election, "perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change and it is for Mrs Thatcher."

Nowadays when people who lived through the Eighties think of the decade they invariably think of Margaret Thatcher. For better or worse, she is indelibly associated with those thrilling and turbulent years when the old consensus politics of the long postwar period came to an end, when Britain was convulsed by a counter-revolution from the right, and the forces of the unfettered market tore through these islands.

Sten guns in Knightsbridge

The sea change would not only be in politics. The late 1970s and early 1980s were character­ised not just by social unrest - inner-city riots, football hooliganism, industrial disputes and strikes - but by extraordinary dynamism and creativity. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the punks had emerged to challenge the decadence and complacencies of an older generation. The enemy was the hippie and les soixante-huitards, with their bourgeois self-satisfaction and extravagant liberalism.

The punks and their fellow-travellers had an anti-establishment, DIY, can-do attitude. The feeling was one of fundamental discontinuity with the past. They shared with the Thatcher­ites an overwhelming desire to break from the established order, and to make it all new, as the modernists had. Out of the punk rebellion flowed a whole youth culture of fashion, design, music, art, style magazines and clubbing that gave the early 1980s their peculiar sense of urgency and excitement.

Thatcherite turbulence

At the turn of the 1980s, I was at school in an Essex new town. By the summer of 1981, I had begun to sense that Britain was in some sort of turmoil, but I did not know quite why or what was happening. The chill wind of Thatcherism was blowing through the land. Unemployment was rising remorselessly as Britain's old manufacturing base was allowed to decline beyond usefulness. The old language of welfare paternalism was being replaced by that of market individualism. There was unrest on the streets and riots in the cities as black British Caribbean youths rebelled against prejudice and hardship.

Earlier in the year, with Labour divided and in retreat, the Conservative government used an emergency budget to herald an age of austerity. VAT was raised from 8 to 15 per cent and public spending was cut by £4bn. However, to stimulate demand, the chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, simultaneously cut interest rates by 2 percentage points - an option not available to another fiscal contractor, George Osborne, 30 years later, because rates are already at a historic low.

The gilded princess

This was the backdrop to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul's Cathedral on 29 July 1981. The parallels with today are obvious. Thirty years ago, on that warm July day, I took advantage of the goodwill created by a national holiday to slip illicitly into a local pub to buy my first ever pint. I was 15.

Even then, nothing seemed quite right to me. A gilded princess; a prince who seemed so constricted by convention that he could speak only out of the side of his mouth, his lips scarcely moving, like some grotesque parody of a ventriloquist (only that sweet Diana proved to be no complicit dummy); golden carriages; the grandeur of St Paul's, the media hysteria . . . and yet, only a few weeks earlier, many of our cities had been burning and upended by outrage. I couldn't work it out.

The soundtrack to 1981's summer of unrest was the protest song "Ghost Town" by the Specials. "No job to be found in this country," sang the frontman, Terry Hall. "Government leaving the youth on the shelf . . ./Can't go on no more/The people getting angry."

The song spent three weeks at number one and was at the top of the charts come the day of the wedding. Thirty years later, a Facebook campaign was launched with the purpose of getting "Ghost Town" - the Specials re-formed in 2009 - back to number one in time for Prince William and Kate Middleton's big day. It never came close to happening, but the ruse was a good one.

Poker face

A couple of weeks before the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I chaired a New Statesman round table at Portcullis House, Westminster, on the future and security of Britain's energy supply. Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, was the principal speaker. He was cogent, a master of his brief, and flexible in his thinking on nuclear power, which the Liberal Democrats had once opposed in those carefree days when anything seemed to go.

Throughout the first year of the coalition, Huhne has played a smart hand (as part of a long game?). He has always been careful to keep a watchful distance from his Conservative partners, unlike his hapless party leader, Nick Clegg, who has loved David Cameron not wisely but too well, and unlike Danny Alexander, who, bound upon a wheel of fire, has been rolled out to do the Chancellor's bidding. As for the deputy leader, Simon Hughes, it has seemed at times as if he has been having one long, extended, public breakdown: anguished, equivocating, shifting guiltily.

Not so Huhne, who has the requisite touch of calm and arrogance required of a first-rate politician. Like Gordon Brown during the days when he was likened to Macavity the cat, Huhne has been absent at moments of heightened stress for the Lib Dems - he was out of the country, for instance, at a UN climate summit in Mexico when the vote was taken to raise the cap on tuition fees at English universities.

This past week, he has robustly denounced the "dirty tricks" and "lies" of those leading the No to AV campaign, including several cabinet colleagues. All in all, he is well positioned to lead the Liberal Democrats as and when Clegg walks - or receives the midnight knock on the door.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm