On the face of it, there’s something a bit suspect about an historian studying the recent past. After all, if it’s “too soon to say” what the historical impact of the French Revolution was, as the Chinese Communist Zhou Enlai maintained, how can we possibly assess the significance of the 1980s? That seems like a more suitable subject for a Radio 2 DJ than an academic historian.
In fact, Graham Stewart has done a terrific job. Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s brings the decade vividly back to life and convincingly places it in perspective. Not only does Stewart include all the major political and economic episodes of the period – the Falklands’ War, the Miners’ Strike, the Big Bang – he also covers some of the more momentous moments in mass culture. For instance, there’s a whole section devoted to popular music with chapters on Acid House and Madchester.
The only mistake he’s made, as far as I can tell, is to call the first part of the book ‘Jim’ll Fix It’. The subject of that section is Labour leader James Callaghan not Jimmy Savile, but it’s still a bit unfortunate.
There are two reasons why this book works so well.
The first is that Stewart is a gifted writer. Bang! A History of Britain is an example of what publishers call “narrative non-fiction” and to succeed in that genre you need to be a competent storyteller. Luckily, Stewart possesses a novelist’s ability to engage the reader’s interest, managing to inject a fairly dry collection of facts with the pace and suspense of a good thriller.
The second is that he has a great unifying theme in the form of Margaret Thatcher. As Stewart points out, no other decade in Britain’s history has been continuously served by one prime minister since William Pitt the Younger in the 1790s. “Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street tenure almost perfectly framed the interviewing decade as if it were her own,” he writes.
It would be an exaggeration to call Stewart a Thatcherite, but he clearly has a good deal of respect for the woman he describes as “the personification of…the guiding spirit of the age”. He shares the verdict of Charles Moore, her official biographer: “She is the only post-war British prime minister (her successors included) who stands for something which is recognized and admired globally.”
Margaret Thatcher’s great achievement, as Stewart makes clear, was to shift the terms of debate, replacing one cross-party consensus with another. Before her, both Labour and the Conservatives accepted the need for economic planning, nationalised industries and an accommodation with Soviet Communism. The most any British government could hope for was “to oversee the orderly management of decline,” as the Sir William Armstrong, the head of the civil service, put it.
After Thatcher’s 11 years in Downing Street, both parties were committed to the free market, opposed to state ownership and firmly believed in the moral superiority of Western capitalism. The defeatism of the 1970s was laid to rest and replaced with a patriotic belief that Britain could continue to punch above its weight.
Stewart’s gripping account of the 1979 general election is instructive in this respect. Callaghan was a moderate, pragmatic man, firmly on the right of the party, yet Labour campaigned on a platform that, by today’s standards, would be regarded as far-out, loony left gobbledegook. Had the party won the election, it would have introduced a wealth tax for everyone worth over £150,000, abolished fee-paying schools and given the Price Commission wide-ranging powers to force shopkeepers to cut prices.
To illustrate just how much the country changed during Thatcher’s period in office, the top rate of tax in 1979 was 83 per cent. Nine years later, it had been reduced to 40 per cent and remained at that level for the next 22 years.
If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that, at 560 pages, it’s a little too long. Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s is an engaging, accessible work and deserves a wide readership. Couldn’t Stewart have filleted his material a little more ruthlessly? My fear is that some people will be put off by the book’s sheer size. One of the enduring legacies of the 1980s is that our attention spans got shorter as a result of the increased pace of everyday life and it would be a great pity if this excellent account of the period was a casualty of that phenomenon.