The birth of modern Britainby / August 28, 2015 / Leave a comment
I have a short review of a new book by the Guardian journalist Andy Beckett in the latest issue of Prospect. “Promised You a Miracle” UK 80-82,” the sequel to “When the Lights Went Out,” Beckett’s magisterial history of the 1970s, is an “anatomy of the years 1980-82 and the first stirrings of what he calls Thatcherism’s ‘revolution in the head’.” One of the strengths of the book, it seems to me, is that Beckett doesn’t write conventional political history: he looks for intimations of the Thatcher revolution in the pop culture of the period as well as its high politics; in architecture and design as well as the arguments among economists that raged with particular intensity in those years—Martin Fry is as important to the story he’s telling as Milton Friedman.
When I met Beckett in London recently, he told me that this is a book about the birth pangs of a new world.
AB: In some ways it’s about an early version of the Britain of now being born. And there are glimmerings of that new world already in the late Seventies, and that’s why the book goes back into the Seventies here and there. I guess the argument of the book is that this is when the new world comes into view, and that what happens later in the Eighties, even though it’s incredibly important, is more about the sketch being filled in.
JD: How do you see the relationship between this book and its predecessor, When the Lights Went Out, which is about the 1970s? This book covers a much more narrowly circumscribed period than that one.
Part of the fascination of the period for me is that what you might crudely call Thatcherism or the “New Britain” is appearing in some areas, in pop music for example, in 1979/80, whereas in other areas, such as trade unions, it’s barely appeared by 1983, because the anti-union legislation is only just starting. So these changes are not happening in a uniform way, and that’s quite interesting. One of the things the book is interested in is the different speeds at which society changes in different areas of life.
You’re not just talking about politics are you? You describe the changes that took place in this period as a “revolution in the head”. As Thatcher herself put it, “economics are the method, the object is to change the soul.”
When I wrote my book about the Seventies, I deliberately didn’t write very much about culture, because I felt so much had already been said about the culture of the Seventies as a way of getting at the politics. And I didn’t want to write about the Clash. I wanted to write about what was going on when the Clash were making their albums. For the Seventies, I thought, “Let’s deal with the thing people often don’t write about—the actual politics.” But in this period, it’s the opposite: the culture of the period is slightly forgotten, because the culture later in the Eighties is so bombastic and brassy that it blots out this part. Also, I think culture is sometimes politics by other means. I think it’s very much the case in this period that people are not necessarily being consciously political at all, but through expressing themselves in pop music, design or whatever, all kinds of things are coming out.
That’s very much the case with Martin Fry of ABC, who you discuss at some length. His left-wing political commitments remain firmly in place as he abandons post-punk for its glossier, more optimistic successor, the “New Pop”.
Intelligent pop musicians like Martin Fry were quite tormented about it—they felt they were being pulled in two directions. I didn’t want to be finger-pointing and say that these people were hypocrites or that they were secret Thatcherites. I think this is actually how human beings often experience politics. You’re getting richer but your politics may remain on the left. Particularly in London, you see that everywhere. Where I live in London, my street is full of advertising executives who still vote Labour and will vote for Jeremy Corbyn. It’s complex.
One thinks of 1980-82 as an astonishingly tumultuous period politically—on both left and right, and in Britain’s inner cities, which burned in the summer of 1981. But just as important in the story you tell are things like the London Docklands Development Corporation, Channel Four and independent television production companies. Why do you devote so much attention to them?
Some of it was about being interested in people who were transforming their own lives and how that changed their worldview, their politics. So the people working in the independent production company I picked out start as lefties and end up briefing Thatcher. So it’s partly a way to tell that story of personal transformation. During a lot of the period I’m writing about, Thatcher and Thatcherism were incredibly unpopular—not just with people on the left, but with people in Britain generally. Thatcherism was a minority faith. And yet I’ve always been interested, since my twenties, in the fact that, yes, she [Thatcher] was very unpopular, but on some level what she was proposing was taking root in people’s heads. To be speculative, had Labour one the election in 1983, if the Falklands hadn’t happened, I suspect that a Labour government would have had to take account of that—that Britain was becoming a more individualist, consumerist society and that this was something that whoever was in government was going to have to come to terms with.
And you think some of that change had already begun before Thatcher came to power don’t you?
I think a lot of this is already happening in the Seventies. The incomes of average citizens are very robust. The apocalyptic narrative of the Seventies, which I have a problem with, reflects a crisis of the elite. The elite in the Seventies are having a bad time because taxes are high for wealthy people. The elite’s world was closing in and that’s why they were gloomy. But for a lot of working-class and middle-class people in the Seventies—unemployment was low, inflation was high but so were pay settlements, people had the money, particularly in the second half of the Seventies when the economy was better, to become interested in buying their own home, having a bigger car.
In places like Milton Keynes, the planners, who saw themselves as being on the left, were trying to find some kind of socialism that took account of people’s increasing need for private space. Part of the story in the late Seventies and early Eighties that interests me is those people on the left who were trying to deal with modernity in that way. The left in that period has been characterised as being rather hair-shirted and bewildered by consumerism. But I think the more thoughtful people were quite engaged in that. For example, Gavyn Davies, who worked in the [Number 10] policy unit for [James] Callaghan, was very interested in privatising council housing. They [Labour] would have done it rather differently from Thatcher, but essentially it was the same idea—that people want to own their own home. He was absolutely aghast when Callaghan wouldn’t do it. And he was equally aghast when Thatcher did do it.
You alluded just now to “declinist” accounts of Britain’s predicament in the late Seventies. I want to be clear about your attitude to that kind of narrative, partly because there are left-wing versions of it, as well as right-wing ones—there’s Andrew Gamble, for example, as well as Correlli Barnett. Although you’re sceptical of full-blown declinism, you’re not saying, against considerable evidence to the contrary, that the Keynesian settlement hadn’t hit a dead-end by the end of the 1970s are you?
The fact that living standards for most Britons in the 1970s were probably growing more than they had done in the previous 60 or 70 years didn’t mean the economic model wasn’t in trouble—there are lags. You might be getting the last three or four good pay settlements from a factory that is then going to be shut because of [competition from] Japan. So there’s a lag—that’s partly what’s going on.
I do think that Britain was in trouble in the Seventies in the sense that foreign competition was a real threat. The surge in unemployment begins in the late Seventies. There are those problems. And I think Keynesianism was yielding diminishing returns. But where I part company with the declinists is that they don’t take sufficiently into account the experiences of different classes, different groups. They’re obsessed by the elite, who are over-represented in the evidence. Britain had problems and there had to be a change at the end of the Seventies, but there were different routes out of it. We can see what’s happened to other rich countries since the Seventies. There hasn’t been a Thatcher, whatever that means, in France, Germany or Italy.
What’s important is that in the late Seventies and early Eighties a lot of people thought there was decline. Even if they were wrong it was in their heads. One of the things this book tries to explore is the readiness of people to hear a new story about Britain—they were quite receptive by 1980-81. The SDP is a case in point. By 1981, which is a really awful year in all kinds of ways, people are ready to hear the SDP, Ken Livingstone, Thatcher—all kinds of people with rescue plans were suddenly getting a hearing.
But as you mentioned earlier, Thatcher’s position in 1981 was deeply precarious wasn’t it?
The government’s economic strategy appeared to backfiring and Thatcher was very unpopular with the public. She was massively outnumbered, both in the Cabinet and in the wider parliamentary Conservative party, by people who weren’t Thatcherites. Even some of her closest advisers, key intellectuals like John Hoskyns, were very, very gloomy. There was a degree of exasperation. She was in a real corner.
The riots in 1981 are very important. As we know from what’s happened subsequently, when a government loses control of the streets, even if it’s only for a few days, the public really don’t like it. They think the first job of government is to protect law and order and they aren’t doing it. That was fantastically damaging. The right-wing press were really appalled by the riots—partly by the behaviour of the rioters, but also by Thatcher’s inability to deal with them.
And then, in the standard narrative, everything changed with the Falklands War.
I think the Falklands is very important. Once the Falklands had been invaded by Argentina, for Thatcher not to have dealt with the situation effectively would have been really damaging. Once the crisis had started, she had to do something quite dramatic to get herself out of that hole. So the Falklands is important, but it’s clear that the economy was already recovering a little bit. And Thatcher’s unpopularity, while still awful, was not quite as bad as it had been.
But unemployment was still going up. It hit 3m in January 1982.
Right. Unemployment doesn’t start falling until ’86-7. But there are things in the economy that are [already] slightly better in ’82. And some people will say that it was all coming right. A lot of Conservatives will tell you now that it was all coming right and that the Falklands was just the cherry on the cake. But I’m not persuaded by that. And a lot of Thatcher’s closest advisers, people like Hoskyns, when I asked them said, “Maybe we’d have got a hung parliament without the Falklands, but it wasn’t coming right quickly enough.”
I think the Falklands is really pivotal, because it was a mess of the Thatcher government’s making. That’s something that’s rather lost to history but it’s very important for people to realise quite how incompetent the Thatcher policy on the Falklands had been for the first two or three years that she was Prime Minister. She refused to protect the Falklands militarily. The whole game of bluff that Britain had been playing with Argentina over the Falklands for 20 years, which had been played very effectively by people like Jim Callaghan, who forestalled an Argentinian invasion in the late Seventies by sending a taskforce in secret—Thatcher got that whole delicate balancing act wrong.
There’s a lot about London in this book—for good historical reasons. This period saw the beginning of the great divergence between London and the rest of the country. The book opens with a description of the designer Ron Arad setting himself up in Covent Garden, which in 1981, although the redevelopment of the old fruit and veg market had begun, still had some “shabby, half-abandoned side streets”.
I was interested in the Arad story because it seemed to encapsulate a lot of the impatience for change and of things happening quite fast in the early Eighties. One fascination of the period for me is things happening very quickly. Whereas in the Seventies, it’s like storm clouds gathering on the horizon—these big narratives build up in a dramatic way, but they’re slow. Whereas in the early Eighties things happen fast. Ron Arad decides one lunchtime to quit his job as a trainee architect and become a furniture designer. Covent Garden interested me—the landscape of Britain in the early Eighties [was] a landscape in transition. Once the fruit and veg market had gone, Covent Garden was quite a rundown place, but by the early Eighties there were also quite glossy things appearing. Covent Garden then was quite an interesting mix. Today I’m obsessed by the tiny traces of the early Eighties that are left there.
This is a time when London starts to become dominant again. It’s when the population of London stops falling. A lot of the energy [in this period] was back in London, whereas in the Sixties and Seventies somewhere like Granada TV in Manchester was somewhere where a lot of hot television people would have gone. In the Eighties, it’s Channel Four, which is London.
You make a very persuasive case for the years 1980-82 being the crucible of the Britain we live in today—politically, culturally and in other ways. But one bit of the story of modern Britain that had barely begun in this period is the extraordinary expansion of banking and financial services. You do discuss the City of London, but it’s not a central part of your narrative is it?
No. There are glimmerings [in this period] of what we come to know as the City of London of the Eighties, but things like “Big Bang” haven’t happened yet. And I didn’t want to say that everything in modern Britain is contained in this period. And anyway, a lot of the important developments in the City happened in the Seventies—the expansion of foreign exchange dealing happened then. It’s fascinating that the people running London in the early Eighties, in the GLC, weren’t thinking about the City at all. Ken Livingstone’s economics people, who were quite far-sighted about how London was changing, never went to the City. And that’s an interesting blindspot. It’s interesting that even the more forward-thinking people on the left didn’t see it coming.
I’m really interested in historical lags. I wanted to ask, at what point in the Eighties did the Seventies stop? In some areas of life, very late. People weren’t thinking about the City because industry in Britain in the Eighties, even though it’s in rapid decline, is enormous compared to industry now. It’s amazing how long things hang around.
Andy Beckett’s “Promised You a Miracle: UK 80-82” is published by Allen Lane (£20)