Lead book review

For millennials, pre-Thatcher Britain must seem another — quite mystifying — country

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

Lymeswold; Hi-de-Hi!; nuclear-free zones; Walkmans; the Metro; Red Robbo; the SDP; Michael Foot’s Cenotaph donkey-jacket; Protest and Survive; Steve Davis and Hurricane Higgins; Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett; hunger strikes; Red Ken and Fare’s Fair; ‘On your bike’; Lady Diana; ‘hog-whimpering drunk’; Chariots of Fire; Beefy Botham; ‘The lady’s not for turning’; the Peterborough Effect; Spectrum computers; ‘Gotcha!’; ‘We are not Britain. We are the BBC.’ Councillor Jeremy Corbyn.

Merely to repeat these names and phrases, all drawn from this, the fifth in Dominic Sandbrook’s great chronicle of Britain since the 1950s, is to re-enter the period. It encompasses the first three years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership up to and including her victory in the Falklands (which brought us the new word ‘yomp’). Indeed, for those who remember that time, it would make sense just to turn this review into one long list of the many phenomena Sandbrook deploys. It all comes flooding back.

Younger — i.e. most — readers, however, need things explained a bit. They will wish to be assured that, despite strong evidence to the contrary, Lymeswold was a cheese. They may find it hard to believe that a national newspaper (the Times) could have shut down for nearly a year because the unions resisted new technology or that, from August to October 1979, roughly half of British television (the ITV network) did not broadcast at all because the technicians’ union rejected a pay rise of 15 per cent. They may puzzle over the fact that the young Sheffield council leader, David Blunkett, recruited two officials to ‘describe to potential [council-house] buyers the disadvantages of home ownership’.

I sometimes have doubts about the historical value of books which aim to link every aspect of society at a particular time to every other aspect. It seems to me too easy for an author to take, say, hemlines, motorway service stations, foreign holidays or sitcoms and identify them as evidence for whatever generalisations (often political ones) he might wish to make.

Related problems are an over-dependence on secondary sources (though, as one for this period, I should not complain) rather than primary research, and an exaggerated attention to old newspapers as a key to the zeitgeist. Fiction, which does not need evidence, can be more adroit in capturing a particular time than laborious efforts to impose shape upon often amorphous facts.

Nevertheless, the two best-known practitioners in this field of post-war Britain, David Kynaston and Sandbrook himself, do much to quell my objections. They use different methods. Kynaston mostly treats conventional, mainstream history, especially politics, as noises off. His technique is to weave an enormous quilt out of ordinary life and leave the readers to enjoy its details and find their own implications. Sandbrook stays closer to the big political narrative, but locates it always in a wider social context rather than just by-election swings and Westminster roundabouts.

It is not sensible to try to work out which approach is better than the other, but certainly the Sandbrook method is well suited to the period under discussion in this volume. The years 1979–82 were a time of exceptionally dramatic change, embodied in a change of leader. Hence the title of the book, which applies the motto of the SAS to the political realm. It is notoriously considered poor taste — as Michael Portillo later discovered at a Conservative party conference — to try to compare political leadership to the boldness of British special forces in life-and-death situations, but once you have read this book you will see that its title works.

Aged 23 in 1980, I had not even heard of the SAS until, visiting by chance a friend in a hospital nearby, I encountered the commotion as the men from Hereford raised the siege of the Iranian embassy in Princes Gate, killing five of the six Arab-Iranian hostage-takers after abseiling in through the windows. They had done this on the orders of Margaret Thatcher (though not before she had agonised over the decision). The previously almost secret unit became a household name. For the rest of the 1980s, images of the prime minister in black combat gear swinging through the Georgian windows of the Cabinet Room to assail her colleagues became part of every cartoonist’s stock in trade.

At the time of Princes Gate, Mrs Thatcher had been less than a year in office. Almost everything was going badly for her. But Sandbrook rightly takes the SAS coup as an early sign that things would be different this time. This applied chiefly to economic reform — especially the 1981 Budget and the subsequent bitter public spending round — and to trade union reform. It culminated, however, in the Falklands war. It does seem reasonable to suppose that no other British political leader would have dared send the Task Force to the South Atlantic. Daring and winning did go together. ‘The whole thing is a Tory plot to keep their money-making friends in business,’ was the verdict of young Mr Corbyn in a rousing address to a Hornsey Council meeting.

Although Sandbrook concentrates on quite a short period of history, he is good on the wider context. He describes vividly the dismay of workers in heavy-industrial areas whose businesses were often wiped out by Mrs Thatcher’s high interest rates, but he also explains how deep the decline had been for many years. And while he airs powerful descriptions of northern misery by good writers such as Jeremy Seabrook and Ian Jack (the latter happily still with us), he also pays attention to the places which got less ink precisely because they were doing pretty well — Milton Keynes, for example, Peterborough (the city with the Effect) or Basingstoke: ‘Nobody ever romanticised Basingstoke. But Basingstoke was a success story.’

There was gain as well as loss — council house sales and compulsory secret ballots before strikes being two of the best-known positives — the former often made possible by the latter. New people, long held back, were being empowered. The great point about the defeat of Red Robbo (Derek Robinson), the Communist shop steward at the British Leyland plant in Longbridge, was that it was accomplished by his fellow workers, not by the government.

This jolting atmosphere of change at once fiercely resisted and happily embraced may account for the weird shifts of public mood which Sandbrook captures well. In April 1981, walking cautiously through the Brixton streets, I heard the crash of shop windows breaking and rioters roaring appreciatively. For the first time ever outside Northern Ireland, Brixton made it almost customary to use violence not only against riot police, but also against emergency workers such as ambulance teams and firemen. On the other hand, one hot night in July, when the Tube was so packed that I thought I would die, the huge crowds who had come to watch the fireworks for Charles and Diana’s wedding were as calm, cheerful and friendly as one could possibly imagine.

Mrs Thatcher herself overused Dickens’s famous opening line of A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, but she may have been right to summon up the echoes of a revolution.

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