Decade-defined books of recent history have recently become a popular sub- genre. Measuring the distance between ourselves and the recent past presents a particular challenge to historians: the need to avoid writing a journalistic chronicle, and at the same time to situate the period in the longer term of both slow change and sudden rupture.
If “the 1980s” exist in the common imagination, it is due in part to the fact that a number of recent books on the 1980s - by Richard Vinen and Andy McSmith, among others - have portrayed these years as a revolutionary decade: one that changed British politics and culture for ever and that marks the start of our contemporary age. In some of these accounts, a celebratory account of the 1980s is presented, one that stresses the historical necessity of the rampant economic changes of the decade: the adoption of monetarism, large-scale privatisation, the stand-off with the unions and de-industrialisation.
In Bang!, Graham Stewart discusses this economic transformation and much more: Britain in the final decade of the Cold War, urban decline and pop culture. His account, while impressively researched and elegantly written, ultimately fails to offer a distinct and new perspective on what remains a decade of contradictions, marked by political violence and social inequality as much as by stabilisation and cultural renewal.
Stewart attempts to grasp the cultural shift by which a consensus was created among political elites and mainstream public opinion that was in favour, or at least accepting, of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. Whether such a consensus was indeed formed is taken for granted rather than evidenced, as little attention goes out to dissenting voices beyond party-political debate.
Possessing a detailed understanding of government debate, the author offers a number of well-made points - for instance, on the contradictions of Thatcher’s crafting of the “conviction politician” image, and on the disagreements over nuclear strategy between the UK and the US at the end of the decade. The socio-economic analysis is, however, at times too partial to be entirely convincing. There is the cherry-picking of factual data, aimed at sustaining the overall argument that throughout the decade society was “becoming more integrated”, offering opportunities for those willing to grasp them. It is noted, for instance, that the replacement of grammar schools with comprehensives offered new opportunities for the many; however, the consistently growing number of pupils in fee-paying schools in England is glossed over. Elsewhere it is stressed that the number of women in employment rose, but the widening gender pay gap in some sectors remains underanalysed.
Apparent throughout the book is a reluctance to investigate the lives of those at the lower end of the social ladder, those facing discrimination or injustice. It reveals itself in Stewart’s discussion of the miners’ strike, which, although it effectively evokes the drama of the moment, fails to capture the voices of those actually on strike, beyond union leaders. It also pervades the section on the urban riots in Bristol and Brixton in 1980-81, where Stewart’s brief focus on government responses would have benefited from being accompanied by a fuller account of racism and inequality of opportunity.
Thus, amid the emerging celebratory consensus on the 1980s, an opportunity has been missed to present the non-expert public with something different: a social history of Britain in the 1980s. Such an analysis would dig deeper into the ways in which people’s lives changed during the years marked by, above all, the rise in the number of people living on or barely above the poverty line (about one-third of households in 1983, with not much improvement after this) and the growth of earnings inequality.
The author’s convictions, revealed in statements such as “the impartial logic of the market”, seem to hinder a historicisation of the 1980s: an endeavour that would require stepping outside its ideological parameters. That many among us remain unable to do this is perhaps the strongest indication of the decade’s most lasting legacy.
Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s
By Graham Stewart
Atlantic Books, 560pp, £25.00
Published 1 January 2013