Downing St after the disco years

Britain since the Seventies
September 10, 2004

Jeremy Black is a scholar of courage and spirit. His academic reputation is based primarily on his work in 18th-century history. Yet he has not hesitated to break out of the prison walls of his speciality, and his publications include books on such diverse topics as the politics of James Bond, the political significance of maps and the history of the Second World War. This new venture takes him into the tangled field of contemporary British history. He faces, of course, censure, and perhaps even excommunication, by the shop stewards who are coming, increasingly, to dominate the profession, but he is right not to let this deter him, for he has written a lively introduction to the story of Britain in the past 30 years.

His approach is novel and unconventional. The political narrative occupies just two chapters, about a quarter of the book. The bulk of Britain since the Seventies is devoted to charting the social, cultural and environmental changes that, in Black's view, set the basic parameters within which governments have been compelled to operate.

The central themes of the last part of the 20th century are, he believes, consumerism and uncertainty - and they are interconnected, since the growth of the consumer society tended to dissolve social ties founded on religion, deference or the sense of mutuality. "The citizen," Black believes, "thought of himself as a consumer," which in a sense defined his identity:

"I spend therefore I am." There was, in consequence, "a disengagement with social concerns as part of a breakdown of civil society" and a collapse of community spirit. As a result, Britain came to be pervaded with the spirit of uncertainty. So it was that, at the start of a new century and a new millennium, "the British were more prosperous than ever before, but happiness has not risen with prosperity".

The book's preface is titled "The strange death of Tory Britain", an odd description of a 30-year period in which Conservative governments ruled for all but eight years. But Black believes that social change was breaking down the culture of deference to authority on which Tory Britain had been based. "Consumerism," he declares, "played a major role in the democratisation of politics and society." He does not really confront the point that the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher adapted to these changes rather more rapidly than did Labour under James Callaghan, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, nor indeed that Thatcherism is perhaps a portmanteau term for a set of attitudes that enabled the Conservatives to come to terms with modernity. Thus, while the Toryism of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home is irretrievably dead, Thatcherism could well be resurrected in a new guise. It is no doubt too early to tell.

This book's account of social change is somewhat breathless - it devotes just six pages to crime, five to health and two to the information revolution - the general effect is rather helter-skelter, and much of the narrative on British politics that follows is standard fare. Nevertheless, a great deal can be forgiven because of the verve and enthusiasm with which Black writes. Britain since the Seventies can be recommended with confidence to anyone wanting an introductory overview of modern Britain.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University.

Britain since the Seventies: Politics and Society in the Consumer Age

Author - Jeremy Black
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 228
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 1 86189 201 2

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