Saturday 8 June 2013

The last throw of the dice?

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s, by Graham Stewart (Atlantic Books, 2013)

One of publishing’s recent heavy hitters, in every sense, has been the history of post-war Britain. A succession of chunky volumes has come along to dissect the various eras which comprise it, and this book is the latest addition to the field. What does it say about an era which has been despised on several fronts - political, economic, cultural – but whose sneer-by date has now been passed and which is ripe for re-evaluation?

Stewart — a senior research fellow of the Humanities Research Institute at Buckingham University -takes us through familiar themes: the economic problems of the 19705 with their attendant strikes, Northern Ireland, the Falklands’ War, privatisation, and the poll tax, with Mrs Thatcher taking centre stage. In the midst of these well-trodden territories he unearths some vantage points which provide different perspectives from the standard ones given of Britain’s painful adaption to the free market, and the response of the Labour Party to policies, including defence ones, which sought to give Britain a firmer world image. For instance, he mentions a 1982 survey which found that the magazines stocked by a newsagent in unemployment-hit Wigan showed little local taste for left-wing journalism (and, by extension, ideologies). There were monthly sales of seven copies of Tribune, 12 of Labour Weekly, 13 of the New Statesman, 22 of the Investors Chronicle and 36 of The Lady. And peace-loving Labour Party supporters might have been shocked and disillusioned by Neil Kinnock’s boasts about leaving ‘blood and vomit’ on a lavatory floor when he successfully defended himself against attack from a supporter of Tony Benn during a particularly vicious leadership contest.

The architectural and cultural features of the time are also examined by Stewart. With architecture, Stewart gives a positive name-check to Dr David Watkin’s book Morality and Architecture which, arguably, spearheaded the attack on some of Modernism’s intellectual pretensions to being a vehicle for social improvement. While the architectural establishment hated Prince CharIes’s jeremiads against its works, he spoke for a substantial proportion of the public at large. Stewart reminds us that there was a rejection of Modernism, not only by the public, who’d never been keen on it anyway, but also by local authorities which adopted the playful externals of Post-Modernism as a cheap way of prettying-up decaying council estates. Despite complaints within the arts’ establishment about the effects of government funding cuts, Stewart shows that diverse sections of the arts flourished with the aid of the private sector: the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was able to expand when it moved into an abandoned private school. Combined private sector sponsorship plus public funding from bodies such as the Arts Council helped expand the arts in London. There were other successes. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra achieved international recognition while the Sadler’ s Wells Royal Ballet eventually took up residence at the Birmingham Hippodrome: the Birmingham Royal Ballet was the result.

Stewart doesn’t neglect popular culture. Discussing humour, he points-out that true comedic anarchy was to be found, not among the purveyors of ‘right-on’ left-wing comedy such as Ben Elton, but between the pages of the comic magazine Viz, with its cast of characters including feminist campaigner Millie Tant and hedonistic girls The Fat Slags. He says, correctly, that the phenomenon of style-tribes — such as mods, rockers and punks — whose members dressed like the bands they followed, was still strong in the eighties but died-out in the following decades. However, there are connections which could be made here but which aren’t. He’s generally kind about those long-standing villains of Pop culture, the New Romantics who, although simply continuing the good work of seventies’ glam rockers Bowie, Ferry and Bolan, had the misfortune to be seen as the enemies of the punks, whose general bad behaviour had given them a heroic status among left-wing music journalists, (although punk antics arguably had more to do with teenage fun than politics and, indeed, the movement’ s original leaders went on to found the New Romantic scene).

But Stewart is critical of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman (SAW) ‘hit factory’ which produced catchy pop music by the likes of Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley: yet the whole SAW phenomenon can be seen as a logical outcome of the New Romantics bringing a sense of tuneful, glamorous pleasure back into music after its politicisation in the late seventies by bands like the Clash, and the Rock Against Racism movement. He rightly points out that illegal open-air raves, the source of much moral panic in the late eighties, were a cause of genuine concern on health and safety grounds rather than because of a killjoy spirit on the part of the authorities, as well as being hotbeds of DIY capitalism (as had been the New Romantic scene). But he could have suggested that their financial side was a harbinger of the whole ‘Cool Britannia’ scenario which New Labour would skilfully exploit in its appeal to people who had done well financially out of the eighties but who wished to appear cool rather than money-grabbing.

And it’s in not making connections like these that Stewart fails to do himself full justice. At the outset, he outlines the challenges which he faces in his work of examination: the ramifications of clashing ideologies; the dangers of judgement being clouded by personal memories of the period (Stewart was a Scottish teenager for most of the eighties); the dangers of possibly unreliable memories from the movers and shakers of the era. In one way these caveats strengthen his approach, so that he treads with careful confidence through material the ramifications of which we cannot begin to fully evaluate, at least, as far as politics and economics are concerned, for some decades. However, it is difficult not to feel that some hypotheses, however tentative, might have been suggested here. For instance, after the Liverpool riots of 1981, Mrs Thatcher let Michael Heseltine carry-out job-creation initiatives involving combined public-private input which showed that neither the state nor the private sector could, by themselves, provide solutions to unemployment.

Stewart also points out that, while Mrs Thatcher was committed to the free market, she was shocked at the size of bankers’ pay. He doesn’t seem to consider whether these unreconciled points indicate that she hadn’t fully thought-out her economic ideas and lacked a coherent philosophy. He mentions how the Conservative Philosophy Group, involving Cambridge academics such as Roger Scruton, John Casey, Maurice Cowling and Edward Norman, helped to build a bridge between High Tories and classical liberal economists. But there is no discussion about why the conservatives as a whole failed even to try to change the intellectual as well as the economic culture of Britain, or indeed, if they saw any need for a hearts-and-minds campaign on this front. As Stewart reminds us, Thatcher thought that economics would bring about a change the nation’s character, but this didn’t happen, and she failed to change the majority attitude about the value of public services over private endeavour.

Meanwhile, a combination of tax-and-spend economics and political correctness would hold sway in the civil and public services and other mainstream public bodies such as the churches and larger charities. The ideological blood of political correctness and state spending was thicker than the languid water of low taxes and scepticism about theoretical political panaceas which seemed to be the high-water mark of conventional conservative thought. A final point which could have been made was the way conservative politicians’ fears over the effects of Mrs Thatcher‘ s policies, in particular the poll-tax — and which led to her fall — mirrored the same lack of resolution which Tories had displayed about Edward Heath’s anti-union stand and which, ultimately, can be said to have contributed to his downfall. (Many commentators concentrate on the differences between Heath and Thatcher, but few on their similarities as ambitious grammar school outsiders with a background in trade, battling through class and sexual prejudice and against national torpor.) Stewart considers that the end of Mrs Thatcher’s final term of office marked the end of the eighties. is he entirely correct here? Certainly, cultural decades don’t fit symmetrically with calendar ones and it can be said that - in the field of youth culture —the eighties effectively ended in 1987 with the coming of the rave scene and the end of New Romanticism’s hierarchical hedonism. But — politically and economically — is he correct in his estimation?

It could be said that the nineties were simply a continuation of the eighties, but with a veneer of caring capitalism and political correctness. Indeed, a question arises: were the two decades, combined, perhaps the last throw of the dice of post-war optimism which, arguably, ended between the fall of the Berlin Wall (unleashing religious and political hatreds thought to have been extinguished under Soviet rule) and - via 9/11 - the financial collapse of 2008?

While it’s too early to make any final judgement on the Thatcher legacy, Stewart gives two future markers for it. He points out that, as a result of her policies, Britain was the trendsetter for globalisation whilst her Victorian values of thrift, self-help and saving were ‘mocked to scorn in the age of leverage.’ Only when we see how the global economy — and Britain’s place within it — shapes-up in the long term may we start to have an effective evaluation. In the meantime, this book gives us plenty of pathways to explore for guidance, even if they lead us in directions not fully expected by its author.


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