This is Britain 80-82: Thatcher and understanding modern politics

16 February 2016

Kate Dommett - Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics and Deputy Director of the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield

A full understanding of Thatcher’s legacy arguably needs more than just 3 years

This evening (February 16th) SPERI is delighted to welcome Andy Beckett of The Guardian, for the Sheffield launch of his new book ‘Promised You a Miracle: UK 80-82’.  This event is free of charge and open to all. Kate Dommett, who will introduce Andy’s book at the event, has reviewed the book for SPERI.

Margaret Thatcher at Chequers Some rights reserved by BBC Radio 4.  BBC's picture library on Flickr

How do we, the public, understand politics? As part of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics this question is often at the forefront of my mind and it was particularly prescient when reading Andy Beckett’s book Promised You a Miracle. In this work Beckett analyses political history – and specifically the period 1980 to 1982 – to diagnose a concerted shift in society.  He argues that in this period we can see the rise of ‘a more outward-looking, market-driven, materialistic, mercurial, energetic and colourful, lonely and cruel, charismatic and polarized country’.  To understand contemporary politics it would therefore seem that it is vital to appreciate events in the early 1980s, as the ideas and attitudes developed in these years have a legacy that is still felt today.

In many ways this analysis is extremely persuasive. Those who have not read the book will recognise at an anecdotal level the significance of events in the early 1980s.  For those who experienced unemployment, were able to buy their own council house, or who participated in pickets and strikes, Margaret Thatcher’s government had a profound influence on political attitudes.  Elsewhere, policy decisions transformed state infrastructure and shifts in British culture altered what could be expected from politics.  Beckett’s book traces these changes in detail, using narrative, interviews and reflective analysis to make his argument.

As may be expected, within the book the politics of Thatcher loom large, but unlike other texts on this period Beckett extends his analysis to focus on wider social and cultural change. Discussions of events in the Greater London Assembly, the emergence of Channel 4, change in the UK’s music industry and the regeneration of the London Docklands are used to demonstrate the rise of a new set of desires and ideals.  This allows the reader to appreciate the different views in competition at this time and the often unanticipated sources of social change.  Yet, Thatcherism is the dominant theme of the book, and examples beyond politics are often used to demonstrate the growing resonance of these ideas in society.  Beckett’s description of the British automotive industry, for example, emphasises the desire for an end to national decline, a message that closely echoed the themes picked up in Thatcher’s post Falkland’s message where national renewal and patriotism were pronounced.  Similarly his description of the music industry’s evolution into a more professional, less ‘artistic’ business mirrors the economic ideas and policies promoted by the Thatcher government.  The synergies that emerge throughout the book therefore create the impression that social and political ideas in the 1980s converged, entrenching the ‘more outward-looking, market-driven, materialistic’ politics that Beckett describes.

Whilst persuasive, in reading Beckett’s analysis I was confronted with a recurring question: why these events?

This question comes in two parts; first, why the years 1980 to 1982? As Stephen Farrall noted in his recent review for SPERI, it is difficult to look at any one period in isolation when seeking to understand and interpret events. Hence, to appreciate the significance of the Falklands War you must grasp the period of decline that preceded it and the successive rounds of defence cuts that led to military decline.  In focusing on the opening years of Thatcher’s first government Beckett captures the way in which these ideas were formed and describes much of the confusion and experimentation that led to the government’s policies and positions.  This corrects the idea that Thatcherism was a defined, uncompromising political project from the outset, but because Beckett’s analysis ends in 1982 it is easy to gain the impression that these ideas did not evolve after this period.

Second, why the examples chosen? Although Beckett extends his analysis beyond the familiar discussions of the Falklands and Greenham Common by looking at London Docklands’ regeneration and the automotive industry, I was left wondering whether the story that Beckett tells is a little too neat.  This point is a little unfair as all authors have to advance their case on the basis of certain indicative examples (and Beckett does look at opposition to Thatcherism), but I was interested in why these events were chosen, what was left out the book, and what alternative events might have told us about attitudes and ideas in this period?  Were Thatcherite ideas resonant in certain industries more than others?  Did attitudes change throughout Thatcher’s period in office or were they already entrenched by 1982? These questions are difficult to answer but they suggest that the emphasis on these specific years and events is significant when engaging with Beckett’s argument.

Overall, Andy Beckett’s book offers a fascinating analysis, exploring historical events to trace and understand changes in society and politics. By moving beyond familiar events and considering a wide range of examples Beckett reveals the resonance of ideas now commonly associated with Thatcherism.  And yet, in concluding the book Beckett indicates that the ideas identified in the early 1980s symbolised a burst of energy from which politics has been unable or unwilling to escape from ever since.  Whilst the legacy of Thatcher is clear and the general argument persuasive, the assertion that it was just these three years that proved transformative failed to resonate with me.  Whilst 1980-82 may have seen the emergence of a new set of ideas, it was the development, realisation and entrenchment of these themes over not years but decades that has proved so transformative to British politics.  To focus on these three years alone can help us understand the origins, but as Beckett himself indicates, the evolution of these themes was often far from straightforward.  For this reason it appears that we need to focus on a wider period to truly grasp the form of change and the significance of these ideas for contemporary understandings of politics.

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