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on 26 October 2010

No such thing as society. Andy McSmith

This book, from Independent writer Andy McSmith, is designed to be a portrait of Britain (or to be more honest, England) in the 1980's. It is questionable whether it can be called a history as such, as, firstly, too many actors on the national stage at that time are still with us, and, secondly, as we are only now moving year by year to the release of official papers under the 30 year rule.

But as a portrait of a period still fresh in the mind of many, it is a useful volume. If, like me, you accept the theory of 'long wave' economic cycles driven by technological change, it shows how the 1980's, at home and across the globe, was a decade marked by the ebbing of the old economy and the growth of the new replacement.

In the UK such change was inevitable, but the pace of that change was still largely determined by human and institutional agencies. In the UK that mean only one person, one who stalks every chapter of this book, Margaret Thatcher. Like Lloyd George before she came into political life as a provincial outsider and walked largely alone. Like Lloyd George she too became a dynamic force for changem if not for the general good.

She remade the UK in a new image. She rode the surf of technological change with firm, but limited conviction. The very shape of the country has altered as a result, McSmith omits, oddly, the one appearance that above all, typified this - the iconic 'walk on the wasteland' where, handbagged and in unsuitable shoes, she strode over the ruins of a collapsed heavy engineering works that only a decade before was one of the largest suppliers of steel and iron making plant in the world. Today, on that site, we no longer see buildings that house manufacturing, but a rather featureless office park housing the back office functions of the finance industry. Such change was and is typical of our new landscape.

Andy McSmith takes us on a canter through this changing social and economic landscape and is good at pointing out vignettes of the time that have come back to haunt us today. He gives us potted histories of the three crucial episodes that marked Margaret Thatcher's decade - the Falklands War, the defeat of the Miners and the Poll Tax - and this acts as a useful primer for the coming years when (hopefully) state papers covering these episodes emerge. How useful these will be is doubtful; as I suspect the security services will have a heavy vetting role in the first two. Questions will continue to haunt us about the degree of importance to which the defence chiefs gave the fog shrouded islands islands in the South Atlantic, and given that even after nearly two centuries we still know little about how the secret state infiltrated the Chartists and the infant Left, what chance of knowing how they dealt with the NUM in that most spook ridden strike of 1984-85 ?

McSmith, as a journalist is also strong and readable on the little incidents of life which shone across the decades. He cites the long forgotten Beaconsfield by election which in a safe Conservative seat, and fought at the height of the jingoism and crude populism of the Falklands War, was surely of little import. Correct, except for one thing. The Labour candidate, a certain Mr A C L Blair, certainly absorbed the feelings of the electorate at that time. Whether this was a factor that was later played out in Basra and Fallujah is a moot point.

Indeed, what is fascinating is the way that this book illustrates how far away our present dilemmas and fears are from the 1980's. In the Index, in the space where we would expect to find 'Islam', we find merely a blank space between the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and Israel (and the sole entry for that country relates to a Special AKA single on the aftermath of the Lebanon incursion).

As said this is both a useful primer for the heavier and more specialised histories which will emerge in the coming decade, and also a good read for anyone under the age of 25 who wants to learn more about what formed the world they will be inheriting.

I have one factual correction to make however. Andy McSmith, in his fascinating instancing of the birth of 'Only Fools and Horses' says that the series invented two brand new slang terms; 'plonker' and 'wally'. Wrong. As a young teenager living not so far from Peckham, I can remember both terms which originate from a part of the male body - a Wally, by the way, being a short cucumber which was a staple part of the London kosher diet.

David Walsh
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on 16 December 2011
For anyone old enough to have an adult memory of the 1980s, this book is a marvel, reminding us what an extraordinary decade we all lived through. Half forgotten memories are given fresh life as you turn the pages - and turn them you will, given the fast pace, the lovely writing and the way the material is organised. And then there is the stuff that passed you by - the details you missed at the time,or which have come to light since. Margaret Thatcher lambasting her home secretary over incompetence in the search for the Yorkshire Ripper and having to be dissuaded from racing up to Yorkshire to take personal charge of the investigation... as the author points out, this was in Hugo Young's biography of the Iron Lady, but how many readers will either come upon the anecdote for the first time, or have forgotten it?
Politics, pop, crime, counter-culture, economics, the miners' strike - this wonderful pocket history covers it all in one effortless read.
And for those too young to remember the 1980s, what an enviable way to learn. Entertaining, informative - Andy Marr is right, it is hard to think how this could be improved upon.
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VINE VOICEon 28 August 2011
Politicians and journalists love sound bites. Even when they're incorrectly quoted, or taken out of context, they provide political ammunition. Harold Wilson's "the pound in your pocket" haunted him although Wilson's actual phrasing was different. Similarly McSmith takes Thatcher's words out of context and edits them to support his characterisation of Thatcherism, "that in order to maximise economic efficiency, it was necessary to destroy many of the social ties that kept people in interdependency." He cites Thatcher as saying, "the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves" but removed the rest of the sentence which read, " and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate." Thus, "No such thing as society" was a re-statement of nineteenth century liberal individualism rather than the "let them eat cake" message implied by McSmith.

McSmith claims that "after ten years of upheaval and bewildering change, the British decided that they would rather there was such a thing as society and turned to less driven, more conciliatory leaders, who did not alarm them with that kind of thought." They did no such thing. It was sections of the Conservative Party which forced Thatcher from office not the British people.The essence of Thatcher's complaint was that some people believed the world owed them a living and made no attempt to earn a living themselves. Twenty years later the coalition government is grappling with the same problem of changing the culture of welfare dependency which remains an obstacle to self-help, enterprise and the reduction of the public debt.

McSmith's book reflects the rarified atmosphere within which the nation's self-appointed opinion makers protect themselves from the harsh reality of life. He reveals this by mistaking tittle-tattle for knowledge. Sir Ron Bell dying in his Commons office while having sex with a woman other than his wife was hidden from public view. The suggestion that Enoch Powell was a repressed homosexual was gossip. McSmith describes Peter Tatchell's defeat in Bermondsey in 1983 as "a festival of homophobia" while ignoring the impact of Tatchell's supercilious, compulsive and self-serving personality. He was a bad candidate standing on behalf of a divided party. The veteran parliamentary candidate Screaming Lord Such noted Tatchell, "seemed to think all he needed to do to become the MP was turn up at the count." In 1984 Matthew Parris came out in a late-night debate in the House of Commons but nobody noticed. Whereas McSmith appears to be "blindly convinced" that anti-immigration and opposition to "gay rights" represented the core of right-wing politics, the public itself was apathetic towards homosexuality, stirred only by media comments about AIDS and its impact on public health.

Thatcher was a conviction politician. Her convictions were based on self-interest rather than ideology. She became Conservative leader because of Heath's refusal to step aside and allow Willie Whitelaw to succeed him, resigning only when Thatcher beat him on the first ballot. She grew into the role of Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minster by hard work and attention to detail. She gradually removed the non-monetarist "wets" from the Cabinet replacing them with those she described as "one of us". She was dominant but became domineering, treating those around her with disdain as she won successive elections. It proved to be her undoing when the much put-upon Geoffrey Howe made a devastating resignation speech which was an indictment of her leadership and policies. Michael Heseltine immediately declared his candidature for the Conservative leadership and Thatcher's days were numbered.

McSmith's weakness lies in the undue emphasis he places on peripheral and his view of it. The New Romantics were fashionable for five years leaving no permanent heritage. TV comedy was funny because it provided escapism rather than because it was true. Live Aid promoted the foul mouthed Bob Geldorf but made little difference to the misery of the Ethiopian famine. Some considered the humanitarian aid effort prolonged the war while others claimed it was corruptly siphoned off and did not reach the people who needed it. While Geldorf has remained committed to attacking poverty he often gives the impression he was the person who put it on the political agenda and disparages the work of others in the field. McSmith rightly identifies the impact of Michael Buerk's television report in changing government policy. McSmith highlights the shady world of the egotistical Mark Thatcher and points to the unresolved dilemma faced by the Left over Salman Rushdie's The Satantic Verses. Ironically the book is now available on market stalls for £3 but free speech remains in the hands of the opinionated.

McSmith's reference to cultural disharmony under-estimates the importance of politics and the role of self-interest in society as a whole. Militant Tendency placed Liverpool in hock to the satisfaction of their core electorate who were living in newly built homes without responsibility for their cost. Thatcher defeated Scargill, rather than the miners he tried to mould into a revolutionary force, because the miners and public opinion increasingly equated the strike with Scargill's own ego. Similarly, she stood firm against the IRA's attacks on democracy, showing Churchillian courage by addressing the Conservative Party Conference only hours after the Brighton bombing.

Ironically, her strength proved to be her eventual undoing when she concluded that she alone was right about everything. This led to the introduction of the Poll Tax which looked sound on paper but failed in practice as Michael Heseltine predicted it would. McStay has written a journalistic account of the 1980s but he has not written a history book. Worth four stars for the entertainment.
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on 20 November 2012
This is an easy to read book of an eventful decade. Having grown up through it I must admit at the time I did not think that much of it. Now being able to compare to that decade, our present situation excluding the odd hiccup seems quite tame.

The book summarises a lot of what those years were about and the characters and events that made them. Comedians, rock stars, politicians and of course Margaret Thatcher. Who remembers Arthur Scargill pushing for miners to strike and all the strikes that we had to endure (rightly or wrongly); CND and Greenham Common and the proests about US Cruise missiles; The Falklands War, New Romantics, Princess Diana; Bob Geldoff of Band Aid and later Live Aid with his scruffy look and hair permamently all over the place, on telly constantly telling everyone to hand over their cash; Not The Nine 'O' Clock News which gave us so many talented individuals most notably Rowan Atkinson of Blackadder, Mr Bean, Johny English and most recently of Olympics fame; The Young Ones which gave us Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall who went on to star in Bottom; I was reminded of the Spitting Image sketch of Thatcher and her parliamentary cabinet at a table for dinner and the waitress comes along and serves up her meat dish and asks; "What about the vegetables?" to which the off-hand reply is from the great lady, "They'll all have the same as me!". You couldn't beat the show for comic wickedness. Only Fools and Horses had us glued to the telly; who can forget the chandalier sketch which was based on a real event as it turns out.

Looking back with hindsight the years seem much more fuller and exciting than I thought at the time. Many people thought of the sixties as the best decade - which I'm sure was very good with fuller employment and the exploration of values and freedoms.

As some reviewers have noted already it is a step back to those years for those who remember them. For those that don't I can recommend this book for a sketch of those unique years which set the scene for the nineties and noughties.

Also a very good DVD to go with this book would be The Andrew Marr Collection: History Of Modern Britain (Series 1) & The Making Of Modern Britain (Series 2)
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on 8 May 2011
"It's hard to see how this account could be bettered", says Andrew Marr on the cover of the `No Such Thing as Society'. Well, no, Andrew, I'm afraid it's not. Here are three ways in which it could have been improved.

First, and most seriously, his selection of material is totally lacking in discrimination. The first job of the historian is to select from the multitude of events those of genuine importance; McSmith seems more interested in trying to squeeze in as much of what happened as possible. Often the things that fall out are the more significant but less eye-catching. So, for example, the index references Westwood (Vivienne) but not Westland (Helicopters). Judging by the space allocated to each topic, anyone with no knowledge of the decade would assume that The Young Ones was as important as the miners' strike; the New Romantics as important as the Brixton Riots; and Live Aid probably more important than all of them. Perhaps a dedicated postmodernist would want to claim exactly that, but McSmith doesn't come across as a postmodernist, so I assume he was just being unselective.

Secondly, when he does cover a topic he summarises what happened well enough, but doesn't really offer much explanation of why it happened in the way it did. So, for example, to really understand the way that the Labour Party imploded in the first half of the decade, you need to go quite a long way back into the 1970s, and understand its changing relationship with the unions and other trends on the radical left. McSmith touches on this, but the 70s is a bit outside his remit. So you need to know a bit already about some of the topics covered before you can really get the best from this work.

Finally, there's not a great deal of new research on show. Rather than conducting new interviews with some of the important protagonists, he seems to have been happy to put it together from secondary sources and newspapers. This contrasts badly with Andy Beckett who, in `When the Lights Went Out', his masterly account of the 1970s, talked to a large number of people, from the likes of Edward Heath and Peter Walker through to individual shop stewards. The result is that Beckett's book has a life and an immediacy that McSmith's lacks.

So, why four stars? Because I think you have to take this book for what it is. This is not really a history, it's a series of journalistic essays on aspects of 80s politics and culture. And viewed that way it's really very good. McSmith worked as a journalist, among other things, during the decade; he made contacts and picked up a lot of gossip and he treats us to some of it here (some of the best bits of which, incidentally, are hidden away in the footnotes). His work has all the virtues of the best journalism - it's well written, snappy, gossipy, admirably clear and concise. You might not come away with a detailed understanding of all the trends and developments that took place during this complex decade, but if you know nothing you will get a good overview very quickly. And if, like me, you lived through it first time around, you will be reminded of a few things you've forgotten and have a few holes filled. As long as you don't expect more from it, it's highly recommended.
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on 9 December 2010
This book presents an interesting account of the decade that in many ways changed the UK forever. As with any decade an author has to choose which topics to cover, as they cannot hope to analyse everything that happened. However, although Andy McSmith discusses some events that were not covered in Alwyn Turner's Rejoice Rejoice (and vice versa) the major events of the decade (the miners' strike, the Falklands conflict and the race riots) are all covered. Any book about this decade will always be dominated by Margaret Thatcher and this is no exception. Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book and reread some paragraphs as they were so powerfully written, I did feel the author occasionally flitted from subject to subject too much and some areas that the reader felt were going to get an in-depth coverage were only mentioned in passing. Still, this is a great read and anyone who needs reminding exactly how much this decade paved the way for the country we are now so used to should buy it.
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on 6 November 2012
Having read Dominic Sandbrook's various histories of Britain from 1956 to 1979, throughout which Margaret Thatcher plays an increasingly prominent role, I wanted to finish off the story (if history ever can reach an end) with a look at the 80s - her decade. Since Sandbrook hasn't yet written this book (and I don't know if he actually will), this seemed a good alternative. Andy McSmith has produced a highly entertaining whizz through Britain in the 80s - taking in culture and sport (amongst other things), but predominantly focused on politics. Margaret Thatcher is the star here and, as the title suggests, the author wants to look at her impact on society.

A photo included shows the author walking in the 1980s with Tony Benn and Billy Bragg, which does indicate he's a man of the left. However this book doesn't come to bury Thatcher, indeed it aims to be a more nuanced assessment of her failings and successes. His thesis is that we have now - with our current crisis of capitalism - reached a point where Thatcherism is coming to an end. All that trust in the free-market, in individualism, in greed is good, has evaporated into thin air. I'm not entirely sure that's true though. One of the interesting things about this world where success is privatised and failure is nationalised, is that there hasn't been a rise of old school socialism. Yes banker bashing is now a national sport, but even the Labour party remains rooted to the centre. The default position is unaltered: capitalism is still the way forward. And that hard-wired belief in the free market - no matter what happens - may be Margaret Thatcher's most potent legacy.

The fact that an entire decade is crammed into about three hundred and fifty pages means that this is a whistle-stop tour of the decade, which perhaps doesn't go into the depth that would be afforded in a bigger tome, but for those of us who can remember Britain in the 80s this is a nostalgic ride.
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on 12 August 2012
With 401 pages (341 if you exclude the notes and index) to cover more than a decade this was never going to be an in depth analysis of the Thatcher years. As an overview I think it covers most of the key areas well whilst at the same time providing a lively and easy read.

I was in my late teenage years/twenties at the time covered in this book and much of this resonates with me. Inevitably there are chapters on trade unions (in particular the miner's strike), the disintegration (and rebuilding) of the Labour party and the formation of the SDP, foreign policy including the EU and the Falklands, the 'freeing' of the banks and the 'big bang' in The City, local government and the poll tax.

It also covers changes in music, TV and film, the demise of Fleet Street (as a physical entity) and the rise of modern technology.
It's a world where mobile phones were bricks, word processors could not cope with documents over 3,000 words long and the World Wide Web was still an idea.
It's also a world where political boundaries and systems collapsed, and world views altered.

The author manages to cover this period of considerable change well, and whilst there was little in there that was new to me (having lived though it), he does make some interesting links and point out the long term legacy of some of the policy changes.

All in all a lively potted history of a lively decade, which gives plenty of pointers to those who wish to take on a more in-depth study.
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on 12 July 2012
This is a great read as long as you are not expecting to read a definitive history of this eventful decade. McSmith is a journalist and knows how to hook the reader and draw you in. Starting with a brief few pages on Live Aid (itself a decade defining event) he reminds us of the cost of tickets at £25 a head at a time when jobs were being advertised at £1.20 an hour or less. Useful to give us that perspective on the nebulous subject of money values. Chapters are loosely thematic and cover alot of ground from the role of women in a society that created the Yorkshire ripper along with the bungled activities of the police (in the ripper enquiry; the miners strike and the Hillsborough disaster- there's definitely a theme there) along with the politics of Thatcherism and popular culture. He's more sure footed on the politics than he is on popular culture. Occasionally links are slightly clunky- the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster morphs into a chapter on the disaster of the governments free enterprise culture- but thats a journalist for you. The chapter headings reinforce this with song titles (Stand Down Margaret); and phrases that define the decade (the hand of God). Overall, it sometimes feel like a taster for a longer, more detailed social history but the prose is crisp and clear and at times builds a real dynamic. There are some good anecdotes and some carefully gauged attempts to look for humour in the darkest of chapters. Its likely that a reader will be disappointed if they buy this and expect a definitive history- however, it works both as a straight narrative and a primer- chapters can be read stand alone. No bibliography in my edition, though sources are clearly referenced in the useful notes. The photo on the cover of my paperback edition is referenced in the text and the insert photos are black and white- perhaps appropriate in the sombre story that is recounted. If it is read in conjunction with Alwyn Turners excellent Rejoice, Rejoice and Richard Vinens book on Thatcher's Britain then we might have the full picture. Most social historians such as David Kynaston and Dominic Sandbrook appear to be stopping in 1979. This shows how big a job the history of the 1980s is..... a good and useful readable read!!
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on 20 November 2011
Many more popular surveys of this subject are sure to emerge, so it is a pity Andy McSmith has claimed one of the period's best quotes for his title, but done little with it. A real sense of what 'society' - real or imagined - consisted of in the 80s does not emerge in his account. He is a journalist and paliarmentary sketch writer, rather than a social historian and it shows. His London/Westminster village perspective is all too apparent, but even this might not matter so much if he defined his period convincingly. The author's lack of interest in the preceeding decade and its influence on the 80s makes for a rather superficial account. For example, the 1970s miners strikes and 'Who Governs Britain' is not mentioned in relation to the 84/5 strike. It's a pleasant read, though, with some nicely chosen detail in McSmith's comfomt zones and will suffice until Dominic Sandbrook gets to the 80s.
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