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.