"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.