Book review: Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

Margaret Thatcher, as caricatured on Spitting Image. Picture: ITV/Rex Features
Margaret Thatcher, as caricatured on Spitting Image. Picture: ITV/Rex Features
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THE first new television channel to be created by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was Channel Four.

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart

Atlantic Books, 560pp, 

A national commercial independent station which would have a similar relationship to the ITV group as BBC2 had to BBC1, it was launched in November 1982 with the home secretary’s remit to broadcast “programmes appealing to and, we hope, stimulating tastes and interests not adequately provided for on existing channels”.

As Graham Stewart points out in this sensationally good new history of the 1980s, that was an ambiguous set of criteria. Under liberal chief executive Jeremy Isaacs, Channel Four proceeded to combine vaguely intelligent quiz shows such as Countdown with socially-conscious soap operas such as Brookside. It stimulated tastes and interests previously neglected by mainstream television by commissioning X-rated punk and homoerotic Films on Four from such new directors as Stephen Frears and Derek Jarman, and by offering a special celebration of gay Britain on New Year’s Day 1983.

Shortly afterwards, Isaacs was accosted at an embassy party by the employment secretary Norman Tebbit. “You’ve got it all wrong, you know,” said Tebbit, “doing all these programmes for homosexuals and such. Parliament never meant that sort of thing. The different interests you’re supposed to cater for are not like that at all. Golf and sailing and fishing. Hobbies. That’s what we intended.”

In Graham Stewart’s panorama, the 1980s was a decade of unintended consequences, and most of the consequences were more momentous than Norman Tebbit’s vision of recreational hobby viewing for anglers being realised as Caligulan adult home entertainment.

The great miners’ strike of 1984-1985, for instance, resulted in several previously healthy pits being closed because they had become unsafe after laying unworked for a year. Neil Kinnock’s decision not to allow his MPs to talk to the Murdoch press during the printworkers’ strike of 1986 meant that the Labour Party voluntarily relinquished access to a quarter of the British newspaper readership. The Big Bang from which Stewart derives his title, the deregulation of London’s financial institutions in 1986, was expected to benefit traditionally British-owned banks rather than make them easy targets for international predators based in New York, Geneva and Frankfurt.

Most of the saps who stood on rakes were, Stewart suggests, from the old Left. That is unsurprising for two reasons. Stewart offers us an unapologetic – indeed, an occasionally gleeful – Tory history of the 1980s. Furthermore, it is a Scottish Tory’s history of the 1980s: Graham Stewart is from Edinburgh. Scotland in the 21st century has produced more ranking Tory historians, such as Norman Stone, Niall Ferguson and now Stewart himself, than the country has Tory Members of Parliament. That peculiarity may also be traced back to the 1980s.

All history is, to a greater or lesser degree, subjective. Most previous accounts of the 1980s in Britain, such as Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing as Society and John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better, have come from some spectrum of the Left for which it was a thoroughly traumatic decade. The winners should also have their say. They could not elect a better spokesperson than Graham Stewart. He leaves no room for doubt about his tastes and distastes, but is broadly magnaminous in victory. With the exception of the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, who is pitilessly drawn, and the Greenham Common women, who are treated with uncharacteristic discourtesy, he examines the failures of most of his political antitheses more with pity than anger. Stewart is clever, stylish, learned and occasionally funny.

His grasp of social affairs is also as comprehensive as any of our current crop of era-historians. Bang! is good on the higher strata of 1980s television, from Brideshead Revisited to Boys from the Blackstuff, and perceptive about the unintended consequences of Spitting Image: “it was certainly debatable whether portraying the prime minister and her henchman [Norman Tebbit] as brutal, ruthless and strong-willed was as damaging to their reputations as depicting their opponents as gormless and incompetent buffoons.” Despite the soft-focus nostalgia of Merchant-Ivory’s E M Forster adaptations, the achievements of Handmade Films and the emergence of such talents as Helena Bonham-Carter, Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth, Stewart concludes that at the end of the 1980s the UK remained “a country of significant film-makers in search of a significant film industry.”

The 1980s witnessed the last erections of brutalist architecture. His exploration of this phenomenon gives us Graham Stewart at his best. his admiration of the Prince of Wales’s campaign against “monstrous carbuncles” is a little dewy-eyed, especially after it transpired that his Royal Highness wants us all to live in St Mary Mead. But his assertion that callous, shoddy and dehumanised modernism had sown the seeds of its own destruction is beyond reproach.

Examining the British successors to Le Corbusier, Stewart betrays the acumen of a specialist. Richard Rogers’ new Lloyd’s Building in the City of London was “not just a machine for working in but the closest an insurance clerk could get to pacing around inside a human body”. Its apparent economies were also deceptive, because “if not kept in pristine condition it would soon have resembled an inner-city oil rig.”

But the Lloyd’s Building was the structural icon of Thatcher’s age. And if it represented the zenith of high-tech, it was soon cheerfully accompanied by neo-classical and postmodernist designs that would give the nation’s urban landscapes a more rich, colourful and imaginative prospect than at any time since the 19th century.

A lot of people had fun with music, parties and drugs in the 1980s. As he was in his late teens and early twenties when the decade drew to a close, Stewart could have been one of them. He is no young fogey. His chapters on the soundtrack of his formative years – synth-pop, the New Romantics, MTV, even Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the rise and fall of the indies – are the closest this historian comes to sentimentality. Of The Smiths, he writes: “They disarmed the testosterone-charged rebelliousness of rock with Morrissey’s reflective lyrics about the unheroic loneliness and isolation of adolescence” – with all the feeling of a boy who was there, playing There is a Light That Never Goes Out on the cassette player as he ploughed through his homework from Stewart’s Melville College.

We must draw no rash conclusions, but Stewart is tolerant of his contemporaries who took illegal drugs. The high of the day was MDMA, or Ecstasy, or just plain E. The author not only dismisses media panics about MDMA as 
“hysterical scaremongering” and points out that “for most clubbers during the summer of 1988 the ratio of fatalities to pills popped did not seem to suggest the dangers were excessive”. He also acknowledges the central role played by MDMA in such achievements as the house scene and Madchester, and points out that the £2 billion-a-year illegal drug trade was “a story of commercial success that many multinational corporations might have struggled to replicate”. Indeed.

Stewart’s 1980s began when Margaret Thatcher walked into 10 Downing Street in May 1979 and ended when she left the building in November 1990. If Bang! has flaws, they lie in his refusal to countenance much error in the personality and politics of that prime minister, or her American ally Ronald Reagan. Any misfortunes in the Thatcher premiership were, it appears, either the responsibility of her less reliable colleagues or the results of the law of unintended consequences.

We do not have to share his admiration to acknowledge her influence. She did, as Stewart writes, “make the Eighties a decade fixated on political issues and ideological debate to an extent that was simply not observable in the quarter-century thereafter”. Thatcher politicised British society not so much through inspiration as by division: she handbagged the nation so vigorously that much of its citizenry had either to approve or oppose. The comparatively consensual 25 years after were caused as much by fatigue as by the end of history.

Bang! describes rather than critically revises Thatcher’s achievements. She won the Falklands War and the miners’ strike. She reduced the trade unions’ power. The IRA assassinated some of her closest colleagues but she strode like Superwoman from the rubble of Brighton’s Grand Hotel. With the help of immense North Sea oil revenues and income from public asset privatisation, she balanced the books while maintaining two to three million people on the dole. She deregulated the City.

She was premier when Eastern European communism – and with it much of British socialist theory – collapsed. She won three consecutive general elections against opposition parties that were either demoralised or divided.

All of those were, as Stewart claims, substantial occurrences. But none of them is above demur, and some of them left a legacy which even her fellow Tories have come to regret.

Here in Scotland, Stewart is once again right to say that she did not use us as Poll Tax guinea pigs. She genuinely believed that Scots were desperate for such a reform of the rates. But her tin ear to contrary advice left a fatally false impression behind, and within a few years her party north of the Border was all but destroyed. A large vacuum was left in the Scottish non-Labour vote, which was filled chiefly by a party committed to breaking up the union that was held dear by Margaret Thatcher.

That would be the most cataclysmic unintended consequence of the 1980s. It represents another reason for putting that decade under the microscope, and if one were needed, a final reason to read Stewart’s absorbing history.