‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.’ Margaret Thatcher
Ah the 80s. A time that, for this columnist, doesn’t seem like long ago but for most people under 30, won’t be remembered at all. It was the best of times: anthems of protest, redemption songs, freedom from tyranny…it was the worst of times: industrial strife, mass unemployment, and in Britain, the decade of that ‘bloody woman’, Mrs Thatcher. Nostalgia histories are coming out thick and fast these days but Andy McSmith’s ‘No Such Thing As Society’, is well written and a highly entertaining and, even for someone who lived through them, a most informative read.
McSmith has had a distinguished career as Political Correspondent/Writer for the Observer, Telegraph and Independent and as a Labour party spin-doctor. He is well placed to write this authoritative and accessible cultural & political history of the 1980s. And for McSmith, as with anyone who had even a passing interest in the politics of the period, all roads lead back to Margaret Thatcher. An icon for the Right, loathed on the Left, we are reminded of how Mrs Thatcher’s first and last cabinets were against her (the first, full of ‘wets’, the last, of ‘traitors’). Nobody was a more divisive figure; ask the Scots, or, indeed, anyone north of Watford. In Britain, it will be for two wars (on within, one without) that the ‘Iron Lady’ is best remembered; the Falklands War and the Miners Strike.
The Falklands, was, yes, like two bald men fighting over a comb. It was an imperial adventure. But the Argentinean Junta were, in Michael Foot’s own words, ‘fascist’ and Thatcher, despite initial cabinet opposition, took a huge political and military gamble by going to war thousands of miles of away over a small outcrop in the South Atlantic. McSmith recalls how Labour were snookered into supporting the war and how it saved one of the most unpopular Prime Ministers ever in late 1981 to spurred her to achieve a thumping 1983 General Election victory. Yet, for Thatcher, compromise was not a preferred political option: when it came to taking on the miners, she wanted to smash them. In doing so, she decimated employment prospects for generations in traditional mining communities and showed that she really meant it when she said there was no such thing as society.
And for some, the greed is good society was very good for them indeed. Deregulation in the City led to an explosion in financial services activity. City bonuses became front page news, public share offerings of denationalised industries and utilities were commonplace and as McSmith observes, North and South became more divided. ‘Loadsamoney’, Harry Enfield’s satirical creation, became a hero for the very people he was caricaturing. Culturally, things were changing too.
The Singles Charts were still hugely important for breaking into the Big-time. LPs and Cassettes would start their relatively swift decline. McSmith reminds the reader of some of the great music of the time; particularly the Smiths and The Specials. Could a song like ‘Ghost Town’ get to Number One now? But to talk of 80’s music is too much of a generalisation; for every Billy Bragg, there were many Duran Durans. Band and LiveAid are rightly namechecked as hugely culturally significant events; music could be political with both a big and a small ‘p’. Bob Geldof became a people’s hero for his ability to cut through the crap. Music became further subdivided into tribes with the rise of the New Romantics among other musical genres and sub-genres.
So what’s changed since the 80s? Arguably we have more social but less economic freedom. We buy the latest electronic devices that are remarkably advanced by 1980s standards but we seem to have less consumer choice since the rise of the hyper corporation. We have become more connected yet more atomised. As consumers we’re happy with the intangible but want it for nothing. Politics appears powerless against global capital yet we routinely hold governments accountable for recessions at election times. And yet, we can’t define the ethos of a decade until we get perspective. Mostly, we just grow older and arguably, not a lot wiser.
* ‘No Such Thing As Society – A History of Britain in the 1980s’ Andy McSmith, Constable, 2011