Guardian journalist Andy Beckett’s tome about the early 1980s is entertaining, as I suspected it might be. It uses a Simple Minds song as its title and they were one of my favourite bands. But it’s also frustrating.
Although he makes use of government documents released under the 30-year rule, and interviews participants in the events described, it’s ultimately a work of journalism rather than a proper history. While many of the facts are present, like much Guardian journalism, it doesn’t always join the dots — or at least not in the way I hoped it would.
The book’s focus is the first Thatcher administration, her economic policies, their effects and the response. It looks at the split in Labour that led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP); the left in the form of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council and the anti-cruise missile protests at Greenham Common; and culture, particularly pop music.
In a neat counterpoint, the chapter on the UK version of monetarism, named “the Liverpool model” by its architects, is followed by a chapter on how its major effects — spending cuts and unemployment — produced riots in the city of the same name. But the focus is blurred by forays into popular culture, and very selective ones at that. Beckett uses Sheffield band ABC, who switched from arty and earnest synth-rock to glitzy (and lucrative) soul-inspired pop, as an example of how some artists became “secret Thatcherites”.
However, as Beckett half-recognises, this is a partial picture. It’s inspired by a fashionable view that the Tories and their supporters achieved a kind of cultural hegemony in these years. Opposing examples, like the Style Council, the band formed by Paul Weller as he moved leftwards, are conveniently ignored.
This blindness is also evident in Beckett’s treatment of the factors leading to Thatcher’s re-election in 1983. He is clear that the Falklands victory was not the only element, and that the SDP took crucial votes from Labour.
Indeed he highlights how the Tories won with a lower vote than in 1979. But at times he seems to blame Labour’s left for the SDP schism. And while he mentions Labour chancellor Denis Healey’s embrace of monetarism in the 1970s, he downplays it.
Unfortunately the reality was that spending cuts and compulsory wage restraint in the form of the hated “Social Contract” demoralised workers and hollowed out Labour’s support in the run-up to 1979. In other words, it was Labour’s right that paved the way for the split.
As a review of the period the book is useful, but marred by a concentration on “cultural production” to the detriment of wider, more fundamental shifts. The chapter on work and the unions is animated mostly by an account of changes in media and TV production.
Along the way Beckett fails to grasp how the steel workers’ strike in 1980 was a major defeat, since pay rises were paid for by job cuts and closures, themselves a signal for a wave of “restructuring” across manufacturing. He’s an excellent writer, but by concentrating on minor figures, Beckett misses out on a chance to properly assess Thatcher’s significance to the ruling class.
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