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

The author makes a convincing case for the profound and lasting effect of the 1980s - and of Mrs T in particular - on how we live. Peter York enjoys a definitive look back.

by Peter York
Last Updated: 02 Jan 2013

Book: Bang! A history of Britain in the 1980s
Author: Graham Stewart
Publisher: Atlantic Books, £25.00

 

In the New Normal of the second decade of the 21st century, with the UK bumping along the bottom apparently forever, the 1980s look increasingly distant and exotic. Instead, it's tempting to think we're back in the 1970s in a Life on Mars episode and that the 1980s were an unsustainable dream state. The UK has returned to what it's always done best, which is tottering gently by, keeping calm and carrying on, and accepting national decline - it comes naturally.

Graham Stewart's Bang! A history of Britain in the 1980s blows up that default position in a second. The 1970s analogy doesn't hold for a moment. The UK really was the Sick Man of Europe then, but now we're merely averagely sick alongside Europe and most of the old western world. And the 1980s changed everything, for good or ill, forever.

In a whole range of businesses - for instance, finance, music and entertainment, advertising and marketing (what government likes to call the creative industries) - the UK stopped bringing up the rear and became a driving force. It was a major part of a new kind of economic model - a differently configured sort of economy with an emphasis on entrepreneurialism and services, deregulated, privatised and open. One that was open to inward investment, foreign ownership of trophy assets of all kinds (companies and buildings), overseas management talent and, above all, open to the global rich, who've transformed prime London over the past 15 years. It's what people called the Anglosphere.

All of this was shaped and enabled by the policies and people of the 1980s and above all by Margaret Thatcher. If, as Stewart says, the 1980s changed us so much more than the decades that preceded and followed them, then equally those changes really were overwhelmingly defined and shaped by one politician. It helps that her reign ('we are a grandmother') - 1979-1990 - so neatly bookended the period and that her gender and personal style made her so divisive and memorable.

But Stewart clearly thinks it's more than that. With a different Tory in charge, some things would still have been inevitable, but by no means the whole revolutionary package. It's entirely conceivable a One-Nation Toff Tory could have won that leadership election of 1975 and gone on to win in 1979, but without Thatcher's world-view and her 'one of us' kitchen Cabinet gang of - mostly - social counter-jumpers, you can imagine a more cautious, consensual, corporatist feel to things.

It's when it comes to economic and business outcomes that this big, dry history - over 500 pages before the index and without the illustrations, which were missing from the proof I read - shows its colours. When Stewart talks about outcomes, when he looks at the numbers before and after, it's clear he thinks most of those changes were inevitable or desirable. TINA, we used to call it: 'There Is No Alternative'.

He's covered almost everything: the politics, economics and the culture stuff - TV, architecture, the music industry. When it comes to business, he's got what I'd call the Robert Peston agenda. He's strong on the City, the run-up to the Big Bang and the impact of it and on the commanding heights, the big players and game changers, the celebrity businessmen, from Lord Hanson and James Goldsmith to Richard Branson, but he seems less interested in the changed worlds of, say, SMEs, business park culture and new technology. And he's less interested in consumers, too.

In a country historically buoyed up by consumer spending - and debt - the social forces and business development that drive it have to be important. Just as you know the blessed Peston prefers talking to grandees about the fate of, say, a great banking house to visiting a light engineering company in Durham or a shopping mall in Bury, so you feel that Stewart likes things at the centre.

My own and Charles Jennings' far lighter, slighter, shorter, more visual take on the 1980s concentrated on just those consumer-led experiential businesses, not only because we didn't have the serious historian's tool kit but also as they seemed extraordinarily central to the 1980s experience. It was a massive waterfall of aspirations flowing from the dam of British class attitudes ('not for the likes of us') and post-war defeatism.

This is solid history, excellent but distinctly chewy. You need to cut off a chapter at a time, grind through it, then go back to check what the narrative arc is telling you. There are none of the hand-signalled conceits of a telly historian such as Simon Schama. Not even the British music business or the emergence of property developers' post-modernism can shake him out of his very considered tone.

It'll stand him in good stead. The sheer heft, the references, the bibliography all have the feel of the Definitive Book, the reference point in the new market for decade-ism. And his accounts of some of the defining moments of the 1980s, particularly the Siege of Wapping and the breaking of union power (Stewart wrote The Murdoch Years volume of the official history of The Times), are really dramatic, despite the measured style.

If you're, say, teaching at a business school like Cass or LBS, you'll want to have this book. If you're running that family light engineering company in Hartlepool, you might think twice.

Peter York is the co-author of Peter York's Eighties (BBC Books)

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