Review: ‘Bang!: A History of Britain in the 1980s’

by Stephen Tall on March 3, 2016

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

The ’80s are suddenly back, at least for the Labour party which has regressed to them. I was two years old when they began, so I recall a fair amount, but through the inevitably unreliable and partial lens of a child. So I thought it was about time I revised what I had lived through.

Graham Stewart’s Bang!: A History of Britain in the 1980s is, overall*, an excellent guide. He’s as comfortable writing about monetarism as he is about Madness, as informative about the SDP as he is Sloane Rangers.

What’s most startling is how much society has changed, mostly for the better – indeed, reading about the rampant sexism, racism and homophobia which prevailed at the time, re-inforced by the stodgily white, male trade unions, might shock those Corbynistas who appear to think that simply turning back the clock to pre-Thatcher would right all wrongs.

We think of the 1979 election as a turning point, with Mrs Thatcher’s victory a decisive pivot away from the soggy, consensus ‘Butskellism’ politics of the 1950-70s. Yet that wasn’t necessarily how it appeared at the time. In 1955, 74% of those polled by Gallup believed there were important differences between the Conservatives and Labour; in 1979, only 54% did so.

Some things don’t change, though. Labour’s chancellor Denis Healey described finding Tory costings in their 1979 manifesto as “like looking for a black cat in a dark coal cellar” — a simile which will resonate with anyone who’s tried to identify where the Tories’ £12bn welfare cuts in their 2015 manifesto will be found.

As for the idea that the Tories are the party to trust with cracking down on welfare spending, well… try squaring that with the ’80s’ reality: ‘after the effects of inflation are taken into account, the state still spent nearly 13 per cent more at the end of the eighties than it had done at the end of the seventies’.

There are some great lines, exposing the hypocrisies which history has a habit of laying bare, and some fascinating facts, including:

  • Stewart notes of the anti-nuclear weapon Greenham Common protesters: ‘without apparent irony, the women were charged with ‘breaching the peace”;
  • he highlights the tensions between Britain and the USA over the Reagan-Gorbachev disarmament talks, with Mrs Thatcher regarding Reagan suspiciously as ‘the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been president of the United States’;
  • Norman Tebbit’s sharp note to Channel 4’s first chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs, about the corporation’s distinctive mission: “The different interests you are supposed to cater for are … golf and sailing and fishing. Hobbies. That’s what we intended.”;
  • in 1981, the National Theatre rejected an offer of £750,000 sponsorship from Pear Assurance – “it seems wrong to us to be into a position where we had to have private sponsorship to do the job we are paid to do by public money”;
  • in 1982, City’s highest earner made £320k (Ian Posgate of Lloyds);
  • homosexuality remained illegal in Scotland until 1980, and in Ulster until 1982. Public attitudes also lagged today’s thinking: three-quarters of the population in 1988 believed homosexual relationships were always/mostly wrong;
  • though Mrs Thatcher took the blame for closing the coal-mines in 1984, Tony Blair’s Labour government would have been forced to do the same 13 years later because of its determination to sign the 1997 Kyoto protocol.
  • Interesting, too, is Stewart’s take on the SDP’s phosphorescent explosion into British politics. He rightly rejects the old leftist canard that the SDP split from Labour was to blame for Mrs Thatcher’s decade of dominance: ‘it was only the intercession of the SDP that stopped the Conservatives beating Labour by even greater margins in the 1983 and 1987 general elections’.

    And he is pretty scathing of its intellectual contribution, invoking Ralf Dahrendorf’s famous quip that the SDP offered “a better yesterday”. After all, the ‘Gang of Four’ renegades were ‘committed not to radical change but to the preservation of the post-war consensus’, with their Limehouse Declaration showing they believed the settlement as per 1979 about right — for example, that a state-regulated incomes policy should be core to the government’s anti-inflationary strategy.

    If anything, the SDP was more left-wing than Jeremy Corbyn. It’s a moot point who would be most offended by that realisation.

    * I say “overall” because my confidence in Stewart’s account was knocked by his lazy peddling of the myths about the infamous 1983 Bermondsey by-election in which Labour’s Peter Tatchell was defeated by the Liberals’ Simon Hughes. He refers to ‘the smear tactics of local Liberal activists’ without mentioning the really virulent campaign against Tatchell came from homophobic Old Labour-ites. (See this Wikipedia entry for a succinct and mostly accurate summary.) It’s only a half a page, but unfortunately it does make me wonder how many other parts of the book rely on press cuttings.