The eighties. The decade of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Los Angeles Olympics and the Chernobyl disaster; the decade of Michael Jackson and Madonna; mobile phones and home computers; Solidarity, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Tiananmen Square; the decade the Challenger exploded, the IRA bombed Brighton and the Berlin Wall came down. In Britain we remember the eighties as a uniquely conflicted and controversial decade, when event piled on event with dizzying speed: the years of Heysel and Hillsborough, Steve Davis and Daley Thompson, Duran Duran and Culture Club, Brookside and Blockbusters. In 1980 the economy plunged into the deepest recession since the Great Depression. A year later, Brixton and Toxteth saw the worst urban rioting in living memory. In 1982 Britain sent a task force to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina. In 1984 the miners’ strike ripped communities apart and left scars that have never truly healed.
And then, in the second half of the decade, came a succession of enormously controversial changes, from the privatisation of Britain’s utilities to the deregulation of the City of London, that fundamentally reshaped the landscape of our political and economic life, creating shock waves that reverberate to this day. It may have become a cliché of modern historical writing to give individual decades their own flavour, their own personality and their own legacy. But nobody, I think, would deny that the eighties mattered, or that this was a peculiarly distinctive historical moment, charged with tension and possibility.
What’s also true, though, is that in Britain at least, the eighties have become identified with one individual above all. As prime minister from 1979 to 1990, Margaret Thatcher cast a shadow over almost every corner of our national life. Whether lampooned on TV sketch shows or lambasted in bestselling pop anthems, she was simply always there, the great she-elephant – as the Tory dissident Julian Critchley famously called her – lurking at the back of the room. When she died in 2013, the ensuing furore became a national event in its own right. “The woman who divided a nation,” read the Mirror’s headline. “The woman who saved Britain,” countered the Mail. And for page after page, commentators pored over the records of Britain in the 1980s – the country that, as almost everybody agreed, she had single-handedly defined.
In many ways, though, all this seems remarkably old-fashioned. Scholars once wrote history books in which individual statesmen were seen as almost superhumanly influential, but such an approach has been out of fashion for more than half a century. When talk turns to, say, the fifties, few people think immediately of Sir Anthony Eden or Harold Macmillan. It would be perfectly possible to write a social or cultural history of sixties Britain while barely mentioning Harold Wilson at all. Indeed, even those two great titans of Victorian politics, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, now look less transcendently important than they once did. On my shelves there are heavy, monolithic histories of Victorian Britain, published in the last few years, teeming with social and cultural detail, in which Gladstone and Disraeli barely appear at all. Yet for the time being, eighties Britain is the last redoubt of the great man (or rather, great woman) school of history. The Iron Lady presses a button in Downing Street, and a factory explodes in south Wales. She pulls a lever, and a shopping centre miraculously materialises in Gateshead. She destroys Britain; she saves it. Between those two positions, there is no middle ground.
Not long after Mrs Thatcher died, I had coffee with a television producer to discuss making a series about Britain in the 1980s. At that first meeting, I idly mused whether it would be an interesting experiment to write a treatment for the series in which the prime minister never appeared at all. At the time, with the headlines smouldering with passion about her historical legacy, the idea seemed at best eccentric and at worst downright deluded. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.
We typically think of Mrs Thatcher as a woman who made her age, an Oxford chemistry student turned mad scientist, toiling feverishly in the laboratory before emerging, exhausted but triumphant, test-tube in hand. But of course she was no less a product of her times than anybody else. Even the Conservatives’ election victory in 1979, typically seen as the moment she fired the starting gun for the new age of capitalist competition, happened as much despite her as because of her. She was not remotely the country’s most popular politician in 1979, lagging well behind the incumbent prime minister, the Labour veteran Jim Callaghan. Indeed, she won in 1979 not because the country had been converted to her free-market message, but because floating voters wanted to punish the government and the trade unions for the disastrous Winter of Discontent, when public sector workers had walked out en masse in protest at Callaghan’s pay curbs.
It is certainly true that Mrs Thatcher tapped a rich vein of aspiration and ambition among younger working-class voters. Her promise to allow voters to buy their own council houses, for example, propelled her to a stunning 11 per cent swing among skilled working-class voters – ironically, a social group who were very hard hit by the collapse of manufacturing in the years that followed. And it is true that very few of her Tory predecessors, with their cut-glass accents and tweedy personas, could have matched the grocer’s daughter’s appeal to ambitious suburban voters. But it is nonsense to suggest, as so many writers did after her death, that Mrs Thatcher “manufactured” or “unleashed” the power of ambitious individualism. That particular trend was already gathering pace even before she came to office. She knew how to appeal to it and how to profit from it, but she hardly invented it.
There is a wonderfully revealing passage in the autobiography of Spandau Ballet’s guitarist and chief songwriter Gary Kemp, who was just beginning to make a name for himself in the first months of 1979 – at precisely the moment, in other words, when Mrs Thatcher was preparing for power. Born in 1959, Kemp (like so many working-class voters) had grown up in a narrow terraced house, with no indoor bathroom and a brick toilet in the yard. Yet now, like so many of his peers, he dreamed of a better life, a new world of comfort and style and material security. A few years later, after buying his first house in the early 1980s, Kemp gazed at the “church candles and interior magazines on the black enamelled coffee table… with a glass of claret in my hand and something light and choral on the stereo”, and felt a “strong sense of denying everything my family was”. But in that, too, he was absolutely typical; millions of other people in the mid-1980s felt exactly the same way. Did they take their cue from Mrs Thatcher? Were they merely lab rats, jumping to order as she pressed a button?
I don’t think so. Many of them probably hardly thought about her at all. And no doubt many of them were not even Conservative voters. Gary Kemp, incidentally, always voted Labour.
In fact, if you wanted to choose a woman who really captured the spirit of Britain in the 1980s, then you could do a lot worse than pick another keen Labour supporter. Like Margaret Thatcher, Delia Smith was an adept media performer, cutting a supremely poised and manicured figure as she lectured the nation in her precise, clipped tones. Like Mrs Thatcher, she appealed above all to middle-class homeowners in suburban Middle England. Indeed, for millions of viewers, it was ‘Delia’, rather than ‘Maggie’, who best incarnated the values that were so crucial to British social life at the turn of the decade. When she told viewers of her Cookery Course how to pronounce the word ‘lasagne’ or advised them about the best way to roll spaghetti onto a fork, she was appealing to precisely the same impulses – the love of domesticity, the enthusiasm for self-improvement – that propelled many voters into the Conservative column in 1979.
In particular, both Delia Smith and Margaret Thatcher struck a chord with ambitious professional women who were now juggling home and career. “I too know what it’s like running a house and running a career. I know what it’s like having to live within a budget.
I know what it’s like having to cope,” Mrs Thatcher told Nationwide’s audience in April 1979. In essence, this was Delia’s appeal too. Unlike the elaborate recipes beloved of TV cooks of the past, her concoctions were quick and simple, perfectly designed for people who were too busy to spend hours slaving over the stove. Perhaps revealingly, Delia saw nothing wrong with using tinned or prepared ingredients, and nothing wrong, either, with using the latest kitchen gadgets.
Despite the collapse of industry and the surge in unemployment, sales of microwave ovens, for example, boomed during the early 1980s. “You are probably reading this sitting at home, maybe with your family around you. In the living room there is almost certainly a television set, probably a colour model. In the kitchen there is more than likely to be a washing machine and almost definitely a fridge,” wrote Mrs Thatcher in her new year’s message to the nation, published in the News of the World at the end of December 1979. It was a typically canny appeal, tapping ordinary people’s love of home and hearth, their enthusiasm for gadgets and appliances, their eagerness to keep up with the Joneses. But as the success of Delia Smith’s shows since the early 1970s suggests, Mrs Thatcher didn’t create this world. She inherited it.
In many ways, in fact, our collective fascination with the figure of the Iron Lady can blind us to the deeper and much more important trends. Take, for example, one of the most controversial episodes from her time in office: the devastating recession of the early 1980s, which saw Britain lose roughly a quarter of its total manufacturing capacity, and the unemployment figures surge to well over 3 million. No fair-minded observer could, I think, deny that Mrs Thatcher’s stringent economic medicine, which saw the government adopt punishingly high interest rates and an exceptionally high pound to drive down inflation, took a terrible toll on our national economy. Yet even if some other prime minister had been in power – had, for example, Jim Callaghan called an early election in 1978 and been returned to office – there would still have been a global recession, and the government would still have been compelled to adopt strict policies to defeat inflation. In any case, British industry had been struggling for years. The 1970s had seen one high-profile casualty after another: coal mines, factories, steel works, car plants. Take Margaret Thatcher out of the equation: would the picture have been so different? I don’t think so.
What all this reflected, I think, was a deeper historical shift with which we’re still struggling to come to terms. The 1980s was an era of seismic industrial change, in which the British steel and coal-mining industries, to name just two high-profile examples, were probably doomed anyway. Indeed, if you want to pick out one of the most influential products of the decade, then it was something often dismissed at the time as a children’s toy or a manufacturer’s gimmick – the home computer. One machine in particular, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which was launched in April 1982 – the same month that Argentina invaded the Falklands – and sold for £125, caught the imagination of the public. Within a few years, Sinclair had sold more than 5 million Spectrums, an astronomical figure by the standards of the day. In fact, by the middle of the eighties, Britain led the world in home computer ownership, thanks partly to the success of local firms such as Sinclair and Acorn, but also thanks to the government’s enthusiastic promotion of computers in schools. And of course what these apparently primitive machines represented was nothing short of a social, technological and economic revolution. Computers created jobs, but they also destroyed them. The abandoned shops that you can see all over Britain today are the casualties of a revolution that began in the 1980s, driven not by politicians or ideology, but by technological change and consumer demand.
So did Mrs Thatcher matter? Well, of course she mattered, but perhaps not as much as we think. One of the pivotal moments in our TV series is the IRA’s attempt to assassinate the prime minister at Brighton’s Grand Hotel on 12 October 1984, during the Tory party conference. We often forget just how close they came: not only were five people killed that night, but Mrs Thatcher’s bathroom was badly damaged, whereas her sitting room – where she was, characteristically, hard at work – was relatively unscathed.
Had the terrorists succeeded, just five years into her time in office, it’s tempting to wonder how different Britain might be today. Perhaps the coal strike would have unfolded differently; perhaps privatisation would have ground to a halt; perhaps there would have been a reversion to collectivism, social democracy, heavy industry and the old consensus. But then again, perhaps not. The deeper trends – the rise of computers, the advance of globalisation, the decline of manufacturing, the ceaseless march of technological and cultural change – were surely irreversible. After all, what Britain experienced in the 1980s was hardly unique. Despite what we often think, almost every other industrialised western country went through similar changes in the final decades of the last century. Even in economics, where Mrs Thatcher is seen as a great innovator, other governments – notably those of Australia and New Zealand – were often there first.
The story we tell in our series about Britain in the eighties, therefore, is one in which Mrs Thatcher is no longer the dominant character. She’s in it, of course, but a supporting part, rather than as the lead. It’s the story of some familiar individuals – Delia Smith and Roland Rat, Arthur Scargill and Derek Trotter, Neil Kinnock and Princess Diana – but the central characters are really the audience themselves. It was ordinary people, not the government, who made council house sales a success, who rushed to buy shares in newly privatised utilities like British Telecom and British Gas, who bought the first microwaves, video recorders and mobile phones, who tucked into Boursin, Perrier and Le Piat d’Or, and who queued in their thousands to get into the first British branches of Ikea at the end of the decade.
Ours is a history of the 1980s driven not by events in Number 10 Downing Street, but by decisions made in millions of other Number 10s, Number 9s and Number 11s up and down the country. For the truth, of course, is that our politicians don’t make our history. We do. And if the world we live in today is the world the eighties made, then we only have ourselves to blame. Or to thank. I quite liked the eighties.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter. His books include The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination (Allen Lane, 2015).
This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine