Reviewed by: Adrian Bingham Author: Alywn W Turner Publisher: Aurum Price (RRP): £20
After British troops retook the remote Atlantic island of South Georgia from Argentine troops in April 1982, newspaper headlines read “Rejoice! Rejoice!”
In retrospect, it is clear that this was one of the great turning points of the decade. For as Fleet Street celebrated an important early success in the campaign to re-establish British authority over the Falklands Islands, Margaret Thatcher’s own political fortunes were starting to turn too: military victory gave a huge boost to the previously unpopular prime minister, and set her party on the path to a landslide general election victory the following year.
After the Falklands, Thatcher was, at least in Fleet Street’s eyes, the leader who had made Britain great again. Alwyn Turner’s title is ironic, though: for him, Thatcher’s premiership was not a time of much rejoicing, not least because of the ‘Iron Lady’s’ abrasive approach to politics.
It was, instead, a period of increasing social division which fostered civil disorder and rising crime; the glorification of wealth creation could not silence, Turner observes, “the note of snarled hostility, of suppressed violence, that insisted on making itself heard”.
This kaleidoscopic history, the sequel to the author’s well-received Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, provides a vivid and enjoyable guide to these turbulent years. Ranging broadly across popular culture as well as high politics, and featuring Dr Who and Ben Elton as prominently as Michael Foot and Michael Heseltine, Turner brings the period alive and offers insights into both sides of a polarised nation.
The book is loosely structured around a political narrative, with three sections corresponding to each of Thatcher’s governments.
With the Conservatives so dominant for most of the decade, many of the key political struggles were within rather than between the parties – Thatcher against the ‘wets’, Kinnock versus Labour’s left-wing Militant tendency, David Steel vying with David Owen for control of the SDP-Liberal grouping.
Turner offers little that is new here, but he tells these stories with gusto and is fairly even-handed in his judgements. Despite the length of her reign and her undoubted achievements in certain areas – reducing the power of the trade unions, the sale of council housing, the privatisation of state-owned industries – Thatcher was neither able to win over the country to her stark political ideology, nor was she able decisively to conquer the problems of inflation or unemployment.
The author speculates more than once about what would have happened had Denis Healey, rather than Michael Foot, won the leadership of the Labour party in 1981: he suggests that under Healey Labour would have been “probable” victors of the 1983 general election, and that Thatcherism would have been stopped in its tracks.
As it was, Labour spent the rest of the decade dealing with the emergence of the SDP and trying to counter perceptions of extremism within its ranks, never quite persuading the public that it was ready to run the country.
Turner’s discussion of popular culture is more original and distinctive. The author has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the era’s television, fiction and music, and he litters the text with intriguing references to sitcoms, detective novels and chart-topping songs.
He is particularly perceptive about the ways in which political conflicts were often refought in cultural arenas – how, for example, ‘alternative’ comedians such as Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall and Ben Elton approached issues of class, race and gender with a sensitivity that was a direct challenge to an older generation of performers typified by Benny Hill and Bernard Manning.
The Red Wedge initiative of the mid-1980s, led by the musicians Paul Weller and Billy Bragg to encourage political participation among young people, might have only had a limited impact in encouraging support for the Labour party, but it was nevertheless significant that few musicians “would have dreamt of campaigning for the Tories”.
Part of the reason that Thatcher was ultimately unable to convert more of the public to her cause, Turner argues, was because of the widespread opposition to her that was expressed through popular culture.
This is a book with a relatively narrow historical perspective, and there are few attempts to situate the developments of the 1980s among the broader patterns of change in 20th-century Britain. As a self-contained study of the period, though, it has much to recommend it, especially for those interested in life beyond Westminster.
Adrian Bingham is senior lecturer in history, University of Sheffield