• A Tale of Two Decades

    Book Review for the New Zealand Listener

    When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett: Faber & Faber

    Thatcher’s Britain by Richard Vinen: Simon & Schuster

    Popular wisdom has it that – in Britain as in the rest of the world – the 1970s and 1980s taken together straddled a decisive turning-point that saw the progressive disintegration of the post-war consensus on the one hand followed by a positive striking-out in a new direction on the other. Those of us who lived through the period – and especially those, like me, who were close to events – will testify to the turbulence of the 1970s and to the sense of fundamental change ushered in by the 1980s; but, as these two books in their different ways demonstrate, the history of the period is not as simple as it seems.

    At first glance, the 1970s were a decade of failed British Prime Ministers – Heath, Wilson and Callaghan – each of whom was defeated in turn by a combination of economic under-performance, the loss of faith in Keynesianism, irresponsible trade union power, and increasing self-doubt about the integrity of the United Kingdom and Britain’s place in the world. This catalogue of tribulations was followed by a very different Prime Minister who grasped the situation by the scruff of the neck, faced down both her critics and the country’s problems and, as a consequence, transformed Britain (for good or ill) and made the 1980s her decade.

    But, as Andy Beckett shows in his wonderfully lively reportage of the 1970s, that decade offered much more than chaos, confusion and decline. If we widen the lens to take in not just the economics and the politics, but a more complete picture of how the 1970s felt to the majority of British citizens, we see a British society that was unusually creative, surprisingly contented, and – especially towards the end of the decade – beginning to feel that many of the most pressing problems were well on the way to resolution.

    Even the much-touted economic problems were, perhaps, not quite as intractable as they seemed. Growth rates may have been lower than in some of the countries the British liked to measure themselves against, but we now know that most of those countries were about to face the same problems as had troubled the British. And, despite those issues, unemployment in Britain through the 70s was at lower levels than were matched over the next thirty years.

    The fortunes of the political leaders, however, seemed to tell a different story. Heath was a decent and thoughtful leader who proved – rather like a twentieth-century Gordon Brown – to be almost totally lacking in political skills or human warmth. Wilson was clearly ill-prepared – perhaps even reluctant – to take up the burdens of office again when he narrowly and slightly unexpectedly won the 1974 elections and he duly laid those burdens down within a couple years, to the surprise and discomfiture of his supporters. And Callaghan, despite his experience and calm good sense, badly misjudged a less than competent and responsible union leadership and came to grief over the “winter of discontent”. More seriously, none found a way to overcome the problems of comparatively poor economic performance while maintaining the commitment to full employment, good public services and social justice.

    That is not to say that this was an impossible or even a difficult task. It was simply beyond the conventional thinking of the time. Concern about the value and role of sterling, the priority given to the interests of the City, a touching faith in the curative powers of North Sea oil which was about to come on stream, and a fatalism about the competitiveness of British manufacturing industry all combined to close off avenues that could have seen a constructive evolution of policy, rather than allowing it to be seen to hit the buffers.

    Beckett is brilliant at evoking the mood of the moment (and there were many of them) and at painting the dramatis personae in full colour. His is essentially, however, a journalist’s account; there is surprisingly little analysis or exploration of issues. This is a minor quibble perhaps, but a New Zealand readership will understand the deficiency with a tiny example drawn from his account of British membership of the Common Market which resulted, he says, in New Zealand butter becoming “more expensive” – perhaps one way of putting it but not quite getting to the nub of the issue.

    Richard Vinen’s study of “Thatcher’s Britain” is a different sort of book. Whereas Beckett aims at (and largely succeeds in) painting a full, even if at times superficial, portrait of the 1970s, Vinen takes a more analytical approach, lingering – as befits an academic rather than a journalist – over those aspects that interest him and not bothering too much about covering the whole waterfront. The result is a curiously partial account of Margaret Thatcher – partial in the sense both of being less than complete and of being quite opinionated.

    It is perhaps a reflection of my own strong opinions on the subject that I found that I enjoyed what he has to say. He is good on both Thatcher and Thatcherism and quite properly makes a clear distinction between them. This accords with my own view, that it was one of those mysterious accidents of political life in a modern democracy that someone who seemed to have a surprisingly limited contribution to make was reckoned to have made such an impact.

    Margaret Thatcher had a collection of largely conventional – and partly anachronistic – views, rather than the coherent and ground-breaking political philosophy that is often attributed to her. She saw the world exactly in the way that could be expected of someone of her limited background and experience. It is the very conventionality of that view, untroubled as it was by doubts or complications, that proved to be the source of her strength. It accorded exactly with the way the world seemed to so many of her supporters, and it was their enthusiasm for her, coupled with her own strength of personality, that gave her the confidence to push forward with her agenda.

    It must not be forgotten, however, that Thatcher was a product of the particular combination of circumstances she encountered as Tory leader. As Vinen reminds us, she was a largely accidental Party leader, and a pretty ineffective Leader of the Opposition; for most of her first term, she was also an unusually unpopular Prime Minister.

    She had the good luck, though, to enter a political battlefield which her likely opponents had either abandoned of their own volition or from which they were distracted by other, internal, preoccupations. To the gratified surprise of the Prime Minister and her supporters, she found that she could push forward without encountering much by way of opposition.

    Thatcher found herself as the standard-bearer for what became known as Thatcherism; but the doctrine itself was a much more formidable construction – contributed to by a wide range of thinkers in many different fields, and assisted by opponents who had lost confidence in their own prescriptions – than her own quite simplistic political philosophy would have allowed. As so often in politics, luck and timing were almost everything, and by the end of the 1980s, they had run their course.

    The two decades are not, after all, a simple parable of decline and renewal. As Enoch Powell, copiously quoted by Vinen, remarked, “All political careers end in failure.” Margaret Thatcher, along with Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, was no exception. These two books offer at least a part of the explanation of why that was.

    Bryan Gould

    9 July 2009