You know you’ve hit your mid-40s when histories of ‘your’ decade start to fill the bookshelves. Writers are always nostalgic for their youth and thirty years seems about right for a proper historical perspective. I turned 18 at the height of the miners’ strike in 1984 and often feel cheated about being landed with the decade of piano-key ties and Rick Astley rather than the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. But at the time, it seemed like fun, even if I was on the losing side of virtually every political and cultural argument for an entire decade.
We can assume that Graham Stewart, a former Times leader writer and historian of the Tory party, was very much on the winning side. For him, the 80s ‘exploded with a decisive bang’ and settled all those arguments for the next thirty years and beyond. Stewart’s only real reassessment of the legacy of free markets and deregulation is to imply that by not following ‘the Grantham gospel of Thatcher’s faith’ and cutting public spending, it was governments who caused the great crash of 2008.
Although Margaret Thatcher dominates the pages, she never really materialises in flesh and blood from the web of supportive clichés that Stewart weaves around her. Indeed, it’s hard to see how his Thatcher could arouse ‘the attraction and repulsion’ he says defined people’s attitudes in the 80s. She just seems so damn reasonable, at least until the end, when ‘experience was making her careless’ and her cabinet ‘were tiring of her brusqueness and rudeness’.
What Bang! really lacks – for want of a better word – is ‘bang’. Assembled almost exclusively from newspaper clippings, published memoirs (mainly those of Conservative politicians) and statistics, Stewart provides a crisp commentary on the key events and arguments without ever getting under the skin of the times. There are none of the interviews with people caught up in the big events which made Andy Beckett’s history of the 70s, When the Lights Went Out, the instant classic of the genre. Sometimes you wonder if Stewart wrote Bang! barricaded in his Buckingham University office, with the internet down, the phone off the hook and oblivious to anything that’s happened in the last five years.
This weakness is most glaring with Stewart’s chapter on the miner’s strike. While few would dispute that at the end of the dispute the miners were ‘a beaten army marching towards oblivion’, Stewart doesn’t talk to any of the miners or police officers involved, and doesn’t even seem to have visited any pit communities. Shorn of human context, this just makes the miners look silly and the dispute childish. Similarly, with the 1986 Wapping print dispute, Stewart pompously asserts that ‘the printers were protesting to ensure their industry continued to use outdated technology and inefficient practices’. In the words of the book’s heroine: No, no, no! Most were protesting because they feared losing their jobs and a way of life they treasured. To fail even to try to understand that is to fail as a social historian. Social history needs people and in Bang! the people seem to have been expunged from their own decade.
If you lived through the 80s, Bang! could make you wonder if you were really there. If you didn’t, you could end up wondering what all the fuss was about.
A version of this review was published in public service magazine, spring 2013.