26 January 2013

When Britain was reborn

Britain in the late 1970s was a stagnant, dissatisfied place.  

Great swathes of indutry lay in the hands of the state, whose attempts to balance the demands of organised labour with economic stability had completely failed.  Inflation and unemployment were both rampant.   The government was a prisoner of the unions.  Despite the revolution of the Sixties social mores remained faintly stiff and old-fashioned.  Fashion was the pits.  

Society was divided, a fact mirrored by the absence of a meaningful centre-ground in politics, where the two main parties split beween Tory squirearchy and a Labour party whose instincts erred closed to Trotskyism than social democracy.

Then along came Mrs Thatcher.  Her improbable assumption of power in 1979, her even more unexpected retention of it in 1983 and her historic second re-election in 1987 brought about the most transformative period in British politics, culture and society since the WW2.

Thatcher's government brought monetarist economics, an aggressive foreign policy, the privatisation of industry and a commitment to shrinking the state and empowering enterprise - or as her detractors had it, encouraging greed.

Her government was as transformative as it was divisive.  Inflation was eventually tamed, but it was a ruinously painful process.  Unemployment was also controlled, after a fashion, although it was entrenched for generations in those areas of the country where heavy industry was forcibly abandoned.  

Victory in the Falklands was a tonic for the nation's self-importance, but it marked the end of Britain's ability to take unilateral military action overseas.

The sell-off of industry (and North Sea oil) certainly shrank the size of the state's broadest economic obligations, but the national budget was bloated, as is now apparent, by a permanently expanded welfare sector.  
Most famously, Thatcher created a generation of home owners and a booming financial sector - the two factors that probably had the greatest direct effect on national prosperity until the crash of 1007/08. 

Now, though, home owning is once again impossible for many young people, and the fact that Britain's economy is so reliant on the City seems increasingly a source of imbalance rather than strength.

So the legacy of the Eighties is still stamped on Britain, for better or worse.  To those who hated Thatcher and everything she stood for, she remains ther symbol of Tory heartlessness.  Yet politically, Thatcher's way is now effectively the ecntre ground, and has been ever since 1997 when Blair, who was Labour's Thatcher, inherited power.

All this, and more, are all described in Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart (pub Atlantic), an accomplished, politically minded history of a decade in which Britain was painfully reborn.

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