On 1 September 1978, the then prime minister Jim Callaghan invited six leading trade unionists to dinner at his Elizabethan farmhouse in Sussex. By all accounts it was a very jolly affair with Callaghan’s wife Audrey doing the cooking and their granddaughter Tamsin Jay handing round the dishes. The trade union grandees went away convinced that Callaghan was about to call a general election. Instead, he sat on his hands and waited.
It proved to be a catastrophic misjudgment. Just four months later they all met up again — this time to discuss declaring a national emergency. After losing a no-confidence debate in the Commons by one vote, Callaghan had no choice but to go to the country — whereupon a young Welsh MP called Neil Kinnock burst into a stirring rendition of ‘The Red Flag’.
Margaret Thatcher, of course, won the 1979 election and proceeded to dominate politics for the next 10 years. As Graham Stewart points out in this lively, incisive and valiantly thorough history of the 1980s, the last time Britain had been continuously served by the same prime minister for a decade had been back in the days of Pitt the Younger.
In any history like this, it’s tempting to look for harbingers — little fuses that start smouldering away soon after curtain-up and eventually burst into flame in Act Five. Here, one might point not entirely flippantly to Sir Geoffrey Howe’s trousers. At a lunch at Chequers soon after Mrs Thatcher had taken power, a waitress slipped and spilt hot soup into Howe’s lap. Thatcher immediately leapt up to console the waitress — ‘There, there, you musn’t be upset’ — while completely ignoring the scalded Sir Geoffrey. As
Stewart notes dryly, there would come a time when Thatcher’s lack of concern for Howe would cost her dear.
Also in her first Cabinet was Sir Keith Joseph — ‘the only boring Jew I’ve ever met’, according to Harold Macmillan. But what-
ever Joseph’s deficiencies as a dinner companion, in many ways he would prove to be a pivotal figure, torn as he was between
Ideology and Compassion, the two anchormen in the tug o’ war that raged throughout the Eighties.
But if Britain in that decade was a deeply divided place, the divisions weren’t necessarily where you might have expected to find them. Following in Orwell’s footsteps, the journalist Ian Jack visited Wigan in 1982. Although unemployment in the town was running at 20 per cent, Jack was surprised to find a newsagent selling just 13 copies a month of the New Statesman, compared to 22 copies of the Investor’s Chronicle and 36 copies of The Lady.
Yet confrontation was never far away. Politically, the two main parties glared at one another from deeply-cut trenches — despite the fact that the Labour party was now led by Michael Foot, a man whose appetite for a fight can be gauged from his reaction on learning that his wife, Jill Craigie, had been raped as a young woman by Arthur Koestler. If he had known at the time, Foot said, ‘I think I would have written him a letter.’
There were raves, riots, the poll tax, the Falklands, Aids and Greenham Common. There were forgotten figures like Honest Ed Mirvish, the Canadian entrepreneur who bought the Old Vic, and Little Peter Bruinvels the Tory MP for Leicester East who, if memory serves, not only voted for the reintroduction of hanging but volunteered to man the trap himself. And through it all, striding ever onwards it seemed, was Mrs Thatcher.
Stewart, whose sympathies are broadly but by no means swooningly to the right, is particularly good on Thatcher’s strengths and weaknesses. Where there was discord at the start of the decade, there was even more of it at the end. Yet for all
the bankruptcies and broken glass, Britain at the dawn of the 1990s was a more socially fluid, confident and prosperous place than it had been ten years earlier.
By then, there was only one survivor from Thatcher’s first Cabinet — and that was Thatcher herself. But not for long. Howe’s pants finally ignited in November 1990 when he launched his famous attack on her in the Commons. By the time he sat down, the 1980s, Thatcher and her standard-bearers had effectively become history. A month later, Howe found himself standing next to Keith Joseph at a reception to greet the new Conservative leader, John Major. Howe attempted to make conversation, but Joseph wasn’t having any of it. ‘I’m sorry Geoffrey’, Joseph told him. ‘We’re not friends anymore.’