Proper Gander: Back To The Future

Pick any recent decade, and an argument could be made that it was pivotal in shaping the trends of our current (oddly nameless) decade. The 60s saw the erosion of many repressive attitudes, the 90s brought us the internet and mobile phones on a wide scale, and the 00s gave us a financial crisis and reality TV. In The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook (BBC 2), the historian makes the case for the decade of legwarmers and Rubik’s cubes. Sandbrook likes to use these kinds of symbols to highlight significant social developments. At various times he invokes Delia Smith, the Austin Metro and a Chesterfield vs Mansfield football match as representing the spirit of the time. But his argument isn’t as shallow as this might suggest.

For him, Delia Smith’s straightforward recipes symbolise how working couples had less time to cook, the Austin Metro was a patriotic attempt at revitalising British industry, and rivalry between supporters of Chesterfield and Mansfield’s football teams was based on whether each town’s miners went on strike. He wants us to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about what and who pushed society’s changes, especially during the 80s’ first half.

Sandbrook says that Margaret Thatcher’s reputation as the driving force behind the economic, social and political changes during the decade has been overstated. He argues that she embraced, rather than caused, the trends which were shaping society, such as the rise of consumerism and fall of traditional heavy industries. With or without her influence, many British industries were in a long-term decline due to wider market forces. The communities which relied on mining, in particular, ‘faced unemployment and disintegration’ due to their decline, and Thatcher was ‘a very convenient scapegoat’. The manufacturers she championed, such as the producers of the Austin Metro car and BBC Micro computer were hoped to be the businesses of the future, although both brands ended up overtaken by imported competitors.

The more successful industries during the 80s didn’t just produce commodities, but also commodified our identities. According to Sandbrook, consumerism isn’t really about the stuff we buy, but more about how our purchases relate to our image. During (and since) the 80s, taste was something which defined our personalities, whether we’re sloanes choosing jackets for the office in Next or New Romantics buying a Duran Duran LP. Previously, our identities were formed more by where we worked, especially in the politicised and unionised heavy industries. One symbol of this shift among countless others is the opening of the Merry Hill shopping centre near Dudley, built after the nearby Round Oak Steel Works closed.

Sandbrook says that ‘the real authors of change were us’, rather than Thatcher. As markets shifted, we focused on spending more on ourselves, and our homes. One symptom of this was the rise in popularity of video recorders. According to Mary Whitehouse and the mainstream media, much of the time we were using them to watch ‘video nasties’. The moral panic over gory films brought out deeper social anxieties about the intrusion of the big, bad changing world into our lives. Other tensions, such as the Brixton race riots and appearance of AIDS, exposed anxieties about Britain’s changing demographics.

For Sandbrook, these kinds of ‘identity politics’ were also central to the 1984 Miners’ Strike. He argues that the popular impression of the strike being the flashpoint in ongoing rivalries between the left and right wings of politics is misleading. He argues that the real conflict was within the miners, between those loyal to the unions and those who wanted to maintain their income by working. Sandbrook’s analysis is that the real faultline of the Miners’ Strike was between ‘collective loyalty and individual aspiration’. Changes in employment patterns are more fundamental than the ideologies of the political parties and unions.

For this reason, he tells us it’s a myth that Thatcher won the 1983 general election because of the Falklands War, as voters were really thinking more about jobs and the economy. Her cause was helped by latching on to trends like entrepreneurialism and individualism, and by being media-savvy. Thatcher’s government wanted to use the then-new Breakfast Television for propaganda purposes, as shown in a hitherto-secret memo.

In contrast, the Labour Party of the time was held back from electoral success by not concentrating enough on society’s changes. Grainy footage shows the 1980 Labour Party conference sharing a venue with Mike Yarwood and the Nolans. While the acts might have changed, the performances are similar again today, with conflicts between left-wing tendencies and those wanting to appeal to the centre ground (within the Labour Party, that is, not the Nolans).

Sandbrook’s main point is that the impact of market forces on us was what changed society during the early 1980s. The industries which traditionally lent themselves to collective action through unions were replaced by the industries which promoted the individualistic consumer. His perceptive argument puts economics in a rightfully prominent place, without relying on dry financial statistics. And any documentary with a soundtrack of Tears For Fears and The Human League is worth a watch.


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