Book reviews: Bang! & An English Affair
Written by Cultureon 21 February 2013 in
This article is from the March 2013 issue of Total Politics
Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s
Atlantic Books, £25
Review by Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for Broadland
Although this is supposed to be a comprehensive history of Britain in the 1980s, high politics dominates, and while there is passing reference to culture, the theme is one of political and economic change. The author has previously written a well-received book on the rivalry between the Churchill and Chamberlain families, and the latest volume of The History of The Times: The Murdoch Years.
The 1980s is well within living memory, particularly for this reviewer. As Stewart argues, the beginning of the decade does appear to be old history and has little in common with contemporary Britain, while the end sees change that resonates today. He argues that the 1980s was a decade of massive disruption and dominated by Margaret Thatcher. It was her experience of the 1970s that made her into what she became as prime minister. This, however, is no hagiography, and while the author admires many aspects of her personality and politics, he retains his critical faculties.
There was nothing inevitable about Thatcher winning the 1979 election, and if Callaghan had dissolved Parliament earlier he might well have been returned with a workable majority. But it’s hard to imagine either a second Callaghan government or a Conservative government led by a leader other than Thatcher that would have been prepared to challenge so radically the political and economic status quo.
Stewart bases his text mainly on secondary sources, but he has effectively mined the best and astutely analyses leading politicians. He’s also excellent at explaining the political and economic policy alternatives.
The late 1970s were dominated by the image and reality of Britain in political and economic decline, with state-subsidised industries, powerful trade unions and the Cold War at its height. A decade later, it seemed that Britain was leading the world in running a market economy, deregulation, constraining the political power of the unions and in helping to end the Cold War. History, however, isn’t as succinct as that, but Stewart would argue that it’s inconceivable to imagine these fundamental changes occurring without Thatcher.
None of this, certainly, was achieved without conflict. There was political conflict within the Conservative party and between the Conservatives and the Labour, Liberal and Nationalist parties. There was a brutal struggle going on with the most militant arms of the union movement, and social upheaval and deprivation produced serious urban riots. Topping it all, the IRA narrowly missed killing Thatcher and most of her cabinet in the Brighton bombing.
Stewart shows that Thatcher attempted what had been regarded as impossible – large-scale privatisation and deregulation, but not without costs, and with long-term consequences. Just as post-war Tory governments mainly accepted the basic political and economic premises of the Attlee government, the Blair/Brown governments did likewise with Thatcherism.
Alongside Benjamin Disraeli, David Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald, Thatcher was one of only four authentic outsiders to become PM, as a woman from a petit bourgeois background who was an applied scientist.
At times, Bang! is heavy going, but it is nonetheless a stimulating book, and it will be interesting to compare and contrast it to the volume on the 1980s that Dominic Sandbrook is writing, on what has been his wider political and cultural history of Britain, decade by decade, from the 1950s.
An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo
Harper Press, £20
Review by Ben Duckworth
This is a fantastic book for any fantasists who believe that the current generation of politicians and journalists have bottomed out into a low point of corruption and immorality. What took place in the early 1960s was much worse.
The Profumo Affair was probably the perfect conspiracy theory – the country was whipped into outraged frenzy over a louche, detached establishment, lowly good-time girls became linked to cabinet ministers, every single backbench MP appeared to have acted as an MI5 mole and just about all the fears marking British life at the time were distilled into one scandal: homosexuality, Soviet spies, anti-Semitism, property developers, loose morals, West Indian immigrants, decline of the aristocracy, new money, slums, distrusted medical practises. It was all there.
There were a number of victims, most prominently Stephen Ward. The osteopath, who proved an easy scapegoat for a justice system that seemed driven by a curious mixture of malevolence and obsolete moralism, committed suicide by taking an overdose before his guilty verdict could be read to him.
Some of the parallels with today are striking. Lord Mancroft’s Rights of Privacy Bill, introduced in 1961, sought to “protect privacy and give rights of redress”. It would have enabled journalists to be sued if they published “without the plaintiffs’ consent; information about their personal affairs which was calculated to distress or embarrass.”
Intrusion into the hospital room containing Matt Busby and surviving Manchester United players after the Munich air disaster and similar behaviour while Aneurin Bevan lay dying were cited as evidence for a new press law. It was struck down by David Maxwell Fyfe, Lord Chancellor, after the government declined to pick a fight with the press.
This is racy history at its best – highly readable and, just like the public hoovering up the early ‘60s tabloids, the reader is left feeling a bit voyeuristic. Author Richard Davenport-Hines divides up the first section of An English Affair into chapters covering the areas of society around which the Profumo Affair swirled. Prime minister, war minister (Profumo), lord (Astor), doctor, good-time girls, landlords, hacks and spies.
This is an enterprising solution to how to cover a 50-year-old scandal with a new angle. It allows for Davenport-Hines to reveal a Britain caught between the post-war world and previous glories. The concrete tower blocks were shooting up all over London and other cities, but the last embers of an aristocratic generation remained; guests to Bill Astor’s Cliveden Italianate palace received every possible luxury (including having their cars valeted while they lounged around the grounds).
Prejudice still ruled. Everyone seems to have been obsessed with homosexuality, from Harold Macmillan downwards. This was the era of spies like John Vassall, an admiralty civil servant, who spied for the Soviets after being blackmailed over some incriminating photos. Tam Galbraith, for whom Vassall worked, was forced to resign after endless innuendo over their relationship. Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King’s Mirror Group published a newspaper article entitled: ‘How to spot a potential homo’.
Forget the Cuban Missile Crisis – which took place while the Profumo Affair developed – most of Britain seemed endlessly fascinated with what was then deemed to be a hidden vice threatening the nation’s moral fabric. Most of all, everyone wanted to hear and read about as many salacious details as possible. The fascination with slum landlord Peter Rachmann’s two-way mirror during Stephen Ward’s trial came from the same enthrallment with sex.
Sadly, the human cost was high. And Britain is now a very different place. This remains an essential read for anyone wanting to understand how duplicitous and hypocritical we can all be.