The Falklands, Thatcher and Mini Metros: interview with Andy Beckett, author ‘Promised You A Miracle’ – the definitive ’80s biography

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The early 1980s was a time of unparalleled change in British society as the old certainties crumbled and new forces – in politics, business and the arts – took centre-stage. In Promised You A Miracle, journalist Andy Beckett forensically examines the years 1980-82, and here, tells Umbrella how they made the world we live in today…

Hi Andy. What was the state of the UK in 1980?
There was a hunger for a new Britain but people weren’t sure what it was going to be. There was a new [Tory, Thatcher-led] government in, making promises, but even by then it had become unpopular. There was an awareness from both the right and left, however, that some of the ideas from the last 50 years had run their course. 

Like what?
The post-war consensus where people did things collectively more than individuals. That shifted during the 1970s. There was the growth of materialism and individualism, with people thinking in a more entrepreneurial way. One of the reasons Thatcher succeeded – at least in her terms – was because there was a readiness for something a bit like Thatcherism before she came in. That could have been a less right-wing, business-orientated version of the Labour party because things were already on the turn before she came to power. She exploited it, as much as created it.

Were the nationalised industries really as bad as we’ve been led to believe?
I don’t have the view they were useless. A lot of people were comfortable with the state owning things. But the car industry, which was mostly in state hands, was struggling. It had been producing lots of terrible cars, but the story of the Austin Metro, which I cover in the book, showed this supposedly hopeless, conglomerate could actually produce a smart little car which was very successful. 

What were the unions like then?
From the late 1960s to the beginning of the ’80s there were more hard left people in the unions – the SWP, communist types – but they were a minority. Most members were broadly on the left, though quite a few voted Tory – they really just wanted their union to get them as good a deal as possible. That’s been written out of history. The workers who were most militant were often women working as things like hospital cleaners. I’m not defending every strike, but they weren’t trying to destroy UK society. As miners’ leader Arthur Scargill said, his members were just people who wanted a conservatory and to able to go on holiday. 

You talk about the Thatcherite embrace of monetarism. What was it?
It was an economic idea that said you could sort out an economy like Britain, which was weak and had terrible inflation, by the government to controlling the amount of money circulating, which would reduce inflation. 

Did it?
No, it went wrong pretty quickly. By the late ’70s, the British economy was weak so by restricting the amount of money the recession got worse. as did inflation to start with. You had unemployment and inflation going up, and a worsening recession at the same time. They said, “It’s like an alcoholic stopping drinking – things will get better.” In ’80 and ’81 thought this wasn’t working at all. Its social effects were terrifying. 

That’ll be the riots then…
They happened in Liverpool, London all over the country – in every major city. A lot of cases, the long term causes were to do with heavy-handed, often quite racist policing of mixed-race areas. These were areas that were in trouble, anyway: Toxteth and Brixton had falling populations and rising unemployment even before Thatcher got in, and what she did economically made it worse. The riots didn’t happen in the ’70s, it was something happened on her watch. There were copycat riots in places like Keswick and rich towns in the south of England, too. There was a mix of reasons: some rioters had deep-seated resentment against the police, some were politically motivated and others just wanted to do a bit of looting. 

Away from domestic politics, there was a bigger sense of anxiety around nuclear weapons, wasn’t there?
A lot of people were really frightened that was going to be a nuclear war between us and the Russians. Thatcher and Reagan were confrontational, and there was an ageing regime in the USSR that was trying to stay on. Things had warmed up in the ’70s but got worse again in the ’80s. There was a concern that there’d be a ‘limited nuclear war’, which was confined to Europe as there were American bases here and in West Germany. Britain was full of targets to the Russians. 

Was that the spark for the Greenham Common protest?
Yes, the missiles there were cruise, so could only fly a short distance – to Eastern Europe. There was a sense they’d make us more of a target. 

How did the Greenham Common camp protest come about?
The protest was the idea of a woman called Anne Pettitt – to stereotype her, a lefty-Guardian person. She’d been involved in radical politics in London then moved to Wales and begun to get concerned about nuclear power. She read an article in Peace News, the CND paper, about a march that happened on the continent against nuclear weapons and decided to protest against it here. They marched to Greenham Common, had a fantastic time and got some local coverage – and on East German TV – but not as much coverage as they wanted. They decided they needed more so chained themselves to the fence and decided they had to stay there for a bit. It was made up as they went along. 

Did the camp rock the government?
It was were spooked by it initially when it was set up in 1981 as it attracted a lot of attention. In the early ’80s, CND, which had been quite moribund in during the ’70s, became a massive organisation with big rallies in London. Lots of fashionable bands started supporting it, which in turn started sponsoring Glastonbury. But the authorities never seriously considered saying, “We’re not having nukes at Greenham Common,” because the ties between the British and American defence establishments were – and are – so strong. 

Moving on to the 1982 Falklands war. Did the government have any idea Argentina was interested in the islands?
The British had known there was a danger that the Argentines might invade for 15-20 years. In the 1970s, the Callaghan government sent a mini task force in secret to scare the Argies off when they’d hinted at an invasion. Thatcher was less interested in military matters. When an admiral said it would take three weeks to steam from the UK to Falklands, she said, “Surely, you mean three days?.” She had no idea how to defend this place. Argentina saw an open door and walked in. If you go to the Falkland Islands – and I have – and talk to the Islanders, a lot of them are critical of the Thatcher government. They say the war was her cleaning up her own mess. Previous governments had kept a lid on things. 

Did the British think they’d lose?
Argentina had thousands of troops occupying the Islands, its navy was quite big and it knew Thatcher was planning to cut the British one. But the Argentines jumped the gun. If they’d invaded later it would have been winter, and they’d have been entrenched there. It was incompetence on both sides. The Argentine writer Jose Luis Borges said the war was like “Two bald men fighting over a comb”. 

Looking back at the early 1980s, what’s your view on it now?
The fascination for me about the time is seeing the start of the world we have now. When I first had a job in the early ’90s, Britain seemed boring and quite stable, but now it feels unstable again, similar to the ’80s. I think we’ve also become ideological again – there’s a big difference between Corbyn and the Conservatives. What’s different is the trade unions were still powerful and the fear of nuclear war was big – it’s not now. In the ’80s Britain was becoming more entrepreneurial. I live in Hackney, and everywhere you go there are hipsters talking in cafes, basically selling business ideas to each other. That was just starting then. 

Today’s not quite as scary then?
There’s less violence. People always talked about ‘aggro’ – the idea you’d get beaten up because you were a punk or whatever. The sense of tension around football or subcultures has gone. It was an exciting time, but scary, too. If you want stable, the world of Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher wasn’t for you. 

Do the changes feel permanent? 
Some do. The idea of running a business as a natural thing is pretty permanent. But some of the other things are showing their age. The idea you’ll own property is going now – property ownership has gone back to mid-’80s levels. Interestingly, a lot of ideas from the radical left, especially the GLC (Greater London Council), have been very influential. Ideas that governments should get rid of prejudice around gender, race and sexuality is pretty standard now, even among Tories. It’s been an unspoken revolution. Some of those ideas have lasted better than the Thatcherite ones. 

Promised You A Miracle by Andy Beckett is published by Allen Lane. You can get it here

 

 

 

 

 








The Falklands, Thatcher and Mini Metros: interview with Andy Beckett, author ‘Promised You A Miracle’ – the definitive ’80s biography Comments












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