Vernon Bogdanor

A Difficult Country

Finding a Role? The United Kingdom 1970–1990


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In 1948, W H Auden wrote of Britain as: 

A backward

And dilapidated province, connected

To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain

Seedy appeal 

Such a perspective seemed even more appropriate in the 1970s, and in 1974 the Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan, confessed that ‘sometimes when I go to bed at night, I think that if I were a younger man I would emigrate’, though he then went on to add: ‘But when I wake up in the morning, I ask myself whether there is any place else I would prefer to go.’ 

In 1970, Edward Heath became Prime Minister. Although a Conservative, his government fought a desperate rearguard action to preserve the postwar social democratic settlement. But, by the end of the decade, both the Heath government and its successor, the Wilson/Callaghan Labour government, had been destroyed by the trade unions; inflation was out of control and the country seemed ungovernable. Even worse, the whole structure of civility, the premise of the postwar settlement, seemed to have collapsed. Cancer patients were being sent home from hospitals; rats roamed the streets of London where the dustmen were on strike; and, in Liverpool, the dead could not be buried. 

By 1990, however, the year when Margaret Thatcher was deposed, the picture was very different. The postwar settlement was now unquestionably dead, but it had been replaced by a new settlement, the leitmotif of which was a belief in the crucial importance of the market. Popular capitalism was in the ascendant and the force of organised labour had been broken. Indeed, there were now more shareholders in Britain than trade unionists. The defeatism of the 1970s had entirely gone. 

The central task for any historian of this period is to explain why the postwar settlement collapsed, and whether the achievements of Thatcherism, the last of the ideologies that had promised to regenerate Britain over the course of the twentieth century, were as solid as they seemed at the time.  

In Finding a Role?, the second of Brian Harrison’s two volumes in the New Oxford History of England series, he argues that the political strength of organised labour was grossly overestimated by both parties in the 1970s. He shrewdly observes that trade union militancy, which so many saw as a sign of growing class consciousness, ‘obscured the contemporary reality of a more subtly graded, less conflictual hierarchy, for these years saw the middle class as at last unobtrusively prevailing over their rivals’. The dominant public rhetoric of the 1970s misled the commentators. They failed to notice that ‘The political salience of organised labour in that decade and the even greater moral and intellectual salience of economic and social interventionism were articulated by statist sections of the middle class.’ 

Thatcherism, Harrison believes, was ‘a package with internal inconsistencies, and changed over time’, combining as it did economic liberalism, radical nationalism and social authoritarianism. But its most striking effect lay in ‘the change in the tone of public debate’, for it is the framework of public discussion ‘that politicians are uniquely qualified to influence’. Thatcherism seemed to have altered attitudes to the economy, although, as the survey analyst Ivor Crewe pointed out in 1988, not attitudes to society. For, in Crewe’s words, ‘after nine years of Thatcherism the public remained wedded to the collectivist, welfare ethic of social democracy’. Margaret Thatcher had hoped that the British people could become lions. But they preferred to remain ostriches. They listened politely to her sermons on the virtues of competition and the free market, but then continued much as before. ‘It is a very difficult country to move’, another Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, had declared over a hundred years before, ‘a very difficult country indeed.’ 

Harrison’s verdict on Thatcherism, then, is one of qualified enthusiasm. Above all, he does not believe that Margaret Thatcher succeeded in answering the question posed in his title. But that is because, as a liberal-minded person, he does not really believe that the search for a role makes sense: 

Democracy’s essence lies in its capacity to ensure that citizens pursue many roles, simultaneously and autonomously; indeed, maturity may have arrived only when a nation-state feels no need for collective ‘roles’, let alone roles that pander to notions of national superiority. 

The British, therefore, are fortunate 

to live within a political structure and culture that prescribed for them no collective role at all. Grand collective visions might be conjured up for them by others, but whether in action or in contemplation they remained free – whether producers or consumers, partners or parents – to pursue the many individual roles that they chose for themselves. 

It is a fitting conclusion to a book that emphasises the limitations of politics. ‘When all is said and done’, Margaret Thatcher once surprisingly admitted, ‘a politician’s role is a humble one.’  

Harrison’s primary interest lies in social history. He is very good on the trade unions and on topics such as changes in family structure. He seems less interested in foreign policy. There is, in particular, insufficient coverage of Europe, the issue that broke the Labour Party in 1981 and, by 1990, was showing signs of doing the same to the Conservatives. A historian really ought to explain why it was that Europe proved so uniquely divisive an issue for both of the major parties.  

Harrison has not only mastered most of the huge range of secondary literature, he has also rummaged assiduously through press cuttings. Finding a Role? contains a massive amount of information – too much perhaps – but it tends to be organised on the card-index principle. The style is cool, lacking both punch and verve. There is not a flicker of fine writing, and no attempt to bring the colourful personalities of the period to life. The last two volumes in the old ‘Oxford History of England’ series, by Sir Robert Ensor and A J P Taylor, are not only fine works of scholarship but are also exciting to read, informed as they are by a passion for politics and a deep engagement with political issues. Finding a Role? will not be read for enjoyment. It is more of a compendium than a living work of history. Anyone seeking an engagement with the period would do better to begin with Francis Wheen’s rollicking history of the 1970s, Strange Days Indeed, or Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain. Finding a Role? is likely to prove more of a quarry than a classic.

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