It is fourteen years since Dominic Sandbrook published Never Had It So Good, the first part of what was intended to be a three-volume history of postwar Britain. That nine-hundred pager, covering the period from the Suez Crisis to the release of the Beatles’ first album (1956–63), has since been followed by White Heat (1964–70), State of Emergency (1970–4), Seasons in the Sun (1974–9) and now Who Dares Wins. The new book begins with Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis of Assisi outside 10 Downing Street and ends with her going to war against Argentina. In between, riots erupt in British cities and Prince Charles marries Lady Diana Spencer.
Volume five, then, but still no end in sight. Sandbrook is clearly enjoying himself so much he can’t bear the series to end – and, as a reader, so am I. This is vividly panoramic history, ranging from high affairs of state to the tiniest textural details of everyday life: the ‘Falklands factor’ and the F-plan diet, monetary targets and the ‘mania for home improvement’, steel strikes and Sloane Rangers. Sandbrook offers a provocative justification for narrowing the timeframe in his latest volume: 1979 to 1982 may be only three years, but they were ‘the most exciting and controversial years in our post-war history’.
His sources are joyously eclectic. Writing that the Social Democrats’ breakaway from the Labour Party ‘felt like the beginning of a nightmarish family feud’, he finds confirmation in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾. ‘Pandora’s parents have had a massive row,’ Adrian writes in January 1982. ‘They are sleeping in separate bedrooms. Pandora’s mother has joined the SDP and Pandora’s father is staying loyal to the Labour Party.’ The Henry Root letters are used to equally good effect, though Sandbrook adds a footnote ‘for younger readers’ explaining that Root was a spoof figure, part of ‘a golden age of political humour, from the letters of Private Eye’s Denis Thatcher to the diaries of fictional creations such as Adrian Mole and Tony Benn’.
In some lights these years may look like a postscript to the 1970s, with headlines still dominated by terrorists and football hooligans, strikes and industrial decline. But there is one indisputable difference: the predominance of Thatcher. Her Labour predecessor as prime minister, Jim Callaghan, got the point earlier than most. ‘There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics,’ he told a colleague on the eve of the 1979 election. ‘I suspect there is now such a sea-change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.’
The difference was not immediately apparent. In the first phase of her premiership there were the old familiar Tory faces round the cabinet table (Whitelaw and Carrington, Prior and Pym) and the old familiar problems confronting them. By 3 May 1980, a year after her election, inflation was nearly 22 per cent and unemployment was fast approaching two million. On 5 May, a bank holiday Monday, the BBC interrupted its coverage of the world snooker final to go live to South Kensington, where the SAS had just begun storming the Iranian embassy to free nineteen hostages held by Arab separatists.
Sandbrook presents this as a pivotal moment. Thatcher
had come to power as an earnest economic reformer, promising to sort out the nation’s household budget. In the spring of 1980, few people imagined she would ever take Britain into battle. But now, at a time when everything seemed to be going wrong, she had enjoyed her first taste of a promising new role: the warrior queen, the British St Joan, Britannia incarnate.
The SAS motto ‘Who Dares Wins’ seeped into popular culture.
Sandbrook uses it as his title to highlight what he regards as most distinctive about the early 1980s: not the shock of mass unemployment, the triumph of individualism or even the novelty of a female prime minister, but ‘something more primal: the rebirth of a patriotic populism’. Phrases such as ‘Our Country at its Best’ or ‘The British are Back!’ were seldom heard in the 1960s or 1970s, but now even the Austin Metro was promoted as ‘a British car to beat the world’. In his acceptance speech at the 1982 Academy Awards, the Oscar-winning screenwriter Colin Welland shouted: ‘The British are coming!’
All this began at the Iranian embassy on that May bank holiday. Even the New York Times, which loved to portray Britain as a shabby bit of post-imperial flotsam, was awestruck: ‘The audacity and precision of the Special Air Services commandos reaffirms the intrepid British image of a Winston Churchill, a Francis Chichester, or even James Bond.’ The Fleet Street headlines – ‘VICTORY!’, ‘So Proud to be British’ – now read like a dress rehearsal for coverage of the Falklands War two years later.
Sandbrook’s account of the war in the South Atlantic, to which he devotes more than a hundred pages, does justice to every aspect (from the tragic to the farcical) of those surreal ten weeks in 1982. Before it all blew up, he points out, most of us didn’t even know where the Falklands were. ‘In a broad strategic sense the war was a sideshow, which made no discernible difference to the lives of the vast majority who applauded it. Yet in psychological and political terms its impact can hardly be overstated.’ A fight for obscure, faraway islands somehow became a crucial test of the national spirit, providing a new myth to rank alongside those of Trafalgar and Waterloo, Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. And a week after the war ended, Princess Diana gave birth to a boy.
There Sandbrook leaves us, with newspapers celebrating the arrival of Prince William so soon after the liberation of Port Stanley as ‘a moment of almost unimaginable ecstasy’. But he does offer a telling thought. ‘It is only a slight stretch to suggest that, had it not been for the revival of their patriotic self-image, the British might not have remained so doggedly suspicious of the European project,’ he muses. ‘Perhaps it was here, then, that the road to Brexit began.’ Something to chew on while we wait impatiently for the next course of this richly satisfying historical feast.