We’re Still Living in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain
Margaret Thatcher rose to power in Britain during an age of economic crisis and political polarization, much like the country today. By defeating its opponents at home and abroad, her government helped kickstart the neoliberal era. We’re still living with the consequences.
In 1941, when the United Kingdom was at the height of its wartime isolation, George Orwell diagnosed England as “a family with the wrong members in control.” His essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, which tellingly conflated English and British identities, became emblematic of Britain’s transformation during the decade of total war and societal reconstruction.
Four decades later, Britain was once again in the midst of another pivotal upheaval, as the postwar social-democratic order gave way to a new age of market forces and pronounced individualism. Social theorists usually refer to the combined impact of these changes as “neoliberalism”, but in the British context they also carry the more specific label of “Thatcherism.”
The Authorized Version
This strong association between one political personality and a wider picture of systematic change shapes Dominic Sandbrook’s Who Dares Wins, the latest addition to his ongoing, multivolume history of Britain since 1956. Previous books in the cycle have included Never Had it So Good (2006) and Seasons in the Sun (2012). Sandbrook has also written in a similar vein about social and political conflicts in the United States during the 1960s.
This is just part of the output that has made Sandbrook one of Britain’s leading public historians. His television documentaries for the BBC — on subjects ranging from Cold War Britain to the Post Office and the German auto industry — and newspaper columns have helped consolidate a conservative “common sense” about the postwar period. This interpretation links a mournful view of the end of empire and Britain’s declining status as a world power, with a more optimistic picture of “affluence” and nascent consumerism.
This version of postwar Britain has displaced an earlier generation of social and cultural historians lying to Sandbrook’s left, such as Arthur Marwick, who regarded the 1960s as a revolutionary period. Instead, Sandbrook seeks to demonstrate the evolutionary nature of British history, stressing the predominance of “small c” conservatism in a nation that found student protesters and industrial militants either baffling or contemptible.
As well as popping the flower-power balloon, Sandbrook has also condemned the legacy of British social democracy. In the run up to the 2015 general election, Sandbrook wrote a column in the Daily Mail which condemned the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and his (relatively modest) manifesto, with its proposals for wealth redistribution and a more interventionist industrial strategy. These “strident attacks on Britain’s businesses” would, he argued, “take Britain back to the 1970s” by promoting conflict between organized labor, employers, and the state.
Brexit, and the growing threats to the future of the Union in Scotland and Ireland, have increased the political stakes when historians reexamine Britain’s past. Sandbrook is not an isolated figure. Alongside such figures as David Starkey and Tom Holland, he has secured a conservative ascendancy in British public history which is not reflective of the research produced by university departments.
Britain’s economic and political transformation in the early 1980s is especially important as contested territory. It is a period of great topical relevance, both in accounting for the current political conjuncture, and in assessing rival visions of the future.
History as Mirror?
In a book that weighs in at more than 900 pages, Sandbrook tries to combine a close reading of high politics during the early 1980s with a more diffuse analysis of the way class relations and economic structures were reconstructed in that period. He relies chiefly on newspaper records, including full runs of the Times, Daily Mirror, Guardian and Daily Express, as well as extensive holdings from the Thatcher Foundation, supplemented by material from the Mass Observation archive.
These were the years before Thatcherism reigned triumphant as a political philosophy, following the defeat of the miners in 1985 and the City of London’s 1986 “Big Bang” of market liberalization. “Orwell’s shadow” loomed large over Britain as mass unemployment reappeared, with official joblessness figures rising above three million in 1982 and hovering around that level for more than four years. Old interwar divisions between England’s prosperous South East on the one hand and the North, Wales, and Scotland on the other came to the fore, as traditional heavy industries were run down at a furious rate.
While Sandbrook does attend to these economic changes, his primary focus is on the shifts in culture and identity that revolve around a story of national rejuvenation. The book starts with an account of the Iranian embassy siege of 1980, revealingly titled “We’re still a superpower.” It ends with the outburst of national pride which followed the Falklands War two years later: “We are ourselves again.”
As Sandbrook shows, the years in between had been anything but smooth sailing. Thatcher’s government found itself beset by conflicts within her own cabinet and parliamentary party, and faced disastrous opinion polling scores. It was only in the course of 1982 — accompanied by the glow of victory over Argentina in the South Atlantic — that Thatcher achieved the hegemony that enabled her to win a crushing electoral victory in 1983, going on to exercise power for the rest of the decade.
Sandbrook is alert to the parallels with Britain’s contemporary fissures. There are multiple echoes of recent British political events in a context of structural economic crisis, a Labour Party led from the Left, and realignment in the political center ground after a right-wing split from the Labour Party.
Tensions within the Union, including the development of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, had marked the 1970s, and they would flare up again later in the decade. But nationalist disarray had set in after the debacle of the devolution referendums in March 1979, which failed to establish regional parliaments in Scotland or Wales.
At the time, Euroscepticism was a more a phenomenon of the Left rather than the Right — Labour’s election manifesto in 1983 called for withdrawal from the European Economic Community (EEC) — but Thatcher herself injected sharp hostility into Britain’s relations with the EEC. As Sandbrook recognizes, this grandstanding appeal to chauvinistic sentiment could be said to have set Britain on “the road to Brexit.”
Crashing the Party
Sandbrook explains Thatcherism as a reordering of who controlled Britain’s national family. He depicts the Thatcherites as upstarts who were determined to overturn the cozy “consensus” between the Conservative and Labour parties, and between employers and trade unions, that had dominated British political life since 1945. For Sandbrook, Thatcherism stood apart for its “tone” as much as its program or its social base.
Margaret Thatcher herself and many of her key ministers and intellectual outriders had little in common with the “blue blood” patrician Conservatives who had accepted a stronger role for government planning and organized labor in Britain’s economic life. Thatcher assembled a New Right vanguard whose members were fully committed to monetarist theory, freeing private enterprise from the encumbrance of the state, curbing trade union power, and reasserting Britain’s place in the world.
However, as Sandbrook also stresses, some of the transformations desired by the New Right had already begun by the time Thatcher rose to power. Under pressure from the IMF, a Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, had announced the end of Keynesian demand management. The postwar era of full employment was dead and buried.
Developments outside the fields of high politics or economic policymaking gave further impetus to these changes. Cultural shifts associated with the growth of individualism had been underway long before Thatcher entered Downing Street. Home ownership was growing, especially among “affluent” skilled workers, and increasingly assertive citizens were challenging traditions of deference, both social and political, across the class divide.
Britain, Sandbrook argues, was experiencing a general crisis of “Victorian institutions,” from the coal and steel industries, to association football and the Labour Party. His inclusion of Labour on that list is questionable: while the party’s origins may lie in the nineteenth century, it was only after the First World War that Labour became a potential governing force, and supplanted the Liberals as the chief rival of the Conservative Party.
This may seem like a minor point, but Sandbrook’s confusion here is just one example of a broader tendency to simplify and distort the history of the British left, even though labor and social-movement politics are crucial for his chosen period. Sandbrook paints a patronizing picture of middle-class CND protestors, and informs us that the 1970s had been characterized by “so many unofficial strikes, triggered by shop stewards who were often much more militant than their leaders.” He even claims that stewards “ruled” British Leyland’s mammoth auto plant at Longbridge in Birmingham.
Hyperbole aside, this version of industrial history seems to be contradicted by Sandbrook’s own account of the dismissal of Derek Robinson (“Red Robbo”), the factory’s convener and a prominent Communist. Robinson lost his job after workers refused to strike on his behalf during a major showdown with the company’s management, headed by an uncompromising South African, Michael Edwardes.
Sandbrook portrays Robinson in a relatively sympathetic light, as a long-serving trade unionist who often performed the role of shop-floor arbitrator, as well as being a leader in times of conflict. But in effect, he reduces British industrial politics to battles of individual will.
Assembling Cultures, the recent account of shop stewards in British car factories by Jack Saunders, shows that the emergence of shop-steward activism in the postwar period was a novel development in an industry which had little prior tradition of trade unionism. The stewards that Sandbrook portrays as Victorian dinosaurs for their defense of craft status and workplace collectivism were really the product of another rebellion against older hierarchies, not just in their workplaces but also within the trade union movement.
Their example disrupts a more straightforward and familiar story of the turn towards “privatized” lifestyles, home ownership and social mobility. Individualism and collectivism cannot be understood in binary terms, or simplistically mapped onto right or left in the context of late twentieth-century Britain.
Militants and Moderates
The first Thatcher government doesn’t emerge from Who Dares Wins with an unblemished record. Its author is too worldly a historian, and too aware of the human cost inflicted by Thatcher’s doctrinaire economic policies, to allow for that. He describes the plight of manufacturing workers, and the impact of the sharp recession in the early 1980s. One chapter focuses on the closure of British Steel’s large plants at Corby in the English Midlands and Consett in County Durham.
Sandbrook gives “moderate” trade union leaders much more favorable treatment than the “militant” shop stewards. Bill Sirs, who led the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation through the national steel strike of 1980, “just wanted a fair deal for his men,” he insists, but found that people on his own side undermined those efforts. Sandbrook quotes more or less uncritically from newspaper reports of picket-line violence, which concentrated on the role of Arthur Scargill, the Yorkshire miners’ leader, in confrontations with the police.
By replicating the hysteria of contemporary reporting, Sandbrook betrays the limitations of his sources, which cannot properly account for the motivations of Thatcher’s trade union opponents or allow him to make sense of debates within the British left. Scargill, in particular, appears as a sort of cartoon revolutionary, and the reader is left wondering how he could have been elected as president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1982.
Sandbrook explains that the experience of picketing during the steel strike convinced Thatcher’s cabinet that they needed to restrict the freedom of picketers to reach sites. This inspired the draconian policing tactics that were deployed in the course of the 1984–85 miners’ strike, some of which were later found to be illegal by the courts.
Later in the book, however, he quotes a warning from the prominent left-wing Labour MP Peter Hain that “the state is prepared to become authoritarian,” before impishly adding that “some people might have thought this paranoid.” The striking miners stitched up by the police at Orgreave might not be so dismissive. Their campaign for a public inquiry, alongside the ongoing independent review into the policing of the strike in Scotland, shows that battles over the meaning of what happened in 1980s Britain are still shaping the country’s politics today.
Sandbrook presents Thatcher’s industrial-relations strategy as having been improvised, rather than stemming from a single-minded desire to confront the unions. He argues, for example, that her government was essentially forced into the steel strike. But Sandbrook only mentions in passing the threat of a national miners’ strike in 1981, which was narrowly averted through a government retreat over Coal Board closures.
The momentum for a strike had developed from colliery-level walkouts, a year before Scargill became NUM president. That brings into question the overemphasis on Scargill’s personal dual with Thatcher as an explanation for the 1984–85 strike. Striking miners weren’t simply dupes led into battle by a vainglorious leader, contrary to media stereotypes of the time.
In his opening preface, Sandbrook declares that Who Dares Wins “is absolutely not a partisan book.” Some elements of the work do live up to that promise, such as its depiction of social suffering as a result of Thatcher’s monetarist economic policies, and of the punitive treatment meted out to the unemployed.
The same could also be said of Sandbrook’s take on the racist policing that triggered riots across multiple British cities in the summer of 1981. His approach mirrors the narrative of a recent BBC documentary series, Thatcher: A Very British Revolution, which spliced together debates over public-spending cuts with footage of dilapidated towns and boarded-up factories.
However, Sandbrook is firmly committed to a central Thatcherite myth: there is no alternative (TINA for short). He criticizes the so-called “wet” Tories, who balked at the mass impoverishment and intensified class conflict that resulted from Thatcher’s agenda: “Not one of them developed a practical alternative.”
Sandbrook presents Thatcherism as the only feasible route out of Britain’s “long nightmare of imperial retreat, economic indiscipline and industrial decline.” According to this perspective, the Labour prime ministers of the 1960s and 1970s, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan — and presumably Thatcher’s Conservative predecessor Ted Heath — represented “a kind of national defeatism.”
Revisionist economic historians such as Jim Tomlinson, who Sandbrook cites approvingly, would strongly contest this diagnosis. Britain’s postwar decades saw unparalleled rates of economic growth, combined with a degree of social egalitarianism that has never been matched before or since. Moreover, by the time of the 1979 election, the economy was starting to recover after the IMF crisis of 1976.
Thatcher’s embrace of monetarism was a radical, adventurist experiment — and one that was ultimately abandoned. Far from rolling back the state, her government maintained public spending at over 40 percent of GDP, which included the mounting costs of social welfare as unemployment soared. In order to massage the unemployment figures during the second half of the 1980s, older ex-industrial workers were often granted incapacity benefits in return for their withdrawal from the labour market.
Northern Decline, North Sea Bonanza
There’s a more convincing argument to be made about the economic and cultural changes that are often attributed to Thatcherism by her defenders and detractors alike. Those changes stemmed from long-term processes that were firmly in train by the late 1970s: Corby and Consett would most likely have lost their steel mills even if James Callaghan had stayed on as Britain’s Prime Minister.
But the speed at which deindustrialization takes place, and the way that governments manage the process, are vitally important. Although Britain may not be unique in having experienced a sharp decline in some of its leading industrial sectors, as Sandbrook stresses, he doesn’t go on to ask whether other European countries did a better job of managing the transition.
The United Kingdom’s Coal Industry Act of 1980 imposed stringent financial targets, leading Conservative energy ministers and their civil servants to press for pit closures, in the full knowledge that this might provoke a major strike. In Germany, by contrast, the long phase-out of coal production was much less acrimonious. The last colliery shut down in 2018, after a managed contraction based on dialogue between unions and management.
These economic experiments had a crucial underpinning in the form of royalties from North Sea oil, which came fully on-stream in the 1980s, providing huge tax receipts that financed Thatcherism through the worst results of its own excesses. A “fluke of timing” meant that large-scale extraction commenced just as world oil prices had spiked due to market volatility in the wake of the Iranian Revolution.
In his classic book, Fool’s Gold, the Scottish historian Chris Harvie noted that North Sea oil “failed almost totally to surface in the imaginative literature of Anglo-Britain.” It has also failed to make much impression on its historiography. Sandbrook does reference Harvie when he discusses oil as a major supplement to government balance-sheets — around 10 percent of total tax revenue by the mid-1980s — but he doesn’t address the creation of a vast and expanding infrastructure.
The offshore industry, clustered around Aberdeen and Lerwick in the Shetlands, was a rare source of industrial employment for a workforce that received high wages but had to face potentially lethal dangers in return — dangers that were compounded by the anti-union stance of the oil companies (as Harvie pointed out, the state-owned Norwegian oil company took a very different approach to industrial relations).
Who Dares Wins also neglects the privatization of oil exploration and drilling by the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC), through the establishment of BritOil, and the sale of 51 percent of its equity. This might not have been an example of the “popular capitalism” associated with the sales of British Gas, British Telecom or, most significantly, council housing. However, it was both an important precedent for those later initiatives, and a huge structural change in the orientation of the British state towards energy resources and markets.
Edge of the Union
BNOC’s absence from Sandbrook’s narrative is perhaps understandable: the direct political impact of North Sea oil in this period had subsided considerably since the 1970s, when the Scottish National Party had campaigned with the slogan “it’s Scotland’s oil,” posing a significant challenge to the British parties.
Sandbrook tends to bracket Scotland and Wales with Northern England in his accounts of deindustrialization. He does acknowledge the fact that a “broader sense” of nationalism characterized politics in the two countries, despite the failure of the devolution campaigns in Scotland and Wales in 1979.
Overall, however, Who Dares Wins is distinctly Anglo-centric. Sandbrook knowingly mirrors Theresa May’s pro-Brexit rhetoric language when he distinguishes between a Falklands-inspired patriotism of “the people” and the liberal qualms expressed by “citizens of the world,” which he considers to be a key idiom of the period.
He finds symbols of Britain’s new-found self-esteem in the red-blooded patriotism of England cricket batsman Ian Botham and the suburban everyman persona of snooker champion Steve Davis. Sandbrook may be right to claim that “the road to Brexit” began in these years, but he doesn’t give the same attention to the “path to devolution” and an ever-loosening Union identified by historians like David Stewart, which also runs straight from the Thatcher era to the present day.
Sandbrook subjects the imagined futures that were being constructed amid the collapsing social-democratic order to the condescension of posterity through his choice of source materials and his chronological, narrative approach. He doesn’t mention the formation of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly in 1980, even though it was a crucial milestone on the road towards Scottish devolution by the end of the century.
The development of Welsh politics through a cross-fertilization of class and national identities does feature to some extent. Sandbrook recounts the story of a threat by Plaid Cymru leader Gwynfor Evans to go on hunger strike in support of Welsh-language broadcasting, at a time when Welsh industrial workers were bearing the brunt of the recession.
This context gave his action greater appeal in traditionally Labour-voting South Wales, and encouraged support for devolution in the Welsh labor movement after the defeat of 1979. But in spite of his book’s vast length, Sandbrook can only squeeze this episode into one chapter, alongside the election of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands as a Westminster MP in 1981.
In a telling nod to contemporary trends, Sandbrook seems more interested in what left-wing Labour politicians had to say about the IRA’s “armed struggle” than in the politics of Northern Ireland itself. Two chapters — one largely dedicated to the Maze prison hunger strikes, the other to the Greater London Council (GLC) — focus heavily on the GLC leader, Ken Livingstone, and the sensationalist tabloid reporting of his support for Irish republican goals.
Sandbrook does recognize that the GLC under Livingstone’s stewardship represented a new form of urban left-wing politics, whose policies brought formerly marginal concerns — gay liberation, anti-racism, feminism — into the mainstream. But he recapitulates press attacks on the GLC from the time with much less critical scrutiny than they merit.
One of the book’s major achievements is its account of how neoliberalism took shape in the United Kingdom through a series of conflicts within the Conservative Party and British society at large. The eventual triumph of that doctrine should not be seen through the prism of hindsight as an inevitable outcome.
Sandbrook’s principal competitor as a popular historian of modern Britain is the Guardian journalist Andy Beckett. Beckett followed up his earlier account of the 1970s, When the Lights Went Out (2009), with a book that covers the very same period as Who Dares Wins: Promised You A Miracle (2015). It deals with many of the episodes recounted by Sandbrook, using similar source material.
But Beckett offers a far more sophisticated analysis of the forces behind “radical alternatives” in the early 1980s. In his rendering, community activists, Greenham Common peace campaigners, and budding Channel 4 television producers all appear as rounded individuals who made a lasting contribution to Britain’s altered landscape, even if they never came close to controlling its destiny.
Sandbrook certainly doesn’t buy into the myth of a “classless” society, and his attention to biographical details and generational experiences contribute to our understanding of this brief but distinctive era. However, his book lacks a proper appraisal of its long-term consequences.
The Thatcher years were characterized by a distinctive form of statecraft, one that combined a recharged British (or English) patriotism with the recasting of relations between individuals and the state, intended to foster an entrepreneurial, risk-taking environment. Yet the more individualist culture that eventually came into being also rested upon transformations in social attitudes — especially towards race and gender — that owed much to the activism of Britain’s New Left.
Past and Present
In order to understand the current period, we have to account for the rise of neoliberalism and its entanglement with a recharged variety of British nationalism. Like the years dealt with by Sandbrook in Who Dares Wins, it has been marked by crisis and renewal on Left and Right alike, sharp debates over Britain’s relationship with Europe, and a less tangible but keenly felt redrawing of economic and cultural hierarchies.
Thatcherism must be understood as a contingent set of beliefs and practices that was constructed through a “declinist” reading of postwar Britain. Boris Johnson’s recent declaration that “there is such a thing as society” demonstrates that the 1980s are now performing a similar role in neoliberalism’s twilight years.
Public narratives of the late 1970s and early 1980s have an unquestionable political salience in contemporary Britain. We can only historicize the period in a meaningful way by subjecting the assumptions of Thatcherism itself to scrutiny, and identifying the crucial filters between the Prime Minister and a reconstituted people.
Brexit Britain is fond of folksy maxims, and the tale of a nation succeeding against the odds in the early years of Thatcher’s government appeals to its idiom, as a helpful supplement to the supreme national myth of the Second World War as Britain’s “finest hour.” More critical voices have sometimes punctured this narrative but — at least in the English context — they still lack the same public platform or place in the national imaginary.