Thatcherism, Aids, striking miners, loadsamoney, and shoulder pads: the 80s saw it all
After the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, Soviet authority unravelled fast. On Christmas Day that extraordinary year, the Romanian communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad. By the time the Baltic states agitated for independence soon after, the USSR was a sandpile ready to slide; in 1991, the Russian leader Boris Yeltsin (reportedly inflamed by vodka) officially terminated its existence. Considering the magnitude of what had happened, remarkably few people died during the last days of the Cold War.
The greatest turnaround of the 1980s, unquestionably, was the collapse of Soviet ideology. John Paul II, the Polish-born pope, was unstinting in his role as an anti-communist spokesperson, but he was not the first among the reformers. In 1956, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had publicly denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality” and “executions without trial”. With Stalin’s unmasking, the die was set for Mikhail Gorbachev‘s glasnost (openness) in the mid-1980s and the free-market crusades led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Inevitably, the Soviet bloc’s demise in the 1980s has provoked a nostalgia for the old days of the Cold War. Pre-glasnost East Berlin, with its shadowy Harry Palmer atmosphere, no longer exists. The motto of Russia’s dispossessed – “Things were better under communism” – is increasingly heard as the new capitalist oligarchs are puffed up with more greed and self-importance than any Khrushchev-era apparatchik. Beneath the roseate flush of post-Soviet prosperity, it seems, lies a deepening corruption.
Graham Stewart’s superb history of 1980s Britain, Bang!, extols Thatcher as the conservative ideologue who sought to demolish Marxist dogma as a matter of urgency. When, in March 1987, she toured Moscow in a cossack-style fur hat, Russians embraced her as an emissary of freedom. To the Soviet army newspaper Red Star, Thatcher was the Iron Lady; she saw herself as a modern-day Boudicca scything her way through Kremlin orthodoxy.
Thatcher’s visit to the USSR was well timed. The previous spring, radioactive dust from Russia had settled over the skies of Europe. Moscow’s callous disregard for the victims of Chernobyl was indicative of communist obfuscation and lies in general, Thatcher believed. In the Ukrainian flatlands round Chernobyl’s wrecked nuclear core, Russians were seen to bear the tale-tale mark of cerium pallor; ecologists predicted the birth of two-headed sheep and other mutated life forms. If this was communism, the Russians could keep it.
As Stewart reminds us, Thatcher was a Conservative MP in north London when, on the night of 13 August 1961, the Berlin Wall went up. Germany was now divided into two, mutually antagonistic Cold War zones. A sense of insecurity infected the highest levels of Westminster; to her Finchley constituents, Thatcher spoke fearfully of Moscow’s atomic capabilities and asked how long it would be before a Red Square appeared in democratic Europe. Such were the fear-ridden politics of the age.
Reagan, Thatcher’s ideologue in arms across the Atlantic, was no less fearful of Kremlin subterfuge. “My fellow Americans,” Reagan announced in a celebrated radio soundcheck in 1984, “I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia for ever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” It was the stuff of Dr Strangelove. The USSR, for all its wartime triumph over Hitler, was the “evil empire” for Reagan and Thatcher alike.
To her detractors, Thatcher was a politician who knew the price of everything and the value (like Oscar Wilde’s cynic) of nothing. If the 1980s can be summed up, it is as a decade of serious money. In the film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) gave us the phrase “greed is good”, while Harry Enfield was the builder with “loadsamoney”. Thatcher defended the individual’s right to make limitless money and emerged as a champion of consumer choice.
At the start of the 1980s, Stewart writes, 70% of Britain’s television sets were switched to just one channel (ITV); by the decade’s end, terrestrial, cable and satellite television had brought unimaginable choice. To sceptics, the greater choice represented a degradation of quality. For all her defence of freedoms, Thatcher could not have condoned the choice of pornography spawned by the internet. Cyberspace does not make a pretty free market.
Critics of the 1980s often cite increased individualism as a chief failing. During Thatcher’s 11-year tenure as prime minister, Britain became less attached to the idea of the Commonwealth and other relics of empire in general. Thatcher, unlike the Queen, did not always care to value the often affectionate and loyal relationships between Britain and its former colonies (as she did not value much that could not be measured and accounted for). She mistrusted what she saw as demanding Commonwealth countries; the acronym CHOGM – Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – stood for “Compulsory Hand-outs for Greedy Mendicants”, she liked to say.
Throughout this carefully researched history, Stewart conjures the urban decay and collapsed industries of early-80s Britain. Coventry, notably, was on the point of disintegration with its theatres and social clubs closed down; in their great song Ghost Town, the Specials communicated a spirit of hopelessness in the recession-hit Midlands. Like the Beat and the Selecter, the Specials were a mixed-race “2 Tone” band who played a post-punk version of Jamaica’s speedy, jazz-tinged ska. In the 1960s, ska had been a genuinely Commonwealth music that brought together the poor whites and poor blacks of Britain’s inner cities. In many ways, says Stewart, the 1980s were the most “significant period for protest songs” since the 1960s; Band Aid’s 1984 Ethiopian famine appeal anthem, Do They Know It’s Christmas? encouraged a belief that music might save lives even.
Looking back on the 1980s, the decade seems impossibly remote. The baroque shoulder pads, the Sloane Ranger fashions, the striking miners and the moral panic attendant on Aids (Cardinal Basil Hume’s “moral Chernobyl”) seem like the trappings of an exotic era irretrievably gone. And yet the decade’s influence is apparent everywhere we look, not only in the death of communism, but in the number of privately owned homes, the company sponsorship of the arts and in the still kicking spirit of private enterprise. Rarely has history seemed so close to us, yet so far.