Magazine article The Spectator

Torn between Ideology and Compassion

Magazine article The Spectator

Torn between Ideology and Compassion

Article excerpt

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart Atlantic, £25, pp. 560, ISBN 9781782391458 On 1 September 1978, the then prime minister Jim Callaghan invited six leading trade unionists to dinner at his Elizabethan farmhouse in Sussex. By all accounts it was a very jolly affair with Callaghan's wife Audrey doing the cooking and their granddaughter Tamsin Jay handing round the dishes. The trade union grandees went away convinced that Callaghan was about to call a general election. Instead, he sat on his hands and waited.

It proved to be a catastrophic misjudgment. Just four months later they all met up again - this time to discuss declaring a national emergency. After losing a noconfidence debate in the Commons by one vote, Callaghan had no choice but to go to the country - whereupon a young Welsh MP called Neil Kinnock burst into a stirring rendition of 'The Red Flag'.

Margaret Thatcher, of course, won the 1979 election and proceeded to dominate politics for the next 10 years. As Graham Stewart points out in this lively, incisive and valiantly thorough history of the 1980s, the last time Britain had been continuously served by the same prime minister for a decade had been back in the days of Pitt the Younger.

In any history like this, it's tempting to look for harbingers - little fuses that start smouldering away soon after curtain-up and eventually burst into flame in Act Five.

Here, one might point not entirely flippantly to Sir Geoffrey Howe's trousers. At a lunch at Chequers soon after Mrs Thatcher had taken power, a waitress slipped and spilt hot soup into Howe's lap. Thatcher immediately leapt up to console the waitress - 'There, there, you musn't be upset' - while completely ignoring the scalded Sir Geoffrey. As Stewart notes dryly, there would come a time when Thatcher's lack of concern for Howe would cost her dear.

Also in her first Cabinet was Sir Keith Joseph - 'the only boring Jew I've ever met', according to Harold Macmillan. But whatever Joseph's deficiencies as a dinner companion, in many ways he would prove to be a pivotal figure, torn as he was between Ideology and Compassion, the two anchormen in the tug o' war that raged throughout the Eighties.

But if Britain in that decade was a deeply divided place, the divisions weren't necessarily where you might have expected to find them. …

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