The 80s: History, Politics and Social Media

Year: 2016

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: BBC2


Reviewer: Aaron Andrews

For a contemporary British historian, watching a Dominic Sandbrook documentary can be a highly emotive experience – just ask the #twitterstorians, whose trepidation I was able to follow before catching-up later. And so, in all honestly, my watching of the first episode of the three-part series The 80s with Dominic Sandbrook began without a completely open mind.

Sandbrook has a basic argument which has been building throughout previous series, and of course the accompanying books, and The 80s is where this argument will perhaps reach its zenith. Post-war Britain was becoming more individualistic. ‘Affluence’ had brought about a more consumer-driven and insular society focussed on the home – if there was such a thing as ‘society’ anyway, to misquote a woman who dominated 1980s Britain. No, not Delia Smith, but Margaret Thatcher; Sandbrook appears to take delight in conflating the two, though I’m not sure of Smith’s thoughts on monetary policy.

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I have some sympathy for this line of thinking, and as James Vernon’s Distant Strangers has shown, urban social change leading to atomisation was nothing new. Rather, it is Sandbrook’s supposition that this social change was leading almost inevitably to Thatcherism, as if there was no choice to be made on 3 May 1979, that is most problematic. This kind of teleology is anathema to historians, and ignores alternative structures and agency influencing historical change (OK, my attempt to sound like a #seriousacademic is over).

But this is not necessarily what irks many historians. It’s that Sandbrook shows his politics openly – he’s either avowedly Thatcherite, or a fantastic actor. There are a couple of times I’ve heard a question be asked, ‘can you even be an academic historian and a Tory?’. Yes, but whether we’re left-wing, right-wing, or somewhere in the middle, surely our work shouldn’t be about proving that our political opinions are right? Even if our politics understandably influences the type of history we do, should we allow that to blind us to alternative stories, or alternative possibilities?

The politics underlying The 80s undoubtedly skews the analysis. Sandbrook touched on my own area of research, covering industrial and urban decline in Merseyside. Sandbrook was right about one thing, Thatcher(ism) did not ‘cause’ industrial decline in places like Merseyside. De-industrialisation was a long-term process, and economic decline in Liverpool can be dated long before Thatcher’s 1979 victory as various changes in the geographies and technologies of trade and transport began to erode the economic vitality of the port and, to an extent, the city itself. Liverpool is a good case study for this argument, but the city was atypical in many ways. Much of its industrial manufacturing, by the late 1970s, had been driven to the area through post-war regional policy. The underlying causes of the early 1980s recession merit closer analysis than I have space for here, but The 80s with Dominic Sandbrook overlooks both the impact of the recession, and the extent to which its severity can be attributed to government policy.

On the other side of overlooking the role of government policy in the severity of urban economic change in the early 1980s, Sandbrook also over exaggerates the 1980s as a turning point in consumerism and its associated urban infrastructure (shopping centres to people not in the middle of writing a thesis). Watching The 80s with Dominic Sandbrook, the viewer is given the impression that the consumer society was born in the 1980s, with Next given a lot of credit for this. This ignores the centrality of consumer goods – washing machines, cars, clothes – to the post-war ‘affluent society’. But more importantly, Sandbrook’s narrative puts forward the view that, though Thatcher cannot be blamed for de-industrialisation, her premiership was instrumental in the move to services, a move which seems to have saved the day.

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The links between Next power dressing, Delia Smith and Thatcher’s Britain make a compelling argument for many. But the argument is skewed in such a way as to make uncomfortable viewing for historians of 20th century Britain. It’s not simply the case that lefty academic types don’t like Sandbrook’s politics, it’s that he allows his own preconceptions to cloud his analysis. This makes for poor history. And so, the next time there’s a Sandbrook documentary on, I would urge you to take much of what he says with a pinch of salt (to paraphrase Delia Smith), and to follow the #twitterstorians commentary, if only to find out that there was more to the early 1980s than Sandbrook let on.

Aaron Andrews is a PhD student in the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester. His thesis is on urban decline in Liverpool, c. 1968-86.

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