A book of brilliant things?

A review of Andy Beckett’s ‘Promised You a Miracle: UK80-82’

On February 16th SPERI is delighted to welcome Andy Beckett of The Guardian, for the Sheffield launch of his new book ‘Promised You a Miracle: UK 80-82’. This event is free of charge and open to all. Book your place here. Stephen Farrall, who will introduce Andy’s book at the event, has reviewed the book for SPERI.

Stephen_Farrall_100I ought to start my review of Andy Beckett’s fascinating book by admitting that over the course of the past 10 years or so I have become what might be described as a ‘Thatcher-anorak’. With a number of fellow academics, I have been exploring the impact of Thatcherite social and economic policies on crime and the criminal justice system. Leaving aside for a moment my natural ‘anorakia’, I want to very quickly outline what I took from this research project since it deeply influenced my own reactions to Andy’s book.

The project I have referred to, explored the ways in which Margaret Thatcher’s government impacted on crime in England and Wales. This is a curious project, since although she talked a good game about crime, her governments actually did not really tackle the criminal justice system with anything like the radicalism with which they approached the economy, housing, the welfare system or industrial relations. Nevertheless I would argue that Thatcherism (however defined or operationalised) did have an impact on crime. Her governments’ economic policies are associated with increases in property crime, as were the cuts to welfare. The ‘right to buy’ redistributed domestic property crime so that those in poorer households got more of it, and the drive towards school league tables encouraged head-teachers to exclude unruly pupils and in so doing helped to create the concept of ‘anti-social behaviour’, which proved so central to Blair’s later crusade on law and order.

There are lessons here for both social scientists and those writing about contemporary history. The first is that social, economic and political processes may take many years, or even decades, to unfold. The second is that ‘side-effects’ crop up in unanticipated places.

Thus, if I were telling the story of Thatcherism I would not start in 1979 (when she obtained office), or even 1975 (when she defeated Ted Heath and became Tory Party leader). Nor would I end it in 1990, for effects outlast periods of power. Rather, like historian E. H. H. Green, I would start with the 1945 General Election, the Conservative’s surprise loss and their accommodation of, with and to the ‘post-war consensus’. Margaret Thatcher brought that accommodation to an end.

Bearing these observations in mind, what are my own reactions to Andy’s book? Andy focusses on the years 1980 to 1982 (although there is some slippage in this, albeit not much). In this respect, and given everything that I have said already, my first observation is that by narrowing the timeframe so much, the book has a tendency to discuss events rather than processes. Or, more accurately, it tends to reduce processes and parts of processes to easily ‘chapterable’ events. Put crudely, history is one bloody thing after another. For example, let me return to the topic of crime for a moment. Crime started to rise in the very early 1960s (we’d been recording crime for just over 100 years by then), and rose during the 1970s. Nevertheless, it sky-rocketed during the 1980s, and peaked in 1994. Crime helped to ‘make’ Thatcher, was a touch stone for John Major (Michael Howard presided over a doubling of prison inmates) and a key plank of Blair’s approach. Yet crime in Promised You a Miracle is largely reduced to rioting. Similarly, mortgage repossessions (less than 3,000 in 1979) reached a staggering 75,000 in 1991 (and for the record doubled between 1980 and 1982, from 3,480 to 6,900). Numerous other trends (good and bad) either went up dramatically (heroin usage, the number of women in the labour market), went sharply into reverse (for example, economic inequality which had been declining since the early 1900s started to climb from 1978) or emerged as new concerns (the residualisation of council housing and the ‘north-south drift’, for example). Fascinating trends, therefore, aren’t really located in the ways in which they ought to be because, borrowing an analogy from Colin Hay, the magnifying glass has been held too close to the subject for one to detect such trends.

In spite of these observations, I for one liked Andy’s book. This is bordering on the ‘thick description’ advocated by Clifford Geertz. Andy has taken seriously ‘real people’ as part of the process of social and political change – there are numerous examples of real people who chose to strike out in new directions. In this sense Promised You a Miracle makes a good companion read to One of Us by Hugo Young or more academic texts such as The New Right in Britain by Mark Hayes or Implementing Thatcherite Policies by Dave Marsh and Rod Rhodes.

Andy borrowed the title of his book from a Simple Minds’ song on their now legendary album New Gold Dream (which had a ‘subtitle’ of sorts in 81, 82, 83, 84). Simple Minds’ next album was Sparkle in the Rain (a far superior release in my opinion) which included the track Book of Brilliant Things. Is Promised You a Miracle a Book of Brilliant Things? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that he brings some wonderful insights (both his own and those of others) to bear on this period, but no (for me) in that longer, more far-reaching historical processes are suppressed as a consequence of this.