“Hey! Remember Unions?!” The media is addicted to junk history.
One millennial columnist's hymnal to the 80s has this young old fart irritated...
|Mic Wright||Nov 23, 2020||2|
In the late-90s, the BBC’s “I Love The…” series took each decade in turn and boiled it down to the biggest television, music, and trends. The Sixties was peace, love, The Italian Job, and The Avengers. The Seventies was glam rock, punk, and strikes. The Eighties was New Romantics, Live Aid and Thatcher. The Nineties was Rave, Britpop, This Life and Blair. The final episode, I Love 1999, was broadcast in… 2001, in an example of pop culture time dilation that forced the talking heads to reminisce fondly about things that happened less than two years before.
The Crown crashing into the 1980s with Season 4, putting a nineties icon into the shoulder pads of an 80s one (casting The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher), has been catnip to broadsheets and tabloids alike. They can pick at every possible detail in The Crown, but also rehash, re-run and reframe their own stories from the 80s and early-90s; hence the return of the controversy around Princess Diana’s infamous interview with Martin Bashir.
The problem is that most people working in British newspapers think nuance is a small town in France. Thatcher, for instance, is either the monstrous milksnatcher or a political colossus bestriding the 80s and crushing weak-willed cabinet ministers and union ‘barons’ beneath her heels and tactically swung handbag.
Newspaper columnists’ perceptions of the 80s, even if they lived through them, have all the subtly of an I Love The… episode. The inconvenient details of history are lost beneath broad sweeping generalisations. If you didn’t know any better you could easily end up thinking that Blair defeated Militant and that Thatcherism was immediately followed by Blairism, turning the Major years into a footnote about a footnote.
My knowledge of 80s politics and culture comes from copious reading. While I was born in that decade, my first proper but partial memory of a major event is seeing TV news reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when I was 5 years old. My next solid memory of politics comes from the following year when, as a 6-year-old, I was exposed far too early to the footage of a missile flying down a chimney in the Gulf War.
People like me who were born in the mid- and late- 80s are children of the 90s but more realistically have things to say about the 2000s when the September 11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the tuition fee protests, did so much to frame our politics. That it was figures and echoes from the 80s who were at the heart of the War on Terror (George W. Bush trying to do what his daddy didn’t, Osama Bin Laden a malignant ghost from America’s 80s assistance of the Mujahadeen) didn’t really occur to people much when we were in the middle of it.
I’m down this rabbit hole today because, waking in the night, I read a column by Emma Hogan of The Economist, sitting in for Clare Foges, in The Times. At 32 — 4 years younger than me — Hogan’s perception of the 80s is even more coloured by pop culture representations of the era; understandably so. It’s a well-written and enjoyable column but I found its assumptions and preoccupations frustrating. While little things niggled me (released in 1989 When Harry Met Sally is barely an 80s film), it was when Hogan came to discussing her/my generation’s perception of figures like Princess Diana and Thatcher that British newspapers’ addiction to junk history hit me again:
Among those who are no longer alive, two figures in particular stand out: Princess Diana and Mrs Thatcher. Even though many people my age barely remember Diana when she was alive, she has become a millennial icon, with an Instagram account run by a 28-year-old fashion writer dedicated solely to her “sassiest post-divorce looks” gaining over 70,000 followers. Her public displays of empathy and apparent emotional honesty seem to speak to many younger women, who consider her more authentic than the current tranche of celebrities and royalty. One 28-year-old I know feels that she was “one of the last figures that made it seem acceptable or desirable to be British”.
And whether people love or hate Mrs Thatcher, she is evoked in conversation among my contemporaries far more often than any other politician. (According to a YouGov poll last year, those aged 25 to 49 were just as likely to say that she was good for Britain as to say she was bad, while those aged 18 to 24 were more likely to just say she was bad.) She feels even more present than the premier who defined our childhoods and much of our adolescence: Tony Blair.
She is the only prime minister in recent memory who seemed to believe in things; she had the clear certainty the country was going in the wrong direction and she needed to change it. As such she feels far more interesting — as either a neoliberal icon or a figure to rail against — than the recent crop of Eton-educated PMs. Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to believe in anything, except having his cake and eating it; he has no philosophy, no overriding notion of what to do for the country, and appears only to be out for himself.
There is — as the cliche goes — a lot going on there. Firstly, I think it’s desperately sad that Princess Diana, a Sloaney young woman who after being exploited by the Royals moved on to rely on the money and assistance of other equally dubious figures, is a “millennial icon”. Her ‘sassiest post-divorce looks’ were the expensive revenge of a desperately sad and sick woman. And the notion that Diana, who worked the press expertly, was ‘authentic’ is laughable. Everything about Princess Diana, from the early kindergarten teacher incarnation to the black dress bombshell, was a construction.
The claim that Thatcher is “evoked in conversation [by our generation] far more often than any other politician” is a huge stretch too. It may be the case that she comes up in conversations among Hogan’s ‘wonkish’ contemporaries a lot, but on the Left, while Thatcher is still the greatest bogeywoman, it is Tony Blair who captures the imagination more, because it was his policies, his failings/crimes (depending on your position), and his sat-navving of the Labour Party to the right that had the most effect on our lives. Thatcher considered Blair to be her true successor and it was his Britain in which we did our most formative growing up.
It’s also a glib ‘truism’ to say that Thatcher was the last Prime Minister to ‘believe in things’. It’s one I’ve been guilty of using, but it’s just not true. Blair believed in things when he came into office, he simply mortgaged those beliefs for Rupert Murdoch’s support and to maintain a closer than close relationship with the Bush administration. Gordon Brown, for all his faults, has a strong set of beliefs and principles. His big failing was to allow his advisors to define his premiership without them. David Cameron believes rich people are smarter than not-rich people and Theresa May believes that having fun is practically a criminal offence.
What does Boris Johnson believe? Well, that’s where Hogan is right. He has no philosophy beyond a desire to maintain power and have people love him.
While she admits that much of the 80s nostalgia is froth, especially from those of us who were barely sentient during even half of that decade, Hogan’s conclusion is maddening:
“No wonder some millennials may pine for a time that seems both wilder and more innocent. Back then at least there was someone who, however wrong she may have been over many things, had the mettle to try to sort out Britain’s problems.”
Superhero Thatcher is as rotten a cliche as Hammer Horror Thatcher. She certainly did have a programme of government, but her stubbornness and decision to force through the Poll Tax — which led to riots that are curiously absent from The Crown — were in large part what did for her in the end. Boiling Thatcher’s 11 years in power down to “[having] the mettle to try to sort out Britain’s problems” is ludicrously glib.
Hogan’s column is an example of how deadlines and word counts push British newspaper journalists to hack together half thought-out historical conclusions. When I read them, I feel like Mark in Peep Show confronted by t-shirts emblazoned with images of Chairman Mao and trousers with vestigial zips:
“So that's the way it is? Let's just put a zip here, a swastika there. Who knows what these things once stood for? Who the hell even cares?”
Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher meant something once, now they’re just characters in your favourite TV show, ‘fierce looks’ on Instagram and a means for a columnist somewhere to make some point about something or other, presumably.