We think we know the 1980s. The age of the Falklands and Filofax, New Romantics and Acid House, Brixton riots and poll tax revolt – all indelible parts of our national story. Indeed, more than any other recent decade except maybe the 60s, the 80s has become a political and cultural cliché.
If you were young, then you’ll recall the joys of Jet Set Willy, the dubious pleasures of the Now albums and the searing injustice of the Hand of God. If you’re on the political left, you probably blame Margaret Thatcher for everything that’s gone wrong with Britain since her election as the first woman prime minister in 1979. And if you’re on the right, you probably wish we could turn back the clock to when the Iron Lady was piling up three whopping election victories in a row.
But just as we so often misremember the 60s, so I think we’ve been getting the 80s wrong, too.
Most people never owned a Filofax, had only ever seen a brick-sized mobile phone on TV and got more use out of new gadgets such as the microwave then they did from the first home computers.
Most didn’t watch Live Aid or buy shares and would have struggled to find the Falkland Islands on a map. And the truth is that, although the economic turmoil of the 80s took a terrible toll on industrial and mining areas, many parts of the country were relatively unscathed by unemployment, which helps to explain why Thatcher kept on winning.
The fact that I’ve just mentioned Thatcher again tells you something unusual about the way we talk about the 80s. No other prime minister has ever been so closely associated with the way we remember a particular decade. It would be easy to talk about the 60s without mentioning Harold Wilson, the 90s without John Major. But the 80s without Thatcher? Unthinkable.
Whether you love or loathe her, she dominates the story. She pulls a lever in Downing Street, and a factory explodes in south Wales. She presses a button, and a shopping centre appears in Gateshead. She destroys Britain; she saves it. Between those two positions, there is no middle ground.
I don’t buy that. I think that if Thatcher had fallen under a bus in 1979, the story of 80s Britain would have been much less different than we think. Mass unemployment, conflict in the coal mines, even wine bars and shoulder pads were probably all coming anyway. The truth is that the Iron Lady has become a convenient get-out, a way for the rest of us to pretend we live in a country that somebody else made.
It might even be an interesting experiment to tell the story without mentioning her – although it would be a shame to lose such an extraordinary character.
Thatcher didn’t force people to take out credit cards, start their own businesses, riot on the football terraces, or march against the bomb. People decided to do that themselves. For as much as we love to thunder against the follies of our politicians, they don’t really make our history. We do. And if the 80s were the crucible in which 21st-century Britain was born, then we’ve only got ourselves to blame – or thank. I quite liked the 80s.
The 80s with Dominic Sandbrook is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight