Class, Consumers and Cookery:  how not to understand the 1980s.


A Review of The 1980s with Dominic Sandbrook part 1, “The Sound of the Crowd”. 

First broadcast on BBC, 4th August 2016.  Available for 28 days on iPlayer at

In this new series on the 1980s Dominic Sandbrook attempts to do something quite difficult.  Each episode combines themes that run through the 1980s (which would appear to really be the twelve-and-half years in which Thatcher was in power 1979-1990) with a chronological approach (with each of the three parts covering one of Thatcher’s three terms in power punctuated by the Conservatives’ election victories in 1983 and 1987 and terminated by her defenestration in November 1990.  This suggests either a highly skilled historian, or someone who is willing to cobble together half-baked arguments without regard to accuracy or coherent narrative as long as there is a decent contemporaneous television clip to go with it.

So this first part looks at Thatcher’s first term in office from 1979 to 1983 while also emphasising the theme that what was happening in Britain was not a transformation imposed from the top by the Conservative government, but from below by changes in social attitudes.  Dominic argues that Britain’s culture was becoming more individualist, inspirational consumerist and domestically focused and that it was through this bottom up cultural change that new identities were forced, sweeping away old identities particularly those of class, sweeping out Old Labour and with Thatcher being a result of these changes, rather than their cause.

This individualism meant that people turned away from collective sources of identity (the pub, the football game, the trade union) towards more private and even solitary activities (watching snooker on the TV, cooking at home).  Consumerism, Dominic argues, meant that people changed their attitude to shopping.  It ceased to be a search for the essentials of life, but instead a search for identity through consumption and this allowed for a move away from collective identity to one where a wider range of identities was possible.   Domesticity, which is least explored in this programme, suggests that people retreated out of public spaces behind their front doors into a private, family space with programmes such as Delia Smith’s Cookery Course (BBC, three series 1978-1981).

One problem is that this thesis is not used consistently through the programme.  In particular, the idea that there was new domesticity that underlay the changes of the 1980s is contradicted in other parts of the programme.  Thus the rise in working mothers, lone parents and single person households is emphasised as something that created a more fragmented society.  Indeed, Delia Smith is used as evidence not only of increased domesticity (people being keen to cook more adventurous meals at home) but also of working mothers (women needing to prepare meals after a full working day) and people not living in household units at all (her 1987 cookery book and TV series, One is Fun!).  While all of these can clearly be simultaneously true, they cannot co-exist with Dominic’s sweeping generalisations about the changing nature of British society.[1]

The focus on Delia Smith demonstrates another flaw in Dominic’s overall approach.  Instead of looking at long, often gradual, changes in British society he sees, in place of trends, only events that “happened” in the 1980s and were thus only transformative within that decade.  Thus Dominic claims that “Delia is the key to really understanding what happened to Britain in the 1980s”, Thatcher was responding to, not driving change.  Something which is typical of Dominic is his refusal to understand (or his laziness in not be willing to look at) the histories of particular aspects of social life.  Thus cookery shows are not simply shapers and reflections of the times in which they are made (although they are that), but they also have their own history.  Delia Smith’s Cookery Course exists in the context of previous TV cookery programmes.  In Britain these go back (at least) to Philip Harben’s programmes, at first on the radio in 1942 and then on television from 1946 with his programme Cookery.  Although these were programmes at a time of austerity and rationing, the idea that television cookery might already be aspirational was clearly there – his first programme showed the viewer how to make lobster vols-au-vont.  He soon became established as the first celebrity-TV chef, famous enough to have a cameo as himself in a Norman Wisdom film.  Marguerite Patten also started appearing as a TV-cook from 1947, and appeared alongside Harben in the BBC’s Cookery Lesson (1956).  The aspirational elements were firmly rooted in a didactic approach that characterised Delia Smith.

None had the aspirational reach of Fanny Cradock, who first appeared on the BBC in 1955.  She eschewed British food for the French cookery of Auguste Escoffier, and the cook’s apron for chiffon gowns.   More prosaically, she played a major role in popularising both pizza and prawn cocktail in Britain.  In print Elizabeth David chartered a more demure course through continental cookery (although it is worth noting that in their private lives both Cradock and David were far from conventional for their time).

Delia Smith’s first national BBC programme was earlier in the 1970s, Family Fare (1973-1975).  Her Cookery Course (1978-1982) was firmly in the didactic tradition of Harben and Patten, and it was produced by the BBC’s further education unit.  Smith shared particularly with Harben an approach that not only explained how to cook but a little of the science behind cooking.  There is a lack of serious scholarship on cooking in Britain, but my own anecdotal evidence of arriving in self-catering student flats in 1982 was that many students turned up with a copy of Delia Smith Complete Cookery Course, not to aspire but to learn to cook (I had a copy of The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book and a Rose Elliot’s Not Just a Load of Old Lentils showing, I think, that I was both less middle-class and more pretentious than some of the fellow students: discuss).

To an extent Dominic has picked on the wrong programme.  The consumerist programme on food from the early 1980s was Food and Drink which originally ran on BBC2 from 1982 to 2002.  It is consumerist in that it was not a cookery show, but was more overtly about the consumption of food, including in restaurants, and particularly wine (the wine critic Jancis Robinson is credited as coming up with the idea for the show).  The show attracted maybe a tenth of the viewers of Delia’s Cookery Course and could not be credited with the same kind of reach as Delia.

The point here is that Delia Smith simply does not have the significance that Dominic gives her, he states she inspired something “little short of a revolution”.  In reality, her books and TV fitted in with a current that had long been around on British TV.  Her approach was much more educational than aspirational, but she was reacting to the broadening of palates that had been permeating through British culture not just from Elizabeth David but the impact of immigrant communities.[2]  Dominic has used the lack of a clear understanding of the role of cooking and cookery programmes in British culture in the early 1980s not to embark on some serious scholarship to fill the gap, but to create a semi-fictional fake history.  Academically, this is poisoning the well.

The wilful disregard for serious history is also shown in Dominic’s comments on microwave ovens.  As everyone who has ever had a microwave oven knows, these appliances have attained the status of essential kitchen appliances while having no real purpose (I make porridge in mine in the winter months, and that’s about it).  But for Dominic the boom in microwave oven sales in the 1980s was the harbinger of the domesticity/individualist/consumerism which is at the centre of his understanding of the 1980s.

This is combined with other errors.  Dominic points to the coming of the Chicken Kiev, a “Marks and Spencer ready meal for one” as showing the new consumption patterns of the 1980s.   There are a number of errors here.  The M&S Chicken Kiev is not a ready meal, it is a single item ready-prepared/convenience food that would be part of a meal (it thus no more a ready meal than a sausage or a fish finger).  Convenience and pre-prepared food do not start with the Kiev.  Heinz first sold tinned soup in Britain in 1910, and tinned ravioli followed (1927 in the USA, not sure about the UK).  Frozen fish fingers were launched in Britain in 1955 (although Clarence Birdseye thought that his “herring savouries” would be a winner, not the bland cod-sticks).[3]  M&S had introduced vacuum packed ravioli and other “fresh” convenience food in 1974.  If one wanted a technologically determinist view of the changing role of women in the home, as far as kitchen appliances are concerned it was the fridge that made all the difference

Even in 1959 only 13 per cent of homes had a refrigerator, in 1962, 33 percent of households had a fridge and by 1971, 69 percent.  This combined with the rise of the self-service supermarket from the mid-1950s which made a weekly shop possible, and freed women from the need to shop on a daily basis.  It was probably this more than microwaves or Chicken Kievs which related to women’s changing role (although I will not comment on cause and effect here).

This is reflected in the changing patterns of women working in Britain.  Dominic oddly, places this firmly in the 1980s.  The picture here is, again, of gradual and long-term change.  The proportion of women working rose from around 40% in the immediate post-war years, passing 50% in the 1960s.  In 1971 the gap between the proportion of men and women of working age in the workforce was 40%, which fell to 35 per cent in 1974, 30 per cent in 1979, 25 per cent in 1981, 20 per cent in 1986 and 15 per cent in 1992.  The gap currently stabilised around 10 per cent in 2009.[4]  A similar picture of gradual change in women working part time (although the massive majority of part-time workers, around 41 per cent of women working part time compared to 11 per cent of men in 2015).  The gender pay gap too has become narrower while still being very real.[5]  There is nothing particularly special about the 1980s in any of these regards.

So all that Dominic offers here is insubstantial and impressionistic.  Thus when he claims “In Delia’s world, voters turned to a new kind of political leader”, and even if we disregard that when Thatcher was elected only the first series of Cookery Course had gone out, there is very little substance to this claim.  Perhaps we can be generous, that Dominic is really arguing that there was attitudinal change in Britain towards a more individualistic and consumerist society and this underpinned Thatcher’s election victory in 1979.  There is little evidence to support even this view.


As John Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite have pointed out, while the Conservatives under Thatcher may have succeeded in tapping into a current of individualism and privatised family consumption that existed in the working class already in the 1970s, this “was not a culture which Thatcher, as an Oxford Young Conservative and then a millionaire’s wife, had much exposure to since her time as a grocer’s daughter in Grantham.”[6]  Indeed, the creation of Thatcher as the frugal and understanding housewife and daughter of the Grantham grocer was one of the great marketing successes of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The irony here is that Dominic repeats these marketing images of Thatcher uncritically, while at the same suggesting the marketing was the characteristic shaper of 1980s social discourse.  Thus we should be careful to pick our way between myth and reality (in a way that Dominic is not).

The Conservatives were clearly keen on developing the idea of the privatised, individualist workers early on under Thatcher’s leadership.  As early as 1976 the Centre for Policy Studies, the think-tank that Thatcher had established to develop her views, produced a booklet, The New Acquisitive Society, arguing that working class identity was in decline.  Written by a largely discredited sociologist, Ferdynand Zweig, it argued that working class consciousness had become unimportant in the minds of the workers.  This was something that Zweig had been arguing for years, even though Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s Luton study had found his idea did not correspond to reality, he carried on arguing the same idea.[7]

There is a great deal to say about the changing nature of class identity in the 1980s, and the impact that this had on Labour voting.  But the crass and superficial treatment of it given here is not even a starting point.

The first thing is not to confuse the idea of working class with the traditional industrial working class.  While it is clearly the case that there are lesser dockers, but in return there has been a rise in routine non-manual occupation, often low paid and low status (stereotypically, call-centre workers).  This group have more recently been seen as having poor conditions of employment giving rise to a “pacariat”, but this is going beyond the focus on the 1980s.

There is evidence that in some ways things did not change in the 1980s or since.  Looking at the headline data from the annual British Social Attitudes survey (which unfortunately only commenced in 1983), the number identifying themselves as working class, rather than middle-class, has changed little, being a little above 60 per cent.  There is much more than could be said about this, but time will not allow.

Alongside this there is an equally odd understanding of the 1983 election.  It is central to Dominic’s view that it was underlying social attitudes that had changed, that the outcome of the 1983 be invested with the kind of inevitability that it did not, in fact, have.

Thus, the problems of the Labour Party are conceptualised by Dominic solely in terms of the party (left and right) struggling to come to terms with this cultural shift in politics.  There is no evidence produced to support, and indeed there is little evidence that this is how the participants understood what they were doing at the time.  The argument was much more about Europe and nuclear weapons (SDP in favour, Labour left against) as well as the record of the 1974-1979 Labour government and whether the Labour Party needed to decisively break from this.

Thus the series of events that Dominic presents as being disparate reactions to changing culture are in fact linked by the above foci.  The 1980s Labour conference passed the principle of a constitutional change to broaden the method for electing the party leader (and deputy leader).  It did not agree to the method which was to be decided by a special conference.  To avoid having a new leader elected under a new system Callaghan resigned, with the PLP electing Foot in November 1980 under the old rules.  Dominic’s assertion was that Foot was elected by MPs to “heal the divisions” in the party.  At least three of the MPs who were to defect to the SDP voted for Foot.  Healy’s view is that many MPs, under pressure from activists in the constituencies, did so in search of a “quiet life”.[8]  Certainly, there is evidence even in the 1976 leadership contest that centre-right MPs voted for Foot under pressure from their constituency party members.[9]  The Wembley conference [24th January 1981] decided the electoral college for electing a leader and this was the trigger for what was to become the SDP’s split from the Labour Party with the Limehouse Declaration (25th January 1981) and which allowed Benn to stand (2nd April 1981).  Dominic’s understanding of these events is so vague as to be hopeless.

Oddest of all, Dominic states that by the end of their first term (which could have run as late as May 1984) the electoral situation looked hopeless for the Conservatives.[10].Things certainly did not look hopeless at the end of the Conservatives first term.  They developed a lead over Labour from March 1982, which grew steadily.  From the beginning of 1983 the Conservatives maintained a lead of more than 10% over Labour, so calling a general election a year early was a low risk strategy for them.  There is some truth in Dominic’s rejection of the Falklands War as the factor that turned the Conservative’s fortunes round, their vote was clearly recovering before the British task force set sail on 5th April 1982, but by the time of the Argentine surrender in June, the Conservatives’ poll rating had increased from an average pre-invasion of around 30 per cent to around 47 per cent, a poll rating they were to maintain until the election in 1983.  Labour’s poll ratings had been strong until early 1981, showing anything up to a 10 point lead over the Conservatives, but never recovered after the formation of the SDP in March 1981.



Figure 1: Polling data on voting intention 1979-1983 for Labour, Conservatives and SDP/Liberals.


There are a number of key points that can be drawn from this data.

  1. The Conservatives’ support dropped in their two years in office, by their ranking by early 1981 (around 3 per cent) would be no more than one would expect with a government implementing a painful economic programme
  2. The Conservatives’ vote dropped much more painfully after the SDP was formed particularly in the summer of 1981 and by the beginning of September was consistently below 30 per cent. There were signs of a Conservative recovery however, before the start of the Falkland war in April 1982, but only to a level of around 33 per cent support.
  3. It was only in the course of the Falklands war that their support recovered, over the three-month course of the war it rose from around 33 per cent to 48 per cent. Support remained at this higher level (42 to 49 per cent) until the 1983 general election.
  4. Labour support was high after the 1979 general election. It rose from around 44 per cent at the time of the election to nearly 50 per cent at the beginning of 1981.  With the formation of the SDP it fell back to a figure in the 27 to 33 per cent over the course of the 1981, and this continued to be the picture up to the 1983 election.

This does not support what Dominic suggests, that the Falklands war  had little to do with the 1983 election result.  It is very odd that in this programme where he focuses so much on the idea of brand, image and identity that Dominic cannot see that the Falklands were the point when the Conservatives, or more particularly Thatcher, were able to transform their image from being callous and stubborn to being tough and principled.  It was not simply the Falklands that allowed her to do this, by 1982 she was much more in control of her cabinet.  Inflation, which had been 18 per cent in 1980, had been cut to 4.6 per cent in 1983.

Again there is more that could be said here, particularly on how the Conservatives were able to win despite there being considerable opposition to their policies (and not an individualist acceptance of them).   Part of the answer is that they were never that popular.  Dominic refers to the Conservatives “landslide” victory in 1983 as evidence that the Conservatives were buoyed up by the rising tide of individualism and consumerism, but this is highly misleading.  For sure the Conservatives won a landslide in terms of seats, with a 150  seat majority.  But in terms of the popular vote they won a smaller percentage than in 1979, polling only 42 per cent of the vote (turnout was also down from 76 per cent to 73 per cent).  The election showed many things, but a shift in the population towards the Conservatives and their values was not one of them.

The paucity of Dominic’s historical research is evident in his comments on breakfast TV.  He states, quite unequivocally, that Margaret Thatcher won the 1983 general election because she understood the importance of breakfast TV, while Labour leader, Michael Foot, was trapped in a time warp address at mass meetings (with footage of Foot, addressing a mass meeting and Thatcher on breakfast TV).  This is very wrong in one important way, on the first day that the first breakfast TV show started (BBC’s Good Morning Britain) one of the guests was Michael Foot.[11]   It is certainly the case that in the 1983 Labour’s media operation was far from being at its best,[12] but this is far from being a general truth.  Labour’s understanding of how to use television had in the 1950s been ahead of the Conservatives,[13] and again in 1987 their media campaign was considered to have bettered the Conservatives.[14]  There are thus other reasons why the Labour media machine appeared amateurish in 1983, particularly that in 1982 Jim Mortimer had been appointed a General Secretary of the Labour Party.  He was a solidly trade-union based mainstream left-winger (and was Foot’s appointment), but he was far from being a success as General Secretary.[15]

Dominic is right that Labour’s campaign in 1983 was particularly poor.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First is that Foot struggled to master communicating through TV, although he did improve his skills somewhat during the 1983.  The battle between Benn and the right in the party had left its scars, and many in the Labour Party’s Walworth Road headquarters were appointments who had been made during the left ascendency of the Labour NEC that was coming to an end in 1983.  Although Foot’s own chosen candidate as General Secretary of the Labour Party, Jim Mortimer, had been appointed in 1982, he was a poor choice for the role and could not create a disciplined party machine for Foot.  While Foot had a small and competent staff (Tom McCaffrey as Press Secretary, Sue Nye as his personal secretary and a few others), Walworth Road was organisable.   It is certainly not the case that Labour loss was pre-ordained by the cultural shift that Dominic suggests.

Nor is it clear that a mass meetings approach, or rather a break with the developing precepts of political marketing, could not have made a difference.  If we look back to the period where Labour was doing well in 1979-1981, it was the kind of campaigning approach that Labour took.  In 1981 the Labour Party had organised demonstrations against unemployment alongside the TUC.[16]  Foot himself was a speaker at many of the large CND rallies of the early 1980s – at that time some of the largest political demonstrations that Britain had seen.[17]  Foot was abundantly clear that this action outside of parliament was to propel an elected Labour government back into power via Parliament, Labour was not content simply to measure opinion through polls and give the public the message it wanted through the media.


What Dominic is trying to create here is a sense that the led Conservative government was inevitable because of a cultural change in society.  But it is not clear that there was any reality to the change to which he points, or that it was independent of the defeats inflicted on the working class by the government.  This was really not a decade that Delia Smith created, it was one created by the balance of force between left and right, by splits within the labour movement, by conflict between the trade unions and government intent of limiting their power.  Shopping really did not come into it.

[1] I should point out that there is a lack of references in this section of Delia Smith, and what I write here is thus a sketch for possible research and not thoroughly grounded.  There is very little research (at least that I am aware of) on the cooking and consumption of food in contemporary Britain (if readers know of any, let me know).  But Dominic has used this absence of research to create a largely fictional narrative.

[2] See Panayi, Panikos, Spicing up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food (London: Reaktion, 2008)


[4]ONS,  Full report – Women in the labour market (25 September 2013), accessed 11/8/2016)

[5] ONS, What is the Gender Pay Gap? (February 12, 2016) accessed 11/8/2016.

[6] Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutucliffe-Braithwaite, “Thatcher and the Decline of Class Politics” in Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders (eds), Making Thatcher’s Britain (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), p139

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hayter, Dianne, The Fightback of the Traditional Right in the Labour Party 1979 to 1987, Queen Mar University of London PhD thesis, 2004), p21

[9] Peter Kellner, “Anatomy of the Vote”, New Statesman, 9 April 1976.

[10] In order to analyse the polling data I have used a five-poll rolling average to smooth out the rouge polls and short-term fluctuations.  Polling data used is from “UK Polling Report” )

[11]Katherine Hassell, “Rise and Shine: The joys of breakfast television”, The Express (online), Tue, Jan 15, 2013[11]

[12] Diane Abbott, “Michael Foot, 1913-2010: adored even in defeat”, Guardian Online

3 March 2010

[13] ref

[14] Ref

[15] Hayter, Dianne, The Fightback of the Traditional Right in the Labour Party 1979 to 1987, Queen Mar University of London PhD thesis, 2004), p139.

[16] John McIlroy, Trade Unions in Britain Today (Second edition, Manchester: MUP, 1998), p209

[17] Ref


About Matthew Cooper

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3 Responses to Class, Consumers and Cookery:  how not to understand the 1980s.

  1. Ciaran says:

    I just happened on the latest episode tonight. I made allowances in the first 20 or so minutes for the predictable soundtrack and the set pieces involving, for example, him buying a sandwich to illustrate the new lunch habits of City traders post-‘Big Bang’. But then he started using the word ‘aspirational’ an awful lot in one of his narratives, and alarm bells went off inside my head. I said to my girlfriend, ‘If Del Boy appears on the screen in the next thirty seconds, I’m turning this off’.

    And of course…..


    • But surely, we only understand the past through showing clips of popular sitcoms?

      • Ciaran says:

        I actually don’t mind contemporary history being narrated through the prism of popular culture, but there are skilful ways of achieving this, and it hasn’t happened in this case. Does Andy Beckett get to make this type of TV documentary? Promised You A Miracle is an excellent read, and has particularly good pieces on nuclear paranoia (including the burgeoning nuclear bomb shelter industry/scamola) and the Falklands War.

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