The Unthinking Person’s Guide to the 1980s.

ardent

An interim review of The 1980s with Dominic Sandbrook, part 2 “Under pressure” First broadcast on BBC, 11th August 2016.

Can be seen on BBC iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b07p0f9y/the-80s-with-dominic-sandbrook-2-under-pressure util 11th September 2016

 

The second part of The 1980s with Dominic Sandbrook is, even more than the first, difficult to review.  It is rambling and unstructured.  Each segment, on a different aspect of the 1980s (and there is a focus here on the second Thatcher term, but even this is by no means exclusive) is brief, undeveloped and often leaves out what should be included.  In many instances, a conclusion is drawn from this history-bite which is sweeping and often inaccurate.  In this stroll Dominic takes on video games, the Falklands war, video nasties the Miners’ strike,  the special relationship with the USA, shopping centres, the Americanisation of culture and its anti-American reaction, “loony left” councils, AIDS, computers and the Brighton bombing.

The overall conclusion is that the changes of the 1980s led to a feeling of fear and anxiety but out of this a more modern tolerant post-imperial and post-industrial national identity emerged that was nonetheless more assertive and confident.  I will be writing a full analysis of this in the next few weeks, but in the meantime here is analysis of two sections of the programme: those on the Falklands conflict and computing.

 

The Falklands conflict.

What is telling is that from the first words after the title, there is evidence of a disregard for the facts in this programme.  By far the best history of Thatcher and the Falklands conflict is contained in the first volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Thatcher.[1]  Despite Moore’s obvious admiration for Thatcher, the bulk of his analysis is rigorous and fair, based on the widest range of sources including Thatcher’s papers and interviews with the participants.  Now maybe Dominic’s sources and history is better than Moore’s and when his footnoted book of the Thatcher years appears it will show this, but in the meantime it can only be assumed that Moore’s is likely to be the last word on most of the details relating to Thatcher and the Falklands.

What is noticeable is that many of the details than Dominic uses to add colour to his story are at variance with Moore’s account.  It would appear that he is making up details to create a compelling narrative.  Thus, just before the invasion Dominic states that the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Henry Leach, “stood across Westminster Bridge” to the House of Commons (he did not, he had already been to the Ministry of Defence looking for the minister, John Nott, to be told he was in the House of Commons).  Dominic tells us he was a “magnificent martial figure in his naval regalia” while Moore believes that he (as was likely) was in his day uniform, not full “regalia” (and indeed his uniform made such a muted impression that in her memoires Thatcher recalls him wearing civilian clothes).[2]  It is not the case that, as Dominic states, the Admiral was “nearly detained” on entering the Commons, he was held-up for fifteen minutes.  Although the gist of the story is true, he stiffened Thatcher’s resolve by telling her that a task force could and must be assembled to retake the Islands,[3] Dominic wastes a great deal of time creating detail and colour that is, according to the best sources, false.

It is much more important, however, that both in what he goes on to say, and in what he omits, Dominic creates an unbalanced and inaccurate picture.  Dominic states as the Argentine invasion force mounted the Thatcher government was in crisis.  What he omits is that this crisis was the result of it being widely believed that the government had been giving signals to the Argentines that the invasion would not be opposed.  A review commissioned under the previous Labour government following an early invasion threat calling for economic development and military defence of the islands had been rejected, spending cuts meant that it been announced the Royal Navy’s patrol vessel in the South Pacific would be withdrawn; the 1980 Nationality Act had withdrawn full British citizenship from the Islanders; some within the government had appeared to be willing to consider a change in the Islands’ sovereignty; and there had  been no swift response to early signs that the Argentines might be moving towards military action.[4]

The Conservative government’s slow response was compared unfavourably with the previous Labour government’s response to an Argentinean threat in 1977 when it had dispatched a pre-emptive task force which was combined with diplomatic initiatives to forestall the crisis.[5]  Callaghan made great political capital of this in 1982 in a speech in the Commons that damaged Thatcher.[6]  It is commonly held that this was a result of Thatcher having weakened the structures of cabinet government while having too little resource to run government from her own office – thus she could deal with crises, but such crises were more likely to arise.[7]

Nor does Dominic mention how lucky Thatcher was.  Slightly greater military loses might have made the retaking of the islands impossible.  Having Reagan in the Whitehouse kept the USA as an ally despite some opposition in his administration being strongly opposed to military action, particularly his Ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick.[8]  The unwillingness of the Argentineans to negotiate meant that British government was able to agree to diplomatic initiatives that they knew would be rejected (Thatcher’s willingness to agree to such initiatives may also show that she was not quite as one-sidedly committed to the military option as Dominic suggests).  Labour did not expose Thatcher’s short-comings as vigorously as they might: the Labour leader, Michael Foot, was transported back to 1938 and saw the Argentinean junta as fascism that could not be appeased[9] although the traditional right of the party in the form of Jim Callaghan, Dennis Healey and (more persistently) the maverick right-winger Tam Dalyell did a more consistent job of opposition.[10]

It is also not true that Britain, as Dominic claims, “had stood up alone against a foreign bully”.  Without US intelligence and communication intercepts, and use of Sidewinder missiles and other technology supplied in the course of the conflict, the outcome may have been very different.[11]  Of course, he prefaces this statement with the word “seemed”, a weasel get out clause for saying something that is not true without offering any substantive statement of reality and appearance differing.  As outlined above, the relationship with the USA was far from smooth, with the US constantly pushing for a diplomatic settlement, casting some doubt on the uncritical acceptance of the brains and brawn picture of the UK’s special relationship later in the programme.

The most problematic element of Dominic’s analysis of the Falklands conflict is not simply that instead of an accurate picture we are offered little more than a pro-Thatcher victory parade, but that its ends with the somewhat fascist sentiment that Britain was again “a warrior nation renewed in battle”.  The conclusion is that it helped restore national self-confidence and renewed patriotism.  This sits very uncomfortably with the assertion that Dominic made in the previous programme about the Falklands conflict, that the boost in popularity that Thatcher received from the Falklands had no impact on her victory in the 1983 election.

That the Falklands conflict was not a factor in the 1983 has some weight.  It has been argued by Sanders, Ward, Marsh and Fletcher in a 1987 analysis that suggests, contrary to previous analyses,[12] the boost that the Conservatives received was both small (around 3 per cent in the polls) and temporary (it did not last until the 1983 election).  Their view is that the Conservatives had suffered a mid-term slump but their recovery was driven by economic recovery not the Falklands conflict.[13]  Here is not the place to fully assess this statistical work, but there is certainly a great deal of truth in it.  The  Conservatives’ fortunes were recovering prior to the Falklands conflict, and this was driven by the way that the economy impacted on individuals.  It is certainly the case that if potential Conservative voters had seen their economic prosperity linked to voting for an opposition party in 1983, then the Falklands factor is likely to have amounted to little (see material on John Major, below).

I would suggest a different view, (and I put this forward as a hypothesis, not a conclusion) that the economic factors and the Falkland factor worked together, making Thatcher more dominant than she would have been otherwise.  Both Thatcher’s image and her standing within her own government and parliamentary party were hugely boosted by the Falklands.  Prior to the war she had not been in complete control within government (although her battle against the wets on economic policy had largely been won by the end of 1981), but only after the Falklands was that fully consolidated.[14]

A comparison with Major and the first Gulf War is telling here.  Major’s approval ratings at the time of the war in 1991 were better than Thatcher’s at the time of the Falklands, with his approval rating improving from +15 before the war, to +46 at its height.[15]  Even at her most popular during the Falklands conflict after the taking of Port Stanley, Thatcher never united the country in the same way – her approval rating was only +21 (60 per cent thought she had done a good job, 39 per cent did not).[16]  This high disapproval rating is likely to be a combination of two factors: first, her economic policies split the country, with those suffering most from unemployment not rallying behind the war; second, the strong feeling that the conflict was, to some extent, caused by the government’s ineptitude dealing with the situation.[17]  What is certain is that Dominic’s assertion that “after years of imperial decline, Britain had rediscovered its patriotic pride” does not capture a more complex situation.  There is little evidence of such a shift in national identity and attitudes.  This was a more straight forward boost.  As the pollster Robert Worcester has commented, where a war is seen as “just” then there is often strong public support.[18]

 

 

Computers

This section is rather confused, compounding three different elements

  1. The impact of computers on British industry.  The use of computers in business was by no means new in the 1980s: famously Lyons coffee shops had started using a computer in Britain as early as 1951, and by the 1970s their use in business and academia was widespread.
  2. The manufacturing of computers (and also software and peripherals) in Britain. The British computer industry had its origins in academic experimental machines in Manchester and (with a more lasting heritage) in Cambridge in the late 1940s.  British companies, Ferranti in the first instance, competed against US companies (mainly IBM) in the domestic market.  In 1968 the main British computer companies merged to form ICL (International Computers Ltd), which traded until 2001 and then disappeared into Fujitsu.  ICL was part of the technocratic hopes of the 1960s Labour governments, and its creation was encouraged by the Minister of Technology, Tony Benn (then a leading figure on the technocratic right to the party).
  3. The cultural impact of computer, particularly home computers on people’s lives. Although this developed in the 1980s, even in the 1970s Britain had a dedicated group of hobbyists developing their use at home.

 

Dominic’s section on computing is weak, not least because these three currents are completely confused.  However, much of the factual material about computers is also wrong.  Thus he starts by giving the impression that importance of computing was first recognised by the Thatcher government, and that “Mrs. Thatcher decided not just to pour money into the British computer industry but to try and create a nation of young programmers and to do that she put computers into schools.”  This is wrong.  Mrs. Thatcher had no great commitment to developing computing after she was elected and blocked early moves in developing government IT strategy.[19]  Policy was developed at this time, but was not led by Thatcher but by an existing network promoting IT and computing in the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Education and Science (DES) and Manpower Services Commission.  It was this coalition, along with the BBC who since the late 1970s had been developing its Computer Literacy Project that led to the creation of the Acorn BBC Micro.[20]

It is also not the case that Thatcher “poured” money into the IT industry. (And why is money always “poured”?  Last week money was poured into the steel industry, the term is both a lazy cliché and ideologically loaded suggesting waste.  Why not spent?  Or even invested?)  The only policy to which this could apply was the Department of Industry Micros in Schools scheme, which offered a 50 per cent subsidy on schools buying computers, the rest of the expense being met out of schools budgets or fundraising.  This was no small sum with the BBC Acorn Model A coming in at £299 and the more powerful Model B at £399 in 1983[21] (£900 to £1200 in 2015 prices).  (Coincidently, Dominic was a lucky man to have a BBC Micro, when his parents bought one in 1984 its cost would have been more than three weeks’ disposable income for median working-age household.)[22]

There was no “contract” to supply computers to schools, as Dominic claims, schools were allowed to buy whatever computer they wished.  The widespread adoption of the BBC Micro was because it was the machine that had been developed with the BBC for educational purposes.  Certainly, this boosted the BBC Micro’s sales.  But the British home computer industry, led by the Sinclair Spectrum, succeeded without government help.

Dominic is clearly right that the generation who cut their programming teeth on the BBC Micro and Spectrum ZX went on to form the backbone of a vibrant British games industries.[23]  But what is noticeable is that he has said very little about what became of the British computer industry.  He gives the impression that the Acorn Computers, which made the BBC Micro died out.  Although the company was swallowed up by Olivetti, it left a very important mark on the British computer industry.  In 1985 it started to develop a new Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) chip, the Acorn RISC Machine, or ARM.  Olivetti cared little for this part of the business and it was spun off as ARM Holdings in 1990 and went on to become one of the world’s leading microprocessor design companies.[24]  When sold to the Japanese company SoftBank in 2016, it was worth £23.4 billion.

 

[1]  To this should be added the official history of the war,  Lawrence Freedman , The Official History of the Falklands, Volume 1: The Origins of the Falklands War and Volume 2: Campaign: War and Diplomacy(London: Taylor and Francis, 2005)

[2]  Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London: HarperCollins, 1993), p179.

[3] Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authrorized Biography.  Volume One: Not for Turning (London: Allen Lane, 2013), pp665-667

[4] Moore (2013), pp656-665.

[5]  Ben Fenton. “Secret Falklands task force revealed” The Daily Telegraph. 12th Apr I 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1491073/Secret-Falklands-task-force-revealed.html (Accessed 18/8/2016)

[6] Moore, p664. 682

[7] Peter Hennessy,  The British Prime Minister: the Office and its Holders since 1945 (London: Allen Lane, 2000), pp138-140  [check reference]

[8] Peter Collier, Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick (New York: Encounter, 2012), pp134-140.

[9] Kenneth O. Morgan, Michael Foot: A Life (London: HarperCollins, 2007) pp410-415

[10] Moore (2013) pp179, 732

[11] Moore (2013), p?

[12] See in particular Ivor Crewe, ‘How to Win a Landslide Without Really Trying: Why the Conservatives 1983’,  in Austin  Ranney (ed), Britain at the Polls 1983 (New York: Duke University Press, 1985) and Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Husbands, British Democracy at the Crossroads: voting and party petition in the 1980s (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985)

[13] David Sanders, Hugh Ward, David Marsh and Tony Fletcher, Tony, “Government Popularity and the Falklands war: A reassessment”, British Journal of Political Science, 17: 3 (1987)

[14] This, I appreciate, is very speculative and as unsubstantiated as Dominic’s assertions.

[15]  Prior to the war 37 per cent of voters thought that Major was doing a good job, and 22 per cent thought he was doing badly.  By January 1991 war 61 per cent favourable, 15 per cent unfavourable.

[16] Major is Britain’s most popular PM since Churchill.

David Hughes and Andrew Grice.

The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, January 27, 1991; pg. 4; Issue 8684.  (771 words)

[17] Rallings, Collins; Thrasher, Michael and Moon, Nick  “British Public Opinion during the first Gulf War” Contemporary Record January 1992,p386

[18] Robert Worcester,  British Public Opinion: a guide to the history and methodology of political opinion polling (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p87.

[19]

Thatcher hampered government support for IT, papers reveal”, Computing 20th April 2010 (http://www.computing.co.uk/ctg/news/1934728/thatcher-hampered-government-support-papers-reveal (accessed 18/8/2016)

[20] Alison Gazzard, Now the Chips are Down: The BBC Micro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), p20.

[21] Gazzard (2016),

[22] ONS, Middle Income Households, 1977-2011/12 (December 2012) http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_341133.pdf (accessed 18/08/2016)

[23] But see the more detailed account in Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson, Grand Thieves & Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World (London: Aurum Press, 2012)

[24] Gazzard (2016), pp169-170.

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About Matthew Cooper

This blog is written by Matthew Cooper.
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