6.3.16

Andy Beckett: Promised You a Miracle UK 80-82


Andy Beckett’s “When The Lights Went Out” was a gripping study of Britain in the seventies. In the manner of British social historians like Dominic Sandbrook and David Kynaston who progress in chronologically incremental chunks, he’s shifted his window of time forward. There’s a predictability to this move which is a let down. Beckett’s previous book had been on Pinochet and UK/Chilean relations. One wished he’d sidestepped this repetitive syndrome and gone off again on some wilfully tangental trajectory.

Where “Promised you a Miracle”, its title deriving from a Simple Minds song, differs from “When The Lights Went Out” is Beckett’s decision to introduce himself more forcefully into the narrative. From memory, that earlier book only featured him in the brief coda in which he tries (and humorously, deprecatingly fails) to convince a “young person” of the importance of the seventies today. We get a whole lot more of him here and it damages the book. One can almost sense echoes of his decision to switch strategies in a quote he uses by a Channel 4 associate producer David Graham: “And a lot of the journalism was quite lazy. The ritual balance of interviews: you, the journalist, heard both sides of an argument from the protagonists. You synthesised a result. But you did not inject much original work.” The inference is that mature journalism requires a more openly involved narrator. Perhaps it was that growing up in the era he felt it obliged to add his own voice? Ultimately, although this can work in some author's hands, it doesn't suit Beckett’s style.

Throughout the book there is a sense of Beckett, if not spouting the Guardian party line, but being fearful of the consequences of political incorrectness. He’s chosen to write a book about these Tories, can he not be more sanguine about them? No opportunity to needle a right-wing authority figure is passed over. Rather than taking a consistent ideological approach though, decrying unemotionally and with clarity the problems with their actions, he chooses to hedge his opinions with snide remarks. Milton Friedman becomes a university professor “with deceptively merry eyes”, Patrick Minford studies Liverpool from “the safe distance of his Cardiff office” (not exactly Oxford is it?) and alternates between hissing and “bulldozing certainty”, Geoffrey Howe “searched for the right euphemism” in discussing monetarism, David Cooksey of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme allows “a faintly baffled note [to enter] his creamy metropolitan voice”, EAS beneficiaries like Alan McGee’s Creation and Superdry “Neither were businesses you could exactly envisage Margaret Thatcher patronising” (Elsewhere in the book Thatcher is revealed charming a socialist rock group: We’ll give her hell” they said beforehand… and within two minutes they were eating out her hand.’”)

The effect is no doubt adopted for the benefit of the default, unquestioning metropolitan left reader that usually consumes these histories. Almost, in fact, as if an editor has said: “Come along Andy, we can’t give the impression here that we endorse these Tories, can you qualify your remarks here?” I have no great personal affection for Thatcher but it seems fairer to view her government not against the backdrop of supposed consequences thirty years later, but in the immediate historical context of the three-day week, bloated unionisation (we learn in the book of “leftist” TV production company Diverse's refusal to work with the NUJ and ACTT) and regrettably uncompetitive industries. Ironically, Beckett, author of such an authoritative tome on the seventies would seem ably equipped to provide that context.

The Thatcher government’s historical failings were notable. Rather like Chairman of The Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan who famously commented: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” they too made the mistake of giving the benefit of the doubt to big business. Thatcher’s Tory party sold off the state’s resources too cheaply. Housing and valuable, if inefficient, national industries were given away for too little (rather like the recent government’s fire-sale of the Post Office) and those profits were not used extensively enough to reinvest in new infrastructure. These were though, arguably, not ideological failings of Capitalism but evidence of disastrous and short-sighted management. Only rarely, in abandoning his politically correct gibes and dealing with actual concrete realities, does Beckett sink some convincing blows into the Thatcherite project. Right to Buy in particular is depicted with clarity. It is convincingly revealed that only the wealthier and more worldly council tenants benefitted from the scheme which saw Thatcher capitalise on the house-building of previous social democratic governments.

In conversation with fellow Guardian-affiliate Paul Morley the wonkiness of Beckett’s soft-left doublespeak really becomes apparent. He asks Morley to justify ZTT within a socialist framework; ZTT which was clearly a beacon of private enterprise in its most glorious and valid manifestations. Morley, perhaps after a few pints, must have been shaken to the core: “I was committed to ultimately the same ends as those who were more directly politically involved on the left”, he vamps, but was “more interested in the politics of the imagination”. Beckett, a little like one of Mao’s inspectors concludes creepily: “It seemed a vague form of Leftism” and drills down further: “And wasn’t setting up a company in early Thatcherite England, a vaguely political act of a different sort?” “No, no”, said Morley immediately. Can it be so treacherous and treasonous to admit and allow?

Beckett takes equally ineffective aim at the UK’s class structure, which in the early eighties with Brideshead Revisited, Another Country, Chariots of Fire and The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook had a sudden grisly cultural currency, but without reflecting that East End boys Spandau Ballet dressing up in monocles had a whiff of detournement. By the early-eighties, rather like the collapse of the gold standard, class had ceased to be manacled to wealth. The “nouveau poor” of old families selling their stately homes and struggling with Lloyds rackets was a more dominant reality. Beckett even quotes one Andrew Osmond, former Gurkha, writing in Tatler reflecting that he should emigrate. I’m surprised that Beckett, a former public schoolboy at Marlborough (on a scholarship he opines - just like Boris Johnson at Eton isn’t it?) seeks to insert himself so uncritically in what seems to be an argument based on the much starker realities of the super-rich today than on the early eighties. Eton college is now half-full of the children of Russian oligarchs.

And yet it’s hard to square this supposed traditional socialist perspective with Beckett’s seeming enthusiasm for the Falklands war. With his military background one senses that anything more critical would be inadmissible. Here the prose became almost ridiculously overheated : “…the British advance was so fraught and photogenic, so doggedly step-by-step and hard fought, so dramatically but uncritically reported, so risky and bloody-minded - the British troops were outnumbered almost throughout - and so in keeping with the self-image of the British Army, and of many Britons, and of Thatcher herself, as resourceful and determined underdogs, that it became legendary in Britain even as it was happening.” Passages like this encourage my suspicion is that Beckett is considerably more sympathetic to the right than he allows himself to appear. Indeed a recent Guardian article of his, on the face of it decrying the Thatcher legacy attracted such fury and scorn from an outraged left, that I actually felt sorry for him.

An open-ness to the nuances and difficulties of modern life grows through the course of the book. When we’re deeper into the fabric of the age it becomes increasingly facile to judge situations and people within a left/right political dialogue and his writing settles into the depth and authority of “When The Lights Went Out”. On Channel 4 Beckett writes with some equanimity: “The fact that many of these people were leftists and continued to see themselves as such, even as they altered their ways of working, their attitudes to earning, their behaviour towards competitors and trade unions: the fact that this mass conversion to Thatcherism was not always noticed or acknowledged by those involved - all this made it all the more pivotal to how Britain changed in the eighties…” The London Dockland Development Corporation, with its triumphs and flaws, is also given the same sensitive and open-minded treatment.

However, by the book’s denouement we’re back where we started. Hearing the remarks of “Loonies” at the GLC’s women’s unit (Beckett’s own inverted commas) causes a shudder. One manager boasts, with inadvertent comedy, on the back-breaking work of giving away 11 million pounds: “I worked bloody hard. But I got the money out.” Another reflects with toe-curling self-satisfaction that would prompt a mob storming Downing Street if its equivalent were uttered by “Bullingdon club pig-fucker” David Cameron: “I was called a gold star lesbian because I’d never married and never been in that kind of [heterosexual] relationship. Being Black as well was just the icing on the cake. I had three of those equality points. In that room, it gave you currency… I was unassailable a lot of the time.” Yet we are told Norman Tebbit is “chilling” in his decision to shut down the GLC, even when (again, bafflingly, Beckett’s own evidence) the council’s ulterior motives are in plain view: “John McDonnell told one of Livingstone’s Biographers John Carvel that ‘within three months’ of the grants system starting,‘ Each constituency member [councillor] was realising that the political returns were absolutely enormous.” On the one hand Beckett is content to attack Tories but then refuses to engage critically with these remarks. Does he want in or out of his own book? The problem might be simpler, that secretly he is as unsympathetic as any Tory (ironically these women come across as extremely reasonable on their Twitter feeds) but he hasn’t the single-mindedness to make the argument he really wants to.