British Economic & Government history, Trade Unions, and Thatcher.
January 6, 2013 3:30 PM   Subscribe

I have just seen the movie Iron Lady, and was wondering whether anyone here could recommend me resources to better understand the British economy and government before and during Thatcher?

I'd like to better understand what she did for the government and economy, and also about her clash with the trade unions (which I don't really understand; trade unions are rather insignificant in my country)

I'd basically like to get a contextualised picture of what things were like back then- how they were shaped by Thatcher and her predecessors as well as some basic social history I guess..

What I hope to gain from it is to ideally be able to come up with an informed understanding of how Britain has changed since ie how it has adapted to globalisation, EU reforms, human rights, etc and generally be able to assess its current leaders against a backdrop of the past.

Where should I begin?

Thanks very much for your time
posted by ethelwulf to Law & Government (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're after, well, serious histories and things, but Brassed Off is likely relevant to you. I'm pretty sure it takes place after Thatcher. (Wikipedia says ten years after the miners' strike. There's maybe one scene that pins down the date.) If you're in the US (and maybe Canada), note that it's really, really not a romantic comedy, despite the best efforts of the people who wrote the video/DVD box.

If I were my mother, I'd add the Full Monty to this list, but it's not nearly so overtly political as Brassed Off.

Billy Elliot takes place during the miners' strike, but I honestly don't remember much of it.
posted by hoyland at 3:43 PM on January 6, 2013

if you are interested in still more fictionalized depictions of history, Jonathan Coe's novel What A Carve Up! gives a very liberal perspective on Thatcherian policies, personalized in the guise of the Winshaw family. The novel depicts, a little bit sensationally, but very personally, how English banking, farming, politics, media, the NHS and war were all affected (and in his view, damaged) by the Conservatives. It's also an extremely well-written novel - besides giving a searing indictment of Thatcher's government, it's part murder mystery, part meditations on the nature of art and the isolation of people through technology. Don't read the Wikipedia entry, which spoils the entire book.
posted by dropkick queen at 3:57 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Set immediately after Thatcher, House of Cards seemed to explain some of the contemporary problems (and reasoning for conservative government solutions) when I saw it years ago.
posted by saucysault at 4:28 PM on January 6, 2013

Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies is a vivid account of Britain before Thatcherism, particularly informative on the power of the trade unions in those far-off days. (Review here.) There are plenty of books on Thatcherism itself, but the one I'd particularly recommend to you is Simon Jenkins's Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts, which also covers Thatcher's influence on New Labour. (Useful round-up of Thatcher books here.)

Online resources: for an assessment of Thatcher's leadership style, see Peter Hennessy's essay ''The Tigress Surrounded by Hamsters': Margaret Thatcher 1979-90'; for an entertaining account of what it was like to work for her, see this extract from Ferdinand Mount's memoirs; and for a recent look back at the legacy of the 1980s, see Andy Beckett's recent piece for the Guardian, 'Thatcher, Murdoch, Hillsborough and beyond: What the 1980s did to Britain'.
posted by verstegan at 4:28 PM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

There's a lot of good academic economic history these days, not just on the Thatcher years, but on the preceding two decades and the transition away from (and ultimate crisis in) post-war Butskellism. verstegan's got some very good starting points.

Fictional takes tend to focus on the reaction to Thatcher outside the south-east of England (I honestly can't think of anything that celebrates the London boom, or even offers the ambivalence of Wall Street) so you have Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff (and perhaps GBH), and Peter Flannery's Our Friends In The North.
posted by holgate at 5:22 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry, no links here, this is the 3rd time I've written this comment now :(

Seconding Beckett's book, it's great - the chapter on the photo processing plant dispute will help you here. Dominic Sandbrook's written two great books on the sixties which I read recently and covered political development in some detail - his latest volume goes up to 1979, but if you get chance they all provide an excellent picture of the post-war period which will help your understanding of attitudes to unions and Europe. Tim Lott's Rumours of a Hurricane is a novel about a man who benefitted from the policies that helped the lower-middle class get wealthier, particularly in the south of England; in contrast, comedians John O'Farrell and Mark Steel wrote memoirs of left-wing political activism during the period, as Labour and Marxists respectively. Stick It Up Your Punter is a great book about The Sun, the Murdoch-run popular right-wing tabloid which strongly supported Thatcher during the Falkland crisis in 1982 and beyond, and is good background to how the media portrayed her at the time. If you can get hold of it, the Million Pound Radio Show satirised the yuppie culture of the time - a word whose meaning in UK terms is barely covered on the Wiki page, and was extremely derisory. If you find you want to read on about New Labour, the best book I've read that covers what it was like at the time is John Harris' The Last Party, which is a good illustration of how Labour went from the left-wing but unpopular 1980s party of the faithful to a slick, spin-doctored administration which aimed to court the Tory heartlands.

The thing to remember is that there was a LOT of protest against Thatcher, to the point where protest songs were written about her. Her policies continue to be blamed for issues such as the economic decline of former industrial towns and the housing crisis (the Right To Buy scheme meant social housing was sold off, often to private landlords - there's a book about Dame Shirley Porter I keep meanign to read). I'm not sure how much TIL is hagiographical, but the backlash against her was covered in drama and comedy of the time - from the popular drama Brookside to Harry Enfield's brash Thatcherite comedy character Loadsamoney to Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff, Ken Loach's Riff-Raff and the later Brassed Off and Mike Leigh's Naked. In particular, I'd recommend Bleasdale's 1991 drama GBH, which centred around political corruption in local government - some leftist organisations infiltrated local authorities to the extent that Thatcher abolished the GLC (run by Ken Livingstone - I'd recommend reading up on him as he was a very polarising figure) and the Derek Hatton/Militant Tendency run Liverpool administration.

Finally, the Poll Tax riots were what hastened the decline of her administration - an echo of the 1981 civil disturbances which were seen as a natural consequence of her policies in poor and black communities, and a later riot against an 'anti-rave law' by the following Tory government. I think it would be remiss to read up on Thatcher without learning as much as you can about how this was received.
posted by mippy at 5:25 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

holgate - Naked does reference the London boom to an extent, and it probably trickled down into drama in a way that wasn't immediately noticeable in the same way programmes/films about the North were. (Ooh, I forgot the sitcom Bread!) I was born on the very day the Falklands War started so I'm a little too young to remember myself - it would be great to see examples. From my sociology module on British society and film, we were told that Merchant-Ivory was Thatcherite in nature because it was a lavish, nostalgic depiction of social orders and golden ages. Interesting theory. Given most media in the UK was made in London and reflected the lives of those, well, working in TV and/or living in the south-east, the fingerprints of the economic boom probably smudge everything from Eastenders to The New Statesman to the political puppet show Spitting Image.
posted by mippy at 5:35 PM on January 6, 2013

One of Us by Hugo Young is a pretty thorough and mediumweight coverage of the Thatcher years. And on the lighter side if you can find any Spitting Image clips on YouTube for some excellent satire on Mrs Thatch and her band of evil ministers.
posted by poissonrouge at 7:29 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

From my sociology module on British society and film, we were told that Merchant-Ivory was Thatcherite in nature because it was a lavish, nostalgic depiction of social orders and golden ages. Interesting theory.

Which is echoed, I suppose, in the fishwrap sociology of recent years on Downton and the Cameroons. Thinking in terms of comedy, you could read Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney -- who first appeared on alternative comedy juggernaut Saturday Live -- as a 1980s Alf Garnett, where Enfield's satirical intent was to some degree overwhelmed by an embrace of the character.

The thirty-year retrospectives on the 1981 riots definitely placed them within a broader narrative of anti-Thatcher protest that includes union disputes, the GLC/Liverpool council disputes and the poll tax riots.

And of course, there's the post-Leveson understanding of the nexus between politicians, police forces and the press. Actually, that's a good place to focus: Murdoch's move to Wapping, just after the miners' strike, which accompanied the broader shift eastward to what became Canary Wharf, which we now know entailed significant collaboration between Thatcher, Murdoch and the Met. Hugely significant, not just because it was a union dispute in London rather than the provinces, but also because it transformed the British newspaper industry.
posted by holgate at 7:47 PM on January 6, 2013

I assume the lyrics to Frank Turner's Thatcher Fucked The Kids are accurate.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:06 PM on January 6, 2013

Frank Turner is an Old Etonian with some dubious views, so I'm not sure of his grasp on anti-Thatcherism, especially given the references to 'bastard little shits' there.
posted by mippy at 11:46 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

To add to Verstegan's suggestion of When the Lights Went Out, Graham Stewart's Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s has just been published. I've only flicked through it in the bookshop: it looks okay, if a little dominated by high politics.

You might also like to download some of the Past Witness Seminars, an oral history of contemporary Britain hosted by King's College London's Institute of Contemporary British History - the Falklands, miner's strike, poll tax, Section 28 (long may it rot), etc.
posted by bebrogued at 2:24 AM on January 7, 2013

Alan Clark's Diaries 1983–1992 are the ultimate insider's guide to Thatcher's court of obsequious public schoolboys, whose spawn are once more haunting the corridors of power. You can't help but like the elitist old goat.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 5:42 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not economics, but the Falklands Play is pretty good, with the caveat that it humanizes Thatcher.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:29 AM on January 7, 2013

Thank you all!!!!!!!!
posted by ethelwulf at 7:43 PM on January 13, 2013

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