Squandering the glories of Thatcherism

Anyone who claims to remember the 1960s, so people say, can’t have been there. Anyone who claims to remember the 1980s with affection, so people also say, can’t be very nice. That is liberal orthodoxy to this day. Openly to admit that you loved the 1980s is in most circles — and, now, in many Conservative circles — to invite contempt and disapproval. This has always seemed sad to me. The 1980s was one of the best, most generous, most hopeful periods in recent times in this country and an example to other countries. To see the decade primarily as grotesquely vulgar, greedy and selfish is to misunderstand it and to be prepared to squander the huge advantages the decade brought. Sure enough, we have been busy squandering them.

I was reminded of this sadness last week, watching the much-publicised television series The Line of Beauty, based on Alan Hollinghurst’s prizewinning novel of that name. The book is a story of disenchantment; a clever and beautiful young man of humble origins finds himself living in splendour in Notting Hill, west London, with the family of a close Oxford friend, discovering his own sexuality in the midst of great wealth and fairly high politics in the 1980s; it all ends painfully.

The first of the TV series was a delight to look at — lush, beautifully produced and beautifully acted, not least the touching homosexual love scenes. Unfortunately, though, it could not reproduce what was best about the book — the complex inner life of the brilliant young hero and the subtle presence of the author. But the series does seem to be faithfully reproducing — perhaps enhancing — one of the greatest weaknesses of the novel, the stereotyped representation of the Tory toffs and their 1980s world.

Perhaps it is a little early to say so; this will all become clearer in later episodes. But judging from last week’s episode, we will be offered the standard received view of the 1980s: power was in the hands of a group of emotionally crippled, sexually incontinent, morally vacuous and mercenary rich prats with a ferocious sense of entitlement and few redeeming features.

Was this really typical of the top of the Conservative hierarchy and the culture? Were there really any politicians remotely like that? A very few, perhaps, and how frightful they were. One, to my own personal knowledge, was Alan Clark, whose behaviour to me on one occasion was quite hilariously bad; it has been said that the ghastly Thatcher-worshipping MP at the centre of The Line of Beauty was modelled on Clark. But to use him as some sort of icon of the time is to take a distorted view. Most senior Conservatives were reasonably serious, intelligent and hardworking and considerably less venal than their present-day Labour counterparts.

Of course creative artists are under no obligation to provide us with balance. The Line of Beauty is not a documentary. That is not my point. What struck me, once again, was the failure of creative writers to make anything, so to speak, of the 1980s or indeed of Thatcherism. It seems to reduce them to unthinking orthodoxy — to a long drawn-out liberal sneer. Caryl Churchill’s dazzling 1980s play Serious Money, for instance, was one of the funniest performances I have seen, and yet in the end it was simply a one-sided rant against the City. Why not? But there is something about this immensely interesting and complex era that brings out the most simple-minded artistic response.

This is odd, because the Conservative 1980s brought — fast — some radical changes that you might have supposed left-of-centre liberals would have welcomed with cries of joy. The 1980s saw an explosion of freedom and meritocracy, a detonation of the strangleholds of the old Establishment, an explosion of opportunity following the breaking of the stockbrokers’ cartel in the Big Bang and the breaking of the unions’ cartels and restrictive practices, an explosion of house ownership and share ownership and, above all, the spreading of that sense of entitlement, right down the social classes, which until then had been felt only in the old Establishment.

Bring on the barrow boys. Bring on the grocer’s daughter. Bring on the circus artist’s son. A woman prime minister! Top Conservative politicians who hadn’t been to university, let alone to Oxbridge! Bring on the shopping malls, the consumer choice, the cheap flights, the Essex girls. If vulgar is what people want, why shouldn’t they have it? Suddenly it became fun to have some money, some freedom and some choice, and lots and lots of people did, for the first time.

People who had never before thought of owning houses or shares began to do so. They began to buy art as well and they began to become more discriminating about food and travel; the 1980s saw the most heartening democratisation of taste. This must be a good country, I remember thinking, when a poorly educated but bright young woman told me in 1985 that she was buying an Armani suit for her boyfriend’s birthday; that such an underprivileged girl should have acquired the money and the taste to offer him something that the most fastidious posh boy could want struck me as just the way things should be. For the first time, class began to seem unimportant.

As for liberal contempt for City men and women, the fact is these much maligned people made the rest of us richer than we had ever been. Britain would be nothing without the great wealth creation of the City. It’s true there were painful casualties, particularly in dying industries, and periods of high unemployment. Meritocracy can be harsh. But this great pain was a successful economic corrective; the economic policies of the 1980s liberated this country from the statist, protectionist, uncommercial follies of the post-war years which are destabilising the economies of France and Germany, and will probably before long bring us low again as well, if new Labour is determined to revert to this retrograde spirit.

By contrast Britain in the 1980s became more vibrant, creative, inventive in commerce, financial services, fashion and music, leaving the rest of Europe well behind. The result is that we still have, if not for much longer, a strong economy with low unemployment. My view is that people who remember the 1980s with distaste can’t know much about economics and care much about the less fortunate.