But it is her partnership with Ronald Reagan that we Americans think of first. It was characterized by loyalty, commitment and a jauntiness that proclaimed success was inevitable. As, indeed, it proved to be—both in domestic policy and in bringing down the Evil Empire of the Soviets without firing a shot. If she had been better read, if she had been afflicted with imagination, if she had had a sense of humour, if she had had anywhere near as much insight into the lives of ordinary people as she claimed to have, she would have been unable to pursue her headlong career, riding roughshod over the consensus towards the property-owning debtor economy in which we now struggle.
If socialism had been in better shape, she would not have been able to turn it into a dirty word or confuse it with totalitarianism and state monopoly capitalism. If the trade unions had not betrayed their own class, if they had understood the importance of organising all workers, including women, including those in the service sector, if they had not institutionalised inequality, the people might have defended the cause of labour.
Thatcher thought that she and Reagan overthrew the Soviet Union, but the fact is that, like old Labour, it simply fell apart. She did not invent anything new; there was nothing novel or original in her economic policies. However, while those ideas had been available for a long time, they had not been translated into policy changes until she came about. It was her leadership, courage, determination, and intellectual integrity that allowed those intellectual insights to inspire actual economic policies and change Britain.
This has been dramatically illustrated by the experience of the UK under Margaret Thatcher. Her autobiography records how she warned John Major, her euro-friendly chancellor of the exchequer, that the single currency could not accommodate both industrial powerhouses such as Germany and smaller countries such as Greece. For Britain, continental Europe no longer looks like a model to follow. Over the course of the eighties, Britain had become a significantly different society to what it was before.
Crucially, it reversed the drift of a trend towards a more equal or egalitarian society. If you look at the wealth and income figures from the war through to the end of the seventies, the gap between the rich and the poor grew progressively narrower. Taxation was pretty high for the wealthy in the seventies.
There was an explicit determination on the part of the Thatcher government to change that.
The argument was that we had to not worry so much about how the cake was divided but to increase the size of the cake. Related to that was the notion of trickledown economics — that if people were encouraged to become wealthy, and the wealthy held on to more of their money rather than paying it in tax, then they would spend money in such a way that the benefits would trickle down to the rest of society. That was a very fundamental difference. And there was the question of the trade unions, that had become very powerful in the seventies and pretty unpopular.
Breaking their strike was cardinal to her project. Your book selections very much reflect the social history of the working classes in those years.
Alice Bamford, In the Wake of Trilling, NLR , May–June
I was thinking about the four decades after the war. Your choices most definitely do that. In Estates , Lynsey Hanley explores why council estates, which were built to help people, actually ended up doing so much harm. Council estates are public housing in which the person is a tenant rather than an owner of the house or flat.
It started in the s and gradually expanded between the wars. But council housing really took off in the 30 years or so after the war. Yes, she grew up on a huge estate that was built in the sixties. Her book is part council housing history and part memoir. In particular, she brilliantly explores the way in which the experience of living on a council estate became ghettoised.
The people living there were often physically apart from the town or city as well as mentally.
There is a wonderful detail about how when she was about 16 or 17 she went to a public library and saw The Guardian newspaper in the reading room. She had always assumed that The Guardian was a special kind of paper that only professors could subscribe to. Going to a public library and discovering that anyone could look at it was an amazing revelation.
Aside from her entertaining descriptions, what did the book teach you about social history in post-war Britain? Her descriptions have terrific historical value as a piece of testimony.
One thing I think she underestimates, though, is the extent to which most people wanted to have their own bit of property and individualism, and that privacy was so important. Council housing was a brave and honourable social experiment, but beyond a certain point it was doomed as a form of mass housing. In the end, people want their own place to have as an expression of their individual character.
This ties into my argument about the whole of the pre-Thatcher period — a lot of evidence shows that society was quite ready for Thatcherism when it came along. This book goes into quite brave territory. Collins argues that the white working class has become the only bit of society left that can be demonised by the liberal intelligentsia. This gives him the starting point for a history of the white working class, based very much on where he grew up — the Elephant and Castle district in south London.
So the book is partly a history of the working class in that area and partly, as it moves towards the present, a family memoir which taps into his parents and grandparents. The first was the re-development of their actual area with things like the slum clearance and the building of new estates — the physical environment of where the white working class lived changed out of all recognition.
The other was mass immigration , which they had no say in either. This happened quite suddenly and was done by people who did not have to live with the consequences of their actions. Collins argues that the white working class who had this immigration imposed on them responded with remarkable tolerance and patience, which I think is broadly true.
Nevertheless, as a group of people the British white working class continue to be maligned by many people. I have spoken to hairdressers and shop owners who say they would rather have a foreigner working for them because they have a better work ethic.
Reaganism, Thatcherism and the Social Novel
I think there is some truth to that — but then you could argue that the white working class has been neglected for a long time, and that education has been substandard so it is difficult for them as a group to get on. It is partly because the solid white working class was broken up for the two reasons we discussed. It is a very complicated question, but I think that did have an effect. This is a pioneering book going into an area where few people have gone. This book is set in the seventies. He comes, I think, from an upper working class, lower middle class kind of background. Dagenham is famous for motor car manufacturing and it was home to a huge council estate which was built between the wars.
In this book, 12 or so years after he left his grammar school, Greenslade went back to interview the people he had been there with and find out what had happened to them. He spoke to around contemporaries from his year.
Reagan and Thatcher's Special Relationship
So the book takes a fascinating look at two periods. The first is the time that his friends were at school with him, and the second shows what has happened to them 12 years on. You get the sense of what a typical grammar school would have been like. What comes across very strongly is how important streaming was. You were streamed when you joined the school — if you were in the A stream you got the best teachers and facilities, and if you were in the bottom stream you were pretty much abandoned.
Many of them ended up leaving school as soon as they were able to, which was at There was a huge division in society between grammar schools and secondary moderns — which are what you went to if you failed your plus [exam] — but we forget that there were also huge divisions within the grammar schools themselves.
What is even more interesting about the book, and what gives it its special importance, is that talking to people in their early thirties Greenslade finds that almost without exception they are essentially materialistic in focus. They have little interest in intellectual life or in public affairs generally, although politically they are kneejerk right wing and very hostile to immigrants.