More than 800 pages to cover three years may seem disproportionate, but Sandbrook has packed them with so much enjoyable detail and so many revealing quotes and anecdotes that it's hard to argue the book is too long.
Sandbrook covers everything from Mrs Thatcher's battles with her cabinet over monetary policy to New Romantics dressing up as 'stiletto-heeled vamps . . . kohl-eyed ghouls and futuristic man machines' at the weekly club nights run by Steve Strange in the Covent Garden bar, Blitz... Sandbrook includes the good, the bad and the ugly from three colourful, controversial years in a richly entertaining history.
The lessons of the past are elusive. Sandbrook is not at all partisan in his account, and draws no general conclusions. Still, it is hard to avoid the resonances of his story for the present time. Now as then, progressive opinion is shaped by the project of recreating a defunct centre ground. If the SDP dreamt of reviving Butskellism, the centrist dream today is to return to the halcyon years of Tony Blair and David Cameron. How idyllic these years were for many people is another matter. In any case, events have moved on since then. The Iraq War; the near collapse of the global financial system; the rise of the far right throughout much of Europe, left-nationalism in Scotland and Catalonia, and radical green movements in many countries; the election of Donald Trump; intensified authoritarian repression in China; and a rapid unravelling of Western power in the Middle East have transformed the global landscape beyond recognition.
This book evokes with astonishing accuracy what it was like to be alive at the time, and how the sense of despair that hung over the 1979 election slowly transmuted into one of restored self-respect by the time the Task Force steamed back up the Channel. Sandbrook has maintained the uniformly high standard of this important series, and leaves the reader impatient for the next volume.
His sources are joyously eclectic. Writing that the Social Democrats’ breakaway from the Labour Party ‘felt like the beginning of a nightmarish family feud’, he finds confirmation in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾. ‘Pandora’s parents have had a massive row,’ Adrian writes in January 1982. ‘They are sleeping in separate bedrooms. Pandora’s mother has joined the SDP and Pandora’s father is staying loyal to the Labour Party.’ The Henry Root letters are used to equally good effect, though Sandbrook adds a footnote ‘for younger readers’ explaining that Root was a spoof figure, part of ‘a golden age of political humour, from the letters of Private Eye’s Denis Thatcher to the diaries of fictional creations such as Adrian Mole and Tony Benn’.
Thatcher enjoyed watching snooker, too – in the end this book’s diffuse pathways all lead back to her – though leisure was not something she understood. She lived to work. Sandbrook is ungratifyingly even-handed in his portrait of her, alive to the flaws in her character and sharp in confounding the popular myths. For example, Thatcherism is closely bound up with an age dependent on credit, yet she herself was puritanical to a fault and disapproved of borrowing – she never owned a credit card. There is an omission, however, and a glaring one, when Sandbrook describes her as “remarkably sympathetic” to her minister Cecil Parkinson after the scandal of his affair broke in 1983, but fails to mention how unsympathetic she was to Sara Keays, the secretary Parkinson made pregnant and publicly abandoned. But then she was never much of a champion for women.
One of the book’s great strengths is that although we know how the story will end we are still kept in suspense — not because of doubts over the outcome, but because Sandbrook situates the reader firmly back in those crucial years. Sandbrook, who was four years old when Thatcher was elected in 1979, has immersed himself in the era. He writes that he “read every edition of The Times, the Guardian, the Mirror and the Express from the early 1980s, and dipped into countless other newspapers and magazines, from the Sun to Smash Hits.” It shows... Particularly at a time like now, when drift and uncertainty characterise politics, this is a rich and rewarding read which reminds you that she was a leader whose greatest strength was her view, her certainty, that things could, should and would be different. The leadership difference — compared with the current three-year failure to address, let alone deliver, Brexit — is intoxicating.
The years 1979–82 were a time of exceptionally dramatic change, embodied in a change of leader. Hence the title of the book, which applies the motto of the SAS to the political realm. It is notoriously considered poor taste — as Michael Portillo later discovered at a Conservative party conference — to try to compare political leadership to the boldness of British special forces in life-and-death situations, but once you have read this book you will see that its title works.... Although Sandbrook concentrates on quite a short period of history, he is good on the wider context. He describes vividly the dismay of workers in heavy-industrial areas whose businesses were often wiped out by Mrs Thatcher’s high interest rates, but he also explains how deep the decline had been for many years. And while he airs powerful descriptions of northern misery by good writers such as Jeremy Seabrook and Ian Jack (the latter happily still with us), he also pays attention to the places which got less ink precisely because they were doing pretty well — Milton Keynes, for example, Peterborough (the city with the Effect) or Basingstoke: ‘Nobody ever romanticised Basingstoke. But Basingstoke was a success story.’
TThe fifth volume of Dominic Sandbrook’s superb history of Britain from the 1950s covers the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Like its predecessors, Who Dares Wins is a rich mixture of political narrative and social reportage. It is scholarly, accessible, well written, witty and incisive. It fizzes with character and anecdote. And it presents an unrivalled portrait of the age of Austin Metros, Sinclair home computers, Lymeswold cheese, McDonald’s, Greenham Common anti-nuclear demonstrators, IRA hunger strikers, Sloane Rangers and sporting heroes such as Daley Thompson, Sebastian Coe, Steve Davis and Ian Botham, who was described as a “hooligan in the nicest sense of the word”.
Although we meet all the famous, and infamous, statesmen and women, all the rock idols, television personalities and pop novelists of the period, Sandbrook never loses sight of the majority, whose lives were played out against the sideshow provided by the politicians and celebrities. His knowledge of television shows, the more trivial the better, is absolutely breathtaking, and one of the tropes that unites the whole enterprise is the image of us, the normal, the unfamous majority, watching the antics of the well-known on our screens, contemplating the grotesqueries of the famous from the quietness of our relatively normal homes.... By the time Sandbrook has finished, his history will be considerably longer than Gibbon, but it will certainly have described a decline and fall. The present volume, however, an immense book covering just three years — the first three years of Margaret Thatcher’s administration — describes a blip, a hiatus. During one peculiar interlude, the Falklands conflict, Britain found itself buoyant, ascendant and, bucking every trend since the reign of George V, successful.