Does Thatcher’s death mean the 80s are really over?

Former British PM Margaret Thatcher’s death this week has not, it seems, provoked a sense in Britain or even around the world that the deceased can do no wrong.

The ‘Iron Lady’ steered Britain away from a failed post-war course. But the cost was division, bitterness and dispossession. She polarised; and the bitterness re-emerged this week to the point where the Telegraph apparently had to shut down its twitter stream.

Thatcher was not alone. Many developed nations, one way or another, had their ‘Thatcher’ in the 1980s. Including my country, New Zealand.

It was unsurprising. Thatcher’s brand of conviction politics – certainties based not on pragmatic understanding of human nature, but theoretical dogma – was on the rise around the world. It was of its time, framed in the ideological oppositions of the late twentieth century, the moment when the new generation got hold of the tiller on various ships of state around the western world and, probably unintentionally, steered their societies unerringly into a riotous exaltation of self.

Eighties glitz and glam; a photo I took in a Wellington central city mall at the height of the yuppie boom, 1987.
Eighties glitz and glam; a photo I took in a Wellington central city mall at the height of the yuppie boom, 1987.

On the back of it the eighties became an age of arrogance, of asserted certainties, of big hair, big shoulder pads, wedge-shaped cars, over-priced and under-sized food, greed, status, displays of power – and bad behaviour.

Was it any good for us? I was in my early twenties when New Zealand followed the Thatcher lead. There were winners, other young twenty-somethings around me who partied up large – for whom the display and assertion of power was an end in itself. The future didn’t matter. What counted was now.

And there were losers. Anybody over 40 was a has-been, unemployable – a dinosaur. Failures. Because they were old. Because they hadn’t made life exciting. Whatever.

Some of the young, selfish, upwardly mobile and badly behaved party animals in white shirts and wide ties crashed and burned in 1987. I don’t know where most of them are now. For myself, I recall it was hard to get work.

I survived; so did others who thought the same way I did. But it wasn’t easy. And every visit I made to my home province brought heartbreak; closures, derelict buildings, a sense of gloom – even as city office workers partied up amidst chromed, neon-lit bars with their revolting ‘goldfish laybacks’ (don’t ask) and Corona beer swilled straight out of the bottle.

With hindsight, I think that whole social mix of the eighties was symptomatic of its time, the antidote for the world wars that had dominated the first half of the twentieth century; a reaction to the safe, solid, protected, grey societies that followed. It made a selected few from a new generation into winners. But I cannot forget the way it also dispossessed. And the generation who had made that 1980s world possible – who had laid their lives on the line to defeat fascism and make democracy safe – were the generation who lost. A twentieth century phenomenon.

We’re well into the twenty-first now. The Cold War is long over. New technology is transforming the way we interact – and the way we can produce and earn. And yet, I have to wonder. It seems to me that the eighties, fundamentally, tapped into an aspect of the human condition. It’s always been around, one way or another, for our entire history. Sometimes society lets it out. And I wonder if that particular genie has really been put back into the bottle, even today.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


6 thoughts on “Does Thatcher’s death mean the 80s are really over?

  1. I think history will look back on Thatcher and see that the alternative to her politics would have been far worse – catastrophic even! Did she make mistakes? Of course. Was it the best course of action? Certainly not – we haven’t found the ‘best’ course of action yet. But I think her legacy will prove to be a positive one as we reflect back on the actions she did take which were hugely beneficial to our society and the wider world.

    1. There’s no doubt that Britain needed to change. That was true here in New Zealand, too, where post-war policies had similarly been pursued well past their ‘use by’ date by the mid-1980s. The question is whether the policies that were then followed were the only ones in the circumstance. It’s an issue that was quite personalised, polemicised and politicised at the time – to some extent remains so today, and will probably continue to provoke heated debate and argument for another generation or so before things settle down and we can look at the whole lot as history (at which point it gets drawn into academic territorial wars….sigh…) 🙂

  2. I always enjoy your writing but this post is particularly eloquent and insightful. Thoroughly well expressed!

    Personally I see a few points of comparison between 1900 – 1910 and the 1980’s and 90’s. Both seem to be periods of incredible technological advancement. The 1900’s had flight, movies and unsinkable liners while the 80’s and 90’s were notable for huge advances in the way we communicate. During both periods society was lulled into think they lived in ‘peaceful’ times and a future with limitless potential. Both seem to me to have had elements of self-congratulary arrogance at being masters of the world. The beggining of the 20th century was the birth of the self that you mention, and the 80’s seemingly took it to a new height. (‘Century of the Self’ by Adam Curtis is one of my all time favourite tv documentary series).

    But what did each generation have to look forward to? The unsinkable liners hit icebergs, the world collapsed into an absolute horrific war unlike anything seen before and then there was a economic depression waiting around the corner for good measure. Those in the 1980’s also had an economic crash waiting for them, followed by the fall of the twin towers and the drawn out and messy wars in its wake.

    I think you are right, it must be part of the human condition and I don’t think it will ever go away. I suspect there was similar episodes in Roman history and that there will likely be similar episodes centuries from now. Humans have a remarkable memory when it comes to personal experience but their inter-generational memory sucks.

    1. Thank you! You’re right. Thinking about it, I suspect we had similar patterns in the nineteenth century too. I always contend that the generation who came directly after the Napoleonic Wars were more humanitarian than those that came later, because of war weariness and experience of the hard edge of the human condition. This led to the Treaty of Waitangi, among other things, which was an absolutely unique document. Later, the children of these British idealists forgot the lessons and so imperial colonialism emerged with its harder edge, later in the nineteenth century.

      History is such a cool field when we can step back like this and start to look at the very widest patterns – really shows up the long-term how and why of where we’ve come from in terms of our attitudes.

  3. We started the 80s here in the States with a pretty bad recession. I lost my job and it took a few years to get one that paid as well.

    A friend of mine has decried the 80s as the time when the “Me Generation” emerged. Everyone wanted a law degree or an MBA or both. Everyone wanted to run a business, the bigger the better as having the more scope for power, but no one really wanted to start a business or take a risk.

    Religious fundamentalism came to power with the so-called “Moral Majority” of Ronald Reagan. I always found that disturbing, personally, because of the way religion has become twisted in the service of power. And, to me, the pursuit of power, in the sense of dominance over others, was the hallmark of the 80s, and it has only gotten worse since.

    In the sense that the 80s marked the emergence of a trend, well, no, I don’t think it’s over, certainly not yet. There are some hopeful signs emerging that perhaps common sense is beginning to return, but I think damage that’s been ongoing for over a generation, that also marks the growth of a persistent trend, won’t reverse or repair itself easily.

    I hope this makes sense! I’ve just worked a succession of 13-hour days, and I’m tempted to say it was necessary because of the greed of others. But that’s only partly true.

    1. Yes, absolute sense! I think there was a general trend across the western world towards conservatism in the late twentieth century – generational and largely a social phenomenon. Each nation seems to have filtered it through their own cultural frameworks – the NZ expression was more secular than religious – but I think that same general exaltation of self was pretty universal. A lot of it seemed to pivot on the expression of personal power over others, often at the expense of a more caring attitude. Likely generational and, as you say, changing slowly now, but we’ve a way to go. I suspect part of the reason why all this came up in the first place, in the 1980s, was that this was the first decade that a generation had come to adulthood whose lives had not been shaped in some specific fashion by one of the World Wars – I include the ‘hippie’ generation in that because a lot of what they did was a direct reversal of their parents values, thus really framed by them. (We had the ‘Haight Ashbury’ influence out here in NZ along with an infusion of the English pre-industrial nostalgia revival set – an interesting mix…)

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