I didn’t actually exist in 1979 to 1982 but I seem to remember those years quite well, due to the collective memory, documentaries, images and music. It’s long ago enough to be history, but recent enough to feel connected to it. The majority of the events covered by this enormous history book were therefore familiar to me, but it was fascinating to see them from a historian’s perspective and pulled together from primary sources. I liked the use of ordinary people’s observations from the time, in addition to those from politicians and journalists.
The book begins with Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister and ends with the Falklands War. In between, there are substantial explorations of issues such as mass unemployment, the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the rise of the British computer industry. The chapter on the New Romantics was predictably my favourite. Even the chapter on professional snooker was unexpectedly engaging. I could detect some admiration of Thatcher from Sandbrook’s writing but he endeavours to weigh up the evidence and to bust myths where appropriate.
The chapter about the prospect of nuclear war was terrifying. Sandbrook wrote part of it as if Britain was actually bombed by the Soviets, leading to Thatcher pushing the nuclear button. I was upset and amazed to read these details. They seemed so realistic that I believed them, which is a testament both to the writer’s ability and my own gullibility. It turned out to be a training exercise about what would happen in the event of the cold war escalating. This doesn’t count as a spoiler, as I’m sure no one else will be stupid enough to think that these events happened for real.
Although the book is ridiculously long, it generally held my attention. I had to skim-read a few of the economic-themed chapters. The language was sometimes repetitive and wordy. However, I’d read more from Dominic Sandbrook, who by the way was only a child during the period he has written about. I’d recommend this book if you already know a little about what happened in Britain during 1979-1982 and want go into more detail, especially the political and social climate.
First published in 2019 by Penguin.