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Finding a Role?

Review by: John Callaghan, University of Salford

Brian Harrison, Finding A Role? The United Kingdom 1970-1990, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010).

This is the tenth book in the New Oxford History of England and the second, in this series, of two self-contained volumes on British history since 1951 by Brian Harrison. It begins with a survey of the United Kingdom and the world and consists of six further sections organised around the environment, the social structure, family and welfare, industry and commerce, intellect and culture, and politics and culture, before concluding with ‘retrospect and prospect’. This replicates the structure adopted for the first volume Seeking A Role. Cutting across most chapters, certain themes receive sustained attention; secularization, professionalization, and specialization; the gradual fragmentation of the British elite; the growing salience and pervasiveness of the media; growing anxiety about threats to cultural standards; the vitality of voluntarism; pressures to standardization and conformity; and changing patterns of community, friendship and individual isolation. Harrison also draws attention to eight motifs which he first identified in the earlier volume and continues to use here. The legacy of the Second World War; the UK’s post-imperial, changing relationship to the world; the growth of affluence, combined with anxiety about the economy; the paradox of time-saving economy and the increasing pace of daily life; the tensions of secularized materialism in a predominantly Christian society; political stability in a society of rapid change; the limits of political power; and the citizens’ covert resistance to coordination by politicians seeking an overt UK role.

Empire and Commonwealth had both lost significance for the UK’s international relations by 1970 and it still stood outside the European Common Market. Yet just twenty years later the UK, by numerous measures, was more closely integrated into the world than ever before. Membership of the European Economic Community followed in the wake of its growth in importance to UK trade but drew ‘no consistent or constructive strategy’ from the political elite, even though the calculations of both Labour and Conservative politicians in seeking entry had focused on rescuing the UK’s global political-military role, as well as its economy. The City of London’s position in international finance continued to grow, however, and the UK economy was increasingly internationalised, a trend which was accelerated in the 1980s by government policy as well as by the powerful forces of what came to be known as ‘globalization’. In the 1970s there was not much visible evidence of this revolution on the streets. The UK economy, suffering from stagflation and industrial conflict, seemed to be in a steep decline and many of the solutions on offer involved the maintenance of failing corporatism and even the growth of the state and protectionism. The Thatcher governments changed this of course after 1979 but only at the cost of rising unemployment and growing inequality. Harrison makes much of the growth of the middle class in the 1980s but the evidence shows its lack of cultural and political coherence. More easily defined is the corresponding shrinkage of the manual working class, with the decline of heavy industries and many of the residential strongholds of the Labour Party which they once supported. Together with persistently high unemployment throughout the 1980s these changes also reduced the big trade unions from partners and rivals of the state, at the beginning of this period, to marginal influences in both politics and society. Trade union density fell from its peak of 54.4 per cent in 1979, on the eve of this transformation, to levels associated with the late 1930s. Along the way whole industries disappeared, most notably coalmining.

Harrison has an eye for detail and sometimes small facts illuminate much bigger changes, as when he reports on the conversion of the whole of the Electrician’s union to private health in 1979. Communist-controlled in the 1950s, the union was now in the vanguard of changes in methods, values and policies that were promoted as the keys to survival in the age of neo-liberalism. At the bottom of the heap the underclass was rediscovered in the 1980s, consisting of the long-term unemployed, the feckless, the criminal and the socially excluded (in the parlance of the 1990s). Reforms in welfare were often rationalised in terms of overcoming this seemingly irreducible minimum. But between 1979 and 1992 the income of the poorest tenth of the population actually fell, while the richest got substantially richer. Anxiety about crime rates, narcotics abuse, football hooliganism and falling standards grew in the same period, with much talk of the UK as a more fractured society than it had been in the 1940s and 1950s. Violent conflict in Northern Ireland and controversy over New Commonwealth immigration reinforced the dystopian view of many of the pundits – most famously, Enoch Powell MP – while riots in the major cities in 1981 added to the sense of crisis. Few would have predicted the apparently successful transition to the ‘multicultural’ society that was celebrated in the 1990s. Harrison provides evidence of the success of some immigrant groups, such as Indians, in business and the professions, but perhaps the most telling indicator of the forces working against racism is the growth of mixed-race marriages which ‘accounted for almost one in ten of the total ethnic-minority population’ (p. 195) by the mid-1990s, and were ‘spreading rapidly’. This type of integration and assimilation probably would have been even higher had religious proscriptions on marriage outside the faith not been so dominant among immigrants from South Asia.

By contrast with the 1970s, race was far less of a divisive issue by the 1990s. But it was far from the only issue of identity politics that generated more pessimism at the beginning of this period than at the end. Back in 1970 the Gay Liberation Front and a revived militant feminism were up against entrenched attitudes and institutions that might already have begun to crumble – such as the standardized and received view of marriage, the sexual division of labour, parenting, divorce, pre-marital sex, and cohabitation – though it was difficult to see this at the time. Class and national identities were also changing, so was party identity and cultural influences. Harrison’s narrative is rich in both the range of the subjects he discusses and the detail in which they are analysed. In chapter eight – Retrospect and Prospect – he draws the strands together. The big picture that emerges is one of major stresses and strains associated with mass immigration, economic dislocation, home-grown terrorism, and industrial strife, sometimes boiling-over into riots and states of emergency. Harrison argues that the internal coalition capacities of the two great political parties, entrenched by the electoral system, played a major role in enabling the non-violent centre to prevail during these decades, when the prospects often looked grim. And though opinion was polarised for a time under Thatcher, her sustained political successes, together with the international defeat of socialism in the 1980s, re-educated the Labour Party and fuelled its retreat from statism, so that a new consensus had emerged at party level by the mid-90s around the economic reforms enacted in the 1980s. Nevertheless there was a great deal that was fortuitous about this and Harrison admits that ‘it would be facile to assume inevitability about the UK’s gradual and relatively non-violent passage’ through these times. The wealth of his evidence concerning social and cultural change only serves to reinforce his judgement that in a multitude of ways the ‘politicians acquired the appearance of influence only by adjusting themselves to trends that emerged spontaneously from the people at large’ (p. 549).

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