Life as history

France has been celebrating (or bewailing, take your pick) the 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968, when there were barricades and battles on the streets of Paris, and factories and universities were occupied across the country. The ‘soixante-huiters’ are still alive and kicking in the memory of France. And in my memory too.  

In 1968, we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. To me, then, that seemed an impossibly long time ago. I felt no personal connection with those times, despite having two grandfathers still alive who had fought in that war. I didn’t even feel much personal connection with the Second World War. It was all before my time, all history.

Those who are now rising 20 must feel the same way about 1968, and about the rest of the century too. Those times are to be studied in class or in books, if at all. Their events belong to history. But they don’t feel that way to me: they represent my life.

As part of the research for a possible future novel, I have been reading accounts of 20th century Britain. Even the year 2000 is now a long time ago, so there has been plenty of time for modern historians to write, not critiques of current events, but proper, full-length histories of the last century.

It has been a weird experience, because half of what they describe has been within the realm of my personal experience. There is therefore a startling confrontation between the subjective and the objective. If I wondered at the time, which I probably did, what future historians would make of the times in which I was living, I am now beginning to get the chance to find out. And not only to find out, but also to reappraise.

We all end up believing what we want to believe. Human opinions are subjective, clothed in whatever plausible arguments we can find. As René said in The Breaking of Eggs, “it is a myth that we come to rational conclusions. The best we can do is to give ourselves reasons for what we feel. The whole world is based on emotion. The process of logic is to give us a justification for it.” One need only look at two opposing politicians, faced with the same situation and explaining it in contradictory ways, each convinced that he or she is telling the truth and that the other is wilfully lying.

Historians, however – although not without their own emotions, prejudices and preconceptions – have to make a credible attempt at objectivity. Their judgments are worthless otherwise. Facts, where they exist, need to be unearthed and published. Interpretations need to be offered and assessments made. Where a definitive conclusion remains elusive, the alternatives need to be explained. In the process, oldies like me sometimes get to discover what lies we were told in the past and by whom, and to get a better idea of what we should have believed at the time.

I am pleased to discover that the ’60s are still accorded their deserved place (in my opinion) as a momentous decade. That is no longer the prejudiced viewpoint of my generation. History now says so. It’s official. (Even the ever-mean-spirited Norman Tebbit thinks so. In the ’90s, he ranted against “the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of that third-rate decade, the 1960s.” It really got to you, Norm, didn’t it? Oh, and you left out fab.)

However, other opinions I have entertained over the decades need to be modified. I dare say I will discover more in the weeks to come – I can see this becoming an intermittent theme of future blogs.

One such opinion is my impression of the decline of Britain’s traditional industries. At the time, what I thought, broadly, is as follows. Although the big old heavy industries (mining, iron and steel, ship-building) were inefficient and losing money, they were propped up by centrist governments of both parties until 1979. Then, in the Thatcherite revolution, support was cut off, the industries were left to fail and mass unemployment was created. The only residual questions were whether this needed to have happened as abruptly as it did and on the scale that it did, and whether a great deal more should have been done to help those whose lives were blighted as a result.

It would appear that much of this is true, which is reassuring, but what is not true is that the process of de-industrialisation began in the ’80s. The old heavy industries had in fact been in decline, arguably in terminal decline, for years – all through the ’60s and even more so in the ’70s. There had been huge job losses, and by the end of the ’70s unemployment in the old industrial areas was running at more than 10%. The image we have of desolate industrial towns with little employment, and little hope of employment, was already becoming a reality then. Thatcherism did not begin this process, it ended it. In conjunction with the worldwide recession of the early ’80s, it applied the coup de grâce.

The residual questions remain, though. I continue to feel that the final stages of the process were unnecessarily brutal. I continue to feel that far too little was done, and continues not to be done, to help the casualties of history, and that there has been a staggering lack of imagination throughout.

However, my ire has previously been focused on Margaret Thatcher’s governments for failing to mitigate what they had caused. And focused on all subsequent governments, come to that. The accusation still stands, but it needs to be broadened. The Wilson, Heath and Callaghan governments were equally culpable.

To sum up the mea culpa, and the revisionism it entails: historians now confirm what we all felt at the time – that the election of Margaret Thatcher, for good or for ill, marked the beginning of a new era. But the beginnings of eras are also the ends of eras, and eras seldom end without good reason. There are many cogent criticisms that can still be made of Thatcherism and of the new era she heralded, but she should not entirely be blamed for the manifold failings of the era that her ascent eclipsed.

Anyway, all that is now history. As, it would appear, am I.