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Friday, 5 March, 1999, 11:36 GMT
Was greed good? The 1980s dissected

By BBC News Online's Giles Wilson

IN THE RED CORNER - A flying picket, with a Coal not Dole banner. (Theme music: Billy Bragg singing "I was a miner...")

IN THE BLUE CORNER - Brookside's Max Farnham, with rolled up shirtsleeves, crushing a polystyrene cup, saying "I want to be my own boss". (Theme music: Axel F by Harold Faltermeyer)

It was to be a bout of ten rounds of 12 months each. But midway through the fifth it seemed to all intents and purposes to be over. TKO, coinciding with the end of the Miners' Strike. The blue corner, with Margaret Thatcher in charge, had won the historic battle.

Arthur Scargill
In the red corner: Arthur Scargill
For some, the Thatcher years were a time of burning heat of social upheaval. For others it was a time of undreamt-of wealth and opulence. Many breathed a sigh of relief when the 80s had had their day and welcomed in the 1990s, hailed as a more more "touchy-feely" age.

But it's not as simple as that. Now we are approaching 10 years' hindsight on the 80s, the continuing influence the decade has on us seems to be as strong as ever.

The Thatcher years were a disheartening time for many on the Left, who then no doubt proudly called themselves socialists. Three times their hopes were dashed when Lady Thatcher triumphed at the polls. Many of them must have wondered if their day would ever come.

80s losers - 90s winners

But, says commentator Andrew Marr, who is taking part in a series of lectures at London's South Bank Centre looking at the 80s, many of them did all right out of the Thatcher upheaval.

"It was a revolution that liberated its enemies," he said. Brit pack artists, who were culturally opposed to Thatcher "became hugely popular establishment figures in the 90s".

Harry Enfield's paean to 80s consumerism: Loadsamoney
"One of the great ironies is that some of the things the Conservatives most hated - relatively explicit gay sex scenes on Channel Four, for instance - were created by what happened in the 80s."

The shake-up which started in the 80s continued into the 90s. "The battering of deference and the social mobility created by what happened in the 80s has defined the 90s.

"There was an awful lot spoken about [the 90s being] a gentler, kinder nation, but it's more talk than action. The energy of the 80s lasted longer and created more disruption than any kind of healing process," he said.

Politics over culture

He said it was an era defined by politics, not by its culture which on the whole was pretty dull. It almost seemed as if the country's energy was going into the political conflict, he said.

Culture may not have been at its most exciting, but the excesses of the decade are certainly a ripe area for reminiscing, whether it's cerise and electric blue ra-ra skirts or tight snow-wash jeans and leg warmers.

Peter York and Joan Collins
Peter York with 80s icon Joan Collins
Peter York, writer and chronicler of the 80s who is also speaking at the South Bank Centre, says it was a "remarkable" decade, and is in no doubt that its influence lives on.

"The 1990s resemble the 1980s in many ways, only moreso ... things now are more competitive, more global, more professional and bigger," he said.

"We wouldn't be the people we are today if it weren't for the 1980s. It was the beginning not just of privatisation, but the privatisation of everything."

The self-confident brashness which guided the way people made themselves, their homes and offices look was in effect an expression of their attitude to the world.

For instance, York said, many buildings in the 80s had a large fronted glass atrium look, expressing an ambitious and energetic attitude to business.

City traders embodied 1980s "brashness"
"Now it looks very dated, and it also looks vulgar," he said.

Women wearing "very bright, very broad-shouldered business suits" were expressing a similar attitude - "the woman thing, the aggressive thing and the business thing".

The main result of the decade, York adds, was that we became more like America. Was that a positive thing? "That depends who you are. It gave a lot of people their head, their chance to get running, but it also left a lot of people behind and it left a lot of people out of work."

Marr is not sure if it's possible to say whether the 80s was worth it, because the question presupposed that there was any choice about it.

"I don't think we could have avoided it. The 80s happened when the 70s smashed. We hit a wall."

Life may be more cruel now, but it's more exhilerating, he said. "Would you choose to be in the 70s, or even in the 60s? I rather suspect there's an awful lot of us who'd say no thanks.

"I think most of us would find it pretty stifling to be back in that grainier, more provincial Britain."

Each day next week, BBC News Online's e-cyclopedia will be looking at how the 1990s will be remembered.

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