People often think that writing about very recent history is much easier than writing about, say, the Anglo-Saxons, because there are simply so many more sources. There’s some truth in that, but there are drawbacks, too. As the furore over Lady Thatcher’s funeral suggests, most of us find it hard to contemplate events in living memory with the scholarly detachment that we might bring to the distant past. Even very recent events, such as the Winter of Discontent, the Falklands War and the 1984 miners’ strike, are now laden down with all sort of ideological baggage and journalistic mythology.
And for anybody writing about contemporary history, there is also the problem of sheer abundance. Even if you limited yourself to the documents at The National Archives, one lifetime would not be enough to read everything.
Yet if you pick and choose carefully, there are gems. The Winter of Discontent in late 1978 and early 1979, for example, is one of the most controversial episodes in our recent history. The wave of strikes broke the back of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government and opened the way for Margaret Thatcher; for the next two decades, Conservative adverts played on public fears that it could happen again. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, many historians have been keen to look behind the headlines in Conservative-supporting papers, and to downplay the extent of the industrial turmoil. Was it, they ask, really all that bad? Wasn’t it just, as one historian put its, a ‘constructed crisis’? Continue reading »