The historical world is awash with histories of Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher – and her time as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 – has been extensively pulled apart, interrogated, and documented by modern historians, economists and political scientists. James Hinton’s Seven Lives From Mass Observation is a triumph in that it serves as a refreshing break from the dominant – and arguably tired – styles of history surrounding Thatcher.
Hinton approaches the Thatcher era from the bottom up: meaning, instead of constructing a broad and general history of Thatcher from archival records and documents, Hinton paints a picture of what life was actually like for individuals during Thatcher’s 1980s and the decades prior to it, touching on their experiences of events varying from 1960s sexual ‘revolution’ and the 1970s ‘crisis’, to Thatcher’s 1980s and the economic turmoil which ensued. Hinton uses the rich archives of Mass Observation to do so, focusing on the writings of seven individuals of different genders, job backgrounds, and upbringings. The work focuses on the lives of a Housewife, Teacher, Social Worker, RAF Wife, Mechanic, Lorry Driver and Banker, all of whom wrote for Mass Observation in some capacity during their fifties. Hinton justifies this age choice with a simple statement: “life is lived forward, but understood backwards”. Young people caught up in life happening to them can rarely take time to ponder the meaning.
The work ultimately serves to amplify the importance of individual experience, something which is sometimes lost in bigger histories, but is entirely essential in order to grasp the true complexity of the historical past. Hinton expresses his belief in the phrase “the personal is political”; thus, when examining the writings of the ‘Housewife’, who compared the 1984 Miner’s Strike to the domestic workers’ struggle upon the dawn of electrical cleaning goods, Hinton believes we can learn a lot more about society from these quirky, individual, interpretations of events, than from any large all-encompassing narratives. And, whilst the reader may be tempted to draw larger conclusions from these individual accounts, Hinton jumps in and out of the text with periodic warnings, pointing out that these individuals wished to – and should be – viewed as “an individual, a personality in [their] own right, not a cipher or a statistic to be manipulated”.
Thus, whilst the second chapter of the work offers simplified and questionable narratives of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, which rely heavily on dominant myths and assumptions left entirely unchallenged by Hinton, the reader is left to question these independently, with the support of the seven lives in the subsequent chapters, which Hinton states are “the only resources we have to put against the grimmer tides of contemporary history”. Hinton is tasking the reader with challenging their own assumptions about Thatcher’s Britain and the modern British past in general, stating that “history is always a debate”. Hinton’s work must therefore be viewed as adding fuel to the fiery debates about the modern British past, in a way entirely exciting and refreshing to the historical world.
Hinton effectively calms any anxieties the reader would have over the reliability of a history based entirely on personal experiences. Hinton points out that whilst having the guarantee of 100 per cent anonymity – as was always the case with Mass Observation – would encourage maximum honesty, more so than any face-to-face interview, people still unconsciously adapt their own personal life narratives. Thus, whilst ‘The Banker’ asserted that “my guard is down when I write about myself for Mass Observation – because of the anonymity – so that I have, I believe, supplied a truer picture that if I were carefully sieving the detail for publication, when perhaps I would present the man that I would like others to see”, Hinton is keen to point out that often, individuals construct a narrative of their own life in order to “come to terms with how [they] have lived”. True, uninfluenced, unfiltered, untainted experience is not possible; what Hinton provides, however, is the closest a reader can get to the historical truth of these seven individual lives under Thatcher.
The individual accounts featured in Hinton’s book are the ultimate fly on the wall experience. When the ‘Social Worker’ recalls her lack of sexual satisfaction with her husband, ultimately leading to her subsequent affairs, or when ‘The Banker’ admits that he felt like he was “missing out” on the tide of extramarital affairs that the 1960s had brought about, as a reader you are left wondering whether these accounts are really for your viewing. Such honesty and raw emotions are a rarity in histories, and only serve to add to the overall triumph of Hinton’s work.
But the ultimate merit of Hinton’s work is the way in which it allows us to understand why these individuals supported Thatcher, or why they didn’t, or why they paid no mind to politics at all. The ‘Housewife’, for example, had held deep rooted values of individualism and self-determination since childhood, believing that the welfare state had engulfed Britain and created a society with whom she no longer identified. Additionally, after discovering her son’s hard pornography collection, she found herself joining Mary Whitehouse’s crusade against the 1960s permissive turn. The ‘Housewife’ is an ideal pro-Thatcherite, but it is through her stories and experiences we learn how and why she felt and thought the way she did. The ‘Social Worker’, however, seemed to pay no mind to politics at all, remarking that 1979 was her worst year – not due to the Winter of Discontent or Thatcher’s election – but due to overwhelming loneliness.
Rather than dividing society into pro-Thatcher and anti-Thatcher, Hinton’s work encourages us to complicate the way in which we think about Thatcher’s Britain and the individuals in it. It re-emotionalises and humanises society in a way sometimes sorely absent from history. Hinton’s Seven Lives From Mass Observation is thus an essential read for anyone studying the late twentieth century: it makes the reader stop and think that people actually lived through history, and interpreted and experienced it in ways so unique and diverse that imposing generalised meaning onto the lives of those from the past no longer seems feasible.