Revolutions rarely happen all at once.

The quakes occur on different fault-lines of the same old order, often so far apart that they don't seem to be connected. One may revolve around haircuts and skirts; another may unfold in waves of banners; one may be about driving cars, another about making them. People may find themselves on one side here and another side there. As Margaret Thatcher's government warmed to its crusading theme, many of the children of the Elvis and Beatles revolution found themselves on the wrong side of what looked like a new industrial revolution. We had been progress's favourites, but now we were standing in its way.

At that stage, in the first half of the 1980s, Britain was a land of different eras stuck together. In those respects that had been revolutionised, it was much like it is now, if not as intense. Music was now something that shook the spine as it shook the room; sex had become semi-detached from marriage and a topic of public, even polite, conversation. Young people had access to a range of sensory and sensual experience as wide as that which their children have today, but which outspanned their parents' horizons so sweepingly that a typical family home was a two-culture society. The vocabulary of modern culture was largely complete, although much of it was not yet widely spoken.

In other stretches of national life, the past a generation ago was not just a foreign country but a quaintly backward one. To speak with someone at a distance you had to go to a telephone, and hope the other person would come to theirs. To find something out without asking someone, you had to look it up in a book. To buy things you went to shops, but not on Sundays. When BBC Television closed down for the night, it played the national anthem.

The nation itself was still arranged according to the post-war settlement, which set up a social democracy within the hulk of the old imperial state. Britain was to be both a monarchy and a welfare state – staffed to a large extent by people from former parts of the empire – in which the interests of the old institutions would be guaranteed, and so would those of the people. The outcome was that the nation's labours were shared half and half between the public and the private sectors. Health, education, energy utilities and railways were in the public domain, as were a varying number of manufacturing enterprises.

At the heart of the new settlement were the coal mines, which had supplied the fuel for the world's first industrial revolution. Even as British Railways scrapped its steam locomotives and the state built nuclear power plants – to make its atom bombs as well as to power its national grid – the mines were still seen as the foundation of an economy based in factories, mills and workshops. In the economic sense Britain was still “an island made mainly of coal”, as the left-wing Labour politician Aneurin Bevan once put it.

The mines were also seen as part of the nation's moral core, the miners' sweat, sacrifice and comradeship creating a strategic debt of gratitude that helped to bind all classes together. When the miners massed above ground, their strength and solidarity assured the labour movement that it would continue to march forward. The capture of the mines themselves was a pivotal moment, pointedly affirmed on the signboards that appeared outside the gates when the pits were nationalised in 1947: “This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people”.

Although the political tone and phrasing varied, the settlement was much the same across democratic Europe. Christian democrats and social democrats agreed that a good society is one that assures the basic welfare of all who are part of it, and supports the less fortunate of them. They also agreed that the state should be the central mechanism through which society fulfilled these obligations. In Britain, the Conservatives were in power most of the time, but they were broadly content to manage a social democratic state in which essential industries were owned by everyone. To conservatives across the Atlantic they must have looked like communists.

By the end of the 1970s, though, the settlement in Britain looked incapable of maintaining itself. Seven million people, one in four, still worked in manufacturing industry; but Britain's industrial decline had been the running theme in the national story for years. It was epitomised by the British-owned car industry, which after several decades of mergers had collapsed into a single lumbering conglomerate, British Leyland, which was nationalised to keep it alive after it went bankrupt in 1975. Its cars and its industrial relations became objects of national derision, morbid symptoms that all could see but nobody could cure.

There were plenty of other morbid symptoms around by that stage, some  of them beyond jokes. In parts of London it was not unusual to see skinheads wearing the Celtic cross insignia of the British Movement, a neo-Nazi group for whom the National Front was not hardcore enough. Skinheads sawed the air with Nazi salutes at ska gigs, barracking 2-Tone performers with Sieg Heil chants. The allure of politically aggressive imagery cast its spell across youth culture. Joe Strummer took the stage at a Rock Against Racism rally in a t-shirt emblazoned with the symbol of the ultra-left Red Army Fraction terrorists.

Most of it was posing, and much of it was entertainment in a similar vein to war or horror movies. Many young people enjoyed warming their hands around the braziers of doomed struggles. They took the same approach to politics and history that they took to the flea-markets through which they picked for second-hand clothes. But there was also a desire to find a way into a story through these bits and pieces, to become part of a grand narrative. A peacetime generation marched under Anti-Nazi League banners in the shadows of fathers and grandfathers who had marched in the first, world-historical anti-Nazi league.

They had to be quick. Though it was not yet so obvious as to be undeniable, several of the grand narratives they were drawn to were drawing to an end. In 1980 a workers' movement arose that in most of its dimensions were the stuff of the Left's dreams: spontaneous, self-organised, united, heavily industrial, millions strong, and supported throughout society. But although it advanced an anarcho-syndicalist vision of how society could function, its flags were red and white rather than red and black; its imagery was Catholic and its enemy was the Soviet system imposed on Moscow's satellite states. Poland's Solidarity trade union movement was suppressed by the imposition of a “state of war” in 1981, but by the end of the decade it had re-emerged to win a partly free general election. A few months later the process it had started reached its climax with the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the journalist Neal Ascherson put it at the time, that was “the end of the Bolshevik revolution”. So much for that grand narrative. The anarcho-syndicalist vision of workers' self-government had long since evaporated too. By the end of the decade the activists were under the spell of the free market.

In Britain, the watershed industrial movement of the period was the year-long miners' strike, against pit closures, that began in 1984. From the start it seemed almost as though its leaders had charted a strategy for defeat: a spring start, with coal stocks high; a refusal to hold a ballot that might have got the Nottinghamshire miners out on strike, and kept them in the National Union of Mineworkers; the granite face that the NUM president Arthur Scargill  set against the slightest tremor of compromise.

The result was a tragedy enacted on a scale that allowed and demanded solidarity from outside supporters – a minority in British public opinion, but a vocal presence in the left-leaning strands of youth culture. People marched, made music, raised money, sometimes found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder, in the phrase Test Department chose for their collaboration with the South Wales Striking Miners' Choir. Under the old banners, people found new ways to support a last stand. But although three decades have elapsed, a new narrative of solidarity and progress remains to be found. There are moments and scenes, it's true, but they have not assembled themselves into a story.

Instead, the whole revolution has been reconceived as a liberal renaissance – socially liberal, economically liberal, a liberation not of masses but individuals. The market has been freed to determine what is produced and where. In Britain only three million people, one in ten, now work in manufacturing - and by 2010 only about three thousand were left in deep-level coal mining, an industry that had employed three quarters of a million at the time it was nationalised. People are free to put their identities together by browsing the global marketplace, to choose their lifestyles, to shop on Sundays and to define themselves as they please. In one survey, conducted in 2011, less than a quarter described themselves as working class.

This liberal reading recognises that the triumph of the Beatles and the defeat of the miners were both part of the same revolution. It is self-consistent in a way that was anathema to Margaret Thatcher, who never missed an opportunity to revel in her narrow-mindedness, and who forced Britain's economy through what the sociologist Stuart Hall called a process of “reactionary modernisation”.

It also cuts lethally through the two halves of social democracy, disposing of the half that balanced individual freedom with social justice, equality and solidarity. Although social solidarity reasserts itself here and there, these days it often takes a morbid form, embittered, intolerant and xenophobic. In Poland, the nationalist-conservative right took up the idea of social solidarity that the modern-minded parties had turned their backs on, campaigning for a “Poland of solidarity” to suppress the new “liberal Poland”. By then labour organisation had collapsed so catastrophically that when young Poles came to work in Britain, local trade unionists had to teach them what unions were.

There are now, of course, ways to form links between people that were unimaginable a generation ago. The technological front of the industrial revolution has seen to that. People are experimenting with them, immersing themselves in them, keying their phones as they half-listen to speeches, entrancing themselves in chat. But although these weightless networks offer any number of new forms of association, they don't necessarily promote the depth or the substance that makes solidarity solid. They bring people together, but not shoulder to shoulder. That will still have to happen on the ground.