Why The 70s Can Never Return

Great Britain

3 day week

Stay away from religion or politics, they say, but a swift canter through our national history never hurts, especially as I’m planning to write a period novel, so bear with me today.

For anyone over 45 certain parallels between past and present are obvious, if less severe now. In the 1970s even the Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey pointed out that each morning he awoke wishing he lived anywhere but in Britain. In 1971, with the pound in trouble, Britain shut out of the EU, strikes crippling the country, trains and many other services simply not running and a clique of hardline left-wingers infighting, the mood was bleak.

A nadir was reached during the Heath government that saw everyone from mortuary attendants to rubbish collectors on strike. Leicester Square was declared a health hazard and rolling blackouts shut down the national grid in three-hour blocks of darkness across the country.

Industrial action by miners meant that commercial users of electricity were limited to three consecutive days of power – the so-called ‘Three Day Week’ came into force. Only services deemed essential, like hospitals, supermarkets and newspapers, were exempt.

The country effectively ground to a halt.  Double-digit inflation and excessive union power created a sense of national decay. Britain was deemed ‘The Sick Man of Europe’. My mother said that conditions had been better during the war.

Then we gained EU membership, a new economic system was devised, privatisations began, the more draconian unions were defused, the embedding of market economics and the labour market reform took effect.

These were bitter pills for many to swallow. Yet in London, Fleet Street’s print chapels and the media unions  decimated their own industry with Luddite actions born of fear at technological change. The result was what it always was; they lost to the new advances, but eventually reinvented themselves.

For the miners change came less easily. When you live in a town that offers nothing else and are offered no way of retraining (at what? Nobody knew) what could you do but fight back? In London we remember the yellow collection buckets held by gay men and women on street corners, but the recent film ‘Pride’ failed to connect with audiences because we now think of mining as a dead industry. We forget the alliance was humanitarian; they were collecting for miners’ families.

And in London Thatcherism felt transformative, with a strongly opinionated decision-maker at the helm. Tough medicine transformed derelict parts of the city and everyone became better off, but much of the North was simply abandoned in a system of so-called ‘benign neglect’. The Thatcher reign finally soured and the national mood was jubilant in 1997 with Tony Blair’s arrival, when D-Ream sang ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ – but we’d reckoned without Iraq.

Youngs, you can come back into the room now. This is where you came in, and it’s why you think Jeremy Corbyn is a good idea. All that it takes for evil to flourish is for a good man to stand by and do nothing, and Cameron not only did nothing, he rewarded his cronies for doing it, so of course you’re a Corbynist. But you’ve already seen what he did in the Brexit crisis; nothing at all. He couldn’t even bring himself to hold discussions with the country’s Prime Minister in his position as opposition leader.

One thing seems clear in all of this; strong leaders, however wrong, are better than weak ones. There’s one exception to that rule; Donald Trump, who cannot have a real conversation, who is not a real person but a ragbag of insults and online reactions without leadership vision or a single intelligent economic reform in his head. Which may, paradoxically, make him unassailable.

With Dead Man Corbyn still bolted into place here and the US possibly sleepwalking to disaster by relying on safe-sounding polls as we did, we may all end up feeling like Denis Healey did when he awoke after November. Me, I’d love to believe in some aspects of Brexit like self-reliance, but as a Londoner it rankles to see an economic concept (over-control by Europe) derailed by a handful (and it is only a handful) of racists.

Dominic Sandbrook’s superb histories of postwar Britain make fine additional volumes to Jan Morris’s ‘Pax Britannica’ trilogy if anyone wants a complete unbiased overview of the political past.

17 comments on “Why The 70s Can Never Return”

  1. Ness says:

    At least you still had some culture in the 70s. In Australia the lights were on but no one was home. Fear of all things foreign including food; racism and cultural cringe at their peaks.

    And you forgot to mention another horror of the 70s – platform shoes, static inducing man-made fabrics and tight flares. May have looked better by candlelight but the whole lot was a bit too flammable to risk it. Truly a decade better forgotten for social, economic and tasteful reasons.

  2. Ruth says:

    How differently I remember the 1970s – is it because I was mostly a teenager with no responsibilities? It all started going horribly wrong for me in 1979 when Maggie got in, which coincided with me settling in to my first full-time job. I found the 80s depressing and dreary – even the music was naff.

    I loved everything about the 1970s – the music, the fashion, the freedom, and from 1975 to 1978 the ability to survive on very little money being a student living in college with a grant. It always takes me by surprise when others say how awful the 70s were.

    Ness – I probably looked a complete fright but I really enjoyed being able to wear whatever I wanted in outlandish combinations!

  3. Vivienne says:

    I don’t remember the three day weeks and power cuts as too awful. You had to plan, and go to the pictures when your heating was off and so on. I recall shopping by candlelight and the tills didn’t work so the assistants had to be honest. As for platform shoes, they made your legs longer but were flat, so you could walk really fast. Flares.may come back….

  4. Brooke says:

    I take issue with the statement “strong leaders…are better than weak ones.” Especially since you refer to Mr. Trump is a strong leader. A leader is not the same as person in a position with some defined amount of power. And it is certainly not the same as “politician.” See Tony Schwartz’ debunking of Trump as a business “leader.” Schwartz wrote “Art of the Deal” for Trump. Now he tells the truth, as though we didn’t know already.

    It’s a common path for political leaders to gain prestige by articulating grievances and calling for a new order, with attending sentimental appeals and propaganda. Business executives do it all the time. Although executives have some control over their arenas of action, they seldom able achieve the envisioned new world. Politicians, however, don’t have any control over the complex economic, technology and power forces that actually shape the future. (The people who will change the picture in your post are Wang, Gates, Jobs, Dell, Hewlett and Packard, etc.–not politicians)

    Everything politicians do is a compromise made in the interests of their personal survival. Hence northern Britain becomes desolated and London joins the universe of higher finance. Hence Brexit and Cameron, Johnson and company scramble for cover and their next positions. Sometimes having weak people in positions of authority is actually better; they can’t do a lot of harm and it gives us something to grip about.

  5. Adam says:

    Ruth – it must be years that we were teenagers. I was a teen in the 80s, and had a complete blast! I remember great music (Duran Duran are still one of the best live bands around), hot summers with Radio One Roadshows, video games and pretty girls with ra-ra skirts. I made friends in that decade who I’m still close to today.

  6. admin says:

    Brooke, I was thinking particularly here of three politicians, the disastrous Ted Heath, whose failure to get to grips with the economy presaged the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, the reverence Tony Blair had for US economic strategy (and meddling in wars) and Cameron’s now gruesomely exposed agenda of Etonian rewards.

    I think Trump is the reverse of strong – addled, confused, terrifyingly thin-skinned, jabbing at tweets while he should be attempting to at least look as if he understands the economy, which Reagan was able to fake.

    Corbyn is the ultimate weak leader, ‘Little Malcolm’ fomenting rebellion while fatally failing to engage, and I’m sure he will always attract similar followers who feel safer on the sidelines.

  7. Brooke says:

    From what I can understand of UK politics, I totally agree with your assessment of Health, Blair and Cameron. Blair was such as disappointment. We can only hope that the leaders we need for the 21st century arrive soon and that we recognize them when we see them.

  8. Ruth says:

    Yes Adam I think you are right there. I think a lot of people look back on the year in which they were 16 with great fondness because life was exciting and you were bursting with hormones. My sister is three and a half years older than me and she can’t stand the 1970s!

    As far as the power cuts go – I can’t remember at all the ones that happened while I was still at school so they obviously just didn’t register. The later ones when I was at college had a small effect but again it was quite exciting. I never did see the end of the film Bound for Glory as there was an unexpected power cut in the middle of it both times we went. I still remember then going for a pizza instead and eating it by romantic candlelight.

  9. Rachel Green says:

    I’ve just finished editing a novella set in 1974 (I started it pre-Brexit) and it’s depressing to see how closely we resemble the Enoch Powell years.

  10. Steve says:

    I can recommend the film East is East as an accurate portrayal of the 70s.

    Rachel I dont see any comparison between today and the Enoch Powell years. What do you have in mind then?

    I think the impact of north sea oil money may be underrated as a reason why britain got richer in the 80s.

  11. Steve says:

    Ted Heath was scarred by the eu rejection of the uk in 1963. This meant that when he joined the eu in the 70s he was prepared to, and did, join ‘at any price’. The disastrous, humilating terms of entry that he settled for had their outcome in this year’s referendum.

  12. DC says:

    We also had sugar rationing caused by exporting countries refusing to sell to the UK, as the pound tumbled.

    Given we import about half of our food, this could be a concern for the future. We are self sufficient in Quorn, so all is not completely lost.

  13. C Falconer says:

    I was quite little in the early 70s but remember the power cuts quite clearly – we were let off doing any ‘homework’ if there was no electricity! I also remember my brother and father getting the battery out of the car and bringing it into the sitting room to attach to the b/w television so we could watch Dr Who.

  14. John Griffin says:

    I will merely note that the UK collapse was mostly due to the 1971 USA abandonment of the gold standard, the political muscle that OPEC used, the Arab Israeli War. I haven’t got the energy to write the economic factor essay ethat is required. Thatcher was a disaster economically, much of the credited growth was due to switching from industry to finance as an economic driver.

  15. Peter Dixon says:

    Hey, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Sparks, 2001 A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Dad’s Army, Star Trek, The Rockford Files, Monty Python………..it wasn’t all crap by any means.

  16. Davem says:

    Agree about the Dominic Sandbrook books …they are superb.

  17. Bee says:

    I loved the three day working week for me it seemed the ideal balance of labour to leisure. I recall working in John Lewis on a glove counter illuminated by lightbulbs attached to car batteries – it was fun and our biggest struggle was to tell black from navy blue. Going into pubs lit by oil lamps and candles was lovely but I was young and foolish at the time and not concerned with fire hazards.

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