Back To The Seventies!

Christopher Fowler

There's a good reason why everyone keeps comparing our present situation with that of the seventies.

The Sunday Times recently reminded me about the 1973 oil shock, when the Opec nations turned off the oil supply in response to Israel's Yom Kippur war. Already reeling from economy-crippling battles with the unions, governed by a high Tory yachtsman painfully out of his depth, the UK in the seventies became a car-crash of consequences from disastrous seeds sewn in sixties politics. Those who were there remember the financial chaos, the mountains of black plastic bags in Leicester Square, the rubbish and filth, the violent crime, the rolling blackouts and yes, the despair. I recall walking along the Regent’s Canal and passing an upended car sticking out of what appeared to be a rubbish-filled swamp of oily mud. London existed in schizophrenic polarity. the blithely ignorant upper crust attended parties in the Post Office Tower’s revolving restaurant while the rest watched the coverage on monochrome tellies in hundred year-old slum terraces. London looked wet, sooty and abandoned. The vestiges of wartime chaos lingered everywhere. The signs of the past, of war damage and dingy Victorian warehouses, did not truly start to disappear until the early 1980s. grotesquely corrupt building practices blossomed, and only those at the top of the class system survived intact. The ensuing rampage of strikes and protest marchers became the trudge of a country mired in such economic doldrums that even the Prime Minister admitted he thought of emigrating every morning. Productivity levels plunged, and workers and management looted what was left. Our GDP declined by nearly 4%, inflation peaked above 20% and the nation took a detour into cultural vulgarity. The sleek, clean lines of the sixties were replaced with beige wallpaper, bodged DIY and brown plastic coffee tables. Shops and pubs were inexplicably made over with facias in circus colours and Double-Diamond serif typefaces. 

Freshly Laundered Money, Sir?

The problem had begun with Suez (a disaster of the UK and France's own making), and the country had calcified under a series of leaderships as dismal as, say, David Cameron's. In his book 'Butler To The World', Oliver Bullough shows how economic dishonesty started at the top, at the Bank of England, an Old Boys' club run without financial expertise. It's not comfortable reading. The nationalistic US Amazon sell on this (British) book is darker than anything you'll find on the UK site, and is worth quoting; 'The Biden administration is putting corruption at the heart of its foreign policy, and that means it needs to confront Britain's role as the foremost enabler of financial crime and ill behavior. This book lays bare how London has deliberately undercut U.S. regulations for decades, and calls into question the extent to which Britain can be considered a reliable ally.' Tough talk, even though inequality is a fundamental tenet of US Conservative policy.' Despite the fact that his catastrophic clashes with unions led the UK into a three-day working week, at least Ted Heath never spoke to Enoch Powell again after Powell made his infamous ‘Rivers of blood’ speech damning immigration. Wilson and Callaghan were the down-at-heel fag end of Old Labour, and the useless trio reversed the clock of progress, turning Britain into an embarrassment of failed industrial relations, missed opportunities, bad service and lousy culture. Rishi Sunak hadn't been born then, but it's easy to see the same collision of misfortunes coalescing now. Gas, water, oil, food and a 3 - 4 year peak of 9% inflation means that a lifetime of being exhorted to save becomes a grim joke. There is simply not enough in the pot to retire in comfort anymore, unless you're sinister Victorian undertaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, who dedicated himself to leeching from the system at an early age. The upper classes were always exempt. In 1973 they were saying, 'the poor are always with us'. This week, just after Saudi Arabia conducted the mass execution of 81 'enemies of the state', Boris Johnson went to Mohammed bin Salman cap in hand and came back empty-handed. Recognising the shift in power, Salmon didn't so much close the door as fail to open it. Johnson and Sunak are finding that as their room to manoeuvre narrows the parallels with 1973 are unmistakeable. There are no facetious jokes coming from Boris now. I thought I was used to decades of ineptitude, but I cannot remember a time when we so willingly damaged our economic and political standing. For those born into a world where everything came easy, it's going to be an eye-watering few years.


SteveB (not verified) Thu, 17/03/2022 - 16:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A double diamond works wonders, works wonders, works wonders…
(Anyone who now has the jingle in their head, must be of-a-certain-age)
I read this book also
Two bottom lines for me:
1Britain is a poor country and beggars can’t be choosers, frankly, you‘ve got to be glad of any cash or oil coming your way
2 Although Britain is a poor country, and I never thought if it any other way, the ‘ruling class‘ back in the 60s-70s still had delusions of power. I never realised at the time what a gap there was between people like me, and people running the country, in terms of self-perception (and snobbish racists they were too)

Annemarie Pondo (not verified) Thu, 17/03/2022 - 17:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes hardship for my family in the 70's but worse in the 80s when Reagan got rid of tax credits to end my middle class family for a long time.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 17/03/2022 - 20:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Don't mean in any way to ignore or minimise the true misfortunes and suffering but, I have to wonder if that upended car you saw stuck in the muck along the Regent's Canal during 'the dark ages,' was an Austin Allegro or, the 'All Aggro' as it quickly became known. A near perfect vehicular representation of the British '70s, along with its sister motor, the Morris Marina -- the results of corporate wishful thinking, internal bickering, incompetence and union unrest at British Leyland.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 17/03/2022 - 20:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Just in case you were wondering (anyone ?) --- both the Allegro and Marina have the dubious distinction of being among the top all-time, worst motors perpetrated on the British public --- appropriate, as I said, to the decade taste forgot.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 17/03/2022 - 23:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In spite of not understanding Britain in the 70s (we didn't have this blog site for one thing) I would also have put the beginning at Suez. I could not understand what was going on in the French and British "corridors of power". My son went out on Hallowe'en in '73 dressed as an Arab with a syrup tin labeled OIL. There were a lot of wry comments.
Why does everything happen in the corridors? Don't these people have desks? And why are they never hallways of power?
And whatever possessed Boris and company to go to Saudi Arabia for oil? There are certain unforgivable things and that massive execution is one. That's not even mentioning the Kashoggi horror.

Button (not verified) Fri, 18/03/2022 - 02:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Have you noticed - in the current Mainstream Media coverage of the Russia/Ukraine conflict they seem to have completely erased the protracted conflicts which emerged from the Yugoslavian breakup. I still remember the iconic image of the cello player who seemed to be invoking the spirit of Civilization to endure in spite of everything going on around him.

Nick (not verified) Fri, 18/03/2022 - 11:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I suspect I'm simply woefully informed, but whatever happened to North Sea Oil...?

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 18/03/2022 - 19:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Nick, perhaps it's all being sold offshore to cover the national debt?

Joel (not verified) Fri, 18/03/2022 - 19:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

having been born in 1971, i don't remember anything about the energy and gas crises in the states, however, i remember "are you being served" did have some episodes where there were transportation strikes and garbage worker strikes...and i think something about the power going out...everyone had to sleep in the store and mrs slocombe was rooming on the top floor amongst a bunch of displays set about like an apartment, and everyone came up, hats in hand for a place to sleep...and of course "mr. lucas! leave my pussy alone!!!" as eyebrows fly up and looks of incredulity are mirrored on everyone elses faces...lololol

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Fri, 18/03/2022 - 23:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Nick Oh, it's still there. The UK gets roughly more than half its oil and about half its natural gas respectively from the North Sea or more precisely, the UK Continental Shelf, but reserves have continued to decline for the last 20+ years even as demand has greatly increased during this time. The rest of its needs are met largely by imports from Norway. Right now there is a debate on whether to allow for more exploration in light of Britain's 'net zero' pledge to reduce CO2 emissions by 2050.

The real problem at present are the costs for oil and gas which are set internationally to start with and of course are based primarily on supply and demand (with political/diplomatic considerations unquestionably also in the mix). Sanctions in place and those proposed against Russian oil and gas imports (although representing only about 8% of UK imports of these energy sources) have pushed prices dramatically higher on international markets although they have declined somewhat recently. But not to the point that you could generally breathe a sigh of relief at the station.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sat, 19/03/2022 - 00:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Speaking of the dysfunctional decade: for those of you who thrilled to 'Playgirl,' that short-lived female version of 'Playboy' --- with most of 'you' turning out to be gay men --- you'll be able to once again (maybe) get your fill of full-frontal male nudity (no prosthetics) with the premiere of HBO Max's 'Minx.' Set in the ’70s, it follows a young feminist and a seedy, but lovable pornography publisher in California's San Fernando Valley as they collaborate on a nude magazine for women. For now, you'll need a Virtual Private Network (VPN)  to get the series in the UK.

So if the first season of 'Euphoria' (on HBO/Sky) didn't provide sufficient below-the-belt viewing (to the point where several episodes sans parties viriles caused social media to light up) 'Minx' should be your ticket.

Christopher Fowler Sat, 19/03/2022 - 10:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks so much Colin - I hadn't seen this!

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sat, 19/03/2022 - 12:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@admin Any chance you've now heard back from your (former ?) American agent with 'second thoughts' on getting 'Hot Water' published in the States ?

Peter+T (not verified) Sat, 19/03/2022 - 12:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Here’s the cynical view.

I’ve lived through most of this. I’m not sure that Suez was critical for anything more than a reality check. The road to ruin began when we put aristocracy above ability and money above true wealth. There have been a whole series of major political debates over issues that later turned to dust. It’s hard to imagine now, but for decades iron and steel was held to be an industry of such huge strategic importance that the Labour Party insisted on its public ownership, while the Conservatives fought for its need for freedom. While arguing ownership, neither side cared that it was dying from lack of investment. My family worked in iron and steel. My father asked, “How do we build a better society when our machine tools are converted Victorian lathes? Germany spent its recovery money on new tools from America, we bought Spam.” Today, the steel works are almost all gone, replaced by shopping malls. Investment in manufacturing? UK governments of any colour have never been interested and our financial services can make a better return elsewhere. If you do persuade a bank to finance your manufacturing, they’ll bleed you dry – better to stick with those converted Victorian lathes.

Electronics, computers, cars, aircraft, you name it, UKGov can break it.

As our present UKgov repeats, everyone wants to put this (the latest disaster) behind us. Let’s not dwell on the past, but learn from our mistakes. Most all we should, like a good general or admiral or sportsman, play from our strengths. We’re not cash or physical resource rich, but we have an immense wealth in engineers, scientists, mathematicians, artisans and skilled craftsmen. As an example, have a very big classic car industry. Something that grew out of an old man and his grandson working in a shed. Apparently, it’s bigger than all of our arts and entertainment. UKgov managed to let down what used to be the car industry with its failed promise to gain access to the largest growing market 60 years ago. Can (or has) the present UKgov repeated the trick with classic cars?

Nick asked what happened to North Sea oil and gas. To cut a long story short, we blew the money on an over valued currency that suitably killed most of our other exports and on playing America’s big shot ally bringing down the various evil empires of eastern Europe and the Middle East. I shouldn’t mention keeping taxes low for a few good friends.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sat, 19/03/2022 - 14:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Peter Well said Peter. A longstanding poser for me (and I suspect many more of us among the 'great unwashed' of a certain age) is whether myopia is required for government service or somehow is automatically conferred on election or appointment (with some exceptions, of course). Put another way --- there seems to be a kind of 'force field' around government (and not, of course, just in the UK) which keeps the best and brightest away (again, with all too few exceptions).

John+Griffin (not verified) Sat, 19/03/2022 - 19:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Two comments to buttress Peter Ts fair comment. I lived through it all in my 20s. The financial fun started with the decoupling of currencies from the $ by Nixon (the Volcker shock) which destabilised currencies and set up the financial disasters of over speculation etc. That preceded the Arab Israeli conflicts in 1973 and the (Arabic) OPEC group flexing their economic muscle.
North Sea Oil and gas was largely privatised. We could've done a Norway and used the revenue to build a fund that paid pensions and bought chunks of other countries (including us). But no. As happens now, resources became cash cows for offshore funds, and Brits cheerfully voted for the wreckers.

SteveB (not verified) Sun, 20/03/2022 - 02:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hi PeterT
You are right about pretty much everything there I think.

Alan R (not verified) Sun, 20/03/2022 - 09:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

CF you hit the nail on the head. Great piece. Totally agree.
Or as the Sex Pistols sang in the 70s......

Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future, no future,
No future for you

Peter+T (not verified) Sun, 20/03/2022 - 09:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I suspect the role of a state oil company in Norwegian oil and gas can be over estimated. Unlike us, they didn’t start out with a BP or a Shell and their fields, like most in the world, are joint ventures with such international companies. Ultimately, governments, not oil companies, control taxation on production and its volume. No, the big difference was in attitude. Is the oil, or any other resource, a means to increase national wealth and the lot of our people in the long-term? Or is it a political weapon to wield on the world stage and, of course, something to reduce taxes for friends? Is government’s first interest the electorate or itself?

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Sun, 20/03/2022 - 13:07

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And people wonder why I'm an anarchist.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 20/03/2022 - 19:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There was a series about the Norwegian oil development in which the Norwegians insisted on guaranteed "jobs for my trawler fishermen" and the Texas oil man condemning the "bleep bleep socialists". I only saw a few episodes so I don't know how they finished it. There should be ways of controlling foreign investment so that the outcome is a desirable one for the whole nation. Unless I am an uncontrollable optimist.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Sun, 20/03/2022 - 20:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Helen + Martin Helen, that was the Norwegian series 'Lykkeland' ('State of Happiness'), which dramatises the true events of the oil industry’s move into Norway, focusing primarily on its effects on a small, coastal town which is slowly losing its fishing industry. It's second season ended last month. No spoilers.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 21/03/2022 - 13:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The best accounts of the 60s and 70s I've read are those by Dominic Sandbrook :

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles.
White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties.
State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974.
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979.
Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982.

They are all excellent and include a lot on the music, books and films of the time not just the dreary politics. Worth a go.

Nick (not verified) Tue, 22/03/2022 - 12:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you, Peter & Stu. As I was born in 1969, I have a vague memory of the energy crisis in the early 1970s (although my knowledge of the period is, as always, backed up by the contemporary references in the Doctor Who episodes of the time ;-) ). One firm recollection is my mum giving me a bath during a power cut, and having to use a hurricane lamp to provide illumination. My Dad was not impressed, as she hung it on the peg on the back of the bathroom door, and the heat blistered and burned off a patch of gloss paint!

Sunman42 (not verified) Fri, 25/03/2022 - 09:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I’m probably overly sensitive, but I found the phrase, “Israel’s Yom Kippur war” strange to say the least. As I recall, the war was started by the Egyptians and Syrians, with speaking parts for the Jordanians, Iraqis, and even the Saudis — who were the ones who instituted the l post-war oil embargo, through their overlordship of OPEC. Before the war was over, the Soviets and Americans were involved, too, both in replacement of destroyed war machinery, and in ratcheting the nuclear dial up to Def Con I Don’t Even Want to Think About It.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 29/03/2022 - 18:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sunman, you're not overly sensitive. The war was called that to draw attention to the fact of the Arab nations choosing that Jewish date to attack. It's similar to the Tet Offensive.