Britain in the 1970s–what happened?

Once upon a time, there was a country.

It had started out as loose association of battling nation-states, but by the middle ages it had become a kingdom. Some of its monarchs’ names are still familiar to every well-educated person, their stories still told in classrooms around the world.

After a few hundred years, a civil war and a beheading, it was decided that the king’s council should be rearranged, and there should be elections. Thus began one of the oldest Parliamentary democracies in the world. The kingdom became the launching point for two more revolutions: the agricultural revolution, and then the industrial revolution.

Before long the kingdom gave in to temptation, and used its industrial might to rule the seas. It became an Empire which spanned the globe. Mighty trading fleets made it the center of global commerce. Its ancient institutions of learning made it a center of culture and science. The world seemed to revolve around its capital city, and every map was marked accordingly.

Empires never last, though. Soon young upstart nations broke away from the Empire and began to grow faster than their parent. The center of global economic power started to shift. Older nations which had been colonized fought for their freedom, and sometimes won.

So it was that the Kingdom which had become an Empire, became a Country. Not a perfect country by any means; but one with a strong tradition of freedom and liberty, plentiful energy supplies, and a troubled but still active manufacturing industry. Then the 1970s happened…

“When England was a kingdom, we had a king. When we were an empire, we had an emperor. Now we’re a country … and we have Margaret Thatcher.” — Kenny Everett, shortly before being fired from BBC Radio.

There’s a conventional wisdom about Britain in the 1970s, that it was all doom and misery and unemployment. You’ll see Conservatives today still referring to the decade as if it was some sort of nightmare that will inevitably be repeated unless they are put back in power; some sort of Clockwork Orange dystopia that they alone can prevent.

That wasn’t how I remembered those years, though. My memories seemed to follow a very different narrative. Of course, I barely remembered the early 70s, being so young at the time. I also didn’t really have any interest in politics until my time at university. So I had a sneaking suspicion that I might be mis-remembering everything via a filter of childish naivety.

So it was that I began to read When The Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies, now in paperback and retitled Lost Decade.

The 1970s began under Tory rule, with Ted Heath as Prime Minister. Yet it was a very different kind of Tory party. Heath was a liberal Conservative who believed in a “third way”. He was pro-union and pro-EEC, and launched the Department of the Environment. He favored devolution of power to Scotland and Wales. When Rolls-Royce aircraft engines was about to go bankrupt, he led a successful move to nationalize the company until it could be returned to a stable financial footing.

Of course, Heath wasn’t all good. He also suspended the Northern Ireland government, and his government introduced indefinite detention without charge and torture of prisoners–though he later changed his mind and banned the latter.

Like US President Richard Nixon, it’s now very hard to look back and understand how Heath was seen as right wing at the time; a sad reflection on just how off-center UK and US politics have become. Communism was still alive then, and seemed like it might survive. Feminist and gay rights groups were founded; apparently Time Out magazine in the 70s had a “Revolution” section, with details of sit-ins and other direct political action events. Change was happening. It seems that universities and colleges really were the castles of left-wing orthodoxy that some conservatives believe they are today. Meanwhile, the big, vague concern throughout the 70s was “declinism”, an obsession with the idea that Britain had “no future”–the phrase which ultimately became a rallying cry of punk rock.

Yet the 1970s saw plenty of attempts at pushing Britain into a modern age, and those are the things I remember most. The Advanced Passenger Train, the Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor, Ariel 5, the Thames Barrier, the Channel Tunnel, the Post Office Tower and the rise of the UK’s own computer industry. There was even a project to build a third London airport on the islands of the Thames estuary.

Many projects were killed by the mid-70s recession and the oil price spike. Yet the 70s recession wasn’t actually that bad; by 1977-78, the economy had rebounded. Poverty levels were at their lowest ever, disposable income was growing, inflation was under 10% again, unemployment was far lower than it would be in the 80s, and so on. Yet the dominant narrative is that the 70s recession was awful, while the 80s recessions were necessary. I think this is down to one key fact: the 70s recession hit the rich and the middle class, whereas in the 80s it was the poor who got screwed.

So how did we get from a relatively healthy rebounding economy, to a Tory government with mass unemployment, riots in the streets, and the total destruction of several British industries? Well, as far as I can make out, it went like this…

In the mid 70s, the Labour Government under Jim Callahan introduced The Social Contract. The idea was that Britain would be run the way Germany was run at the time: union leaders and government ministers would meet and discuss policy, and decide the best way forwards. In practice, of course, the union leaders decided that they were the government, and that their job was to get the best possible deal for their members, at the expense of anyone else.

Meanwhile, the UK economy had been propped up for decades by a series of IMF loans. But in the 70s, US right wingers started to set IMF policy, and the Labour government discovered the money was running out.

Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, knew that fiscal discipline was necessary. So did Callahan. So in 1975, Healey introduced a revolutionary idea: government departments would actually have fixed budgets, and once they spent their budget, they wouldn’t get any more money. To add insult to injury, both men tried to give speeches at the Labour Party Conference in 1976 telling members that the situation was serious, that things had to change, that the government couldn’t go on spending money it didn’t have.

I remember seeing on the news what happened next: the audience booed Healey off the stage, and delegates voted to nationalize the banking industry and defy the IMF.

Nevertheless, Healey and Callahan somehow rammed through cuts in spending. As I mentioned before, the economy started to rebound. That’s when the problems really began.

The Transport and General Worker’s Union decided to abandon the Social Contract, feeling that it was getting in the way of their attempts to get the best possible wages for TGWU members. Callahan and Healey were trying to limit pay increases to 5%, to try and keep a grip on inflation. The TGWU at Ford went on strike, with a slogan of “Stuff their 5%”. Ford caved quickly, offering the union 17%, and they accepted. Callahan’s government attempted to retaliate by withdrawing various subsidies being paid to Ford, but was forced into a U-turn. Seeing this, almost every other union began a program of random strikes for better pay–the so-called “Winter of Discontent”.

Labour were apparently completely unprepared for this. They were being kept in power by a narrow margin, with help from the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists. With an election in a few months, they had been thinking “Well, surely the unions wouldn’t be that stupid…”

Into this mess strode Margaret Thatcher. In the mid 70s she had apparently been viewed as an aberration by most Tories, and had carefully hidden her right-wing beliefs. Now she went on TV, and unexpectedly called from an end to immigration, to stop foreigners from taking British jobs. Immigration was falling at the time, but the speech made the National Front vote collapse and switch to voting Conservative. Thatcher followed up by floating a bunch of right-wing anti-union ideas, undiscussed with anyone else, during a TV interview. The mask was off, and a country angry at strikes and power cuts thought they liked what they saw.

The Scottish Nationalist Party saw the trouble Labour was in, and decided to take advantage of the situation. They threatened to vote No Confidence against the government unless Labour would agree to full devolution for Scotland. Once again, Labour apparently thought “Well, they’d never be that stupid…” They called the SNP’s bluff. The SNP voted with the Conservatives, and kicked Labour out of power. An election was held. Margaret Thatcher narrowly grabbed power on a wave of racism and anti-unionism.

And so it was that the SNP fucked Scotland, and the unions fucked their members. Thatcher’s government had watched the unions take down Heath and Callahan, so she set about utterly destroying union power at any cost–even if it meant destroying UK manufacturing industry and the coal industry. Mines were closed even when they were profitable.

Could things have been different? The overriding impression I got from the book was that culturally, Britain in the 70s was too busy looking back at the past, and ignoring the future. People didn’t want things to change. They didn’t want new technology; I remember endless books and TV shows predicting doom for society because of the introduction of computers. Ultimately it was this complacent feeling, the idea that things could carry on like they had for years, that doomed the Britain I felt some connection to. I now realize that in many ways, I didn’t fit in even as a child.

Right now, it’s the run-up to a general election in the UK. Once again a Labour government will be kicked out and replaced with a Tory one. It’s rather nice not to have to care.