The lights were going out all over Britain, and no one was quite sure if we’d see them lit again in our lifetime.
That, at least, was one version of the period between Edward Heath’s election victory in 1970 and that of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the watershed years that saw the end of one Britain and the first tentative steps towards a new nation. As the amphetamine rush of the ’60s wore off, the country was confronted by a series of crises that set the tone for the remainder of the century and beyond: crises about natural resources, about race and immigration, about terrorism and environmental abuse, about Britain’s position within Europe and that of nationalisms within Britain, crises in fact about everything from street violence to class war and even to paedophile porn. It was a time when the certainties of the post-war political consensus were destroyed and it was unclear what would emerge to replace them.
For years afterwards, it was a decade that could scarcely be mentioned without condemnation, conjuring up images of social breakdown, power cuts, the three-day week, rampant bureaucracy and all-powerful trade unions. And then came the inevitable correction. In 2004 the New Economics Foundation constructed an analysis of national performance, based not on the traditional criterion of gross domestic product, but on what it called the measure of domestic progress, incorporating such factors as crime, family stability, pollution and inequality of income. And it concluded that Britain was a happier country in 1976 than it had been in the thirty years since.
For at least one generation, this was already common knowledge. To be young in that dawn might not have been very heaven, but sometimes it didn’t seem too far off, despite the privations. The writer Philip Cato, who grew up in Rugeley in the West Midlands, commented that ‘try as I might, I really cannot remember any truly bad times’. Even when his father, a postman, became involved in a bitter and unsuccessful seven-week-long strike in 1971, it was far from a disaster as seen through a child’s eyes. ‘I was well chuffed,’ remembered Cato, ‘because I was entitled to free school dinners which meant I was at the head of the queue in the canteen, clutching my little purple ticket with all the other kids whose dads were on the dole.’
Similarly, the record-breaking long, hot summer of 1976 may have caused all manner of problems for the country’s farmers, but for schoolchildren it was cherished as the time when head teachers were forced to admit publicly, in the first assemblies of the autumn term, that smoking actually existed, issuing warnings to be careful when disposing of cigarette butts.
By the time of that NEF research, the 1970s had also undergone a cultural reappraisal. No longer ‘the decade that taste forgot’, it was now seen as a golden age of British television, of popular fiction, of low-tech toys and of club football. The British film industry might have been in decline, but it was still capable of scaling new peaks with Get Carter, Performance, The Wicker Man.
Even punk rock, which seemed at the time to be as limited in its commercial impact as skiffle had been twenty years earlier, had emerged as the only global rival to hip hop. Who would have predicted that in the twenty-first century, the legacy of the Sex Pistols would be more influential on new bands than that of the Beatles? Or that the prime minister would one day walk into his party’s conference to the sounds of Sham 69 singing ‘If the Kids Are United’, as Tony Blair did in 2005? These things have become as significant in perceptions of the period as are the memories of political crises...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008