How the 70s made modern Britain

July 1, 2012

Sometimes when I go to bed at night I think that if I were a young man I would emigrate. James Callaghan, the British PM between 1976 and 1979, in his memoirs.

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.


I have recently been immersing myself in 1970s Britain. I have just finished watching Dominic Sandbrook’s recent documentary series on the BBC, The 70s. And I am currently reading The Rotters’ Club. a novel by Jonathon Coe set in Birmingham in the seventies. This decade was a period in which the economic decline of Britain came into sharp relief. We were “The Sick Man of Europe” – our record of industrial confrontation and poor economic performance compared to most other Europeans had a lot to do with this perception. Unemployment and inflation were both high; I can remember inflation of 26%. It was a decade which would see four Prime Ministers – Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher.

When the new Prime Minister Ted Heath came to power in 1970, the travel agents Thomas Cook and Lunn Poly were both owned by the State. As were all the pubs in Carlisle! There was a massive apparatus of pay boards and price commissions which imposed price and wage controls. The opposition party, Labour, believed that they had the planners who could make our economy great again. Anthony Wedgwood Benn had a plan to nationalise the top 25 British companies, including our beloved Marks and Spencer. The idea was to make them efficient.

Benn was an expert in picking “national champions.” This is an idea promoted by economist such as the Korean Ha-Joon Chang. They like to mention the ones that work out such as the Korean shipbuilding industry. And it is true that France and Germany have also had some success. However, proponents of this kind of intervention conveniently forget the many failures. British governments in the 60s and 70s did it incredibly badly, making the wrong choices time and again. Chief among these was British Leyland.  The British Leyland Motor Corporation Ltd was created in 1968 by the merger of British Motor Holdings (BMH) and Leyland Motor Corporation encouraged by Tony Benn as chairman of the Industrial Reorganisation Committee in Harold Wilson’s 1964–1970 Labour Government. The company was a national joke constantly beset by industrial disputes.

In 1973 and 1974 the British economy was in trouble. In 1973 the OPEC cartel imposed a whopping 70 per cent increase in the price of oil, sending the world economy into crisis mode. In the UK unemployment was rising and industrial strife was worsening. Indeed in December 1973 Heath even received a humiliating offer of economic aid from Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who sent a telegram announcing that he had set up a Save Britain fund. The telegram is priceless:

  • In the past months the people of Uganda have been following with sorrow the alarming economic crisis befalling on Britain.”
  • “The sad fact is that it is the ordinary British citizen who is suffering most. I am today appealing to all the people of Uganda who have all along been traditional friends of the British people to come forward and help their former colonial masters.”
  • “The people of Kigezi District donated one lorry load of vegetables and wheat – send an aircraft to collect this donation urgently before it goes bad

Sandbrook conjures up an image of burly men in donkey jackets warming their hands around braziers as Britain was paralysed by strikes. The miners called a strike in early 1974 and the country was in danger of grinding to a halt Heath’s cabinet would regularly meet under candlelight. In 1974 a three-day week had to be introduced due to the fuel shortages. From January 1st until 7 March 7th commercial users of electricity would be limited to three specified consecutive days’ consumption each week. And on these days they were not allowed to work longer hours either. Essential services – hospitals restaurants, food shops and newspapers – were exempt, but television companies were required to stop broadcasting at 10.30pm. In fact, the three-day week was not, quite the economic disaster it seemed. Industry somehow managed to maintain 90%% of production. On the other hand this may well be a reflection of just how inefficient British industry must have been when it was working five days.

Amid all the chaos Ted Heath was voted out of government and Labour came back to power with Harold Wilson and then with James Callaghan. A visit by IMF inspectors led to the Labour government introducing an austerity programme. The economy did actually improve, but the final nail in Labour’s coffin came with the Winter of Discontent. The winter of 1978–79 in the United Kingdom, witnessed widespread strikes by local authority trade unions seeking larger pay rises for their members in defiance of the Labour government’s pay freeze. Groups on strike included refuse collectors and NHS ancillary workers. The latter picketed hospital entrances and many hospitals were only able to admit emergency patients. The most notorious strike was by gravediggers in Liverpool and Tameside. Dr Duncan Dolton, the Medical Officer of Health for Liverpool, admitted that burial at sea was an option. The gravediggers eventually settled for a 14% rise after a fortnight’s strike. The winter, characterised by blizzards and deep snow, just added to people’s misery.

Callaghan was put out of his misery in May 1979 when Margaret Thatcher, who had ousted Ted Heath as Tory leader in 1975, swept to power. What would have happened if Callaghan had called an election in 1978, before that last ill-fated winter? This is one of the great counterfactuals of recent British history. Sandbrook would argue that many of the subsequent changes were inevitable. He sees Thatcher as a product of her time. She was created by the aspirational desires of the British people and not the other way round. One of Callaghan’s senior advisors was even planning to privatize council housing in the late 70s. Thatcher is often accused of dividing the country. We remember her words on the steps of Number 10 as she entered for the first time as PM:

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”  Surely not even the most ardent Thatcherite would argue that she lived up to those ideals. However what is true is that she did not come into a harmonious country.Britain was already deeply divided.

But Sandbrook’s series is not just about political and economic upheavals. It is also the obligatory references to Glam Rock, flares, Punk, the rise of gender equality, gay rights and the struggle against racism. It is interspersed with clips from classic TV and has an excellent soundtrack. I particularly enjoyed the references to food. Who can forget such delights as Angel Delight, Blue Nun (an ultra-sweet German wine), scampi, Alphabetti Spaghetti, trifle and Black Forest Gateau? This was the time before foodies and Sandbrook also reminds us of one of TV chef Delia Smith’s recipes which involved pouring tinned tomatoes, tinned mushrooms and grated cheese over some baked fish fingers. I must try that one.

Now we are facing another economic crisis. Unemployment is high and there are worries about high government borrowing. However there are also important differences Inflation is, at least for the moment, under control and interest rates are much lower. The seventies were a complicated decade, but things do not look too great now either.  Perhaps I should start stocking up on candles.

We associate the 60s with the sexual revolution and the 80s with getting rich. So what were the 70s about? According to Sandbrook the 70s were more about freedom than the 60s. The 70s was when the 60s really happened for most people. They were a period of enormous social and cultural change. The cultural texture of British life, believes Sandbrook, probably changed more quickly between 1970 and 1980 than during any other post-war decade. It also saw the birth of a more aspirational culture that was to find a fuller expression in the 80s. We may laugh about the fashions, hairstyles and food, but the 70s remain a pivotal decade in Britain

Movie quotes from the 1970s

July 1, 2012


I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”


You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Being There

President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?

[Long pause]

Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.

President “Bobby”: In the garden.

Chance the Gardener: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.

President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.

Chance the Gardener: Yes.

President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.

Chance the Gardener: Yes.

Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.

Chance the Gardener: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!

Benjamin Rand: Hmm!

Chance the Gardener: Hmm!

President “Bobby”: Hm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.

[Benjamin Rand applauds]

President “Bobby”: I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.

Taxi Driver

Travis Bickle: You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Oh yeah? OK.


Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr.Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

Dr.Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Dr. Melik: Incredible.

Apocalypse Now

I love the smell of napalm in the morning

Dirty Harry

I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

Last Tango in Paris

Go, get the butter.

Night of the Lepus

Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!”


For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.

The Godfather

I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Soylent Green

It’s people. Soylent Green is made out of people. They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food. You’ve gotta tell them. You’ve gotta tell them!… You tell everybody. Listen to me, Hatcher. You’ve gotta tell them! Soylent Green is people! We’ve gotta stop them somehow!

Love Story

Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Life of Brian

Brian: I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!

Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.

Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!

Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!

Brian: Now, fuck off!


Arthur: How shall we fuck off, O Lord?

The Candidate

What do we do now?”

The Last Picture Show

You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed. First time I seen it, there wasn’t a mesquite tree on it, or a prickly pear neither. I used to own this land, you know. First time I watered a horse at this tank was – more than forty years ago. I reckon the reason why I always drag you out here is probably I’m just as sentimental as the next fella when it comes to old times. Old times. I brought a young lady swimmin’ out here once, more than 20 years ago. Was after my wife had lost her mind and my boys was dead. Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess. In pretty deep. We used to come out here on horseback and go swimmin’ without no bathing suits. One day, she wanted to swim the horses across this tank. Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway. She bet me a silver dollar she could beat me across. She did. This old horse I was ridin’ didn’t want to take the water. But she was always lookin’ for somethin’ to do like that. Somethin’ wild. I’ll bet she’s still got that silver doll

All the President’s Men

Follow the money….Just follow the money.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Keeping the British end up, Sir.