How the 70s made modern Britain

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


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