Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s
By Alwyn W. Turner
Nostalgia for the 1970s has been booming in Britain: what was once derided as the decade that taste forgot is now lauded as a high point of popular culture; even the decade’s myriad crises seem, at a safe distance, like a compelling drama. Whether this affection will survive a bout of 1970s-style stagflation remains to be seen. But for now, the celebration rolls on.
After all, many of today’s adults grew up then. “Try as I might, I cannot really remember any truly bad times,” says one writer quoted in Alwyn Turner’s entertaining and splendidly researched Crisis? What Crisis? which tells the political story in the context of television, music, films and books. He has delved into episodes of soap operas and half-forgotten novels to produce an account that displays wit, colour and detail. This emphasis on culture has limitations: as Turner points out, trade unionists, whose unrest dominated events, were barely seen in popular entertainment. But it was a time when popular culture had permeated daily life and it offers some real insights.
It was clear, for example, that the postwar consensus was ending. “A T-junction seemed to have been reached,” writes Turner, “where continuing in the same direction was no longer an option, and the only issue that really had to be resolved was whether the country would take a sharp turn to the left or to the right, following the prospectus of either Tony Benn or of Enoch Powell. Conventional political wisdom at the time saw the former as being the more likely; all the indicators from popular culture suggested the latter.”
You need only listen to the characters of the decade’s sitcoms – Basil Fawlty, Alf Garnett, Rigsby from Rising Damp, Margo from The Good Life, George Roper of George and Mildred, Captain Peacock and Mrs Slocombe from Are You Being Served? – to see the potential receptiveness to Margaret Thatcher, the future Conservative prime minister, with her diagnosis that “something had gone wrong spiritually and philosophically”.
Turner praises the quality of television, popular fiction and club (but not national) football. He even cites the New Economics Foundation’s assessment in 2004 that Britain was happier in 1976 than it has been since. But he does not seriously challenge the view that the 1970s brought one crisis after another – about natural resources, race, terrorism, Europe, street violence and rising nationalism within the UK.
This book takes its title from the words James Callaghan, Labour prime minister (1976-1979), did not in fact use when he returned from Guadeloupe to strike-torn Britain in the 1979 “winter of discontent” – it was The Sun’s paraphrase and it had already been heard in the early 1970s when Edward Heath’s Tory government was similarly racked by labour unrest. Heath came to office after beating Labour’s Harold Wilson in 1970, and the crises began at once when he was obliged to call a state of emergency in response to a dockers’ strike – the first of his five states of emergency. This was the era of power cuts, the oil crisis, the three-day week and the worst industrial unrest since the 1926 general strike.
Turner is good on the details – the fact that, for example, when an unpopular 10.30pm curfew was imposed on television, the BBC and ITV alternated between 10.20 and 10.30 closedowns to try to avoid a power surge as the nation switched on its kettles. Leading record companies, fearing a shortage of vinyl, issued no new releases in January 1974 – and from that time records became thinner.
He is also strong on the gaiety that initially accompanied the unrest – this was the age of glam rock and glitter pop. But the mood darkened as the decade wore on. In 1974 Heath fought and lost a misjudged election about who ran the country – him or the coalminers – and handed over again to Wilson who, although a diminished force, achieved two notable things: he won a referendum to keep Britain in the European Economic Community and emasculated Mr Benn’s plans for a strongly leftwing industrial policy.
Callaghan, who succeeded Wilson, later made a miscalculation more serious even than Heath’s, by postponing an election he might have won, only to run into the winter of discontent and be defeated by Mrs Thatcher.
As a woman, she was an improbable Tory choice – even Powell, who blazed the trail for her, said “they wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent”. But, as Turner notes, she “played into one of the great myths of the 1970s: that of the outsider, the individualist, the rule-breaker with no time for bureaucracy and unearned authority” – like Brian Clough, football manager, or Jack Regan, maverick cop in The Sweeney. She led Britain into a new decade that was also, in its way, dramatic.
The writer is the FT’s comment and analysis editor