Philip Hensher

Back to the future?

When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, by Andy Beckett

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When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies

Andy Beckett

Faber, pp. 576, £

With the economy in recession, the close attentions of the IMF, taxation rising to punitive levels and a general sense of our having lived beyond our means, reminders of the 1970s are all around us at present. Last week, both the death of the union leader Jack Jones and Alistair Darling’s extraordinary budget in their different ways took us back to the atmosphere of 30 years ago. Andy Beckett’s history of the political engagement of those years comes at a highly opportune time. He rightly focuses not on the familiar popular culture — there is no mention of flared trousers, the Osmonds, platform shoes or space-hoppers — but on the much stranger political landscape of the time. Some of it appears to be returning; and yet in the retelling, the decade seems so peculiar that you can hardly believe it ever took place at all.

Much of the history is, inevitably, concerned with Left-wing politics, both within institutions and on the street. The range of attitudes in what was supposed to be a single movement is wonderfully caught by Beckett in a vignette from 1971. The second National Women’s Liberation Conference was taking place in Skegness that October, and would give birth to the most famous of English feminist journals, Spare Rib. By coincidence, however, the National Union of Mineworkers was holding its annual conference in the same place. They were in the process of being radicalised by a young Arthur Scargill, and about to score one of their greatest triumphs over Heath’s government. Nevertheless, it seemed quite unexceptional to them to include, as part of the conference entertainment, a troupe of strippers. When the feminists next door got wind of it, ‘we zapped that and had discussions with the miners … I don’t think they were very happy about it.’

At the beginning of the 1970s, astonishingly, the state owned the travel agent Thomas Cook, and all the pubs of Carlisle. The infrastructure broke down to such an extent that Blue Peter started advising its young viewers on how to help the elderly in the event of a power cut. ‘Lay out sheets of newspaper,’ said Peter Purves. ‘Place them fairly thickly between the blankets … and if you do that, the old folks will stay as warm as toast.’ The power cuts in the early part of the decade are as vivid a memory to me (born in 1965) as the genuinely terrifying industrial action of 1978-9, and did not take long to be glossed in the mind as clear demonstrations of political failure. The difference in everyday culture between then and now is perhaps most clearly shown in a 1972 survey for the Daily Mirror about what a future Britain might be like:

Would you like to see these ‘Common Market’ customs: regular wine with meals, more pavement cafés, more shops open on Sunday, coffee and a roll for breakfast, not bacon and eggs, pubs open all day?

What we now take for granted seemed, in the early 1970s, in the realms of fantasy.

Beckett’s interest, however, is in political engagements. He is more expansive on extreme Right-wing activism than on the Left-wing groupuscules. He has even managed to find a Right-wing polemicist who, writing for Edward Goldsmith’s Ecologist magazine, praised Pol Pot’s murderous regime:

[The Khmer Rouge] seem to be doing their best to ensure that urban parasitism cannot reoccur … they deserve our best wishes, our sympathy, and our attention.

The much larger number of Left-wing extremists who praised the Khmer Rouge, who cannot be seen as individual eccentrics but part of an academic consensus of the time, go strangely unmentioned.

Nevertheless, other people have explored the peculiar activities of the extreme Left in this period, and Beckett may be forgiven for encapsulating it in a short chapter in which he visits and interviews a cousin, a campus activist of the time. What is indeed original in Beckett’s book is the space he gives to the parallel and equally peculiar activities of the Right-wing pressure groups. There is a valuable book waiting to be written about this strange corner of political life, from the military coup the newspaper proprietor, Cecil King, attempted to organise against Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s (before Beckett’s period) to some very eccentric figures and organisations. The National Asssociation For Freedom (NAFF) confronted the escalating strike at the Grunwick photographic processing plant head-on; there was the Monday Club; and there were the McWhirter twins, putting in appearances on the BBC children’s show, The Record Breakers, and working for libertarian groups the rest of the time. Some of the people from this milieu which Beckett has tracked down are a complete delight. Here is John Gouriet, the director of NAFF:

I came out of the army in January ’73 … started in Malaya, active service ’56-’57. It didn’t interfere with our polo and racing, but I’d never seen a dead body until I’d seen one strung up on a tree, looking like a sieve. A Chinese informer ... one was looking at the enemy, listening to the enemy. I put it to good use at Grunwick …

At the centre of the Seventies are two intertwined stories; the hopeless decline of the Labour party, and the rise of a new spirit in the Conservatives after Margaret Thatcher became leader in 1975. Beckett gives Thatcher a very fair run, although I doubt if his sympathies are altogether with her project. He tries to make the case for the decade being not quite as catastrophic as received wisdom has it. For instance, social mobility was at its most efficient in the Callaghan years; unemployment was actually lower than it was ever to be again; and by the end of the decade the economy was definitely improving. But for some of these measures of success, a high price was being paid; when Beckett remarks that income inequality was at its lowest in 1977, he does not mention what may have been one cause of this — the punitive levels of income tax. Nevertheless, he is right to point out that many of the bold measures ascribed to Thatcher were being considered, and even put into action, long before 1979 — notably council house sales. Callaghan’s famous conference speech in 1976 announced a definitely monetarist approach to the economy and was described at the time by Milton Friedman, no less, as ‘one of the most remarkable … speeches which any government leader has ever given’.

There may be revisionist things to be said in favour of the Callaghan government, which is usually regarded as the most disastrous in recent history. But a reading of Beckett’s account of the astonishingly inept handling of the economy in 1976 should show the limits of this approach. It makes a thrilling, grotesque chapter. The collapse of the pound; Healey, on his way to the IMF in Hong Kong, turning back on the tarmac at Heathrow and thereby ensuring total panic in the markets; and, finally, the arrival of the IMF officials to negotiate a loan of £2.3bn, the largest sum the Fund had ever been asked for. The high point of these extraordinary events turns out to have been a cloak-and-dagger meeting, on a Saturday afternoon, in the fitting room of a Savile Row tailor between the IMF and Treasury officials. ‘I didn’t know what the meeting was going to be about exactly,’ the tailor recalled, ‘but I knew that there was this iffy business [with the pound] … I carried on working.’

Like so much in this interesting and well-informed book, the detail would probably be much more amusing if one had read it, say, two years ago. It is no fault of Andy Beckett’s, but as the circumstances of collapse and decay he describes seem ever more imminent, they lose much of their power to provide harmless entertainment. A government that can exceed its 1970s predecessors in nationalising the banks is clearly capable of anything. Next stop, free collective bargaining and exchange controls.