Four months back I asked for some good books/sources to read on the 1970s.
Chris suggested Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison’s Capitalism since World War II, which I hadn’t read before and turned out to be excellent. Coates and Hillard’s UK Economic Decline, suggested by Paul, is also worth a read.
Andrew Gamble’s ‘Britain in Decline’ is currently one of my favourite books. And I’m currently working my way through Andy Beckett’s ‘When the lights went out’ as well as Ian MacGregor’s memoirs (what an awful man).
Through in various economic and political histories, and some biography (not to mention diaries) and I think I’m coming to a much better understanding of the period than i had this time next year. Thanks for the help. Although I’m always open to more suggestions.
James Thomas, in an essay in Media, Culture and Society (to which I am heavily indebted in this piece) suggests that there were two overarching and all-conquering political narratives put into in play in the UK during the 20th century. The first – undertaken by post-war Labour governments- evoked the “devil’s decade” of the 1930s. Although this view was heavily promoted by amongst others (irony of ironies) Michael Foot during the 40s, the “hungry thirties” was not a mainstream view during the decade itself. Nevertheless the image of the time as one of constant Jarrow marches and “poverty and degradation stalking the land” continued to be used by Labour throughout the 40s the 50s and early 60s without much real challenge from the Tories. The early seventies however posed a problem . Inflation and unemployment brought on by the 1973 oil crisis did not fit well with the trumpeted idea of slow progress away from the hungry thirties. Critiques – precursors and later re-enforcers of Thatcherism- began to appear from the right, whilst some on the left began to smoulder with the gnawing thought that 1948 and subsequent Labour governments had been a missed opportunity to have “genuine” radical socialist programmes in the UK. By 1979 the Callaghan government was under attack from all sides, especially from a press that was more right-wing orientated than at any time in its previous history.
The basic media “story” of the late seventies is widely known by now: The public sector strike was a gift. The gravediggers strike in Liverpool allowed the hyperbolic image of “dead bodies putrifying in the streets” to become a daily Mail staple for weeks and each subsequent event was just bolted on to the narrative of Britain becoming an ungovernable, over-unionised state.
But in reality much of this was media hysteria. Union denials that they were preventing vital operations were ignored and met by ‘headlines such as: WHAT RIGHT HAVE THEY GOT TO PLAY GOD WITH MY LIFE?’ whilst Liverpool’ s chief medical officer Duncan Bolton wrote later that headlines in the Sun and Telegraph such as ‘Bodies May Be Buried at Sea’were in response to him actually saying that would be the possible solution – if the had dispute stretched on for months and months. (in fact there were more unburied bodies in Liverpool during a 1987 strike than in the strike of 1979, which, as few people now remember, was called off within days.)
The right wing press however continued to portray a country on the edge of meltdown – with supplies of essentials about to run out at any time. There were actually more days lost through strikes later in 1979 (under a Tory government) than under Labour. The school caretakers strike shut only 2.5% of schools, deliveries of petrol and medicines were not really affected and supermarkets remained well stocked. Strikes did increase throughout the seventies as compared to the previous decade but the proportion of working days lost during the decade was 0.2 percent (Yes you read that right.)