Duncan’s Economic Blog

The 1970s

Posted in Uncategorized by duncanseconomicblog on November 26, 2009

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.

Charlie provided a great link to some Gramscian analysis.

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.

I don’t usually read much stuff on Harry’s Place, but I thought this article (hat tip Andreas) very interesting. It’s worth reading the whole thing but this gives some interesting context:

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.)


2 Responses

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  1. Liam Murray said, on November 26, 2009 at 9:48 am

    By definition media narratives are distortions – that’s how news media works. I don’t buy the implication (I think there’s one here!) that those distortions are more common in service of the right than the left. The narrative for Major’s time in office post Black Wednesday was similarly awry but it served to give Labour a very healthy majority in ’97 (in part because they explioted that narrative to great effect).

    My personal take on the 70’s* is less about the impact of union action etc. (overstated as you point out) than it is the alarming increase in the dominance of producer interests. Alongside that was a government unwilling / unable to assert the primacy of consumer interest (which I think moderate left & right both agree on) and where that might lead. That the 80’s narrative (views on that?) is then about rampant individualism / greed is good etc. sort of back up that view.

    * informed by reading rather than experience because I was 7 when Thatcher took office

  2. CharlieMcMenamin said, on November 26, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Thanks for this Dunc.

    I graduated a month or so after Mrs.Thatcher came to power. Like everyone else of every other generation, I tend to remember my youth as a time of hope and opportunity at a personal level. So I at least genuinely liked the 1970s.

    But there really was a real edginess to the 1970s, nonetheless. It isn’t entirely untrue that the old post war political and economic ‘settlement’ was fraying at the edges even if, as you say, the dominant media discourse on the decade we now have is widely overblown. The NF were marching in the street; we did have riots; there were real concerns, including amongst left economists, about the underlying viability of the national economy (see Glyn and Sutcliffe for instance). in reflection of all this, the musical culture of young people went through a definite switch from the daffy optimism of the sixities to something much more nihilistic (and this started before punk, I think).

    Something had to give. The problem was we got Thatcherism, not any kind of progressive solution to this impasse. There are still now a whole strata of middle aged people like me who will never forgive Thatcher and her heirs (inc Blair and Brown) for destroying the different kind of future we imagined as young people, a future more in tune with the social democratic country in which we grew up.

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