Tube strikes, rail strikes, uncollected rubbish, energy crisis, rampant inflation, recession, and burgeoning national debt. We seem to have been here before. For those of us over a certain age, the current experience of rising interest rates, rising prices, strikes or ‘industrial unrest’, as it used to be called when we still had industries, is eerily reminiscent of the 1970s. Those who experienced it were glad to see the noisome decade of three-day weeks, power-cuts, flared trousers, the Bay City Rollers, Red Diamond beer, Angel Delight and SpudUlike consigned to history’s dustbin.
Economists and cartoonists, however, have recently taken to comparing our current financial and political malaise to that of the 1970s. Of course, there are significant differences between then and now. The structure of the economy and the composition of the population has altered dramatically, but for those of us who still just about have the capacity to remember, those unsettled times seem to be returning. The portents aren’t good.
At the same time, those who lived through that difficult decade may also dimly recall that a stuttering economy was not, by itself, indicative of complete social and cultural collapse. Unsettling as those strange days were, they also possessed some redeeming features worth recalling. Not only do we face hard times analogous to the 1970s, but we do so with few of the cultural and political resources that made life bearable then, and which may be required again to extricate ourselves from our current predicament. While in economic terms we might be hurtling back towards the 1970s, we are doing it without the style, wit, and cultural innovativeness that defined that decade.
What, we might wonder, was attractive about British society and cultural life in the 1970s, but which is notably lacking today?
First, the mass media has been revolutionised, but not for the better. Television, both the BBC and ITV, was worth watching in the 1970s. This was before the era of satellite TV, multiple channels, and on-demand programming, but few would contend that the relative lack of choice denoted lack of quality. From documentaries and drama series to children’s programming, British television was innovative and iconic. Intelligent drama spanned the decade from the social commentary of Play for Today to the brilliance of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. News and current affairs programmes were remarkably impartial, whilst investigative series, like Panorama and World in Action, demonstrated fine research coupled with fair-mindedness. Popular entertainment from Match of the Day to The Generation Game and That’s Life, would keep families glued to the set on Saturday and Sunday evenings, unintentionally reinforcing a sense of national cohesion.
Comedy was actually funny. Classic comedy in 1970s was often a function of the commitment to innovative commissioning by the national broadcaster. But TV comedy is worth singling out because it typified not only the nation’s humour in hard times, but also its touching modesty, self-deprecation, and sometimes its willingness to mock its own pretensions mercilessly. Okay, one might not wish to watch repeats of George and Mildred or Mind Your Language, but the classics remain: Steptoe and Son, Morecambe and Wise, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Porridge, Rising Damp and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.
And what do we have now? Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boy’s, if you’re lucky. Live at the Apollo and Nish Kumar, if you’re not. Indeed, a banal predictability characterises contemporary U.K. TV. From dating shows like Naked Attraction and Love Island, to reality TV like Big Brother, and poorly scripted dramas intent only on pushing a woke agenda, quality programming is not a term one associates with current British TV output.
Elsewhere, the decline in the standard and reputation of news and current affairs coverage is a more disturbing political change in the role of the media since the seventies. Back then, this domain was the preserve of intrepid, dispassionate journalism. Nowadays, it is characterised by overpaid, grandstanding presenters, who use their positions to push sanctimonious metro-elite values. In the 1970s you had Robin Day and Brian Walden. Today we have Emily Maitlis and Gary Lineker.
Private Eye was a brilliant satirical magazine in the 1970s. That must come as a surprise to anyone born in the twenty first century, but in its prime under the editorship of Richard Ingrams, and the likes of Peter Cook, Willie Rushton and Christopher Booker, as well as its resident ‘commo’ Paul Foot, the magazine was irreverent, rebellious, and relentlessly anti-establishment, as opposed to the sad mouthpiece of Remoaner orthodoxy that it is today.
The broader cultural scene, most notably in music and drama, was one of continuous evolution and radical innovation. At the start of the decade the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin were at their zenith, while newer artists from Roxy Music to Elton John were receiving recognition for their creative genius. The social tumults of the era, however, were also stirring genuinely insurgent cultural forces that were to burst forth towards the end of the 1970s in punk, perhaps the only good thing you can say to emerge from the 1970s comprehensive school system. What constitutes the leading edge of the zeitgeist now? Harry Styles pretending to be gay.
Turning to party politics, despite the oil shock of 1974, membership of the Common Market and the breakdown of industrial bargaining, 1970s politicians often demonstrated principled commitments and authentic accomplishment. In the 1970s the public shared a perception that those in political life, with some notable exceptions (Jeremy Thorpe springs to mind), had a sincere commitment to public service. They came from a variety of backgrounds – business, trade unions, teaching, the merchant navy, mining and the factory floor. Many had served with distinction in World War II. The likes of James Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle, Merlyn Rees, Roy Mason and Peter Shore evinced a genuine concern for the political health of the country. Tony Benn gave up his peerage to pursue a political vocation. Michael Foot was an outstanding political journalist and parliamentarian. The Conservative Party boasted Margaret Thatcher, a trained chemist, as well as Geoffrey Howe and Keith Joseph, both accomplished lawyers and ex-Army officers. Even a political disaster, like Ted Heath, was a talented musician and yachtsman.
Once more it is hard to resist the comparison. In contrast to the 1970s, the current ruling class come from similar backgrounds – middle-class, university educated, with little prior career experience outside the law, journalism, or politics itself. Parliamentarians increasingly sound alike, think alike and act alike. Of course, the politicians of the 1970s made mistakes, but their decisions, whether right or wrong, were not driven by spin, opinion polls, and the learned helplessness and groupthink that typifies the current ineptocracy. The vacuous posturing over Brexit and its aftermath has led to national calamities on a grand scale – most obviously the fiscal disaster of Covid Lockdowns and two decades of net zero greenoid fantasy. In other words, the kind of policies that are leading us back down the rabbit hole that leads to 1970s style ‘industrial’ unrest.
The wider point perhaps is that political debate generally in the 1970s seemed to be over sober matters of policy, coloured by different political perspectives concerning the role of the state, social class and financial rectitude, rather than pronouns, rainbow-coloured crossings, going ‘carbon neutral’ or whether nursing mothers should be referred to as ‘chestfeeders’. Politics in the 1970s was a serious business; today it seems trivial and deluded.
Traversing the social landscape, we would find in the seventies the police still trying to prevent and solve crime. Back then, the police acted more like the Sweeney (the classic cop drama of the era) and less like the paramilitary wing of the Guardian. Today they twerk and tweet, preferring to police thought and language. In the 1970s much of the public thought the police did a decent job in difficult circumstances. Now they don’t. In the 1970s you could usually get a doctor’s appointment within 24 hours. You could even see an actual doctor in person. They even made house calls! Future generations are likely to look back and wonder how this was even possible. Universities were still worth going to in the 1970s. They were institutions where pluralism and free thought flourished. Today they are repositories of ideological conformity and student debt.
Significantly, Britons made things in the 1970s. They built ships, cars and aircraft. The U.K. had leading electronics companies and was home to the world’s largest chemical conglomerate. Britons pioneered early computing technology. Britain also had its own large-scale car industry. Yes, managerial failing and the militant unionism of Red Robbo undermined British Leyland, but this overlooks the fact that Britain still produced marques like MG, Jaguar and Land Rover. It’s easy to mock the Morris Maxi and Marina, but the Rover 3500 series or the Mini-Metro were pioneering projects that influenced car design the world over.
Where did it go? Sold off. Broken up. Shipped abroad. It wasn’t the case that Britain just wasn’t very good at making things anymore. We were. Neither was it true that manufacturing necessarily thrived under foreign ownership. All this was a product of political and economic choices. It did not need to happen.
In the 1970s Britain mined coal, drilled for oil, and was on the verge of energy self-sufficiency. Power cuts and energy rationing did occur in the early 1970s, but these were the result of industrial strife, rather than a self-sabotaging policy of net-zero.
Britain was still home to manufacturing and industrial centres that sustained stable and vibrant communities in South Wales, the north and across the Midlands. The offshoring of industrial capacity and the corresponding decline of these once thriving communities has resulted in a burgeoning national divide, both geographic and social, where wealth and capital are concentrated in a select few financial hubs like the City of London at the expense of everywhere else. In the 1970s an ordinary, hard-working citizen stood a reasonable chance of getting on the housing ladder, raising a family on a single income, and retiring on a decent pension. These once common expectations are now beyond the reach of most millennials who do not have access to a trust fund or the bank of mum and dad.
Britons once shared a feeling of social solidarity, regardless of their political differences. These days, as the gap between rich and poor widens by the day, there is a palpable sense of antagonism between an out-of-touch cosmopolitan ‘elite’ and the alienated ‘populist’ masses.
Are we looking back to the 1970s through a rose-tinted haze? Of course, there’s an element of nostalgia for a bygone era. There are things about the seventies that no-one would miss: monastic Sundays, racial prejudice, trade union militancy, brutalist architecture. Still less would one wish to re-visit the horrors of the Northern Ireland conflict in the 70s (for those interested, this is the place where a culture war inevitably ends).
The 1970s was a time of turmoil. But it was also a time of cultural dynamism, free-thought, serious political debate, semi-decent public services, and thriving communities with strong civic-attachments. Above all, a brief trip down memory lane shows that many attributes of the seventies that we have noted here also set the pre-conditions for the national renewal that succeeded it in the decade that followed. Pre-conditions which seem disconcertingly absent in the current era.
As we contemplate our leaner, meaner and greener futures, we can look back with the one thing which has not yet been criminalised – irony. In the words of the theme song to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?: ”Tomorrow’s almost over, today went by so fast/It’s the only thing to look forward to – the past.”
David Martin Jones is a Visiting Professor at the University of Buckingham. During that lost decade he unsuccessfully pursued sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, called persons who choose to identify as women ‘chicks’, and prefaced most of his utterances with the soubriquet ‘man’. Michael Rainsborough is Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College. He spent the 1970s disliking secondary school, wearing Doc Martins, and falling off skateboards.