When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies

Ian Jack writes:

As Andy Beckett writes in his introduction, the statement ‘Above all, we don’t want to go back to the 1970s’ has been a relentless theme in British political life almost since the day the decade ended. They are the bogeyman years, regularly invoked by politicians of all parties as the nadir of postwar Britain. David Cameron (though it could just as easily have been Gordon Brown) read out the charge sheet at a Demos meeting in 2006: ‘economic decline . . . inflation, stagnation and rising unemployment . . . deteriorating industrial relations’. Nearly 30 million working days were lost to strikes in 1979, mainly during the Winter of Discontent – more than in any other year. We know what happens next in the script. The country rejects the worn-out panaceas of the Labour administration and elects Margaret Thatcher, and she, with what Cameron calls ‘huge courage and perseverance’, sets Britain on a dynamic new course towards its now tremulous destiny as financial capitalism’s leading counting house. Thatcher is the phoenix; the 1970s, the ashes. Beckett’s method is to rake through these ashes, usually by revisiting – quite literally, as in ‘travelling to see them’ – the people and places that affected the course of the decade.

(LRB 27 August 2009)

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