When the Lights Went Out, By Andy Beckett

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In the lexicon of British political abuse,"the Seventies" has become shorthand for "failure". This was the era of strikes, power cuts and the three-day week. Weak governments struggled to stay in office with small majorities. Three successive prime ministers – Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan – came to be hated by many in their own parties.

Part of the problem sprang from a global crisis produced by the rise in the oil price after the Arab/Israeli war of 1973, but this was also a decade (perhaps, come to think of it, the last decade) when there was something specifically "British" about British problems. Politicians were obsessed by their country's decline, particularly in relation to France and West Germany, and sometimes convinced that "going into Europe" would solve their problems. Ugly new words and phrases – stagflation, relativities, phase three - suggested an economic crisis that was, like some monster on Dr Who, simultaneously terrifying and faintly ridiculous.

Andy Beckett's stimulating and scrupulously researched book put the Seventies into a new perspective. Rather than painting everything in black, he portrays a decade of multi-coloured political and social psychedelia (he suggests at one point that the "real sixties" happened after 1970), marked by the rise of feminism and environmentalism as much as by strikes and the weakness of sterling.

The left seemed like an incongruous coalition of disparate, often mutually hostile, interests. Demonstrations against the Heath government's Industrial Relations Act attracted middle-aged trade union officials, leather-jacketed revolutionaries from North London Polytechnic and members of the Gay Liberation Front, some of whom carried placards that read "Poof to the Bill".

Beckett is particularly good at resurrecting the fantasies of the 1970s. Sometimes these were fantasies of apocalypse as serious people prophesied the arrival of a right-wing dictator or the collapse of urban life. Sometimes they were fantasies of hope as the inhabitants of squats and communes believed that they had created a new kind of society.

Looking back, however, the wildest fantasies of all often seem to have been those projects of technocratic modernisation that the government itself entertained. Edward Heath was particularly taken with a proposal to build a whole new town around an airport constructed on Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary.

At times, I wondered whether Beckett's attention to the complexities of the 1970s had not obscured two simple, and partly related, divisions. The first of these was chronological. Margaret Thatcher's accession to the leadership of the Conservative party (in 1975) and, perhaps more importantly, the conversion of some Labour leaders to monetarism (in 1976) reflected a changing political climate. The brief and violent career of the Sex Pistols (who released their first record in 1976) blasted the orthodoxies of youth culture. Thousands of teenagers decided, almost overnight, that flared trousers, long guitar solos and The Lord of the Rings were pathetically uncool.

The second division was social, and cut across the chronological one. The great crisis of the mid-1970s was experienced most sharply by elites. This was conspicuously true in the sphere of economic policy; civil servants, academics and politicians were filled with morbid gloom at a time when many ordinary people seem, if retrospective opinion surveys are to be believed, to have been happy.

Part of this was a matter of class. The 1970s was an awkward time for the middle classes. It was they who most resented inflation, the abolition of grammar schools and the sudden sense of relative weakness that came from the realisation that a strike by, say, university professors was unlikely to bring the country to a halt. The big winners from the 1970s were the working classes, or rather those parts of the working classes - white, male and, in Ulster, Protestant - that were most effectively represented by trade unions.

Class, however, did not account for it all. The punk revolution was also played out among a certain kind of elite. The Clash replaced Led Zeppelin on the John Peel Show, but on mainstream radio neither was played much. With his intense distaste for the cosiness of the post-war years, Johnny Rotten, of the Sex Pistols, had more in common with Peter Jay, the earnest Wykehamist who preached against inflation in the pages of The Times, than either man had in common with the mass of the population.

Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee of 1977 illustrated the gulf between elites and the masses. Their record entitled "God Save the Queen" brought the Sex Pistols into conflict with the workers from the pressing plant, who walked out in protest at "treason". However, the Jubilee also worried Norman Tebbit and Nigel Lawson, who thought that it revealed a country that was still too conservative for their radical variety of Conservatism.

No one will agree with all that Beckett says but even, perhaps especially, those of us who have our own memories of the 1970s will profit from reading this book. He captures the mixture of high drama and surreal absurdity that so often marked the period – as when a group of negotiators from the International Monetary Fund hid themselves away in a changing room at a fashionable Mayfair tailor. His greatest strength lies in a willingness to take the 1970s seriously on their own terms. He resists the temptation to treat the decade as a mere prequel to Thatcherism. Indeed, in this account, Thatcherites often emerge as rather marginal figures swimming against the current of their times. Airey Neave is as much a bad-tempered ex-soldier ranting about a free pop festival as he is the cold-blooded mastermind behind Thatcher's takeover of the Conservative Party.

Beckett's artful interviews with people who lived through the events that he describes are often more revealing than thousands of pages of government documents. He talks to a taxi driver in Armagh who insists that he is proud of the years that his father spent as an IRA prisoner, but Beckett catches the mix of hesitation and over-emphasis which tells us so much about what it was like to grow up as a child of the Troubles. There is also an elegiac quality to the way in which many interviewees describe a lost decade when the radical left could still feel optimistic. Beckett talks to Philip Bellingham, who worked next door to the Saltley Coke depot, closed by Arthur Scargill and his flying pickets in 1972. Bellingham recalls how someone painted "The miners will win" on a wall, and how the graffiti was still there after the miners' strike of 1985 had been defeated.

Richard Vinen's new book is 'Thatcher's Britain' (Simon & Schuster)

Close calls and high turnouts

Labour lost power in June 1970 when Edward Heath gained a 30-seat Tory majority; in the "Who governs?" election of February 1974, Harold Wilson returned with a minority Labour government. That October, Wilson scraped a majority of 16. Labour hung on until Mrs Thatcher arrived in 10 Downing Street with a majority of 26 in June 1970. Turnout during the decade shamed later, apathetic times: in February 1974, it was 78.8 per cent, almost 20 points higher than in Blair's second victory of 2001.