1973: The most significant year of the 20th century

Forty years on, it is still remembered for power cuts, the three-day working week, the oil crisis, a miners' strike – and we are still dealing with the consequences

Share

No self-respecting Oxbridge general paper in the early 1980s could decently omit the question: "Which, in your opinion, is the most significant year in 20th-century British history?" Conventionally-minded candidates tended to go for 1914 (start of the First World War) or 1945 (arrival of the reforming Attlee government.) The politically astute sometimes chose 1956 (Suez Crisis) and the sophisticated 1963, the year when, according to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began. It was far too early in the Thatcherite dawn to plump for 1979, but even then, barely a decade on, a great deal of the smart money was placed on the winter of 1973-4 – the era of the State of Emergency, the Three-Day Week and the power-cut, a time when the faces of the country's leading trades unionists appeared on The Six O'Clock News as regularly as politicians, and an executive meeting of the National Union of Railwaymen could rate as many column inches as a Cabinet reshuffle.

The sheer turmoil of life in Edward Heath's Britain 40 years ago this week, was brought vividly back to mind by last night's splendid Radio 4 documentary, helmed by Michael White. Not the least of its attractions was the number of elderly politicians who came affably forward to reminisce.

Lord Carrington, Heath's Energy Secretary, now a hale 94, recalled his negotiations with the miners' leaders. The misfortunes of his deputy Patrick Jenkin, who advised responsible citizens to beat the power switch-off by cleaning their teeth in the dark, only to have his house photographed by the press with every light ablaze, were duly reprised. Lord Heseltine talked about the threat to the West posed by Communist hegemony, and Heath's aide de camp, Sir Robert Armstrong, remembered the difficulty, here on a planet without mobile phones, of communicating with his prime minister when the latter was out sailing his yacht. It was another world, and yet, as a few minutes spent untangling the various causes and effects on display soon revealed, one with an altogether ominous significance for our own.

At its core lay one of those unfortunate collisions that occur whenever the express train of a government's domestic policy smashes into the level crossing of an unexpected international crisis. By the latter part of 1973 Britain was recovering from the after-effects of what, taking its name from Heath's Chancellor Anthony Barber, came to be known as the "Barber Boom", an imprudently stoked-up cauldron of cheap credit and consumer confidence followed, almost inevitably, by a banking crisis, raging inflation, and stratospheric wage deals. In the week that Heath unveiled Stage Three of his wage-rise-limiting pay policy, the Opec nations, sensibilities inflamed by the latest Arab-Israeli war, embarked on a series of manoeuvrings that eventually quadrupled the price of oil. Back on the home front, the miners' union lodged a 40 per cent pay claim. There followed a State of Emergency, a government/union stand-off which Heath could have avoided had he been less intransigent, a hasty general election campaign fought on the issue of "Who governs Britain?" and, rather against the odds, the advent of a minority Labour government.

Several factors combine to give the era of the Three-Day Week its eerie prefigurative sheen. The first is its global dimension. If Suez, 17 years before, had demonstrated that Britain's capacity for unilateral action in the political sphere was severely limited by international opinion, then the Opec price-hike showed quite how vulnerable a post-Imperial nation could be to economic upset, particularly in the presence of an energy cartel at whose hands most European economies (Britain had joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973) also suffered.

At the same time, the principle thereby established was taken note of back home: as one of the miners' executive remarked, if the government could afford to pay a cabal of Gulf State sheiks four times the standard price for oil, then why couldn't they afford to pay a fair price for the coal stocks that lay in their own back yard?

Worse, it was capable of being extended to other parts of the economic landscape, where old post-Empire agreements had kept prices down. One of the great retail sensations of 1974, for example, was a rapid increase in the price of sugar – a consequences of the old Commonwealth contracts coming up for renegotiation which meant that, in the interregnum before new deals were signed, supplies had to be bought on the world market.

The second factor was an industrial dispute that matched a Conservative government against the National Union of Mineworkers in a stand-off which, however much some of those involved affected to deny it, could scarcely fail to acquire a political underpinning. Joe Gormley, the miners' moderate and realistic leader, always maintained that the dispute was solely about wages, and at one point went so far as to offer Heath a way out of the impasse which a more resourceful politician might have grasped. On the other hand, Gormley's team also harboured the Scottish miners' leader Mick McGahey, who, asked by a somewhat puzzled Heath exactly what he wanted from the negotiations, is supposed to have replied that his real aim was to effect a change of government. Up-and-coming Conservative ministers never forgot this exchange and the deliberation with which Mrs Thatcher went about her plans for seeing off Arthur Scargill 10 years later was a tribute to the lessons learnt.

But lurking beneath these global contingencies and political imperatives was something that proved to be quite as important in creating the new world of the post-1979 general election. This was the rise of middle-class dissatisfaction, almost amounting to paranoia.

The galloping inflation of the early 1970s had had a profound effect on middle-class living standards; the gap between white-collar and blue-collar salaries eroded as the decade went on. The class distinctions of the 1970s – as glaring then as they have ever been – were increasingly behavioural rather than economic, and beneath them lay a suspicion of revolutionary intent. My father, for example, used quite seriously to believe that he would wake up one morning to find Soviet tanks parading through the streets of Norwich – a fear that found a resonant echo in Robert Moss's scare-mongering The Collapse of Democracy, published in 1975, and clearly inspired by the events of 1973-4, which begins with a fictitious letter from the London of 1985, now in a state of "proto-Communism".

But, of course, democracy, or what passes for democracy in this country, did not collapse. King Log was succeeded by King Stork, in the person of Harold Wilson, and the danse macabre of untrammelled wage and price inflation went on for another five years: a process of call and response that had less to do with revolutionary fervour than with organised labour's determination to preserve wage differentials.

If the 18 years of Conservative government that followed had an animating force, then it was the resolve of the affronted British bourgeoisie to get a little of its own back, and the explanation lies here in the world of Slade singing "Merry Christmas Everybody", Edward Heath's barking voice resounding over the radio, the television set suddenly failing, and the curious sensation invoked in the breast of every civilised person by the sight of a street-full of houses at dusk where, mysteriously, no light shines.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior SEO Manager - £30,000 - Manchester City Centre

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This forward-thinking agency works with ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Field Sales - OTE £30,000

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a rapidly expanding offi...

Recruitment Genius: HVAC Project Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful candidate will b...

Recruitment Genius: Key Accounts Administrator - Fixed Term

£13500 - £14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting new opportunity has...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game  

Manchester was ahead of the pack in honouring Alan Turing

Simon Kelner
The scene in Tesco in Edmonton, north London  

Black Friday is a reminder that shops want your money, no matter how human they appear in their Christmas adverts

Jessica Brown Jessica Brown
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game