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Why the warnings about a return to the 1970s? We were living the good life then

Despite the upheavals, people were enjoying themselves a great deal more
  • @andymcsmith

The airwaves have been resounding recently with siren warnings against dragging Britain back to the 1970s. “We’ll leave the 1970s-style socialism to others; we are the party of the future,” David Cameron told cheering Conservatives at their Manchester conference. Boris Johnson also warned against a “1970s blend of divisiveness and business-bashing and union control”. It was the major Conservative conference theme that Ed Miliband threatens to take us back to what Lord Kirkham, founder of the FDS furniture chain, calls “the bad old days of 1970s”.

Putting aside the issue of what Ed Miliband will or will not do, let us focus for the moment on whether the 1970s were as bad as they are painted. David Cameron and Boris Johnson are not really in a position to know, because the 1970s were their early schooldays at the end of which they were pupils at Eton – though they may have heard grown-ups complain that Britain was going to the dogs. Alternatively, they may just have internalised a Tory version of recent history which has it that the UK was in a downward spiral until it was picked up and shaken down by Margaret Thatcher.

There is no doubt that the 1970s was a difficult decade for the politicians, when people in high places actually feared that the country would become ungovernable, and a retired general, Sir Walter Walker, started recruiting volunteers who could take over in the event of a general collapse.  It was a time when trade union power appeared to run rampant. In 1973, The Strawbs reached No 2 in the charts with a song that went “You don’t get me, I’m part of the union.” The following year, a miners’ strike brought down the Conservative government. In 1977, according to an opinion poll, 54 per cent of the public believed that the most powerful man in the UK was not the prime minister, nor any business tycoon, but Jack Jones, the leader of the TGWU transport union.

There was also terrible violence in Northern Ireland, and murderous IRA bomb outrages on the mainland. The police had attitudes then that would shock us now, as anyone who watched the drama series Life on Mars knows. Detectives casually fitted up innocent Irish men and women, saving themselves the trouble and risk of going after genuine IRA terrorists. It was a more racist society, the word “sexist” entered the language only halfway through the decade, and it took some courage, to quote a track recorded in 1978 by Tom Robinson, to “sing if you are glad to be gay”.

And yet, in all this apparent ferment, there were no street disturbances to compare with the major riots and picket line violence of the 1980s. There were consumer panics, such as when all the sugar vanished from the shelves because of a rumour of an impending shortage, or when motorists queued at the pumps as the government considered introducing petrol rationing. In the end, the ration books were printed and distributed, but never used.

The worst clash between police and protestors was outside a film processing factory called Grunwick, where the pickets were not protesting about anything that affected them personally. They were demanding the reinstatement of Asian workers sacked for joining a union, and a police officer was injured by a bottle thrown at his head.

There were numerous strikes, but in general they were not politically driven, or instigated by left-wing union leaders. The big unions, including the miners’ union, were led by men from the right of the labour movement, who would far sooner negotiate over beer and sandwiches than go on a picket line. The impetus to strike was usually led by shop stewards faced with union members whose wages were falling in value because of double figure inflation.

At the start of the 1970s, people put up with the resulting inconvenience, such as the lights going out during a miners’ strike – which never happened in the 1980s – or getting no post for weeks because the postmen were on strike, with resilient good humour. They were less patient by the end of the decade.

But these were troubles on society’s surface, which do not tell us whether people who lived through those days were happy or not. The absence of political or economic problems is not a definitive measure of human happiness: there is reason to believe than during the quiescent 1950s, a time of great social stability, people got through the day with gritted teeth and little to look forward to. In the 1970s, despite the upheavals, there are indicators that they were enjoying themselves a great deal more.

It helped that unemployment was low – though it did not seem low at the time. People had been used to full employment in the first 25 years after the war, and were shocked when the unemployed tally hit one million in June 1972, for the first time since the 1930s. This disturbed people more than anything else. By 1979, 53 per cent of people polled said it was the biggest political problem of the day, unemployment having reached 1.4m, or 4.7 per cent of the workforce. It was never that low again for the remainder of the 20th century. By 2007, it had finally fallen to the 1975 level: now it is roughly where it was in 1979.

What this meant was that outside the unemployment black spots, the young would usually go straight into paid employment from school or university. Graduates had a huge advantage that they lack now: they left university free of debt, having had their fees and upkeep paid from local authority grants.

There were, of course, fewer goods and services on which to spend money back then, and what there was cost more relative to the average wage. But there was one important item that was cheaper: housing. In 1972-73, people were shocked by a sudden increase in house prices as the baby boom generation, fresh out of university, bought its way into the property market. By the start of 1974, the average house cost £10,000, or five times the average annual income of a male employee. Today the average house price is £273,700, more than 10 times average earnings.

Much has been written about the inefficiency of state-owned utilities. British Gas, in particular, was a favourite target of the consumer TV programme That’s Life, fronted by Esther Rantzen. However, because the utilities were state owned, the government could keep fuel costs low. After 1979, British Gas raised its prices by inflation plus 10 per cent for three consecutive years, so that it could be sold as a profitable monopoly, enabling its chief executive, Cedric Brown, to enjoy a 900 per cent pay increase.

While prices and unemployment levels can be measured precisely, what matters so much more is whether people are happy. Though you know it when you feel it, happiness defies statistical measurement. However, in 2004, an academic named Tim Jackson from Surrey University assembled what he called a Measure of Domestic Progress, a calculation in which a range of positive or negative factors, including economic growth, inequality, government spending on health and education, crime, family breakdown, road accidents, noise, air pollution and loss of natural habitat, to try to compute whether life in general improved or worsened. His conclusion was that in 30 years, the year in which the greatest progress had been made was in 1976 – the year when the country’s political and economic problems reached their apogee, a truly terrible song by the Wurzels invaded the charts, and yet, it seems, people were never happier. The one truly miserable face associated with that year was that of the hotelier called Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese, and he helped the nation laugh their vexations away.