- The Writing on the wall: Britain in the Seventies by Phillip Whitehead
Joseph, 438 pp, £14.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2471 5
Some decades coincide with historical periods, give or take a year or two. The Twenties were self-contained as the era between the Great War and the world slump, and the Thirties a loaded pause between one catastrophe and the next. But the Seventies had no separate identity. Recognising this, Phillip Whitehead begins his book – written to accompany the Channel 4 series of the same name – with the euphoria of Harold Wilson’s victory in 1964. He ends in 1981 with the ‘drying-out of the wets’ by Mrs Thatcher in her autumn reshuffle. The underlying theme, if only a whisper in the reader’s ear, is plain enough: the erosion of the post-war state, the collapse of consensus politics, the descent of Labour into the abyss. Or to sum it all up – decline and fall.
As we look back over the process, two distinct phases can be distinguished. In the first ten years optimism triumphed over experience. The Labour ministers of 1964 assumed that enlightened men and women, acting through the state, could solve economic and social problems. Poverty could be abolished, inequalities reduced and industry modernised. Six years of disappointment followed, but the faith held good. In 1970 it was replenished from an unusual source when Heath succeeded Wilson. Though caricatured at first as a reactionary (‘Selsdon Man’), Heath was a more principled social democrat than his predecessor. Wilson saw the expediency of the Common Market, but his mentality was that of a Little Englander. Heath was a good European and believed in Western Europe as a progressive force in world affairs. Similarly, Wilson treated the trade unions as pawns in the political game. Heath, after a false start, treated them as an estate of the realm. Under Heath, the politics of optimism were reborn. Fuelled by economic growth and membership of the Common Market, Britain was destined to become a more progressive and classless society, investing more in the arts, education and social services. Such was the vision of a Conservative prime minister in those far-off days. Britain’s problems, Heath declared in the autumn of 1973, were the problems of success.
The collapse of optimism, when it came, was remarkably sudden. One moment the prospect was fair, with the harmonies of the Beatles still lingering in the background, and the Times extolling the principles of Keynesian demand management. The next, all was forbidding and the air was filled with punk rock and leading articles on monetarism. The second phase had begun.
Inflation and industrial unrest were the agents of change. The Yom Kippur War quadrupled the price of oil and the energy crisis played into the hands of the miners. Heath took them on in the General Election of March 1974 and lost. Labour rejoiced, but prematurely: in retrospect, the fall of Heath should be ringed as a black day in the calendar. In 1975 he was replaced as leader of the Tory Party by Mrs Thatcher, a far more deadly enemy of the Left. Meanwhile, Labour Cabinets were lashed to the wheel with nowhere to go except straight into the eye of the storm. The tasks of deflating the economy, curbing the social services, and controlling the trade unions, fell to Wilson and Callaghan. Anthony Crosland, the leading theorist of social democracy, served notice of a new order: ‘The party’s over.’
The headlines since then have been a record of almost unrelieved bad news for Labour. The destruction by Harold Wilson of Tony Benn’s industrial strategy in 1975, the surrender of Callaghan to the IMF in 1976, and the creation of the Lib-Lab pact in 1977, divided and demoralised the Party. The one tangible achievement of the last Labour government, the reduction of inflation, was gained at the price of an incomes policy that eventually drove the low-paid into revolt. The last days of James Callaghan, with grave-diggers on strike and NUPE pulling the plug on hospital patients, were piteous and shameful and the ‘winter of discontent’ ensured the victory of Mrs Thatcher.