News of the World’s End

Peter Jenkins

  • The Seventies by Christopher Booker
    Allen Lane, 349 pp, £7.50, February 1980, ISBN 0 7139 1329 0
  • The Seventies by Norman Shrapnel
    Constable, 267 pp, £7.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 09 463280 4

Any conventional account of the last decade would include these among its headlines:

– The decline in American world leadership and the expansion of Soviet power and influence. Vietnam, where war continued until 1973, and Watergate, which convulsed Washington in 1973 and 1974, were both symptoms and causes.

– The energy crisis of 1973-74, which followed upon the fourth war between Israel and the Arabs in October 1973. Both the quadrupled cost of oil (it nearly doubled again in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian revolution), and the insecurity of its supply, undermined the basis of Western prosperity (including Japan’s).

– The collapse of the post-war international economic order which preceded the first energy crisis. For this, August 1971 was the seminal date, the so-called ‘Nixon shock’ which uncoupled the dollar from gold and thereby officially dethroned it. From then on, the world was in a limbo comparable to the long interregnum between the end of British economic dominance, in, say, 1914, and the confirmation of the hegemony of the United States at Bretton Woods in 1944.

Britain, parochially, was caught in the wake of these events. Her decision to seek admission to the European Economic Community belonged to the previous decade, but accession did not come about until 1 January 1973. At that very moment almost, the long period of postwar prosperity, in which Britain had shared insufficiently, came to its end, and with it ended the forward momentum of the process of unification which had developed from the ashes of Hitler’s Europe. That was bad luck.

There was nothing much new about Britain’s economic difficulties. The inflation rate, for example, had in the Sixties run at nearly twice the international average for the industrialised world. When the first energy crisis struck, the rate of inflation peaked in Britain at 24.3 per cent. The same happened in Japan, but in the United States the worst was 11 per cent and in Germany 7 per cent. Imported inflation intensified the conflicts between elected governments and growing trade unions. But there was nothing new about that either. The Unions had seen off the Wilson government in 1969 when it had moved to reform them, and thereby helped to bring it down in the election of the following year. The Heath and the Callaghan governments suffered similar fates in 1974 and 1979. What, perhaps, did happen during the Seventies was that a long-rooted process of relative decline reached, by a process of cumulative causation, a point somewhere near to crisis. Decline became a fashionable subject.

This, in brief, is how I would characterise the chief events which happened to occur within the years from 1970 to 1979. Note how, for purposes of decadology, decades are numbered from nought to nine. Decadologists, however, are obliged to do more than chronicle or explain the occurrences which fall within their slices of time; their calling requires the reification, indeed the personification, of time; decades have to have characters – to be naughty like the Nineties, roaring like the Twenties or swinging like the Sixties. G.M. Trevelyan’s warning is ignored. ‘Unlike dates,’ he pointed out, ‘periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussion, but very often leading historical thought astray.’

Nevertheless, playing games with decades is a relatively harmless activity, although best done (as by Norman Shrapnel) chiefly for amusement. An eccentric eye will always spot the eccentricities of the times, and Shrapnel possesses also a sharp pair of scissors for the newspaper cutting. Snip and you have, for example, the violent spirit of the time:

Bath Theatre Royal bar manager Mr Peter Coe is being treated for back injuries after being attacked by two Brownies. The girls, aged about nine, lost their tempers because he had run out of ice cream. They kicked and kneed him and he was hurt when he fell over ... Other members of Mr Coe’s staff refuse to serve refreshments there during the pantomime as it is too rough.

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