|1977 Reeve, blissfully unaware of the economic crisis.|
Of course, being a child, I didn't have much idea who Margaret Thatcher, Antony Wedgewood Benn and the rest were, or why they were always on the telly. Their names and mannerisms gradually became familiar via Mike Yarwood's impersonations, their faces from the puzzling but intriguing cartoons in the newspapers, but what they actually stood for, what they were doing, remained a mystery, and not one to which I gave much thought. The first time I began to understand the issues behind a political event was in the 1979 General election, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. (My parents voted for her, I think. So, more tellingly, did my grandad, who had been a staunch union man and diehard labour supporter since the 1920s.)
Anyway, I've been looking for an accessible history book that would fill in a bit of the background detail of those years, and I found one in Alwyn W Turner's Crisis, What Crisis? It's a well-written, non-partisan overview of the decade, focusing on the politics and big events, but with an engaging way of using pop culture to cast light on their effects. Rising Damp, The Sweeney and Ziggy Stardust are all roped in to illustrate changing attitudes. (Mr Turner has also written a biography of Terry Nation, which maybe explains why Dr Who looms large, and why the Winter of Discontent and the rise of Thatcherism are seen partly through the sci-fi prisms of Quatermass and Blake's Seven. )
So what did I learn? Well, I'm now much clearer on the details behind things which I already vaguely knew, like the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, or why I used to come home from school to candlelight, cold dinners and No Telly in the winter of '74.
The things which struck me most powerfully were just how viciously divided the Labour Party was throughout the decade (I'd assumed their suicidal in-fighting only really got started after their defeat in '79), and how completely the issue of Europe has crossed the political spectrum. Nowadays, Euroscepticism is usually portrayed as the preserve of knuckle headed right-wing dinosaurs, but in the 1970s it was (broadly speaking) Conservatives who wanted closer ties with the Common Market, while the unions and the left wing of the Labour party saw it as a capitalist plot (the referendum in 1975 was one of the things which helped to split the party). The reversal of attitudes didn't really take place until the end of the 1980s (so to find out why it happened you'll need to read the next book in this series, Rejoice, Rejoice) but it helps to lend an odd, through-the-looking-glass feel to the events which Mr Turner describes in this volume - a sense that the Britain of the 70's really was a different country.
Not completely different, however. Again and again, the problems which face the beleaguered British in Crisis, What Crisis? are the problems which still face us today; austerity, terrorism, environmental worries. In some ways it's strangely reassuring. There were our parents and grandparents, worrying about inflation and unemployment and the cost of living and overpopulation and the Cold War, but it all turned out all right, or, at least, the world failed to end, and here we are four decades later worrying about the same things. I hope that, come the 2050s, Alwyn W. Turner will write a book which puts this decade in perspective. In the meantime, his blog posts about the current election make for interesting reading.
Crisis, What Crisis: Britain in the 1970s is published by Aurum Press. So is Rejoice, Rejoice: Britain in the 1990s, which is equally good. (There is a third volume, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, which I haven't read yet.)
The image at the top of this page is the cover of the edition I read; I assume the others are from older editions.