The Spectre of the 1970s

By Ewan Gibbs

If you watched Question Time last night you’d be forgiven for thinking that four decades ago Britain lived through a post-apocalyptic age where the population ate rats to survive in the crumbling vestiges of a once great civilization. Since the release of Labour’s manifesto promising the nationalisation of rail, energy, and post, as well as reforms that would grant greater legal protection to trade unions, the main response from the Tories and allies in the press has been “the 1970s”! In the same way that “the 1930s” means mass unemployment and the rise of fascism, “the 1970s” is constructed in terms of social and political conflict, economic crisis and British ‘decline’. This myth of mass misery, which implicitly and often explicitly credits Thatcherism with restoring national pride and social order in the 1980s, is a key shibboleth in the modern British political imaginary. It cements both a national narrative, and an evident Tory version of events, but also secured the New Labour story of redemption and adaption.

Yet, upon some critical inspection, the age of shame narrative starts to fall apart. It’s become something of a twitter cliche to point out that 1976 was the peak year for national happiness; Britain’s balance of payments, its trade deficit with the rest of the world, which was a key part of the ‘decline’ narrative, is far higher now than it was then; Britain is also a discernibly more economically unequal society than it was in the social democratic era. But these more or less ‘objective’ measurements miss the point. The key reason the 1970s is derided relate to Ben Wallace, Conservative MP’s caricature of trade union leaders as “barons” on Question Time last night. Audience members also made negative inferences about union power. This included the claim that trade unions “brought down a government”. The latter is patnetly untrue. Ted Heath, the Conservative Prime Minister, responded to a miners’ strike for higher wages during 1974 by calling an election asking who ran the country, the Tories or the miners, and got given short shrift by the people. This course of events reveals the true cause of fear of the 1970s, and why it must be derided as a dark age: the power of organised workers to shape the economy and attain a political voice.

The irony, in terms of references to ‘union barons’, is that the 1970s was a period of unparalleled rank and file workers’ power, which often came into conflict with trade union leadership. Some of the major disputes of the era were unofficial, such as the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders ‘work-in’ of 1971–2. The work-in was expressly not a strike; rather than withdrawing their labour workers continued working in defiance of the Heath government’s pledge to close ‘lame duck’ enterprises. Over 1971–2 Heath was forced not just to back down at UCS, but also to reverse the operation of the Industrial Relations Act during the latter year’s ‘glorious summer’ of trade union activism. This came after the initially unofficial coalition of shop steward activists who organised days of action against the Act succeeded in attaining TUC backing for general stirke action following the imprisonment of 5 dockers at Pentonville for their involvement in picketing the Act’s Industrial Relations Court had ruled illegal.

Yet, often it’s the events that took place during the Wilson-Callaghan Labour governments of 1974–9 which are most lamented. In particular the infamous ‘winter of discontent’ of 1979. Such narratives stereotype trade unions as ‘sectional’ organisations representing the interests of white male manual workers. This narrative tends to omit events such as the Grunwick strike of 1976–8 when labour movement solidarity from across the UK was extended to a strikefor union recognition led by Asian women at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in North West London . It was also during these years that the Anti-Nazi League and other left-wing and labour movement anti-fascists engaged in a street struggle with the National Front, including ‘the battle of Lewisham’ in 1977, and held the culturally and politically significant ‘Rock Against Racism’ carnival in 1978. The Winter of Discontent itself revealed the brittleness of social democracy in the face of intensifying economic pressures, and the growing strength of mobile internationalising capital. However, as Jack Saunders (Twitter @jack_saundrs) contends, opposition to wage restraint policy was broad based, from car workers to local government employees. We need to consider the significance of the 1970s as a period when the social movement politics of ‘1968’ saw workers’ raised expectations coming up against the structures of a political economy morphing from social democratic to neoliberal forms.

The 1970s deserve a historical appraisal worthy of the significance of a decade that set in train a lot of the key phenomena that shaped our present juncture. In particular it was the period when the social democratic structures that had determined British development from the 1940s ultimately atrophied, and the politics of the ‘New Right’ electorally triumphed in 1979. But most vociferously, it was a time when ordinary people, especially organised manual workers, exercised a political voice and economic power on a scale that seems far form imaginable at present. They did not do so in a docile manner of following leaders, but through complex structures which included the exercise of democratic will and agency.

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