The disaster of the 1970s: truisms in need of challenge?

As I noted previously in relation to the 1983 election campaign there is a tendency in political analysis to accept truisms which are historically inaccurate or at least highly incomplete.

One of the recent manifestations of this tendency (also related to the current Labour leadership campaign) is that Corbyn is going to take the UK back to the 1970s: the implication being that this would be dreadful. Whilst I make no comment on whether or not Corbyn would do this, nor the advisability of a Corbyn victory, the idea that the 1970s were dreadful is another example of an incomplete and possibly inaccurate truism.

There are many significant bad memories from the 1970s. There was the three day week when the coal miners paralysed the country and there were regular power cuts. There was also the IMF loan, inflation at 25% and the Winter of Discontent: though the discontent was not as widespread nor as severe as often thought; only in one area were there problems with burials, that for only two weeks due to unofficial industrial action.

During the 1970s the rise in GDP was not dissimilar to that in the preceding decades: the highest rate of growth in the UK since the war was in 1973 and the recessions of the 1970s were significantly less severe than that of 2008/9.

There were also a series of different phases to the 1970s with a boom, excess inflation and recession (see here for a brief economic history). The huge rise in the price of oil following the Yom Kippur War of 1973 was the major cause of the economic downturn in the middle of the decade.

Despite the economic problems Britain also ran significant balance of payments surpluses during much of the period (it is only since the 1980s that Britain has persistently imported more than it exports) and in 1978 the standard of living rose 6.4% in one year.

The reality of the 1970s was mixed: arguably more mixed than many of the preceding decades (the 1980s were also mixed). The living standards of British people rose significantly as compared to the 1950s and even 1960s. It was a decade of increased opportunities with greater spending power and the beginning of what is now regarded as standard activities such as foreign holidays for those other than the rich.

Cleary there were major economic problems and very major issues with British manufacturing industries centring around productivity and industrial relations. There is no doubt that these issues needed to be addressed. It is unclear, however, to what extent the Thatcherite solution of simply shedding these manufacturing jobs (a policy continued under Tony Blair) was entirely the correct one: to a large extent Thatcher was able to use North Sea oil revenues to finance much of her agenda – without it the 1980s boom would have been much more difficult.

As I suggested in the last essay what happens in politics tends to become seen as the only thing that could conceivably have happened. In addition certain truisms develop which are fairly collectively adhered to until challenged by historians (in that politics and journalism are not an accurate first draft of history). There were undoubtedly major problems during the 1970s and many of the changes in the 1980s may well have been beneficial. However, to paint the 1970s as an unremitting national disaster followed by the almost unalloyed success of the 1980s is incomplete. And misleading In addition there were other paths which might have been followed in the 1980s which might also have brought the same or even greater prosperity with a similar mixed economy model to the 1970s.

The reality (which in some ways is all that matters) is that Thatcher won in 1979 and ushered in the era of Thatcherism. However, had Callaghan gone to the country in 1978 when he would almost certainly have won, history would have been different but not necessarily less prosperous.

Finally and most crushingly, however, is the final proof that the 1970s were actually good: the Space Hopper – I rest my case.

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