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Our Discontented Winter – Scottish Review of Books
by John MacLeod

Our Discontented Winter

September 4, 2009 | by John MacLeod


Our Discontented Winter – John MacLeod

MOST OF US – and certainly everyone born since, or who were then too young to remember – have a certain idea of the Seventies in Britain. It was a long dark twilight of strife, shortages and a collapsing economy. It was drab. It was bigoted. It was awful. Then, as the bright and morning star, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Sorrow and sighing did vanish away, as everyone prospered and only the TUC lived unhappily ever after.

Born only in 1969, Andy Beckett has himself only the sketchiest memories of those years. Yet his enthralling book When The Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies blows through this cosy mythology like an Exocet.

One startling thrust of Beckett’s achievement is that the final political outcome was not inevitable. Had Callaghan called a general election in October 1978 – as everyone thought he would – he would almost certainly have won; it is most unlikely that the Tories would have given Margaret Thatcher a second chance. There would have been no ‘Winter of Discontent’ and no electoral rout; Labour would not have fallen into the paws of the hard Left; there would have been no SDP and, in all probability, no later New Labour or Tony Blair.

Indeed, Callaghan’s tragedy may well have been our own. As Beckett argues convincingly, these years were not as woeful as we like to think. “Unemployment in the Seventies, taken at the time to be a great symptom of political failure, and notorious as such ever since, was actually low by modern standards, even during the long economic boom of the Blair years”.

Property was, by today’s standards, most affordable and British politics “for all the gothic prose it usually prompts, was about moments of possibility as well as periods of entropy; about stretches of calm as well as sudden calamity. Politics was rawer and more honest – in the sense that conflicts between interests and ideologies were out in the open – than perhaps we are used to nowadays…”.

Callaghan himself, for whom Becket has obvious affection, cuts an astonishingly conservative figure for a Labour Prime Minister. In October 1976, head of the Downing Street Policy Unit Bernard Donoughue observed that Callaghan “argued for a ‘basic curriculum with universal standards’ of numeracy and literacy…. He once cautioned Tom McNally and me not to tell bawdy stories in front of [his wife] Audrey… and he told me that he had been totally unaware of homosexuality until well into adult life…”. The Prime Minister, Donoughue recorded, hummed hymns to himself as he walked stooping down the corridors to crucial meetings.

There were in fact many ways in which Britain, under this sensible Labour administration, actually anticipated the diversions of the Blair years.

We started eating out more; Freddie Laker’s Skytrain venture brought cheap air travel to millions; 1978 set a new record for British travel abroad. Our cities began to bristle with shopping centres and sports complexes.

In this legendary basket-case of a country, the ‘sick man of Europe’, clever young men built, for instance, the world’s sharpest advertising agencies; in the North Sea, other lads – mostly Scots – built the frontier of a whole new industry with the bolts of entirely novel technology.

The British were living longer, eating more meat, and going in ever increasing numbers to university. By all available measures, poverty shrank and housing improved, and we enjoyed far more holidays.

There was new concern for the environment: the Seventies saw the birth of our modern Green movement, with its emphases on conservation and recycling. The skies cleared over once-smoky British cities; fish returned to the Thames. Glasgow started to clean its sooty tenements and salmon once more swam up the Clyde.

For Britain, too, the less glamorous aspects of the 1960s took hold. Beckett’s account of a new, effective feminism – such as the founding of Spare Rib – is compelling, its urgency counterpointed by the prejudice which still hindered the very few women active in British politics – Thatcher, Castle, Winnie Ewing.

And, even if some popular comedies are, today, unbroadcastable, these years saw huge strides in race relations. In 1968, London dockers marched in infamous support of Enoch Powell’s ill-judged invective at Birmingham; less than a decade later, in 1977, they joined Jayaben Desai and her colleagues – mostly immigrant Asian women – at the Grunwick picket-lines.

No account of this period can ignore the might of trade unions in a land they still fondly envisaged (in a lovely Aneurin Bevan line revived by Beckett) as a “lump of coal surrounded by fish”.

“The skies cleared over

once-smoky British cities;

fish returned to the Thames

…salmon swam up the


The 1972 miner’s strike was a blow from which the Heath administration never recovered; and the ‘social contract’ between Labour and the TUC, contributing strongly to the general success of the Callaghan administration, might have endured had the eminently sensible Jack Jones served just one more year as General Secretary.

An emerging Arthur Scargill already cut a thoroughly obnoxious figure and we are uncomfortably reminded of a young Scot demonised by the 1979 tabloids: Jamie Morris, NUPE shop-steward at Westminster Hospital during the Winter of Discontent.

When – in the sort of twist a dramatist would not dare invent – NUPE’s boss, social services secretary David Ennals, was himself admitted to Westminster Hospital at the height of the dispute, Morris declared that the limping war-veteran’s stay ‘‘would be made as uncomfortable as possible”. But it is only fair to point out that the unskilled NHS manual workers Morris represented were, at the time, atrociously paid, and even the Daily Telegraph agreed that David Ennals was a “legitimate target”.

It was just one front-line in that infamous winter – the dead unburied; the rubbish piling up in streets; all Hull, for instance, blockaded by a truck-drivers’ strike – just one community where, the city all but held to ransom by a ‘Dispensation Committee’ of the TGWU, the rule of law effectively collapsed.

The Winter of Discontent was not inevitable. Callaghan was probably unwise to insist on a 5% pay-rise restraint, without exception, at a time of 10% inflation; he and his colleagues were certainly foolish to believe the unions would not dare to destabilise a Labour government in a general election year. The final crazed wave of strikes was more anarchic than orchestrated and, to cap everything, that winter was inordinately long and very cold.

Unlike most London writers of this period, Beckett gives some place to the devolution saga and the particular role of the SNP in Callaghan’s downfall (though does not bother actually to name Donald Stewart or any of the notoriously undisciplined ‘First Eleven.’)

Beckett’s coverage of the final, defining 1979 election is astute. Callaghan’s personal opinion lead over Thatcher actually trebled during in the campaign (when, remember, she refused to debate him.)

And Tory confidence in the Lady was so fraught there was a serious attempt (behind Thatcher’s back) to record an election broadcast with Ted Heath. The author, too, deftly outlines the paradox of the 1979 result. Mrs Thatcher was the first woman elected leader of any Western democracy and the Conservatives won the biggest swing to any party since 1945, leading among women voters and, even more notably, among the young.

Yet in raw numbers, Labour’s vote actually increased – by 75,000 – on its October 1974 performance: its support among the middle- class and the rich went up by over a quarter. And, subsequently, “Britain endured a period of economic, social and political crisis that matched, and often eclipsed, anything in the Seventies – indeed, anything in peacetime in the modern era”.

This “included a recession deeper and longer than Britain had known since the Thirties; a rise in unemployment that reached a peak three times higher than any under Callaghan, Wilson or Heath; another surge in inflation and another oil crisis; another surge in IRA violence; another sterling crisis; race-related riots in thirty British towns and cities; a collapse in the average Briton’s disposable income so prolonged that by 1983 it had still not recovered to its level when Labour left office… and a collapse in her government’s popularity so steep that, in a Gallup poll in October 1981, she received the lowest support ever recorded for a British Prime Minister”.

To this day, many corners of the country have never recovered: sink-estates of despair, addiction and multi-generational unemployment. In 1970, one in ten Scottish children was born in poverty: today, thirty years after the Lady preened on the steps of Number Ten, the figure is one in four.

Mr Beckett’s youth probably accounts for a few moments of lapse. He nowhere mentions decimalisation, in February 1971 – a real factor in the inflation crisis which so destabilised the Heath administration.

Heath’s ruthless (and widely resented) reorganisation of local government is likewise ignored. Beckett’s account of Northern Ireland’s admittedly tiresome complexities does not convince and he fails to emphasise that, even at the height of a mainland bombing campaign, our rulers saw not the least need for the draconian infringements of our liberty now extolled by New Labour.

He notes that 1979 saw record troop fatalities in Ulster, but fails to spell out the reason – the murder of eighteen British soldiers in a single atrocity, the Warrenpoint massacre on 27th August. Yet events in Donegal that day relegated Warrenpoint to a footnote in the papers, if not in gleeful Falls Road graffiti – “Bloody Sunday’s Not Forgotten, We Got Eighteen And Mountbatten.”

Beckett’s use of that weasel-word ‘rightwing’ throughout the book is slack and careless. And, though he lifts it timidly in reference to the infamous ‘3-day week’, he fails to develop the important point that, in the early Seventies, Britain was still very close to the Second World War – still, then, rather deferential, gentler than now, much readier to brave vexations and shortages.

Though he outlines the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, he fails to note that the former Liberal leader’s subsequent acquittal at the Old Bailey. It is most unfair to equate Enoch Powell – who supported both the abolition of capital punishment and the decriminalisation of homosexuality – with the National Front, and there are one or two howling factual errors.

Outing Callaghan’s edgy efforts to spare welfare state provision from IMF-decreed budget cuts, Beckett chuckles, “Clement Attlee died in December 1976, but the Callaghan government was not ready to dismantle his welfare state just yet”. This should not have got past Faber editors: Attlee died almost a decade earlier, in October 1967.

But these are niggles. This book is generally masterful and beautifully written, dotted with splendid aphorisms. Private Eye is sweetly noted for “serrated satire”; modern office décor damned as “bland Esperanto”; Callaghan’s Britain rightly recalled as one “probably more equal than it had ever been before – and certainly more equal than it has ever been since”.

And now? “By the late Nineties, let alone by the first years of the twenty-first century, after eighteen years of Conservative government, after the creation of New Labour, after the endless tranquilising boom of the Blair era, the British Seventies were a foreign country. They fascinated us, they contained lessons for us, they influenced us. But we didn’t live there”.

Today, all the unease of that period seem to have returned; such once-dusty phrases as ‘oil shock’, ‘wage-price inflation’ and ‘government pay policy’ have renewed themselves in public discourse.

Andy Beckett has written a book delicious in detail and majestic in meta-narrative. Stimulating, sobering, and surely the book of the year, you will finish it with an extraordinary sense of bereavement – and anger.


When The Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies
Andy Beckett
Faber and Faber, £20
pp576 ISBN 057122136X



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