It can't go on like this

Britain in the 1970s was a disquieting place, fearful of the future. Governments lurched from crisis

A couple of years ago I wrote a TV drama about Harold Wilson's last government. Although the thirtysomething producer liked the script, she found many of the allusions baffling. What, she wondered, was a "prices and incomes policy"? Or a "balance of payments crisis"? These appeared almost daily in British headlines during the 1970s; a mere generation later, they are as impenetrably archaic as Babylonic cuneiform.

In The Seventies, an end-of-term report published in 1980, Christopher Booker wrote of "a decade of unending hard slog through the quicksands . . . hardly a time which in years to come is likely to inspire us with an overpowering sense of nostalgia". For the next quarter-century or so, his prediction was largely fulfilled, apart from Bill Clinton's adoption of "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" as his theme tune, and occasional "ironic" tributes to lava lamps or tank tops, Burt Reynolds's toupee or Roger Moore's lapels. When people did stop thinking about tomorrow, their thoughts usually returned to the Sixties, or perhaps the Second World War; anywhere but the day before yesterday, that most distant of eras.

Lately, however, the decade that taste forgot has been rediscovered. Since Jonathan Coe published The Rotters' Club (2001), coach parties of British novelists have gone to gawp at this long-lost continent - Sebastian Faulks, Helen Walsh, Hari Kunzru, Louis de Bernières, Hanif Kureishi, old uncle Philip Hensher and all. The subtitle of Howard Sounes's Seventies: the Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade (2006) speaks for itself. Then there was Life on Mars: the prehistoric methods and attitude of DCI Gene Hunt may initially have elicited gasps of "Oh, man, look at those cavemen go", but given the choice between the harsh reality of 1973 and today's virtual reality, many viewers surprised themselves by siding with the Neanderthals.

The Atlantic Monthly noted last month that mistrust of government and disquiet about the future have risen to levels not seen since the Vietnam era, and the public is "coping, once again, with a military quagmire, rising oil prices, prophecies of ecological doom and corruption in high places". What could be more natural than a reversion to the language of Babylonic cuneiform? The sound of the Seventies is everywhere now, whether in the paranoid style of the Jason Bourne movies, or the remaking of Blake's 7, or the Labour government re-enacting the history of its 1970s predecessors, with Gordon Brown playing Jim Callaghan to Tony Blair's Harold Wilson.

One can only hope that Brown doesn't go the whole hog by staging show trials of New Statesman journalists. Duncan Campbell, with whom I shared an office at the time, stood in the dock at the Old Bailey in the late summer of 1978 charged with possessing such dangerous items as a Ministry of Defence press release and a photograph of a "prohibited place" - which turned out to be a postcard of the Post Office Tower, central London's most conspicuous landmark. One of his barristers, Geoffrey Robertson, tried to negotiate a plea bargain but was told that it was out of the question: "The security services want Campbell in prison for a very long time." To improve their chances, Labour ministers and MI5 secretly revived the fine old practice of jury-rigging.

There is no mention of this trial in Alwyn Turner's book; nor of the even more surreal Oz case, in which learned counsel spent the best part of six weeks arguing about Rupert Bear's erect penis. But it would be pointless to list the omissions (even Lord Lucan is absent, fittingly enough), for there are nine and sixty ways of constructing the Seventies in Britain - and, as with Kipling's tribal lays, every single one of them is right. Turner appears to have spent much of the decade watching television, and his knowledge of old soap operas, sitcoms and TV dramas is deployed to great effect throughout this vivid, brilliantly researched chronicle.

Any serious historian of the mid-Seventies should discuss the centrist yearning for a government of national unity but few would add, as Turner does, that its appeal was understood by Len Fairclough of Coronation Street, who served as an independent on Weatherfield Council and insisted: "It's party politics that's strangling this country. It's out of date." The history of Tony Benn and Enoch Powell as hecklers-in-chief to their own frontbenchers has often been recorded - but who else has spotted their resemblance to Statler and Waldorf in The Muppet Show, the ageing barrackers throwing disparaging comments from their private box at Kermit and Fozzie Bear, aka Harold Wilson and Ted Heath?

Several recent novels have tried to summon up the spirit of the Seventies with thumbnail sketches. "There were food or petrol shortages, along with some sort of national crisis," Hanif Kureishi recalls. "Then there'd be an IRA bomb." Louis de Bernières writes of the Winter of Discontent in the early months of 1979: "The streets were piled high with rubbish, you couldn't buy bread or the Sunday Times, and in Liverpool no one would bury the dead."

None, I think, evokes the texture so precisely as Turner. Here is his account of a Saturday teatime ritual that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who remembers the wrestling on ITV: "Mum looked on admiringly at real men like Vic Faulkner, as Dad - nervously fingering his Pools coupons in anticipation of the football results - rolled his eyes and muttered about how it wasn't real and it was all fixed, and Gran screamed blue murder at the screen whenever Mick McManus delivered yet another illegal punch to yet another blue-eyed hero on the blind side of the ref, but in full view of the cameras."

Turner may be an anorak, but he is an acutely intelligent anorak who knows that popular culture doesn't give the full picture. He points out that, at a time when opinion polls identified the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union as the most powerful man in Britain, active trade unionists were almost invisible in popular entertainment. The representation of black people was even more out of sync with reality: it is a real shock to be reminded of a Goodies episode in which Bill Oddie, his face smeared with shoe polish, appeared as "Rastus Watermelon" - and of the fact that, as late as 1976, The Black and White Minstrel Show was one of the five most watched programmes over the Christmas holiday.

Nevertheless, broadcasters may have understood their audience rather better than the political class did. A T-junction had been reached, where continuing in the same direction was no longer an option. Conventional political wisdom, believed by everyone from the Workers' Revolutionary Party to General Sir Walter Walker, held that a sharp turn to the left was the likeliest outcome. All the indicators from popular culture - including radio phone-ins, another Seventies innovation - suggested a lurch to the right. Over the next decade Margaret Thatcher showed which judgement was correct.

Having spent far more time absorbing popular television than listening to Gerry Healy or Tony Benn, Alwyn Turner knew this already. He guessed that George Roper of George and Mildred ("working class and bloody proud of it") would vote for Mrs T, as would Alf Garnett, Basil Fawlty, Rigsby from Rising Damp, Margo from The Good Life, Captain Peacock and Mrs Slocombe from Are Young Being Served? and even Bob Ferris from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? - "an aspirant member of the middle class who might have voted Liberal in 1974, but would surely have opted for Thatcher in 1979". How could anyone hold back such a formidable coalition? The coup de grâce was delivered a year or two after Thatcher's arrival in Downing Street, when the televised adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man revealed the truth about its titular anti-hero, a lascivious left-wing sociology lecturer: "Howard Kirk voted Conservative in the general election of 1979."

The world that we now inhabit, and sometimes take for granted, was gestated in the Seventies, but the gestation occurred partly because we inhabited a world that could no longer be taken for granted, or indeed taken at all. Throughout the decade, there was a rising hubbub of discontent, a swelling chorus of voices saying: it can't go on like this. Whether "it" was an enfeebled British corporatist democracy, or blackface minstrels, or merely the quotidian headache of trying to make a phone call without a mechanical chorus of clicks, wheezes and crossed lines, the frustration seemed almost universal. You can hear it in the New Statesman's front-page headline on the day after the fall of the Labour government in 1979: "NO CONFIDENCE. This time, something's got to give". Something did. Anyone who still wonders why should read this book.

Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s by Alwyn Turner is published by Aurum Press, 322pp, £20

Francis Wheen's latest book is "Marx's 'Das Kapital': a Biography" (Atlantic Books)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?