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The twilight zone

A new study of Britain in the 1970s argues that there was more to the decade than a slow slide towar

When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies
Andy Beckett
Faber & Faber, 586pp, £20

The sudden collapse of the rampant casino capitalism of the recent past has been a shot in the arm for a left demoralised by New Labour’s treachery to the old gods of Keynesian social democracy. Market fundamentalism has been discredited, and Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have been toppled from their perches. The rational economic actor that a generation of economists put at the centre of their conceptual universe has turned out to be a myth. In the crucial financial sector, at least, the herd instinct has turned to count for more than cool-headed calculation. As a result, the state has come in from the cold. Fiscal prudence is no longer a virtue. In the United States and Britain, at least, deficit financing has become not just respectable, but mandatory. To many – perhaps most – social democrats the moral seems clear. At long last, history has put a swath of clear, red water between left and right, and the task is to return to the good old days when Keynes was in his heaven and all was well with the world.

All this gives an urgent topicality to Andy Beckett’s new history of Britain in the 1970s that he cannot have expected when he started work on it five years ago. For the Thatcher revolution did not descend miraculously from a clear sky. It was a child of the crises of authority, the state and the social order that racked Beckett’s Britain. It was during the 1970s, and thanks to what happened in the 1970s, that Margaret Thatcher herself became a Thatcherite. Before then, she had been a medium-level Conservative politician, with nothing but her gender and her more than usually rebarbative accent to distinguish her from myriad other Conservative politicians. Even her trailblazers, Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph, were not yet fully fledged Hayekian ideologues. Still less were the great mass of Conservative MPs and constituency associations. What made them Thatcherites – what made Thatcher herself a Thatcherite – was that the governing philosophy of the postwar period collapsed in failure and humiliation, leaving a vacuum that its custodians could not fill.

Not that Beckett draws that moral from his story. Indeed, he does not draw explicit morals at all. His book is high-quality, vivid journalism, not academic history or social science. He has tried to tell it like it was – to “bring the decade back to life”, as the dust jacket puts it – and he does this by focusing on a series of more or less revealing episodes, not by telling a connected story. Some of the incidents are familiar, but others have been virtually forgotten. His account of the notorious Battle of Saltley Gate during the 1972 miners’ strike, when Arthur Scargill’s pickets overwhelmed the police and in effect closed the coke depot to lorry traffic, is brisk and accomplished, but it does not add much to the existing record. However, I learned a great deal from his mordant account of the Maplin Sands saga, in which Edward Heath and his colleagues first trumpeted their intention to build a monster new London airport on a wasteland of mudflats off the Essex coast, and then abandoned the scheme to moulder in an administrative limbo until it was killed off by the next government. “Heathograd” is Beckett’s title for that chapter, and it is wonderfully apt.

So are his pen portraits of the participants he interviewed. The Heath he bumped into at a Balliol College reunion in 2000 was “hugely stout, in a suit so pale it was almost luminous”. When he interviewed Heath some time later, he was struck by the “small determined eyes, the proud dagger nose, big plump cheeks barely lined despite his lingering yachtsman’s tan”. Harold Wilson (whom he didn’t interview) had a “wily bloodhound face”. At 76, Teddy Goldsmith, the slightly dotty far-right environmentalist, was “very bony”, but with a residual “messianic strength to his blue eyes”. Ralph Harris, the first director of the neoliberal think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, wore “a yellow cravat, a pale, wide-brimmed hat, a tweed jacket in a dapper faint check, enormous black-framed glasses and a moustache straight from the Forties”. Jack Jones at 90 looked about 70; a sense that “his life was part of an ongoing age-old struggle lingered strongly in the room”. In retirement, Sir Clive Rose, chairman of the Civil Contingencies Unit during the Winter of Discontent, was “immaculate on a scorching day in pressed caramel trousers, red socks and a pink shirt in a tiny check”.

Yet even though these and similar cameos are fun, they do not give the reader enough to chew on. Reading Beckett is like watching an endless kaleidoscope. His pieces are always in flux, and a pattern never takes shape.

In an unpretentious sort of way, Beckett is a revisionist. He has tried to rescue the complexities and contingencies of the time from the simplifications that hindsight has so often imposed on it. This is well worth doing. Hindsight is always dangerous. Contingency is part of the human condition – above all, perhaps, of the political condition. Had James Callaghan called an election in October 1978, he might have won. Had he won, Thatcher would almost certainly have disappeared into the oubliette that the Conservative Party reserves for discredited leaders. We cannot know what would have happened thereafter. (I think myself that Labour would have operated a kind of corporatist Thatcherism rather like that of Bob Hawke’s Australia.) But our fate would certainly have been different from what it actually was.

However, counterfactuals like this are little more than an intellectual parlour game. Karl Marx got it right when he said that “men make their own history”, but not “just as they please”. Trends can sometimes bend, but they do exist. Beckett is right to point out that 1970s Britain was in many ways a good place to live in and that many of the social and cultural changes of the times were making it better. The fact remains that the British were living beyond their means; that successive governments, not just in the 1970s but ever since the late 1950s, had failed to put things right; and they failed because the Keynesian social democracy pioneered by the wartime coalition and by the postwar Attlee government had become a busted flush.

Beckett is right in saying that 1970s Britain was not a second Weimar Republic. Apart from anything else, Callaghan was not Chancellor Brüning and Thatcher was not Adolf Hitler. It is true, however, that it was no longer possible to run Britain’s political economy in the way it had been run for the preceding 20 years. Indeed, the overwhelming impression left by Beckett’s book is precisely that. Decent, patriotic, mostly honourable and, in many cases, highly intelligent men and women were caught in the toils of a system that had become dysfunctional.

Something had to give. To conclude from the present crisis that the Keynesian social democracy of the past ought to be resuscitated – or even that it offers helpful lessons for our times – is historically illiterate. Today’s left will have to chart its own course, and discover its own teachers.

David Marquand is the author most recently of “Britain Since 1918: the Strange Career of British Democracy”, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£25)

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek