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8 May 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:16pm

Back to the future: what the turmoil of the 1970s can teach us today

Britain in the late 1970s was gripped by dark visions of socialist dystopias or racist authoritarian states. The old order was dying and the new was struggling to be born.

By Phil Tinline

British politics is in flux. Moderates are struggling. Radicals are confident. The public is divided; democratic institutions are under strain. The status quo seems on the verge of breakdown. Welcome to 1979.

Forty years later, our body politic presents some of the same symptoms that destabilised Britain at the end of the 1970s, as the Keynesian postwar settlement unravelled. Both 1979 and 2019 represent a moment in which one political orthodoxy is dying but the next is still struggling to be born. Today, while we wait to see what emerges from our long national stalemate, the Callaghan era and its fears of the near-future – expressed in essays, lectures and novels, to a soundtrack by the Clash and Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees – might have something to tell us.

On 5 July 1978, the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered a play that captured an anxiety of the time. Peter Flannery’s Savage Amusement is set among young squatters in Manchester as the city’s community and infrastructure decay into chaos. The year is 1982. Fitz, a feral teenager, is a survivor of the council relocating his family from Moss Side to a new high-rise in Hulme, full of green mould and with nowhere to play. By the time their flat has been declared uninhabitable, Fitz’s father has deteriorated from dole to debt to drink to disappearance. One careless arm of the state having helped to break his family, others – hospital, care, prison, army – collect the pieces. Fitz is left to fend for himself with a shoplifter’s overcoat and a pick-axe handle.

Meanwhile, in the real Moss Side, by-election candidates were wrangling over vandalism, disorder and those “infamous” Hulme high-rises. On BBC TV, awaiting the election results, the Conservative shadow chancellor Geoffrey Howe guardedly suggested that much of the crime in the constituency emanated from those inner-city tower block estates – “monuments to socialist planning” – and promised a return to law and order. The conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne declared violence a nationwide preoccupation. The Labour cabinet minister Roy Hattersley denounced all this as “vulgar populism”. (Hattersley’s post now sounds like a late-Keynesian time-capsule: he was the secretary of state for prices and consumer protection.)

In her 1978 conference speech, Margaret Thatcher invoked another inner-city dystopia: “When the rule of law breaks down,” she told delegates, “fear takes over. There is no security in the streets, families feel unsafe even in their own homes, children are at risk, criminals prosper, the men of violence flourish, the nightmare world of A Clockwork Orange becomes a reality. Here in Britain in the last few years that world has become visibly nearer.”

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Thatcher’s diagnosis of a debilitating “national uncertainty” was widely shared. In part, this was because the postwar economic model was stalling. Its founding taboo was that there must be no return to 1930s-style mass unemployment; this underwrote the power of the trade unions to push up wages. But in 1974, Labour chancellor Denis Healey warned that the strains induced by inflation “may be too violent for the fabric of our democratic institutions to withstand”. That July, the Times economics editor – and James Callaghan’s son-in-law – Peter Jay predicted the suspension of democracy by 1980. The postwar consensus, he argued, had rested on four ideals: low inflation, full employment, free collective bargaining and democracy – but you couldn’t have all four at once. Incomes policies – governments agreeing pay restraint with the unions, or imposing it on them – never lasted. If the unions lost power, 1930s levels of mass unemployment could help bring inflation down, but until those arrived in the early 1980s, they were thought to be more than society could stand. It looked, Jay feared, as though democracy was doomed.

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Labour made a last attempt – through its “social contract” with the unions – to make the postwar model work. But even before that collapsed into the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, emboldened socialists and free-market capitalists were competing to take over. Echoing Jay, each warned that the other might destroy democracy.

Right-wingers argued that a future left-wing government would accelerate along the road followed by the Wilson and Callaghan administrations. State expansion, union involvement in government and a contempt for the law, they said, would suffocate individual freedom.

In his 1976 Dimbleby Lecture, Lord Hailsham said that government by a bare Commons majority, imposing unpopular measures with no effective restraint, was “elective dictatorship”. We had to recognise how far Britain “has moved towards a totalitarianism”. A former Conservative MP, John Foster, protested that it was not democratic for right-wingers to seek a bill of rights “to defeat a socialist state”.

Unabashed, in his 1978 book The Dilemma of Democracy, Hailsham predicted “a siege economy, a curbed and subservient judiciary, and a regulated press”. Elective dictatorship would “impose uniformity on the whole nation in the interest of what it claims to be social justice”.

A similar vision was advanced by Prince Philip in a 1977 lecture, “Us in 2000”, on Radio Clyde. He foresaw shrinking freedom of choice in public services and growing bureaucratic involvement in everyday life. People would become more dependent “for even the basic elements of existence” on state, employer and union benefits. There would be “gradual suppression of anything which does not suit national economic policy, or which does not appear to do justice to the national cultural ideal”.

The talk was abridged and published in a 1978 volume from the Institute of Economic Affairs: The Coming Confrontation: Will the Open Society Survive to 1989? It also included essays by Friedrich Hayek, former Liberal leader Jo Grimond, Labour’s Raymond Fletcher and Conservative MP Nigel, now Lord, Lawson. He was concerned, he says, about the risks that emerge “once you get a majority of people dependent on the state”. He confirms that he thought liberal democracy was in some danger.


The same year, two works of fiction followed all this to its logical conclusion. Between September 1977 and April 1978, the BBC broadcast two series of 1990, a drama about a Britain ruled by oppressive Home Office bureaucrats. And in October 1978, Anthony Burgess published a novel, 1985, which conjured a Britain ruled by a union-dominated government amid street-level anarchy, where losing your union card rendered you an un-person. In both 1985 and 1990, parliament is a sideshow, freedom of expression is curtailed and dissidents are sent to re-education camps.

This seems far-fetched for a projection of Callaghan’s Britain. But some on the New Right posed the question: what if Callaghan won re-election then retired, to be replaced by Tony Benn, who had emerged as the champion of the Labour left? Benn favoured “a siege economy” with even greater state participation, and direct union involvement in government. And he had been critical of the limitations of parliamentary democracy.

In June 1978, in a speech in Yorkshire, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary Airey Neave pointed out that Hitler had been elected, and said the next election might be “the last chance to stop the present steep descent towards a total socialist state”. He told the BBC’s Robin Day the government was “going down the Marxist line, and the Nazis went in the same direction in terms of individual freedom”. Galvanised by the Winter of Discontent, Margaret Thatcher warned in April 1979 of the “Big Brother state that we’d get under socialism”.

In early 1979, Bernard Donoughue was Callaghan’s senior policy adviser. Today, he is a Labour peer. The expansion of the state while he was working at No 10 remained firmly within democratic norms, he told me. “I don’t think it ever seriously threatened to go too far in terms of interventions in the freedoms of individual people’s lives because the Labour government didn’t intend that. Some of that rhetoric was of course stolen from the Cold War…”

Looking back, Donoughue thinks that rhetoric about socialism stifling British freedom was “exaggerated, but it was quite effective”. Perhaps this was because it dramatised the right-wing case that the economy could only be run on socialist lines by a government ready to sacrifice democracy. And that helped to remove the taboo on long-unthinkable free market reforms. Donoughue suggests a parallel with Brexit: “It’s what happens when people are ideological and dogmatic on both sides, rather than pragmatic, in their politics.” Witness the way both sides of the Brexit debate claim to be protecting democracy.

The left’s fearful imaginings mirrored the right’s. Peter Flannery’s Savage Amusement may have denounced faceless state bureaucracy, but it also suggested the new right-wing politics would bring more hard times. In the play, a hardline government imposes “punitive restrictions” on homeless families and makes benefits difficult to obtain. When the police catch Fitz, he’s birched. Vigilantes expel the squatters.

Thatcher was economically liberal but socially conservative: she wanted the law strictly enforced, so most late 1970s fears about the rise of a New Right concern authoritarianism. The miners’ strikes of the early 1970s had alarmed many on the right: should mass picketing be allowed or overcome by force? Their dystopias sprang from the fear that pickets had excessive power; the left’s from the anxiety that pickets would be crushed, whether by “private armies” or the regular army, perhaps using Northern Ireland-style counter-insurgency techniques. In 1978, the Royal Shakespeare Company revived Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play, which imagined a centrist coalition using troops to break a miners’ strike and putting trade unionists in camps. When the Metropolitan Police’s special patrol group confronted pickets during the 1976-78 strike at the Grunwick film processing lab in north London, some saw them as anti-union shock troops.

Police presence: a heavily guarded National Front anti-refugee protest in London, 1979


On the left, a series of anxieties coalesced around the idea of an authoritarian state. The mood is caught in the Tom Robinson Band’s 1977 song “The Winter of ’79”. Robinson imagined an end to social security, arrests of gay people, racist persecution, the reintroduction of national service, SAS involvement in policing and the National Front (NF) “getting awful strong”.

“It was not so much trying to predict what would happen in 1979,” Robinson told me, “as saying this could happen at any point if we’re not careful.” The period “felt like end times. We really didn’t know what was going to happen next… It’s only now that people can properly understand how it felt to live in Britain in the late Seventies.”

As Robinson’s lyrics suggest, the NF was bundled with right-wing authoritarianism generally in left-wing fears. In David Edgar’s 1976 play Destiny, a right-wing army veteran turned financier, Major Rolfe, searches for an effective way to combat strikes and disorder. Having despaired of the Conservative Party’s weakness, and rejected both private armies and the actual army, he offers to finance the NF.

The Front never successfully managed to exploit industrial unrest. Its impact came from playing on many white Britons’ anxieties about immigration. A 1978 lecture by Professor Stuart Hall, “Racism and Reaction”, suggested one reason for the electoral advance of the Front and its incendiary call for compulsory repatriation: the sense of emergency. “Blacks,” Hall argued, “become the bearers, the signifiers of the crisis of British society in the 1970s. Racism is its ‘final solution’.” Edgar’s play also suggested that businessmen might ask the Front to use its anti-immigrant ideology to reunify white Britain’s warring classes.

Edgar adapted Destiny for BBC One’s Play for Today and it was screened on 31 January 1978. Now, he thinks his play had a role in convincing people that “the National Front was a Nazi Front”. It was broadcast the day after Margaret Thatcher provoked huge controversy by saying that if the main parties didn’t want people to vote for the NF, they had to acknowledge public hostility to ongoing immigration. Edgar accepts he underestimated Thatcher’s willingness to draw voters unhappy about immigration back from the Front into mainstream politics – “which is not for a second to say that Margaret Thatcher was a fascist or would have had any time for the NF at all”. Rather, Destiny demonstrated the context of Thatcher’s remarks: that “the Conservative Party was frightened of losing votes to its right” – an anxiety which, he suggests, later affected David Cameron.

During periods of upheaval, such as that between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, new groupings sometimes emerge which, within a few years, can overcome existing parties’ resistance to change. Similarly, since the 2008 crash, new parties have surged to prominence across Europe, putting pressure on their established rivals, from AfD in Germany to Podemos in Spain. We will soon see whether this process is at work here, as parties such as the Brexit Party and Change UK compete for votes and attention.

Ten days before the 1979 general election, the left’s parallel concerns – the prospects of homegrown Nazism and authoritarian state power – came together when the NF staged a meeting in Southall, west London. Anti-racists, including local British Asians and Anti-Nazi Leaguers, gathered to protest. The special patrol group was deployed, and was almost certainly responsible, according to an internal police report, for killing a protestor, Blair Peach. But was there more such trouble to come? The Front stood 303 candidates; would the election be its breakthrough?

In the event, the National Front won just 0.6 per cent of the vote. Its support had peaked by 1977. But without the pressure on its base and its reputation, its defeat might have been much less decisive.

As with the right, the left had merged connected but distinct threats and conjured up images of a fascistic Britain that never appeared (though concern about policing continued through the 1984-85 miners’ strike to the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, published in 1999). The right used the spectre of dictatorship to make its case that the postwar economic orthodoxy had to change. The left used a similar spectre to argue that Britain needed to confront its racism.

The free-market orthodoxy that emerged from the crisis of the 1970s did not, of course, arrive overnight in May 1979. Callaghan’s government had experimented with monetarism; even so, Thatcher had to break one barrier at a time. It was only in 1980-81 that she purged her cabinet of “wets” and promoted key allies – and refused, unlike Edward Heath, to U-turn in the face of rising unemployment. When the total passed three million in January 1982, and the government kept going, a half-century economic taboo passed with it. Confronting trade union power took longer. Her government conceded to the threat of a miners’ strike in 1981, and spent years readying power stations, transport and the police to withstand the strike that began in 1984, and was defeated a year later. Only then, for good or ill, was Thatcherism entrenched.

Since the 2008 crash and the Great Recession, ideas that, to many, seemed impossible a few years ago – the return of socialism, the resurgence of nationalism, Brexit (before the 2016 referendum) or no Brexit (afterwards) – are now reshaping politics. After a long decade of upheaval, perhaps we’re nearing the emergence of a new orthodoxy. If so – and if the late 1970s are any guide – somewhere at its heart will be an idea that was once considered to be unthinkable.

Phil Tinline’s BBC Radio 4 documentary “1979: Democracy’s Nightmares” is available on BBC Sounds