James Morrison on

Dominic Sandbrook's The 70s

BBC2, April/May 2012

Selective Seventies

So there we have it: if Dominic Sandbrook’s latest attempt at lefty-baiting revisionism is to be believed, the Seventies was little more than a dry run for the 1980s. Far from being the decade that finally consigned consensus to history and, for a time at least, reawakened left-right ideological consciousness in the public at large - as many of us remember it - the 1970s were instead the birthplace of the rampant materialism, avarice and individualism that have largely typified Britain ever since. Such a shame 38-year-old Sandbrook wasn’t old enough to witness the period at first hand. Had he done so (with independent school-educated, Oxbridge-tinted blinkers removed) he might have seen something altogether different.

The (not-so) underlying thesis of Sandbrook’s eponymous BBC2 series about the era – and Seasons in the Sun, the piggybacking bestseller-by-numbers accompanying it – is that Seventies folk were Thatcherites before Thatcher. According to this reading, almost everyone – from campaigning gay rights activists and striking miners to swinging suburbanites – was 'on the take', and, importantly, no one gave two hoots about anyone else’s interests but their own. Such a shame his arguments don’t stack up. A central conceit of Sandbrook’s is to argue that, far from representing a last gasp of the tradition for collectivist forces to periodically rise up against insulated, out-of-touch governing classes, the strikers were (to a man, or woman) no more than exemplars of naked self-interest. Too bad he conveniently overlooks, among others, the building workers’ strike of 1972 – which saw Ted Heath’s Conservative government buffeted by a wave of secondary action by employees with nothing to gain personally from the builders’ satisfactory resolution of their dispute. In fact, so weary did the Tories become of the constant threat of sympathy strikes during this period that it was with ill-concealed relish that Margaret Thatcher’s maiden administration passed the Employment Act 1980 to restrict unions’ rights to call them – a full five years before the famous confrontation with her so-called ‘enemy within’ during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike which led to her emboldened administration going still further.

More broadly, Sandbrook’s claim that Thatcher "inherited", rather than moulded, the building-blocks of Thatcherism – an appetite for home ownership, spendthrift aspirationalism and right-wing economic models – is beyond disingenuous. To support his case, Sandbrook conjures up images of all the clichés associated with 1980s consumerism and applies them to the previous decade – according to him, the Seventies was awash with sharp-suited yuppies, wannabe property prospectors and credit-fuelled shopaholics. Yet in the mid-1970s home ownership had more or less stalled - with around half of all households in owner-occupation, in stark contrast to its exponential rise following the introduction of the Right to Buy scheme in 1981, which ultimately saw it peak at 70 per cent in 2003. Moreover, Sandbrook himself repeatedly acknowledges that by the middle of the decade Britain was in the economic doldrums – with family living standards squeezed, inflation in double digits, interest rates soaring and food and utility prices fast outstripping wages. While a short Barclaycard-waving bonanza did ensue during the ‘Barber Boom’ of 1972, in response to the radical tax-cutting agenda of Anthony Barber, a Tory Chancellor (sound familiar?) - when the bust came with a bang in 1974, so too did an abrupt end to Britain’s first (and, at the time, never-to-be-repeated) great experiment with mass consumerism.

It was the Thatcher government that was to ensure attitudes and behaviours that might otherwise have been dismissed as out of character, even aberrant, became entrenched. True, by the time of the 1979 general election the Labour government had long since begun dancing (albeit reluctantly) to the Chicago School tune - striking a Faustian pact with the International Monetary Fund which saw it slash public spending in return for a £2.3 billion lifeline - but to pretend that Thatcher and her Shadow Ministers had had only a passing influence on the direction of political debate at national (or even global) level up to that point is to take deeply ahistorical liberties with the facts. Thatcher had been a leading light on the Conservative frontbenches since the early 1970s and leader of her party from shortly after its second, fateful, 1974 election defeat. Throughout the late 1970s – at least from the point of the 1976 IMF bailout onwards – it was the Tories, spearheaded by free market ideologues like Sir Keith Joseph, who increasingly sought to engineer both the political weather and the public mood. The neoliberal hegemony – one that has seen the utilitarian prospectus of the ‘market economy’ perverted into the amoral, devaluing ‘market society’ the philosopher Michael Sandel so eloquently deplores in his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – was engineered by Thatcher, Reagan, Friedman and their adherents. If Thatcher can be said to have "inherited" a domestic political landscape (and country) of a particular hue in 1979, it was largely of her own making.

James Morrison © 2012