When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett
|When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A thorough, largely political history of the decade, from the election of Heath’s government in 1970 to that of Thatcher in 1979.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 576||Date: May 2009|
|Publisher: Faber & Faber|
When the seventies began, I was a teenager preparing for my O-levels. Halfway through the decade, I went to college for two years, and starting to become politically aware. By the end I was comfortably settled in my third full-time job.
Having grown up during the era and followed the major news stories in the papers as they happened, I was fascinated to find everything (well, nearly everything) in the 500-page narrative that comprises this book. It was quite a rocky ride from the election of Edward Heath in June 1970 through the three-day week, record British inflation and the IMF rescue, industrial disputes and picket battles at Saltley and Grunwick, the Gay Liberation Front and the stirrings of the green movement, the rise of Arthur Scargill, and the discovery of North Sea oil. Then there was the survival of James Callaghan's minority administration despite the odds, and thanks largely to his adroit handling of the situation in keeping both Tony Benn and the Lib-Lab pact on board, followed by the winter of discontent, culminating in Thatcher at No 10.
Until this book reminded me, I had forgotten just how gloomy the general outlook seemed for the nation – in the eyes of certain observers at least. By March 1975, commentators were gloomily surveying the spectre of militant consultants threatening to close NHS hospitals and troops being about to move into Glasgow to maintain essential services. Two years later the nation was being compared to the decaying Habsburg empire and Tsarist Russia in its final days.
It was not quite that bad. (If it had been, would we still be here?) By 1978 it could be revealed that the British economy had grown faster between 1945 and 1975 than it had between 1855 and 1945. Nevertheless, on 22 January 1979, the single most militant day of the winter of discontent, 1.5 million public sector staff refused to work, and during two months, about 30 million working days were lost, the equivalent of every employee in the country going on strike for one day.
Perhaps we should not rely on statistical nuggets too much, as they mean little without the broader picture. As we know, journalists and commentators sometimes have a vested interest in painting the picture rather gloomier than it really was, in the interests of a good (if inaccurate) story. Thirty years later, as Beckett notes in his conclusion, some things have changed, but we still veer between boom and recession.
The emphasis throughout is on political history, yet in a lively way. The author has interviewed several of the movers and shakers, notably Heath (a mere year before his death) and Labour chancellor Denis Healey, trade union leaders such as Jack Jones and Jack Dromey, and Margaret Thatcher's adviser Sir Alfred Sherman. I found the picture of a careworn Harold Wilson, with his health beginning to fail and an intense fear of being bugged (will we ever know the exact truth?) during his final term as Prime Minister, quite poignant. There is very little reference to the cultural icons of the day, though Fawlty Towers and Led Zeppelin are observed in passing, as is Eric Clapton – though not for his music, so much as his ill-considered pro-Enoch Powell comments onstage in 1976 which led to the formation of the Rock Against Racism movement.
The author was born a mere ten days before the decade started. As such he was well qualified to write the book without bias, and his account is scrupulously objective throughout. Whether you, like I, lived through those days and are interested to see them in perspective, or whether you want to compare the state of Britain with that of a generation ago, you will find this book hard to put down.
If you enjoy this, why not also try A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr, or for a close examination of the situation two decades earlier, Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy. For more of the political situation in the seventies we can recommend Bernard Donoughue's diaries.
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You can read more book reviews or buy When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett at Amazon.com.
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