From Wilson to Thatcher – what a decade!

When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett

The 1970s were my formative years. I was ten years old in 1970, so I was a Seventies teenager.  My 1970s were full of being a teenybopper with my beloved David Cassidy, girl guides then the youth club, and the hard graft of O and A levels, culminating in going up to London University where I was old enough to use my vote.  Even then, in the 1979 general election I voted for a woman first, not caring about the policies.  All decade, I scarcely had a single proper political thought in my brain. Politics to me had meant Mike Yarwood doing Harold Wilson impressions and getting a free badge supporting entry into the EEC.

Andy Beckett’s marvellous book remedies the situation for the decade bookended by Tory wins for Edward Heath in 1970 and Thatcher in 1979. It was a key period in modern British politics, particularly seeing the rise and rise of the unions, a time of strikes and cuts, the three day week, culminating in the ‘Winter of Discontent’. He has managed to secure interviews with many of the key people who were there, including Ted Heath before his death; you really get a feel for the personalities involved from the shop-floor up to the cabinet.

There was one section in particular though which really resonated with our economic predicament today… In 1976 sterling plunged against the dollar in the currency markets. Jim Callaghan and his Chancellor Denis Healey were forced to ask the IMF for the biggest loan it had ever granted, and the talks got stuck. US Treasury Secretary William Simon flew in to assist. ‘…he wrote in his autobiography. ‘Historically, the United States has always been there to assist its (often ungrateful) friends … But there is a difference being a charitable benefactor and host to a parasite.’’ Things weren’t going too well, but they got the money.

Later, it transpired that the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR) during that period was actually £5.6 billion, not over £10 billion. Beckett asked Bernard Donaghue about it and he quoted a Treasury friend ‘… you can’t manage the economy tightly over a long period. You only get a chance once every decade to get the economy under control. What you need is a crisis that frightens ministers into accepting [your ideas]. … It’s what we call the Treasury Bounce.’ Beckett then asked Healey about it, who told a funny story about making up figures, which was why he had a distrust of statistics and all these ‘wildly unreliable’ figures. I leave you to draw your own parallels.

There’s no doubt that the 1970s were interesting years to live through, and this book is a masterly chronicle of it.

(Book supplied by the Librarything Early Reviewers programme).

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