This article was first published in the April 2012 edition of BBC History Magazine
What do the 1980s mean to you? Space hoppers, Star Wars, inflation and the IRA? Tom Baker’s scarf, George Smiley’s glasses, Harold Wilson’s pipe and Larry Grayson’s patter? Or foreign holidays, colour television, Blue Nun and the unmistakeable taste of Black Forest gateau?
To anyone over the age of 50 the decade of the three-day week, the IMF crisis and the Winter of Discontent probably seems like it happened yesterday. Indeed, having spent the last few months making a documentary series on the 1970s for BBC Two, as well as putting the finishing touches to a book on the second half of the decade, I have lost count of the number of times people have raised an eyebrow and said: “Is that really history?” But 2012 marks 40 years since Edward Heath signed the Treaty of Accession to the European Community, Arthur Scargill’s miners blockaded Saltley Gate and Don Revie’s Leeds United won the Centenary FA Cup Final – time enough for the events of 1972 to pass from nostalgic memories into the stuff of history.
It was as early as 1955, after all, that Charles Loch Mowat published his excellent book on Britain between the wars, while AJP Taylor followed suit in 1965. Not all of their judgements stand up, yet today’s historians are still standing on their shoulders. And it is time we, too, looked again at the day before yesterday.
So how do the 1970s look, 40 years on? In some ways they feel like ancient history. Visiting the El Vino wine bar in Fleet Street to film a section on sexism, it was hard to believe that women journalists were refused service unless they sat in the back room. Tens of millions laughed at the racial caricatures in The Black and White Minstrel Show; almost every day, British Leyland car factories – for we still had some, back then – were plagued by unofficial stoppages.
Only half of all British households had a telephone, while home computers were unknown; when The Times predicted that they would soon become ubiquitous, readers sent scornful letters. And with the Cold War still in full swing, many people doubted whether democracy itself would make it into the next century. Soon, “law and order would break down, leading to domination by an authoritarian figure of the left or the Right,” The Times‘s economics editor Peter Jay told Tony Benn in 1975 – and he was far from alone.
Yet at a time of economic austerity and environmental anxiety, it is hard not to see contemporary parallels. Indeed, what makes the 1970s such a compelling subject is that there are so many shadows of our present concerns. This was a decade that saw the world economy thrown off course, stock markets tumbling, banks collapsing and families suffering a painful squeeze in their living standards.
The headlines were full of violence, yet from the lurid glitter of Slade and Mud to Roger Moore’s extravagant cravats, popular culture seemed gaudier than ever. Then as now, new technologies meant that many families enjoyed more comfortable lives than ever, yet the polls revealed public pessimism about the years to come. And then as now, Britain seemed obsessed by celebrity footballers, corrupt politicians, and the Queen’s coming jubilee.
The real attraction of the 1970s, though, is that this was the decade when a recognisably contemporary Britain began to take shape. We often think of the supposedly swinging Sixties as the transition from old to new, yet when Edward Heath walked into Downing Street in June 1970, it was as prime minister of a remarkably conservative, traditional and backward-looking country. In the ten years that followed, though, much of that was swept away. From feminism and fashion to high finance and foreign holidays, unsettling change was reshaping the social and economic landscape.
By the end of the decade, traditional working-class life had almost been obliterated, knocked out by a one-two punch of industrial decline and individual aspiration. And although we often think of Margaret Thatcher, who won power in 1979, as the architect of change, she was arguably its beneficiary. She did not create the new Britain, more dynamic, more unequal, more acquisitive and more individualistic. It created her. So as you watch the TV series this spring, you may well think that the Seventies look like ancient history. But make no mistake: this was the decade in which 21st-century Britain was born.
Dominic Sandbrook’s series The Seventies starts in the spring on BBC Two. His new history of the latter half of the decade, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, is published by Allen Lane on 31 May.