When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies

Keith Laybourn appreciates the colourful detail of a challenging decade in Britain


Reviewed by: Keith Laybourn
Author: Andy Beckett
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Price (RRP): £20


Aline in a song by the popular 1970s Lancashire folk group The Fivepenny Piece, asks the last person to leave Britain to “turn out the lights”. There were certainly moments in the 1970s when this request seemed justified, not least in the time of the three-day week at the beginning of 1974 when the lights did go out.

The industrial unrest of the early 1970s provide witness to an age when Britain seemed to be in terminal economic decline and decay. There were two major coal strikes, the poor industrial relations in-between when the social contract between the government and the unions failed, the intervention of the IMF, and the Winter of Discontent of 1978–9, strongly associated with the inability of councils to bury the dead.

Here was an age also of political turbulence which saw the Edward Heath government being effectively brought down by a coal strike in 1974, the chronic weakness of two Labour governments and the eventual, almost inevitable, rise of Thatcher. The dramatic events of this period justifies the pessimistic statements of The Fivepenny Piece but it is a view that is only partly endorsed by Andy Beckett whose new book suggests a richer tapestry to an age that has also elsewhere been described as one of “pigs, punk and prawn cocktails”.

Here, indeed, was an age of industrial conflict but here, also, was an age of the hippie anarchists of the free festival movement and of the Gay Liberation Front. The Sex Pistols were formed in 1975, and reflected upon the depressed culture of the 1970s while a host of writers and dramatists, including Doris Lessing, John Fowles, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Stephen Poliakoff, wrote of the decline and depression of Britain in the 1970s.

The television programmes suggested decline – with laughs – in Fawlty Towers and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Andy Beckett suggests, in presenting these snapshots of the 1970s, that there is more nuance to the age than is often supposed.

This is certainly a readable book which captures the liveliness, deathliness and the mood music of the age. Its strength is that it is an easy and absorbing read. That is all it claims to be and for that it ought to be applauded. Nevertheless, its weaknesses emerge from that very narrative rather than academic style, for it offers no explanations. There are a lot of useful quotes from the numerous interviews and primary evidence but there are
no footnotes. These deficiencies are annoying because some thoroughly documented attempt to analyse the dramatic events of this period would have added greatly to the purpose of the book.


The conclusion on the Seventies finished with a reference to a semi-history lesson from Jim Callaghan’s grandson when in fact a history lesson from Beckett would have been more in order. This is an enjoyable book but requires proper reflection and analysis rather than impassioned colour.