Crisis, what crisis? The 1970s get a bad press

October 1, 2009

There is a stock image of the 1970s as the lowest point in British postwar history. Widespread strikes, rubbish piling up on the streets and a bankrupt Labour Government forced to seek huge loans from the International Monetary Fund are enduring memories.

The decade ended with "the winter of discontent" and the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979, under the slogan "Labour isn't working". Across the political spectrum, there has been widespread agreement that "we can't go back to the Seventies".

But what if this familiar narrative of crisis and decline is simplistic or exaggerated? The issue was tackled by historians at a public debate at the British Academy last week, "Reassessing the 1970s".

Lawrence Black, senior lecturer in history at Durham University, acknowledged the sense of crisis at that time, with moral panics about punks, muggers, scroungers and strikers.

But he also argued that both Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher, for obvious political reasons, had gone out of their way to "hardwire a negative image of the era into the national consciousness".

Hugh Pemberton, senior lecturer in modern British history at the University of Bristol, agreed that the image of the benighted decade suited both politicians.

"The 1970s have come to be understood through the prism of later events," he said. In reality, strikes were far from being just a "British disease", and many of the economic and political problems of the time were global in nature.

For Jim Tomlinson, professor of history at the University of Dundee, "there was in no useful sense a decline in the economy during the 1970s, beyond a mild recession that was reasonably well handled".

Spiralling inflation generated apocalyptic fears about the end of capitalism, but in retrospect these seem overheated, he claimed.

The narrative of decline, added Lynne Segal, professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck, University of London, "didn't apply to women. The 1970s were the best decade for women before or since - our decade."

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