‘This once-great nation of ours is teetering on the brink of an abyss,’ reflected Ronnie Barker’s character, Fletcher, in a 1975 episode of Porridge. And for many he seemed to sum up the decade.
Inflation reaching a peak of 27 per cent. Unemployment going over a million for the first time since 1940. Nearly 30 million workdays lost to industrial action in 1979. Five states of emergency declared in four years. Power cuts, food shortages, public spaces used as refuse dumps. Britain in the 1970s seemed at times ungovernable.
Three successive governments were removed from office after conflicts with the unions. Parliamentary democracy was looking fragile. No wonder there was talk of Weimar Germany, of private armies being formed, of military coups. As the Wall Street Journal wrote in 1975: ‘Goodbye, Great Britain. It was nice knowing you.’
It couldn’t carry on like this – only a sharp left- or right-hand turn would suffice. The former was more probable; the latter was what happened.
There was another side to the story, though. Economic inequality was at an all-time low. It was still possible for a family to live on a single wage. Housing was cheap and plentiful. The strikes may have been inconvenient but they did secure better wages and conditions for millions of workers – by the end of the decade, half the workforce were union members.
Nor was the economic situation quite as bad as it was painted. Britain did apply to the International Monetary Fund for an overdraft facility – the largest that had ever been given – as though it were a Third World country that needed propping up. But it turned out that no loan was necessary; if the Treasury figures and forecasts had been more accurate, the crisis would not have arisen.
That was not what anyone saw at the time or remembered afterwards. It was as though the nation could only come to terms with the loss of empire and status by talking itself into a panic; if Britain was no longer the world’s most important country, at least it could have the distinction of being the most dysfunctional. Or perhaps it just wanted to evoke the spirit of the Blitz, defiant forbearance in the face of adversity.
And there was plenty of that spirit abroad. Above all, there was such a thing as society. At least when the lights went out, everyone was affected.