Were the 70s Really That Great?

Nostalgia kills.

by Juliet Jacques

2 August 2022

Individuals processing down the street, one carrying a Black Panther flag, flanked by police officers
Black power activists protest police brutality in Notting Hill, west London, August 1970. The National Archives UK/Flickr Commons

Whenever there is a strike – especially during that four-year period when the Labour party was led by people who actually supported labour – rightwing figures will rush to the airwaves to insist: “Nobody wants a return to the 70s.”

To them, the 1970s were a nightmare: organised labour wielded too much power, uppity minorities were demanding too many rights, prime-time television was full of dreary dramas about the working classes or documentaries about racism, the Thames full of punk bands yelling about republicanism. All had to be crushed, and following the neoliberal revolution that took place after Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, they were.

Now we live in a country with the most restrictive trade union legislation in western Europe, a soon-to-be-privatised “alternative” broadcaster (Channel 4) that makes documentaries attacking people on benefits and a pop culture dominated by privately-educated people who wouldn’t know how to bring social critique into their work even if they wanted to.

For the left, this Tory nightmare might sound like a reasonable starting point for a better society. But we beware nostalgia. Yes, people were pushing for better wages, working conditions, gender and racial equality. But many facets of Thatcherism, such as high unemployment, council house sales and rampant deindustrialisation were already in place. Society was more violent, car accidents killed far more people and industrial accidents, fires and transport disasters were far more frequent. Chart-toppers were just as anodyne and apolitical as they are now, and television was full of racist sitcoms and bad light entertainment programmes hosted by serial abusers. Just as there is leftwing nostalgia for high unionisation rates and regicidal punk bands, so too is there rightwing nostalgia for this side of the 1970s, an era when it was acceptable to use homophobic slurs on TV, before news presenters with regional accents, before #MeToo, political correctness, corporate social responsibility and health and safety turned men soft. While the left associates the end of the 70s with economic revolution, the right sees it as having heralded a cultural revolution. In both cases, the changes were cemented by New Labour.

Any revolution – or counter-revolution – will weaponise the memory of the period immediately preceding it to emphasise its legitimacy. (For a parallel of the Tories’ invocation of the British 70s, see the reaction against the Soviet period and attendant removal of monuments and banning of socialist or Communist parties in Poland or Ukraine, as their market reforms brought spiralling inequality and a resurgent far right.) Over time, this tactic becomes less effective: you would have to be of retirement age now to have been an adult during the three-day week, the Bloody Sunday massacre or the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community, and these were the people who overwhelmingly voted Conservative at the last election. The older middle-aged – whom Labour lost between 2017 and 2019 – might be nostalgic for their childhoods. Anyone under 45 will have no recollection of the 1970s at all, and in a period of unaffordable rents and mortgages, insecure employment and an aggressively unintelligent media, may think it sounds better.

Indeed, a desire to reverse Thatcherism, by renationalising key industries, building more council housing and increasing access to the arts lay behind Labour’s manifestos of 2017 and 2019. This only became possible after the membership voted for a leader who had criticised the neoliberal turn, ever since the installation in 1973 of Augusto Pinochet as Chilean president after the CIA-backed overthrow of democratically-elected leader Salvador Allende.

In Chile, the laboratory of neoliberalism, people have expressed a desire to go back to the early 1970s: leftist Gabriel Boric was recently elected on the promise of a new constitution to replace the existing one, written after the Pinochet coup. In the UK, in the wake of Corbyn’s defeat and the recapture of Labour by a Thatcherite wing which forbids solidarity with striking workers, neoliberalism has taken an authoritarian turn, as it can no longer manufacture consent since the 2008 crash and the punitive austerity that followed. Hence the hysterics about the rise of militant unions, new anti-protest laws, a spite-fuelled media ramping up its attacks on young people and minorities, especially those who might be better off than you, and ever more barbaric immigration and border policies. Any movement trying to undo the damage done to public services, the British media, trade unions and workers’ rights has a huge job on its hands, in terms of resistance from the two main parties, the state and corporate interests, all of which worked in concert to smash the Labour left.

It’s notable, though, that the spectre of the 70s still terrifies the Conservatives, even those who didn’t live through them. Opinion polling showed that Labour’s 2019 plans to roll back the privatisations of the 80s and 90s were popular, and it was the more 21st-century policies – free broadband and the Green New Deal – and demands such as John McDonnell’s for “socialism with an iPad” that attracted media ridicule. This week, Keir Starmer – head of a faction stuck firmly in the 90s – announced that the 2019 manifesto would be junked; despite some hesitancy, previous form suggests he will soon ditch promised nationalisation pledges altogether.

But Labour was led by the right in the 70s, albeit in a political order still shaped by the postwar reforms of the Attlee administration. What the 70s can teach us is the value of bringing pressure to bear on either party, whether it was the miners effectively bringing down Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1974 or Transport & General Workers’ Union general secretary Jack Jones being seen as the most powerful person in the UK in 1977, ahead of Labour prime minister James Callaghan. The recent wave of RMT activity, UCU strikes and proposed ballots elsewhere suggests a turn back towards institutions that will give workers power, and whose leaders will be far bolder than the Labour party in confronting the collapse of the neoliberal consensus.

Equally important is resisting the immunisation of the British media from public accountability, by building the left’s cultural power. When the Tories say nobody wants to go back to the 70s, they are also trying to dissuade people from revisiting a time when programmes about working-class people drew audiences of millions. The BBC’s Play for Today drama series put films about the civil war in Northern Ireland, factional disputes within the Labour party, the experiences of the Windrush generation or of trans women in prime-time slots; ITV ran playwright Trevor Griffiths’ 11-part series Bill Brand (1976), about the struggles of a leftwing Labour MP, on at 9pm so that working people could see it, helping it to reach an audience of 11 million (The show was discontinued in 1984, having long been criticised by rightwing commentators. There was talk of reviving it in 2006, ex-journalist and comedian Michael Gove MP, later to be education secretary, derided the dramas as “exercises in viewer patronisation”; the proposal came to nothing.) Watching it back, Play for Today seems precisely the opposite, treating its viewers as intelligent, their lives worthy of dramatisation; they certainly strike a different note to The Crown or Downton Abbey.

Doubtless, a modern-day equivalent of any of these shows would not achieve anything like the same massive audiences in a streaming age. But the prominence and popularity in the 1970s of ideas-driven, formally inventive culture in the mainstream was not simply the consequence of there being nothing better to watch on the telly. Instead, it was the result of decades of work by the cultural democracy movement, in universities, trade unions, political parties and elsewhere. This provides another useful lesson (more useful, at least, than those offered by the I Love the ’70s-type shows that focus on Space Hoppers and Super Noodles).

Having smashed the workers’ movement in the 80s, leading to a New Labour prime minister who boasted that he would “leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world”, and a Tory government that tore public service broadcasting to shreds throughout the 2010s, the right has set its sights on reversing the social gains that came out of the 70s. At present, this is more obvious in the US than here, with the reversal of Roe v Wade leading many states to reinstate bans on abortion and plan attacks on equal marriage and trans healthcare. In the UK, refugees and migrants, Muslims and trans people are most under fire, as the right looks to divide minority groups to cement its rule. The civil rights movements of the 70s staged fierce debates about how intersectional to be, and sometimes kept their distance from organised labour or leftwing parties – one way we can build on that legacy is to stress the importance of cooperation, with anti-racist, LGBTQ+ and feminist groups linking up with trade unions and other centres of workers’ power. That way, we can build the institutions we didn’t have in the Corbyn period, giving us a better chance of success if we have another opportunity to win power, and in the meantime put pressure on the Conservatives. It’s a massive task, but we shouldn’t forget that 10 million people voted for the 2019 manifesto, and the difficulty that our media has had in discrediting Mick Lynch and the RMT should be a source of hope that, in the end, we might just be able to build on some of the promises of the 70s.

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic.

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