The long shadow of the 1970s

The 1970s marked a turning point in left fortunes worldwide and the origins of today’s neoliberal ascendancy. A Red Pepper roundtable with Hilary Wainwright, Andy Beckett, John Medhurst and Suresh Grover looks back

November 5, 2014 · 15 min read

Hilary Wainwright  At the beginning of the decade there was an emerging dynamic of change and liberation, originating in the events of 1968. But partly through the compromises and repressions of the ’74–79 Labour government, Thatcher came with an alternative, somehow was able to trump any emerging alternative on the left. So by then the 70s were becoming an era of doom and foreboding. I’m curious about the 70s as a moment, or a decade of struggle between these contesting projects of a radical left and free market right. So I find it easier to talk about a decade of conflict between different possibilities, rather than about the 70s per se.

Andy Beckett  It was a period when left and right had competing rescue plans. Each argued ‘if only the country would do X everything would be okay’. Those came from all directions, and that’s partly why the politics of the 70s is very interesting and also why it’s turbulent: there are many radical projects all fighting for space.

John Medhurst  There was an upsurge of optimism, of challenging all the icons and the totems of power of the establishment. The early 1970s saw things like the squatters’ movement, the industrial militancy of the time – which involved workers’ occupations, like the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and general experiments in workers’ co-ops and the Institute for Workers Control.

There was a broad corporatist mentality, which could either be very bureaucratic, driven from the top, or it could be around Benn and the left’s ideas about workers’ control, around the National Enterprise Board and planning agreements. The irony here is that, take away the right’s fears of Marxist governments and what you’ve really got in Labour’s industrial plans, which were hardly implemented in any case, is the form of corporatism that was already practised in Japan or in Germany with some economic success. There was a great amount of political panic that was brought about not just by industrial militancy in this country but what was going on elsewhere.

You had the Portuguese revolution and they wouldn’t have known how that was about to pan out. And of course there was the Chilean situation, which they had convinced themselves was a Marxist revolution, that was overthrown with American help and very enthusiastically supported by Tories like Thatcher and great parts of the right-wing media. The Times notoriously wrote an editorial straight after the Chilean coup saying that responsible military men had no choice but to intervene. Right up to Thatcher’s dying day she stood by Pinochet. The Tory right were neck-deep in that kind of politics.

Andy  I think the point about the panic is right, because even some people on the centre-left would say things in the 1970s like ‘if trade union membership gets above 60 or 70 per cent we’ll have a sort of dictatorship’, despite the fact half the rich countries in the world had trade union membership at that level.

Hilary  But there was also a reality to their fears. The combination of Scargill and the success of the 1974 miners’ strike, followed by Benn at the Department of Industry actually encouraging workers, did strike fear – there was a fear not only in the far right think-tanks but at the centre of the establishment. There was this real sense of a decisive moment.

Suresh Grover  There was also a disconnection between the working class leaders and an alternative culture that was being built up at the base of society – both political and cultural – which didn’t sit well with the trade union leadership. I think the ruling class feared [Transport and General Workers’ Union leader] Jack Jones, but they could also see him accommodating to different pressures from below.

I think what the ruling class feared most of all was a cultural and political expression which didn’t sit comfortably with the traditional working class movements – an alternative, almost akin to the Portuguese revolution, where they didn’t understand where it’s going. It’s not led by the Communist Party, which is a familiar entity for the ruling class. It’s much more radical.

You had the same momentum in this country. You didn’t have a revolution, but you had this notion that anything was possible – a different world was possible – so people demanded much more, in terms of race, gender and class. I think that is what really created the dynamism and pushed different momentums in the working class movement in an organised way.

Hilary  The 70s were much more associated with class and with economic power. In the women’s liberation movement, you had the emergence of socialist feminism and very close links with, say, the night cleaners or the Ford strikers for equal pay.

This relates in a way to Benn’s notion of the ‘social contract’, which involved a kind of steady transfer of power – for example, planning agreements involved delegating power to workers. Perhaps the significance of the 70s is the ruling class is not going to go back to Keynesianism because it creates the conditions for exactly this kind of political militancy. The whole idea of a full employment economy just reminds them of the strength of labour, which was, after all, the dominant feature of the 70s.

John  For me, in some ways the major failure – or tragedy – of that brief period was the disconnect, the lack of seemingly clear common purpose and understanding between people like Benn and Jones. Not as individuals – clearly I’m not saying that history hinged on what those two individuals did – but the forces they represented, if you like: the industrial left and the parliamentary left.

Had there been a more concerted alliance, more of an understanding, I think we might have made more progress and been in a strong position in 1976 [when the Labour government imposed major spending cuts as a condition of a loan from the IMF] with the IMF and the City and the neoliberal forces that they represent. These attacks effectively cut off the legs of the Labour government. You could argue they effectively turned history. Certainly it turned a corner at that point. The great monetarist experiment, you could argue, began in 1976 with the IMF, not in 1979 when Thatcher was elected. But, for me, that goes to the lack of a working understanding and alliance between the industrial trade union labour movement left and the political parliamentary left. It should have been there, and in many ways theoretically it was there – in terms of Labour policy – but it just didn’t happen in reality.

Hilary  It wasn’t just about the sort of deals being done but the lack of impetus towards developing a really bold imaginative alternative, not doing a better deal with capitalism. So the question is how far did the many elements of multiple movements and dimensions, social, cultural, internationalist and feminist, add up to the components for a fundamentally different social vision?

A counter-culture – working class confidence and new alliances

Andy  There was a thing going on where a lot of the most important people in the country at one stage were working class, Jack Jones being a classic example, and I think a lot of the people in the country who weren’t working class found that very unsettling. There was a kind of proletarianisation of British culture, which felt for the middle classes like the world had been turned upside down. The rich took quite a bit of a hit during the mid-70s recession. So a lot of the things happening culturally, like football and pop music, were seen through this right-wing prism that the proles have taken charge, and quite a lot of people were very uneasy, and right to be in a sense, as their class was losing ground and the working class had a bit more power.

There’s often a sort of boisterousness and that scene is read by a lot of people as a working class boisterousness – panic about football hooliganism and punk and things like that. Those movements did create disorder and fear. People could sit and read their Daily Mail and just think ‘the world we know is collapsing, the proles are in charge’.

John  There was a feeling – based in a certain reality – that the working class had got its foot in the door and had wandered into various clubs and places where it really shouldn’t be without removing its cap first. You saw examples in popular culture, TV, theatre, etc, a wave of more radical popular culture. Play for Today opened up to writers like Jim Allen, Trevor Griffiths, directors like Ken Loach. There was a lot of radical theatre at the time – not just regional theatre, but West End theatre. This wasn’t just running around going on demos and strikes. It was working class values and culture seeping into the high temples of middle class culture.

Some people would have found that exciting perhaps and it would have radicalised people. But some would have found it very frightening, something they didn’t like to see at all. I think you see that in the culture in the 70s and the lack of it later in the 80s when it was being reined in, restricted.

Suresh  I think the alternative forces – which weren’t just the squatters and the culture movement, but the alternative struggles in black communities, in the women’s movement – were also very dynamic and crucial.

If you look at the immigration debates in Britain, they don’t start in earnest until after Enoch Powell’s speech in 1968 and the reaction to it, with violent racism and organised forms of what wasn’t termed institutional racism but state racism. You had massive campaigns and demonstrations. The minimum we had on immigration demonstrations was 10,000 people. We had 30 buses from temples – that was regular – and that was transferred to the Anti-Nazi League in 1977–78 onwards [see page 30].

Andy  Just the sheer size and persistence of the counter culture in the ’70s I think is really important. That sense that yes, the sexy phase might have ended, but huge numbers of people were squatting and going to free festivals, right to the end of the ’70s. There was a whole world there.

Suresh  It was influenced by global radical movements, coming from South Africa, Chile, then the squatters. So there was not just culture, it was also very political, but alternative . . .

Andy  Exactly, and people were genuinely, thoroughly, living in an alternative way. They might not be radical ideologically, but, actually just how they were using space or dealing with each other was an enormous thing.

People in these different sections of political life were making connections. So maybe you were involved in the women’s movement, but then after a couple of years of thinking it was all about gender you started thinking about the night cleaners. So that was also, from our point of view, quite exciting, or from theirs quite alarming. People were thinking about miners going to Grunwick. They were beginning to see their struggles as inter‑linked, which now, to us, would be normal but that was a new thing, wasn’t it?

Suresh  It was totally new, it was the first time it happened. The Imperial Typewriters strike in Leicester, in 1973–74, is where it got going, but Grunwick [see page 26] was where it took off, in terms of solidarity and linking up.

Hilary  There was quite a radicalisation and transformation of the unions, having white Yorkshire men supporting Asian women . . .

Andy  I think one of the reasons Grunwick was seen as such a big deal by people on the right – they made a whole argument about violence and everything, but there wasn’t really much violence – was the coalition, from QCs on their way to work to miners and all parts in between. That was the threat.

There were things going on in the counter culture – the women’s movement, the environmental movement etc – that have yielded massive benefits today, and have been really influential at various points since with rave culture or anti-roads protests or whatever. There are definitely strands that go back.

Suresh  I was only young in the 70s but the idea that there is another world that we can build – an alternative – was absolutely critical. We were conscious that capitalist societies depended on three fundamental divisions – of class, of patriarchy and of racism. We saw that at the time. We also learnt that if you have to unite, you must safeguard your autonomy, build that unity through autonomous struggles. You can’t be subservient to other people’s struggles but you can build unity.

This became necessary for us to survive. We were always conscious that if you are dealing with questions of racism you don’t just show racism as a unique problem, you have to show how these are parallel struggles. Then there was the idea about living the example, from the feminist movement slogan ‘the personal is political’. You have to be very self-critical and selfless.

Changing face of capitalism – the emergence of Thatcher

Hilary  I think the left didn’t fully grasp the significance of Thatcher’s victory. I really thought that corporatism was so deeply entrenched that Thatcher’s victory wouldn’t last.

Andy  Absolutely. A lot of people with what we might broadly call ‘new politics’ in the 70s will admit that they were involved in their own struggle and maybe thought she would get in but only for one term. They were, strikingly, not that interested.

John  I can remember the widespread feeling among the broad left in the early 80s, when Benn and the Bennites were winning some victories in the Labour Party, that this was all great. At the time, as you say, there wasn’t at all this sense of ‘that’s the 70s over, the 80s have begun’, because you were living in it and not looking back at it. There was a feeling that, okay, maybe Labour deserved to lose the 1979 election after the way they managed to balls up their relations with the unions, the ‘winter of discontent’, backing off on so many radical things they had promised, but maybe they had learnt their lessons and the left of the party would reform it fundamentally and maybe a different kind of leadership would get in in ’83.

Thatcher was in her first term, and many of the worse ‘Thatcherisms’ came about in her second and third term, when she took on the miners etc. So at the time there wasn’t immediate despair because you didn’t know you were at the beginning of the Thatcherite, New Labour and neoliberal era.

Hilary  We weren’t fully aware of how capitalism itself was changing, with the development towards a new deregulated, financialised model, and how this lay behind the crisis under Harold Wilson and the turn to the IMF. The end result in terms of popular politics was a growing sense of constraint on what was possible. The idea of developing an alternative to the overall economic strategy was perhaps more important than we really recognised. People were beginning to accept these constraints and that while they were against the cuts, they actually felt it wasn’t just a question of our government but the state of global capitalism. So a disempowering was taking place, not just due to the government from 1976–79, but the increasing grip of finance behind our backs.

Andy  Now people look back and say ‘Couldn’t you see capitalism drifting to the right in the 70s?’ But at the time perhaps the left really couldn’t see that. You could always point to something that seemed like a victory – the revolution in Portugal, the advance and eventual election [in 1981] of François Mitterrand in France – and you didn’t see the change in corporate culture, the arguments about shareholder value, companies becoming much readier to fire people, the fact that the people we were up against were a bit different from the capitalists of the 50s or 60s. They were radicalising too in their own way. There’s so much fragmentation of all kinds that to get the big picture, which is always hard, was then particularly difficult.

John  It is always hard to get the big picture. The old fashioned social democrats, like Wilson, Jenkins and Healey, either didn’t understand what was going on globally or didn’t think it was a problem anyway because it didn’t necessarily conflict with their own politics, which were not to interfere too far with the market. They either didn’t understand or, like Tony Blair, they didn’t really care.

Hilary  You also had the opening up of things like consumer credit and the big expansion of individual consumerism generating a consciousness which undermined the Bennite values of solidarity and collective support, on which the Alternative Economic Strategy was built. So what is now a constraint – as people are up to their eyeballs in debt – was at that time opening up a different form of rampant capitalism. Looking back you sort of think, ‘Oh fuck, that’s when it began!’

Hilary Wainwright is co-editor of Red Pepper. John Medhurst is author of That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974–76 (Zero Books). Andy Beckett is author of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies (Faber & Faber). Suresh Grover is a longstanding anti-racist activist and campaigner, including on the Blair Peach and Stephen Lawrence campaigns

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