Thursday, 10 July 2014

When the Lights Went Out

When the Lights Went Out - Andy Beckett

I have read and reviewed almost no non-fiction over the lifetime of this blog. However, I continue to buy non-fiction in my all too frequent forays into charity shops, and even the odd one online, like this. I bought it at a time when I was researching a possible documentary project (long since dropped) and I finally got around to reading it as a result of taking up a challenge to present a paper at a conference on The Clash held in Belfast last month.

I really enjoyed it and hope that it kickstarts more non-fiction reading over the next few years. This book, subtitled "What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies" filled in a lot of detail missing in the faint impression of current affairs in Britain at the outer fringes of my memory - I turned three in 1970 and grew up in Ireland, exposed to British news and television channels but not quite immersed in it.

I have picked up information on the period in a scattershot way over the years but often in an incidental manner. I've read a lot more about music in Britain in the Seventies than about any other aspect of life. I read this, too, through the filter of music, primed to focus on the aspects which seemed somehow relevant to the punk explosion in London in '75/'76/'77.

At just over 500 pages the book is long enough without being a doorstopper, and it never felt like an effort to pick it up. I find the era interesting and was interested both in the trivia and the overarching narrative of the book, which can't help being, "How did Britain fall into the hands of Thatcher?".

The journey takes in character studies of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan, the three Prime ministers who preceded the "milk snatcher". (Thatcher's nickname after she stopped the scheme which gave free milk to schoolchildren.) All three started as classic Keynesians, believing that state intervention was necessary to lift economies out of recessions and also believing in full employment and that consensus was the best way forward for society. Unions were powerful and under Wilson and Callaghan they sat at the table with government negotiating policy as part of the "social contract". Under Heath the Mineworkers Union faced down the government and won. Little did anyone realise what seeds were then being sown.

The sense of Britain as a country in decline ("No future in England's Dreaming" as Johnny sang) was not new. Indeed Beckett traces it back to 1835 when "British economic reformer Richard Cobden" saw a need for change to meet the challenge posed by "the improved management of the Americans." But post WW2 the idea "changed from a matter for intermittent public debate into a major and growing preoccupation of political life." "The decline was seen as having diverse symptoms - not just military and territorial but moral, cultural, spiritual and physical." The centuries old Empire disintegrated and it seemed that the same was true of the great British cities, many still showing the scars of WW2 as they entered the seventies.

The Industrial Revolution had been fired by British coal but Britain was now increasingly dependant on oil and when the OPEC countries triggered the 'Oil Crisis" the economy suddenly seemed a lot less secure than it had. When this coincided with a miners strike the country came close to descending into anarchy with power rationing and a centrally imposed three day week to conserve coal stocks at the power stations. But there were signs that the power of the unions was being joined by arrogance and greed, and one union official's statement that 'more' was his favourite word seems somewhat Thatcherite. The prospect of huge oil revenues from North Sea Oil seemed like it was going to solve all the economic problems when it came on stream, and may have led to a feeling that difficult solutions could be left for the oil to solve in the future.

Other forms of consensus were also under attack as people stood up for their identities. Feminism and Gay Pride were challenging the status quo and some of the most fascinating byroads that I ended up exploring both in the book and on Google were the activities of the Gay Liberation Front and early feminist movement. It was surprising that Beckett didn't include anything on The Angry Brigade, who, despite sounding like a Monty Python sketch, planted two bombs in a ministers kitchen amoung other terrorist acts. I was unaware of them, although their European counterparts The Red Brigade and The Baader Meinhof Gang/Red Army Faction retain a strong place in cultural memory. And one of the people tried (but acquitted) for involvement in their bombing campaign went on to receive an OBE and a CBE and become an advisor to the Blair government on equality issues.

Heath's government had big plans to modernise the economy and in doing so to modernise Briton's  sense of themselves. One of their biggest was a plan to future proof airport capacity in London by building a huge new airport on reclaimed land at the Maplin Sands and building a modern high speed rail link to London. It was also felt that an ultra modern 'jet city' would develop around the airport. The image of the planned train line could have sprung from a sci-fi magazine. Stuffy? Grey? Not us.

There is an appearance from the young Arthur Scargill, whose ability to mobilise flying pickets and to make a name for himself has a frisson borrowed from the future that we know is coming. Beckett gives a lot of background on some of the leading union figures and the culture that surrounds them. He shows that they, too, were a battleground for equality, with many of the unions having a powerfully sexist culture and, shall we say, not being too 'gay freindly'. And they weren't too hot on race either. The strike by mostly lowly paid Asian women in the Grunwick photo processing plants in London between 1976 and 1978 was one of the first times that union power was exercised in the support of such workers.  The progressive acceptance of feminism, multiculturalism and homosexuality seem to be the greatest legacy of the seventies.

But all was not progressive. There were significant numbers involved in right wing movements and the British National Party had some surges in popularity.  But there was always resistance to these, and music, particularly punk, became a battleground between xenophobia and multiculturalism, a battle which seems to have largely gone to the multiculturalists.  Two Tone stands as a kind of monument to this victory. But Beckett spends little enough time with these cultural off shoots, although he acknowledges them, although he does make an acerbic comment about how often he is told that the punk movement of 1975-1977 was a reaction to the "Winter of Discontent" in 1978.

What I found most interesting was his picture of the behind the scenes manoeuvring, and economic pressures, which changed government policy from Keynesian economics towards Milton Friedman's monetarism. He shows how 'think thanks' became important vessels for right wing ideology and how influential they were, not alone on Thatcher but also on Denis Healy. There was an overwhelming sense that something had to change for, after all "Between 1947 and 1971, Britain borrowed more from the IMF" "than any other country." However, one of the things Beckett highlights is how the changes that have happened can seem inevitable looking back but were not quite so when one looks closer. For example he points out that had the treasury projections in 1978 not been so far out (on the negative side) there may have been significantly less pressure on sterling and less of a need for Denis Healy, as chancellor, to have gone to the IMF in a very weakened position.

He also points out that much of the divisiveness of the eighties was driven by Thatcher, who was seen as extreme by many of her own party and who barely scraped in. Had she lost that election she would probably have been ousted as leader of the Conservatives and the eighties may have looked a lot different.

Skipping randomly over the ground covered by this book hardly does it justice. It is well written, fascinating and mostly convincing in its overview and assessment of the decade. It is also full of amusing anecdotes and quotes. I will end with one from Philip Larkin, from a letter of his to Kingsley Amis about the Winter of Discontent. It sums up the cranky reactionary mindset of Larkin perfectly.
"Yes, it's all very interesting, isn't it. Up to a century ago, if you wanted more money you just worked harder or longer or more cleverly; now you stop work altogether. This is much nicer, and anyone can do it. In fact, the lower class bastards can no more stop going on strike now than a laboratory rat ... can stop jumping on a switch to give itself an orgasm ..."

You will probably not have an orgasm but you will have plenty of chuckles and "ahh!" moments if you have an interest in the time and the place. I can imagine myself pulling this from the shelves to check on something every now and again. A good read.


  1. Seamus, the Seventies seem to back in fashion and this looks very interesting. Coincidentally, last week, I ordered "Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia" by Francis Wheen which covers the period. I'm a big fan of Wheen.
    On a tangential note, I was away in Brighton last week - which is full of record and book shops- and picked up the Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe - his sequel to the Rotters' Club. The Rotter's Club is set in Birmingham in the Seventies. I was delighted with the purchase as I loved the Rotter's Club. However, when I got home and soon after starting to read,it became more and more familiar. Hold on, I thought, have I read this already? I nipped out to the garage and sure enough there was a copy of the Closed Circle under a different cover. I'm not sure if I should be worried about this. It happened before with a George Pelecanos crime novel. It would probably be more worrying if I didn't remember it at all., but then, I'd be blissfully unaware of my amnesia.
    PS Will you be posting on the Clash event?

  2. I have done the same thing on more than one occasion Brendan. And not just recently, so I can't blame age. I have a few Coes on my shelf, including the much recommended What a Carve Up and The Rotter's Club. Must actually read one soon.
    I will probably post my presentation fromThe Clash event, once I've turned it from notes into something comprehensible. It covers a lot of the same ground as When the Lights Go Out. Unfortunately I had to make my way to a family event on the Saturday and missed the second day. It was an enjoyable day, however, especially once my presentation was over and I could relax.
    Before leaving Belfast I had some very successful book shopping in a pretty wonderful Oxfam bookshop, near the Botanic train station Well worth a visit if you're in Belfast.