Friday, 22 May 2015

So what happened at the general election:
The 1973 moment (3)

I sometimes think 1973 was, before 1989, the most significant year in late twentieth-century history, in British history at least. That was the year the sixties truly ended. After 1973 we were in a new world of global influences and domestic upheaval. The six years between 1973 and 1979 were, in metaphorical terms, the months of pregnancy that would give birth to Thatcherism. They represented the crisis point of one ideology and its replacement by another. It was the beginning of the end, not only the sixties but of 1945 as well.

It was in 1973 the roof fell in. The year started well enough when on the 1 January Britain joined the EEC and Nixon suspended offensive action in Vietnam but Watergate broke a few months later, there was a second wave of the Cod War,  the Black September attack on Athens airport, and in October came the Yom Kippur War that was less decisive than the Six-Day War of 1967 had been. It was a result of that war that OPEC (the organisation of oil producing countries) embargoed countries supporting Israel and the great energy crisis began. By December OPEC had doubled the price of crude oil. By next year the price had quadrupled. There was a big stock market crash in any case and this exacerbated it.

The British prime minister was the Tory, Edward Heath, who had introduced decimal coinage in 1970, and reduced the number of local authorities, an act nicknamed the HeathCo reforms. He was an enthusiastic European from a non-public school background (Alf Garnett, the comic right-wing bigot figure in the BBC sitcom, Till Death Us Do Part, referred to him as 'a grammar school twit'). It was his administration that was to break in the 1974 general election, opening the way, some five years later - momentously, since we are still living the consequences - to Thatcherism.

1970 was an unlucky year to come to power anyway and everything worked to make things progressively worse. The rock Heath was to break on (in 1974) was the Trade Unions Council, in particular the National Union of Miners. There had been a rising tide of militancy in the unions since the mid-sixties for various reasons. There is a useful sketch of developments in the Cabinet Papers at The National Archives.

If the 1950s and early 1960s led to the unravelling of consensus Butskellism, the late sixties and seventies was a period of ideological polarisation. The strikes were less about the fine details of money, more about power and the attempt to define the time in socialist terms. But the socialist terms were themselves changing, not just in Britain but internationally. Not that I saw events in that way at the time. We were a young family chiefly at the receiving end of the strikes, power cuts, loss of services, shortages and the sense of things falling apart.

Would that be a necessary falling apart so a better world might be built on the ruins? I sometimes think 1973/74 was a potentially revolutionary year,  more revolutionary than 1979 which brought in a revolution of quite a different kind. That is why I hesitate at this point.

It was in 1970 that Clarissa and I got married. In 1972 I graduated (with a First!) from Leeds and over 1972 and 1973 I trained as a teacher at Goldsmiths. On the last day of 1973 our son, Tom, was born into the headwind of what was to follow. Just over two years later years later our daughter  Helen was born. I undertook the traditional bread-winner role and went into school teaching of various kinds for the next seventeen years (at least eleven as full-time, heading art departments, the rest half time) while continuing to write, in hope.

It was in 1973 the Times Literary Supplement published my first poem. Six years later, in 1979 my first book, The Slant Door, appeared. The years 1973 and 1979 bracket both my private life and, coincidentally, the life of the country.

Here's a brilliantly intelligent,  highly ambitious episode of Till Death Us Do Part where working class Tory, Alf, and Labour-supporting son-in-law, Mike (played by Cherie Blair's father, Tony Booth) discuss the industrial conflicts of the time over a game of Monopoly. Una Stubbs utters an early feminist protest. And there's the full blown racism of the seventies. Script by firmly left wing Johnny Speight. I find it hard to imagine a sitcom script as open or as far-seeing as this today. (OK, you can tell me how wrong I am in the comments part.)


Tim Love said...

Cherie Blair's brother Tony Booth - father?

George S said...

Thank you, Tim. Careless of me. Now corrected.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

Political Correctness (which I dislike) would never allow anything like Till Death Us Do Part to grace our screens these days. The first election I personally participated in was the pivotal one of 1979 when I voted Labour. My father was professor of politics at Reading University so I grew up in a political family.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish