It is the central thesis of Seasons in the Sun that the 1970s were just dreadful Dominic tells us, “…there is no getting away from the fact that this [the period 1974-1979] is generally regarded as the lowest point in British history” (Seasons pxiii). This is of course not a fact, it is a proposition. If I was proposing a low point I would offer the mass unemployment and increasing inequality of the 1980s, or the mass unemployment and threat of fascism of the 1930s, or maybe the First World War and economic slump that followed it. Perhaps even the 1950s for just being so dull. But I would probably not choose the 1970s.
And by whom is it “generally accepted”? Nothing in the footnotes, so what follows in the main text is presumably the basis of this assertion. It starts, tellingly, with the text of a Conservative Party political broadcast from 1983 evoking the strikes of the Winter of Discontent and ends with a Daily Mail plea to vote Conservative from 2010. What is established here is that the creation of a particular view of the 1970s was central, and remains central, to the Conservative’s electoral and political project in the 1979 election and remains so. Dominic is simply repeating that viewpoint. (In the middle of this sandwich sits a quote from Francis Wheen about the 70s bad points, I’d like to look at the context of this quote, but I can’t since it is not referenced in the footnotes.)
But worse is to come. Dominic refers to the findings of the New Economics Foundation that 1976 was the “best year” for Britain since 1950, while most people thought it a dreadful year. “But it must have been a peculiar index of national progress.” (Seasons, pxix). Must have been? Dominic knows it must be wrong because he already knows without any sources beyond a Conservative election film and a Daily Mail editorial that in 1976, and the late 1970s in general, everyone was gripped in such a vice of misery that the 17 year old Morrissey would never be short of material for lyrics.
Dominic goes on to list why the NEF could not be right, why 1976 was dreadful. First, “British families were still mourning the victims of the IRA’s bombing campaign in London.” (Seasons xix) This is odd, since there were no deaths in London as result of bombs in London in 1976. There was only one IRA London bomb in 1976, a particularly unpleasant one at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, but no fatalities. In 1975 two people were killed in a London bombing, in the foyer of the London Hilton, and even here one of the dead was Dutch (The Times, 9/9/1975). There were no deaths in bombings outside of London in either 1975 or 1976. Maybe Dominic is thinking of the IRA shooting of Ross McWhirter in November 1975. Whether this was enough to change the mood of the country is highly debatable.
Secondly, “Westminster was digesting the news of government’s decision to bail out the ailing Chrysler car giant” (Season pxix). I am not sure how much the collective national spirit dipped at this news. More to the point, it is likely that this raised the spirits of the 25,000 UK employees of Chrysler UK whose jobs were put on put on a more secure footing by the government taking a share of the company’s £72.5m loses. (James Flink, The Automotive Age (Boston Mass: MIT press, 1988), p296).
Thirdly, 1976 saw rioting at the Notting Hill Carnival. What this showed about the relationship between young Afro-Caribbeans in London and the police is an interesting point, as is the amount of unease among the public. On these grounds, this may be a valid point in the “not so happy” balance.
Four. The Jeremy Thorpe scandal. I am not sure what affect Thorpe, his brown Derby and the shooting of his gay lover’s dog had on the British public. I would guess a salacious pleasure. It might have made a few liberals miserable, but they are not statistically significant. The more interesting point, not made here, is that it gave the Liberals an interest in keeping Labour in power just at the time they lost their parliamentary majority, contributing to the Lib-Lab pact that helped keep Labour in power until 1979.
Five, “the petty sleaze of Harold Wilson’s ‘lavender list’ (Seasons¸ pxx). Oh, how I can remember coming down to breakfast on the fateful day in May 1976 and seeing my mother’s face like thunder, I asked what was wrong. “Kagan has been made a Lord in Wilson’s resignation honours, I am sure he will be convicted of fraud within four years. I see that cow Falkenders’s hand in this”. Her mood did not lighten until the end of the 1970s.
Six, there were a serious of “sectarian atrocities in Northern Ireland” (Seasons, pxx) The peak year for deaths, the truly awful year, in Nothern Ireland was 1972 at over 400, but deaths fell back to less than 300 for the next three years. Bad for people in Northern Ireland, but again, not really the cause of a slough of despond across the country as whole.
Of course, then Dominic serves up the main course, the IMF crisis. This led to a real fall in living standards. (Seasons, pxx). Although as far as 1976 was concerned, this fall was only starting to happen, it is a point that needs serious consideration. The nature of this crisis and the political reaction to them is something that this blog will be returning to.
But on the whole, this evidence all looks like a collection of the random, the slightly odd and the downright wrong.
The publication that Dominic has forgotten to reference, understand or criticise before magisterially dismissing is Chasing Progress (available at http://www.neweconomics.org/sites/neweconomics.org/files/Chasing_Progress.pdf). In fact, he misunderstands what is claimed here. The measure of “national economic, social and environmental well-being” (Seasons pxix) to which Dominic refers is not a measure of happiness or dreadfulness, but the NEF’s use of a Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP). It is a measure that many economists and statisticians have worked on, and attempt the progress towards some kind of good society. It is characterised by factors such as lower crime, sustainable development and social greater equality. I don’t think the NEF or anyone else would claim that creating such an indicator is an easy or certain process. But the point is however it is formulated, it does tend to show that while in recent years the measure of national income, GDP, has gone up, MDP has gone down. The NEF document does show that MDP peaked in the mid-70s, and then fell back as GDP fell back. What is notable that that as the economy started to grow again, the MDP did not.
Dominic is confusing this MDP with the SWB (the measure of subjective well-being, more or less asking people how happy they feel). This would be “most people” thinking 1976 a “dreadful year”. The point is that this is relatively flat over the years since 1970, hardly moving up or down at all. People seem to muddle on through, paying scant regard to the travails of the world. Much as Dominic does.