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The 1970s, mainly viewed from the top
DAVE GORTON reviews When The Lights Went Out; Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett.
THE NINETEEN seventies was a tumultuous decade, politically and culturally. There was the humiliation of the world's greatest super power in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal; revolutions in Portugal, Ethiopia, Iran; military dictatorships in Chile, Greece, Brazil and Argentina.
Closer to home, there was industrial strife in Britain with millions on strike towards the end of the decade; hundreds of thousands on the streets marching against racism and police brutality; bombing campaigns in Britain's cities; the explosions onto the musical scene, firstly of reggae music internationally then punk music, both politically motivated and the music of the youth.
They were also my formative years; in primary school at the start of the decade, having left home by the end. With a wealth of memories, good and bad, I was looking forward to reading Andy Beckett's book. Sadly, 500 pages later, I felt let down.
For this is not really a book about a decade in 'political' history. It is more the story of the four prime ministers (Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher) who were in power during the 1970s. And the trouble with basing a book 'at the top' is that the real feelings and day-to-day existence of ordinary people become secondary or even missed altogether.
Andy Beckett is a good writer; what he covers he mostly does well, especially for someone who, born in 1969, had to rely on research and interviews rather than personal memory. When The Lights Went Out is not boring but it not only pays too little attention to non-parliamentary issues, it fails to penetrate the psyche of working class people in Britain in the 1970s.
So we get interesting chapters on the fledgling green movement including some startling links with the ultra-right, the free festivals at the beginning of the decade and what you suspect is an obligatory chapter disparagingly entitled Marxism at Lunchtime in which the reader can giggle with the writer about the antics of a few middle class student radicals in universities.
But there is precious little on the anti-racist movement, nothing on the various community campaigns for decent, affordable housing instead of the slums that were still prevalent in many urban areas at the beginning of the decade, nothing about the prevalence of weekly outbreaks of mass violence at football matches - a sure sign that all was not hunky dory in Britain.
Having had the dig at the 'student left', one would have hoped for a more sober analysis of the growth of the ideas of socialism during the decade. But a quick flick through the index reveals no reference to Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) despite the capitalist press of the period spending thousands of words (and no shortage of banner headlines) condemning us.
And the changes in Britain's musical scene in the 1970s are largely ignored, yet these were of major importance in both reflecting and expressing the political views of youth in particular. For most of us who were teenagers in the second part of the decade, the energy, lyrics and message of bands like The Clash, Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and Stiff Little Fingers signalled a crossover between our daily lives and 'culture'. Songs about the streets rather than wizards and hobgoblins!
How much better this book could have been if, as well as interviewing ex-prime ministers and leading trade unionists from the era, Beckett had spent a bit more time with 'ordinary folk'.
However, there are some very readable chapters in the book, particularly around two major industrial struggles (the 1972 miners' strike and Grunwicks) and the situation in Northern Ireland. The chapter simply entitled Close The Gates! is an account of the momentous battles during the 1972 miners' strike where the focus turned to Saltley coke depot in Birmingham and the mass picket that forced its closure.
20,000 trade unionists, mostly from local Birmingham factories, converged on the depot on the morning of 10 February, completely filling all five roads into Saltley. Beckett interviews a police officer on duty with 800 colleagues that day: "'We heard that some pickets were coming over the Saltley viaduct. The plan was to block off the bridge, steer them away. But' - he made a helpless, sweeping gesture across the café - 'I can still see it now, them coming over the hill...'"
When The Lights Went Out, six years in the writing, is to me a missed opportunity. It could have been the definitive biography of a turbulent decade. Unfortunately, through its concentration on the higher echelons of British political life, it is a less interesting read than it should be and, ultimately, a frustrating one.
In The Socialist 25 November 2009:
Socialist Party editorial
Marxist analysis: history
Environment and socialism
War and occupation
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news
Socialist Party review