Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 25 November 2009


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.

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 25 November 2009:

'We wont pay for the crisis'

Socialist Party editorial

How could full youth employment be achieved?

Bristol Youth Fight for Jobs challenges council leader

Marxist analysis: history

Lessons of struggle: If you fight, you can win!

Environment and socialism

Flood chaos in Cumbria

War and occupation

Afghanistan: Brown and Obama scrabbling for an exit strategy

Socialist Party news and analysis

Main parties plan cutbacks: It's time for a fightback!

Mobilising to stop Griffin

Racists - stay out of Wrexham!

Successful Manchester Tamil Solidarity meeting

Fast news

People's Charter

People's Charter - a step towards workers' political representation?


The battle for state education

Socialist Party candidate increases vote in NUT election

Education: 'Try your best' is not enough

Schools paying for the crisis

Attacks begin at Bangor University

Fight cuts at Manchester Met

Socialist Party workplace news

Leeds bins victory

Superdrug workers show industrial action can win victories

Defend the four!

Postal dispute: Bosses still on the attack

London bus workers strike

Axiom railworkers' strike remains solid

Cuts crisis on the Isle of Man

International socialist news

Guadeloupe - End the profiteering and exploitation

Socialist Party review

The 1970s, mainly viewed from the top


Home   |   The Socialist 25 November 2009   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate  

Related links:


triangleTamil Solidarity and Refugee Rights activists meeting

triangleTory plan to hold dinner at coal mining museum defeated

triangleThem & Us

triangleRetail sector crunch: nationalise to save jobs

triangleBrexit deal no solution to Tory rifts


triangle110 years ago: massacre at Santa Maria school in Chile - commemorate 21 December 1907

triangleThe Socialist's 2017 quiz

triangleNewham anti-academies strikes

triangleDriving examiners walkout hits first day of new test


triangleCatchy folk rock with a socialist edge

triangleCrunchy guitar and poignant dialogue in alt-rock homage to south Wales miners

triangleRussia 1917: how art helped make the revolution


triangleUni market 'failure', two-year degrees - end cuts, scrap fees!

triangleBirmingham South East Socialist Party: Can the Labour Party be changed?

Reviews and comments

Reviews and comments


The Socialist

The Socialist's 2017 quiz



The Socialist Inbox



Comment: Socialism and truth about Zane


Labour Party

Blairite horror and Labour's divisions graphically exposed



Dramatic retelling of Grunwick strike


Working class

Left comic's take on politics will have you in tears



The Socialist inbox


The Socialist

The Socialist Inbox



TV review: Abortion on Trial - hard-hitting look at impact of 1967 act


Vietnam war

Comprehensive account of bloody conflict



The Socialist inbox



Obituary: Paul Randall, 1959-2017



Welsh update of Chekhov an engrossing tale of 1980s class conflict



The Socialist inbox



The Socialist inbox

triangleMore Reviews and comments articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party

triangle13 Dec Support the Crossrail Woolwich walkout

triangle8 Dec Local government pay: fight for the 5% claim, fully funded

triangle6 Dec Strikers rally in Liverpool

triangle6 Dec Corbyn's Labour can defeat Tories with socialist programme

triangle5 Dec Victory at Glenfield shows people power can save our NHS

triangle5 Dec Labour council Blairites deselected

triangle30 Nov Victory: Glenfield Children's Heart Centre saved!

More ...

triangle13 Dec Caerphilly Socialist Party: Are we heading for an era of war?

triangle14 Dec Wakefield Socialist Party: Universal Credit - the Tories' latest assault on the poor

triangle18 Dec Leeds Socialist Party: Religion and Socialism

triangle19 Dec Bristol North Socialist Party: Christmas social

More ...

Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



December 2017

November 2017

October 2017

September 2017

August 2017

July 2017

June 2017

May 2017

April 2017

March 2017

February 2017

January 2017





















Platform setting: = No platform choice