Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
In 2004, Tim Jackson of Surrey University caused a bit of a stir when he announced that his national Happiness Index peaked in 1976. This seemed unlikely – given that 1976 has entered folk memory as an era of economic and industrial turmoil and Britain as the ‘sick man of Europe’. I instinctively sympathised, though, as probably many people of my generation did. I was five years old in 1976, and it has idyllic memories for me. Summer was legendarily hot, holidays were endless, and I’m sure that I worried less and lived in the moment more than I did even a couple of years later. My home side, Southampton, won the FA Cup and paraded through the streets of the city in an open-top bus.
But what Jackson meant was that if one takes into account things that GDP does not – social equality, real wages, family stability, leisure time, public services, mental illness, crime, the environment – 1976 looks pretty good.
One of the most appealing features of that year was the arguably more healthy balance between the human roles of consumer and producer. Most of us are both – but now we are demanding, dictatorial consumers and servile, pressured producers.
There were occasions during the 1970s when the balance tipped too much in the other direction, but there was at least a sense that it was there to be struck, and that one could earn a reasonable wage and have a decent standard of living without becoming a slave to work for ever-increasing hours of the day. British productivity is still poor, but we have less fun even as we under-perform.
To take a small but telling example: as a bank executive during the 1970s, John Major would sometimes leave his jacket draped over his office chair and disappear off for the afternoon to watch the cricket. In a world of smartphones, e-mail and obsessive office presenteeism it would be impossible to escape as Major did, and working life is the poorer for it. At a more extreme level, it was unusual to find anyone sober on Fleet Street after about noon, and production was frequently disrupted by the notoriously unreasonable chapels of the print unions, but the erudition and brilliance of 1970s journalism is striking. Broadcasting, too, was a world of hair-trigger strikes and heavy drinking but it still produced masterpieces such as I, Claudius and Elizabeth R, and the best bits of long-running series from World In Action to Doctor Who.
I have been pondering the mid-1970s for some time (while entertaining vague ambitions of writing a book about it, and am remember first seeing Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise. When I saw it, the cinema had suffered a power failure of some complex kind, and there was no way they could issue tickets or dispense popcorn but the projectors were still on. The film was free, and people wandered in and out of the theatre. Having been immersed in the stylised anarchy of High Rise for two hours, I wandered out into an appropriately Ballardian landscape of gaudy, over-lit emptiness in a state of disarray: it took a while to shake off the feeling of inhabiting Ballard and Wheatley’s dystopian past-future.
There was a thrilling nastiness to some mid-70s cultural output, which suggests for all the happiness that was around there was something sinister and neurotic about the times. As well as High Rise there was Ballard’s Crash in 1973, David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs in 1974 and Martin Amis’s Dead Babies in 1975 – all set in a recognisable near future in which overcoming ennui would require ever-stronger and stranger stimulus from violence, sex and psychoactive drugs. Loss, despair, masochism and paranoia featured in the cinema of the times, from Don’t Look Now, Last Tango in Paris and The Night Porter to The Parallax View and All The President’s Men.
June 1976 was the starting point of a new, alienated, direction in music when the then-unknown Sex Pistols had a small gig in the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester and the audience included Morrissey and the originators of The Fall and Joy Division. In the High Rise film, a frighteningly convincing Luke Evans plays the increasingly deranged Richard Wilder, a gonzo documentary maker toting a camera as he incites and commits ever more violent and irrational deeds, and threatens the dissolute upper class on the highest floors. The motif of a glamorous, decadent disco culture under siege from proletarian anarchy was there again and again, as if we had arrived in H.G. Wells’s world of Eloi and Morlocks in 80 years rather than 800,000.
It would be wrong to call its ending the only discordant moment – High Rise is a film full of discordant moments – but it strikes a very peculiar note. It seems to take place a few years later: a boy with a kaleidoscope has constructed a rickety tower himself and is playing a radio at the monolith (who knows what is going on inside by this stage). Then Margaret Thatcher’s voice booms out, saying there is no alternative to capitalism – that there is either state capitalism or freedom.
This is a strange choice of Thatcher clip, because the state manifests itself only once in the film, when an underpowered 1970s style police car pulls up at the front of the building and an officer asks whether everything is all right in the tower. The naïve police are fobbed off with an unconvincing assurance that all is well, and the residents get back to the exhilarating mayhem of their collapsing society. The state is bumbling and powerless in the face of the forces that are destroying society in the high rise. The ending creates a possible – no doubt unintended – Thatcherite reading of the film as a metaphor for Thatcher saving us all from the anarchy of class war, unburied bodies in the swimming pool and supermarkets full of rotting food into which the stylish brutalist mid-1970s dream had degenerated.
Reading back over the real history of 1976, the theatre of politics seems funnier, stranger and cleverer then than it is now. In May, Harold Wilson, recently Prime Minister, invited two journalists he did not know well (Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour) to his house in Lord North Street and told them that elements in the security services and the malign forces of apartheid South Africa were plotting against democracy in Britain. He would not go public – but volunteered to be ‘the big fat spider sitting in the corner of the room’ for their investigation.
The story led all over the place, but it kept coming back to the travails of the then Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe. The dark farce of his attempts to cover up his relationship with Norman Scott, a former stable lad, had culminated in 1975 in the shooting of a large, friendly dog called Rinka on Exmoor. Thorpe resigned as leader in May 1976 after the publication – bizarrely as an attempt of self-defence – of some of his letters to Scott including the immortal line: ‘bunnies can (and will) go to France’.
The Labour Government’s majority had disappeared with the defection of two MPs to a new pro-nationalist Scottish Labour Party and the eccentric behaviour of John Stonehouse, who had returned to the Commons after his faked death on Miami Beach in 1974. He had been arrested in Australia by border officers looking for Lord Lucan. He spent a few months as the English National Party’s sole MP before being jailed for fraud in August 1976. Reggie Maudling, the then Shadow Foreign Secretary, told Soviet diplomats that they shouldn’t take Margaret Thatcher seriously and she would soon be gone (in the midst of a long and complex libel action he was fighting against them, Reggie turned up to Granada Television’s party at the Conservative Party conference and said he would settle for half the damages if they would get him a large drink). And at the end of the year Tony Benn’s diaries record this surreal domestic Christmas:
Caroline gave each of us a copy of the Communist Manifesto in our stockings, published in English in Russia, and she gave Josh a book called Marx for Beginners and gave Hilary Isaac Deutscher’s three volume biography of Trotsky. I read the Communist Manifesto yesterday, never having read it before and I found that, without having read any Communist text, I had come to Marx’s view.
For most of the non-political public who remember it – and those of us who were children at the time – 1976 was the Year of the Drought. It was extremely hot for most of the time from mid-June until the end of August and there was very little rain. Plagues of little red ladybirds descended upon the country and as Britain baked the water started to run out. The Government responded: Denis Howell was appointed Minister for Drought in August and within days it was raining heavily. God, it seemed, was still a social democrat. But that faith was in decline.
Meanwhile, Jim Callaghan, then Prime Minister, was forced into making an accommodation to the doctrines that were sweeping academic economics: the apparent failure of Keynesianism and the adoption of monetarism (in which the money supply is the key to controlling inflation, then running at double-digit levels). Even before the IMF loan at the end of the year, Callaghan expounded this view to an uncomprehending Labour conference riven by far-left insurgency against his government.
That section of the speech was written by Callaghan’s son in law, the monetarist economist and writer Peter Jay – who exposed Callaghan to some ridicule when he tried to explain the Prime Minister’s mission by evoking Moses, leading his people to the Promised Land. Ronnie Millar scripted one of Thatcher’s better jokes for a conference speech (although he had to explain to Thatcher why the line worked) that if Callaghan saw himself as Moses, her advice was to “keep taking the Tablets”.
Another popular joke of the time elaborated the point. It went something like this. In the old days, Moses said to his people take up your shovel, mount your camel and load up your ass and I will lead you to the Promised Land. Now Jim Callaghan tells his people to put down their shovel, sit on their ass and light up a Camel, because this is the Promised Land.
The joke acquired a third verse sometime in the early 1980s. Margaret Thatcher came along, broke your shovel, kicked your ass, sold off the camel – and told you there was no Promised Land. At any rate, heretical as it may be, I’m with Professor Jackson, even though I would hate to give up the various gadgets and 21st Century comforts on which I so depend, because I’m not sure we’re really all that much happier.