The Seventies were crap. It’s one of those things that ‘everybody knows’. The unions held the country to ransom, refuse piled up in the streets, power cuts were frequent and the fashions were embarrassing. The economy was tanking and Britain was going down the tubes. It was the rubbish decade between the Swinging Sixties and the Go-Getting Eighties.
I’ve never felt that this was entirely fair. OK, I was a kid at the time and my memories of the 1970s feature long summer days and Space Hoppers, not strikes and rising prices. But the adults enjoyed themselves too. My parents and their friends talked a lot about the grim economic situation while running two cars, going on foreign holidays and having parties, most of which would not have been affordable to people in similar jobs a decade earlier. At least, that’s how I remember it.
I was pleased, therefore, when Dominic Sandbrook wrote this:
The strange thing about the 1970s is that although many people vividly remember the power cuts, strikes and shocking headlines, they often have surprisingly affectionate personal memories of the decade that taste forgot.
It has become a cliche to look back through rose-tinted glasses at the world of Bagpuss, space hoppers and Curly Wurlies – all of which, I should admit, dominate my memories of the decade, because I was born in 1974.
But in a funny way, those things actually work very well as symbols of the decade, because what they represent is the reality of everyday affluence.
The fact that so many children had space hoppers, ludicrous as it may seem, is testament to the fact that even working-class families now had a solid disposable income and could afford toys for their younger members.
Even Star Wars, which first went on general release in Britain in early 1978, would never have become such a phenomenon had not so many children had the pocket money for all those Palitoy figures.
The truth is that behind all those terrible economic and political headlines, most ordinary families in 1970s Britain were better off than ever.
While people shook their heads sorrowfully over the breakfast table, digesting the news of some new IRA bombing or absurdly petty British Leyland strike, their surroundings often told a rather more optimistic story.
The lurid furnishings of their new suburban homes, the swanky hostess trolley in the kitchen, the bottles of Blue Nun and Black Tower cooling in the fridge, the brand new colour television in the lounge, the turmeric-coloured Rover SD1 in the drive, even their teenage children’s painfully tight flared trousers – all of those things, which are so easy to satirise today, reflected the realities of a brave new world, forged in the crucible of mass abundance.
The economic data bear this out. Although the mid 1970s recession marked the end of the postwar boom, the economy soon picked up. The slump was no worse than those of the 80s and 90s, and nowhere near as bad as the current one. Real GDP grew during the decade. Even with the downturn in the middle of the decade, GDP grew by around 2.5 percent per year from 1970 to 1979. The way things are going the 2010s will struggle to match that.
Percentage GDP growth (adjusted for inflation) 1949-2011
Given the rampant inflation, household incomes held up pretty well too. Despite a dip in the mid-1970s, incomes grew in real terms by around 2.8 percent per year across the decade.
Income was more evenly distributed in the 1970s than in any decade before or since. As Aberdeen University’s John Bone notes, the UK’s Gini Coefficient (a measure of inequality) was at its lowest between 1970 and 1979. In terms of income, at least, Britons have never been more equal than they were in the Seventies.
This new affluence enabled working-class people out to go out and play in a way they never had before. Stuff Butlins, we’re all off to sunny Spain. Customise the car and shove in a CB radio.
For most people, the Swinging Sixties didn’t arrive until the early Seventies. Until then, hedonistic cutting-edge fashion had been the preserve of the few. In the 1970s, it was opened up to all. Although we laugh at Seventies fashions now, or ape them in an ironic way, the crazy dress-sense of the decade reflected the spirit of the times. Not since the days of the Regency Fops had men worn bright colours and high heels. Miners and steelworkers walked out on Friday nights in outfits that would have provoked streams of homophobic abuse only five years earlier. Come to think of it, outfits like that would provoke steams of homophobic abuse now.
Those of us who were into punk in the late Seventies liked to think we were breaking with the past and rejecting the music and fashions of older brothers and sisters. In fact, punk was very 1970s. In terms of fashion, it was an outrageous decade. Punk was just a different sort of outrageous. It was a time for pushing boundaries. As Kurt Andersen argued in Vanity Fair earlier this year, fashion is a lot more conservative now.
Of course, some things about the 1970s were grim. The casual racism and sexism seem shocking when viewed from 2012. Being gay, outside a few liberal enclaves in major cities, could be extremely dangerous. But that was true in the adjoining decades too. In Northern Ireland, perhaps, the Seventies were worse than the Sixties and Eighties. In the rest of Britain, though, compared with other decades they don’t look too bad.
So why have the Seventies had such a bad press? Chris Dillow offers an intriguing hypothesis:
The 70s crisis was not so much a crisis of GDP growth as a crisis of profits. By contrast, profit rates in this recession have held up much better than they did in the 70s. When people asked in the 1970s “is Britain governable?” what they really meant was: “is the working class controllable?”
For the wealthy, then, the 1970s were the worst of times. Profits were eaten away by high taxation and a bolshy workforce, and, until Margaret Thatcher came along, it looked as though it was going to get worse. No wonder they wanted to consign the decade to the dustbin of history. Perhaps, in future, when we are told how bad the Seventies were we should ask the question, “Bad for whom?”