A review of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, by Andy Beckett
There is a curious divide in books about modern British history. On the one hand, there is the political studies establishment. With few exceptions, such as The Politics of the Thatcher Revolution, by Geoffrey K. Fry (2008), its offerings are banal and unreliable. When reviewing Mark Garnett's From Anger to Apathy: The British Experience Since 1975 (2007), I was moved to conclude that he must have bought a job lot of recent celebrity biographies at his local charity shop. Even the "magisterial" two-volume Thatcher biography by John Campbell (2000–03) had me fact-checking.
On the other hand, there are the contemporary British historians such as Richard Cockett, long now atThe Economist (see his Thinking The Unthinkable—Think Tanks and the Economic Counter Revolution 1931-1983, published in 1994), and the journalists whose largely unsubsidized output towers above that of the mostly tax-funded professors. From the ranks of journalists and other observers one only has to think of such works as The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace that is Remaking the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw (1998); The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, by John O'Sullivan (2006);Thatcher & Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts, by Simon Jenkins (2007); and A History of Modern Britain, by Andrew Marr (2007), to realize that a huge quality gulf exists. Indeed, the gulf is so large that if I were a political scientist I would be trembling about the future of my profession and looking into retraining as a historian or journalist.
Consequently, I was hugely relieved on being sent close to 600 pages of When the Lights Went Out to discover that the author is not some itinerant red brick university lecturer desperately pandering to current and future employers, but rather a distinguished (for his years) journalist who studied history at Oxford and journalism at Berkeley. Appropriately the book was published on the 30th anniversary of Mrs. Thatcher's 1979 general election victory.
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The U.K. in the 1970s was certainly tumultuous, much more so than in the '50s, '60s, '90s, and Noughties; and more so than in the late '40s and the '80s when first Clement Attlee and then Margaret Thatcher drove huge change largely unopposed. In the 1970s we were on the brink, in the last chance saloon. One Daily Telegraph headline read "Cheer Up: Things are Getting Worse!" as in they are getting so bad we might actually get meaningful change. The war in Northern Ireland had spread to the mainland; there was the three-day week and talk of a two-day week; Treasury versus International Monetary Fund; government versus the unions; Heath versus Thatcher; U.K. sovereignty versus Europe; and the "Reds" (Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight, et al.) versus the local taxpayers. It all ended with the utterly appalling Winter of Discontent, which ran from January 3 (or earlier according to Beckett) to March 28, 1979.
On top of six years of double-digit inflation Brits now enjoyed the disruption of gas supplies; widespread picketing; one million people laid off work; ambulances not responding to 911 calls; mountains of uncollected trash; strikes by gravediggers that led Chief Medical Officers to plan mass burials at sea; food shortages; hospital union leaders deciding whom to admit and, if people died, then "so be it" as one of them so famously said; trolleys of food destined for old folks' homes being overturned; and the then-nationalized British Rail's press release: "There are no trains today." The West German ambassador said we had the economy of East Germany and the French Ambassador said we suffered from "dégringolade" or falling-down sickness. So-called serious commentators opined that Japan and Germany were "lucky" that so many of their factories had been destroyed; this had forced them to modernize. The U.K. had not been so "lucky" and struggled with old plant. My great mentor F.A. Hayek quietly confided in me, "I do not think the solution to our economic problems is to destroy all our capital."
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When the Lights Went Out is a terrific book, and I only worry that its sales will be much reduced by its jacket blurb from "Red" Ken Livingstone: "No one will ever write a better biography of the 1970s…. The decade formed my politics and Andy Beckett captures it perfectly…. I just couldn't put it down." It is a great endorsement albeit with a hollow ring: Ken was first elected to local public office in May 1971 and to regional office two years later, and his politics were already blindingly clear. It is a pity there is not an equally positive but countervailing blurb from, say, a Boris Johnson.
I particularly enjoyed the many moments when Beckett gets on a train or a bus and goes either to visit the place he is discussing or to interview a key player or witness to a major event or, in several cases, both at the same time. This device brings a freshness and vitality to the narrative; it is colorful and interesting and often funny. He also deftly weaves in references from popular culture in a smooth and informative way. Taken all in all, the book is so rich the professors do not stand a chance.
Prime ministers Harold Wilson and Edward Heath dominate the book's first half, and Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher its second. Between the four of them, they occupied 10 Downing Street from 1964 to 1990, more than a quarter of a century, and the historian Francis Beckett (any relation?) ranks them first (Thatcher), third (Heath), eleventh (Wilson), and thirteenth (Callaghan) of the 20 prime ministers of the 20th century. I much preferred the second half of the book, but this does not reflect on the excellence of the scholarship and analysis in the first half at all; it is simply because if I had the chance to travel back to any five-year period after World War II, it would have to be 1975 to 1980. Beckett brings those five years alive, brings it all back to me. The debates in all of the parties, the unions, inflation, the awful nationalized industries, and finally the Winter of Discontent—it is all there and much more.
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I had just three regrets. One is the complete lack of reference to "Red" Ken Livingstone and "Red" Ted Knight, who rose to such prominence in local government in London during the '70s. Related to that is my second regret that Peter Mandelson fails also to appear. Yes, the book stops on May 4, 1979, as Mrs. Thatcher enters Downing Street. Four months later, Mandelson won the Lambeth Council by-election which in turn gave him the platform to give Red Ted a public verbal lashing every six weeks at the main council meeting. As the '70s ended, that was the real start of New Labour, Mandelson's rejection of all that Reds Ted and Ken represented. I was there at the birth as a very young London councilman.
My third regret is that of all the many middle class groups which came into being circa 1974–75 only NAFF, the National Association For Freedom, is mentioned (in great detail, in the single longest chapter in the book). Edward Heath's twin defeats in general elections in 1974, especially the first one at the hands of the miners in February, shook respectable middle England into a rebellion that is not quite captured here. It was out of that era that the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) emerged, and while NAFF has coasted in recent decades and dropped off the radar screen, the FSB has grown to 250,000 members. It is said that government inspectors think twice about entering a business displaying the Federation's logo, such is the power of its legal insurance protection scheme. No political history of the U.K. in the '70s can be complete without the FSB's story.
I look forward to Andy Beckett's next book. I hope it will be called When the Lights Went On: Britain in the Eighties!