When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, by Andy Beckett. Faber and Faber, 448 pp.
About a quarter of the way into Guardian journalist Andy Beckett’s impressive account of Britain in the 1970s, self-satisfied Labour Party politician Denis Healey, who served as Harold Wilson’s chancellor of the exchequer, observes that he knew “bugger all about economics” when he was appointed to the post, but soon learned, as chancellor that “economics is just a branch of social science” and was able to get on top of the job within the space of three months. It’s a striking admission not just for what it tells us about Healey’s complacency and the lack of expertise required of a politician even at the giddy heights of government, but also because it draws attention to the fact that much of what matters in history actually takes place elsewhere. Beckett might have done well to heed the content of Healey’s observation and pursued its implications. Economics is indeed no more than branch of social science, but you wouldn’t know this from what is, by Beckett’s own admission, a history of the period confined to political and economic events.
This isn’t to belittle his achievement, since the book is substantial and stands in its own right as a well-researched and thorough piece of journalism within its own self-defined parameters, but a good deal of context is lost if significant social forces-demographics, crime, scientific and technological developments, deskilling, shifts in religious allegiance, patterns of geographical and social mobility, changes in youth culture, etc., etc.,-are treated as epiphenomena or mere ephemera that have no enduring structural impact. It’s a history that only the vulgarest of Marxists could love.
Beckett has also taken a top-down approach to history, interviewing the individuals at the heart of things, as though they were the key players rather than merely representative or indicative of larger social forces and mass movements. To interview the founders of Spare Rib or Sid Rawle, the “king of the hippies,” is all well and good, to the extent that they embody the rise feminism or the free festival movement, but the idea that these individuals were the prime movers or somehow “led” the movement rather than just surfed a wave (some may even say, cynically, “took advantage”) of those movements is to mistake cause and effect. In sum, I would have preferred to read a People’s History of the 70s rather than a one-sided Great Man’s History of the 70s.
The definition of politics used by Beckett is conventional, too. It’s what you’d expect of a Guardian journalist, touching all the right bases-gay rights, feminism, Grunwick and Saltley Gates, Northern Ireland, the rise of environmentalism, the increasing visibility of minorities-but because of the limitations he places on himself there is precious little on, for example, the anti-Apartheid movement, Britain’s relationship to the Commonwealth, immigration from Uganda, or the issues of Rhodesia and Cyprus; nor is there any indication that Beckett understands the political significance of other aspects of everyday life, such as youth culture, most notably punk rock and its entire DIY ethic, the role of sports in generating nationalist sentiment (this was a decade that saw not just the British Lions tour South Africa but also Buster Mottram joining the National Front, of hooliganism, of Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon, Scotland going to World Cups and England not), nor the importance of the mass media in generating a set of communal values, along with the accompanying marginalization or demonization of “outsiders.” Such a change in terms might well have required Beckett to do double the legwork required to produce the book he has (he tells us it was five years in the making), but it would have yielded a more comprehensive, more rounded and contextualised account of the period while also countering the standard Spenglerian “decline of empire” narrative that is usually imposed on the decade. The 1970s were certainly turbulent, but they were also colourful and exciting and brimming with new possibilities, with hope, with resistance and struggle; they just need to be looked at from a perspective other than that of a Telegraph reader.
Lest I be accused of some nostalgie de la boue, I’ll happily acknowledge to growing up in the 1970s and that consequently I’m prone to a rose-tinted view of those years. Even the blackouts caused by power cuts were a source of excitement, our generation’s equivalent of the Blitz. But I’d make the point, too, that my elders who saw the 1970s in apocalyptic terms were themselves guilty of romanticizing earlier decades, as though the Second World War was a triumph of communal spirit and victory a demonstration of British superiority, the empire and commonwealth a source of pride rather than shame. The message to take away, I’d suggest, is to be very careful when compartmentalizing the past, either chronologically or sociologically, because the process of categorization carries with it implicit assumptions that will inevitably shape the final result. The truth lies in the interstices.