Tuesday, May 05, 2009

That world of the 1970s is so strange to me

If you're remotely interested in politics it will be of no surprise that it is now thirty years since Thatcher came to power. I was only three when she was elected and entered Downing Street so I guess that makes me, almost at least, one of her fabled 'children', as I never really knew the world that came before her except in terms of what I can read about.

The Consensus that she tore up seems today, to me at least, an insane world which actually reinforced class consciousness and took the approach that everyone should only ever expect a life equivalent to the lowest common denominator. There was no point in aspiring to anything because as you climbed the ladder the system ensured that you stepped back a rung with a punative tax regime.

The idea that, before Thatcher came to power, a government committee decided how much a shop could charge for a loaf of bread, seems to me, complete insanity. Likewise I find it insane that until the privatisation of telecoms, it took months to provision a phone line, and you had to rent a handset, bakerlite or push button, from the GPO, and you had no choice.

Neither did you have a choice about who supplied you with energy. There was no shopping around for the cheapest package that was tailored to your need. It was the state owned industry or nothing. I won't deny that such a situation seems not only mad but alien to me. Its not just the lack of choice though. That Britain was once a place where the energy supply of the nation could be turned off at the drop of hat with a strike was surely insane too?

What's more, when the strikes came the fact that those striking could do so with complete impunity and job security simply doesn't compute for me. Then there was secondary action where other unions would go out on strike in sympathy with their striking comrades in other sectors. Did we really live like that where the power of the few in one industry could impact on the lives of the many by cutting their power and bringing the entire nation to a standstill? A place where the dead would go unburied and the rubbish would not be collected?

It seems like complete fantasy land to me that there was once a time when the Government restricted how much money you could take out of the country if you were lucky enough to be able to go abroad. Wasn't it your money to spend how and where you chose? Apparently not. Then there was the surreal scenario that the top rate of tax was 98%. What exactly would be the point in even working if you were taxed at that rate?

Of course the criticism of Thatcher doing away with all these things seems primarily to be that it caused massive unemployment. What confuses me though is that the logical conclusion of that criticism seems to be that the changes ought never have taken place. That privatisation, for example, was a really bad thing in all circumstances. It seems to me with the exception of rail privatisation - which was a failure of structure rather than a failure of privatisation per se - the rest have been quite successful.

I can get gas and electric from whoever I want. I can choose a different network provider for my fixed phoneline. The world I know is one where I have a choice and that world exists because Thatcher changed it from the one where I wouldn't. The historical fact of unemployment under Thatcher seems to me - when placed in the context of what the world was like then compared to now - a price that really was worth paying at the time.

This might sound harsh and uncaring, but for that unemployment not to have happened would have meant that the country remained in the rather bizarre state in was in during the 1970s. A scenario where a handful of men could bring the whole nation to its knees; where I had no choice about who provided me with core services; where I couldn't ever become rich from my own work, and where I was not allowed to spend my money where I wanted or pay what price I was willing too.

It seems crazy that we actually lived like that before Thatcher, but more importantly, it seems crazy that those that despise her might actually wish that we lived like that again.


no longer anonymous said...

I believe the 98% rate was on investment income.

The top income tax rate was still an absurdly high 83% though.

Grumpy old Man said...

Dizzie. I lived, worked and tried to raise a family through the 70's. My main memory of the period was the feeling of futility and hopelessness engendered by the Heath-Wilson era. The last 18 months of this gov't will give you a taste what we endured from '64 to'79.
Your article is spot-on by the way.

Gareth said...

Those that despise her also tend to forget there was a lot of assistance thrown at the communities affected by Thatcher's privatisations.

For those willing to retrain and/or move jobs were there for the taking but some resigned themselves to a life on welfare.

Half The Story said...

I think the core issue I have with thatcher (and I speak as a fan) is thus:

1) assets were sold too cheaply, ie council houses at a discount too high
2) the landings were never soft enough for the communities affected OR they were not publicised well enough
3) Some redistrtibutive lements were stupid, ie the poll tax

I also think if she had got rid of some things ie NI for employees then it woudl have been smarter.

I also wish she had fixed all tax at one level with one allowance for all elements,.

Oldrightie said...

Dizzy, your articulate article proves the succes of Mrs T in most of what she achieved. As grumpy says, we are entering a 1970s like era now.

Demetrius said...

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher was a lady of her time and for her time. Now it is different, and we need a Stanley Baldwin, as I have argued.

Anonymous said...

Diz, is this just a rant or are you trying to make a point? Coz if you are trying to make a point, I've missed it.

Anonymous said...

If you really want crazy then read up on what the print unions used to get up to in the seventies. Mind boggling would be a gross understatement.

Lexander said...

For what's worth I was working in the House when she appeared as a fresh faced MP. My group had a discussion on her scale of attractiveness. I said I did not fancy her one bit (6/10) and she would never make it up the ladder (5/10). You can deduce I was not a very good judge of character!

Ruth@VS said...

Well said, Dizzy!

I am just old enough to remember many of the things you mentioned (we waited 3 months for a phone line) and it is important to have the kind of perspective you demonstrate.

At the time, Mrs Thatcher was hated (and feared) by many and I remember picking up on this anxiety as a child since I came from an area where high unemployment became the norm. As I grew up though I did reassess her legacy.

Neither my father (a working class engineer who refused to join a union) nor I could have achieved what we did without the changes she brought. I didn't agree with everything she did, but this country does owe her a great deal.

Lexander said...

Amazing woman. I was working in the House when she appeared as a fresh-faced MP. We had a vote on her attractiveness. I gave her 6/10 and 5/10 for any chance of making it big. You can deduce I was not a very discerning Lobby Cor. !!

Anonymous said...

As another in the same generation I generally agree with what you say but I'd have to disagree with you on the issue of privitisation of utilties such as gas, water & electricity. I really don't see how a competitive market helps and especially how having these core utilties operated for profit by companies based outside the UK is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Dizzy - your comment about the government committee deciding on the price of a loaf of bread reminds me on an apocryphal story about a Russian Ambassador to London in the early 1980s.

Chatting at an embassy function with a British diplomat, he said:

"Tell me, who is responsible for bread distribution in London?"

The baffled Brit replied: "Um...no one. It just happens."

I don't know which is more remarkable - the question or the answer!

Shaun Austin said...

Thanks for writing this Dizzy. Good piece!

nought.point.zero said...

Absolutely spot on, and the fact that 40% (or I suppose now 50%) as a top tax rate is considered extremely high in global terms nowadays just goes to show how recieved wisdom has moved so far away from those days.

Mark M said...

"I really don't see how a competitive market helps"

Because when a utility is 100% state owned, the probability of strikes increase and the effect of strikes is mass power outages. Even if it hasn't helped with the cost, security of supply is absolutely crucial in utilities.

Would you really want to return to a 1970s situation where a pay dispute mean you lose your electricity?

Frank said...

You are right. I left with my family for economic reasons in 1978 and didn't return for many years, now on my occasional visits back it seems a different, and on the whole far nicer country.

Anonymous said...

great piece, I only just remember the piles of rubbish, and the regular power cuts, for whoevver Maggie was she certainly improved the infrastructure of the counry. You cannot ever change some things without upsetting others

Anonymous said...

"Did we really live like that where the power of the few in one industry could impact on the lives of the many..."

I think the banking industry has possibly shown that this isn't all in the past.

Paul Linford said...

Don't you think that some of the changes you mention owed more to technology than Thatcher? Any government would have broken up the telecoms duopoly in the 1980s as it no longer made sense.

Forlornehope said...

You could add that the government decided how much private companies could pay their employees.

Lola said...

I was 27 when she came to power. I had bought a house in 1976 and had to get a doctors note to get a telephone installed! You also expected to have a round of state rationed utilities price rises each year. But I was lucky, I had been lucky enough to go to the local grammer School and was one of the last group of kids to benefit from that until it was Comprehensivised and ruined.

I have some issues with Thatcher. I don't think the utilities should have been sold to us. They were ours anyway, so a distribution of shares at nil cost with an ability to buy extra's would have been my choice. Selling of council houses was and remains a good thing. As far as industrial 'policy' is concerned I am not at all sure that we did not lose more manufacturing then we should have. Some good stuff always gets chucked out by accident in any big clear out.

As regards unemployment the case is that all the non - working workers in state subsidised industries were already unemployed. It's just that no-one admitted it. Of course the same is true now, there are millions of non-working workers in State employment, all of whom have been tragically misled by Blair Brown that they are doing anything of value and all of whom will have to be sacked by the Tories.

Critically she failed to privatise three crucial areas of our life. Areas that are critical to politcal indoctrination. Areas still possessed by deranged lefties. And areas that must be tackled by Cameron if we are ever to rise out of this awful, dismal, statist, futureless black hole. These areas are education, health and the bloody BBC.

Mitch said...

Brilliant piece! the 70s were scary and gorgon would have us back there.

Anonymous said...

Things were tough pre-Thatcher, it wasn't a nice time to live through, especially if you didn't have a supply of candles.

"It seems like complete fantasy land to me that there was once a time when the Government restricted how much money you could take out of the country if you were lucky enough to be able to go abroad."
I'm surprised that one hasn't been resurrected, although it would be pointless because nobody wants to touch sterling with a bargepole!

Richard said...

Dizzy, you're too young to realise just how recent some of these changes are.

The ability to choose your electricity supplier only started in 1999 for domestic customers. Although the date for competition to begin was set at privatisation, the regional companies were allowed to keep their monopolies for a time (to increase their value in the sell-off).

As for "those striking could do so with complete impunity and job security" - that is still the case. Provided the strike is a lawful one (with a valid reason and a proper ballot), the Employment Relations Act 1999 says that dismissal for taking part in a strike will be automatically
"unfair" and therefore entitle the employee to substantial damages.

We are far more socialist than most people realise.

Nostalgist said...

Yes Dizzy, I remember the 70’s… being served in the pub at the age of 14 - the local copper told the landlord it was ok to serve me as long as I didn’t cause trouble. I also remember an argument in said pub being settled with a fight out the back - the same copper made sure there was fair play, and stopped it when on of the blokes had had enough.

I remember that there was no hysteria about obesity, or binge drinking… I remember that you could have a conversation at a bus stop - nowadays, everyone’s in their own little portable sound-world. I could go on, but I don’t have forever.

It’s true that all those strange things you wrote about were also there, but, believe me, it weren’t all bad…

Sophia Pangloss said...

Don't know if it was just me, but did anyone else who watched the Election79 broadcast yesterday notice how little the Winter of Discontent was mentioned? Not once. Neither was there a single mention of the dead lying unburied etc.
We should be careful of the mytholigisingof those terribly hard days. I do remember 3-day weeks and power cuts under Heath.
And remember, you could also have a Trimphone in a range of 6 colours!

cmp said...

Dizzy, I was 4 in 1979 and feel exactly as you do. When people like Noel Gallagher talk about 'Thatchers Britain' with a snarl it makes me seethe.

Anonymous said...

Read Correlli Barnett's Audit of War for details of the British Trades Unions strikes during WW2.

denverthen said...

Absolutely brilliant article, Mr Dizz. Wish I'd spotted it earlier.

roman said...

I worked for Ford in Essex in the early 70's, not far from the Dagenham works.

If t'Union called a strike, you had to obey or thugs would call on you at home to 'put you in order'.

Mrs T wasn't perfect (who is?), but she gave us hope, optimism and status in the world.

I met her at a private function some years after her downfall: tiny woman, massive charisma and a lot of charm.

Plato said...

I was 11 in 1979 and remember it very well as an insane world.

The lights were off when I came home from school and so was the telly as the BBC was strike-bound, heaps of rubbish stacked 10ft tall outside blocks of flats and pickets knee deep outside the main DHSS processing office every day.

I thought it was normal to have burning braziers and plackards everywhere.

Oh yes and don't forget the free school milk.

Appalling teeth, lazy eyes and calipers/club feet were common sights - and lots of homes had outside loos and nowhere to wash but the kitchen sink.

How times have changed.

What strange times.

Bernie Gudgeon said...

O yes, the good old days.

Elby the Beserk said...

"...the rather bizarre state in was in during the 1970s. A scenario where a handful of men could bring the whole nation to its knees"

So, no different then, to Brown and his cohorts since 2000?

StuartAre said...

There have been a whole bunch of articles on the Thatcher government recently which has been diverting and interesting, but this is by far the best one I've read. As a Blair child (I was 9 1997) it all seems so distant to me, but your article dizzy really makes me appreciative of what Thatcher achieved.

Anonymous said...

The Print Unions, by God, yes.

I once went on a school trip to the old Telegraph printing works in Fleet Street. As we were standing around admiring the huge engraved rollers that were about to be used to produce that day's first edition, a Union bod pushed through the group and confronted our master. "Did you touch that?" he demanded, not un-menacingly. The master assured him he had not touched it. "Good" he said, though clearly not convinced, "because if you had, it would need to be scrapped and a new one made."

This was not a joke. The very least, trivial, even - as in this case - absurd encroachment on their demarcation lines would result in immediate and disproportionate "action", ie inaction.

And there was nothing whatever that the employer could do about it.

Strange days indeed, in a strange place. The past is a foreign country.

Thank Heavens for Thatch, we need another one like her now, but they don't make them any more, alas.

We may be doomed.

Andrew said...

Recall the mid 70s when it was really grim. Suspect the nice bits in memory were consequent the unknowingness of youth. A fortunately now foreign land where cars fell apart from new in three years (truly), and the internet had not democratised information to expose nerdowell pollies and corporate thieving. The only upside was that you weren't going to get recreational HIV.

@Sophia Pangloss: Trimphones were so radioactive as the dial {what's that} backlight was doped with tritum that they were sent for storage at Sellafield when finished.

Plato said...

I forgot to mention that in 1988 when Wapping was opened up - I worked in a recruitment agency.

A print worker came in and duly filled in an application form.

He was on £67,000.

Yes - £67k in 1988 for setting type once a day.

Put's things in perspective eh?

Gaw said...

I've been re-reading Hugo Young's excellent 'One of Us'. I've posted a couple of observations that have occurred to me whilst reading about this really rather remarkable and complex person:



AJS said...

Well, in the light of the way that the major supermarkets have squozen independent local retailers out of the market and contributed to the destruction of communities, perhaps it wasn't really such a bad thing after all that the prices of goods were centrally controlled.

Small local shops created a kind of social interaction that's impossible to get with big, faceless supermarkets. Everyone knew their local butcher, baker, newsagent, hardware merchant, sub-postmistress &c. -- in fact, everyone used to know each other. People stuck together, and they generally behaved in ways they would not object to other people talking about.

Likewise, "choice" in energy suppliers is meaningless. Name me one electricity company that can guarantee they will never supply me a single joule of electricity generated by burning natural gas (which is too valuable as a fuel in its own right to be used for centralised electricity generation). And no, charging me double then bribing some peasant family in the third world to use a hand pump rather than a diesel pump to water their crops does not count.

dizzy said...

"perhaps it wasn't really such a bad thing after all that the prices of goods were centrally controlled."

Well.. apart form the fact that it led to terminal decline and complete economic collapse wherever it happened.

Rush-is-Right said...

"those striking could do so with complete impunity and job security"Actually Dizzie, it was worse than that. Strikers qualified for Supplementary Benefit payments and also had their mortgage interest paid for them. So the taxpayer was directly subsidising the strikers and their unions.

MT put a stop to that.