No one enjoys nostalgia for 70s politics more than me. Who can fail to love an era when brutal ex-miners-turned-Labour whips called Walter or Ted would threaten to castrate recalcitrant Irish nationalist MPs with their bare hands to save an ailing socialist government by one vote? Or when it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up Michael Foot and Enoch Powell having an erudite discussion about political morality in Thucydides, or Jonathan Swift’s use of irony, during a break in negotiations about local government reform in Ulster?
Anyone who seriously pretends that they don’t have a sneaking admiration for Denis Healey’s willingness to threaten graphic violence against lunatic hard-left activists during the end-of-the-pier brawls that passed for Labour conferences in those days, is just lying. You’d have loved to have seen Eyebrows tear open that long-haired polytechnic lecturer with the naff glasses like a crisp packet, just as much as I would.
It all seems very far removed from the oleaginous pygmies who besmirch our contemporary politics with their overexcited WhatsApp groups, botched coups and bland technocratic platitudes. Our current parliamentary overlords give me the impression that they would be intellectually defeated by the task of being chief glass-collector in a quiet provincial Wetherspoons. In contrast, the 70s stand like a more vital and vigorous era, full of heavyweights, bruisers and genuine intellectuals, characterised by towering clashes of principle, outstanding parliamentary oratory, and that slight undertone of genuine desperation and menace that spices everything up a little.
The 70s was a decade of genuine conviction politics
Such idle nostalgia has been thrown into sharp relief in the past few weeks. Suddenly, with a wave of strikes, an energy crisis, mounting geopolitical insecurity and Kate Bush screeching her way to the top of the charts, the resemblances to the 70s seem rather less amusing. All we need now is an avuncular Prime Minister advocating a prices and incomes policy while botching a Marie Lloyd number to a bemused TUC conference, and the Winter of Discontent vibes would be complete. I struggle to see Boris Johnson putting up a terribly convincing pretence of enjoying fishpaste sandwiches and pints of Watney at Number Ten while discussing Rugby League with burly union leaders, but then again I’m sure he knows a dirty joke or two that might break the ice.
These comparisons to the 70s, fun as they are, are ultimately rather misguided. Although the Labour leadership might be as muddled, unhappy and discombobulated now as it was at the end of that decade (an almost-constant in British politics), in most respects it is the contrasts that are more striking.
The 70s was a decade of genuine conviction politics. Although Wilson and Callaghan might have devoted much of their time to pragmatic adjustment and canny party management, mainstream politics in that decade was full of ideologues. Even the pragmatists were principled by modern standards. The flame of red-in-tooth-and-claw market fundamentalism, lit by Enoch Powell, may have temporarily spluttered out not long after the demise of Selsdon Man, but by the end of the decade it had been reignited at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s ruthless and nearly suicidal commitment to her dry-as-dust economic axioms could hardly contrast more sharply with the utter dither and flailing of Boris Johnson, a man with all the single-minded political vision and principled consistency of the Vicar of Bray.
The Left too was in one of its most doctrinaire phases. Tony Benn was not the doddery national treasure he became, but rather the firebrand advocate of the “Alternative Economic Strategy”. Whatever else one might say, it was a distinctive and uncompromising vision for Britain’s future, and he advocated it with fearless energy and unflagging conviction. The “sell-out” Labour government that he was so visibly uncomfortable to be a part of brought in a 98 per cent marginal tax rate on high incomes, introduced child benefit, halved VAT and gave statutory protection to the closed shop. What passes for a “radical” left these days, when the corpse of Corbynism no longer even twitches, has little more than sloganeering Twitter clickbait and a demented attachment to flying the Palestinian flag to recommend it. The closest thing it has to a Carlylean “man of destiny” to lead it to the promised land is…Richard Burgon?
Paradoxically, although the politics of the 70s were more sharply divided, society was far more culturally and socially unified — and, indeed, far more economically equal — than it is today. The year when economic inequality in Britain reached its historical low point was 1977. Rather than being balkanised into dozens of different micro-tribes all watching, reading and listening to completely different things, Brits in the 70s were culturally and socially split in less fine-grained ways.
Yes, a union shop-steward from a Yorkshire pit village, and a stockbroker from Surrey might have been from practically different planets, but both the industrial working class and the professional middle classes were internally more homogenous and unified, with their own rich inheritances of institutions, customs, expectations, habits and worldviews to prop up their families, communities and lives. They knew where they were coming from, what they valued, what was in their interests — and that millions of people similar to them broadly agreed.
This was why politicians like Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn and even Labour old-right stalwarts like Denis Healey were able to self-confidently advocate for clearer, principled political platforms based on substantive policy prescriptions. Unified large-scale homogenous blocs of voters gave them the social base required to underpin such platforms. Of course they needed to build coalitions and make compromises, but there was a clarity and purpose to such politics. For better or worse, ultimately one of those conviction politicians would win and impose their solutions to the mess that the country had found itself in by 1979.
Our politics is more about branding, mood music and bickering
It’s almost impossible to imagine this now. In our culturally fragmented and individualist country, politics is defined by a teeming superfluity of groupuscules bickering about apparently never-ending cultural cleavages. Any mainstream politician must stitch together any number of demographic niches and contradictory voting blocs to stand a chance of governing. Keeping together such a coalition means that bold, strong platforms are doomed to fail without the sort of strong, persuasive, charismatic leadership that, in an era where politicians are invariably drawn from the ranks of thinktankdom, NUS hackery or SPADdom, is in very short supply indeed. Policy itself is rather out of fashion in general: in a society so thoroughly saturated with the minute logic of modern consumerism and marketing, our politics is more about branding, mood music and the “he said, she said” Eastenders-style drama of bickering, shallow moralising and cake-based accusation than it is about policy or genuine principle.
This is not only depressing, but incredibly serious. In an era when we suddenly face enormous, immediate challenges — how can we avoid inflation spiralling out of control? What do we do about the living standards crisis? How do we keep the lights on? — it no longer seems very funny to possess a political class that sees itself as a collection of glorified marketing managers and brand consultants, competing for niche market share among increasingly sophisticated contemporary political consumers. Such a class is incapable of actually doing anything useful, or even advocating any coherent policies.
Does any mainstream politician — Starmer, Johnson, Reeves, Sunak, Gove, whoever is currently Lib Dem leader — have a clear diagnosis of the multiple crises we now face and a clear vision of what to do about them, or even something vaguely resembling either? Resoundingly, the answer is no. The 70s might have appeared divided and chaotic, but there was an underlying social cohesion and the big beast political leadership that was needed to give us some means out of the impasse. What we face now is far worse: a mess that might turn out to be more calamitous, but with no obvious mechanism for doing anything to clear it up.
Still, there are compensations. We might face a worse crisis than the near political implosion and rampant socio-political divisions of the mid-70s, with no end in sight, no solutions and no discernible hope, but at least no-one has to listen to Brotherhood of Man records, eat semi-frozen prawn cocktails or pretend that Morecambe and Wise are funny. For such small mercies, we can be grateful.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe