Here we go again
The striking similarities between the tired, unoriginal politics of our age and those of the turbulent 1970s
This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Complaining about the standard of our politicians is a reassuring British tradition and while the Economist has compared Rishi Sunak to Milhouse, perennial loser in The Simpsons, there is something inescapably cartoonish about all the party leaders. Sir Keir Starmer reminds me of Walter the Softy, the priggish sneak who made life difficult for Dennis the Menace (Boris Johnson as was).
In reality, Starmer is a professional social democrat of the type that, Corbyn aside, has led Labour for as long as the Beano has existed. Like Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, he had to pretend to be more left-wing than he is to be elected leader, then devote much energy to keeping out the Left. And like them, he will have to pretend to be more right-wing than he is to be elected PM and is destined to leave office despised by his own party.
But for all the pretence of modernity, Blair’s claim to have invented a New Labour was overstated. Even his slogan New Labour, New Britain plagiarised Wilson’s 1964 manifesto, The New Britain. Blair had the fortune of good timing, winning office during a prolonged global boom and departing before the consequences hit. Unlike Wilson, he participated in an unpopular American war. Otherwise, same old same old.
with the failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s dash for socialism, Labour has reverted to its post-war comfort zone as if Brexit never happened. You would have thought the electorate voting to ditch the cornerstone of UK national strategy then delivering Labour’s worst result since 1935 might have induced some original thinking. But, Starmer, like Blair, plans to fight the next general election on Wilson’s 1964 manifesto: wasted Tory Years; harnessing new technology for the common good; thousands of new homes.
Have the Tories, too, reverted to an older comfort zone? What’s in the news? Rising superpower tension. A US president might go to jail. Energy price shocks as the result of a foreign war. Soaring inflation. Depleted supermarket shelves. Much ruminating about The Decline of the West. Our Government, having spent with wild profligacy, has run out of cash and slammed the brakes on high-profile projects. Protests make it difficult to push through new construction work. Strikes are back.
it’s all starting to sound a lot like a re-tread of that age of beige, the 1970s. Industrial action was one of the defining features of that decade, but ONS statistics provide a reminder that the memory can play tricks. For instance, there were two million more days lost to strikes in September 1979, shortly after Margaret Thatcher quoted St Francis of Assisi in Downing Street, than in the four-month Winter of Discontent.
Looking at the chart (overleaf) of days lost to strikes per year, it is clear we are nowhere close to 1970s levels. But 2022 saw the most days lost since 1989 and at its present rate, 2023 will exceed the figures for 1976. The strikes incubated by post-lockdown inflation far surpass the response to the spending-restraint measures of the Cameron-Clegg coalition.
It was fashionable in the 1980s to claim that Heath had been elected on a proto-Thatcherite free market agenda, but U-turned in the face of opposition. The truth is more nuanced. As was the practice of the time, Heath’s 1970 manifesto, A Better Tomorrow, was light on detail, but heavy on promises of stability. It expressed a broad ethos: curbing inflation was the top priority; taxes would be lowered (no specifics were offered); immigration would be controlled. The recurring melody was a personal attack on Harold Wilson for gimmicks and policy somersaults. Heath offered carefully-constructed long-term plans which would be stuck to honestly. His promises would be honoured.
Offended at his hubris, the gods reached down and afflicted Heath once in office, inducing multiple U-Turns. But the manifesto had a philosophy from which Heath never deviated: that the Government is an impartial agency able to assemble expert advice, deduce the best solution and then implement a Plan, using incentives to nudge people to do the right thing.
The economy would be stimulated into faster long-term growth, paying for higher welfare spending. The main weapons were regional policy; a reorganised and empowered local government; and a massive retraining programme. Heath would simplify the planning system, remove obstacles to business expansion and build new infrastructure.
The manifesto praised the free market, but only because competition brings down prices. Heath held out the threat of state intervention to force business to behave. His pre-U-turn platform reserved the right to use taxpayer money to back specific industries. Heath believed he could pick winners.
There is a difference between a plan and a Plan. An industrial policy (business will build a widget factory in Mudchester) is not the same as pro-industry policies (making it easier to build any sort of factory anywhere). There is a reason why there is not already a widget factory in Mudchester. It might be local planning, dire transport links or because making widgets in Mudchester will never be sufficiently profitable.
In addition, the bigger the Plan, the more likely it will be derailed by unforeseen events. The problem is that they try to regulate a force outside the control of any department: people. Citizens are not bees in a hive working to a corporate objective.
this seems to have come as a surprise to Heath. His first great U-turn was prompted by an unexpected rise in unemployment. Business had not been nudged hard enough, so the March 1972 Budget unleashed tax cuts equivalent to £38 billion in today’s money, with another £2 billion the following year.
An Industry Act treated everywhere outside the South East as deprived in an attempt to bribe business into expanding where Heath wanted. The result was galloping inflation, a year before the Oil Price Shock. This led to crisis talks with business and unions to agree voluntary restraint on prices and wages. These duly fell apart, prompting the second great U-turn. In November 1972 Heath adopted a statutory incomes policy and price controls, breaching the 1970 manifesto. This led to another miners’ strike, the three-day week and a snap election.
Heath’s February 1974 manifesto, Firm Action for a Fair Britain, was a petulant diatribe blaming everyone else. He would therefore continue with policies so obviously in the national interest. The message did not sweep the nation.
His next attempt, Putting Britain First for the October 1974 election, was essentially a call for a government of national unity with him leading the fight against the perils facing the country by continuing the policies which had caused so many of them.
Heath’s successor learned from his mistakes. Margaret Thatcher eschewed big Plans and proceeded towards clear objectives incrementally, particularly over trade union reform. The ultimate result was the nirvana of faster long-term economic growth and higher welfare spending. It seemed the Conservatives had consigned the age of beige to history.
Yet David Cameron’s 2010 coalition with the Liberal Democrats was the realisation of Heath’s October 1974 platform. His 2015 manifesto threatened “We have a plan for every stage of your life”, though these were restricted by the need to cut the Government’s deficit.
Nevertheless, Cameron had a “long-term economic plan” involving infrastructure spending, especially on HS2; enhanced powers for regional mayors; investing in science and a training scheme. Cameron boasted of having “unblocked” the planning system to boost housebuilding — then promised to block it up again by extending residents’ powers to object to new housing.
Theresa May’s first party conference had the slogan A Better Tomorrow, the title of Heath’s 1970 manifesto. Like Heath, she called a snap election and bungled it. Her 2017 offering, Forward, Together, pledged she would “govern from the mainstream”, a rehash of October 1974. She, too, had a “modern industrial strategy” of investment in science and infrastructure, enhanced powers for local mayors and a training scheme. The planning system would be unblocked.
Boris johnson’s 2019 manifesto, Get Brexit Done, contained 13 Plans and five Strategies in a programme for interventionist government, freed of Brussels control, to “Unleash Britain’s Potential” through regional policy, enhanced powers for local government to level up Britain; infrastructure spending; training schemes and investment in science.
There would be a simplified local planning system. EU membership aside, Johnson had the most Heathite platform since Heath. Then came Covid. Lockdown represented a massive Three Day Week.
Liz Truss claimed to revive the Thatcherite tradition. She did so, however, in an extremely un-Thatcherite way, jumping straight into wholesale tax reform without the nine years’ preparatory spadework. Her Budget-That-Never-Was, a long-term Growth Plan with £29 billion p.a. of net tax cuts, sounded reminiscent of March 1972.
Rishi Sunak’s administration began with an Autumn Statement which U-turned from Truss. Net taxes increased by £3.5 billion a year. The 2023 Spring Budget, 118 days later, cut net taxes by £8.3 billion. A long-term sustainable growth strategy for “everywhere” would use tax allowances for business and science. There would be enhanced powers for regional mayors, more training schemes and a simplified planning system.
it may be harsh to criticise Starmer’s Labour party for repeating the approach of Harold Wilson when the Tories have spent two decades rehashing Heath. Sunak’s novelty has been to copy Heath the wrong way round. For once, our politicians are ahead of the curve. They have been beige for years, now they are green — all their policies are recycled.
But, surely, the global and UK economies are more dynamic and creative than in the 1970s? Maybe inflation really will fall to “only” five per cent, and productivity growth rebound to pre-2008 levels, diminishing the risk of stagnation and strife?
However, the trigger for many 1970s disputes was “relativity” — if one group is being paid £X, then an other group wants £X+Y. It would be remarkable if shop stewards in the private sector do not respond to generous public sector pay settlements. There have already been attempts to spread union membership to coffee shops and it is unlikely that the movement will stop there.
A Starmer government will not respond with Thatcherite determination
A Starmer government will not respond with Thatcherite determination. He will be reminded of favours he needs to repay. In a sluggish, indebted economy, this tees up a return to “solemn and binding agreements”, which turn out not to be.
Perhaps cartoon characters are best fitted to preside over an unreal era in which promises cannot be kept, objectives can never be achieved, Plans precede U-turns and Wilson and Heath battle it out again like Tom and Jerry in a timeless world of their own. We know how the 1970s ended — and who ended them. The most important factor in British politics may be the identity of the next Leader of the Opposition.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe