With queues for petrol, inflation and Abba on the radio, it’s easy to compare the two decades. But you wouldn’t if you were there, says Polly Toynbee, as she revisits the styles of her youth
Queueing for petrol, I turn on the radio and there are Abba, singing their latest hit. Shortages on shop shelves are headline news, with warnings of a panic-buying Christmas. And national debt is sky high. But this isn’t the 1970s; it’s 2021. People who weren’t born then have been calling this a return to that decade. There are similarities, of course: this retro-thought was sparked by the recent petrol queues, people as frantic to fill up to get to work as I remember back then. Elsewhere, flowing floral midi dresses are back, just like the ones I wore; Aldi is selling rattan hanging egg chairs; and, as well as Abba, the charts have been topped by Elton John. But is this really a 1970s reprise?
No, nothing like it; not history repeated, not even as farce – just a stylist’s pastiche, as bold as the wallpaper I’m posing in front of here. Folk memory preserves only the 1974 three-day week; the miners’ strike blackouts, with no street lights and candle shortages; the embargo that quadrupled the price of oil. True, I did queue at the coal merchant’s to fire up an ancient stove for lack of any other heat or light. But the decade shouldn’t be defined by this, or by 1978-79’s “winter of discontent” strikes, a brief but pungent time of rubbish uncollected and (a very few) bodies unburied by council gravediggers.
Most 70s imagery is a deliberately manufactured caricature, with its garish wallpaper and avocado suites, an ignored time zone between the swinging 60s and glitzy greed-is-good, big bang, big hair 80s. It’s an image that obscures the radical social changes and great progressive leaps forward that took place then. True, we all construct our own pick’n’mix memorabilia and there’s a risk anyone my age will pine for the decade when they were in their 20s. But that’s not why I reject any comparison to Boris Johnson’s Brexit-stricken regressive and corrupt era.
So why does history record the 70s as nothing but a time of strife, shortages, hyper-inflation and decline? Well, it’s because history is written by the victor. And that victor was Margaret Thatcher, whose 1979 election conquest sought to uproot, marketise and diminish the role of the postwar state. Her political tribe used all their media power to expunge inconvenient 70s memories that didn’t fit her narrative, as surely as Stalin purged Trotsky from the photographic record. It was a goodbye to John Maynard Keynes’s generous social democratic state and hello to Friedrich Hayek’s desire to let the market rip; Thatcher kept his book The Road to Serfdom in her handbag to waggle at her cabinet.
In 1970, I was travelling the country researching my book A Working Life. I took jobs at Unilever’s soap factory in Port Sunlight, Merseyside; in a cake factory; as a hospital ward orderly; and I joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps for a while. Working as a switch-cable operator in one of the 11 Lucas car parts factories in Birmingham (all now closed), I watched a strike by our foremen and charge hands, who were trying to restore their differentials – the extra pay they received above those they supervised. By the second day, 19,000 car workers were laid off, so just-in-time supply chains were fragile even then. However, unions were simply striving not to fall behind a rate of inflation that later soared to nearly 30%; the reality I saw was unrecognisable from the “grasping workers” vilified in the anti-union Tory press (Rupert Murdoch had bought the Sun the year before). Union membership peaked at 13m by 1979. Now less than half as many belong. Strong, 70s-style unions would never have let this current zero hours gig economy destroy rights that had been hard-earned back then.
Here’s another crucial contrast. Look at the relative ease with which Edward Heath’s Conservative government took the country into Europe in 1973, a move confirmed in Labour’s referendum two years later on a 67% to 33% vote. Yet now we’re out, a country adrift and wrenched apart by an acrimonious Brexit.
For all the turmoil, Britain’s democratic institutions never buckled. Now they come under greater threat from the prime minister himself, who assails the powers of regulators, judges, scrutiny committees and all the checks and balances of our unwritten constitution. He sends in his culture warriors to spearhead “a war on woke”. But for my friends and me, “woke” began in 1970 with Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, an electric shock of awakening. Spare Rib and Gay News heralded liberation for millions more. Each new iteration of activism rolls those freedoms forwards, as #MeToo energises a new generation to break silence on sexual harassment by bosses. Back then, I’m afraid, we wearily fended off beware-the-stationery-cupboard lecherous gropings, regarding them as part of women’s working life.
I joined the Guardian’s women’s page in 1977 when the great and funny writer Jill Tweedie broke every mould, challenging every assumption, including those of SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men, pretty much a one-woman crusade by Valerie Solanas. Jill never dodged the dilemma of “liberation” from men we loved and lived with: she had lost two children stolen abroad by an abusive husband. Her influence sometimes shocked her: a woman called her in the Guardian office one day from a public phone box, saying: “Right, I’ve left my husband. I’m in a caravan with my children, what do I do now?” Feminism was always plagued by rifts: Jill and I were locked in at an angry meeting by radical feminists threatening not to release us until the Guardian backed abortion of all male foetuses. Now, I tear my hair out over the latest feminist arguments over trans issues.
How far have we come? Never far enough. Of demands drawn up at the first National Women’s Liberation Conference in 1970, there is still no equal pay or opportunity, no abortion on demand, or free 24-hour nurseries. Despite some state aid, Britain still has some of the most expensive childcare in the developed world, costing parents more than their rent or mortgage, often for poorly trained staff paid a pittance.
The first women’s refuge opened in 1971 – but 80 women a year are still murdered by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. When I worked in a Wimpy bar half a century ago, no single women were allowed in after midnight: those who were unaccompanied were presumed to be prostitutes. It could be hard to get served in a pub. Some things slide backwards: as I buy presents for my newest granddaughter, I find the pinkification of “girls’” toys has got worse since my daughters were small: there were no pink space hoppers. Children are more shut in now, parents too afraid to let them roam, more anxious about threats of every kind, from strangers to impure food. There were always a thousand ways to make mothers miserable: in 1975, only 57% of women worked, with rightwing papers running a drumbeat of spurious research on the damage done to children to make working mothers guilty, often wheeling out John Bowlby’s “attachment theory”. Now women’s employment stands at 78%, but with the absolute necessity of two incomes to keep an insanely expensive roof over the family, full-time work and lack of childcare feels less like liberation for many.
Newly married in 1970, aged 23 with a full-time job, when I bought a washing machine I needed my husband’s signature on the hire purchase agreement. The rampant misogyny and racism of “jokes” in 70s TV comedy has made some of those programmes unrepeatable. The “political-correctness-gone-mad” brigade should be made to watch the revolting Benny Hill chasing bikini-clad young girls, or the sitcom Mind Your Language, with its riot of immigrant jokes in a night school class, to appreciate how Labour’s Equal Opportunities Commission and Race Relations Board in 1976 began the long, slow culture change. For all the Enoch Powellite anti-immigrant racism, it was a decade that saw more people emigrate than immigrate. As feminists, we thought Barbara Castle’s 1970 Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act would fix everything, but here we are, still fighting old battles. Three-quarters of mothers say they face discrimination at work for being pregnant, with shocking cases of sackings and demotions from the Pregnant Then Screwed campaign. Some glass ceilings shattered through that decade: the Old Bailey got its first woman judge in 1972 and now there are equal numbers, but still only 28% of university professors are women.
By the 70s, the worst brutalities of childbirth were ending: Sheila Kitzinger had rebelled against enforced pubic hair shaving and giving birth with legs strapped up in stirrups. I had my first two children in the 70s, and I worked as a ward orderly in a maternity ward in a run-down hospital, and it’s striking that women had kinder care and attention then. A full week in hospital was a blessing for many, and health visitors were closer at hand for everyone. My daughters were turfed out within hours of their children being born and, compared with 2015, there are a third fewer health visitors, leaving them to struggle with impossible caseloads.
A great landmark of the decade was Harold Wilson’s Open University. With its first students starting in 1971, it offered second chances, especially to women, and is now Britain’s biggest university by far. Women’s new freedom and opportunity helped triple divorce rates in the 70s: better child benefits made escape easier. But the penalty for single parenthood is higher now, with 49% of children in lone-parent families living below the poverty line, according to the Child Poverty Action Group. We have more things now, but many more children are left outside the consumer society.
Now, civilisation is on a climate knife-edge, but then world-ending fear focused on nuclear war. Alarm at extinct species and environmental pollution was rife, but concern could be gently laughed at in the Surbiton of 70s sitcom The Good Life. I was keenly aware, because my father, a millenarian by nature, founded an ill-fated agricultural commune in Monmouthshire in the 70s, designed to be self-sustaining. He used to wag a finger at me and my city ways, warning I’d come crawling to their door begging for cabbages when my unsustainable lifestyle caught up with me. The venture collapsed in 1979.
For a family on the left, with a relaxed attitude to sex, I don’t think there was any greater gap between my parents and me than between me and my children and they and my grandchildren. I went on an anti-Vietnam war demo with my father, and pro-EU membership and climate protests with my grandchildren. But I see how each generation has a greater sensitivity on race, gender and privilege, which I find encouraging. Here’s the greatest generational difference: we boomers had it all in the 70s – free university, plentiful good jobs with pensions, cheap homes to buy, but none of those are there for millennials.
Don’t be tricked by false parallels between the 70s and now. Look at the hard economic facts: in the 70s, Britain reached its most equal point ever in pay and wealth. In a century-long trajectory, super-taxes and inheritance taxes had gradually eroded the mega-incomes of the rich to pay for a growing welfare state with pensions, benefits and the NHS. That’s how my generation was taught O-level social history: as a story of unstoppable progress from reforming factory acts, working and voting rights to a social security safety net. To understand the 70s, remember that the unions’ struggle was about holding on to that progress against a tidal wave of inflation.
In 1979, that battle was lost and everything went into reverse. The slump of 1980-81 caused by an extreme austerity budget tipped millions, especially the young, into unemployment, which rose above 11%. Later, deregulating the City blew the lid off top earnings, so the income and wealth gap widened astronomically. The victors’ history tells a story of militant strikers making outrageous demands, designed to justify Thatcher’s crushing of the unions and the deep inequality that has endured ever since as a result.
As I write, the number of people falling into poverty is growing rapidly, after universal credit cuts. Last month’s budget cemented the fact that pay – stagnant for the past decade – will continue to be so through the next.
I can see why some look back now, imagining the 2020s – full of political, economic and environmental doom – as a reprise of those times. Look how many of that era’s icons retain their cultural clout. I’ve just read John le Carré’s posthumous bestseller Silverview, and I urge his 1974 classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on my older grandchildren as the best evocation of a cold war that framed our thinking and fears. Debbie Harry, still magnificent when she goes to Glastonbury, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant back in the charts, ditto Nile Rodgers of Chic – 70s icons have been revived or never went away. Back then, the UK could win Eurovision song contests, too, but a repeat of that feat seems unlikely now that everyone hates us.
Style? The flowery dress I’m wearing for this photoshoot reminds me of Laura Ashley in her heyday, though her clothes strove to be more authentic Victorian country print copies, with mutton chop shoulders, and I even had one with a bustle. Yes, I had an egg chair, but – as Aldi shoppers will find – they’re more for posing than comfort. And I did have one room with wallpaper that looked like fried eggs. Are these lurids really back in vogue? Not with me.
But do reject the rightwing trashing of the 70s as a time of “decline” and “failure”, the Austin Allegro of decades. Thatcherites needed to invent that history to disguise their social vandalism and promote the myth of her glittering capitalist renaissance. Take it from me, and from all the social statistics: the 70s were a good time to be alive.