Tuesday, 12 February 2008

1970s redux

In the latest Sunday Times Magazine, Bryan Appleyard has re-assessed the seventies and decided that they weren’t just a ten year long bad hair day. He concludes:

The full reassessment of the 1970s must . . . take into account two great truths. First, it was the age of transition from then to now. Battles were fought and won that made us who we are today. Some victories were benign – few now would argue against the liberation of gays and women, and environmentalism. Others were distinctly ambiguous – hyper-individualism has gone, everybody agrees, too far, though nobody knows how to restrain its excesses. Second, it was a period that produced a disproportionate share of the greatest art of the postwar period. Sam Tyler [in tv’s Life on Mars] was right to leap off that building back into the era of Gene Hunt and Mark III Cortinas. It felt more alive. The 1970s had the Allegro, but they weren’t “shit-brown”. They were golden.

After years of denigrating and trying to forget them, I agree that the 1970s should be looked at afresh. In economic terms, they were years of unhappy decline. Western countries experienced deep anxiety and feelings of national malaise. To the right, the seventies marked the catastrophic collapse of the Keynesian (or, in the US, liberal) economic policy consensus in the west. The presidents and prime minister of the time are usually derided as doomed stewards of decline who failed miserably to make the old, statist policies work. The “left” and liberals often depict the 1970s as lost, unhappy years, devoid of social progress.

The economic history of the time is, however, more complicated than is often painted. James Callaghan’s government tamed inflation for a time and avoided mass unemployment. Nor were the leaders of the time always stuck in a statist, corporatist time warp. James Callaghan’s government experimented with “monetarist” policies and cut public spending in real terms to the sorts of levels we have seen in recent years. It was, after all, Callaghan who told the 1976 Labour conference that "spending your way out of a recession" was no longer an option. In the US, Jimmy Carter was defeated partly because of the high interest rate policies pursued by Paul Volcker’s Federal Reserve. All sides of politics now accept and follow these sorts of policies. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did not invent them all on their own.

A big re-think of liberal and centre-left politics can be traced back to the 1970s. For all this faults, Carter recognised the big tensions between the cultural conservatism and economic resentments of many “middle ground” American voters and the policies pursued by liberalism’s champions. That was one of the main reasons he was elected president in 1976. Bill Clinton won twice in the 1990s largely because he was able to bridge these sorts of chasms.

For all the economic and political failures, the seventies were not a dead decade. Edward Heath’s government made an appalling mess of the economy but he took Britain into Europe, a major achievement. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 -- both, it must be said, by Labour governments. A new law on domestic violence was also passed. In the US, Richard Nixon disgraced his office. But he left behind the world’s first environmental protection agency and ground-breaking legislation on protecting endangered species.

No, I do not see the seventies as a golden decade. I grew up in New Zealand and witnessed the ending of a number of golden weathers during those years. They still make me shudder sometimes. The great inflation and the oil shock hit New Zealand very hard. In 1975, a well-meaning but inept Labour government was swept out of office, thrashed by the unspeakable Robert Muldoon. Then inflation stayed in double digits, the economy stagnated, unemployment started going up and for a while the mood got ugly. But the decade also saw the rise of the women’s movement, which had more impact, more quickly than in many English-speaking countries. New Zealand was home to a strong environmental movement with substantial public support, as well as the world’s first green party. A cultural renaissance started and a more outward-looking, cosmopolitan society started to emerge. That part of Bryan Appleyard’s article strikes a chord with me.

My point is that this much-maligned decade deserves to be re-assessed. Many of the most important accepted wisdoms of today’s politics can be traced back to the seventies. So can some very important social progress. But I certainly don’t mourn them, the way some people do the sixties. Nor am I about to rush out and buy any progressive rock albums.

1 comment:

Ed said...

The interesting thing about the 70s is that they are to the 60s what we are now to the 1980s. But if the 70s were the 60s gone bad, where are todays warriors of the new right who will shape what comes next? Let's hope it is not the doom-saying statists of the Green Left...

Still any decade that brought us Roobarb and Custard cant be all bad.