'When the Lights Went Out' has a prescient relevance to today
By NOAH KEATE
Andy Beckett's book is available to purchase from all major booksellers.
The present day can be described using any adjective apart from easy. Educationally, exam season has arrived. Economically, the global recovery from Covid has shattered national finances, with governments racketing up huge debt. Geopolitically, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has permanently altered the world order in a manner perhaps not seen since the end of the Cold War. A cost of living crisis at home and war overseas can make it comforting to seek escapism in the past.
Unless you’re reading Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, that is. Containing numerous parallels to the present era half a century on, Beckett in the late 2000s published this chronicle of a decade too easily forgotten despite its monumental impact on our lives today. Written at the dawn of the global financial crash, it still holds a huge relevance 12 years later. With Middle Eastern tensions and discontent with Europe at the time, it is both immensely comforting and demoralising to recognise that things were not all that great in the past.
Naturally, given the book’s title, Beckett has focused his research on the British Isles from 1970 to 1980. Though global tensions and the role of other nations are hinted at, this is a book of domestic concern first and foremost. This acts as both its strength and weakness. Allowing a deep insight into how the UK was affected, particularly from a political level, can mean broader global issues don’t always receive the attention they deserve.
Beckett, however, more than makes up for this with the tremendous degree of research undertaken. Beginning with Edward Heath’s surprise election victory in 1970, Beckett covers an election far too often ignored or dismissed. Beating Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Beckett charts how someone so resolutely thought of as a winner (winning four elections for Labour) could be defeated too.
Though Edward Heath’s premiership is broadly looked upon negatively today – not least because of the actions of his successor as Conservative party leader – it is striking at just how much his government was able to achieve. Negotiating British entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), Heath managed where Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers had failed before him. Similarly, as Beckett charts from numerous interviews, there was a clear and unarguable ambition running through his government.
Where gridlock occurred was through the unions. The combination of the oil crisis embargo in 1973 and union pressure in the UK led to a three day week, creating an energy crisis which quite literally created national blackouts. I am someone who is staunchly supportive of trade unions and the right to strike; however, even defenders of the union movement must recognise that they were holding the UK hostage. Indeed, it is, to me, the main difference between the 1970s and today: the complete absence of any union power or significance at all.
Beckett charts how an early election by Heath backfired, allowing for the return of his rival to Number 10 after four years away. I was immensely surprised to read how fatigued and boring Harold Wilson found his second term of office. The last Prime Minister to serve over two separate terms, he appeared desperate to resign and clearly did not hold the same passion as his first term. For someone who still enjoys a strong reputation within the Labour movement today, this was striking.
When the Lights Went Out, despite its visual imagery as a title, is very much a political rather than social history of Britain. I would have loved for Beckett to explore more of the UK, be it northern England or Scotland, to better capture how the decade was experienced across the country. Indeed, though I am a lover of Whitehall politics as much as the next person, it can allow the book to fall into that Westminster-centric category that forgets political and social change does not just happen in Parliament.
Perhaps the leader most associated with the seventies is the one who arrived at its tail-end. Though the success of Thatcher in 1979 is today seen as having been inevitable, that was far from the true case. Being trained to give the right intonation in her voice, she trailed Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in personal popularity right up until the election. Indeed, Beckett presents how luck was a hugely impactful factor on her success. Whether it was the unions failing to compromise and so fuelling the Winter of Discontent; the SNP and Liberals voting with the opposition in the infamous vote of confidence; or the general fatigue of the Labour government; these factors, rather than any of her personal attributes, undoubtedly contributed to her election victory. Indeed, the moderate nature of the 1979 Conservative manifesto suggested it would take until the Falklands War for the country to become truly galvanised behind Thatcher.
The 1970s was undoubtedly a hugely impactful political period. With great economic uncertainty and widespread change following the 1960s social revolution and geopolitical disputes, it held a huge impact for those alive at the time. Yet the rest of us still face the consequences of that period today. The resulting alteration in economic hegemony sparked by Thatcher and Reagan - weakening union power and highlighting the primacy of the market - is the most pertinent example of this. Even as the state became a vital necessity of support during the Covid-19 pandemic, Beckett’s book is a rich, essential chronicle for demonstrating how ideologies do not easily change. Rather, they require convincing voters over numerous years.
Image: Faber Books / Andy Beckett