Britain In The 1970s

A decade that is both derided and revered …

Despite all the bad things to be revealed about life in Britain during the 1970s, statistics actually show that living standards were at their best levels for most ordinary families in the decade. This is despite the fact that the years were very difficult for the country, both economically and politically. So what exactly happened in this period? It was a decade which saw four Prime Ministers, industrial unrest, horrendous IRA bombings, dubious fashion styles, a mixture of successful and disastrous motor cars, not to mention the coloured bathroom suites!

After years of Socialist rule, the Conservatives were returned to power under their new leadership of Edward Heath. Like all politicians, he made laughable promises that would effectively reinvent the wheel. This was at a time when Britain was resting on its laurels and enjoying post-war affluence, oblivious to the fact that other nations were becoming both more competitive and innovative. It was Edward Heath who sealed the UK membership of what was then the Common Market of Europe, but he would also reign supreme over a financial crash, a miner’s strike and an ensuing energy crisis. Amidst all this, more people were becoming home owners as lending rules were relaxed. New suburban homes were springing up offering the latest in modern design and that ubiquitous choice of coloured bathroom suite. How many readers will be familiar with the pink and lemon suites, not to mention the then popular avocado?

As is the trend in a buoyant building period, people were also splashing out on trendy 70s-style furnishings. Top of the list was a colour television, which although introduced in the late 1960s, was still very much a luxury item. Popular tv shows included Dad’s Army, The Liver Birds, Pebble Mill At One, and Love Thy Neighbour. Surprisingly, familiar titles such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale, A Question Of Sport, and MasterMind still dominate our schedules nearly 40 years on! It was a time when normal working-class people could afford a few luxuries and the latest trend in toys for their children. How many remember the Raleigh Chopper bicycle and the ludicrous space hopper?

Another trend to take off in the 1970s was the package holiday abroad. The number of people flying off to Spain or similar increased by a staggering 200% as a fortnight in the sun became affordable to the masses. This did nothing for the domestic economy which was already suffering as a result of non-competitiveness. The decade also saw the Silver Jubilee of HM The Queen in 1977 and way back in February 1971,  our currency was finally decimalised. Gone were the 240 old pennies to the pound, to be replaced by 100 new pennies to the pound. Inevitably, people were suspicious that prices would rise as a result but in truth this was not generally the case although high inflation would soon contribute to higher prices.

In order to try and combat inflation, Edward Heath introduced a stringent incomes policy leading to a devastating miners’ strike. He went to the country in 1974 and lost the election to the former Labour PM Harold Wilson who managed to get the country back to work but inflation reached a staggering 30% and unemployment peaked at over a million. Eventually he resigned his leadership of his party and was succeeded by James Callaghan who failed to get unions to limit pay increases to 5% resulting in yet another bout of crippling strikes … the period from 1978-79 now known as The Winter of Discontent. Such was the state of the country at the time that more people actually emigrated than entered the country. Even Callaghan had previously voiced disdain at the state of our nation with our dominance in the world shrinking and the country lacking economic strength. Not surprisingly, the 1979 election returned power to the Conservative party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher who became the first, and to date, only woman Prime Minister of Britain. This was to herald a new era and decade, itself renowned for many dubious and life-affecting changes.

So the 1970s was a period of great political instability here in Britain. We had major union uprising, long power cuts and reduced working weeks, diabolical destruction of innocent lives, a huge surge in credit card debt as people were tempted by the latest household products, absurd fashion sense … the mini skirt, flared trousers, platform-soled shoes … and without doubt a major decline in moral standards, However, despite everything, some people look back on the decade with a weird affection. This will undoubtedly be the reaction of many no matter which is their defining decade.

A second article will look more closely at some of the other changes in the decade.

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