According to writer and broadcaster David Hepworth, 1971 was the best year for music albums ever:
“This is the year of Hunky Dory, Sticky Fingers, Every Picture Tells A Story, Pink Floyd’s Meddle, Elton John’s Madman Across the Water, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin IV. Those are just the British ones. Think about it. If there had been a Mercury Music Prize in 1971 these would have been on the shortlist. These would be the Arctic Monkeys and Pulps of their day. The shortlist would possibly have been rounded out by a few token left-field items like John Martyn’s Bless The Weather, No Roses by Shirley Collins and the Albion Band or Steeleye Span’s Ten Man Mop.
“In California Joni Mitchell was putting out Blue, The Doors LA Woman, James Taylor Mud Slide Slim, David Crosby If I Could Only Remember My Name, Graham Nash Songs For Beginners and Carole King Tapestry. It was the year of California.”
Nor were music albums the only media to remain popular to this day. On 2 January 1971, millions of Britons settled down to watch Terror of the Autons – the eighth series of the popular science fiction show, Dr Who.
That children today continue to follow the exploits of the time travelling Gallifreyan, is not the only similarity with 1971; and the parallels are no cause for celebration.
Then as now, the nation was divided over Europe. The last remnants of the British Empire had finally collapsed following a round of independence movements across Africa and Asia in the 1960s. The fig leaf of the Commonwealth continued to allow Britons to believe they that Britain was a global power; but this belief jarred with the realities of economic decline. Entry into the Common Market was viewed as the only means of reviving Britain’s economic fortunes.
Immigration control was on the agenda too. Although Enoch Powell’s ministerial ambitions were at an end, the echoes of his 1968 “rivers of blood” speech were to be found in the Immigration Act 1971, which removed the automatic right of commonwealth citizens to resettle in Britain.
In 1971, a Tory government was also playing simplistic public schoolboy politics with industrial relations. The infantile idea that if only we make strikes illegal then strikes will not happen, was made law in the shape of the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which sought to make the trades union leadership responsible for all strike action while limiting the conditions under which strikes could be called. As with the current government’s decision to make strikes unlawful unless more than 50 percent of eligible voters vote for them, the unforeseen consequences made the Act unworkable. The trade union leadership were put in a position where they dared not call strikes even when workers’ grievances were legitimate. Predictably, workers took matters into their own hands and stuck anyway. In response, trade union leaders were arrested and jailed; effectively removing the moderate voices that might have brought unofficial strikes to an end. The fiasco ended with government ministers holding meetings in Pentonville jail with imprisoned union leaders to try to end strikes that neither side could control. The 1971 experience begs a simple question of the supporters of the 2016 proposals – how are you going to end a strike that has the support of more than 50 percent of the eligible electorate?
The lights were primed to go out in 1971 too. Whereas today the failure of successive governments has left the UK with insufficient generating capacity and an increasing dependence upon imported fossil fuels, in 1971 the issue was industrial relations. In what was to turn out to be the apex of the National Union of Mineworkers’ power, the Tory government were already putting plans in place to trigger – and hopefully defeat – a miners’ strike. In the end, Britain’s then dependence on coal was such that the miners were able to cut the power. It was to take a future Tory government – backed by the power of North Sea oil and gas – to drive the stake into the heart of the UK mining industry.
These were merely the outward symptoms of what, at the time, was regarded as ‘the British disease’ – a collapsing economy, falling productivity, worsening industrial relations, and increasingly powerless government. As the global monetary system fell apart around them, prompted by Nixon taking the Dollar off the gold standard, the captains of British industry discovered that their businesses were unprofitable. The UK was not living within its means – it was importing far more than it exported; with the risk that the value of the pound would fall.
Things deteriorated as the decade went on. Led by Saudi Arabia, OPEC set up an oil embargo against the west. The miners struck, and the government responded with the three day week. As things worsened, Edward Heath posed the question, “who governs Britain?” To which the electorate responded, “Not you!” But while the incoming minority Labour government was able to buy off the trade unions (at least for a few years), the fundamentals behind Britain’s economic decline remained in place.
In the popular mythology, it was the economics of Thatcherism that saved the day. This, of course overlooks the fact that the monetarist policies brought in in 1979 had a devastating impact on the UK economy. The industrial base shrank beyond the point of repair with no sight or sign of the new business growth that was supposed to save us. By 1982, with the economy in ruins and rioting in Britain’s inner cities, Thatcher’s leadership was in doubt. The Argentinian generals rescued Thatcher; and while the UK basked in the glow of the only kind of military victory Britain could have won, monetarist economics were quietly dropped, and the UK was allowed to go on a massive debt-based spending spree; underwritten by the black gold that had then started flowing from the North Sea.
Today we face all of the same problems. Productivity is in a dire state. Michael Baxter at the Share Centre argues that almost everything is wrong with the UK economy:
“Economics Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman once said ‘Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything’. In the final quarter of last year, UK output per hour contracted by 1.2 per cent. If productivity growth had continued at the pre 2008 pace, as indeed was once expected, then right now output per hour would be 14 per cent greater. If that had happened, the UK economy would be roughly 14 per cent bigger, wages roughly 14 per cent higher, and thanks to the way that taxation rates are calculated, income tax receipts would be more than 14 per cent greater. That in turn would have meant that the budget deficit would have morphed into surplus, public debt would be falling, and austerity would have been irrelevant. Stock markets would no doubt have been soaring. It would appear that by the definition used by Professor Krugman to describe productivity, then in the final quarter of last year almost everything was wrong with the UK economy.”
Britain faces a good old fashioned balance of payments crisis fuelled by a credit based consumer binge sucking cheap imports into the UK. As James Burton at This is Money notes:
“A large [current account] deficit means Britain is over-reliant on foreign money and exposed to shocks in the global economy. There were ominous rumblings of just such a crash in January, when Chinese turmoil gave worldwide trading its worst start to a year since the financial crisis. And two major economic groups are warning an international crisis is a real possibility.”
According to Larry Elliott at the Guardian the entire UK economy is on life support:
“This is not the way it was supposed to be. When George Osborne became chancellor six years ago he pledged a new growth model – one based on exports and humming factory output rather than debt-financed consumer spending… The picture in the spring of 2016 is the opposite of what Osborne promised. Manufacturing production in February fell by 1.1% on the month and was 1.8% lower than in the same month in 2015. It is below its previous peak reached in the first three months of 2008. Steel production was at its lowest level in seven years – and that was before Tata announced it was selling its UK concerns.
“So, here’s the picture. Manufacturing is in a desperately poor state. Consumer demand is robust and cannot be met domestically. The trade deficit is widening. History suggests that this does not end well.”
Missing from the 1971 parallel is that Britain no longer has the massive energy boost from the North Sea to look forward to. As former Wales First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, reflecting on his time as an MP recalled:
“Back then, whoever was running the Government had this amazing ability to spend oil revenues. Governments could afford things. They didn’t have to worry about where the next few quid was coming from. The Falklands War was eminently affordable. Paying the cost of the rocketing unemployment benefit bill, as dole queues doubled, then trebled, wasn’t a problem.”
The North Sea peaked in 1999. Today it is producing about a third of the oil and gas that was recovered at the turn of the century. The untapped oil and gas that remains is in smaller pockets that are harder and thus more expensive to recover. Income from the North Sea no longer covers the cost of oil and gas imports. Today, the government is writing off taxes and offering exploration grants to anyone prepared to continue extraction and exploration. But the major oil and gas companies are packing up.
Herein lays Britain’s deepest problem. Since the early 1980s, oil and gas have underwritten UK borrowing. The pound has value because it is underwritten by oil. But now that the oil is running out, the UK is threatened by a flight of foreign capital away from the Pound. If this happens, the value of the Pound will plummet, and the cheap imports that have substituted for wage increases for the best part of 40 years will no longer be available.
Like 1971, the UK stands on the edge of economic failure. The lights are about to go out, manufacturing is in freefall, the cost of living is about to increase, and government is toying with an approach to industrial relations that can only end in tears.
There are those who suggest that music and popular culture are two of the very few things that made Britain great again after the woes of the 1970s. Perhaps these exports will be the chink of light in the gathering economic darkness. But then again, perhaps, like David Hepworth, I am just another late baby boomer of a certain age, looking back on his youth through rose tinted glasses. The year 1971 also brought us some music howlers like Clive Dunn’s Grandad, Bennie Hill’s Ernie, and Middle Of The Road’s Tweedle Dee Tweedle Dum. And today’s re-imagined Dr Who is very different to the cardboard sets, cheap special effects and wooden acting in Jon Pertwee’s day. Maybe we’ve just forgotten how difficult life was back then.