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The Turbulent Seventies

The 1970s saw the undisputed return of economic crisis as a prominent feature of the British political scene after the years of post-war boom. This economic crisis was characterised by “stagflation”: while unemployment rose to over a million and then beyond for the first time since the Second World War, inflation also took off in spectacular fashion, the annual rate of price increases reaching 26.9 percent during 1976. Add to this two miners’ strikes, widespread power cuts, a three-day week under Ted Heath’s Tory Government, Labour Chancellor Denis Healey being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund, the infamous “Winter of Discontent”, and finally the election of the right-wing Thatcher administration in 1979, this was a decade that was anything but dull. This is not to mention the renewed “troubles” in Northern Ireland, a spate of hijackings, the continued rise of the feminist movement, the growth of both the far left and far right, together with seemingly endless debates about the UK’s relationship with what was then called the “Common Market”.

For most of the decade the Socialist Standard remained rather more staid than the political events and processes it was analysing. Over the majority of this period it was even more of a text-based journal that it had been in the 1960s, with large, clear print, bold headlines and the occasional cartoon. The one apparent concession to extravagance was the glossy paper that characterised its appearance.

The heightened political activity of the 1970s saw a commensurate increase in the space devoted in the pages of the Standard to political enquirers and opponents. On occasion, the correspondence columns would run to several pages as those casting around for political answers to the problems of the time encountered the Party’s unique analysis of events. The number of theoretical articles remained a noticeable feature of the Standard too, especially regarding economics, where the Party had much to say in response to both the events of the time and the arguments of the political left.

The selection of articles chosen here give a mere flavour of the analysis offered by the Party during this period, beginning with an examination of the return of the “Irish problem” for the British government. The development of the “civil rights movement” in Northern Ireland, supported by Catholics and the political left from the late 1960s onwards, paralleled a rise in sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics which led to the introduction in 1969 of British troops as a “peace-keeping” force, the Protestants vociferously seeking to defend a perceived privilege in political and economic status. The associated resurgence of terrorist activity by paramilitary organisations like the IRA is examined in “Shadow of a Gunman – the Irish Republican Army”.

The next article, “Up In Arms” is concerned with another political phenomenon which had earlier roots – the ‘women’s liberation movement’ that had developed during the 1960s alongside libertarian demands for social and sexual freedoms. As our article demonstrates, while some of the aims of the feminist movement (as it would be called today) were entirely understandable – indeed laudable – the movement as a whole was crippled in the main by its rejection of class as the primary social category in capitalist society.

The next three articles deal with some of the economic problems that made the 1970s infamous. “The End of Full Employment” details the rise in unemployment which was to make one of the key elements in the so-called “post-war consensus” of British politics untenable, namely that governments can and should intervene in the economy to prevent the return of economic depression. “Anti-Affluence the Debt-ridden Society” is an analysis of the rise – and consequences – of the use of credit in society, not merely in order to pay for consumer goods during booms (as with the rise of hire purchase in the 1950s) but as a means of economic survival during slumps. Meanwhile, inflation and the massive price rises that beset the economy under both Labour and Conservative governments alike during the 1970s is the main subject covered by “The Crisis: Capitalism’s Stranglehold on the Labour Government”.

On 1 January 1973 the UK officially joined the European Economic Community, but dissent from the left-wing of the Labour Party led then Prime Minister Harold Wilson to hold a referendum on continued membership in 1975, the first referendum ever held in Britain. “The Common Market: In or Out – Does It Matte” was the Socialist Standard’s rounded analysis of the background to the referendum and the main issues involved.

Lastly, the article “Democracy and the Silicon Chip” is included here because of its discussion of the rapid growth of computerisation during this period and – perhaps more importantly – of how micro-electronic processors could practically assist the organisation and democratic administration of a socialist society.