It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Strikes, higher taxes, inflation, a growing state, shortages, petrol queues: the comparison to the 1970s, now the best part of half a century ago, was bound to be made. How does it stand up?
In one sense, not very well. The shortages that we’re experiencing now, and the price rises that are following, are a bottleneck phenomenon – the consequence of economies opening up again as the pandemic begins to fade. Supply isn’t keeping up with demand.
There was much more to the turmoil of the 1970s, which was dominated in Britain by two factors. The first was systemic inflation. There was no year during the decade during which it was lower than six per cent: in 1975, it came in at 24 per cent.
For all the asset price rises of the quantitative easing experiment, not to mention changes in measurement, there is no comparison between the experience of 50 years ago and that of the last decade.
The second was the trade unions. The peak year for membership was 1979, when it reached just over 13 million. Today, it is about six and a half millon.
Keynesians believed that union pressure for higher wages was a key driver of inflation. Monetarists stressed the role of Ministers rather than that unions: governments were printing too much money.
This quarrel took place within capitalism itself, and was decisively won by the monetarists. After the “winter of discontent” 1978-1979, with rubbish uncollected in the streets and the dead lying unburied in Liverpool, came a changing of the guard.
Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election with enough of a majority to govern effectively, and set about dismantling the post-1945 settlement of which union power and, latterly, high inflation were a part.
State industries were privatised, union power reduced, the supply side reformed, incomes policies abandoned: the tripartite model of government, business and the unions negotiating the management of the economy brought to an end.
Today’s story is very different. Nationalised industries are fewer, unions weaker, manufacturing smaller, inflation lower and governments stronger.
The 1970s were bookended by Conservative governments with majorities of about 30, but between them no administration had more than a bare majority. Labour’s struggles after the two elections of 1974 are commemorated by James Graham in This House.
By contrast, Boris Johnson has a majority of 83 and, even if the elections of the 2010s allowed no single party a comfortable majority, there’s no comparison between the fragile Lib-Lab pact of the late 1970s and the Coalition’s emphatic majority of well over 50.
You may counter that though much has changed, little has changed. Taxes as a percentage of GDP hit 35 per cent during the late 1960s, hit a low point of 28 per cent during the early 1990s, and have been on an upward path since.
In 2025, they are due to match that late 1960s percentage – not far short of the 37 per cent post-war high. The size of the state has shown a similar bounceback.
In 1975, it hit 44 per cent of GDP, then its highest since the late 1940s. This year, it stands at 50 per cent, its highest since 1946 and therefore, it can fairly be said, since the war itself.
Covid, of course, helps to explain the surge, just as the afternath of financial crisis did for a similar one, though to a lower point (44 per cent in 2011). But since it took place we have been nowhere near the 30 per cents or so of the early 2000s.
If the nationalised sector is smaller and the trade unions weaker, the Keynesian settlement of the post-war period dead, governments stronger and Labour exiled, what is going on?
Our answer would begin with Britain’s ageing population. As the Office for National Statistics puts it, “the changing and ageing structure of our population is driven primarily by two factors”.
“Firstly, improvements in life expectancy mean that people are living longer and reaching older ages. Along with this, there has been a decrease in fertility, people are having fewer children and are having children later in life.”
That has meant a shift to more spending on healthcare and social care. By the end of the Coalition years, public spending on the state pension had risen to 4.6 per cent from 3.6 per cent since 1997, and on heathcare from 4.4 per cent to 6.9 per cent.
To cut to the chase, no less than £382 billion will be spent on state pensions and the NHS next year, out of a total of just over £1 trillion: well over a third of the total.
The ageing of the population is less marked in Britain than among some of our European neighbours, but it is set to grow, and to date public spending on it has been relatively protected. See what happened to departmental spending under the Coalition.
And so the stage was set for the high immigration, low wage, South East-based, financial services-orientated economy of the Thatcher-Blair-Coalition years – with its arguably overvalued currency, and globalised economic setting.
So, no: we aren’t going back to the 1970s, even if inflation gets a grip – because the context in which the size of the state and the share of tax is growing is different.
And if the years of Heath and Wilson were so chaotic and defeated, with the three day week, blackouts, and a distiguished general preparing a trained force to defeat a general strike, why Dickins’ best of times, as well as his worst of times?
Because we can’t help seeing the past through the golden mist of nostalgia, especially perhaps if we weren’t actually there at the time: Morecambe and Wise, glam rock, Erin Pizzey, David Steele, platform shoes, Saturday Night Fever…(and Gene Hunt).
The hard left look back fondly on the 1970s because they were more equal. Communism had not yet collapsed, creating a more mobile world with its rootless super-rich.
The far right glance back with the same emotion, because Britain was more white. You can prefer today’s more multicultural and less equal country, with its transformation in the work and status of women, without conceding that change has been seamless.
Brexit was a revolt for national independence against the globalised settlement of which the enlarged EU was a part. Seven-seven, the Manchester area horror, and the murder of Lee Rigby were Islamist extremism in terrorist form.
And in many respects, though certainly not in terms of sexual freedom, there was more liberty: speech was freer, and the reach if not the size of the state smaller: families were more cohesive (and child abuse less reported).
Indeed, if you really want a levelled-up Britain – in its way, a code for an England more like that of 50 years ago, in terms of the balance between the economic power of its parts – the surest means of getting it might mean more than the localist solutions that this site favours.
It would entail taxing people as members of families, not as individuals; more policy focus on work-life balance; cracking the childcare problem; transferring tax allowances; experimenting with more family hubs.
Some of those idea are brand new approaches and others are very old ones. We aren’t returning to the 1970s, but can look for the good in them, limited though it was. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishess…