Britain in the 1970s
Jimi Hendrix was not the most abstemious of musicians. His flamboyance with a Fender Stratocaster was matched by an appetite for LSD and a fondness for the drink - it went with the territory. This was the man whose playing style was the psychedelic reanimation of the blues as played by Albert King and Muddy Waters, powered by British-built Marshall amplifiers and given a modern rock strut by his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, featuring Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. 'Are You Experienced' , 'Axis: Bold As Love' and 'Electric Ladyland' had assured his place in the pantheon of rock greats. That the British were the first to properly take to him made him seem like one of us. But on the morning of 18th September 1970 he was found dead in a Notting Hill hotel, having choked on his own vomit. On the eve of the inaugural Glastonbury Festival , music lost one of its most colourful icons.
Losing the colour from his cheeks was Edward Heath . The Prime Minister presided over an economy that had tied itself into a Gordian knot. Inflationary pressures were almost visible to the naked eye. Unemployment was high. Heath's Conservative government (which included Margaret Thatcher in the cabinet) was principally concerned with curbing trade union power; the striking British worker would be a leitmotif for the decade. Even if union bosses could be talked out of striking, even they could not exert full control over their members. The British worker was not generally well-paid, and there was a growing militancy to their discontent. Also, The Troubles in Northern Ireland would reach their bloody peak under Heath's leadership. Constitutionally, he had the awkward issue of Europe. The prime minister's blood pressure must have been inflationary.
Northern Ireland's sectarian political divide had been a relatively well kept secret to people living on the British mainland. Civil rights marches did not raise much interest, even if a night of rioting ensued. But the rise of the Provisional IRA brought bullets and bombs into focus. When bombings and assassinations were countered by loyalist paramilitaries, such as the UDA and UVF, Northern Ireland was sentenced to decades of bloodshed. The death toll peaked in 1972 when 496 people were killed - half of which civilians. British soldiers were deployed in August 1969 , but the security situation was one that the government misunderstood. Initially welcomed, the soldiers soon came under attack from groups of nationalist youths. As the cycle of violence escalated, Northern Ireland became unmanageable, its differences seemingly intractable. One of the most shocking incidents, one which would carry a brutal legacy, was Bloody Sunday , when a civil rights protest in Derry saw soldiers of the First Parachute Regiment open fire on protesters.
The march came at a time when rioting from Derry's nationalist youths could be considered a regional pursuit. All marches were banned in an effort to keep disturbances to a minimum. But despite the throwing of stones and other missiles, the march of 30th January 1972 was passing off without great incident. The soldiers fired without warning. Once it was over, thirteen lay dead at the scene, with another dying of his wounds in hospital. The effects were devastating. All trust in the British Army had evaporated amongst nationalists. The IRA's membership soared. The 1972 Widgery Inquiry was dismissed by nationalists as a cover-up. It wasn't until the conclusion of the Saville Inquiry, launched in 1998 and costing about £195 million, that a sense of closure was found. On the 15th June 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron commented on the inquiryís findings, stating that the killings were "unjustified and unjustifiable".
It wasn't just the conflict in Northern Ireland that was putting pressure on Heath's beleaguered administration. In 1973, war between Israel and Egypt emptied British petrol tanks. Motorways had their speed capped at 50mph to help preserve petrol stocks. It got worse. The three-day working week was enforced in '74. Television broadcasting stopped at 10:30pm. Post-watershed programming was restricted to shorts. With people encouraged to see to their daily toilet in the dark, sharing bathwater and a nationwide parsimony when it came to putting central heating on, Britain was shutting down. Would the last one out please switch the lights off?
With the country in a bit of a state, the general election saw a Labour campaign win under Harold Wilson , recording a slim majority of seats. Harold Wilson was prime minister, albeit in a hung parliament. Maybe things were not so much different back then: the economy was in ruins and the Conservatives under Heath were courting the Liberals' affections. It didn't work. Wilson's minority government were charged with rousing British fortunes. But Wilson's second term in office ended after just two years, his resignation announced on 16th March 1976 . Citing exhaustion, owing probably to the early onset of Alzheimerís, Wilson was succeeded by James Callaghan . 1976 was the year air travel went supersonic, with Concorde making her maiden flight on the 21st January. Whilst it was champagne and extra legroom on the skies from London to Bahrain and Paris to Rio, the recession was still crippling the country. Callaghan's focus was on reducing inflation and unemployment - the economy was choking on both.
Inflation had peaked in 1975 at 26.9 per cent. So empty was the public purse that Callaghan had to approach the International Monetary Fund for a crisis loan of £2.3billion in 1976. A bit like borrowing a tenner from your parents at the age of 40, this was humiliating. Public sector spending was iced as a condition for the loan - not the most inspiring fiscal omen for Callaghan's plans to reduce unemployment. Everyone was now feeling the pinch as Britain shuddered to one of its most notorious moments of economic dysfunction: the 1978/79 Winter Of Discontent. This was the denouement of all Britain's enduring industrial relations crises of the decade. Since 1975, the government had been entreating the TUC to accept an incomes policy which would see wage rises capped, for wage rises merely exacerbated inflationary pressures. The TUC, however, wanted to see an end to the incomes policy within a couple of years; as the rate of inflation fell, the Chancellor Denis Healey 's vision for Britain's workforce was rejected by the unions in July 1978. This was to be an election year but Callaghan gambled on the economy turning round. If the British worker could tighten their belts over Christmas, the economic outlook would have looked a lot rosier for Callaghan's administration. It all went wrong. The government pressed for sanctions against all public companies who bargained for pay increases in excess of five per cent. But Callaghan's grip on the unions was slipping. He lost leverage over the private sector.
The Transport And General Workers Union struck first; petrol tanker drivers and lorry drivers went on an overtime ban, just before Christmas. The threat of fuel shortages panicked the government into putting the army on standby. The situation worsened in the New Year. Having been placated with a fifteen per cent rise, the lorry and petrol tanker drivers went on strike again. This time, the fuel shortages closed petrol stations. With the overwhelming majority of Britain's goods delivered by haulage, this brought the panic button ever closer. There was talk of declaring a state of emergency. Not with Callaghan, though, his blasé performance in front of the press precipitated his downfall - as if the dog's dinner that was the British economy was not enough. The Labour government's historically strong links with the unions counted for little. Hospital ancillary staff, refuse collectors and even undertakers went on strike; the latter seeing 300 dead in Liverpool going unburied while the streets were filled with rotting bin bags. Schools stayed open with the help of volunteer janitors and secretaries. Even hospitals would be picketed. Britain was divided. The Callaghan administration was on the way out. The referendum on devolution was defeated. The Liberals and Conservatives and the Scottish Nationalist Party passed a vote of no confidence in the government. Britain was time for change. And it would be brought about by a figure who would be kryptonite to the unions.
Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party on 11th February 1975 . Unlike her predecessor, she would not kow-tow to the unions, as Heath did in 1974, when he called an election to help cool the threat of a miners strike. This was to be a new age. Already nicknamed the Iron Lady, her 44 seat majority in the election of May 1979 delivered Britain its first female prime minister. It was an end of an era. Ushered in on the promise of reducing trade union power and righting the economy through reduced public spending and income tax, Thatcher's Britain was markedly different. Indeed, the Britain of 1979 was inherently changed. Youth culture had been smitten by the iconoclastic punk movement. The Sex Pistols had been and gone, insulting all and sundry on the way. But bondage trousers and safety pins were still sartorially fresh. Britain's anger over economic hardship resonated through punk's lyrical invective. The 1970s was hard going. Still, The Wurzels made it to number one. Britain will never lose its sense of humour.
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