1970-79: Community in the UK
Sous la direction de Bernard Cros, Cornelius Crowley & Thierry Labica
Collection Intercalaires – Agrégation anglais
Presses Universitaires Paris Nanterre, 2017
Broché. 134 pages. ISBN 978-2840162872. 12€
Recension de Nicholas Sowels
Université Paris I
This collection of essays vividly describes a different world, transforming yesterday’s “that’s-how-things-are” into a poignant portrayal of a quite different British society. Perhaps what stands out most, and what is most distant to us today, is the assertiveness of unions and working people. Several essays, beginning with Keith Dixon’s analysis of “working class insubordination”, recall a world of strong union militancy acting as an expression of community. Marc Lenormand explains such militancy and specifically the recourse to industrial action due to unions’ exclusion from policy and policy-making, although this sits a little uneasily with the union movement’s involvement in the Social Contract of the Wilson government which took office in early 1974, and subsequent efforts by Labour to implement incomes policies and various industrial strategies (see Mathilde Bertrand here).
An interesting, further paradox is the view of community presented by Adrian Park in his discussion of the miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974. He makes a contrarian case to suggest that the concept of a cohesive mining brotherhood, spanning mining communities across the length and breadth of the land was much a myth made up by miners themselves, intellectuals on the left like E.P. Thompson and popular media. Park concludes that these “archetypal proletarians” (Richard Burton’s description springs to mind)(1) ultimately came unstuck in their own mythology of solidarity during the watershed strike of 1985. Yet far from leading to a “farce” as Park suggests, the Conservatives under Thatcher were then well prepared to take their revenge on the early 1970s. The result was the total liquidation of what had been a historical vanguard force of the labour movement.
Other parts of this other world of “working class” communities are found in the recollection of some famous “work-ins”, in particular at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilding works early on in the decade (Lenormand), which did indeed contribute to saving shipbuilding in the region. On a different, but revealing note, Dixon recalls the refusal by Scottish workers to repair jet engines used in planes during the military coup by Pinochet in Chile in September 1973. This action was led by a mechanical engineer, Bob Foulton, “on Christian and humanitarian grounds”. In the face of significant pressure from the plant’s management and successive governments, the workers at East Kilbride held firm as the engines rusted away in a courtyard. Movingly, Foulton and two other workers were decorated in 2016 by the Chilean government. This industrial action must surely stand out as one of the few moments of international solidarity anywhere in the world. It also reminds readers on the French side of the Channel to what extent the British left has been overtly Christian.(2)
While such strong union action really does seem to belong to another era, some of these essays throw light on specific problems with which British society is still grappling today. Sharon Baptiste’s review of black youth culture in Britain’s African-Caribbean community underlines how much race relations in Britain have moved on since the 1970s. But as the present Windrush scandal and the on-going debate about immigration show, Britain and indeed most other (West?) European countries are forever struggling with questions of identity, race and religion in the face of constant migratory pressures.
Stephen Rowley’s personal account of growing up as a Protestant in Belfast during the Troubles also connects with the present, given the quasi-insoluble challenge to the British government of maintaining an open border between the Republic of Ireland and the North, while pursuing hard Brexit. The essay reminds us grimly of the pervasiveness of terrible violence in Northern Irish society at the time, and hence the absolute imperative of sustaining today’s relative harmony on both sides of the border.
Reading such a personal account of historical events raises important questions about the limits of objectiveness in any historical analysis. Isn’t writing history always at some point a personal narrative, no matter how objective one tries to be? For my own part, reading about the 1970s inevitably feels a bit like bumping into Jon Pertwee as Dr Who and hopping on the Tardis to go back in time and space. It is the decade which for me was sandwiched between childhood and university, in which memories of my (bourgeois) life in England are most clear and complete. While at weekly boarding school, I can remember Granddad getting out the candles at weekends during the 3-hour power cuts of the 1972 miners’ strike, and later visiting a hardware store lit up by gas lights during the three-day week. The other contributions here on hooliganism (Bernard Cros) and music (John Mullen) evoke similar memories.
In his introduction to this book, Cornelius Crowley rightly warns readers against adopting a “tunnel vision” of history, with its linearity and predictability. But it is hard to escape the view that the “Selsdon men” (the free-marketeers around Heath) did extract their revenge when finally the Lady who was “not for turning” came to power.
(2) In January 1989, the late Tony Benn stated on Desert Island Discs (retrieved 22 May 2018) that he would take the opportunity of being stranded on a desert island to read the two books that had most influenced his life, but which he had not read: the Bible and Das Kapital by Marx.
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