For a young reporter on the political and industrial beat, the 1970s never let up. There was a cascade of political shocks, unexpected world crises, and a series of grave, self-inflicted wounds by governments of the day.
No wonder I seem to be living in a time warp. Five decades later there is that same relentless pace of events, impacting each other, and again a domino effect.
A war in Ukraine, astronomical hikes in the cost of energy, added stresses and strains after the crippling lockdowns of the Covid pandemic.
Further turmoil too on the home front: yet another Conservative Prime Minister voted out of office; a new Premier sworn in just two days before the death of Queen.
And all against an ominous underlying background of rampant inflation, catastrophic rail strikes, stoppages in postal deliveries, and industrial action – or threats of it – across the public sector.
Instead of limiting himself to what had been flagged up – the removal of a hike in national insurance and a cut in corporation tax – the newly installed Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng was about to be as audacious as one of his infamous Conservative predecessors.
In his 1972 budget, Anthony Barber, chancellor in Ted Heath’s government, unveiled daring tax cuts in a dash for growth, the Barber Boom.
Within a matter of months Heath had to apply the brakes because of the pressure on wages and inflation. Kwarteng executed his U-turn within a matter of days, abandoning his plan to abolish the 45 per cent top rate of income tax.
Yet again the dreaded domino effect had kicked in. Kwarteng was faced by a run on the pound, rising interest rates and the soaring price of mortgages. Barber had similar misfortunate. A year after the Barber Boom budget, the world was struggling with the shock of soaring oil prices in the wake of the Arab Israeli conflict of the Yom Kippur War.
Wage demands went through the roof. A miners’ overtime ban had so reduced coal production that Heath was forced to introduce the three-day week. In the face of what turned into a miners’ strike, Heath was determined to see off union power. He called a general election and asked the country: “Who governs Britain?”.
Heath’s dramatic defeat in February 1974 – and the return of Harold Wilson – rammed home the sheer unpredictability of modern politics. Heath’s victory just four years earlier had surprised many in the Conservative Party. I was reporting for The Times during the 1970 general election assigned to follow Sir Alec Douglas Home’s campaign in his constituency of Kinross and West Perthshire.
It became known as the Shopping Basket election. The Conservatives campaigned relentlessly against rising food prices under Labour. Sir Alec had followed the script and I remember how amazed he was that Heath had pulled it off.
The inflationary pressures that had built up under Labour – and the continuing fall-out from the 1967 devaluation of the pound – had not gone away, only adding to the pressure for higher wages.
A six-week miners’ strike in the January and February of 1972 led to rota power cuts.
My task – I was then a reporter for BBC Radio Leicester – was to read out each morning a list of the schools that would have to close that day because there was no electricity.
Within weeks of the strike being called off – after the NUM accepted a 30 per cent pay offer – Anthony Barber lifted the escape hatch with his March 1972 budget, a dash for growth that he hoped would lead to a Conservative victory in 1975. But it was not to be.
Within six months stagflation as it was then known – stagnation coupled with inflation – had forced him to reign back the excesses of the Barber Boom.
Heath’s attempts to control prices and wages were judged too little, too late. By the winter of 1973, the dominos were falling yet again.
I was back at Westminster. Correspondents in the House of Commons press gallery were having to prepare for renewed power cuts from the miners’ overtime ban, and then of course the three-day week.
We were issued with ceramic candle holders, presumably from a storeroom deep in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster. Mine had a George the Sixth crown embossed on the base. In fact, I didn’t ever have to write shorthand by candlelight, but I do still have the candleholder up in the loft.
No wonder politicians are always so fearful of uncontrolled inflationary pressures and wage spirals. Labour’s return to power under Wilson and then Jim Callaghan was again threatened by dire economic times – and another set of dominos came into play.
In 1976, Chancellor Denis Healey asked the IMF for a loan just short of £4 billion.
There were spending cuts, tax increases and annual pay policies – a level of wage restraint that Callaghan could not sustain.
Strike action in the 1978-79 winter of discontent heralded the start of the Thatcher decade, an era that I remember for unprecedented industrial upheaval and confrontation.
Images Metro, Daily Express, Daily Mail