Sunday, 18 March 2007

Reclaiming the Seventies

I've never liked the use of terms such as "old Labour", painting as they do people who believe in basic social democratic tenets as luddites, nor am I the sort of lefty that thinks we can or should simply go back to the norms of those times. But I wonder whether a bit of historical revisionism isn't urgently needed around the Seventies. Because rarely can history have been so successfully and deafeningly written by the winning side as it was around this period.

A few months back I was having a pint with a mate (like me, a Labour left-ish 30-something) and we ended up chatting about how successfully yer Thatcherites and then yer Blairites have monopolised political narratives of that decade - that everything that went wrong during that period was the left's fault. Yet its most cataclysmic economic events - the oil crisis following the 1973 war in the middle east and the mental inflation it spawned - cannot remotely be blamed on the "unreconstructed old left". That's not to say the left didn't need to change in some ways, but that's almost a different debate. Ditto the "industrial militancy" of the time, which, with a few celebrated exceptions, seemed to be unions, led by more "moderate" people than those who lead unions now, clamouring for their members' pay to keep track with inflation - the equivalent of nurses asking for 3 or 4 per cent a year today. And of course all the "dead unburied" stuff was either gross exaggeration or outright lies.

It's also worth arguing that the Seventies compare well to the Sixties too. A lot of the celebrated political envelope-pushing of that decade (the over-romanticised '68 generation and all the rest) seemed a middle-class thing and didn't filter down to the mass of the population until the 70s, which was when you saw enormously important movements such as feminism making real, practical advances. These were also times when ideas around worker co-operatives and new approaches to municipal socialism were being kicked around. Inventive stuff. It would have been a good time to be political, I've always thought. Look at pictures of a football crowd in 1965. It's still blokes in suits, deferential, conformist. Look at one in, say, 1973 and it's part of pop culture - anarchic, too violent for sure, but radically changed.

The trouble with the cultural nostalgia industry, of course, is that it filters out a lot of the interesting and awkward and conflicting stuff when telling its stories. So the Sixties is reduced to Swinging London, Woodstock, Mick Jagger swanning around with Marianne Faithful etc - all the capitalism-compatible stuff that's easily sold and resold and consumed and reconsumed. And the Seventies has been 'niched' as this kind of era of unreconstructed naffness. Life on Mars, for example, is an excellent programme but I wonder whether it isn't reinforcing some quite lazy stereotypes about a decade's unreconstructed neanderthalism.

I'm not talking from any great experience here. I was involved in none of the Seventies' struggles, what with only being born in 1970 and not being bothered about much more than collecting football stickers and playing cricket during the decade. But I've talked about this sort of stuff to my folks, who in their 20s and 30s and not massive well paid, managed to afford a mortgage early on and bring four kids into the world during this decade, and their memory of the Seventies isn't remotely that it was a "grey, grim" decade. Unemployment was much higher for the entirety of the 80s after all. So while there's no going back the 70s seem due some historical revionism? Not least in order to stop the Right banging on and on about it all the time.

And the pop music was better than it's given credit for, it was a golden age of cinema, and Orient twice knocked Chelsea out of the FA Cup. What's not to admire?

(A version of this was first posted in August 2006 on the onetouchfootball messageboard run by When Saturday Comes. Debate here

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