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An authentic history of the 1970s
on 24 April 2009
On page 2 the author writes "I was born in 1969". As someone who took a keen interest in current affairs throughout the 1970s, I prepared myself to spot lots of mistakes from a writer who was only a child. However, the nearest I came to spotting one (not that I was particularly looking for them) was the omission from the index of Ian Paisley, who has a single mention (page 96).
This book turned out to be a thoroughly and scrupulously researched history of that derided decade, mostly political but also touching on matters like pop festivals. It is a detailed analysis, with the benefit of hindsight, from the beginning of the Heath era to the beginning of the Thatcher one. Beckett's list of sources, including books, articles, and TV and radio broadcasts from the time, runs to no less than 25 pages, and the book took 5 years to write. He personally interviewed several major players of the era, including Ted Heath, Denis Healey, Jack Jones (recently deceased), and Arthur Scargill. These interviews, with fascinating descriptions of the characters 30 years on, are particularly delightful. So any idea that someone who had just turned 10 by the end of the decade is unsuited to write such a book must be rejected.
The book is in 4 parts, entitled Optimism, Shocks, New Possibilities, and The Reckoning. The chapter titles are sometimes obscure until the reader has read several pages; "The Great White Ghost" refers to Heath, "Margaret and the Austrians" refers to Thatcher's espousal of the so-called Austrian school of monetarism, while "William the Terrible", which completely mystified me until almost the end of the chapter, refers to the US Treasury Secretary in 1976.
Several events of the decade are described and discussed in great detail, such as the Saltley coke depot dispute of 1972, when Scargill came to prominence, and the Grunwick dispute of 1977-78. Beckett's research into the latter revealed a previously unknown fact, namely the location of the HQ of the self-styled National Association for Freedom which did much to break the strike.
At a time (2009) when everyone is obsessed by the economic crisis, it is interesting to recall that there was just as much obsession at times like the 3-day week (1974), the sterling crisis (1976), and the so-called Winter of Discontent (1979). In fact there have probably been few years in the past 50 when it has not been felt that there was a "crisis" of one kind or another; the British take almost a perverse delight in them (it seems to me).
I could not detect any political bias on the author's part, except perhaps right at the end when he opines that Callaghan was very unlucky and Thatcher very lucky during most of her term in office.
For someone such as myself it was great to re-live that decade, and to be reminded of some almost-forgotten events, and for younger readers this is a highly instructive and insightful book into our recent history; I can vouch for its authenticity.