That option no longer exists: Britain 1974-76 by PCS Industrial Officer John Medhurst. A Review.

1 September 2014 By Enrico Tortolano, Research and Policy Officer at the union PCS. Enrico Tortolano reviews a new book That option no longer exists: Britain 1974-76 by PCS Industrial Officer John Medhurst.

Commentary icon1 Sep 2014|Comment

1 September 2014

By Enrico Tortolano, Research and Policy Officer at the union PCS.

Enrico Tortolano reviews a new book That option no longer exists: Britain 1974-76 by PCS Industrial Officer John Medhurst.

Of all post-war decades, the 1970s has undoubtedly had the worst press. Strikes, street violence, terrorism, permissiveness, high inflation levels, cold winters, hot summers even the failure of England to qualify for the 1974 World Cup gets promulgated by the power elite as the outcome of disastrous socialist policies. Footage of scavenged rubbish saturating Leicester Square has been beamed into our living rooms so often it now stalks the corridors of our minds. The polymorphous political perversity of this characterisation of the 1970’s has always been conspicuous by the absence of solid refutable argument from the academic and political community.

With the verve of a great storyteller and the precision of an otolaryngologist, John Medhurst in his timely new book That option no longer exists: Britain 1974-76 gives us a compact but fresh and informative history of that era and its main protagonists. With unparalleled clarity he starts the journey with a brilliant navigation of a complex economic period.

Between 1963 and 1975, the UK’s rate of profit for the whole economy fell by 28% from around 26% to 19%. The rate of exploitation fell 20% while the organic composition of capital – the ratio of the cost of plant and technology to labour – rose 20%. This was a classic crisis period for capitalism as wealth moved from capital to labour.

To characterise these inherent tensions between capital and labour Medhurst aptly quotes Tony Benn, one of the great benisons of democratic socialism in the 1970’s. Benn terrified the elite when he declared his intention was, as a government minister, to bring about “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families”.

With no postmodern irony intended, Harold Wilson, the prime minister and Labour leader was incandescent with rage that Benn actually wanted to implement their election manifesto with its overt commitment to public ownership, a powerful national enterprise board and industry-wide planning agreements. To the horror of the establishment, not excluding unimaginative trade union bureaucrats and the old Labour right, he announced his intention to nationalise key industries and turn them over to their workforces.

Predictably, the media labelled Tony Benn as “the most dangerous man in Britain”. He was subjected to widespread and unrelenting campaigns of misinformation and lies designed to undermine him personally and discredit the popular radical reforming policies he championed. In Medhurst’s full analytic intelligence, far from being some malevolent figure, Benn emerges as the hero of the era, inasmuch as any hero can be conceived of as the unconscious product of insensate historical processes.

Medhurst is distinctively lucid when he explains the consequences of putting genuine radical reforms on the agenda; the power elite resorts to the dark arts of subversion. This was apparent in the media reaction to Labour’s radical programme of change in the mid 1970s, which was actually, but rarely acknowledged, the vehicle that secured Labour victories at the two general elections of 1974.

There are many myths that the beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism like to peddle about the Thatcher years. The most frequent is that economic growth was much better under Thatcher and she enabled the UK to ‘catch up’ with other capitalist economies. Medhurst as a sort of ideological choreographer convincingly disputes this, “even with the shield of North Sea Oil, Thatcher’s record on the economy over the course of the 1980s was essentially a failure”.

The evidence seems to back his judgement. From 1975 to 1996, the UK rate of profit rose 50% and even though the organic composition of capital also rose 17% – mainly in the 1990s – the rate of exploitation of labour jumped a staggering 66%. If we isolate just the Thatcher years, it’s the same story: the rate of profit rose 22%, technology and plant was decimated so the organic composition fell 3%, but the rate of exploitation rose 20%.

There never really has been a ‘golden era’ for workers, but there was a time when progressive income tax rates were operating (a 99% top rate in the US under Eisenhower in the late 1950s); there were student grants in the UK for higher education (no fees and loans); pensions were tied to average wages; important sectors of the economy like water, energy, transport and power were under state control including the Bank of England and unemployment was relatively low.

The Thatcher years did not match this in any way. But in fairness, as Medhurst accepts, the mid 1970s recession did mark the end of the post-war boom. But the economy soon picked up and GDP grew by around 2.5 per cent per year from 1970 to 1979. It is safe to assume the shameless avariciousness of the Cameron and Osborne years will fail to match that. Moreover, when people asked in the 1970s: “is Britain governable?” What they really meant was: “is the working class controllable?” Therefore, the 70s crisis was not so much a crisis of GDP growth as a crisis of profits.

Medhurst refrains from making the absurd solecism of referring to ‘British culture’ and celebrates the enduring importance of cultural shifts during the 1970’s through the prism of race, class and gender. He engagingly combines ideas and personal events, especially when describing the entanglement of culture and politics in the 1970’s: “for a brief period in the mid 1970s there existed the tantalising possibility of real alliances between the political and cultural left”…although “unfortunately the potential of radical art to support Labour’s ambition to effect a fundamental shift in wealth and power was soon aborted by the Labour government’s repudiation of the socialist policies that had carried it to power”.

Income was more evenly distributed in the 1970s than in any decade before or since. The UK’s Gini Coefficient (a measure of inequality) was at its lowest between 1970 and 1979. In terms of income, at least, Britons have never been more equal than they were in the seventies. And this meant that for most ordinary people the 1970s brought new experiences that their parents and grandparents could barely have imagined. The most obvious example is the holiday abroad, which 30 years earlier, would have seemed like science fiction. In 1971, British tourists took four million holidays abroad. But by 1973 that figure had jumped to nine million. For even relatively poor working-class families holidays to Spain were not uncommon.

If the mid 1970s were defined explicitly by improving social mobility, economic justice and increasing gender equality, all expedited through planned and state controlled industrial growth, then the preceding years have seen their foundational commitments to collective welfare reconfigured by a nexus of neoliberal extremists that have now captured the Parliamentary Labour Party. Ed Balls has said he will ‘outmanoeuvre’ George Osborne over the future of Britain’s public finances by embracing fiscal rules that would be tougher than those proposed by the Tory chancellor. A permanent present that favours the rich and powerful, as one of Medhurst’s political idols Tony Benn so accurately foretold.

Reading Medurst’s book is actually guilty fun; since you always know which side you’re on. And in concluding his great glaucous surge of prose he accelerates to the present day and scatters some cartographical seeds of thought that just might grow into a route map out of our bleak political and industrial landscape. He backs the creation of a UK-style Syriza that he frames and names a “coalition of redistribution’. What is it about the left and uninspiring, cumbersome names? This would align those kettled on the left of the Labour Party alongside the small left of Labour parties, disparate Independents, syndicalists and of course the Green Party to which Medhurst is an active member.

Given the weight of the lefts ‘ideological baggage’ and the fact a new left-alliance would have to positively pullulate with invention and imagination, Medhurst appears sceptical about the chances of this collective forming. However, you get the impression nothing would make him happier than being proved wrong. Medhurst is at once Panglossian and melioristic and as such his passion and knowledge breathe vigorous life into an endangered social and labour movement. His book should be read not only by those with an interest in social, political and cultural history but by all our politicians – who desperately need a lesson in the morality of purpose.

Find the book here.

Enrico Tortolano

Enrico Tortolano Enrico Tortolano is a Research and Policy Officer at the union PCS. He formerly worked in Latin America, on human rights and economic issues with trade unions and social movements. He is regularly published in Tribune, mostly reporting on the political economy of Europe and Latin America.