DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Rubbish on the streets and inflation set to soar…

Rubbish on the streets, inflation set to soar, a worrying winter ahead and echoes of the Seventies abound… DOMINIC SANDBROOK asks: How worried should we be?

The year was 1973. Christmas was just two weeks away, and people were huddling around TV sets for a live address from the Prime Minister.

But Edward Heath’s jowly, exhausted face could hardly have looked less like the incarnation of seasonal cheer.

Britain was facing a ‘grave emergency’. Blown off course by war in the Middle East, surging oil prices, an international energy crisis and a looming strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, the economy stood on the brink of disaster.

With energy supplies desperately low, much of the nation had already ground to a halt.

Lincolnshire policemen had been told to abandon their cars because of petrol shortages, while street lights in West Sussex had been turned off. In London, dozens of schools had sent children home because they could no longer heat their classrooms.

East London during the Winter of Discontent in 1979.  Those under 50 will know it only as recent history, part of the strike-torn, inflation-ravaged landscape of Seventies Britain, when we were mocked abroad as the Sick Man of Europe

So as to hammer home the sense of a Seventies revival, a bin lorry driver strike this month in Brighton (above) has led to rubbish piling up in the streets – reminiscent of bin-bags heaped high in London’s Leicester Square in 1979

The year was 1973. Christmas was just two weeks away, and people were huddling around TV sets for a live address from the Prime Minister. But Edward Heath’s jowly, exhausted face could hardly have looked less like the incarnation of seasonal cheer. Britain was facing a ‘grave emergency’. Blown off course by war in the Middle East, surging oil prices, an international energy crisis and a looming strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, the economy stood on the brink of disaster

Government posters begged people to car-share and keep below 50 mph. ‘Leave Your Car At Home This Weekend’ read the taglines.

Now Heath went further. Thermostats to be lowered to a maximum of 17c . . . all street lights dimmed . . . and shops, offices and factories to move to a three-day week.

‘We shall have a harder Christmas,’ he said grimly, ‘than we have known since the war.’

For older readers, all this will rekindle vivid memories. But those under 50 will know it only as recent history, part of the strike-torn, inflation-ravaged landscape of Seventies Britain, when we were mocked abroad as the Sick Man of Europe.

In many ways it feels like a vanished world. Fewer than one in ten youngsters went to university, restaurants served Black Forest gateau without a hint of irony and tens of millions tuned in each week to watch The Black And White Minstrel Show.

In recent weeks, though, soaring oil prices, petrol queues, surging energy bills, empty supermarket shelves, and talk of Christmas toy shortages have made life feel very Seventies. Even Abba are back in the charts.

Thursday brought an even more potent reminder of those troubled times as bosses at Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, threatened to bring lorry drivers out on strike for better pay and conditions. There was talk of cutting off the economy’s ‘blood supply’ and ‘holding Christmas hostage’.

By January 1979, with Britain gripped by Arctic weather, ports, petrol stations and supermarkets were paralysed. Supply chains were severed almost overnight

In recent weeks, though, soaring oil prices, petrol queues, surging energy bills, empty supermarket shelves, and talk of Christmas toy shortages have made life feel very Seventies. Even Abba are back in the charts

So as to hammer home the sense of a Seventies revival, a bin lorry driver strike this month in Brighton has led to rubbish piling up in the streets — reminiscent of bin-bags heaped high in London’s Leicester Square during 1979’s Winter of Discontent.

This was a decade that saw two prime ministers broken by trade union militancy, pubs blown apart by IRA bombs, bodies left unburied, and a humiliating bailout by the International Monetary Fund.

‘If I were a young man,’ Labour politician Jim Callaghan once told colleagues, ‘I would emigrate.’ Who could have blamed him?

So what went wrong, and what can we learn? Well, much of it comes down to that ominous ‘I’ word: inflation.

The Bank of England’s annual inflation target is just 2 per cent. Latest figures show it at 3 per cent, and most analysts expect it to hit 4 per cent this year.

Supermarket prices are rising weekly, while electricity bills are up by a whopping 12 per cent in a year. Yet to people in the 1970s, living with double-digit inflation, our current rate would have seemed like a wonderful dream.

Then as now, the biggest problems were beyond the Government’s control. The crunch came in October 1973, when the Arab-dominated OPEC cartel raised the price of oil by 17 per cent to punish the West for its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Almost overnight, inflation ripped through the world economy.

This was the background to Heath’s three-day week, which came into effect on New Year’s Day 1974. Many people worked by candlelight, wrapped in blankets.

In Chelsea, a furrier’s shop displayed the sign: ‘Open Six Days A Week — By Candle Power, Battery Power and Will Power’. And in Sheffield, one firm reverted to using a water wheel that had last seen action in 1737.

Heath’s tenure came to an end in February 1974, when he called an election to resolve the crisis only to be denied a majority. But his successor, Labour’s Harold Wilson, proved no more adept.

By the spring of 1975, prices were rising five times more quickly than in Europe. In just a year, the price of sugar went up by 184 per cent, carrots by 137 per cent and electricity by 66 per cent.

Crazily, ministers were still handing out colossal pay increases, largely because they were terrified of strikes. So inflation peaked at a record 27 per cent that summer.

Eventually Wilson and his successor, Jim Callaghan, steadied the ship, persuading the unions to accept a series of informal pay deals that brought inflation down to single figures at the end of 1978.

But as the snow fell, the unions’ patience evaporated. Just before Christmas, lorry drivers walked out for higher pay and so began the Winter Of Discontent.

By January 1979, with Britain gripped by Arctic weather, ports, petrol stations and supermarkets were paralysed. Supply chains were severed almost overnight.

At Liverpool docks, half a million pounds’ worth of tomatoes and cucumbers lay rotting.

Starving pigs were turning to cannibalism. In South Wales, a shotgun-toting farmer opened fire on pickets outside an Abergavenny flourmill, injuring three.

And in Greater Manchester, striking water workers left a million people without water.

This didn’t stop Callaghan flying to Guadeloupe for a summit with other Western leaders. As Britain’s supermarkets ran out of food, he was pictured on the beaches of the Caribbean. And when ‘Sunny Jim’ flew back to Heathrow a few days later, his jaunty, suntanned demeanour was a PR catastrophe.

‘If I were a young man,’ Labour politician Jim Callaghan (above) once told colleagues, ‘I would emigrate.’ Who could have blamed him? So what went wrong, and what can we learn? Well, much of it comes down to that ominous ‘I’ word: inflation

‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ read one headline — a catchphrase he never actually said but was never allowed to forget. (Perhaps there’s a lesson here for another ostentatiously optimistic PM who’s recently enjoyed a break in Marbella.)

The reports and images of that period have become cliches of Seventies Britain. But they were genuine symptoms of a deep-seated malaise, only cured by Margaret Thatcher’s stringent medicine.

So are we in for an action replay this winter?

Some of the parallels are indeed worrying and Boris Johnson is unwise to shrug them off. They are the kind of everyday inconveniences that can destroy a government’s reputation.

Abroad, the 1970s parallels are hard to resist. America humiliated; chaos at a besieged foreign airport; one president leaving office amid turmoil and rancour, another stumbling haplessly from crisis to crisis — is this Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, or Donald Trump and Joe Biden today?

But history never repeats itself exactly. The unions are nowhere near as powerful these days. A full repeat of the Winter Of Discontent, then, seems very unlikely.

Johnson’s government, though far from perfect, is in a much more commanding position than Callaghan’s, which didn’t even have a workable majority. And Britain itself is psychologically better placed: more confident and outgoing, with a more dynamic, entrepreneurial climate.

And in some ways the problems are simply less deep-seated. Inflation at 4 per cent is very annoying, but hardly comparable with the mid-1970s figure of 27 per cent.

As economists point out, much of the current crisis is an inevitable result of the pandemic. Never has the world economy exploded so quickly from inertia into growth.

Time to open a celebratory bottle of Blue Nun, then? Well, perhaps not yet. It should worry us that Britain has become so dependent on cheap foreign labour, here one day, gone the next. It should worry us, too, that the Government’s contingency plans seem so flimsy and reactive and that Johnson’s instinct is to pretend there is nothing to worry about.

Above all, it should worry us that Europe is so dependent on cheap gas from Russia, with prices having surged ten times since the turn of the year.

That is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem — the Western world’s reliance on increasingly scarce and expensive energy supplies. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about rising oil prices and Russian gas in the decade to come.

So my real fear isn’t that we’re going to see a replay of the Winter of Discontent. My bigger concern is that this is just the beginning — the first in a series of crises, triggered by events beyond our shores and over which we have little control.

Still, let’s end on an optimistic note. One of our biggest problems in the 1970s was that so many people had lost confidence in Britain. They were incapable of imagining a brighter, better future.

There are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. The threat of Covid is declining, and by spring, the economy should be booming. Interest rates are low.

Soon, foreign travel will resume in earnest. With the right business-friendly climate, there’s no reason why we can’t attract new investment and skilled workers. And our scientists and entrepreneurs are working to find solutions to the energy issues we face.

So we should look forward with hope, not despair. And if all else fails — there’s always ABBA.

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