The 1970s remains the most reviled decade in post-war British life. The conventional wisdom has it that but for the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1978, the country would have definitively collapsed. This is the decade, subsequent politicians have repeatedly told us, from which we must learn and to which we must never return.
The post-war consensus, which had meant that both the main political parties were committed to the welfare state and a Keynesian economic model, was unravelling. Britain’s high levels of external debt and low levels of productivity, the expense to government in maintaining inefficient national industries and the power of unions in driving up wages all exerted pressure upon what was increasingly perceived as an unsustainable system. Unemployment rose, inflation and the even more terrifying stagflation loomed, industrial relations were at an all time low, there were periodic currency and debt crises, electricity rationing lead to periods of blackout and the three day week.
Yet there has also been a process of reassessing and reclaiming the 70s as a period in which income differentials reached an all time low, when the smallest number of children were living in poverty, when university education was still free and standards of literacy high, when public broadcasting was not only the envy of the world in terms of seriousness and quality but also represented something of an artistic vanguard. For some the decade was simply the “hangover from the Sixties” but in another sense it was the point at which much of the experiment and rhetoric of the “revolutionary” Sixties began to seep into the fabric of everyday life.
The Sixties have proved congenial to the late neo-liberal imagination (Blairism) as a period in which Britain boomed and swang, an era of rising living standards and high consumption, new freedoms found, the old establishment in decline and youth on the rise, a period in which barriers of class and race seemed to partially evaporate. If the Sixties exists in the popular imagination and culture as an explosion of colour and experiment, a Ludic interlude, then the Seventies are seen as a period of conflict and decay, its colour scheme is concrete gray, the faces are unlovely, the demeanour militant.
Is a Summer of Love as fundamental a moment in terms of power relations as a Winter of Discontent? The Seventies are to some degree the decade in which the Sixties get real and what is broadly feared in their return is not the economic woes the country suffered, indeed the recently elected Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition, is presiding over a period of higher unemployment, greater national debt and more stringent demands for austerity in public services than we have ever seen, but a return of militancy. A fear of feminism, unionism, class antagonism, of personal and public life re-infused with the pain of strident and systematic critique. This is, on one level what the neo-liberal Restoration has rescued us from: the agony of examining ourselves and our world, the agony of questioning. The End of History thesis, the idea that Capitalism offers the only viable economic system, offers massive psychic relief. The “cursed questions” as Russian thinkers of the 19th century wittily dubbed them, those questions which humanity seems compelled to ask itself but which admit of no simple or single answer, how should a man live, what is a good society, have finally been settled.
But in the Seventies themselves these debates and the forces contending to shape the future were very much alive. The Nineties and early Noughties have been characterized by a wistful, diffuse melancholy (the affect attendant on, to my mind, a situation having been intractably but unsatisfyingly resolved) throughout music (the whole slew of post-Radiohead bands) literature (those “burned children of America”) and film ( American Indy): the British films of the Sixties and Seventies are sites of conflict, not only in terms of the subject matter but also formally. One of the basic contentions here will be that in the Seventies certain cultural and political trends partly developing out of native British traditions clash with others set in motion by the emergence of the USA as the global superpower and the early phases of what would later become known as globalization. England is one of the first developed countries to experience what Naomi Klein defines as “the shock doctrine”, the assault upon public services, privatization, mass-unemployment, outsourcing of labour etc, in effect “structural adjustment”. The anticipation of this casts a kind of shadow back through films of the Sixties and Seventies, the anxiety about Britain and the British way of life, the collapse of the old order and the question of what will replace it. At the same time the British psyche comes under attack from new and less conservative forms of expression in the cultural sphere: the greater degrees of sexual imagery and graphic violence permissible in other countries. There is a drive toward the real in Cinema also, reaching its height in the States with Deep Throat (1972) and the series of Italian Mondo movies and Giallos that culminates in Deodato’s Cannibal Apocalypse (1980).
It is appropriate then, to see the Seventies as a time of crisis, but as every good MBA student knows, one man’s crisis is another’s opportunity. Who gained the upper- hand and why in the fallout from the battles of the Seventies is the remit of a different book, but crisis of all kinds, crisis postponed, immanent and passed through is understood as fundamental to the films under discussion. The Seventies as an interstitial period in which things could have gone several ways, a period of anomie and great internal and external tension, an interregnum whose atmosphere is partly made-up of the first rumblings of the storm which must surely come and the slowly dimming glow of the glorious thirty years.