The 1970s and the Stories we Tell

Speakers: Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Nathalie Tomlinson, Camilla Schofield, Emily Robinson

Despite efforts to problematize received political narratives of post-war Britain and its periodization, the decade of the 1970s continues to be treated as a singular moment of social democratic crisis and transformation. It is seen as a gateway into the neoliberal present, wherein all the tensions of the present have their roots in the ideational, economic and political battles lost in those years. As Reassessing the 1970s puts it, out of the battle of ideas of this decade ‘emerged the Britain of the late twentieth century.’ This panel will query four dominant narratives of the 1970s (decade of de-alignment, the empire strikes back, the road to neoliberalism, feminist awakening), seeking to unearth the sometimes overlapping and sometimes contradictory processes of change at the social/cultural level and at the point of political narrativization.

The MBS working paper focuses on ‘cultures of democracy’, and emphasizes the interplay between individual subjectivities and the overarching narratives of both high politics and historical analysis. Recently, Jo Guldi and David Armitage, in The History Manifesto, have emphasised the pressing need for a return to ‘big history’, signalling—perhaps—a return to the fold of ‘grand narratives’ within the historical discipline. This panel explores the ways in which both collective expressions of mass opinion and the cries of individual experience have run up against attempts at synthesis and generalization (both at the time and in retrospect). Social, cultural, and individual narratives have been employed in order to frame political and economic problems in particular ways, despite having told very different and disparate stories themselves. It therefore needs to be asked how such overarching frameworks come to resonate with a public who may have experienced things quite differently. In addition, it is important to ask what happens to historical understanding (both scholarly and popular) when such stories are unravelled. This panel tackles these two questions by unpicking one of the central moments in the story of modern Britain, understandings of which continue to constrain political possibilities today.

The panel will not simply work to deconstruct the ‘Seventies’, but will critically respond to MBS’s call for a new ‘interpretative framework’ and ‘synthesis’ of modern British history. It will ask what processes / innovations / agents of historical change are left out of our often politicized, often overly determined, history of the 1970s? Who is left out of the story? What happens to our understanding of twentieth-century British history if the 1970s is not prioritized as a point of rupture? Does an emphasis on political/economic rupture obfuscate other key historical arcs (for instance, the history of selfhood and subjectivity)? What histories come to light if we do not ask the 1970s to serve as the birthplace of the present? And how might we begin to build a new synthesis of the fascinating micro-histories and sociological case studies, of the complex divergent political paths, of this decade?

Structure: This panel will differ from the traditional format of three papers and a chair. We are interested in the ways forms of writing and presenting history profoundly shape the conclusions we draw, and as such, we want to explore how detailed, specific case studies can both stand on their own and be woven into a polyphonic overall story. Many people (from Walter Benjamin on) have explored how the complexity, diversity and contradictory trends of modern society, politics and culture are only problematically captured by traditional narratives. Yet stories are, and will surely remain, the key way historians communicate with each other and with the public and politicians. We therefore aim to tell four short, micro-histories or case studies, but also to co-write a concluding section of the panel discussing the overall themes that emerge, the overall narrative but also the limits to the coherence of that narrative.

Case Study 1: Decade of De-alignment?

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite

Lawrence Black and Hugh Pemberton argue in the introduction to Reassessing 70s Britain that this decade saw the reinstatement of the ‘political salience of class’. Yet in political science and psephology, the 1970s was studied at the time, and has continued to be thought about since, as the ‘decade of dealignment’ (as the title of one important book put it), when class plummeted in importance as a factor determining voting. There is an apparent match here with what Thatcher and her supporters claimed in the late 1970s and 1980s had happened to class: they argued (sometimes slightly contradictorily) that much of working-class Britain was more ‘bourgeois’ in the 1970s than it had been a decade or two before, and that class was now ‘relegated, in the minds of the workers, to something unimportant’ (in the words of a Centre for Policy Studies publication in 1976). There is a superficially compelling story about the decline of ‘class’ in the 1970s and the rise of Thatcherism. But it is a story which does not do justice to the real complexities in ordinary people’s thinking about ‘class’ and politics in the 1970s. This paper examines autobiographies, oral histories and other interviews from the 1970s and later to examine what people thought and said about ‘class’ in this period, telling a more polyphonic and sometimes contradictory story about attitudes to ‘class’.

Case Study 2: The Empire Strikes Back?

Camilla Schofield

One dominant narrative of the 1970s as a ‘crisis’ of social democracy points the finger at the challenges of multiculturalism, English nationalism and the politics of race. Here, popular support for social democracy is problematically limited by the need to define who belongs and who can claim social rights. Meanwhile, Black Power politics in the 1970s, in both the United States and in Britain, is often depicted as moving from a broad engagement with equality and citizenship, towards a (negative) oppositional politics, embracing cultural separatism, the bitter fruit of identity politics. This contributed, so the argument goes, to the ideological limits of multiculturalism: as Sivanandan puts it, ‘the political concerns of the black community [became] the cultural concerns of different communities, the struggle against racism [became] the struggle for culture.’ This case study will look to black radical groups, such as Black Unity and the Croydon Collective, and their critical engagement with social democratic ideals (in this sense, too, it will consider a particularly British formation of Black Power politics). Community control and freedom from police harassment will also be placed in the ‘big history’ of British liberal democracy. This case study will thereby attempt to situate Black Power in a battle over the meaning of social citizenship, transforming and sometimes expanding its limits, in Britain in the 70s.

Case Study 3: The Road to Neoliberalism?

Emily Robinson

One of the master narratives of the 1970s concerns the collapse of the post-war social democratic consensus and the turn to neoliberalism. Another tells of the Labour Party’s electorally suicidal abandonment of social democracy, before recovering this heritage in the 1990s. The contradiction between these two accounts has been obscured by the political and historiographical emphasis on the route to Thatcherism and then New Labour. In order to escape such determinism, this case study focuses on public discussions around the idea of a ‘centre party’ in the long 1970s. Not only were public understandings of ‘the centre’ at that time rather more radical than we might expect,  but they cast the perceived collapse of social democracy in a rather different light. This is not a story that fits easily into the received narratives of either right or left, but it does allow us to reflect on a number of alternate imagined futures.

Case Study 4: Feminist Awakenings?

Natalie Thomlinson

The 1970s are often understood as the quintessential ‘feminist’ decade.  A compelling story of female emancipation is told that links together the activism of Women’s Liberation Movement, the passage of equal pay and sexual discrimination, and the significant rise in the amount of women working outside the home. Yet it is also widely accepted that the numbers of women who identified as ‘feminist’ outside of the Women’s Liberation Movement was limited, and largely confined to the educated middle classes. How do we reconcile these two stories?  Whilst it is undoubtedly true that relatively few women consistently aligned themselves with a feminist position, in this paper I argue that to simply divide the female population into  feminist/not feminist sets up a false dichotomy that fails to capture the complexity of ‘ordinary’ women’s engagement with feminist ideas. Rather, using a variety of oral history and media sources, I explore the ways in which ‘feminism’ was taken up (or not) and reworked in popular political discourses, the various and sometimes contradictory meanings that attached themselves to ‘feminism’ during this process, and what individual women themselves understood ‘feminism’ to be. Beginning this work will allow us a much more nuanced insight into women’s subjective experiences of gendered changes, and how it is that these shifts in individual lives came to be narrativized on a macro-level as  ‘feminist’ despite the very small numbers of women who were overtly active in the politics of women’s liberation.

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