Britain since the seventies, impressionistic thoughts

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2013

The 1970s have been in my mind over the past few days, not only for the obvious reason, but also because I visited the Glam exhibition at Tate Liverpool last weekend. Not only were the seventies the final decade of an electrical-chemical epoch that stretched back to the late nineteenth-century, they were also the time when the sexual and political experimentation of the 1960s and a sense of being part of a cosmopolitan world order became something for the masses, for the working class, and when the old social order started to dissolve. In the experience of many people, the sixties happened in the seventies, as it were.

But my main thoughts, concerning Britain at any rate, have been about social division, and about some oddly paradoxical features of British life before Thatcher. There’s a very real sense in which postwar British society was very sharply divided. On the one hand, it was possible to be born in an NHS hospital, to grow up on a council estate, to attend a state school, to work in a nationalised industry and, eventually (people hoped), to retire on a decent state pension, living entirely within a socialised system co-managed by the state and a powerful Labour movement. On the other, there were people who shared the experience of the NHS but with whom the commonality stopped there: they were privately educated, lived in an owner-occupied house and worked in the private sector. These were two alternate moral universes governed by their own sets of assumptions and inhabited by people with quite different outlooks. Both were powerful disciplinary orders. The working class society had one set of assumptions – welfarist, communitarian, but strongly gendered and somewhat intolerant of sexual “deviance”; middle-class society had another, expressed at public (that is, private) schools through institutions like compulsory Anglican chapel. Inside the private-sector world, at least, there was a powerful sense of resentment towards Labour, expressed in slogans about “managers right to manage” and so on that later found expression in some of the sadism of the Thatcher era towards the working-class communities that were being destroyed. Present too, at least in the more paranoid ramblings of those who contemplated coups against Labour, was the idea that that the parallel socialised order represented a kind of incipient Soviet alternative-in-waiting that might one day swallow them up.

The revolutionaries of Lindsay Anderson’s If …. (1968) were rebelling against the regime of middle-class expectation rather than against an unjust class-based social order, but a sense of an ending was everywhere. The new left and the rising trade union militancy of the 1970s were both breaches with rather than extension of the old order in which the interests of the working class were either promoted or betrayed (depending on your perspective) by negotiations among middle-aged men about incomes policy and the like.

Cut to the present and that overt division is gone. Now we have radio presenters talking about how Margaret Thatcher fostered “social mobility”. Other conversations turn on things like “aspiration” and people being able to buy their council houses. My inner social scientist protests: don’t these people know that social mobility is down since Thatcher, that it’s now harder for people to escape the circumstances of their birth than it was then? But the true observation that it is more difficult for people to rise come up against the pervasive perception that people can now be what they want to be and aren’t constrained by strong expectations of social role. The decline of democracy in the sense of popular control contrasts with a sense that society is more democratic in that anyone is as good as anyone else; the intensification of real economic inequality has coincided with a much greater cultural egalitarianism than existed before. British society is less racist and less sexist than it was and (outside football) people are very tolerant of sexual difference. Even though, because of the decline in economic mobility, it is as hard or harder for working class women to escape poverty, wealthier women are everywhere present in the public and corporate life. In the sixties and seventies we had great popular music and some terrific high culture; now it seems as if almost the entire country tunes into X-Factor and Strictly. Progress, of a kind?

Has the meritocracy risen? Not really. Actually not at all. The advantages of birth and privilege are entrenched as never before. But the perception that we are all equals allows for the illusion of a meritocratic society and for the ritual blaming of those who fail. Both the failing and the blaming were hardly possible when, in principle but not in practice, the social classes were officially confined to their separate spheres. The successful congratulate themselves as never before on their own responsibility for their success and in the tabloid imagination, the formerly working class, stereotyped as “chavs”, have migrated from a parallel society replete with roles and expectations to an underclass existence. In a sense what we have is the Americanisationof Britain, or at least of England. A society where everybody has then sense that they can be anything they want to be, and where hardly anybody can. Just as pure luck matters more than ever did, the stink of desert and entitlement pervades. We are all in it together, ruled by “Dave” and “Nick”, ordinary aspirational blokes, modelled on “Tony” who was just like Basildon man, and “got it”. Except, of course, Dave, Nick and Tony went to Eton, Westminster and Fettes and thence to Oxbridge (full disclosure: me too). By contrast, in the earlier society, divided but actually porous, the political class reflected the social structure of parallel societies: Labour contained its share of Oxford dons, but many of its MPs had a trade union background. Now hardly any do.

A coda: Ken Loach has been going on about reclaiming the spirit of 1945. But there’s no way to go back and start again. The working class both exists as never before—since more people than ever have to go out to work in order to live—and has ceased to exist because all of the social institutions that gave it life have either atrophied or been captured. Some of that destruction was the work of the Thatcher government, but mostly it was the work of global economic and technological changes. Whatever future the egalitarian left has—and it needs one because of the objective rise of inequality—it can’t begin from the fantasy of a parallel society that has ceased to exist and which was limiting and stultifying in its own way.

{ 104 comments }

1

Random Lurker 04.10.13 at 10:20 am

“Both the failing nor the blaming and the blaming”
Too much blaming in this sentence

[CB: thanks. Fixed that.]

2

Anarcho 04.10.13 at 10:30 am

As some one who grew up in the 1970s and became politically active in the 1980s, I would that Thatcherism has failed on its stated goals — it was very successful in increasing inequality (and lowering social mobility) . As with Milton Friedman, being proven completely wrong again and again will not stop her being praised by the right — because she made the rich richer, tamed the working class and saved Britain for capital.

All the problems we are now facing have their roots in the 1980s — financial crisis, soaring inequality, falling social mobility, housing bubbles, etc. — are all Thatcherite chickens coming to roost. But as these don’t affect the ruling class, they can be ignored — and they are, in favour of self-defeating Austerity (and the current Austerians share the same economic illiteracy as Thatcher’s government).

And in terms of working class people changing things, I can say as a trade unionist that her anti-union laws have hindered that considerably. Some people, for example, were complaining that the unions in the NHS did not strike over the Tory’s reforms but took action over pensions — they were unaware that the unions are banned from striking over anything but a very limited number of issues (pay, pensions, etc.).

And I have to say that Thatcher’s greatest legacy is that she helped produce a generation of willing slaves, where many people have no conception that they have rights and can fight collectively to improve their position. Which is great for the bosses and politicians, of course, but not good for the struggle to increase freedom in society.

3

ajay 04.10.13 at 10:50 am

On the one hand, it was possible to be born in an NHS hospital, to grow up on a council estate, to attend a state school, to work in a nationalised industry and, eventually (people hoped), to retire on a decent state pension, living entirely within a socialised system co-managed by the state and a powerful Labour movement. On the other, there were people who shared the experience of the NHS but with whom the commonality stopped there: they were privately educated, lived in an owner-occupied house and worked in the private sector.

Not quite. Your second example would probably have gone from his fee-paying school to university, with his tuition fees paid by the state (which would probably also have supplied a grant).

And don’t forget that the upper-middle-class society you are describing here would also have filled the civil service (state), the officer corps of the armed forces (state), the universities (state), the law courts (state), the NHS itself (state) and the higher echelons of the nationalised industries (state).

Rich and poor existed alike inside a great framework of British institutions. It was the lower-middle-class who went from their schools to keep shops or manage small businesses; who did not participate, for the most part, in the institutions you’re describing; who therefore saw the state not as the guarantor of the framework in which they lived, but as a constant demander of taxes and producer of paperwork; and whose resentment ultimately produced Margaret Thatcher.

4

ajay 04.10.13 at 10:55 am

Macaulay on Thatcher’s legacy:

Then none was for a party,
And all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great;
Then goods were fairly portioned,
And spoils were fairly sold;
The Romans were like brothers
In the brave days of old.

Now Roman is to Roman
More hateful than a foe,
And the Tribunes beard the high
As the Fathers grind the low.
As we wax hot in faction,
In battle we wax cold,
Wherefore men fight not as they fought
In the brave days of old.

5

pedant 04.10.13 at 11:01 am

typo?

“the true observation that it is more difficult for people to rise come us against the pervasive perception”

I’m guessing “come us” should be “comes up”?

[CB: thanks]

6

Chris Bertram 04.10.13 at 11:22 am

@ajay Your point about parts of the elite also depending on particular state institutions (though different ones) is well taken. But I don’t think I agree with your view on the stratification. Culturally, the business and professional classes were quite intermingled, went to the same schools, read the same papers and (centrally here) shared similar resentments towards the institutionalized working class. Not that there weren’t all kinds of internal differentiations, but I think that your restriction to “lower middle class” is wrong, it was broader than that. But I’m generalizing from the people I went to (quite an expensive) school with and their families and the like rather than on proper sociological data.

7

ajay 04.10.13 at 11:45 am

Fair point – though I would still argue that, for the sort of person who wanted to be judges, generals, civil servants and doctors, the extreme Thatcherist belief that “the state is the problem not the solution” would never be a winning argument.

And I would say Thatcherism was always about more than hostility to the institutionalised working class (though that was a big part of it). It was about hostility to every British institution. The NHS, the civil service, the universities, the BBC, the law courts, even the Churches… the armed forces escaped the worst of it in the 80s for obvious reasons, but Thatcher’s heirs hammered them hard as well. There wasn’t supposed to be anything left except employee/consumers, private-sector service providers, and a minimal state.

8

James Wimberley 04.10.13 at 11:48 am

How did you manage to go to “Eton, Westminster and Fettes” in one turbulent adolescence? If you were expelled from Eton for setting fire to the Bursar’s cat, what were Westminster thinking of when they let you in?

9

Trader Joe 04.10.13 at 11:58 am

Its hard to defend a lot of Thatcher’s means and I won’t try, but I think there’s a degree to which some of the domestic changes were necessary evil.

Its easy to forget the strikes, power failures, police brutality, IRA bombs and pollution which plauged 1970s Brittain. Unemployment and middle-class destroying inflation were at record levels and. The phrase ‘Labour isn’t working’ resonated because on so many levels it was in fact a very broken socialism – maybe broken is too strong, a socialism with severe deficiencies.

As the OP points out quite well there was a lot of entrenched power that really didn’t have an interest in evolving towards what we might call a Norweigian socialism. A reformer was necessary and while its easy to criticise the deficiencies of the Thatcher “pro-capitalist” approach, the alternative would have been equally wrenching to figure out how to evolve roughly 40% of the economy to something that could have been competitive on a global scale.

A state run British Telecom would have been road-kill for the massive technology changes that began in the late 80s. A state run National Grid would would have needed to massively raise energy costs (hugely regressive) to overhaul the grid and adopt modern pollution controls. A state run British Airways would have failed several times over (see..every other Euro-state owned airline)….its not hard to go on.

Circa 1977 Britain was well on a path to losing its place at the table of nations that ‘mattered’ on a world stage. Absent Thatcher Brittain would undoubtedly have been subsumed within the Eurozone, its economy would likely have been just as feeble as France’s and maybe even Italy’s and its voice would be a full 1/16 as important as it is today (i.e. Germany would have won in the end).

There was unquestionably a large societal cost to remaining relevant and Thatcher paid it on the backs of a variety of different societal groups, but intended or not, there was some good that came of it. Its one sided to think everything that there were only clouds and no silver linings.

10

Corey Robin 04.10.13 at 12:08 pm

Chris: This was just excellent. And beautifully written too.

11

Barry 04.10.13 at 12:20 pm

Ajax: “Fair point – though I would still argue that, for the sort of person who wanted to be judges, generals, civil servants and doctors, the extreme Thatcherist belief that “the state is the problem not the solution” would never be a winning argument.”

Not if it works like is does in the States. Here, people like that have no trouble taking a government paycheck, wielding government powers, while deploring ‘government’.

12

Kieran Healy 04.10.13 at 12:45 pm

In the sixties and seventies we had great popular music and some terrific high culture; now it seems as if almost the entire country tunes into X-Factor and Strictly. Progress, of a kind?

Tempting as it is, I think this is mostly the bias of memory—then as now, the large majority of mainstream light entertainment and music was shit. You’ve just forgotten most of it. This week in 1976, Britain’s Number 1 was “Save All Your Kisses For Me”. Elsewhere in the Top 30—mixed in with a few decent songs, certainly—were The Drifters, Sailor, Glitter Band, the Bay City Rollers, and Cliff Richard.

13

Chris Brooke 04.10.13 at 12:49 pm

Hey! “Save Your Kisses for Me” won the 1976 Eurovision Song Contest!

14

Barry 04.10.13 at 12:49 pm

Trader Joe:

“Its easy to forget the strikes, power failures, police brutality, IRA bombs and pollution which plauged 1970s Brittain. Unemployment and middle-class destroying inflation were at record levels and. The phrase ‘Labour isn’t working’ resonated because on so many levels it was in fact a very broken socialism – maybe broken is too strong, a socialism with severe deficiencies.”

And Thatcher did what was unemployment and police brutality?

“A state run British Telecom would have been road-kill for the massive technology changes that began in the late 80s. A state run National Grid would would have needed to massively raise energy costs (hugely regressive) to overhaul the grid and adopt modern pollution controls. A state run British Airways would have failed several times over (see..every other Euro-state owned airline)….its not hard to go on.”

How are the grid, telecom and the railways doing after Thatcher? I’ve heard nothing good about them.

“Circa 1977 Britain was well on a path to losing its place at the table of nations that ‘mattered’ on a world stage. Absent Thatcher Brittain would undoubtedly have been subsumed within the Eurozone, its economy would likely have been just as feeble as France’s and maybe even Italy’s and its voice would be a full 1/16 as important as it is today (i.e. Germany would have won in the end). “

A City-Run EuroUK would probably find being in bed with German bankers quite comfortable; both of them would be happy making bad loans and squeezing blood out of people to get their money back while imposing austerity politics which made it harder for those people to repay the loans. And sticking government bailouts into their pockets while piously decrying government.

As for the UK losing it’s place at the table of nations which matter, it did do that. Note that Blair wasn’t called ‘Bush’s Pit Bull’, but ‘Bush’s Poodle’.

15

pedant 04.10.13 at 12:50 pm

Barry:

“while deploring ‘government’.”

I think that’s another typo. You mean “gubmint”.

Chris in the OP–you aren’t trying to say, are you, that the good aspects of democratization (e.g. the lessening of rigid gender hierarchies or heteronormativity) are in any way to be credited to Thatcher and her wrecking ball?

Wasn’t that rather due to forces quite independent of her particular jihad? Forces like, e.g., birth control, the Beatles, Indian Independence and decolonization, zillions of things that she neither fostered nor favored?

16

Chris Bertram 04.10.13 at 12:59 pm

Kieran …. I think it is a bit more complicated than that, but note that I don’t deny that there was a lot of dross. However, …. the place to look for quality in the mid-70s is in the *album chart* rather than singles, but if you go back slightly earlier to the end-of-the 60s/early 70s, you can find some really exceptional records as consecutive number 1s in the singles chart. There’s then a really catastrophic decline in that chart from 1972 onwards.

17

rf 04.10.13 at 1:01 pm

“British society is less racist and less sexist than it was and (outside football) people are very tolerant of sexual difference.”

I think these are important developments, and probably more important than the increase in inequality and decline in social mobility (if you had to make a choice) and although I’m probably wrong, I don’t see how progress in this area could have been made in a society as paternalistic as the one that maintained the post-war era..so Ken Loach’s paens to the 50s seem not only infeasible, but odd

18

Kevin McDonough 04.10.13 at 1:21 pm

I want to second Corey’s commendation above. Thanks for this.

19

Cian 04.10.13 at 1:42 pm

Shorter Trader Joe:
“The Thatcher in my head created a great and powerful Albion, that is sadly also in my head.”

its economy would likely have been just as feeble as France’s

You mean Britain would have been wealthier? Tell me more, as I find this dystopia you descrive strangely alluring…

20

Cian 04.10.13 at 1:46 pm

I don’t see how progress in this area could have been made in a society as paternalistic as the one that maintained the post-war era..

I don’t think Thatcher had much to do with this. Much of the legwork here happened during the 1970s, and Thatcher’s government were pretty resistant to the continuing struggles during the 80s. The reason such massive progress was made after 1997 was suddenly instead of things like ‘Clause 28′, you had a government that was pretty sympathetic to it.

21

ajay 04.10.13 at 1:47 pm

In the sixties and seventies we had great popular music and some terrific high culture; now it seems as if almost the entire country tunes into X-Factor and Strictly. Progress, of a kind?

It is a recurring nightmare of mine that in about 50 years or so I will be appearing on an educational oral history documentary about the 2000s, just like the ones about the 1940s that I watched at school, and while every old duffer on those programmes was able to break into “We’ll Meet Again” or “Run Rabbit Run” in a creaky voice, I will be unable to recall a single song from the entire damn decade and will just end up sitting there in front of the holo-camera feeling like a complete idiot.

22

rf 04.10.13 at 2:00 pm

” I don’t think Thatcher had much….”

I’m not crediting Thatcher so much as thinking that the paternalism of post war social democracy was a neccessary prerequisite for the very specific society and economy that developed, and wouldnt have offered the space for progress on race, gender and sexuality (at least not to the extent that progress has been made).. and that genuine gender (and probably racial) was not compatible with the post war compromise*

*Reading back that doesnt seem overly coherent, but I think the gist is there. I’m not really overly dedicated to this claim either, though it makes some sort of sense. I think

23

Zamfir 04.10.13 at 2:10 pm

That’s why they won’t invite you.

24

Cian 04.10.13 at 2:46 pm

I’m not crediting Thatcher so much as thinking that the paternalism of post war social democracy was a neccessary prerequisite for the very specific society and economy that developed, and wouldnt have offered the space for progress on race, gender and sexuality

I don’t think I buy this. Individuals die and retire, they’re replaced by individuals with different views. I don’t see why that would have been any different. In some ways it might have been easier. Unemployment and disruption are hardly conducive to people fighting for sexual, or racial, equality.

25

ajay 04.10.13 at 2:46 pm

Boy, that’s a weight off my mind.

26

ajay 04.10.13 at 2:50 pm

the paternalism of post war social democracy was a neccessary prerequisite for the very specific society and economy that developed, and wouldnt have offered the space for progress on race, gender and sexuality

Is this basically saying that the post-war social democratic setup was the reason why there was no feminist movement, no anti-racism movement, and no gay rights movement in Britain in the 1960s? I’m not sure that’s actually what happened.

27

rf 04.10.13 at 2:52 pm

But even at the first link in the chain genuine gender and racial equality would have meant jobs for women and non whites ( a lot of who were first/second generation immigrants) which would have immeditaly upset the distributional compromises of the post war era (generally, not neccessarily in relation to Britain)

28

rf 04.10.13 at 2:53 pm

“Is this basically saying that the post-war social democratic setup was the reason why there was no feminist movement, no anti-racism movement, and no gay rights movement in Britain in the 1960s? I’m not sure that’s actually what happened.”

No, it’s saying the setup couldnt survive them

29

Barry 04.10.13 at 2:53 pm

“the paternalism of post war social democracy was a neccessary prerequisite for the very specific society and economy that developed, and wouldnt have offered the space for progress on race, gender and sexuality “

Well, was there progress on race, gender and sexuality from the late 40′s to the mid 70′s?

30

Uncle Kvetch 04.10.13 at 2:59 pm

Shorter Trader Joe:
“The Thatcher in my head created a great and powerful Albion, that is sadly also in my head.”

That’s a bit unfair. The Thatcher in Joe’s head is also the Thatcher in the head of 99% of the US chattering class, as the media coverage of her death here has made amply clear. Don’t blame the messenger.

31

Joseph Streeter 04.10.13 at 3:17 pm

@ Uncle Kvetch
Indeed. The main New York Times article was more or less pure Thatcherite propaganda, even crediting her policies with ‘spurring industrial growth.’

32

Trader Joe 04.10.13 at 3:29 pm

Cian @ 19
“You mean Britain would have been wealthier? Tell me more, as I find this dystopia you descrive strangely alluring…”

I’m not sure whether its your understanding of the UK economy or the French one which is out of whack… the UK’s GDP growth has bested France 8 of the last 10 years and unemployment has been lower in 10 of 10….I’ll admit this isn’t exactly a heavyweight fight but France isn’t the champion you’re looking for.

If I painted a picture of some sort of UK-utopia it wasn’t my intent.

My point in brief was that things were pretty screwed up, change was needed and change was made. Its impossible to know what the alternative might have looked like because it wasn’t tried. The evidence from the rest of Europe, save Germany which has its own skeletons, is that it certaintly could have been worse.

33

Lee A. Arnold 04.10.13 at 3:30 pm

The society is more egalitarian and everybody feels that they can be what they want to be, while the reality is that market success is sort of a “positional good” that is limited numerically by the number of slots at the top of private corporate hierarchies. There is a “one-to-many” or “winner-take-all” structure that is inherent to mass production (or mass servicing), and it appears to place an increasing number of people at the bottom, over time. You may have the chance to invent something new, or to be a great singer, or to start a new corporation and be the head of it. Does the probability of those chances decline with the growth of population and globalization? Can we avoid the formation of two classes with very different income levels? Suppose the top class starts to feel that it has succeeded purely due to personal effort, and not also due to luck and the inherent hierarchical structure: they might start to resent carrying the burden of the safety-net for the bottom class. And the bottom class, now egalitarian and believing as co-equals, may see that the market is socially destabilizing with no intervention by old class distinctions or interest-group politics. In this case, Thatcher (and Reagan) will have done us all a favor by leading us to the real contradiction.

34

ajay 04.10.13 at 3:39 pm

I’m not sure whether its your understanding of the UK economy or the French one which is out of whack… the UK’s GDP growth has bested France 8 of the last 10 years and unemployment has been lower in 10 of 10

Wait, you’re arguing the superiority of Thatcher’s policies by pointing to a period in which Britain was ruled by the Labour Party and France was ruled by Nicolas Sarkozy? Oh-kay then.

35

Cian 04.10.13 at 3:55 pm

The main New York Times article was more or less pure Thatcherite propaganda, even crediting her policies with ‘spurring industrial growth.’

Ha ha ha ha. Nope, laughing didn’t help.

36

Paul Davis 04.10.13 at 3:57 pm

Lets get a real handle on how this was even before the end of war, admittedly as part of a propaganda effort by the UK government of the day:

http://vimeo.com/39261633 (“The Second Freedom”)

This is REALLY worth watching. It made me almost cry, and certainly left me feeling very sad that such an expansive sense of intra-social obligation could have been so obliterated.

37

Cian 04.10.13 at 4:13 pm

@32 TraderJoe – The UK economy per person was about the same as France’s in 1979 and about the same in 1993 (in point of fact France grew slightly more, but its within the margin of error.

HOWEVER, and this is a big ‘HOWEVER’, there was this little thing called the North Sea Oil boom. You may have heard about it. In the circumstances, parity with France is pretty unimpressive.

The northern European countries mostly did better. Which in Germany’s case included a hugely disruptive and expensive unification with its far poorer neighbour.

My point in brief was that things were pretty screwed up, change was needed and change was made.

Awful lot of assumptions there.
1) Assumption that change was needed.
2) Assumption that the change that happened was in fact the change that was needed.
3) Assumption that the change Britain didn’t in fact make things worse.

As you were then.

38

Cian 04.10.13 at 4:14 pm

Aargh. I mean to say GDP per person, rather than economy per person.

39

Anderson 04.10.13 at 4:14 pm

How much of the early post-1945 modus vivendi came from the elite’s sense that the public could not be denied a welfare state after the sacrifices of WW2?

Maybe none at all, and that’s not a factor, but it seems from this side of the Atlantic that it’s worth thinking about. Eisenhower in 1953 and the Tories in 1951 apparently thought the welfare state was here to stay, right? That simply dismantling the NHS or Social Security was not in the cards?

40

Kieran Healy 04.10.13 at 4:27 pm

However, …. the place to look for quality in the mid-70s is in the *album chart* rather than singles, but if you go back slightly earlier to the end-of-the 60s/early 70s, you can find some really exceptional records as consecutive number 1s in the singles chart.

I can see that. But the post is about the 70s, and there are plenty of places to “look for quality” today, too. I thought the original point was about the main stream of the ’70s culture—was the equivalent to X-Factor and Strictly better or worse then? Around 1976 the TV mainstream was This is Your Life, the Val Doonican Show, Benny Hill, Sale of the Century, and Opportunity Knocks.

41

Joseph Streeter 04.10.13 at 4:27 pm

@Cian It is striking how rarely Thatcher’s cheerleaders mention North Sea oil. As you say, British economic performance under her government looks decidedly unimpressive when North Sea oil is factored in (and it doesn’t look all that remarkable even when it is ignored).

42

Chris Bertram 04.10.13 at 4:46 pm

@kieran Well no, the original claim was “great popular music” rather than anything broader (and it didn’t involve the denial that there was also plenty of crap). I think I stand by that, since so much of what there is since (and what X-factor feeds off) is just parasitic recycling of the better stuff from the 60s and 70s. Things ain’t what they used to be in the music department, partly because music itself has been displaced from the central position it once held in youth culture. But maybe I should indulge my 70s music nostalgia in a separate thread sometime ….

43

Trader Joe 04.10.13 at 5:45 pm

@37
I don’t disagree with your data, including your very fair point about North Sea oil, but I’m not sure that evaluating co-incident GDP changes is the way to evaluate structural revision to an economy. The benefits unquestionably lag, and I’m sure the crack economists around here can trot out an assortment of studies which purport to measure the lag.

The assumption that change was needed wasn’t made by me – it was made by the people of Brittain – three times. This somewhat takes in assumption 2 as well, since they returned her three times and Major once as well.

The last assumption is clearly the one for the jury – was it for the best. I guess we’re still left with if Thatcherism was plan A and that’s deemed a failure (your apparent position)- what would plan B have looked like?

For all the differences, I think France is a reasonable ‘base case’ as to what the UK might have achieved – oil benefits would have been squandered by the state making needed infra-structure upgrades instead of allowing tax breaks for private enterprise to do so etc. but its a plausible alternative if we assume they wouldn’t have completely missed the boat.

The fact that the UK subsequently chose to stay outside the Euro also makes it difficult to guess what “Plan B” might have delivered.

As such – I don’t think either of us can prove other than by even more blatant assumption that the UK would have been materially better off than all of their neighbors by not taking a different fork in the road from ’79-93.

I take some exception on Germany because unification became an excellent excuse for the Germans to implement a lot of social and financial changes that were probably needed anyway. The inital years of reunification were harsh using any data set you want – but after a period of time, the resulting growth far exceeded most of the rest of Europe and frankly gave them the economic and leadership credentials to assume the role they have within the Eurozone.

44

JGooders 04.10.13 at 5:57 pm

Any armchair theories about why music has clearly got worse since the seventies but films haven’t?

45

Barry 04.10.13 at 6:12 pm

Cian “HOWEVER, and this is a big ‘HOWEVER’, there was this little thing called the North Sea Oil boom. You may have heard about it. In the circumstances, parity with France is pretty unimpressive.

The northern European countries mostly did better. Which in Germany’s case included a hugely disruptive and expensive unification with its far poorer neighbour.”

As Joe also said, it’s amazing how few people on the right mention oil. I’ve seen it on this side of the lake, as well. Few, if any right-wingers talking about the 70′s will mention that the world got hit by a 3X increase in the price of a basic commodity.

As for Germany, I’ve thought that as well. They had the Big Evul Skaree Trade Unionists, but seem to have done far better.

46

Barry 04.10.13 at 6:15 pm

Trader Joe: “I don’t disagree with your data, including your very fair point about North Sea oil, but I’m not sure that evaluating co-incident GDP changes is the way to evaluate structural revision to an economy. The benefits unquestionably lag, and I’m sure the crack economists around here can trot out an assortment of studies which purport to measure the lag.”

Krugman mentioned this, that any apparent good changes came around the mid-90′s (as they did for most of the world!), and asked for justification of the lag.

And the whole point, which you are missing, is that when comparing the UK to comparable neighbors, there’s a lot of bad in Thatcher, but little good.

“The assumption that change was needed wasn’t made by me – it was made by the people of Brittain – three times. This somewhat takes in assumption 2 as well, since they returned her three times and Major once as well.”

Nooooooooooo, it was made by a system which gave the Tories overwhelming power with (IIRC) 40% of the vote). Plus, of course, the extra boost that serving the financial elites gives a party.

47

Cian 04.10.13 at 6:38 pm

1983
Tories – 42.4% of vote
Labor – 27.6% of vote
Lib/SDP – 25.4% of vote

SDP having just split from Labor

1987
Tories – 42.2% of vote
Labor – 30.8%
Lib/SDP – 22.6% of vote

Huge overwhelming mandate for change not much in evidence.

48

Cian 04.10.13 at 6:41 pm

I think France is a reasonable ‘base case’ as to what the UK might have achieved – oil benefits would have been squandered by the state making needed infra-structure upgrades instead of allowing tax breaks for private enterprise to do so etc.

This is supposed to be a serious grown up argument, yeah? Words fail me.

Next time why don’t you assume union hating aliens ate all the oil. I mean if you’re just going to make random arguments, you might as well make entertaining ones.

49

Phil 04.10.13 at 6:53 pm

The decline of democracy in the sense of popular control contrasts with a sense that society is more democratic in that anyone is as good as anyone else; the intensification of real economic inequality has coincided with a much greater cultural egalitarianism than existed before.

I was going to post a comment to the effect that the idea of “democratic in that anyone is as good as anyone else” isn’t about democracy at all, it’s about… um… a kind of egalitarianism… cultural egalitarianism, let’s call it. Then I read the second half of the sentence.

I think the concept of democracy as it’s used in politics has gone through some massive and not at all disinterested changes in the last 35 years (I initially wrote “a massive bait-and-switch”, but that’s a bit too agentive). If democracy means “mechanisms of popular control”, Thatcher’s governments were basically against it; they certainly opposed any extension of it beyond a vote for an MP every five years (see: trade unions, police authorities, the GLC). And they very largely won those arguments on the ideological level; I think there’s substantially less of an appetite for democracy now than there was in 1978. (In England, at least.) But if ‘democracy’ means the unhindered free market (which is presumably what it meant when Thatcher praised Pinochet for “bringing democracy to Chile”), or if it means that a grocer’s daughter can become Prime Minister (i.e. cultural egalitarianism) – then yes, it can be argued that this is a more ‘democratic’ country now.

British society is less racist and less sexist than it was and (outside football) people are very tolerant of sexual difference.

I think what you’re seeing there is the long march through the institutions, from the scruffy anti-racist & pro-feminist Left of the 1970s to the municipal socialism of the 1980s, and thence to the cultural progressivism of New Labour. Labour were in power for 13 years, let’s not forget, and they were a strong influence over Major’s government for a few years before that. New Labour were hideously conservative on many issues (arguably including class), but they were always right-on in race & gender terms – and those ideas had a good long time to become the common sense of society. But this was all after Thatcher.

Has the meritocracy risen? Not really. Actually not at all. The advantages of birth and privilege are entrenched as never before. But the perception that we are all equals allows for the illusion of a meritocratic society and for the ritual blaming of those who fail.

I haven’t read the book, but I thought the entrenchment of a new caste – with the old aristocracy’s hereditarian tendencies but without any sense of noblesse oblige – was precisely what Michael “father of Toby” Young was warning against. The meritocracy has risen, and now we’re stuck with them (and their children).

50

mrearl 04.10.13 at 6:56 pm

Re the ’70s singles chart: Suspecting exaggeration for effect, I looked it up. Well, there was “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a few others (say, “Another Brick In The Wall”), but . . . Oh My Gawd, you do not exaggerate, you understate.

51

PJW 04.10.13 at 6:58 pm

Chris B., I hope you indulge your ’70s music nostalgia and write a post. That very thing crossed my mind when I read your exchange with Kieran upthread.

52

engels 04.10.13 at 7:22 pm

The decline of democracy in the sense of popular control contrasts with a sense that society is more democratic in that anyone is as good as anyone else; the intensification of real economic inequality has coincided with a much greater cultural egalitarianism than existed before.

It’s not that anyone is as good as anyone else, that I’m as good as you are, it’s that my money is as good as yours. You can’t tell me what to do unless you’ve bought and paid. Anyone who tries to lord it over me by other means – culture, intellect, moral example, professional authority – deserves a good kicking.

53

Trader Joe 04.10.13 at 7:23 pm

47 & 48
Looking at ’83 and ’87 is a red herring. The stated need for change was the electing in 1979 after years of Labour….I could be coy and read the lack of change at ’83 and ’87 as affirming the mandate although obviously the lib-dem split was a key ingredient and Labour was too wounded to form a coalition.

It must be nice to take pot-shots at someone else’s thesis about what might have happened had Thatcher not been elected to office. You believe the results would have been better but offer nothing to suggest why that might have been so. Its quite a republican trait actually – always saying what’s wrong with another view rather than asserting a thesis of what would be better.

54

pjm 04.10.13 at 8:37 pm

@TJ 53. Given evidence that the Thatcher experience resulted in somewhat lackluster performance, you are really making the highly dubious claim the justification for her policies lies in that they averted or ameliorated a substantial, perhaps unprecedented, worsening of conditions in the UK. As they say, extraordinary claims…

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Tim Wilkinson 04.10.13 at 8:40 pm

(This was intended for the other thread but mostly more apt here – I’ll add that the Thatcherite Conservative party and press were dead against the ‘Loony Left’ with its weirdo cultural egalitarianism and throughout the 80s pushed a line which was basically ‘political correctness gone mad’ avant la lettre. The unreality of the world inhabited by the tedious likes of Trader Joe and rf is cast into particularly sharp relief by this topic, it seems.)

Tom Hurka – since your opinions seem to be based on the Sun’s (or perhaps the Oxford Union’s) version of events, you might want to check on what actually happened in the UK in the 70s – ‘stagflation’ was a product of the Barber Boom-Bust, massive expansion of consumer credit and financial deregulation, and poor industrial relations, all under Heath, combined – obviously – with the oil price shock of 1973.

Just focussing on inflation, which was actually high enough to cause hardship to ordinary people, given that wages lagged far behind: the Wilson-Callaghan government presided over a fall in inflation, down from its peak at over 25% to a local low at about 7%, reversing the trend under the previous and subsequent Conservative terms in govt.

Callaghan’s insistence on continued crippling pay restraint at below inflation levels even by 78 was an excess in favour of private capital, not labour. At this point the incomes policy was supposed to be in Phase III – a staged return to free bargaining – but instead a 5% cap was introduced – below current inflation, and well below the accumulated impact of inflation over the past years. This was, some say, a response to a sharp rise in global inflation – but since pay restraint at national level couldn’t hope to reverse a global trend, and since a genuinely global increase in inflation has little real effect, it’s hard to find any justification for it. Callaghan was by now dependent on Liberal votes in parliament, but I don’t think that had any effect on that decision.

Growth, re-established in 75 under Wilson (a far more impressive politician than Thatcher, btw) continued to improve in 78 and a hard-won recovery appeared just around the corner. Even Callaghan’s needlessly harsh pay policy was just holding until the Ford Motor Company and GM-owned Vauxhall broke its terms following strikes by the TGWU, precipitating the other private and public sector strikes of the so-called Winter of Discontent.

What exactly went on during those few months has never as far as I know been the subject of an academic study of any great depth. Given the number of hard-right headbangers in high places then engaged in a war against organised labour that in their mind was continuous with the Cold War at its most febrile, given that Wilson had apparently been persuaded by means still mysterious to leave office, given the state of high tension maintained during Wilson’s premiership by parapolitical manoeuvring including private armies, dirty tricks campaigns by both MI5 and 6 playing at home, the use of British Army personnel in a show of strength (all this info, including detailed complaints from Wilson, being made available to Callaghan as PM but explicitly covered up by him); given all that and the fact that the Callaghan government seemed likely to turn the corner and succeed in running a mixed economy where Edward “The queer must be dethroned” Heath had failed, and to win the next election and more – it may well be that unseen influences were at work. It certainly seems implausible that all this fevered right-wing parapolitical activity suddenly ceased in the late 70s, before it had been rendered otiose by Thatcher’s rise.

One potentially relevant point given the role of the TGWU: in 1970, MI5 had started actively investigating the TGWU’s Gen. Sec., Jack Jones, on suspicion of contacts with the Soviets. MI5 head Martin Furnival Jones noted that Jones was unlikely to be charged with espionage, but the operation “could be of great value in particular to the Department of Employment and to the Government [then the Heath govt] generally in the field of industrial disputes”.

Soviet archives show Jones as a paid KGB informant; Christopher Andrew’s report, as authorised, of MI5 records has MI5 exonerating him. Since Jones, along with big US firms, was responsible for tipping a precarious truce over into open hostilities, short-lived but with a powerful propaganda machine waiting to get to work on them just in time for the general election, it is worth considering the possibility that he was coerced or manipulated, especially since he had hitherto supported the Labour govt’s pay policy against the short-run interests of his own members. This is of course speculative but certainly not unrealistic. In general, while it’s fine to talk about Militant infiltration of unions and the party, you hardly hear anything about right-wing infiltrators, provocateurs and other agents of influence from official and unofficial Security agencies etc., even though there obviously must have been a significant number of those.

The strikes of 78-9 were of course the subject of a huge (and wider) highly organised propaganda campaign which delivered Pinochet’s Pals a slim majority in 79, and was then ramped up still further to help overcome the massive unpopularity of the 1st Thatcher govt’s brutal policies and assist in the much bigger electoral majority in 83 – though this seemed impossible in 81 and became achievable only after (1) the Gang of Four split the anti-Thatcher vote by joining Brian Crozier’s SDA to form the SDP; (2) the Falklands war was contrived and a bloody ‘victory’ obtained amid much patriotic fervour.

(Skipping over all the funny business involved in the Miners’ strike, I’ll just note that Brian Crozier’s propaganda methods emerge again in the run-up to the ’87 election – a relatively mild bit of ‘anti-subversion’, but one whose effectiveness reportedly pleased him – coaching David Frost for a particularly damaging interview with Kinnock.)

etv13 is correct that Thatcher was chosen as a figurehead for the hard right, and was neither the driving force behind Thatcherism nor the uncompromisingly principle-driven Iron Lady that is so beloved of a certain kind of middle-aged man.

Such orgs as the IEA and CPS (Centre for Policy Studies ), and such people as K Joseph, N Ridley, and perhaps especially the aforementioned B Crozier are just a few key players in the neoliberal revolution.

By 85 the BAP – British-American Project for the Successor Generation – had been formed, amid concern about Thatcher’s unpopularity. Some claim the predecessor in question was the WW2 generation, but this is clearly anachronistic, and given that notable members in the early years were Mandelson, Mowlam, D. Miliband, J. Powell, G. Robertson, as well as Paxman & Naughty, it seems clear enough that the aim was to ensure a second generation of neoliberals after Thatcher and Reagan. Like all such neoliberal networks and capitalist steering committees, this tends to be presented, on the rare occasions that any attention falls on it, as a sort glorified drinking club, but obviously that is not the function of such groupings. This kind of thing is simply ‘what the ruling class does when it rules’.

Doffing the foil hat and returning to Thatcher: she was, in any case, a willing and effective front-man and well aware of what she was doing: as usual I would point out that there is never any shortage of blame to go round.

As for picking up canapes and guiding an old man – I agree with everyone else that such anecdotes are basically irrelevant, but I also have no trouble reconciling such actions with a Thatcher whose known unpleasant personality was nasty all the way through: not all apparently altruistic gestures are motivated by self-aggrandisement, but some certainly are. We all know someone given to capricious acts of apparent kindness which somehow always seems to involve them gaining control of the situation and becoming the centre of attention.

Thatcher’s self-image was very much that of the no-nonsense, roll-up-the-sleeves-and-muck-in character – and let’s remember that the mad old bird was given to a good deal of sentimentalised loyalty to ‘her people’ such as good old Augusto, and of course a certain Mr Savile along with his likeminded friends in her government (though that story – hats back on please – is now permanently spiked thanks to an unexplained but highly convenient cock-up).

56

Salem 04.10.13 at 8:54 pm

Cian @47: “Huge overwhelming mandate for change not much in evidence.”

Are you kidding me? That’s a clear mandate for change. In the 1983 election the Labour Party platform was essentially to go back to the 1970s and they were annihilated. You seem to imply that the large vote for the Alliance was evidence that people didn’t really want change, but in fact the reverse is true. The reason that the SDP split from Labour was precisely that people all across the political spectrum thought that change was badly needed.

Now, does that mean the country was broadly Thatcherite? No. People agreed that the country was a mess, but there was no national consensus on how to fix it. The kind of changes that someone like Roy Jenkins wanted were miles away from what she did. But the Labour Party was institutionally unable to change itself or be cognizant of that mess, and that doomed it, and the Left generally, to a decade of irrelevance. And indeed, once Labour did wake up to the modern world, it was able to bring together that broad Left coalition and regain power pretty easily.

57

Noel Maurer 04.10.13 at 9:04 pm

Looking at this from the outside — also known as America — I am a bit astounded at the degree of vitriol and “nyah nyah” that Trader Joe has attracted. Barry excepted.

58

rf 04.10.13 at 9:20 pm

“The unreality of the world inhabited by the tedious likes of Trader Joe and rf is cast into particularly sharp relief by this topic, it seems.)”

Once again Tim, there’s a difference between arguing that Milk Snatcher was a force for good on ‘cultural egalitarianism’, and the argument that post war social democracy (as a system) was maintained by deep levels of paternalism.
And once again I was only reacting to Ken Loach harkening back for the ‘spirit’ of the reactionary past, (why not call for the ‘spirit of Sweden’?), not making a particularly sophisticated, coherent point.
I have no real desire to carry Thatcher’s water, she was a Tory caught up in circumstances beyond her control doing what Tory’s do when they spot an opening. She did it in a particularly obnoxious and destructive way, but it was more than likely going to happen anyway.
Since I stopped reading there, I’ll assume we’re now arguing that her positions on the Falklands or apartheid were a huge change from Britain’s usual sense of fairness on all matters foreign affairs and Africa, and that her stance on the hunger strikes etc have no parrells in Irish/British history. She was merely historys greatest monster, emerging from the depths of hell at the most opportune of times
Anyway..

59

Trader Joe 04.10.13 at 9:30 pm

PJW@54
I think that’s pretty much where I started at 9 and tried to restate at 32….there are all sorts of ways to bash Thatcher, but there was no coallition for anything that resembled an alternative.

I don’t think I’ve made the case anywhere for huge “success” but I do believe doing what was done was better than continuing the pre-79 status quo. I think a fair portion of the populace found it easy enough to be anti-labour without necessarily being pro-Thatcher. Maybe said differently – it was a big stage example of the the old quip “I’d rather be caught out than stumped.”

60

Tim Worstall 04.10.13 at 9:43 pm

“However, …. the place to look for quality in the mid-70s is in the *album chart* rather than singles,”

Err, yes, but the album at the top in this week in 1976 was “Rock Follies”. Soundtrack to a TV show, wasn’t it?

Preceeded by Slim Whitman then Status Quo, followed by Led Zep (OK, but only for one week) then Rock Follies again.

There really was a reason for punk….

61

Substance McGravitas 04.10.13 at 9:49 pm

ABBA weren’t so bad.

62

Metatone 04.10.13 at 11:05 pm

Random points:

1) BT was actually shown up for the mess it was and is by state telecoms around the world who adapted to new technologies with much more alacrity and skill. There’s a reason that we’re only just catching up to comparable countries in internet infrastructure.

2) I don’t think it’s right to credit Thatcher with fostering our new world of lesser racism/sexism etc. It’s pretty clear that both she and her party were not in favour of that kind of improvement. However, I think it is correct to note that there is a tension between 70s social democracy in the UK and (for example) Germany and improvements in opportunities for brown people, women, queers, etc. So I guess I concur with the OP, there has been a USA-ification of the UK whereby people have been freed from certain social pressures – but at the same time lost a great deal in economic terms.

3) There are plenty of “what-if” scenarios about how the UK economy could have unfolded had there been no Falklands War (without which Thatcher was polling to lose the election.) Just about none of them suggest that the Tory way was the only way to relative prosperity. Posters who wish to pretend that it was so betray their desire to believe that the economic policies of 79 worked, but the evidence isn’t on their side.

4) One sad truth – it’s not really about an individual – it’s about a political party and a political class. Thatcher is just a symbolic head of these. There was a class war and ordinary people lost. Should Thatcher’s heirs get their way, we’ll find out just how very badly we lost as healthcare, education and universities are privatised and the upper-middle pay more than ever and the rest below learn to do without to increasing degrees…

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dsquared 04.10.13 at 11:51 pm

It is a recurring nightmare of mine that in about 50 years or so I will be appearing on an educational oral history documentary about the 2000s, just like the ones about the 1940s that I watched at school, and while every old duffer on those programmes was able to break into “We’ll Meet Again” or “Run Rabbit Run” in a creaky voice, I will be unable to recall a single song from the entire damn decade and will just end up sitting there in front of the holo-camera feeling like a complete idiot.

I, on the other hand, will be warbling either “Cigarettes and Alcohol” or “I Wanna Be Adored” and feeling like an even bigger idiot.

64

derrida derider 04.11.13 at 12:11 am

Good God, I thought the sort of paranoia so evident on the Right had departed from the Left in favour of wishy washy “post structuralist” explanations. But Tim Wilkinson has it all there – the “we wuz robbed” stuff about shadow armies and conspiracies overthrowing good and popular governments for fear that they are about to reveal themselves to be really good and really popular (except of course, in the next breath the conspiracy theorist is quite likely to denounce those governments as foul puppets of the conspirators anyway).

Its the sort of stuff that gives me a fleeting feeling of sympathy for the Blairites who had to fight it (but only a fleeting one).

65

js. 04.11.13 at 12:29 am

Re the music discussion, not sure where I’d come down ultimately, but I do think that it’s a tad bit unfair of Kieran to pick 1976 in particular—presumably, if you looked at ’72-’74 or ’78-’80, it would be significantly better, or so I’d expect. (Even taking account of the fact that the seriously awesome British music from ’77-’80, say, was mostly not at the top of the charts.)

66

QS 04.11.13 at 4:33 am

Normally I am quite antagonized by the posts and discussions that occur on CT. This, though, conveyed some really useful insights and was really well presented. Thanks, Chris!

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Tim Wilkinson 04.11.13 at 7:13 am

Oi derrida derider – I’ve already done the obligatory tinfoil references in my self-appointed role as butt of such smears – so you have to actually address the issues – which are of course real – if you want to feel superior.

68

ajay 04.11.13 at 9:06 am

if it means that a grocer’s daughter can become Prime Minister (i.e. cultural egalitarianism) – then yes, it can be argued that this is a more ‘democratic’ country now.

I’m going to push back on that a bit. It’s simply not the case that Thatcher was the first PM to break the unshakeable dominance of the upper classes in Britain. Prime ministers right back to 1945 have come, generally, from the working or lower-middle classes. Callaghan’s father was a chief petty officer and he didn’t go to university. Wilson was an Oxford man but from a poor background (father was an industrial chemist, often unemployed); he only made it thanks to a scholarship that he won at his state school. Heath was the same (son of a jobbing builder and carpenter, scholarship boy).

Home and Eden and Churchill were authentic gentry, and Macmillan (of Macmillans the publishers) was the son and grandson of those most terrifying of beings, Scotchmen on the make. And Attlee, as the child of a solicitor, makes it into the middle class. But the rest are not exactly the sons of privilege. Go back before the war and you get Ramsay MacDonald, whose father was an illiterate labourer.

And since Thatcher opened the floodgates and tore down the barriers of privilege, who have we had? Blair. Cameron.

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Phil 04.11.13 at 9:25 am

Hmm. I may have posted without thinking there. Dave Osler described Thatcher on his blog as a class traitor of sorts – having bagged lower-middle-class votes for the Tories, Thatcherism “served the ultimate purpose of restoring the Conservative Party to those to whom it has traditionally belonged”. Maybe what she (and Major) did was to tear down the barriers of privilege and then hand them over to the people of privilege, who said Thankyou and put them back.

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ajay 04.11.13 at 9:47 am

Those barriers had been torn down long before, by the reforms that made it possible for carpenters’ sons and grocers’ daughters to get the best education in the country. Lloyd George and Clem Attlee did that.

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Neville Morley 04.11.13 at 10:06 am

Is it simply an age thing that leads CB to over-estimate the wonderfulness of pop music in the 60s and 70s and underestimate its wonderfulness in the early 80s – and, indeed, the fact that there is some truly amazing music around at the moment? Claims that the 70s were defined by Bowie and the Sex Pistols and the present by X-Factor and Strictly are no more reasonable than claims that the 70s were defined by the Black and White Minstrel Show and the present is all about, I dunno, Fever Ray and James Blake.

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Chris Bertram 04.11.13 at 10:21 am

Quite possibly Neville, although it seems to me there are two issues:

1. Whether really good music is a central to genuinely popular culture as it was then.
2. Whether, independently of its actual popularity, music of equivalent quality is being produced in popular genres today.

On 1. The 60s and 70s win hands down. See for example the singles charts for 65, 66, 69 (which admittedly finishes with Rolf Harris)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_NME_number-one_singles_from_the_1960s

2. Might be a closer call. But the “greatest albums of all time” polls routinely favour artists from this period

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolling_Stone%27s_500_Greatest_Albums_of_All_Time#List_statistics

(But I don’t think you can compare a period when Gram Parsons, the Beatles, Hendrix etc were active, when The Stones and Dylan produced their best work etc etc etc with the present.)

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Neville Morley 04.11.13 at 10:38 am

Hmm. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of music from the 60s and 70s; indeed, I had a phase of “everything since then is complete rubbish, especially all this ghastly contemporary pop nonsense” when I was about eighteen, and had a long drunken argument about this once with a Man They Couldn’t Hang. Maybe this is why I now feel rather suspicious of the processes of mythologisation and canon formation: if a certain approach to music is established as the template for quality, and all other eras and styles are judged against it, it’s pretty inevitable that they will pale in comparison because they are either doing something different, or are simply epigones, or both. Thus I really wouldn’t look to greatest album polls for an objective measure of anything, let alone musical quality. Agreed that the current singles chart is pretty awful, and that in those terms great music is no longer as central to genuinely popular culture as it once was – but I would claim that the charts in the early-mid 80s stand up very well to earlier decades, but that doesn’t fit your narrative of change quite so neatly.

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Mark H 04.11.13 at 11:04 am

Some interesting ideas in that OP – thanks.

I think you exaggerate how separate the class worlds were however. The idea of ‘two alternate…universes’ might (just) make some sense for the first 40 years of the 20th century, but not afterwards. In many ways the expansion of the state, or the public sector, brought the classes much closer together than they’d previously been. The process was started during the Second World War and continued to accelerate in the age of social democracy.

It was inevitable given the nature of the changes wrought after 1945. Not only did the classes meet in the NHS – they met, after the Butler Act, in the grammar schools and even the comprehensives (whose establishment was, let’s not forget, originally driven by cash-strapped middle-class parents in the Home Counties concerned that Edward or James might fail the 11 plus). They continued to meet, at least until national service was abolished, in the armed forces as well. The growth of white-collar trade unionism (a good many of the unions affiliated to the TUC) after the war was also an indication that separate worlds were breaking down. And thanks to television – ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Z Cars’, ‘Play for Today’, the various BBC documentary strands etc – middle-class Britain, probably for the first time ever, got a sense of what working-class life was like. It’s not surprising that paternalism on the one hand, and deference on the other, were already breaking down before Thatcher came to power.

I wouldn’t argue with your comments about how class consciousness – as opposed to the class structure – has largely disappeared since 1979. Whether this qualifies as ‘Americanisation’ I’m not sure. It’s a mixed legacy too if you’re on the left. ‘Equality of regard’ was always an important idea in British socialism (there’d have been no independent Labour politics without it) and one might say that ‘Dave’ and ‘Nick’ and all that stuff is the price that sin pays to virtue. But the parallel decline of working-class institutions, which are impossible to sustain without some degree of ‘consciousness’, does make a revival or renewal of social democracy almost impossible to contemplate.

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harry b 04.11.13 at 11:20 am

Listen to Tony Blackburn’s Pick of the Pops for a few months. Its the single charts — the early eighties are unlistenable (I was the same age in the early eighties that CB was in the late seventies) — and the period 68-78 is much better than anything before or since (the cut off is sometime in the nineties). Sure, there’s lots of dross in all periods, but routinely the charts included several pretty good to great songs by pretty good to great artists. Not so true now.

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novakant 04.11.13 at 11:49 am

I don’t think singles charts have been a good indicator of what people are actually listening to since the 80s. This has to do with the fact that popular music has started to diversify into an ever growing myriad of subgenres around that time – the “center” has broken into many little pieces. And that’s one thing I like about the 80s and beyond – the sheer variety of musical expression, here’s a by no means definitve but fun list (also available for the 90s and 00s):

http://www.nme.com/list/100-best-songs-of-the-1980s/266358

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rf 04.11.13 at 12:08 pm

“I think I stand by that, since so much of what there is since (and what X-factor feeds off) is just parasitic recycling of the better stuff from the 60s and 70s.”

But in fairness, so much from the 60/70s was just parasitic recycling of the better stuff from the old Blues and folk singers. And, as per novakant, there’s been plenty that’s genuinely ‘new’, to a degree. Primarily Hip Hop and all it’s imitators (although I guess it started in the 70s, but got better with time)
Not wanting to beat a dead horse but, as per novakant again and following general anti-paternalist trends, the charts arent really as relevant anymore, so the comparison’s a little unfair (Look at who has disposable cash today compared to the 60s, you’re comparing young teenagers spending their pocket money on singles to music fans spending their wages)

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Chris Bertram 04.11.13 at 1:32 pm

Well I don’t think there’s any way of rationally resolving our differences here but I don’t think this is quite right:

“so much from the 60/70s was just parasitic recycling of the better stuff from the old Blues and folk singers.”

The original stuff from the 60s and 70s (and, responding to pressure, I’ll grant some 80s …) did draw on older material but used it to create a new synthesis (or rather several). X-Factor and co largely rely on cover versions or pastiche.

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Neville Morley 04.11.13 at 2:53 pm

As my reception theory colleagues might put it, it’s the difference between an impoverished re-reading and a creative misreading…

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Sebastian H 04.11.13 at 3:24 pm

I take it that people here who think they see a lack of good original music from the 1980s to now aren’t partial to rap or hip hop (or maybe even electronic music, do Depeche Mode and various Vince Clark projects somehow not count)? Not enjoying the new synthesis isn’t the same as it not being created.

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Lee A. Arnold 04.11.13 at 3:54 pm

Oh come on. 1980′s Britain brought forth Elvis Costello and solo Peter Gabriel. You might even throw The Police in there, at least for “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. These together easily outweigh anything from the U.S.

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Chris Bertram 04.11.13 at 4:01 pm

1980′s Britain brought forth Elvis Costello

No, Costello came forth in the 1970s. But anyway the claim is a comparative one, it doesn’t involve the denial that there was any good music subsequently.

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Lee A. Arnold 04.11.13 at 4:38 pm

Late 70′s is more like it, and Imperial Bedroom and Punch the Clock were early 80′s. Comparative claims are always useful. The best piece of 1980′s music by a long shot is Saariaho’s “Lichtbogen” (1985)– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQQ9-yuQf9c –a spectralist yet shapely delight from her days at IRCAM, (and far more beautiful than anything from the native French spectralists, though Murail and Grisey are well worth listening to). But just try to get anyone to sit through it! Meanwhile the Brits were trudging through straight orchestral while the Yanks noodled through minimalism. …Other ears might enjoy an unjustly neglected Costello tune from 1994, with more perfect Nieve keyboard: “You Tripped at Every Step” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQQ9-yuQf9c

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Lee A. Arnold 04.11.13 at 4:41 pm

Sorry, that great Elvis Costello tune is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAi7dJla6To

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Substance McGravitas 04.11.13 at 5:22 pm

Lists from Rolling Stone are assembled by old people and necessarily include contributions from Billy Joel because Jann Wenner is his buddy..

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Lee A. Arnold 04.11.13 at 6:12 pm

“just as that cartoon mouse went undetected”
–from the Costello song

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Steve 04.11.13 at 7:57 pm

I know the conversation has moved away from the original post, but I was struck by the claim that pre-Thatcher “middle-class society” consisted of people who had been privately educated. In 1978 under 6% of school-age children attended independent schools. I could be missing something, but that doesn’t seem anywhere near large enough a proportion of the population to explain Thatcher’s appeal.

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engels 04.12.13 at 12:26 am

‘Middle class’ (AmE) = 25%ile – 75%ile
‘Middle class’ (BrE) = 90%ile – 99%ile

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js. 04.12.13 at 1:50 am

novakant @76:

Those NME lists are great. I do love how very British it is—Manic Street Preachers and Suede in the 90′s top 10!

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Phil 04.12.13 at 8:25 am

“how very British it is”

Um, British magazine, (mostly) British readers, (largely) British bands. Feature, not bug.

‘Middle class’ (AmE) = 25%ile – 75%ile
‘Middle class’ (BrE) = 90%ile – 99%ile

ISTR that a quasi-official definition of “middle class” in AmE is “having attended post-compulsory education”; I think JH posted about this. This has a certain cultural resonance*, but seems wrong on many levels (apart from anything else, it would make the young Harold Wilson middle-class and Hilda’s dad Alderman Roberts working-class, which neither of them would thank you for). Anyway, I’m not sure it would catch 50% of the population – or for that matter that there’s as much as 25% above the ‘middle-class’ level (and what would qualify you for that – a doctorate? a monograph? a festschrift in your honour?)

“Middle-class” in British usage is an interesting one. Some journalists are notorious, in columns and places where they opine, for using “middle-class” – and even “middle-income” – as a synonym for “people like us”, where “like us” (in pure income terms) actually does mean “in the top 5%”. If I was going to define it more broadly – to capture the sense in which I feel I’m middle-class myself and come from a middle-class background – I’d say it means “having to work for a living, but working in a secure non-manual job, owning a house and (looking forward to) retiring on a decent pension”. (These days ‘(looking forward to)’ can also prefix the ‘owning’ – and the ‘working’ come to that.) How much of the population is that? Median income for the working population is currently £21,000, with the 75th centile around £33,000. You could hazard a guess that most people between the 75th and 95th centiles are probably middle-class, plus half the people (say) between the 50th and 75th. Call it 30% of the working income distribution.

But how much of the population is that? The working-age population of Britain is currently around 40 million, with another 10 million of pensionable age. 70% of those 40 million are actually working, the remainder being either unemployed or ‘economically inactive’ (long story). It seems reasonable to assume that both unemployment and dropping through the cracks into ‘inactivity’ hit working-class people harder than middle-class; let’s say that 10% of the non-working working-age population is (or was, and hopes to get back to being) middle-class. 30% of 70% plus 10% of 30% equals 24%; we can reasonably apply that to the pension-age population as well. So 24% overall. Call it 25%.

In short, the back of this envelope says that ‘middle-class’ in BrE means roughly “70th to 95th centile” and more precisely “a quarter of the population, drawn mostly from the 50th to 95th centile range”.

*You come in here with your ‘tungsten carbide drill’…

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ajay 04.12.13 at 9:08 am

90:apart from anything else, it would make the young Harold Wilson middle-class and Hilda’s dad Alderman Roberts working-class, which neither of them would thank you for

It would also make Churchill working-class, which should be a fairly hefty hint that there’s something wrong with it.

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guthrie 04.12.13 at 10:01 am

There’s also the aspirational and cultural side of being middle class- I’m extremely sure that my parents were, despite similar jobs to theirs today earning you around 30k or maybe 33k each today.
Plus there’s lots of us middle class failures around – we have the mindset, but never earn more than the median wage because either we aren’t ambitious enough or missed out on the luck of the job, or our area of work is shrinking and finding something else is a bit hard just now.
Either that or there’s a lot of over educated working class people about.

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Philip 04.12.13 at 11:56 am

‘British society is less racist and less sexist than it was and (outside football) people are very tolerant of sexual difference.’

I agree with this but there is also a similar difference between appearance and reality for racism, gender, and social mobility. Keeping football as an example, it is now very rare for any racist chants to be sung in the UK and if you shout out a racist statement you are likely to be told to shut up by a fan or be reported to the club and be banned from some games. Also there are considerably more black players and more women, girls and people from ethnic minorities attend matches.

However very few black players become coaches/managers after their playing career finishes. There are very few professional British Asian players. The top jobs in the FA are held by white men as are most refereeing posts in the professional game. The women’s game is marginalised and still receives derogatory/sexist comments.

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Philip 04.12.13 at 12:42 pm

I just heard on the radio that a fan got banned for 3 years for throwing a banana at a white player </a<( of whom it is said that he looks like a monkey), I'm not quite sure what that says about British society.

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Philip 04.12.13 at 12:44 pm

Oops I didn’t close the tags properly but the link still works.

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ajay 04.12.13 at 1:05 pm

There’s also the aspirational and cultural side of being middle class- I’m extremely sure that my parents were, despite similar jobs to theirs today earning you around 30k or maybe 33k each today.

Well, yes. You can be a university junior lecturer on £25k and still be middle class, or you can be a plumber on £50k and be working class.

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Phil 04.12.13 at 1:44 pm

Hence the way I put it:

You could hazard a guess that most people between the 75th and 95th centiles are probably middle-class, plus half the people (say) between the 50th and 75th.

Anyone seen In the house? The family at the centre of the story (businessman father, non-working mother, enormous house) are described throughout as classe moyenne. They’re also described as une famille normale, but the phrase has ironic, vaguely ethnographic overtones – the translator went for “a perfect family”, which may be as close as you can get in an English phrase.

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Random Lurker 04.12.13 at 3:20 pm

@ajay
“Well, yes. You can be a university junior lecturer on £25k and still be middle class, or you can be a plumber on £50k and be working class.”

Wouldn’t then “middle class” be a “status group”, and not a class?

Status groups according to Weber:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Status_group

In italian, the term “classe” refers strictly to economic class, i.e. it strictly refers on your income/wealth, while “status group” is translated as “ceto”.
I’ve some problems with the english use of the term “class”, because it mixes up economic class proper with status groups (eg. the middle class is defined by education but the “1%” is defined by wealth).

From my pont of view, status groups are ghost images of status once derived from economic classes, and are thus a form of “false consciousness”.
For example the junior lecturer (£25k) would just believe that he is middle class, because of social stereotypes that were created in times when education was much scarcer and limited to wealthy families, while in fact he is working class; the opposite for the plumber.
However, even if status groups in this sense are a form of false consciousness, they have a real effect on day to day lives of real people (since the 25k lecturer can still sneer with superiority, in some occasions, at the 50k plumber, a bit like an impoverished aristocratic), and as such is likely to be a bigger predictor of tastes, political inclinations etc.

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Random Lurker 04.12.13 at 4:34 pm

Backtracking from my previous comment, status classes based on education can be much more than false consciousness of economic classes, if there is a substantial socialisation effect after the school period and independent of the economic effect. For example it seems to me that people with a degree intermarry a lot.
The 1% also intermarry a lot I think.
But the big difference is that it is still quite easy for a working class kid to get a degree and then get middle class status in this sense, while it is much harder for anyone else to become an 1%er.

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Trader Joe 04.12.13 at 6:27 pm

“The 1% also intermarry a lot I think.”

They inter-divorce a lot too…leading to the creation of trophy spouses, a unique class, status group and occupation onto itself.

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nick s 04.12.13 at 7:18 pm

a grocer’s daughter can become Prime Minister

For that, I always think of Corrie’s Alf Roberts, namesake shopkeeper-councillor, and the implicit status he had in the ensemble.

In any case, how are the daughters of independent retailers in Britain finding their tuition fees these days?

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djr 04.12.13 at 8:35 pm

The take-up of post-compulsory education has changed massively over the last century, so any comparison of what it means w.r.t. “class” for Churchill, Thatcher, Chris Bertram and today’s recent graduates is meaningless. John Quiggin discussed this here quite recently.

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ajay 04.15.13 at 9:23 am

Random lurker: that’s probably quite a useful distinction to make – unfortunately common usage in Britain is still to call status groups “classes”. I think that condemning them as a product of false consciousness is wrong though – that makes it sound as though economic status is the only true status, and everything else is just a hallucination.

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Herbal Infusion Bagger 04.15.13 at 3:19 pm

“Tempting as it is, I think this is mostly the bias of memory—then as now, the large majority of mainstream light entertainment and music was shit”

The Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise, Porridge, Citizen Smith, The Likely Lads, The Liver Birds, The Good Life, Open All Hours, Steptoe & Son, Q8, Rising Damp, The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin, Sykes?

Yes, there was Bruce Forsyth, but there was also Ronnie Barker.

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