You may have noticed recently that the papers and the pundits have been saying that Britain is heading back to the seventies.
Although many today possess a mythologised view of the 1970s – a decade of political division and social uprising – it will always be remembered for inflation, unemployment and events that define the decade far too much. The Three-Day Week and the Winter of Discontent come to mind, both of which lasted for only a few months in 1974 and 1979 respectively.
Recent developments certainly offer a strong reminder of the seventies. Whether it be the highest inflation rate in four decades, disruptive strike action, or general dissatisfaction with the government, only a fool would fail to see the similarities.
But only a fool would ignore the difference between now and events five decades in the past. This isn’t the 1970s 2.0. Unemployment is comparatively low, the trade unions are simply not as powerful as they were in the pre-Thatcher years and the UK has reversed its position within Europe and the European Union.
However, the most glaring and politically disturbing difference from the seventies is the diminished quality of strong leadership on all sides.
The seventies may have been a period of political unrest and dislike of the major two parties, but the four Prime Ministers of the decade all had far more vision and dynamism than any of the leaders today or in the past decade.
Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher all had their differences, but they were political giants whose sense of conviction and personalities made them recognisable and historically important.
It was Wilson who applied his modern vision to Britain. Heath stressed the importance of European integration, while Callaghan brought his experience as the only person to serve in every Great Office of State to Downing Street in difficult times. And it was Thatcher who conjured radical, if divisive, change.
Boris Johnson may have a vision, but it revolves around him. His ambition is power for its own sake, not for the true change that he promised to Red Wall voters in the 2019 Tory manifesto. Currently, Johnson is stuck, unable to do anything.
Heath and Callaghan may have found themselves in similar predicaments, but they had the conviction and experience to implement realistic policies. Johnson, meanwhile, lacks the reforming zeal of Wilson and Thatcher.
Few believe that Keir Starmer will bring radical change. He may provide forensic opposition, but he is absent from the public’s mind. On policy, he is perhaps the shallowest Labour leader in decades. His lack of energy makes him into a figure virtually unknown to voters; that is extremely worrying after two years as Labour leader.
However, this void of leadership potential has spread from the top-down. The recent vote-of-confidence in Johnson as Tory leader has proven just how weak and cowardly the Cabinet is. They delude themselves with the low quality of their own political careers. The Shadow Cabinet may have some familiar and decent faces but compare this to the past.
In the seventies, you had Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling, William Whitelaw, Denis Healey, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle. These were characters with goals, politicians who are worthy of in-depth biographies. The big book of Grant Shapps won’t do anyone any favours.
You’d certainly be forgiven for believing that perhaps the true political talent can be found in the outlier of policies. Once upon a time, this proved true.
With Tony Benn on the left and Enoch Powell on the right, Wilson and Heath were kept on their toes as the sluggish seventies struck fear into mainstream politicians. Many feared that Britain would have a far-left socialistic future under Benn or become an imperialistic isolationist island under Powell.
Those politically disenchanted with the Labour and Conservative parties found some solace in Bennism and Powellism, but what is there today? Jeremy Corbyn’s failed leadership of Labour cast him out of the mainstream for good, despite the cries of his diehard supporters.
As for who represents the right, Steve Baker, a member of both the pro-Brexit European Research Group and the anti-lockdown COVID Recovery Group, could be the figurehead. However, his constant rebellion against Tory high command and general obscurity rules him out as Britain’s future. While both the Conservative and Labour parties are not popular enough to secure or retain power for the long-term future, there is no sign of another party emerging to save the day.
In 1974, the future of Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals appeared bright as the party increased their vote from 7.5% (in 1970) to 19.3% in the February election that year. The SNP too enjoyed a boost in support in the seventies, but neither to any avail nor significant political realignment.
For all his strength at winning Blue Wall seats, Ed Davey will not reinvigorate his party as Thorpe, Paddy Ashdown or Charles Kennedy did. The chances of a Liberal Democrat government at the next election are as likely as Boris Johnson resigning at his own will.
The Green Party could perhaps become a home for disgruntled leftists against inflation and Starmer’s Labour, but polling hasn’t shown a huge increase in support for them.
Tony Benn used to say that politics should be about the issues, not personalities. Perhaps he couldn’t detect the irony in his words, but Benn was only half-correct. Politics should be about the issues, but it requires the personalities and beliefs to transform policy.
Of course, those in the seventies probably would not think much of the leaders of their time. For the people who grew up with Churchill, Baldwin, and Attlee, the characters of the dying post-war consensus were political dwarves. However, it is an undeniable fact that the quality of politicians has collapsed in recent years.
Although no party or figure will receive a warm welcome at the next election, the game of politics is unpredictable. Few expected a Wilson or a Thatcher in the years before their election victories in the seventies. It’s only a matter of time before one emerges, but in what direction they take us will be anyone’s guess.