Shortages, soaring prices and an energy crisis: Lessons from the 1970s

No punks, glam rock, or flares this time round.

Energy Minister Patrick Jenkin shaving by candlelight during the 1973-4 fuel crisis.
Energy Minister Patrick Jenkin shaving by candlelight during the 1973-4 fuel crisis.

But for those who lived through the 1970s the grim approach of what looks like being a hard winter will bring a cold chill of nostalgia.

An energy crisis, a shortage of goods in the shops, soaring prices, struggling hospitals – it's like an homage to those not-so-fondly remembered days of yesteryear.

A bread queue in Wellington on November 7, 1978, during a national strike by bakery workers.

People endured the hardship, stocked up on candles, and moaned a lot, but with justification.

And now a new generation of Britons looks like getting a dose to test their mettle as a modern Winter of Discontent looms.

The factors at work are entirely different, of course.

Back then it was all down to tumult in sectors broadly within state control. Indeed, it was the desire of the state to control things, specifically levels of pay, which helped stir unrest, and prompted multiple strikes for better pay.

Today it is broadly down to tumult in markets and things beyond state control, with the impact of a pandemic thrown in for good measure.

One or two modern revisionists have suggested that the 1970s were nowhere near as bad as history makes out. Collective memory and the statistics are against them.

In fact, given the modern fashion for apologising for things in the distant past, it is a surprise that nobody has made a public apology for the 1970s. Maybe it's because nobody wants to take responsibility for that decade which saw not one crisis, but a whole series of crises, pointing to chronic problems in a country which gained a reputation for being the "sick man of Europe."

That's not an accusation that could be levelled at Britain now. We've left the EU!

These striking miners were picketing the coal-fired Ironbridge Power Station in February 1972.
A build-up of rubbish outside the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in February 1979, caused by an ancillary workers dispute.

Into the miserable mix of political, economic, and industrial turmoil we can add a backdrop of deadly terrorism in both Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, and even a rise in Scottish nationalism, which was the trigger for a general election which led to a sea change in British politics.

Recent events demonstrate that, then and now, we live in fragile Britain.

Who would have guessed just a few weeks ago that the nation was reliant on just a handful of plants making carbon dioxide, or that carbon dioxide played such an important role in the way we live in the first place?

And who could have predicted just a few weeks ago that a shortage of lorry drivers would bring deliveries to a stop? Well, anybody could have predicted that actually – but they didn't.

Out there in the fields some farmers have left their crops to rot as there is nobody to harvest them. That's because Britain has come to rely on large numbers of labourers from Eastern Europe to do jobs with pay and conditions that many Britons won't accept, and that foreign workforce has gone home.

With prospects for the next few months looking bleak on various fronts, let's prepare ourselves by remembering the misery of the 1970s and having a good wallow.

Politics first. Wilson, Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher. So both Labour and Conservative administrations had a good crack at negotiating HMS Great Britain through the storms, and both were left floundering at various points.

When on strike, play football. These men were passing the time while on strike from the giant Firestone factory at Wrexham in 1973.

Who did the worst? The historians can mull that one over, but Ted Heath presided over a Britain in which the lights really did go out, while Labour presided over the national humiliation of the UK having to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund when there was a run on the pound.

From a 21st century perspective, there were some astonishing aspects. In August this year, inflation jumped to 3.2 per cent amid some alarm. Turn back the clock though to the mid-1970s and at one point inflation was running at 25 per cent – and yes, you read that correctly.

With rampant inflation, workers were looking for big pay rises to keep pace. The going rate for wage settlements was well over 20 per cent, with some knocking on the door of 30 per cent.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves, so let's drop in on Prime Minister Ted Heath and his tenure at the start of the decade which set the tone and created some of the most enduring images of the 1970s.

For Ted, humiliation came early. His Tory administration, he had vowed, would not prop up "lame ducks." Then Rolls-Royce, perhaps the most iconic British firm of all, went bust in 1971. Cue a u-turn.

Next you need to be introduced to people called miners. There are still a small handful left in 21st century Britain, but in the 1970s they were a large and powerful body of workers who dug out coal, a fossil-fuel burned to produce electricity – nobody much cared about destroying the planet back then.

Dudley hairdressers Colin Dunn and Pete Woodall were getting around the restrictions imposed by the 1974 three-day week by trimming people's hair by candlelight on non-electricity days.

At the beginning of 1972 they went on strike in a pay dispute. In February the Government declared a state of emergency amid a mounting fuel crisis, and a three day working week was imposed. Homes and businesses were hit by phased power cuts and thousands of workers were laid off.

It was only a curtain raiser. In the autumn of 1973 international events turned the screw. The Yom Kippur war saw the introduction of an Arab oil embargo on nations which had supported Israel, quickly leading to a fuel crisis.

In Britain various energy saving measures came in, including a three day working week (again) and a universal 50mph speed limit.

As 1974 dawned, things turned even worse, as industrial action by the miners climaxed in an all-out strike in February.

You're getting the idea now. Three day week. Pensioners boiling kettles over camping stoves. Government ministers telling people to clean their teeth in the dark. Police officers filing reports by candlelight.

The South Eastern Gas Board even encouraged couples to share a bath to save energy.

We'd rather go by bus... In 1971 these folk had no alternative to catching the train at Birches & Bilbrook, as there was a bus strike.
Mrs Lily Suthon, aged 73, of Madeley, resorts to candlelight during a power cut in February 1972.

By now Ted was very fed up and called an election with a "who governs the country?" theme – the voters could in his mind choose between him and the striking miners.

The result was not what he wanted, with Harold Wilson's Labour party forming a minority administration.

We're going to have to skip some crises now, including the IMF humiliation of the mid-1970s, and umpteen strikes – we only have so much space, you know – and fast forward to the end of the decade and the famous Winter of Discontent at the beginning of 1979.

John Fisher of Stafford Reprographics used power from his petrol lawnmower to drive his printing press in February 1974.
We're on strike! In June 1974 about 30 nurses took part in a one hour token strike at the Shropshire Orthopaedic Hospital, Oswestry. The nurses, members of COHSE, their trade union, spent the hour sitting on a lawn in front of the hospital. The strike was part of a national campaign for better pay.

This was effectively a union rebellion against the attempts of Jim Callaghan's minority Labour government to restrain pay, which led to a wave of industrial action in the public sector.

Uncollected rubbish piled up, ambulance cover was hit, schools closed, hospitals were in crisis and many were only being operated on an emergencies-only basis.

In some hospitals in the West Midlands patients were kept going on a diet of soup and salad.

Some shops introduced rationing because lorry drivers were among those on strike. At Woolworths and Sainsbury's in Wolverhampton shoppers were limited to 1lb of butter and one bag of sugar.

Petrol delivery was brought to a virtual standstill and there were long and frustrated queues at filling stations.

An attendant at Alan Pond's at West Bromwich arrived at 7.30am to find a 200-yard queue, with petrol already sold out.

"I was threatened with being lynched on several occasions and three men offered me £5 for £3 worth of petrol," he said.

No fuel also meant days with no buses.

To top it all, the weather was terrible, with freezing temperatures and heavy snow.

And then there's that thing everybody remembers, that the dead went unburied, although that was actually a localised issue in Liverpool and Manchester.

Nevertheless the authorities drew up secret plans to bring in troops to dig graves, but dropped them because they feared the cemeteries would be picketed, resulting in "unseemly scenes."

The Winter of Discontent did not bring down Jim Callaghan's government. What did for the government politically was the issue of, surprise, surprise, devolution. Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence and Margaret Thatcher was swept to power.

So there you have it, a reminder in 2021 of the spirit of the 1970s.

It was something to look back on – not something to look forward to.

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