03/05/2012 18:03 BST | Updated 03/07/2012 06:12 BST

Sandbrook's Sanitised Seventies

With release of the new BBC series, The 70s, Liam McNulty, a student of Modern European History at Homerton College, Cambridge, argues against Dominic Sandbrook's idealised portrayal of the decade:

When I saw the new BBC series, The 70s, being promoted as an account of "a Britain brimming with aspiration as ordinary people first felt the thrill of freedom and money", I approached it with a degree of caution. When I think of the period between 1970 and 1974, the first things which come to mind are the miners' strikes, the battle of Saltley Gate and the fall of the Heath government. How would that be squared with an account of gradually developing affluence?

To add to my circumspection, the presenter of the programme is Dominic Sandbrook, who wrote in the Daily Mail that "Britain's empire stands out as a beacon of tolerance, decency and the rule of law." Surely it was impossible to write a partial history of the 1970s which erased the labour movement in the manner by which Sandbrook's opinion of Empire effectively whitewashes atrocities such as Armritsar, the suppression of the Mau Mau revolt and the 1948 Batang Kali massacre?

In the end, Sandbook does not ignore the role of the labour movement in the Heath years. That would be impossible in any narrative. What we find instead, though, is no less troubling. Discussing the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1973-4 which brought Heath's government to its knees, Sandbrook distorts the significance of events. He does so in order to fit them into a comforting narrative that projects Thatcherism backwards into the 1970s, enabling him to frame the decade as simply the high-point of post-war affluence and the beginnings of the individualistic consumerism so skilfully cultivated by the Tories in the 1980s.

On a superficial level this looks convincing. Rising real wages had brought an unprecedented level of material comfort to many and home ownership on a large scale became a possibility for the first time. Weren't the miners merely trying to buy into this individualistic vision after a decade or so of stagnating take-home pay? Sandbrook certainly thinks so, citing Arthur Scargill's comment that workers will only get from the bosses "as much as [they] are prepared to go out and take". Surely the words of a proletarian Gordon Gekko?

Yet Sandbrook's interpretation comes awkwardly into conflict with the fact that Scargill was a socialist. He had a Marxian interpretation of the relationship between labour and capital, pithily expressed by Irish trade union leader Matt Merrigan with the quip that "profits are wages that have not been distributed yet". In Scargill's eyes, the miners, together with society as a whole, were entitled to entire fruits of their labour. In order to understand the period we need to place the narrative in a vastly different framework; an alternative history of the 1970s is required.

That the strikers' vision transcended the narrow individualism of the Thatcherites is inherent in the means by which groups of workers such as the miners go about achieving their aims. For class-conscious trade unionists, social mobility is not a matter of one worker purchasing a house in Peterborough but in the collective betterment of their fellow workmates. "Rise with your class, not out of it", as the legendary Red Clydesider, John McLean, put it. At the heart of the miners' strikes in 1972-4 was the principle of solidarity. Strike action is by its very nature a collective act; and the Saltley Coke Works in Birmingham could never have been shut down without the sympathy action of local engineers such as the members of the National Union of Vehicle Builders at the Land Rover factory. Were the thirty thousand workers who walked out in Birmingham in support of workers in another industry merely sticking their arm in for more cash or was there a more fundamental principle at stake? Merely to ask the question is to answer it.

Aside from the issue of wages, the miners' strikes fed into a wider political campaign for the repeal of the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. The Act placed restrictions on trade union activity, including the creation of a National Industrial Relations Court empowered to issue injunctions to prevent strikes. Before the Bill became law, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) organised a 'Kill the Bill' campaign although it did not support industrial action. On 1 March 1971, over a million workers took unofficial strike action demanding the legislation be withdrawn, in defiance of the TUC.

The 1970s also saw an unprecedented wave of factory occupations. By the end of 1975, nearly 150,000 workers had been involved in over 200 occupations, including the Balfour Darwin factory in Sheffield, the Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Port and the Upper Clyde Shipyard. This tactic was developed by rank-and-file shop stewards in the unions such as the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AEUW) and the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), and only later accepted as standard practice at national union level.

The straw which finally broke the back of the Industrial Relations Act was the imprisonment of the Pentonville Five, a group of shop stewards jailed by the National Industrial Relations Court in July 1972 for refusing to stop picketing an East London container depot. Workers began a programme of rolling strikes, pushing the TUC into calling a political general strike on 31st July demanding their release. The political character of these struggles belies Sandbrook's purely selfish characterisation of the labour movement in the early 1970s. In this light, the idea that industrial action on such an advanced level was merely a precursor to the Thatcherite consumerism is perverse.

In closing, though, what can we make of the relationship between the 1970s and the triumph of market fundamentalism in the subsequent decade? The 1970s saw the peak of militant trade unionism, with 12.9m days lost annually, and the high-point of union membership was in 1979 when 13.2m workers were members of trade unions. Sandbrook has written recently (again in the Daily Mail) for the need for David Cameron to learn the lessons of the 1970s and face down the threatened fuel tanker strike. We are all familiar with footage of the 1978 'Winter of Discontent' and Margaret Thatcher's crushing of the miners' strike in 1984-5 but what sort of legacy has the defeat of the trade unions bequeathed us?

Real wages have fallen ever since the late 1970s: the share of national wealth to wages has dropped from 65% in 1973 to 53% today, with a concomitant rise in household indebtedness from 45% in 1980 to 157% in 2005. The much vaunted triumph 'freedom' lauded by Sandbrook which is said to have flourished in the 1980s instead turned into an unsustainable debt burden; the rhetoric of aspiration only became a reality by virtue of rising asset-prices, financial deregulation and cheap credit. Britons now have amongst the longest working hours in the developed world, while in the last decade the gap between rising real wages and increasing productivity opened to 0.7%.

Today we are reaping the whirlwind of the aggressive consumerism which triumphed in the 1980s, the embryo of which is located by Sandbrook in the 1970s. Workers need to draw their own lessons from the 1970s but this programme spins a narrative that only serves to mystify things. The principles of collective action and solidarity are paramount if we wish to resist the further destruction of living standards and public services being wrought upon us by the current coalition government. To do so we must rediscover the true spirit of Saltley Gate and rebuild a fighting labour movement.