As David Bowie said, don't diss the 70s, says MARY ELLEN SYNON

Don’t diss the 70s! As David Bowie said, they were the golden years: After Sarah Vine branded it a decade of horrors, MARY ELLEN SYNON has VERY different memories

To many, apart from the glam-rock period of David Bowie and TV shows such as Morecambe And Wise, the 1970s was a decade of despair. 

Life was marked by electricity blackouts, hyper-inflation, the three-day week and endless strikes as the trade unions called the shots over weak Wilson and Heath governments.

Business leaders claimed that Labour’s policies under Industry Secretary Tony Benn were creating ‘an economic system not unlike that favoured by Communist states’.

Indeed, many appalled Britons emigrated. In 1975, some 29,000 from the country’s managerial and professional classes moved to South Africa alone.

No wonder, therefore, in last week’s Mail on Sunday, columnist Sarah Vine wrote that ‘anything was better than the horrors of life in 1970s Britain’.

To many, apart from the glam-rock period of David Bowie (above in 1976) and TV shows such as Morecambe And Wise, the 1970s was a decade of despair. Life was marked by electricity blackouts, hyper-inflation, the three-day week and endless strikes as the trade unions called the shots over weak Wilson and Heath governments

No wonder, therefore, in last week’s Mail on Sunday, columnist Sarah Vine wrote that ‘anything was better than the horrors of life in 1970s Britain’. The truth is that we all know the charge-sheet against the 1970s, which culminated in the Winter of Discontent. Things got so bad that Sarah said her parents packed up their two children and fled to live in Italy. (Above, rubbish piles up in East London in 1979)

She was responding to Boris Johnson’s crass remark, while discussing Government policy on climate change: ‘Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.’

Sarah admitted that the PM’s comment was as welcome as ‘a pork chop at a bar mitzvah’, considering how many families and communities suffered under the Thatcher pit closures.

But she went on to rebuke the Left for its outraged reaction to Boris’s remark.

She said that the Left ‘acts as though Britain, before Thatcher’s 1979 Election, was some kind of socialist utopia, when in fact it was utterly miserable’.

The truth is that we all know the charge-sheet against the 1970s, which culminated in the Winter of Discontent. Things got so bad that Sarah said her parents packed up their two children and fled to live in Italy.

Business leaders claimed that Labour’s policies under Industry Secretary Tony Benn (pictured) were creating ‘an economic system not unlike that favoured by Communist states’. Indeed, many appalled Britons emigrated. In 1975, some 29,000 from the country’s managerial and professional classes moved to South Africa alone

But remember this. Having been born in 1968, Sarah’s early life was spent in Italy. What she knows about the 1970s, she has been told as personal stories and as history. She wasn’t actually there.

I was. I lived in London during the 1970s, first as a student and then as a reporter in Fleet Street.

Life was not ‘utterly miserable’. For a twentysomething back then, it could be lived in a way that no young person today, stuck in ‘generation rent’ and short-term work contracts, can enjoy.

Those of us with jobs were employed as full-time employees, with perks.

True, pay wasn’t always great but jobs were made more secure thanks to the unions.

The upshot was that we could get mortgages. Property prices were low because of high interest rates.

I bought a small flat in Central London. Other colleagues scratching around on low salaries could buy in Islington or Holland Park, areas which now are out of the reach of all but the rich. Indeed, you could say that in 1970s London, everyone I knew lived inside the Circle Line. Nowadays, that would be like saying everyone I know lives in Monaco.

Today, young workers find that high property prices have scattered them to faraway, tatty extremes of town.

In the 1970s, we twentysomethings lived shabbily, but we lived central. Meeting up for fun meant cinema on a West End screen. We had Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, Marlon Brando as The Godfather, Michael Caine in Get Carter, and Jaws.

Nobody was sitting alone, like now, on a suburban sofa watching Netflix.

Setting Britain on the path to a social and cultural transformation was the great achievement of the decade from which we are benefiting today. And that includes still a reverence for David Bowie and Morecambe And Wise

On television, there was The Sweeney, Rumpole Of The Bailey, The Two Ronnies, and the never-equalled Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

At night, there was disco – mocked now by many, but at the time it meant packed clubs, and a beat so impossible to resist that even the British learned to dance.

Today, dispersed so far apart and with a sclerotic traffic system, it is hard for friends to meet for films or clubs in London.

And that’s not to mention the cost. The last time I tried to join friends at a West End show, just before the Covid lockdown, the ticket price was £105 a seat. I didn’t go.

London in the 1970s was filthy, admittedly. There were the infamous mounds of rubbish being eaten by rats in Leicester Square in 1979 during a binmen’s strike. You’d go into any cafe and wonder about hygiene standards. Yet you’d be served a mug of strong tea, made with loose leaves in a teapot.

Today, the countless cafe chains offer only tinted, warm water in a paper cup with a tea bag floating in it – and you’ll be lucky to get change from £2.

Outside, the pavements will still be littered with rubbish.

In the 1970s, we twentysomethings lived shabbily, but we lived central. Meeting up for fun meant cinema on a West End screen. We had Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, Marlon Brando as The Godfather (film, pictured), Michael Caine in Get Carter, and Jaws. Nobody was sitting alone, like now, on a suburban sofa watching Netflix

Yes, in the 1970s, the London Underground stank of cigarette smoke, and there were wooden escalators which led to the King’s Cross station fire in which 31 people were killed in 1987. But public transport was cheap and generally safe.

Now, rail prices are at robbery level. One is gouged at every turn, and the trains are still not reliable.

In her column, Sarah wrote about what she described as a ‘collective political amnesia’ about the 1970s. She said ‘Britain was on its knees’, with ‘the entire country in the grip of the unions who ruled with an iron fist, holding everyone to ransom with their endless, impossible demands’.

Arthur Scargill’s miners twice went on strike, she recalled, ‘inflicting intolerable misery on ordinary families’.

I witnessed the trade unions at their worst as a reporter for the Daily Telegraph. But here is something. I arrived aged 19 in Britain as someone who believed in free enterprise and who thought unions were evil spawn.

However, 18 months after being employed under a style of management I felt was humiliating for the staff, I could understand why half my colleagues, even at a Tory-supporting newspaper, joined a union.

I learned that 1970s British management got the unions they deserved.

That was the great achievement of the decade – setting Britain on the path to a social and cultural transformation from which we are benefiting today. And that includes still a reverence for David Bowie and Morecambe And Wise.

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