By 1973, Britain seemed to have become ‘the new sick man of Europe’.
The respectful, deferential society of the post-war era was giving way to a more open society, one that was more concerned with individual freedom of expression, more likely to go on demonstrations. There was also a vocal backlash against it from social conservatives who disapproved of the ‘breakdown in morality’. The sixties was the time of the generation gap. Theatre censorship and the death penalty were abolished in 1965. Two years later came the legalisation of abortion and homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. And 1968 saw the gaining of votes to 18-year-olds. The Equal Pay Act, 1970, although not fully introduced until 1975, secured the principle of equal pay for equal work.
The divisions within the main parties widened in the 1970s. More and more people began turning away from traditional loyalties. This was reflected in the increased voting support for other parties and extra-parliamentary pressure groups. The Liberals and the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all gained ground in the two-election year of 1973. Organisations like Shelter and Oxfam came to prominence. 1968 showed the power of protest demonstrations. The environmental movement took off. All this was reflected in the harder edges of culture.
Three key factors affected the patterns of population growth and movement in Britain after 1964:
The continued influx of immigrants.
The accelerating shift of population to the new housing developments and council estates that were replacing the old urban areas affected by slum clearance and urban redevelopment. This process had began before 1964 but it was in the late 1960s and the 1970s that its effects were most apparent.
The impact of road transport and private car ownership. New roads frequently had the effect of fragmenting established communities; and commuting by car accelerated the ‘flight to the suburbs’ and the spread of urban blight in the inner cities.
The population of Britain increased from 50 million in 1951 to 56 million by 1975. This increase was not steady or consistent. In the 1970s, populations statistics showed no year-on-year increases; in the three years from 1975 to 1978 the population actually began to fall. These fluctuations in the population reflected the economic and social background of the time.
The impact of immigration
1951: 31,000 1971: 375,000 1991: 840,000 2001: 985,000
The continuing influx of immigrants from the New Commonwealth meant that the social tensions experienced in the late 1950s and early 1960s did not go away. In opposition, the Labour Party had attacked Conservative policies aimed at limiting immigration but in 1965, now in power, the Wilson government put forward a white paper proposing further controls on immigration. At the same time, the government attempted to outlaw race discrimination and set up the Race Relations board to implement this.
In February 1968, alarm over the sudden influx of Kenyan Asians, which prompted Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, prompted the government to pass a new Commonwealth Immigration Act, limiting the right of return to Britain for non-white Commonwealth citizens. There were strikes by the dockers and meat porters in London as well as a protest march to Downing Street. A Gallup poll found 75 % supporting what Powell had said. The Heath government introduced a new Immigration Act in 1971. The relatively smooth assimilation of sudden surges of migration by Asian refugees from Kenya and Uganda, followed by a similar number of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in the early 1970s, seemed to prove that Britain both needed the economic contribution of new migrants and was able to cope with the social consequences.
In 1972, the military dictator, Idi Amin, announced that the Ugandan Asians had three months to emigrate. Under the 1968 quota, 3,000 were allowed to enter Britain in any one year. The government set up the Ugandan Resettlement Board, using military camps as holding centres and linking with volunteer groups to assist the immigrants find homes to go to. 28,000 came in all, settling mostly in Leicester, Birmingham, Bradford and west London. Leicester rapidly almost became a model city for multi-ethnic integration. It was estimated that 30,000 new jobs were created in the city. The end result was the successful assimilation of the new arrivals into British society; but only after considerable anxieties about possible strains on community relations. There were numerous instances of racial discrimination against them but mostly in the short term. So many were skilled and self-reliant that they assimilated easily.
The traditional union leaders had been part of the post-war consensus. They had achieved improvements in pay and conditions by collective bargaining with employers. Two trends emerged:
Government became more involved, with strikes becoming more ‘political’ and union leaders began to lose control of the local membership, as more and more wildcat strikes occurred. From 1970, the number of working days lost through strikes increased sharply, reaching exceptional levels in the crisis years of 1972, 1974 and 1979.
Many strikes in the 1970s were reactions against long-term industrial change. This was particularly true of miners facing the contraction of the coal industry. Between 1972 and 1974, the miners were involved in a series of confrontations with their employers and with the government. Younger, more radical union leaders and the use of more radical tactics by strikers, such as flying pickets, changed the nature of industrial action.
Together with the impact of the 1973 OPEC oil price crisis, these confrontations led to a major energy crisis. One result of this was the polarisation of society, with many working class communities feeling that their way of life was under siege. For the nation as a whole, the combination of the oil crisis and major industrial disputes meant living with the three-day week. This was imposed by the Heath government to conserve electricity in response to a wave of industrial action by engineers, dockers and firemen and the looming threat of a national coal strike in the middle of an energy crisis. Restrictions included fuel rationing, a speed limit of 50 mph on all roads, and deep cuts in the heating and lighting of public buildings and commercial premises. Many industries laid off workers and there was a huge surge in the number of people signing up for temporary unemployment payments. Union militancy was strengthened by so was the public reaction against it. The social tensions revealed in 1973-74 did not disappear after the arrival of a Labour government ready to give in to union demands. In the winter of discontent of 1979 and above all in the miners’ strike of 1984-85, these tensions boiled over into another bitter era of confrontation with employers, government and the police.
January 1974: 1.5 million temporary unemployment benefits.
The great protest movement of the late 1950s and the early 1960s was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. CND was a forerunner of other movements that worked outside the traditional framework of politics and tried to involve people in direct action. The huge anti-war protests in 1968 outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square were part of this trend. This provided the background for the emergence of what became known as the environmental movement. Environmentalism covered a multitude of issues affecting the planet: industrial pollution, protection of wildlife, organic farming, and the dangers from radiation and nuclear waste. A new word, ‘ecology’, entered the vocabulary, defining the health of the natural environment.
Friends of the Earth was formed in the United States in 1969 and expanded to include Britain, France and Sweden in 1971. The British Ecology Party (later the Green Party) was formed in 1973. The more radical Greenpeace organisation was founded in Canada in 1971, to campaign against whaling. Greenpeace UK was formed in 1977. Direct action was an issue that split the environmental movement. Animal rights protesters carried out violent attacks on pharmaceutical laboratories from 1973. The Animal Liberation Front, formed in 1976, adopted extreme violence: letter bombs were sent to politicians, including Mrs Thatcher, in 1984. By the end of the 1970s, environmentalism had carved a permanent place on the political scene.
By 1975, the post-war consensus was breaking down and the age of affluence, at least temporarily, had come to an end. Britain seemed to be losing its social cohesion. There were rising crime levels and a rise in sociologists analysing the ills of society. The debate over immigration intensified. The trade union movement lost some of its own solidarity, with the grip of the traditional moderate union leaderships increasingly challenged by wildcat strikers and a new breed of union activists looking for political confrontation, such as Arthur Scargill.