‘Almost everyone who has reflected seriously about Britain in the 1970s agrees that the decade was little short of a disaster’, writes the historian Nick Tiratsoo. The charge sheet is long and well-known. This was a period in which successive governments, Conservative from 1970 to 1974 and Labour from 1974 to 1979, appeared to be overwhelmed by one economic disaster after another. Trade union militants were said to have become ‘robber barons’, holding the country to ransom with excessive wage demands, precipitating Heath’s fall from power in 1974. A massive rise in world oil prices heralded an era of relentlessly high inflation, necessitating the humiliation of intervention by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ‘save’ the British economy in 1976. It seemed fitting that the decade ended with sustained and sometimes violent industrial unrest in 1979, when Prime Minister Jim Callaghan (who replaced Harold Wilson in 1976) was rendered helpless in the face of trade union power during the ‘winter of discontent’. ‘Nobody could sensibly claim that Britain was at its finest in the 1970s’, Tiratsoo concedes, but he goes on to argue, in an attempt to modify conventional perceptions of the period, that ‘the country’s problems have frequently been exaggerated and distorted’.
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