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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 June 2007, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
Chaos, rubbish and revolution
Rubbish collection dispute, east London

Andrew Marr
There were strikes, blackouts and piles of rotting rubbish in the 1970s, but was there a revolt, asks Andrew Marr, right, whose TV history of post-war UK continues on Tuesday.

The biggest issue facing Edward Heath when he took office in 1970 was the economy.

British productivity was pitifully low compared to America or Europe, never mind Japan.

YouTube graphic

The country was spending too much on the glossy flood of new consumer goods and not nearly enough on modernised and more efficient factories and businesses.

Send your memories, in text, pictures or short videos, to help create a Peoples' History of Modern Britain to be built up over five weeks. We continue with the 1970s.

Got any family snapshots from the era, pictures of outlandish fashions or other photos from the 70s?

E-mail them to:

(subject "modern Britain")

You can also send in video via YouTube.

Inflation was particularly worrying. Prices were rising by 7% and wage earnings by double that.

This was still the old post-1945 world of fixed exchange rates which meant that the Heath government, just like those of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, faced a sterling crisis and perhaps yet another devaluation.

Britain not only had heavy levels of unionisation through all the key industries but also, by modern standards, an incredible number of different unions - more than 600 altogether.

Unofficial and wildcat strikes meant that even leaders of large unions had only a wobbly hold on what actually happened on the factory floor. It was a time of political militancy in the movement, a heady mix of left-wing idealism and naked greed.

Heath immediately faced a dock strike, followed by a big pay settlement for local authority dustmen, then a power workers' go-slow which led to power cuts. Then the postal workers struck.

The mood of the government was less focussed and less steely than it would be nine years later when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

David Bowie
Music changed drastically and embraced fantasy

Much of the country was simply more left-wing than it was later. Socialism was popular with millions of working class people and was making fast inroads in the Labour Party.

The unions, having defeated Wilson and Barbara Castle, were more self-confident than ever before or since.

Many industrial workers, living in still-bleak towns far away from the glossy pop world of the big cities, did seem underpaid and left behind. The faster growing economies of France and Germany were a living rebuke to Whitehall. Scandals and satire had had their effect.

What finished off the Heath government was the short war between Israel and Egypt in October 1973, the Yom Kippur war. It sparked an international oil crisis and demands from the miners for increased pay.

The national speed limit was cut by 20 miles per hour to 50mph to save fuel. Then in January 1974 came the announcement of a three-day working week.


Ministers solemnly urged citizens to share baths and brush their teeth in the dark. Television, by now the nation's sucking-sweet, was ended at 10.30pm each evening.

Heath had promised "tomorrow would be better than today", but now he couldn't even keep the lights on. In February 1974 he asked the Queen to dissolve parliament and went to the country on the election platform he had prepared two years earlier: "who governs?"

The country's answer, perhaps taking the question more literally than Heath had hoped, was "not you, mate."

Political cynicism or unease had been spread in the 50s and 60s by the behaviour of the cliques who ran the country. By the 70s it was driven more by a sense of alienation.

Now the public was being hit directly, and the most vulnerable were being hit the hardest

The "winter of discontent", a Shakespearean phrase, was used by Callaghan himself to describe the industrial and social chaos of 1978-9.

It has been popularly remembered afterwards like few events in politics - the schools closed, the ports blockaded, the rubbish rotting in the streets, the dead unburied.

Actions by individual union branches and shop stewards were reckless and heartless. Left-wing union leaders and activists whipped up the disputes for their own purposes.

Right-wing newspapers, desperate to see the end of Labour, exaggerated the effects and rammed home the picture of a nation no longer governable. But much of the fault for this was Callaghan's.

He had opposed the legal restrictions on union power pleaded for by Wilson and Castle. He and Healey, acting in good faith, had imposed a more drastic squeeze on public spending and thus on the poorest families, than was economically necessary.

Bread queue in London
Queues formed at shops

And in trying to impose an unreasonably tough new pay limit on the country, and then dithering about the date of the election, he destroyed the fragile calm he had so greatly enjoyed.

There was a vale of tears to be endured first. Oil tanker drivers also in the TGWU came out for 40%, and were followed by road haulage drivers, workers at Ford's nationalised rival British Leyland, then water and sewerage workers.

BBC electricians threatened a blackout of Christmas television. The docks were picketed and closed down.

The worst blow for the government came from the public sector union NUPE, who called out more than a million school caretakers, cooks, ambulance men, refuse collectors on random stoppages for a 60 a week guaranteed minimum wage.

Strikes by car workers were one thing. But now the public was being hit directly, and the most vulnerable were being hit the hardest.

Children's hospitals, old people's homes and schools were all plunged into trouble, depending on volunteers.

James Callaghan
Callaghan became prime minister in 1976 after Wilson resigned

The single most notorious action was by cemetery workers in Liverpool who refused to bury dead bodies, leaving more than 300 to pile up in a cold storage depot. Liverpool council discussed emergency plans for disposing of some at sea. Funeral corteges were met at the cemeteries by pickets and forced to turn back.

In the centre of London and other major cities, huge piles of rotting rubbish piled up, overrun with rats and a serious health hazard. Inside government, ordinary work almost ground to a halt.

It must be recorded that most of those striking, the public sector workers in particular, were woefully badly paid and living in poverty; and that they had no history of industrial militancy.

Nor was the crisis quite as dreadful as some of the papers and politicians showed it.

Civil war

Nobody was proved to have died in hospital as a result of union action, there was no shortage of food in the shops and there was no violence. Troops were never used.

This was chaos, and a direct challenge to the authority of the government. It was not a revolution, or an attempt to overthrow a government.

Yet that is the effect it had. The revolution would bring in Margaret Thatcher not socialism, and Labour would be overthrown, plunging quickly into civil war.

Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain continues on BBC Two on Tuesday, 5 June, at 2100 BST.

Thanks for your memories of the 1950s and 1960s.

Now send us your memories of the 1970s - the decade of electricity shortages, hot summers and Space Hoppers - using the form below.

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