Finding a Role? The United Kingdom 1970–1990 by Brian Harrison - review by Vernon Bogdanor

Vernon Bogdanor

A Difficult Country

Finding a Role? The United Kingdom 1970–1990


Oxford University Press 610pp £30

In 1948, W H Auden wrote of Britain as: 

A backward

And dilapidated province, connected

To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain

Seedy appeal 

Such a perspective seemed even more appropriate in the 1970s, and in 1974 the Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan, confessed that ‘sometimes when I go to bed at night, I think that if I were a younger man I would emigrate’, though he then went on to add: ‘But when I wake up in the morning, I ask myself whether there is any place else I would prefer to go.’ 

In 1970, Edward Heath became Prime Minister. Although a Conservative, his government fought a desperate rearguard action to preserve the postwar social democratic settlement. But, by the end of the decade, both the Heath government and its successor, the Wilson/Callaghan Labour government, had been destroyed by the trade unions; inflation was out of control and the country seemed ungovernable. Even worse, the whole structure of civility, the premise of the postwar settlement, seemed to have collapsed. Cancer patients were being sent home from hospitals; rats roamed the streets of London where the dustmen were on

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