quarta-feira, 2 de março de 2011
Back to the dark ages by Andy Beckett
The Guardian, Friday 17, 2009
Reckless government spending, the economy in meltdown, a floundering prime minister ... in 1974 this all led to the infamous three-day week, when emergency electricity restrictions forced people to work by lamp or candlelight, if they worked at all. In an extract from his new book, Andy Beckett tracks down some of the winners and losers from those months of extraordinary crisis.
In the early 60s, a young former electrician from London called David Constable moved to Germany to avoid national service. While he was there, he had an idea for a business. In the shops he noticed "lovely coloured candles" of a sort that were not for sale in Britain. He moved back to England, and several years slipped by: "We were hippy sort of types." Then, in 1969, he and his girlfriend opened a small basement shop in west London selling kits for making your own candles. "You got wicks, a couple of kilos of wax, a box of dye and a book on how to do it. You used yoghurt cartons, things around the house as moulds. We were the first to sell the kits," Constable remembers. It was like the new fashion for home-brewing and all the other self-sufficiency fads that were seeding bohemian businesses across Britain in the late 60s and early 70s. "Our market was loonies, policemen, vicars, hippies."
One morning during the 1972 miners' strike, Constable and his girlfriend woke up and found their lights wouldn't work. It was the first power cut of the Ted Heath era in their part of London. But its significance was lost on them, so they drove to the shop as usual. "When we got there, there was a queue round the block. We sold everything by lunchtime. We had no wax left, no wicks, nothing. I kept saying, 'What's happening?'"
That morning was just the beginning. "We had queues for weeks and weeks afterwards. There was a bit of a wax shortage in the early 70s. The wax was a byproduct of oil refining at Burmah and Shell and BP, and the oil price was going up. There were spivs on Oxford Street selling wax in yoghurt cartons with not even a wick in them."
By the time that the three-day week, with its accompanying blackouts and shoppers' panics, was imposed by the Heath government in 1973, "We were having a 10-tonne delivery of wax every morning," Constable recalls. "A lorry would wait outside, and we wouldn't even unload it before selling it. We had a friend who was a bit of a hard nut on guard. But we did lose a bit. People nicked a bit."
Constable shrugs. With his angular rimless glasses and choppy grey haircut, he does not quite look like a conventional businessman. Behind him, his current shop, which had clung on in one of Kensington's few remaining tatty backstreets since 1976, is a great cavern of candles and 70s lettering. Then a sharper, deal-maker's look comes into his eyes. "We didn't put our prices up during the power cuts," he says. "Should've done. Now it's not anywhere near as busy as in those days. Chinese imports are hurting the industry here." Then the look is gone, and he shrugs again. "But we were hippies then, of course."
The three-day week began at midnight on New Year's Eve in 1973, a Monday. The Heath administration decreed that until further notice all businesses except shops and those deemed essential to the life of the country would receive electricity only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Non-essential shops would get power only in the morning or the afternoon. When the electricity was off, affected businesses would have to make do with candles, gas lamps, private generators or moving their workers next to windows to make the most of the brief winter daylight. Employees would have to wear extra clothes to keep warm.
Four days before the restrictions started, the archbishops of Canterbury and York suggested every British congregation should pray that, "God may guide us in facing the present crisis with wisdom, justice and self-sacrifice." Two days before, the Daily Mail said "industry minister Tom Boardman has said that a two-day week could not be ruled out." The national emergency that followed would last for just over two months. Yet its roots went back much further than the winter of 1973-4. One of them was Heath's economic policy.
From its election in 1970, his government had impatiently sought to boost the performance of the British economy. But from 1971, frustrated by a general lack of progress and spooked by a sudden surge in unemployment, the Heath administration had sought this transformation by increasingly bold - you could say reckless - means. During late 1971 and early 1972, the government cut interest rates, greatly loosened the rules that governed lending by banks, increased public spending and cut taxes. "No government has ever before taken so much action in the space of one year to expand demand," declared the chancellor Anthony Barber on New Year's Day in 1972.
For a time the results were spectacular: the gross national product, which had grown by a feeble 1.4% in 1971, grew by 3.5% in 1972, and by an almost precedented 5.4% in 1973 - the kind of rate usually achieved by Britain's economic superiors at the time, Germany and Japan. Between mid-1971 and mid-1973, house prices rose by almost three-quarters.
But the boom was too reliant on speculation and one-off government initiatives, and too removed from the underlying realities of the British economy, to last long. Shortages of skilled labour and of modern, flexible industrial premises - the legacy of decades of underinvestment and poor training and management - meant that the increased appetite for goods and services awakened by the government soon could not be efficiently met. The result was higher inflation and a growing reliance on foreign goods, which were themselves inflationary, as the other rich countries were experiencing feverish booms and price spirals of their own. Britain's trade balance worsened drastically and the pound, which in 1972 had been freed to rise and fall in value against other currencies, began to fall much more than the Heath government had allowed for.
In May 1973, Barber started to rein in its "dash for growth" by cutting public spending. In July, he raised interest rates to their highest level since 1914. Boom had not quite yet turned to bust; but the British economy entered the autumn in a delicate condition, even more vulnerable than usual to unforeseen problems. Then, on 6 October, came the biggest shock for western economies of the entire decade, and the second catalyst for the three-day week. In a surprise attack, Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and invaded the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula. The Yom Kippur war had started, and with it the 1973 oil crisis. The supply of Middle Eastern oil to Britain and other western countries was severely disrupted. By January 1974, the oil price was more than five times higher than two years earlier.
Even worse, the British economic crisis acquired a potentially lethal political dimension. The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers rejected a pay offer from the National Coal Board. During November and December 1973, as the second national coal strike of his government changed from a possibility into a probability, Heath's conviction that the miners' militancy was ideological - rather than, as it also was, opportunistic and materialistic - became entwined with his wish to avoid the blackouts that had accompanied the earlier coal strike; with the oil crisis; with his tendency to dig his heels in under pressure; and with his proclivity for state initiatives and economic planning. The result was the three-day week.
Its official aim was to get Britain through the winter, by reducing energy use and spinning out coal and oil stocks. But the three-day week was also the product of less openly voiced political calculations. Britain in the 70s still had potent memories of periods of national sacrifice and austerity, such as the second world war and the peacetime rationing afterwards. Britons were thought to respond well to such emergencies, and to governments that dealt boldly with them.
In late 1973, Colchester in Essex was representative of a lot of mid-70s Britain and where it was going. A hilltop of old streets in faded orangey brick ringed by newer flat suburbs of neat lawns and passing cars, it had been a Roman town, a market town and an industrial town. Now it was turning into a town for office workers. Its population, like that of many places in southern England, had grown rapidly since the second world war as the capital's had fallen.
The build-up to the three-day week in Colchester was full of dark portents. Local shops started buying in oil and gas lamps, both for their own use and for sale. The town's fire service issued a public warning that a cheap paraffin model from Hong Kong, which was selling for 50p, was leaky and too easy to knock over. By early November, the Colchester Evening Gazette reported, "thousands" had been bought regardless.
Then came the first petrol panic. With petrol rationing thought to be imminent, drivers queued at garages, buying as little as half a gallon to top up their tanks. Garages ran out of fuel and closed, or imposed new rules. On 5 December, the notice on one forecourt read: "Regular clients only served. No casuals served at all. Regular clients are those people who have drawn weekly or daily over the past 12 months."
In mid-December, unscheduled power cuts - an overtime ban by the miners was already hampering power stations - began to darken nearby parts of Essex. Industrial action by train drivers began to cut off the line to London. Colchester commuters got up hours earlier and queued on unlit platforms for trains that never came. In the town's shops, in the lamplight, with many locals too anxious to travel further afield for their Christmas shopping, there were intermittent shortages of everything from eggs to toys.
On 17 December 1973, the vicar of a nearby village, a supporter of generally liberal causes called Andrew Hallidie-Smith, told the Gazette that thanks to Britain's political situation, old and sick people "could well be dying of starvation within the next year or two". Union "militants", he said, might have to be imprisoned or even shot if they "persist in fomenting strikes". He concluded: "Sometimes there is a question of collective security and national survival." His views secured him an interview on The World at One.
A fortnight afterwards, with the three-day week beginning, an anonymous columnist in the Essex County Standard summed up the atmosphere locally with a reference to Richard III that would be much more widely cited later in the decade, during another crisis: "This being the winter of our discontent ..."
Yet most people coped. In Colchester, some people wrote to the Standard and the Gazette saying they preferred the darkness and the lack of traffic, the sense of life slowing down. On 18 January, the Standard talked to commuters at Colchester station. "Everyone appeared resigned," the paper found. "One man even had a small Primus and heated up a tin of tomato soup on it."
On 21 January 1974, the Gazette published an article about the experiences of a typical Colchester family called "Life on a Three-Day Week". Graham and Gillian Bober owned a semi on a new private estate in the suburbs. They were in their mid-20s and had a five-year-old and a baby. Gillian looked after the children, and Graham worked for a long-established local printers. They were both leftwing - she was the granddaughter of a miner, he was the chairman of the Colchester Labour party - but they made Heath's three-day week sound quite harmless.
"It hasn't affected our budget that much," Graham told the paper. Like many Britons he was working three long days instead of five normal ones. "All it means is that I don't smoke so much ... [and] we haven't been able to put away the extra £5 each week." On his extra days off he was doing "some long-awaited decorating work" and helping Gillian.
During the three-day week, a temporary shift in the gender balance was under way. Sometimes it simply involved men being at home more and helping out; but sometimes it involved women's relative earning power. While businesses with predominantly male workforces - such as factories - were suffering shutdowns, the places where women tended to work - shops and offices - were less heavy users of energy and were therefore less affected by the power restrictions.
"Today it's no longer wrong for the wife to be a major contributor to household finance," the Daily Mail acknowledged on 23 January. In this respect, as in others, the three-day week was prophetic. Within a decade, many men's jobs in British factories would be gone altogether, and in parts of the country clerical and retail work for women would be all that remained.
The three-day week did not make instant feminists of the Bobers - Gillian was not working, after all. But their new life was intriguing. Through friends of friends, the Italian state television network RAI heard about the article on them in the Gazette, and the family was filmed for a programme on the three-day week. Graham wore a bold waistcoat and tie, Gillian wore a smart coat and scarf, and all of them sat for the cameras on their new cottage-style kitchen chairs with their new striped curtains in the background. Britain may have been in crisis, but it was not short of consumer durables.
When I meet the Bobers three decades later, some of Graham's confidence has gone. He is a taxi driver now. "My printing company went bust five or six years ago," he says. "There's not one manufacturing job in that part of Colchester now." He slaps his knee and spills some of his coffee on his armchair.
He and Gillian still talk about the three-day week with a degree of fondness. "People took sides on it," she says. "We were living on a very rightwing estate. You'd go into a shop and people would say, 'Bloody miners!' and you'd say," Graham breaks in: "At the time I thought Ted Heath was very rightwing ... We thought, 'This bloke, he's dreadful.'" He pauses. "I certainly never saw that they'd move as right as they did afterwards."
During the three-day week, the Bobers and their neighbours looked after one another's children when there was no power at school. When there was no power at home, the Bobers would often go to Graham's parents, who were on the same part of the electricity grid as a local hospital and almost never got cut off; or they would all sit together in their new kitchen-diner.
"Television wasn't so dominant then," says Gillian. "There was enough light for reading. We had gas lights from camping and a couple of antique oil lamps." There was a whiff of the second world war about how they dealt with it all. Graham's employers did their best to keep him in work. "The company were good, they did a deal with the union," he remembers. "Our managers were local people. They weren't dictators."
In the summer of 1974, after the three-day week was over, a firm of management consultants was commissioned by the Department of Industry to examine how British bosses and workers had responded to the crisis. "A few companies consciously used the emergency as an opportunity to improve their industrial relations," the survey discovered. Other employers found they were simply forced to "set aside ongoing disputes" with unions and "increase mutual cooperation"; in these cases the unions "gained confidence, and benefits". The report added, "Thinking was stimulated on the possibility of arranging a permanent four-day week ... Several companies began negotiations." And this more collaborative economy was more productive: across all the companies surveyed, "Output per direct labour hour did improve, generally by about 5%."
In fact, by most estimates, national output during the three-day week fell by about a fifth. And the revolution in workplace practices at the time was, at best, partial. The negotiations about a permanent four-day week came to nothing. The report found that the "extra effort and cooperation [required] was limited ... by growing fatigue, the fading novelty element ... or the eventual intrusion of endemic problems."
Workers and managers alike were resistant. Among the men surveyed, 61% said they disliked the three-day week's new working hours, with only 10% in favour. Women were only slightly more flexible. People found the longer shifts tiring. They missed seeing family and friends on those days. They were unsettled by the disruption of their routines.
All this hinted at the harsher British workplace culture to come. But that was still several governments away; commentators with an interest in the social implications of the three-day week were quicker to identify its more bucolic aspects.
"Now, at last, we've time to do all those lazy - and free - things we always wanted," wrote the columnist Jane Gaskell in the Daily Mail on 21 January. "It already looks as if the 1974 crisis could, surprisingly, be good for us." She cited a report from the Samaritans of a significant drop in the number of calls it was receiving. Next she quoted Dr Antony Allbeury of Oxford University, an authority on "leisure" who spoke of the value of "re-reading an old book or digging a garden ... not spending money ... finding ourselves back in that almost peasant state".
For all the period's difficulties, Britain did enjoy a sort of extended national holiday during the three-day week. Fishing-tackle shops reported big sales increases. Golf courses were busier; some driving ranges stayed open into the winter dusk and beyond. Audiences trebled for John Peel and Bob Harris's late-night BBC radio programmes of progressive rock, because fewer people were having to get up for work in the morning.
But like most holidays, the three-day week was not sustainable in the long run. "Being political," remembers Gillian Bober, "I thought, 'It's not going to go on.'"
• This is an edited extract from When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, by Andy Beckett, published by Faber on 7 May
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 07:00