For the left, it was at best a hangover and at worst a wholesale retreat; for the right it was intimation of an imminent apocalypse. It gave us loon pants, Gary Glitter, the Tate bricks, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, Sid Vicious, Mateus Rosé and the Yorkshire Ripper. It began with rotting garbage piled up on the streets of London and ended the same way. What's not to like about the 1970s?
If, indeed, the 70s actually existed. The steady accretion of films, novels, exhibitions and histories – now joined by Dominic Sandbrook's compulsively readable chronicle of 1974-79 Britain and his accompanying BBC2 series on the decade as a whole – raises the question of whether the 70s had a coherent identity at all. By both continuing the 1960s and anticipating the 1980s, the decade often seems an entity of indeterminate borders, condemned to be defined by what lies on either side of it. So, conventional wisdom sees the first half of the 1970s as either abandoning or exposing 1960s idealism, while the second serves merely as a prologue to the Great Moving Right Show that characterised the subsequent decade.
From his earlier books on the late 1950s and 1960s, you'd expect Sandbrook to take the conventional view. In Never Had It So Good and White Heat, he argued strongly that the cultural legacy of the Macmillan and Wilson eras (from the Royal Court playwrights and new wave novelists of the late 1950s to the television dramatists and satirists of the 1960s) has been overestimated in terms of quality and reach. With one exception, he was dismissive of all the radical political movements of the period (from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to protests against the Vietnam war). Much of what we think of as "the 60s" was confined to a relatively small, well-educated minority, and millions who came of age then should not be judged by "the posturing of the most radical, by the violence of the most disaffected, or by the promiscuity of the most wanton".
So it's no surprise that, in State of Emergency, his book about the 1970-74 period, Sandbrook celebrates the draining away of the rebellious energy of the 1960s, as "squatters became home-owners, local activists became adventure playground leaders" and "utopians joined the Labour Party". But, on the wider cultural front, there is evidence that he has mellowed. Certainly, State of Emergency is kinder to the artistic life of the 1970s, praising its literature, noting the excellence of its television drama, and (even) acknowledging the contribution of radical young playwrights to a golden period for the theatre.
But, most importantly, Sandbrook argues that, far from dwindling in the 1970s, "many of the phenomena we lazily associate with the late 1960s" (from long hair, obscenity and drugs to flares and "affected hippy slang") achieved mass purchase only in the following decade. And while he still has little time for the far left or Tony Benn, Sandbrook's view of the radical politics of the 1960s has shifted too. In White Heat, the only movement for which he has any time is feminism. Now he acknowledges that the other great progressive political legacy of the late 1960s had its virtues too. Yes, environmentalism can be seen as a middle-class fad, or even a failure. But, like many things which started out in Coventry, the green movement ended up in the mainstream. "It was thanks to the well-meaning muesli-eaters of the 1970s," he writes, "that macrobiotic restaurants and wholefood shops became common sights in big cities." And, you could say, much else besides.
If Seasons in the Sun feels a more conservative book than State of Emergency, it's partly because Sandbrook has dealt with environmentalism and feminism already, and concentrates here on the narrative of the Wilson and Callaghan governments' attempts to stem Britain's economic collapse (so dire did things get that, in early 1975, 5p in every pound spent by the government was borrowed from abroad). But it's also because, along with his television series, Seasons in the Sun has a thesis, which is that, for all its progressive cladding, the liberation of the individual in the 1960s led to the collapse of the traditional left-wing virtues of collectivity and solidarity and laid the groundwork for Margaret Thatcher. A narrow, consumerist ambition for a better life, for foreign holidays and Ford Cortinas, can be seen not only among the newly aspirational classes (those satirised in Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party and – more affectionately – in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?) but among the ranks of the very vanguard of the proletariat. Young workers "might be children of the 1960s, but they were also Thatcherites in waiting".
It's easy to argue that the strikers of the 1979 winter of discontent were merely pursuing what Eric Hobsbawm called "their narrow economic benefits" (though, as Sandbrook argues, Labour's economic policy had trapped many between the rock of wage restraint and the hard place of inflation). But it's harder to apply that judgment to the industrial struggles of the whole decade, particularly when Sandbrook himself provides such powerful evidence to the contrary.
The Birmingham car workers who closed the Saltley coke depot may not have won the 1972 miners' strike, but their action was hardly "sheer seventies materialism". The industrial struggles of the Heath period were defined by what was seen as a general assault on trade union rights, spearheaded by an industrial relations act under which five dockers were jailed.
As a 1974 striking miner asked in Sandbrook's television series, if Heath could beat the miners, what chance would other people have? And that's before you get on to the white, male trade unionists who picketed the Grunwick photo-processing plant in support of Asian female strikers, the postmen who blocked Grunwick's mail and the miners, steelworkers and dockers who supported the equal pay dispute at the Trico windscreen-wiper factory at Brentford. As Sandbrook admits, the feminisation of the public sector made its unions more ambitious, but also more idealistic.
And if, through most of the divisive 1970s, traditional principles of solidarity seem to have been remarkably durable, can the social movements which came to fruition then be dismissed as a triumph of individualism? The undoubted unpopularity of student protesters, hippies and other late 1960s phenomena has masked the contribution of counter-cultural protest to industrial protest and vice versa.
As Sandbrook insists, the women's liberation movement was as much about Hull's fishermen's wives and female machinists at Ford Dagenham as feminist activists disrupting Miss World. In 1971, workers campaigning against the closure of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders borrowed the student tactic of the sit-in. As 1970s chronicler Andy Beckett argues, the gay groups who stood shoulder to shoulder with trade unionists outside Grunwick prefigured an alliance which "would become commonplace in the decade to come". The identity politics that were to become such a satirised feature of the left of the 1970s arose not just out of campus and culture but class war.
Perhaps the real irony of the 1970s in Britain is that its defining industrial conflict – which brought down two of its prime ministers – may have had less of a long-term impact than the identity politics which bubbled away underneath it. Of course, much of the political story that Sandbrook narrates so compellingly ran in traditional grooves. But, in fact, the 1970s expanded the purchase of politics in both directions: inwards to the intimacy of the personal and outwards to the fate of the planet.
As a consequence of this extended reach, the feminist and environmental movements touched more lives more profoundly – and had a longer lasting legacy – than the set-piece industrial and political battles that dominated the news. Without radical feminism, probably, no Emily's List; without the Gay Liberation Front, certainly, no Queer as Folk.
Sandbrook himself makes this point most eloquently not in any of his British books, but in his study of the new right in late 1970s America, Mad as Hell. In it, as ever, he insists that the vast majority of young Americans didn't join protest marches or political groups (or even buy Eagles records or go to New Age retreats), but "went to college, got a job, fell in love, got married, bought a house, had children, and did all those other things that made up the texture of everyday life and individual memory".
But, hardly 30 pages on, he writes rather differently, of "millions of tiny, unheralded revolutions", as "teenagers grew their hair long and smoked their first joints, as marriages collapsed and couples divorced, as married women applied for their first jobs, as white girls brought home black boyfriends, as All-American boys came out of the closet". In this sense, Sandbrook is right to argue that the 1970s was the moment when our century arrived.
• David Edgar's Written on the Heart is running at the Duchess theatre in London until 19 May.
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