The Summer of '76: The Britain That We Used to Know

August 4, 2018



Comparisons have been made between the heat waves of this summer and the famous summer of 1976, and some commentators have taken the opportunity to make a comparison of society at these two points in time. This is a useful and quite revealing exercise, which shows a great deal about how radically our country has changed over the past few decades.


The Britain of 1976 was relative to today quite grey, drab and still only emerging as a consumer economy. But there is more to life than GDP and consumer choice: it is the social landscape, deeply intertwined of course with the economic and political spheres, that makes for the most interesting comparison.


The most striking difference between the summers of 1976 and 2018 is their liveliness, or lack thereof. Those who look back fondly on the summer of '76 do so largely because of the atmosphere they can recall: parks were filled with young children and their mothers; children played care-free in the street; high streets and town centres bustled with young and old; families travelled to packed seaside towns in the days before Benidorm became the default holiday destination. Come 2018 it is striking that outside of a few students in city centres, most areas seem as dead as they always are. The play parks are dead. Residential streets are dead. High streets are dead. No atmosphere; no story; no collective memory was born. The summer of 2018, despite a succession of mini-heatwaves, feels like a non-event, and will not be remembered.


There are several reasons as to why this is, and they highlight just how fundamentally different a society we have become in the forty-two years since the summer of '76. In 1976 parks bustled with children and mothers because mothers were still able to be full-time mothers; they had not yet been corralled into monotonous, low-pay office work, and households in those days could still be maintained by a single male income. They were able to look after their children, rather than placing them into nationalised daycare. Social space belonged to the whole community: the elderly were often out with their families because they lived with them or were cared for by them; today's elderly in institutionalised care are another victim of the loss of female social capital to corporations. Different social classes would occupy the same public spaces in a way they no longer do; the programme to separate them into failed housing schemes and soulless suburbs was still a work in progress; even city centres hadn't been entirely lost to gentrification and immigration. There was the ordinary diversity one would expect to see within a community, with one exception compared to today: our society was still in those days overwhelmingly British; though the destructive multicultural project was underway, it had not at that point transformed the country the way it has now.


Family life came naturally in those days: accommodation was stable (house prices were relatively cheap, and there was ample council housing and rent controls), jobs were stable and people generally could expect a good starting point in young adult life: a vocational education leading to industrial employment for the working-class, and debt-free tuition through grants followed by a stable career path for those who went onto university. Young parents enjoying that summer would themselves have had largely functional upbringings in the days before casual divorce, and when children were brought up in overwhelmingly married, two-parent households. Families and society as a whole functioned in a way they no longer do - people can quibble and dwell on the exceptions, but deep down we all know this is true.

Comes 2018, the same public parks, residential streets and town centres which bustled in '76 are now largely dead. Mothers are no longer free to be with their young children and to spend a lazy weekday afternoon at the park. Streets are no longer safe to play in; gone are the days when people could happily leave their doors unlocked, and now even the tiniest roads are packed with cars, another aspect of the consumer, commuter culture. High streets are dead because the local, often long-established and much loved family-run shops are now largely gone, replaced with an ugly chain supermarket somewhere on the edge of town. In the place of butchers, bakeries, fishmongers and grocers stand betting shops, chain pubs and charity shops: our tattered high streets are monuments to the modern monsters of globalisation and debt. What collective summertime memories could arise from this wasteland stripped of community, intimacy, dignity and attachment?


Of course, for all the malaise we find ourselves in come 2018, there was a great deal of political and economic turbulence which is attached to the 70s. But even the chaos of strikes, three day weeks and power cuts illustrate the fact that we had a real working-class with the bargaining power to improve their lot, and a serious industrial economy that could be a focal point of political struggle, something that could only be maintained through a level of social and political cohesion amongst the British working-class that no longer exists. That chaos has now been transferred from party politics and into their daily lives, now defined by social breakdown on a scale that would have been unthinkable in the 70s. There's no industrial action in call centres. Middle-class Britons who bemoan the high taxes and the industrial action of the 70s should consider that for all these things, they remained middle-class: come 2018, most middle-class parents are now discovering that in the gig economy their children will no longer remain middle-class, and will not own their own home, be able to settle into family life as young adults or have a future beyond call centres and McJobs. It surely puts waiting a few weeks for the GPO to install your phone into perspective.


While debating this topic with somebody who defends the way things have gone since the 70s, I was struck that my points about home ownership, stable jobs, the family unit and the loss of community were met with a rebuttal that TV shows and pop music are much better now than they were then. In many ways this sums up the spirit of the age: "who cares about parenthood, home ownership or the fate of the nation; I want an iPhone". I'm not sure I can even agree on the argument about TV shows or pop music; I find modern TV unwatchable (a couple of gems aside) and when I'm unfortunate enough to be in a public place playing pop music, I am struck by how poor and generic it sounds. In the summer of '76 Abba had just released their chart-topping single Dancing Queen. It might not be Wagner or Beethoven, but millions of people still listen to their songs decades down the line; I highly doubt this will happen with any of the current crop of so-called musicians.


In contrast to the cold, bland and depressive pop music of today, Abba had an innocence and a genuine warmth that reflected the sort of people they were and the sort of society we used to have in the West; one that was more intimate, familiar and functional to what we have now in the age of ultra-individualism, atomisation, consumerism and the broad 'permissive society'. Of course the seeds of destruction had been thoroughly sown by '76: the cultural revolution and mass immigration had been implemented in the late 60s and just three years earlier Britain had been hauled into the European project; de-industrialisation loomed around the corner. But for a brief spell, before the impact of these things really filtered down into society, we were able to coast along in a Britain that still felt recognisably ours, and where we had a place and a future... how many people still feel like that today?




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