DEJA VU? Huge Debts. Soaring Prices. Turmoil in the Middle East. U-Turns. Strikers Appeased. According to a Leading Historian, There Are Worrying Parallels between Today's Britain and the 70s. Let's Hope, He Says, Cameron Is Not Another Heath; SATURDAY ESSAY

Daily Mail (London), July 30, 2011 | Go to article overview

DEJA VU? Huge Debts. Soaring Prices. Turmoil in the Middle East. U-Turns. Strikers Appeased. According to a Leading Historian, There Are Worrying Parallels between Today's Britain and the 70s. Let's Hope, He Says, Cameron Is Not Another Heath; SATURDAY ESSAY


Byline: by Dominic Sandbrook

CONTEMPLATING the events of the past few months, it is hard to disagree with Mark Twain's famous remark that although history may not repeat itself, it certainly rhymes.

In No 10 Downing Street, a Conservative Prime Minister charges into battle only to sound the retreat at the first sign of resistance; in the Middle East, a brutal war sends oil prices rocketing; on the High Street, food prices continue to soar.

Students take to the streets; public sector workers dig in their heels; union leaders threaten a season of discontent.

And across the country, millions of ordinary families, squeezed by rising prices, falling property values and an economy that stubbornly refuses to grow, wonder whether the good times will ever return.

Such is life in Britain in 2011. But it could easily be a description of life 40 years ago, during the most maligned decade in recent history -- the tortured, schizophrenic 1970s.

Much has changed, for both good and ill, since the days when Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath begged the British people to choose between the Government and the miners.

Bruce Forsyth may still be with us, but flared trousers, Pan's People and progressive rock have been consigned to the history books. You no longer have to wait weeks for a new telephone, but Britain has no independent car industry.

And yet the challenges facing Britain under David Cameron are not so very different from those that confronted our predecessors four decades ago, from the slow agony of rising prices to the turmoil in Europe and the Middle East.

As in the early Seventies, we find ourselves at a turning point in history, our economic future threatened by extraordinary events overseas. And as in the early Seventies, a Conservative government finds itself caught between the urgent need for institutional reform and the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of change.

In many ways, David Cameron and Edward Heath could not be more different. Mr Cameron is nothing if not smooth and courteous, a gifted communicator who, as befits a former PR man, has always enjoyed good public relations.

By contrast, the Tory leader elected Prime Minister in 1970 could be spectacularly grumpy. The self-made son of a Kentish builder, Sailor Ted was the archetypal example of that vanished breed, the grammar school boy who had made it to the top.

Unlike Mr Cameron, the brooding, introverted Heath was never known for his charm. And while our Prime Minister was brought up in wealth and privilege, his predecessor could never quite hide the chip on his shoulder, manifested in his strange, strangulated accent.

Yet after a year of the Coalition, the parallels are becoming ever more striking.

HEATH won power in 1970 with a radical manifesto of sweeping institutional reform, promising to slash government spending and end the culture of state intervention. But in the face of massive resistance by the trade unions, the revolt of the miners and a controversial surge in unemployment -- which reached one million in January 1972, well below its level today -- Heath changed tack.

Gone was the talk of cutting spending; instead, he unveiled plans for massive state intervention, flooding the economy with cheap credit and helping to send inflation through the roof.

Since Mr Cameron watered down his plans for NHS reform -- following the abandonment of earlier schemes to sell off the forests, scrap child benefit and change criminal sentencing, among others -- some Tory backbenchers are beginning to wonder whether, like his predecessor, he is never happier than when executing a rapid U-turn.

On the other side of the political divide, meanwhile, much has changed since the 1970s, when Labour proudly flew the red flag of Socialism and Left-wingers such as Tony Benn talked enthusiastically of nationalising Britain's 25 biggest companies. …

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DEJA VU? Huge Debts. Soaring Prices. Turmoil in the Middle East. U-Turns. Strikers Appeased. According to a Leading Historian, There Are Worrying Parallels between Today's Britain and the 70s. Let's Hope, He Says, Cameron Is Not Another Heath; SATURDAY ESSAY
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