A recurring Remainer tactic of the last three years that has come to the fore again during the current Election campaign has been to blame the result of the 2016 Referendum for making the nation more dangerous, volatile and violent than it has ever been before – well, before the collective memory of those born in the 90s, perhaps. Barely a day goes by without being told how Britain is an unprecedented cauldron of toxic nastiness populated by trolls, bigots, fascists, racists, Nazis, and phobics of every conceivable variety. Granted, strolling through certain quarters of the capital bereft of a stab-proof vest might not be advisable in 2019; but one doesn’t actually have to travel back to a distant period of genuinely barbaric British history such as, say, the 17th century to trash this shaky theory. 1977 – a mere 42 years ago – will suffice.
I’ve devoted a good deal of the past week’s online downtime to watching news broadcasts from 1977 on YouTube. Why 1977? I can’t even remember how it started now, but it has become something of a nightly addiction. Even though I was there at the time, the vivid memory has received a jolt when reliving it in cyberspace. As a ten-year-old in 1977, I was more concerned with whatever I was watching or reading or playing than ‘the news’, that byword for boring in the minds of most children that age. Thanks to ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ being cannily sandwiched between ‘Scooby Doo’ and ‘Blue Peter’, however, I was exposed to some of the bigger stories of the day by default, so many of the ones I’ve revisited these last few days were familiar, even if the finer details eluded me in 1977.
Growing-up in a city that contained one of the dominant football clubs of the era meant I was exposed to the beautiful game as well as its uglier aspects. A fixture guaranteed to provoke trouble in and around Elland Road – such as the traditional grudge match against that other United from the ‘wrong’ side of the Pennines – was not really advisable for a child to attend. Manchester Utd had one of the worst reputations for hooliganism in the country back then – indeed, in September 1977 the club were temporarily expelled from the European Cup Winners Cup following fan trouble at an away game at St Etienne; footage of the chaos is quite retrospectively chilling, almost as if you can see the elements that led to Heysel – just eight years away – in embryonic form.
When Leeds and Man U were drawn against each other in that year’s FA Cup Semi-final at Hillsborough, local shopkeepers were boarding-up their windows as fencing was erected on the terraces for the first time in anticipation of a war. In the end, the game passed without major incident; but footage from a league fixture that same season between the two rivals paints a more accurate portrait. With hordes of Bay City Roller-lookalikes rampaging through the streets outside the ground and police on horseback galloping around them, it looks more like a warm-up for the Poll Tax Riots than the preamble to a sporting occasion. It’s also a timely reminder that, unlike now, this wasn’t a problem restricted to lowly lower league clubs, but afflicted the biggest in the land. It’s impossible to imagine such scenes taking place outside the corporate complexes of Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge today, which reminds the viewer how much the English game at the highest level has changed in 42 years.
Violence on the streets wasn’t restricted to being pre-match entertainment in 1977, however. Aside from images captured in the aftermath of an IRA bombing, the main visual representation of the Northern Ireland Troubles which viewers on this side of the Irish Sea received usually documented pitched battles between bottle-and-brick-throwing children and the British Army. Generally taking place in the more poverty-stricken corners of Londonderry or Belfast, the shocking aspect of these clashes is just how young the participants really are, looking just like me and my schoolmates – same haircuts, same clothes, same age. And once the shock of that sinks in, another sight hard to imagine now also hits the viewer: latchkey dogs. Without fail, any footage of such street battles from the period will have at least one giddy mutt dashing around the melee. And that’s one more thing now happily consigned to history.
Anybody declaring how unsafe the streets of 2019 are should be made aware of this stuff. And if it wasn’t a match-day within the vicinity of a railway station or football stadium (and if one resided on the UK mainland), there might not be a respite from a scrap if the National Front happened to be marching into town. There seems to have been at least three major marches by the far-right shit-stirrers in 1977, with the one that took place in Lewisham in August of that year yielding the greatest quota of violence. Most of the archive footage dredged up for documentaries on racism in Britain appears to have been shot in Lewisham that day. The formation of the Anti-Nazi League to counteract the NF whenever they decided to target a neighbourhood with a large ‘immigrant’ community meant that any such event from ’77 onwards ended in conflict. The film from Lewisham, in which police and protestors from both sides are battered, bloodied and bruised by fists, truncheons, bricks, bottles and (in one memorable moment of improvisation) a dustbin, demonstrates that the tempers we keep being told are at boiling point in 2019 well and truly boiled over in 1977.
Those tempers weren’t always provoked by the incendiary subject of racism – which was far more ‘in yer face’ in 1977 than it is now – but political ideology too. Industrial disputes wielded as bargaining chips by powerful unions were daily occurrences; British Leyland probably didn’t enjoy more than one strike-free week during the entire decade. But the worst dispute of 1977 was one that had begun the year before and didn’t end until the year after. It took place at a South London film-processing lab called Grunwick.
Grunwick paid pitiful wages and imposed long working hours on a predominantly female Asian immigrant workforce. When the mouse roared, a small strike that had passed-by largely unnoticed gathered pace as sympathy from other unions was garnered; these unions then began sending bus-loads of flying pickets to show solidarity and prevent ‘scabs’ from crossing the picket-line; this necessitated police involvement – including the notorious SPG – and also attracted those members of the Socialist Workers Party up for a fight. By the summer of ’77 the scenes of opposing forces squeezed into the narrow residential streets leading to Grunwick beggar belief. The clashes are some of the ugliest and brutal of any industrial dispute – predating the Miners’ Strike at its worst by a good seven years – and Grunwick itself became seen as a microcosm of everything that was regarded as wrong with British industry. But it is the level of violence on display that seems so characteristic of 1977.
The same media sources that are today repeatedly telling us how toxic the atmosphere in the country is in 2019 were also at it in 1977 – though then it was Punk Rock rather than Brexit held up as being responsible. Perhaps some began to question this narrative when The Sex Pistols – sold as the worst of a bad bunch – belied their public image by staging a free Christmas Day concert in Huddersfield for the children of striking firemen. Yes, even the firemen were on strike as the year drew to a close. 2019 is not 1977 by any stretch of the imagination. Just take a look on YouTube. And take a look at your average Remain or Leave march. Take a look at the flag-wavers permanently positioned outside Parliament. Not exactly reminiscent of Lewisham or Grunwick or Belfast or Elland Road in 1977. In fact, not remotely comparable. My advice to contemporary scaremongers is to take a tip from a Stranglers hit of 1977 and get a grip on yourself.
© The Editor