December 1973: Christmas in Crisis?

For many families, this Christmas will be like no other. Tiered coronavirus restrictions and international travel bans mean that many loved ones will be unable to be with each other on Christmas Day – for many, usually a time of celebration, relaxation and togetherness.

But this isn’t the first Christmas in living memory to be overshadowed by crisis and disruption. 47 years ago, Christmas 1973 was dominated by a very different kind of emergency: industrial action and the impending introduction of the Three-Day Week. Indeed, the restrictions introduced since the start of the coronavirus outbreak represent perhaps the biggest nationwide disruption to everyday life in Britain since the winter of 1973-74. The measures emerged from the Conservative government’s struggle to reach a pay settlement with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The Heath government had failed to control Britain’s rocketing rates since taking office in 1970, a crisis turbocharged by the Arab-Israeli War and the global oil price shock of October 1973. In response to soaring prices from 1970, trade unions – many of which had become increasingly militant and left-wing – stepped up  industrial action and pushed the government for wage increases to keep up with national averages. In 1973, the NUM voted to demand a huge 35% increase; later that year, the NUM voted against strike action but agreed to introduce an overtime ban, with the aim of crippling the coal industry and forcing Heath to buckle before it was too late.

In November, after the start of the ban, Heath declared a state of emergency with shops banned from using electricity for heating. Petrol restrictions began as the government introduced a 50mph speed limit on all roads and a temperature limit of 17 degrees Celsius in all commercial and office premises. Power cuts were common and television was ordered to stop broadcasting at 10.30 each night, a measure suspended for Christmas and the New Year. For many older adults, Christmas 1973 evoked memories of the Blitz (which had ended just thirty-two years previously).

After Christmas, from January to March 1974, Heath’s government confined electricity use to three days a week, with working hours limited on those days. In a striking parallel to talk of ‘essential businesses’ under the current COVID-19 lockdown rules, essential services – like supermarkets and hospitals – were exempt from the electricity restrictions in early 1974. Late in January, the NUM voted for strike action and, despite his party’s stable parliamentary majority, Heath decided to call a general election, posing a simple question to the electorate: “who governs Britain?”. Heath never recovered from his loss in the February 1974 polls, which ushered in six years of political fragility and economic turbulence.          

In the end, the economic impact of the Three-Day Week was not as catastrophic as some had feared. In many accounts, people – especially children old enough to remember 1973 – even recall the novelty and excitement of the time and adults talked of the return of ‘Blitz spirit’ to Britain.

Christmas in Crisis 1973 rescued by Slade, the band that made 'Merry Christmas Everybody'.
Slade in 1973 (Source).

Yet Christmas 1973 is perhaps best remembered for one thing: not the miners’ pay dispute, but Slade. The glittery bombast of ‘Merry Christmas  Everybody’ , recorded in New York and released 10 days before the announcement of the Three-Day Week, stood in stark contrast to Heath’s solemn broadcasts to the nation and the atmosphere of uncertainty and crisis that loomed over Britain – and certainly over Whitehall – as 1974 approached. Indeed, the country was running out of electricity and enduring the first substantial disruption to the rhythms of national life since the end of the Second World War.

Glam rock represented a source of outrage, novelty, decadence and youthful escapism in an era of political crisis and economic decline. Through David Bowie’s androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona (formally ‘retired’ by Bowie that summer), glam rock fandom also gave young people unprecedented opportunities to experiment with fashion and to explore gender norms and sexuality. For many,  an investment in glam rock offered a means of reclaiming an identity and sense of individual  purpose on a backdrop of unemployment and social fragmentation, just as punk rock would later in the decade.

‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ beat Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ to be the Christmas number 1 in 1973, remaining at the top of the UK charts until February 1974 – that is, for much of the period of the Three-Day Week. The track, concluding with Noddy Holder’s famous roar of “it’s Chriiiistmaaas!”, was the jarringly joyful soundtrack to an era of disruption and change. And while comparisons between the winters of 1973-74 and 2020-21 may be tenuous or ahistorical, it is certainly striking that the same song will be bringing similar cheer to kitchens and living rooms as Britain braces itself for another difficult, uncertain yet historic festive period.

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