British government and popular understanding of inflation in the mid-1970s


  • I am grateful to participants in a discussion of this article at the Economic History Society conference in 2010, and to two referees for this journal, for helpful comments on earlier drafts. I am also grateful to Martin Chick for supplying me with copies of many of Hilde Behrend's publications.


In Britain in the 1970s inflation rose to historically unprecedented peace-time levels, and became the central issue of economic policy-making. We know a great deal about the elite policy debates on the significance of this inflation, and the arguments about how to reduce it, but we know far less about how inflation was understood by the population at large, and how those understandings were shaped. This article explores the evidence on popular understanding, especially analysing the material gathered by the Counter-Inflation Publicity Unit, created in the summer of 1975. Along with other evidence, this material is used to explore how far the Labour government's economic propaganda can be said to have influenced popular opinion on both the significance and causes of inflation. The evidence supports the argument that the belief that trade unions were the main culprit for inflation was reinforced and entrenched by this propaganda, with important unintended consequences for the arguments about policy that followed the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978/9.