Did Blue Peter really advise stuffing blankets with newspapers in 1979? Fact checking Boris’s speech.

Janet Downs's picture
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“Four years later things [in 1979] were even worse … women were forced to give birth by candle-light, Prime Minister’s Questions was lit by paraffin lamp and Blue Peter was all about how to put newspaper in blankets for extra insulation.”

Boris Johnson, November 2013

Did Blue Peter really advise tearing up tabloids to stuff into blankets?  As an avid Blue Peter watcher in the 70s I can remember John Noakes’s “Get down Shep” and Lesley Judd’s encounter with a gorilla but not how to make a duvet out of bed coverings and scrunched up copies of the Daily Mail.  Did it happen?  And if it did, was in broadcast on April 1?

Andy Beckett, author of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, said Blue Peter  did give advice about extra insulation.  But it was on 21 February 1972 not during 1979 as Boris claimed.  Tory Ted Heath was prime minister at the time.

According to Boris, Britain in the 70s, particularly London, resembled a post-Apocalyptic waste-land plunged into perpetual darkness.  The population of the Capital had plummeted from a 1911 peak of 9m to 6.9m and it took Thatcher to revitalise this moribund dump, Boris claimed.  

But the 1911 census says the city’s population was 7.1m not Boris’s 9m.   And in 1911, the richest 1% held 70% of UK wealth.

The miners were “constantly” out on strike”, Boris said.  There were two: 9 January to 25 February 1972 (the first in 50 years) and 4 February 1974 to 6 March 1974 which followed an overtime ban which began on 13 November 1973.  They didn’t strike again until March 1984 when Thatcher was PM.  

The blackouts were not in 1979 but during the three-day-weeks in early 1972 and 1974.  The measures were introduced by PM Ted Heath to conserve electricity following miners’ industrial action which, in 1974, coincided with a global rise in the price of coal following the 1973 Oil Crisis.

So where did London’s Mayor find his inaccurate information?  It appears to have been lifted from Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity (2012.) co-written by “rising stars” from the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs:  Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, Schools Minister and founder of the right-wing Free Enterprise Group.

Their book argues the “state has made Britons idle” and “too many people in Britain…prefer a lie-in to hard work”.  But pontificating about the habits of some of their fellow Brits (Boris’s 16% who lack “raw talent” and “spiritual worth” perhaps) hasn’t prevented them making historical errors.   And, oh dear, the authors still claim  a “decade” of decline in education standards as measured by PISA in their conclusion. 

They’ve obviously decided to ignore the UK Statistics Watchdog’s comments about misuse of international test data.  Skidmore still used the discredited 2000 PISA figures in January.  And this month Platel wrote about a slump in international standing in education during Labour’s tenure.

Perhaps the authors need lessons in comprehension as well historical research.  And Boris should perhaps check “facts” before plonking them in his speech.
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