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You Only Live Twice – Cool Britannia to Cold Brexit: The United Kingdom, 1999-2019. Part One: Economics, Culture & Society.   Leave a comment

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Cold Shoulder or Warm Handshake?

On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will leave the European Union after forty-six years of membership, since it joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973 on the same day and hour as the Republic of Ireland. Yet in 1999, it looked as if the long-standing debate over Britain’s membership had been resolved. The Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union had been signed by all the member states of the preceding European Community in February 1992 and was succeeded by a further treaty, signed in Amsterdam in 1999. What, then, has happened in the space of twenty years to so fundamentally change the ‘settled’ view of the British Parliament and people, bearing in mind that both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, while England and Wales both voted to leave? At the time of writing, the manner of our going has not yet been determined, but the invocation of ‘article fifty’ by the Westminster Parliament and the UK government means that the date has been set. So either we will have to leave without a deal, turning a cold shoulder to our erstwhile friends and allies on the continent, or we will finally ratify the deal agreed between the EU Commission, on behalf of the twenty-seven remaining member states, and leave with a warm handshake and most of our trading and cultural relations intact.

As yet, the possibility of a second referendum – or third, if we take into account the 1975 referendum, called by Harold Wilson (above) which was also a binary leave/ remain decision – seems remote. In any event, it is quite likely that the result would be the same and would kill off any opportunity of the UK returning to EU membership for at least another generation. As Ian Fleming’s James Bond tells us, ‘you only live twice’. That certainly seems to be the mood in Brussels too. I was too young to vote in 1975 by just five days, and another membership referendum would be unlikely to occur in my lifetime. So much has been said about following ‘the will of the people’, or at least 52% of them, that it would be a foolish government, in an age of rampant populism, that chose to revoke article fifty, even if Westminster voted for this. At the same time, and in that same populist age, we know from recent experience that in politics and international relations, nothing is inevitable…

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One of the major factors in the 2016 Referendum Campaign was the country’s public spending priorities, compared with those of the European Union. The ‘Leave’ campaign sent a double-decker bus around England stating that by ending the UK’s payments into the EU, more than 350 million pounds per week could be redirected to the National Health Service (NHS).

A British Icon Revived – The NHS under New Labour:

To understand the power of this statement, it is important to recognise that the NHS is unique in Europe in that it is wholly funded from direct taxation, and not via National Insurance, as in many other European countries. As a service created in 1948 to be ‘free at the point of delivery’, it is seen as a ‘British icon’ and funding has been a central issue in national election campaigns since 2001, when Tony Blair was confronted by an irate voter, Sharon Storer, outside a hospital. In its first election manifesto of 1997, ‘New Labour’ promised to safeguard the basic principles of the NHS, which we founded. The ‘we’ here was the post-war Labour government, whose socialist Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, had established the service in the teeth of considerable opposition from within both parliament and the medical profession. ‘New Labour’ protested that under the Tories there had been fifty thousand fewer nurses but a rise of no fewer than twenty thousand managers – red tape which Labour would pull away and burn. Though critical of the internal markets the Tories had introduced, Blair promised to keep a split between those who commissioned health services and those who provided them.

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Under Frank Dobson, Labour’s new Health Secretary, there was little reform of the NHS but there was, year by year, just enough extra money to stave off the winter crises. But then a series of tragic individual cases hit the headlines, and one of them came from a Labour peer and well-known medical scientist and fertility expert, Professor Robert Winston, who was greatly admired by Tony Blair. He launched a furious denunciation of the government over the treatment of his elderly mother. Far from upholding the NHS’s iconic status, Winston said that Britain’s health service was the worst in Europe and was getting worse under the New Labour government, which was being deceitful about the true picture. Labour’s polling on the issue showed that Winston was, in general terms, correct in his assessment in the view of the country as a whole. In January 2000, therefore, Blair announced directly to it that he would bring Britain’s health spending up to the European average within five years. That was a huge promise because it meant spending a third as much again in real terms, and his ‘prudent’ Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was unhappy that Blair had not spoken enough on television about the need for health service reform to accompany the money, and had also ‘stolen’ his budget announcements. On Budget day itself, Brown announced that until 2004 health spending would rise at above six per cent beyond inflation every year, …

… by far the largest sustained increase in NHS funding in any period in its fifty-year history … half as much again for health care for every family in this country.       

The tilt away from Brown’s sharp spending controls during the first three years of the New Labour government had begun by the first spring of the new millennium, and there was more to come. With a general election looming in 2001, Brown also announced a review of the NHS and its future by a former banker. As soon as the election was over, broad hints about necessary tax rises were dropped. When the Wanless Report was finally published, it confirmed much that the winter crisis of 1999-2000 had exposed. The NHS was not, whatever Britons fondly believed, better than health systems in other developed countries, and it needed a lot more money. ‘Wanless’ also rejected a radical change in funding, such as a switch to insurance-based or semi-private health care. Brown immediately used this as objective proof that taxes had to rise in order to save the NHS. In his next budget of 2002, Brown broke with a political convention that which had reigned since the mid-eighties, that direct taxes would not be raised again. He raised a special one per cent national insurance levy, equivalent to a penny on income tax, to fund the huge reinvestment in Britain’s health.

Public spending shot up with this commitment and, in some ways, it paid off, since by 2006 there were around 300,000 extra NHS staff compared to 1997. That included more than ten thousand extra senior hospital doctors (about a quarter more) and 85,000 more nurses. But there were also nearly forty thousand managers, twice as many as Blair and Brown had ridiculed the Tory government for hiring. An ambitious computer project for the whole NHS became an expensive catastrophe. Meanwhile, the health service budget rose from thirty-seven billion to more than ninety-two billion a year. But the investment produced results, with waiting lists, a source of great public anger from the mid-nineties, falling by 200,000. By 2005, Blair was able to talk of the best waiting list figures since 1988. Hardly anyone was left waiting for an inpatient appointment for more than six months. Death rates from cancer for people under the age of seventy-five fell by 15.7 per cent between 1996 and 2006 and death rates from heart disease fell by just under thirty-six per cent. Meanwhile, the public finance initiative meant that new hospitals were being built around the country. But, unfortunately for New Labour, that was not the whole story of the Health Service under their stewardship. As Andrew Marr has attested,

…’Czars’, quangos, agencies, commissions, access teams and planners hunched over the NHS as Whitehall, having promised to devolve power, now imposed a new round of mind-dazing control.

By the autumn of 2004 hospitals were subject to more than a hundred inspections. War broke out between Brown and the Treasury and the ‘Blairite’ Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, about the basic principles of running the hospitals. Milburn wanted more competition between them, but Brown didn’t see how this was possible when most people had only one major local hospital. Polling suggested that he was making a popular point. Most people simply wanted better hospitals, not more choice. A truce was eventually declared with the establishment of a small number of independent, ‘foundation’ hospitals. By the 2005 general election, Michael Howard’s Conservatives were attacking Labour for wasting money and allowing people’s lives to be put at risk in dirty, badly run hospitals. Just like Labour once had, they were promising to cut bureaucracy and the number of organisations within the NHS. By the summer of 2006, despite the huge injection of funds, the Service was facing a cash crisis. Although the shortfall was not huge as a percentage of the total budget, trusts in some of the most vulnerable parts of the country were on the edge of bankruptcy, from Hartlepool to Cornwall and across to London. Throughout Britain, seven thousand jobs had gone and the Royal College of Nursing, the professional association to which most nurses belonged, was predicting thirteen thousand more would go soon. Many newly and expensively qualified doctors and even specialist consultants could not find work. It seemed that wage costs, expensive new drugs, poor management and the money poured into endless bureaucratic reforms had resulted in a still inadequate service. Bupa, the leading private operator, had been covering some 2.3 million people in 1999. Six years later, the figure was more than eight million. This partly reflected greater affluence, but it was also hardly a resounding vote of confidence in Labour’s management of the NHS.

Public Spending, Declining Regions & Economic Development:

As public spending had begun to flow during the second Blair administration, vast amounts of money had gone in pay rises, new bureaucracies and on bills for outside consultants. Ministries had been unused to spending again, after the initial period of ‘prudence’, and did not always do it well. Brown and his Treasury team resorted to double and triple counting of early spending increases in order to give the impression they were doing more for hospitals, schools and transport than they actually could. As Marr has pointed out, …

… In trying to achieve better policing, more effective planning, healthier school food, prettier town centres and a hundred other hopes, the centre of government ordered and cajoled, hassled and harangued, always high-minded, always speaking for ‘the people’.  

The railways, after yet another disaster, were shaken up again. In very controversial circumstances Railtrack, the once-profitable monopoly company operating the lines, was driven to bankruptcy and a new system of Whitehall control was imposed. At one point, Tony Blair boasted of having five hundred targets for the public sector. Parish councils, small businesses and charities found that they were loaded with directives. Schools and hospitals had many more. Marr has commented, …

The interference was always well-meant but it clogged up the arteries of free decision-taking and frustrated responsible public life. 

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Throughout the New Labour years, with steady growth and low inflation, most of the country grew richer. Growth since 1997, at 2.8 per cent per year, was above the post-war average, GDP per head was above that of France and Germany and the country had the second lowest jobless figures in the EU. The number of people in work increased by 2.4 million. Incomes grew, in real terms, by about a fifth. Pensions were in trouble, but house price inflation soured, so the owners found their properties more than doubling in value and came to think of themselves as prosperous. By 2006 analysts were assessing the disposable wealth of the British at forty thousand pounds per household. However, the wealth was not spread geographically, averaging sixty-eight thousand in the south-east of England, but a little over thirty thousand in Wales and north-east England (see map above). But even in the historically poorer parts of the UK house prices had risen fast, so much so that government plans to bulldoze worthless northern terraces had to be abandoned when they started to regain value. Cheap mortgages, easy borrowing and high property prices meant that millions of people felt far better off, despite the overall rise in the tax burden. Cheap air travel gave the British opportunities for easy travel both to traditional resorts and also to every part of the European continent. British expatriates were able to buy properties across the French countryside and in southern Spain. Some even began to commute weekly to jobs in London or Manchester from Mediterranean villas, and regional airports boomed as a result.

Sir Tim Berners Lee arriving at the Guildhall to receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of LondonThe internet, also known as the ‘World-Wide Web’, which was ‘invented’ by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee at the end of 1989 (pictured right in 2014), was advancing from the colleges and institutions into everyday life by the mid- ‘noughties’. It first began to attract popular interest in the mid-nineties: Britain’s first internet café and magazine, reviewing a few hundred early websites, were both launched in 1994. The following year saw the beginning of internet shopping as a major pastime, with both ‘eBay’ and ‘Amazon’ arriving, though to begin with they only attracted tiny numbers of people.

But the introduction of new forms of mail-order and ‘click and collect’ shopping quickly attracted significant adherents from different ‘demographics’.  The growth of the internet led to a feeling of optimism, despite warnings that the whole digital world would collapse because of the inability of computers to cope with the last two digits in the year ‘2000’, which were taken seriously at the time. In fact, the ‘dot-com’ bubble was burst by its own excessive expansion, as with any bubble, and following a pause and a lot of ruined dreams, the ‘new economy’ roared on again. By 2000, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), around forty per cent of Britons had accessed the internet at some time. Three years later, nearly half of British homes were ‘online’. By 2004, the spread of ‘broadband’ connections had brought a new mass market in ‘downloading’ music and video. By 2006, three-quarters of British children had internet access at home.

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Simultaneously, the rich of America, Europe and Russia began buying up parts of London, and then other ‘attractive’ parts of the country, including Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Yorkshire and Cornwall. ‘Executive housing’ with pebbled driveways, brick facing and dormer windows, was growing across farmland and by rivers with no thought of flood-plain constraints. Parts of the country far from London, such as the English south-west and Yorkshire, enjoyed a ripple of wealth that pushed their house prices to unheard-of levels. From Leith to Gateshead, Belfast to Cardiff Bay, once-derelict shorefront areas were transformed. The nineteenth-century buildings in the Albert Dock in Liverpool (above) now house a maritime museum, an art gallery, shopping centre and television studio. It has also become a tourist attraction. For all the problems and disappointments, and the longer-term problems with their financing, new schools and public buildings sprang up – new museums, galleries, vast shopping complexes (see below), corporate headquarters in a biomorphic architecture of glass and steel, more imaginative and better-looking than their predecessors from the dreary age of concrete.

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Supermarket chains exercised huge market power, offering cheap meat and dairy products into almost everyone’s budgets. Factory-made ready-meals were transported and imported by the new global air freight market and refrigerated trucks and lorries moving freely across a Europe shorn of internal barriers. Out-of-season fruit and vegetables, fish from the Pacific, exotic foods of all kinds and freshly cut flowers appeared in superstores everywhere. Hardly anyone was out of reach of a ‘Tesco’, a ‘Morrison’s’, a ‘Sainsbury’s’ or an ‘Asda’. By the mid-noughties, the four supermarket giants owned more than 1,500 superstores throughout the UK. They spread the consumption of goods that in the eighties and nineties had seemed like luxuries. Students had to take out loans in order to go to university but were far more likely to do so than previous generations, as well as to travel more widely on a ‘gap’ year, not just to study or work abroad.

Those ‘Left Behind’ – Poverty, Pensions & Public Order:

Materially, for the majority of people, this was, to use Marr’s term, a ‘golden age’, which perhaps helps to explain both why earlier real anger about earlier pension decisions and stealth taxes did not translate into anti-Labour voting in successive general elections. The irony is that in pleasing ‘Middle Englanders’, the Blair-Brown government lost contact with traditional Labour voters, especially in the North of Britain, who did not benefit from these ‘golden years’ to the same extent. Gordon Brown, from the first, made much of New Labour’s anti-poverty agenda, and especially child poverty. Since the launch of the Child Poverty Action Group, this latter problem had become particularly emotive. Labour policies took a million children out of relative poverty between 1997 and 2004, though the numbers rose again later. Brown’s emphasis was on the working poor and the virtue of work. So his major innovations were the national minimum wage, the ‘New Deal’ for the young unemployed, and the working families’ tax credit, as well as tax credits aimed at children. There was also a minimum income guarantee and a later pension credit, for poorer pensioners.

The minimum wage was first set at three pounds sixty an hour, rising year by year. In 2006 it was 5.35 an hour. Because the figures were low, it did not destroy the two million jobs as the Tories claimed it would. Neither did it produce higher inflation; employment continued to grow while inflation remained low. It even seemed to have cut red tape. By the mid-noughties, the minimum wage covered two million people, the majority of them women. Because it was updated ahead of rises in inflation rates, the wages of the poor also rose faster. It was so successful that even the Tories were forced to embrace it ahead of the 2005 election. The New Deal was funded by a windfall tax on privatised utility companies, and by 2000 Blair said it had helped a quarter of a million young people back into work, and it was being claimed as a major factor in lower rates of unemployment as late as 2005. But the National Audit Office, looking back on its effect in the first parliament, reckoned the number of under twenty-five-year-olds helped into real jobs was as low as 25,000, at a cost per person of eight thousand pounds. A second initiative was targeted at the babies and toddlers of the most deprived families. ‘Sure Start’ was meant to bring mothers together in family centres across Britain – 3,500 were planned for 2010, ten years after the scheme had been launched – and to help them to become more effective parents. However, some of the most deprived families failed to show up. As Andrew Marr wrote, back in 2007:

Poverty is hard to define, easy to smell. In a country like Britain, it is mostly relative. Though there are a few thousand people living rough or who genuinely do not have enough to keep them decently alive, and many more pensioners frightened of how they will pay for heating, the greater number of poor are those left behind the general material improvement in life. This is measured by income compared to the average and by this yardstick in 1997 there were three to four million children living in households of relative poverty, triple the number in 1979. This does not mean they were physically worse off than the children of the late seventies, since the country generally became much richer. But human happiness relates to how we see ourselves relative to those around us, so it was certainly real. 

The Tories, now under new management in the shape of a media-marketing executive and old Etonian, David Cameron, also declared that they believed in this concept of relative poverty. After all, it was on their watch, during the Thatcher and Major governments, that it had tripled, which is why it was only towards the end of the New Labour governments that they could accept the definition of the left-of-centre Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee. A world of ‘black economy’ work also remained below the minimum wage, in private care homes, where migrant servants were exploited, and in other nooks and crannies. Some 336,000 jobs remained on ‘poverty pay’ rates. Yet ‘redistribution of wealth’, a socialist phrase which had become unfashionable under New Labour lest it should scare away middle Englanders, was stronger in Brown’s Britain than in other major industrialised nations. Despite the growth of the super-rich, many of whom were immigrants anyway, overall equality increased in these years. One factor in this was the return to the means-testing of benefits, particularly for pensioners and through the working families’ tax credit, subsequently divided into a child tax credit and a working tax credit. This was a U-turn by Gordon Brown, who had opposed means-testing when in Opposition. As Chancellor, he concluded that if he was to direct scarce resources at those in real poverty, he had little choice.

Apart from the demoralising effect it had on pensioners, the other drawback to means-testing was that a huge bureaucracy was needed to track people’s earnings and to try to establish exactly what they should be getting in benefits. Billions were overpaid and as people did better and earned more from more stable employment, they then found themselves facing huge demands to hand back the money they had already spent. Thousands of extra civil servants were needed to deal with the subsequent complaints and the scheme became extremely expensive to administer. There were also controversial drives to oblige more disabled people back to work, and the ‘socially excluded’ were confronted by a range of initiatives designed to make them more middle class. Compared with Mrs Thatcher’s Victorian Values and Mr Major’s Back to Basics campaigns, Labour was supposed to be non-judgemental about individual behaviour. But a form of moralism did begin to reassert itself. Parenting classes were sometimes mandated through the courts and for the minority who made life hell for their neighbours on housing estates, Labour introduced the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (‘Asbo’). These were first given out in 1998, granted by magistrates to either the police or the local council. It became a criminal offence to break the curfew or other sanction, which could be highly specific. Asbos could be given out for swearing at others in the street, harassing passers-by, vandalism, making too much noise, graffiti, organising ‘raves’, flyposting, taking drugs, sniffing glue, joyriding, prostitution, hitting people and drinking in public.

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Although they served a useful purpose in many cases, there were fears that for the really rough elements in society and their tough children they became a badge of honour. Since breaking an Asbo could result in an automatic prison sentence, people were sent to jail for crimes that had not warranted this before. But as they were refined in use and strengthened, they became more effective and routine. By 2007, seven and a half thousand had been given out in England and Wales alone and Scotland had introduced its own version in 2004. Some civil liberties campaigners saw this development as part of a wider authoritarian and surveillance agenda which also led to the widespread use of CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) cameras by the police and private security guards, especially in town centres (see above). Also in 2007, it was estimated that the British were being observed and recorded by 4.2 million such cameras. That amounted to one camera for every fourteen people, a higher ratio than for any other country in the world, with the possible exception of China. In addition, the number of mobile phones was already equivalent to the number of people in Britain. With global satellite positioning chips (GPS) these could show exactly where their users were and the use of such systems in cars and even out on the moors meant that Britons were losing their age-old prowess for map-reading.

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The ‘Seven Seven’ Bombings – The Home-grown ‘Jihadis’:

Despite these increasing means of mass surveillance, Britain’s cities have remained vulnerable to terrorist attacks, more recently by so-called ‘Islamic terrorists’ rather than by the Provisional IRA, who abandoned their bombing campaign in 1998. On 7 July 2005, at rush-hour, four young Muslim men from West Yorkshire and Buckinghamshire, murdered fifty-two people and injured 770 others by blowing themselves up on London Underground trains and on a London bus. The report into this worst such attack in Britain later concluded that they were not part of an al Qaeda cell, though two of them had visited camps in Pakistan, and that the rucksack bombs had been constructed at the cost of a few hundred pounds. Despite the government’s insistence that the war in Iraq had not made Britain more of a target for terrorism, the Home Office investigation asserted that the four had been motivated, in part at least, by ‘British foreign policy’.

They had picked up the information they needed for the attack from the internet. It was a particularly grotesque attack, because of the terrifying and bloody conditions in the underground tunnels and it vividly reminded the country that it was as much a target as the United States or Spain. Indeed, the long-standing and intimate relationship between Great Britain and Pakistan, with constant and heavy air traffic between them, provoked fears that the British would prove uniquely vulnerable. Tony Blair heard of the attack at the most poignant time, just following London’s great success in winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games (see above). The ‘Seven Seven’ bombings are unlikely to have been stopped by CCTV surveillance, of which there was plenty at the tube stations, nor by ID cards (which had recently been under discussion), since the killers were British subjects, nor by financial surveillance, since little money was involved and the materials were paid for in cash. Even better intelligence might have helped, but the Security Services, both ‘MI5’ and ‘MI6’ as they are known, were already in receipt of huge increases in their budgets, as they were in the process of tracking down other murderous cells. In 2005, police arrested suspects in Birmingham, High Wycombe and Walthamstow, in east London, believing there was a plot to blow up as many as ten passenger aircraft over the Atlantic.

After many years of allowing dissident clerics and activists from the Middle East asylum in London, Britain had more than its share of inflammatory and dangerous extremists, who admired al Qaeda and preached violent jihad. Once 11 September 2001 had changed the climate, new laws were introduced to allow the detention without trial of foreigners suspected of being involved in supporting or fomenting terrorism. They could not be deported because human rights legislation forbade sending back anyone to countries where they might face torture. Seventeen were picked up and held at Belmarsh high-security prison. But in December 2004, the House of Lords ruled that these detentions were discriminatory and disproportionate, and therefore illegal. Five weeks later, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke hit back with ‘control orders’ to limit the movement of men he could not prosecute or deport. These orders would also be used against home-grown terror suspects. A month later, in February 2005, sixty Labour MPs rebelled against these powers too, and the government only narrowly survived the vote. In April 2006 a judge ruled that the control orders were an affront to justice because they gave the Home Secretary, a politician, too much power. Two months later, the same judge ruled that curfew orders of eighteen hours per day on six Iraqis were a deprivation of liberty and also illegal. The new Home Secretary, John Reid, lost his appeal and had to loosen the orders.

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Britain found itself in a struggle between its old laws and liberties and a new, borderless world in which the hallowed principles of ‘habeas corpus’, free speech, a presumption of innocence, asylum, the right of British subjects to travel freely in their own country without identifying papers, and the sanctity of homes in which the law-abiding lived were all coming under increasing jeopardy. The new political powers seemed to government ministers the least that they needed to deal with a threat that might last for another thirty years in order, paradoxically, to secure Britain’s liberties for the long-term beyond that. They were sure that most British people agreed, and that the judiciary, media, civil rights campaigners and elected politicians who protested were an ultra-liberal minority. Tony Blair, John Reid and Jack Straw were emphatic about this, and it was left to liberal Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to mount the barricades in defence of civil liberties. Andrew Marr conceded at the time that the New Labour ministers were ‘probably right’. With the benefit of hindsight, others will probably agree. As Gordon Brown eyed the premiership, his rhetoric was similarly tough, but as Blair was forced to turn to the ‘war on terror’ and Iraq, he failed to concentrate enough on domestic policy. By 2005, neither of them could be bothered to disguise their mutual enmity, as pictured above. A gap seemed to open up between Blair’s enthusiasm for market ideas in the reform of health and schools, and Brown’s determination to deliver better lives for the working poor. Brown was also keen on bringing private capital into public services, but there was a difference in emphasis which both men played up. Blair claimed that the New Labour government was best when we are at our boldest. But Brown retorted that it was best when we are Labour. 

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Tony Blair’s legacy continued to be paraded on the streets of Britain,

here blaming him and George Bush for the rise of ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq.

Asylum Seekers, EU ‘Guest’ Workers & Immigrants:

One result of the long Iraqi conflict, which President Bush finally declared to be over on 1 May 2003, was the arrival of many Iraqi asylum-seekers in Britain; Kurds, as well as Shiites and Sunnis. This attracted little comment at the time because there had been both Iraqi and Iranian refugees in Britain since the 1970s, especially as students and the fresh influx were only a small part of a much larger migration into the country which changed it fundamentally during the Blair years. This was a multi-lingual migration, including many Poles, some Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans whose countries had joined the EU and its single market in 2004. When the EU expanded Britain decided that, unlike France or Germany, it would not try to delay opening the country to migrant workers. The accession treaties gave nationals from these countries the right to freedom of movement and settlement, and with average earnings three times higher in the UK, this was a benefit which the Eastern Europeans were keen to take advantage of. Some member states, however, exercised their right to ‘derogation’ from the treaties, whereby they would only permit migrant workers to be employed if employers were unable to find a local candidate. In terms of European Union legislation, a derogation or that a member state has opted not to enforce a specific provision in a treaty due to internal circumstances (typically a state of emergency), and to delay full implementation of the treaty for five years. The UK decided not to exercise this option.

There were also sizeable inflows of western Europeans, though these were mostly students, who (somewhat controversially) were also counted in the immigration statistics, and young professionals with multi-national companies. At the same time, there was continued immigration from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as from Russia, Australia, South Africa and North America. In 2005, according to the Office for National Statistics, ‘immigrants’ were arriving to live in Britain at the rate of 1,500 a day. Since Tony Blair had been in power, more than 1.3 million had arrived. By the mid-2000s, English was no longer the first language of half the primary school children in London, and the capital had more than 350 different first languages. Five years later, the same could be said of many towns in Kent and other Eastern counties of England.

The poorer of the new migrant groups were almost entirely unrepresented in politics, but radically changed the sights, sounds and scents of urban Britain, and even some of its market towns. The veiled women of the Muslim world or its more traditionalist Arab, Afghan and Pakistani quarters became common sights on the streets, from Kent to Scotland and across to South Wales. Polish tradesmen, fruit-pickers and factory workers were soon followed by shops owned by Poles or stocking Polish and East European delicacies and selling Polish newspapers and magazines. Even road signs appeared in Polish, though in Kent these were mainly put in place along trucking routes used by Polish drivers, where for many years signs had been in French and German, a recognition of the employment changes in the long-distance haulage industry. Even as far north as Cheshire (see below), these were put in place to help monolingual truckers using trunk roads, rather than local Polish residents, most of whom had enough English to understand such signs either upon arrival or shortly afterwards. Although specialist classes in English had to be laid on in schools and community centres, there was little evidence that the impact of multi-lingual migrants had a long-term impact on local children and wider communities. In fact, schools were soon reporting a positive impact in terms of their attitudes toward learning and in improving general educational standards.

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Problems were posed, however, by the operations of people smugglers and criminal gangs. Chinese villagers were involved in a particular tragedy when nineteen of them were caught while cockle-picking in Morecambe Bay by the notorious tides and drowned. Many more were working for ‘gang-masters’ as virtual, in some cases actual ‘slaves’. Russian voices became common on the London Underground, and among prostitutes on the streets. The British Isles found themselves to be ‘islands in the stream’ of international migration, the chosen ‘sceptred isle’ destinations of millions of newcomers. Unlike Germany, Britain was no longer a dominant manufacturing country but had rather become, by the late twentieth century, a popular place to develop digital and financial products and services. Together with the United States and against the Soviet Union, it was determined to preserve a system of representative democracy and the free market. Within the EU, Britain maintained its earlier determination to resist the Franco-German federalist model, with its ‘social chapter’ involving ever tighter controls over international corporations and ever closer political union. Britain had always gone out into the world. Now, increasingly, the world came to Britain, whether poor immigrants, rich corporations or Chinese manufacturers.

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Multilingual & Multicultural Britain:

Immigration had always been a constant factor in British life, now it was also a fact of life which Europe and the whole world had to come to terms with. Earlier post-war migrations to Britain had provoked a racialist backlash, riots, the rise of extreme right-wing organisations and a series of new laws aimed at controlling it. New laws had been passed to control both immigration from the Commonwealth and the backlash to it. The later migrations were controversial in different ways. The ‘Windrush’ arrivals from the Caribbean and those from the Indian subcontinent were people who looked different but who spoke the same language and in many ways had had a similar education to that of the ‘native’ British. Many of the later migrants from Eastern Europe looked similar to the white British but shared little by way of a common linguistic and cultural background. However, it’s not entirely true to suggest, as Andrew Marr seems to, that they did not have a shared history. Certainly, through no fault of their own, the Eastern Europeans had been cut off from their western counterparts by their absorption into the Soviet Russian Empire after the Second World War, but in the first half of the century, Poland had helped the British Empire to subdue its greatest rival, Germany, as had most of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Even during the Soviet ‘occupation’ of these countries, many of their citizens had found refuge in Britain.

Moreover, by the early 1990s, Britain had already become both a multilingual nation. In 1991, Safder Alladina and Viv Edwards published a book for the Longman Linguistics Library which detailed the Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and Yiddish speech communities of previous generations. Growing up in Birmingham, I certainly heard many Polish, Yiddish, Yugoslav and Greek accents among my neighbours and parents of school friends, at least as often as I heard Welsh, Irish, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani accents. The Longman book begins with a foreword by Debi Prasanna Pattanayak in which she stated that the Language Census of 1987 had shown that there were 172 different languages spoken by children in the schools of the Inner London Education Authority. In an interesting precursor of the controversy to come, she related how the reaction in many quarters was stunned disbelief, and how one British educationalist had told her that England had become a third world country. She commented:

After believing in the supremacy of English as the universal language, it was difficult to acknowledge that the UK was now one of the greatest immigrant nations of the modern world. It was also hard to see that the current plurality is based on a continuity of heritage. … Britain is on the crossroads. It can take an isolationist stance in relation to its internal cultural environment. It can create a resilient society by trusting its citizens to be British not only in political but in cultural terms. The first road will mean severing dialogue with the many heritages which have made the country fertile. The second road would be working together with cultural harmony for the betterment of the country. Sharing and participation would ensure not only political but cultural democracy. The choice is between mediocrity and creativity.

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Language and dialect in the British Isles, showing the linguistic diversity in many English cities by 1991 as a result of Commonwealth immigration as well as the survival and revival of many of the older Celtic languages and dialects of English.

Such ‘liberal’, ‘multi-cultural’ views may be unfashionable now, more than a quarter of a century later, but it is perhaps worth stopping to look back on that cultural crossroads, and on whether we are now back at that same crossroads, or have arrived at another one. By the 1990s, the multilingual setting in which new Englishes evolved had become far more diverse than it had been in the 1940s, due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, the Far East, and West and East Africa. The largest of the ‘community languages’ was Punjabi, with over half a million speakers, but there were also substantial communities of Gujurati speakers (perhaps a third of a million) and a hundred thousand Bengali speakers. In some areas, such as East London, public signs and notices recognise this (see below). Bengali-speaking children formed the most recent and largest linguistic minority within the ILEA and because the majority of them had been born in Bangladesh, they were inevitably in the greatest need of language support within the schools. A new level of linguistic and cultural diversity was introduced through Commonwealth immigration.

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Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s. By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards of North and Central Birmingham (see the map above).  After the hostility towards New Commonwealth immigrants in some sections of the local White populations in the 1960s and ’70s, they had become more established in cities like Birmingham, where places of worship, ethnic groceries, butchers and, perhaps most significantly, ‘balti’ restaurants, began to proliferate in the 1980s and ’90s. The settlers materially changed the cultural and social life of the city, most of the ‘white’ population believing that these changes were for the better. By 1991, Pakistanis had overtaken West Indians and Indians to become the largest single ethnic minority in Birmingham. The concentration of West Indian and South Asian British people in the inner city areas changed little by the end of the century, though there was an evident flight to the suburbs by Indians. As well as being poorly-paid, the factory work available to South Asian immigrants like the man in a Bradford textile factory below, was unskilled. By the early nineties, the decline of the textile industry over the previous two decades had let to high long-term unemployment in the immigrant communities in the Northern towns, leading to serious social problems.

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Nor is it entirely true to suggest that, as referred to above, Caribbean arrivals in Britain faced few linguistic obstacles integrating themselves into British life from the late 1940s to the late 1980s. By the end of these forty years, the British West Indian community had developed its own “patois”, which had a special place as a token of identity. One Jamaican schoolgirl living in London in the late eighties explained the social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, but which made it almost obligatory in London. She wasn’t allowed to speak Jamaican Creole in front of her parents in Jamaica. When she arrived in Britain and went to school, she naturally tried to fit in by speaking the same patois, but some of her British Caribbean classmates told her that, as a “foreigner”, she should not try to be like them, and should speak only English. But she persevered with the patois and lost her British accent after a year and was accepted by her classmates. But for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylized form that was not truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had come from all parts of the Caribbean. When another British West Indian girl, born in Britain, was taken to visit Jamaica, she found herself being teased about her London patois and told to speak English.

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The predicament that still faced the ‘Black British’ in the late eighties and into the nineties was that, for all the rhetoric, they were still not fully accepted by the established ‘White community’. Racism was still an everyday reality for large numbers of British people. There was plenty of evidence of the ways in which Black people were systematically denied access to employment in all sections of the job market.  The fact that a racist calamity like the murder in London of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence could happen in 1993 was a testimony to how little had changed in British society’s inability to face up to racism since the 1950s. As a result, the British-Caribbean population could still not feel itself to be neither fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips has called “The Final Passage”, the title of his novel which is narrated in Standard English with the direct speech by the characters rendered in Creole. Phillips migrated to Britain as a baby with his parents in the 1950s, and sums up his linguistic and cultural experience as follows:

“The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic shizophrenia – you have an identity that mirrors the larger cultural confusion.”

One of his older characters in The Final Passage characterises “England” as a “college for the West Indian”, and, as Philipps himself put it, that is “symptomatic of the colonial situation; the language is divided as well”.  As the “Windrush Scandal”, involving the deportation of British West Indians from the UK has recently shown, this post-colonial “cultural confusion” still ‘colours’ political and institutional attitudes twenty-five years after the death of Stephen Lawrence, leading to discriminatory judgements by officials. This example shows how difficult it is to arrive at some kind of chronological classification of migrations to Britain into the period of economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s; the asylum-seekers of the 1970s and 1980s; and the EU expansion and integration in the 1990s and the first decades of the 2000s. This approach assumed stereotypical patterns of settlement for the different groups, whereas the reality was much more diverse. Most South Asians, for example, arrived in Britain in the post-war period but they were joining a migration ‘chain’ which had been established at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, most Eastern European migrants arrived in Britain in several quite distinct waves of population movement. This led the authors of the Longman Linguistics book to organise it into geolinguistic areas, as shown in the figure below:

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The Poles and Ukrainians of the immediate post-war period, the Hungarians in the 1950s, the Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and the Tamils in the 1980s, sought asylum in Britain as refugees. In contrast, settlers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean, had, in the main come from areas of high unemployment and/or low wages, for economic reasons. It was not possible, even then, to make a simple split between political and economic migrants since, even within the same group, motivations differed through time. The Eastern Europeans who had arrived in Britain since the Second World War had come for a variety of reasons; in many cases, they were joining earlier settlers trying either to escape poverty in the home country or to better their lot. A further important factor in the discussion about the various minority communities in Britain was the pattern of settlement. Some groups were concentrated into a relatively small geographical area which made it possible to develop and maintain strong social networks; others were more dispersed and so found it more difficult to maintain a sense of community. Most Spaniards, Turks and Greeks were found in London, whereas Ukrainians and Poles were scattered throughout the country. In the case of the Poles, the communities outside London were sufficiently large to be able to sustain an active community life; in the case of Ukrainians, however, the small numbers and the dispersed nature of the community made the task of forging a separate linguistic and cultural identity a great deal more difficult.

Groups who had little contact with the home country also faced very real difficulties in retaining their distinct identities. Until 1992, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians and Estonians were unable to travel freely to their country of origin; neither could they receive visits from family members left behind; until the mid-noughties, there was no possibility of new immigration which would have the effect of revitalizing these communities in Britain. Nonetheless, they showed great resilience in maintaining their ethnic minority, not only through community involvement in the UK but by building links with similar groups in Europe and even in North America. The inevitable consequence of settlement in Britain was a shift from the mother tongue to English. The extent of this shift varied according to individual factors such as the degree of identification with the mother tongue culture; it also depended on group factors such as the size of the community, its degree of self-organisation and the length of time it had been established in Britain. For more recently arrived communities such as the Bangladeshis, the acquisition of English was clearly a more urgent priority than the maintenance of the mother tongue, whereas, for the settled Eastern Europeans, the shift to English was so complete that mother tongue teaching was often a more urgent community priority. There were reports of British-born Ukrainians and Yiddish-speaking Jews who were brought up in predominantly English-speaking homes who were striving to produce an environment in which their children could acquire their ‘heritage’ language.

Blair’s Open Door Policy & EU Freedom of Movement:

During the 1980s and ’90s, under the ‘rubric’ of multiculturalism, a steady stream of immigration into Britain continued, especially from the Indian subcontinent. But an unspoken consensus existed whereby immigration, while always gradually increasing, was controlled. What happened after the Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997 was a breaking of that consensus, according to Douglas Murray, the author of the recent (2017) book, The Strange Death of Europe. He argues that once in power, Tony Blair’s government oversaw an opening of the borders on a scale unparalleled even in the post-war decades. His government abolished the ‘primary purpose rule’, which had been used as a filter out bogus marriage applications. The borders were opened to anyone deemed essential to the British economy, a definition so broad that it included restaurant workers as ‘skilled labourers’. And as well as opening the door to the rest of the world, they opened the door to the new EU member states after 2004. It was the effects of all of this, and more, that created the picture of the country which was eventually revealed in the 2011 Census, published at the end of 2012.

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The numbers of non-EU nationals moving to settle in Britain were expected only to increase from 100,000 a year in 1997 to 170,000 in 2004. In fact, the government’s predictions for the number of new arrivals over the five years 1999-2004 were out by almost a million people. It also failed to anticipate that the UK might also be an attractive destination for people with significantly lower average income levels or without a minimum wage. For these reasons, the number of Eastern European migrants living in Britain rose from 170,000 in 2004 to 1.24 million in 2013. Whether the surge in migration went unnoticed or was officially approved, successive governments did not attempt to restrict it until after the 2015 election, by which time it was too late.

(to be continued)

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Berlin 1948: Spring Crises, Midsummer Madness, Blockades & Airlifts.   Leave a comment

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By the spring of 1948, the ideological division of Europe into two rival camps was almost complete, except in Germany and the two capital cities of Vienna and Berlin, where Britain, France, the USSR and the USA each governed a separate sector. Agreements had been formalised in the autumn of 1945, guaranteeing the Western Allies free access to Berlin. The former capital of Germany was a special case in the four-power joint occupation and control of the country, a hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, and therefore a key strategic point for the Soviets to apply pressure on the Western Allies. Road and rail lines were designated for the supply of those areas of the city occupied by them. Air corridors across the Soviet zone between Berlin and the western sectors of Germany had also been agreed, and for three years there was free movement along the accepted routes of access to the city. Britain, America and France relied on the road, rail and canal links into the city, but in the spring of 1948, the Soviet authorities decided to make use of this vulnerability by making access from the west more difficult.

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Added to these issues, Berlin had been subjected to an around-the-clock air bombardment in the war and the city had also endured a heavy artillery bombardment by the Red Army during the final battle. The destruction was almost total: whole districts had been flattened; entire apartment blocks had been demolished and almost every building in the city bore signs of damage. Food was perpetually in short supply and the official currency, the Reichsmark, had gradually become worthless. The black market was flourishing, and the cigarette had become the form of currency. The citizens had, literally, to dig into the rubble to find something with which they could barter in order to scratch out a living. They were joined by refugees arriving in the city, who faced an even more desperate struggle for food, warmth and light.

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In January 1948 the British cabinet had discussed the situation in Germany. In the previous year, the three Western Allies had joined their zones of occupation together into one Western zone. Stalin had watched these events with mistrust. The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had presented a paper to his government that argued for slow movement towards a West German government, and for action on currency reform to undercut the rampant black market. Bevin thought of Britain as an intermediary between the French, who were still fearful of German recovery, and the Americans, who were increasingly frustrated by what they saw as French obstructionism. The French were haunted by an ancient rivalry with Germany and bitter memories of recent defeat and occupation. On 23rd February representatives from the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, along with the United States, met in London to plan for the new West German entity, and for the participation of Germany in the Marshall Plan. News of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia added impetus to the urgency for creating the new state. On 12th March, the Soviet leadership was advised by its spies in the Foreign Office in London that the Western powers are transforming Germany into their strongpoint and incorporating it into a military-political bloc aimed at the Soviet Union. Molotov accused the Allies of violating the agreements of Potsdam and announced that decisions made at the London conference were invalid.

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007 (2)Worse was to follow on 20th March 1948, at a routine Allied Council meeting, when Marshal Vassily Sokolovsky, the Soviet military governor in Germany pressed his US and British counterparts for information about the secret London conference, already knowing, of course, exactly what had happened. When General Lucius D. Clay, the US military governor told him that they were not going to discuss the London meetings, Sokolovsky demanded to know what the point was of having a ‘Control Council’ at all. The Soviets then got up and walked out of the meeting, effectively ending joint control of Germany.

As a result, around Berlin, the Soviet authorities began applying a range of petty bureaucratic obstacles to the free movement of people and supplies in and out of the city.

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Restrictions were placed on the use of the ‘autobahn’ between Berlin and the British sector to the west. The bridge over the Elbe at Hohenwarte, the only other road-crossing point, was closed for “maintenance.” The British offered to send engineers to build another to build another bridge, but Sokolovsky turned down the offer. The Soviets announced that they would search military passengers and their cargo on the rail lines, and stated that no freight shipments between Berlin and the western zones could be made without Soviet permission. On 1st April the Soviets halted two American and two British trains after their commanders refused access to Soviet inspectors. All this amounted to what was later called the “mini-blockade.” General Clay ordered a “baby airlift” to fly into Berlin enough supplies for forty-five days.

 

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On 5th April a Vickers Viking of British European Airways took from an airfield in West Germany on a scheduled flight into RAF Gatow, one of the Allied air bases in West Berlin. As it came into Berlin, in one of the agreed twenty-mile-wide air corridors, the Viking was buzzed by a Soviet Yak-3 fighter plane. It was not the first time this had happened. For a few days, Soviet fighters had been carrying out mock attacks on Allied planes flying into Berlin. But this time, as the British transport plane took evasive action, it collided with the Yak fighter. Both planes crashed to the ground, killing all ten people on board the BEA plane and the pilot of the Soviet fighter. The Soviets blamed the British for the collision, and the British blamed the Soviet pilot. A joint investigation of the accident broke down when the Soviets refused to allow German witnesses to testify. The British and Soviets separately concluded that the mid-air collision was an accident, but thereafter both sides were more nervous that such accidents could bring open conflict.

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008With the situation in Berlin now alarmingly tense, the confrontation between the Soviets and the West spilt over into Berlin’s internal politics. The Berlin City Council was the scene of a fierce power struggle between the East German Communists and their political foes, led by Ernst Reuter, a powerful orator, and his Social Democrats. Reuter had been forced to leave Germany by the Nazis but had returned in 1946. hoping to rebuild the country as a democratic state. His election in 1948 as Mayor of Berlin (the whole city) was vetoed by the Soviets and the East German Communists, whose agents operated in both East and West Berlin, using a combination of intimidation, blackmail and kidnapping to get their way.

As far as the Soviets were concerned, East Germany was Stalin’s by right of conquest; for the West Berliners it was, and remained (until 1972), the Soviet occupation zone, SBZ. The old pre-war Kommunist Partei Deutschlands, boosted by sizeable numbers of Soviet-German agents who had spent the war in Moscow and had been sent back to Berlin as early as May 1945, merged forcibly with the socialists and created a new party, Socialist Unity, led by Walter Ulbricht. It took over the main offices of state and reduced the civil service and the other political parties which remained to the status of mere figureheads. Its constitution made it clear that all fundamental human rights were subject to the concrete conditions under which the proletarian revolution must triumph (Article 19). 

Although, by 1948, the Soviets had forced the Eastern ‘zone’ of Germany to accept Communism, in the Western zone elections they never gained more than eight per cent support for the Communists, and despite the level of intimidation, the Communists had failed to gain control of Berlin.  Around Berlin, tensions had worsened. Soviet military authorities threatened to close down the rail traffic with the West. By 15th June canal boats and freight trains were the only means left of supplying the city. In this explosive situation, the Western Allies decided to introduce their new currency, which was announced on 18th June. Sokolovsky immediately issued a proclamation denouncing their action as being…

against the wishes and interests of the German people and in the interests of the American, British and French monopolists … The separate currency reform completes the splitting of Germany. It is a breach of the Potsdam decisions.

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Sokolovsky also prohibited the introduction of the Western Deutschmark (above left) into the Soviet zone and into Berlin. On 22nd June, the Soviets announced that they would be introducing their own currency, the Ostmark (right) for the Eastern zone and, they hoped, the whole of Berlin. The Western military commanders declared the Soviet order null and void for West Berlin and introduced the B-mark, a special Deutschmark overprinted with the letter ‘B’, for the Western sectors of Berlin. General Clay, who made the decision without consulting Washington, insisted it was a technical, non-political measure. But Sokolovsky announced that the Western mark would not be permitted to circulate in Berlin, which lies in the Soviet zone of Germany and economically forms part of the Soviet zone. General Clay assured his staff that he was not concerned by these developments:

If they had put in a currency reform and we didn’t, it would have been (our) first move.   

007Over the next twelve hours, Berlin endured an extraordinary spate of ‘midsummer madness’. On the evening of 23rd June, at a meeting of the Berlin City Council, which was located in the Soviet sector of the city, Reuter tried to persuade the Assembly to approve the circulation of both the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. As thugs beat up non-Communists to intimidate them from supporting Reuter’s proposal, Soviet officials and Communist-controlled police stood by and watched. Nevertheless, the Berlin Assembly voted to accept the Deutschmark in the Western sectors and the Ostmark in the Soviet sector.

Sokolovsky rang Molotov to ask what he should do; should he surround Berlin with tanks? Molotov told him not to, as this might provoke the Western powers into doing the same, and then the only way out of such an impasse would be through military confrontation. They decided instead to impose an immediate blockade around Berlin, and at 6:00 a.m. on 24th June, the barriers were lowered on all road, rail and canal routes linking Berlin with West Germany. The reason given was “technical difficulties.” That same morning, electricity from power stations in the Soviet sector was cut off to factories and offices in West Berlin. The official reason given was “coal shortages.” So the blockade of Berlin began. The Soviets’ purpose was clear; either the Western Allies must change their policies or be forced out of Berlin altogether. General Clay clearly identified this purpose:

When Berlin falls, Western Germany will be next. If we withdraw our position in Berlin, Europe is threatened … Communism will run rampant.

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Berlin was effectively cut off from the West, with only enough food and fuel to last six weeks. In both London and Washington, there was a clear determination that the Western powers would hold on to West Berlin. President Truman vowed; We are going to stay, period and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that the abandonment of Berlin would mean the loss of Western Europe. It was easy to make such statements, but much more difficult to decide what to do next. West Berlin did indeed have a symbolic status as an outpost of the democratic West inside the Communist East, but by an agreement made at the time of Potsdam, the Soviet authorities were not obliged to supply the British, American and French sectors of the city. So 2.3 million Berliners, and the Allied military garrison there were now cut off. The Western part of the city relied upon the arrival of twelve thousand tons of supplies each day. At the time, there was only enough food for thirty-six days, and enough coal for forty-five. The key to keeping a Western presence in Berlin clearly lay in finding a way to supply the citizens with their bare necessities. With rail, road and canal routes blocked, the only way to get supplies in was by air. However, the American C-47 transport, the military ‘workhorse’ of the day, could only deliver a payload of three tons. Initially, the prospect for an airlift to Berlin appeared to be bleak.

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On 24 June, the West had introduced a counter-blockade, stopping all raid traffic into eastern Germany from the British and US zones. Over the following months, this counter-blockade was to have a damaging effect on the East, as the drying up of coal and steel shipments seriously hindered industrial development in the Soviet zone. On that same day, General Clay rang General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in Wiesbaden and asked him to put on standby his fleet of C-47s and any other aircraft that could be utilised. The RAF had come forward with an ambitious plan to supply Berlin by air, but Clay was sceptical. He favoured sending a convoy of US military engineers down the autobahn to force their way through the Soviet blockade, with instructions to fire back if they were fired upon. But in Washington, Truman’s advisers urged caution and restraint. The president was backed into a corner as it was an election year; the American people would never support going to war with the Soviet Union just to defend Berlin, the capital of a country they had been at war with only three years earlier. At the same time, Truman had to be seen championing a firm line with the Soviets, so he made no final decision that day, but Clay was told by telephone that the president did not want any action taken in Berlin which might lead to possible armed conflict.

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Although both the British and Americans had experience with major air supply operations, neither had ever attempted anything on this scale. Clay warned Reuter that to begin with there would be severe shortages and hardships; initially, he did not believe that the Allies could fly in more than five hundred tons a day. Reuter assured him that the Allies could count on the West Berliners to grin and bear it. Then, without consulting Washington, Clay authorised the start of the airlift. On 26th June, the first American transport planes flew into Berlin from air bases in West Germany, following three narrow air corridors through the Soviet zone. The first flight brought in eighty tons of milk, flour and medicine. The Americans code-named the airlift Operation Vittles; to the British, it was Operation Plainfare. To begin with, about eighty C-47s flew two daily round trips into RAF Gatow and Tempelhof, air bases in the British and American sectors of Berlin. Soon the Americans were bringing fifty C-54 Skymasters, four-engined transports each containing nine tons, three times the payload of the C-47s. The Allies organised willing gangs of workers to unload the aircraft and turn them around quickly. Over time these workers learned to empty each plane in just seven minutes. The citizens of Berlin became increasingly confident that the Allies would be able to save their city. They had had few problems delivering bombs, they reminded each other, so why wouldn’t be able to deliver potatoes?

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The Royal Air Force had fewer service aircraft available for the operation, and spare planes of any type were soon pressed into the airlift. British business executive Freddie Laker had begun to buy and sell aircraft parts after the war, and by 1948 he owned twelve converted Halifax bombers. He was asked to make them available for supplying Berlin and provided a team of pilots and engineers as well. As the operation grew over succeeding months, it grew into a ‘crusade for freedom’, with the pilots determined to keep Berlin alive, despite the hazards of flying old, rickety aircraft, often buzzed by Soviet fighters and frequently at risk when flying heavy loads in bad weather. Bevin set up a crisis-management team in London to supervise the effort, and early expectations were soon exceeded, as roughly a thousand tons per day were flown into the besieged city. The irony was not lost on many of the veteran fliers involved; instead of destroying Berlin, they were now keeping it alive.

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In July, General Clay returned to Washington for talks with President Truman. He still favoured a military a military convoy to break the blockade, for he believed that the Soviets would back down rather than confronting the West. However, Truman did not want to chance it. If they chose not to let the convoy through, there would be war. Instead, Truman guaranteed more C-54s, and the two men talked of doubling the airlift to two thousand tons daily. The American intelligence community, knowing that the Soviets still had two and a half million men at arms, was convinced that in a conventional military confrontation the Red Army would walk right over the US forces. At the same time, they were equally confident that the Kremlin would not sanction direct military conflict with the Western powers, which might provoke the Americans to use nuclear weapons, as they had in Japan. To stop the airlift, the USSR would have had to shoot down British and American planes. Stalin was frightened by the USA’s nuclear capability, since, as yet, the Soviet Union had not developed its own capacity. Perhaps because of this overall military superiority, General Clay remained convinced that the Soviets would not risk a military confrontation:

The chances of war are 1 in 10. The Russians know they would be licked. If they cut our air route, they know it is an act of war.

Besides, the Soviet Union was not yet secure within its own accepted sphere of influence. Yugoslavia split away from the Eastern camp, a defection that made the Kremlin even more nervous about its support among its satellites, especially after events in Czechoslovakia in February and March of the same year. On 28th June, only four days after launching the blockade against Berlin, Moscow expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform and called on other Communist parties to isolate Marshal Tito, its charismatic partisan leader who had taken power after the war without Stalin’s help or support. An economic blockade was organised against Yugoslavia that caused great hardship, but Belgrade stood firm. Rejected by the Eastern ‘bloc’, Tito turned, albeit slowly and a little reluctantly, towards the West. Although not technically a member of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia went on to receive $150 million in aid from the United States. Threatened with invasion by Stalin, Yugoslavia remained the only independent state in Europe throughout the Cold War and a ‘thorn in the side’ of the USSR. Any attempt of an Eastern bloc country to establish its independence from Moscow was labelled ‘Titoism’, a heresy to be rooted out and purged.

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Back in the ‘Berlin Crisis’ during July, attempts were made through diplomatic channels to bring about a settlement. On 2nd August, the British, American, and French ambassadors had a private meeting with Stalin to test his willingness to find a peaceful solution. Stalin made it clear that from the Soviet point of view the currency question was crucial, together with the London agreement to create a united West Germany. He argued that if there were now two German states then Berlin was no longer the capital, making the Western presence in the city no longer relevant. Stalin stated that the USSR was not seeking conflict with the West and would lift the blockade as soon as the West withdrew the B-mark from circulation and agreed to reinstate joint four-power rule over Germany. In point of fact, there was little that the Soviets could do in the face of the West’s superiority in the air and its determination to keep up the airlift. What became clear to the Western ambassadors was that the Soviet blockade had only one principal purpose: to prevent the creation of a West German state.

Pictured Above: On 19th August, A C-47 Dakota comes in for a landing while a huge C-74 Globemaster from Frankfurt unloads 23 tons of flour for the people of Berlin. With some difficulty, the enormous plane landed on a new runway at Gatow in the British zone. Below: Inside the Globemaster.

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Throughout the summer of 1948, the British and American governments constantly reviewed their options. Military thinking concluded that the airlift could hardly continue through the winter; that October was to be the cut-off point. The British chiefs of staff prepared a contingency plan to withdraw their troops to the Rhine in case of an emergency. In Washington, the air force commanders were convinced that the airlift was doomed to fail and concluded that there was a high likelihood of war with the Soviets over Berlin. The question which arose from this for the administration was whether the United States would be willing to use nuclear weapons in the developing crisis, for there was still no clear policy emanating from the White House. Truman argued with his Pentagon chiefs that because they were so terribly destructive, atomic weapons could not be treated as conventional weaponry. He urged the military leaders…

to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people.

In September, the US National Security Council produced a secret report designated as NSC-30: United States Policy on Atomic Welfare. This required the military to be ready to utilize promptly a and effectively all appropriate means available, including atomic weapons, in the interests of national security and to plan accordingly.  However, any decision about the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the president, when he considers such decisions to be required. Truman endorsed NC-30. In a briefing with his chief air force commanders, he…

prayed he would never have to make such a decision, but … if it became necessary, no one need have misgiving but he would do so.

015

In a dramatic gesture that summer, a fleet of sixty B-29 ‘Superfortress’ bombers was flown into the United Kingdom. These were the latest American heavy bombers, designed to carry atomic weapons. The deployment of the B-29s established the US Strategic Air Command in the UK, and the arrival of “the atomic bombers” was widely publicised. The threat of nuclear retaliation was now made explicit. After a brief debate, at the height of the Berlin crisis, the British Government had formally invited Washington to station the bombers in Britain. The invitation neatly fudged the issue as to who would have his finger on the nuclear trigger; the US Air Force bombers would respond to orders from the United States, but their bases would be technically under the command of the RAF.

002

This theoretical ambivalence lasted for more than forty years. I remember going on a CND march to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk to demonstrate against the presence of the US bombers, and their bombs, in 1976. But in practice the real decision, if it ever came to that, would always be made as NSC-30 directed, by the president of the United States. The planes, in fact, carried no atomic weapons, but this was a closely guarded secret. There were not enough atomic warheads in existence to equip the B-29s in Britain. Their arrival was mainly a signal to Moscow that the West meant business over Berlin, and Washington took advantage of the crisis to get congressional approval for permanent overseas bases.  The British Government knew that the B-29s carried no atomic weapons, and through spies at the London Foreign Office, Moscow also, almost certainly knew too. The British, German and Russian people, of course, did not.

014

Meanwhile, the Berlin airlift was proving more successful than anyone ever expected. Tens of thousands of Berliners helped build a new airport at Tegel to reduce congestion at the other two airfields. With capacity for more flights, the Americans added another sixty C-54s to their fleet. Clay now spoke of bringing in 4,500 tons each day. By September, aircraft were landing in Berlin every three minutes, day and night. On 18th September, 861 British and American flights delivered a record seven thousand tons in a single day. By this date roughly two hundred thousand tons of supplies had been delivered, the ‘split’ between the USAF and the RAF being about sixty-forty in percentage terms. Coal, flour, drums of petrol, potatoes, medical supplies were all brought in by air. It began to look as if the airlift would be able to supply the city through the winter, after all. But West Berliners were still fearful that the West might not continue the airlift. On 6th September, another meeting of the City Council in East Berlin had been broken up by Communist agitators with violence and intimidation. The Western representatives decided that the Council was no longer functional, so they left and agreed to meet separately in West Berlin. Three days later, a huge gathering of three hundred thousand Berliners, mostly from the western zones, collected outside the ruins of the Reichstag (below). Standing on a pile of rubble, Reuter addressed the huge crowds, calling upon the Western governments not to abandon Berlin.

016

By October, many West Berliners were getting desperate. They were allowed only small amounts of fat, spam (tinned meat), potatoes, cereal and bread. Berlin’s people needed four thousand tons of supplies a day to survive. People had got used to the rationing, and even to feeling cold, since electricity was only available four hours a day. But the blockade was not, in any case, absolute, so a minority of West Berliners were able to register for food rations with the Soviet authorities, and about one in ten of them were, therefore, able to draw food and coal from the East. As there was no restriction on travel within the city, so many West Berliners regularly visited the eastern part of the city, where there were well-lit and heated dance halls.

001

The airlift became almost a way of life. Although expensive, its cost represented only a fraction of the total cost of American aid to Europe. Despite bad weather and constant harassment by Soviet fighters, the transports continued to bring their cargoes into West Berlin. By December, the goal of 4,500 tons flown in each day was reached. At Gatow and Tempelhof flights landed every ninety seconds. Enough coal was freighted in to keep West Berliners from freezing. The gamble had paid off. Production in the city picked up and output grew rapidly. The feared economic collapse did not materialise.

Below (left): A German child’s drawing commemorates the airlift: “We thank the pilots for their work and effort.” Right: A new game, “Airlift.”

017 (2)

By the spring of 1949, the weather improved considerably. Food supplies in Berlin could be built up and fuel stocks maintained at a sufficient level. The airlift ensured that eight thousand tons were being flown in each day. In one twenty-four hour period, on Easter Sunday, April 1949, a record number of 1,398 flights came into  Berlin, carrying a total of thirteen thousand tons of supplies. In all, two million tons of supplies had been flown in since the airlift began. As the counter-blockade of eastern Germany hurt more and more, the Soviets took the only course left open to them and tried to end the whole Berlin debacle. The Kremlin indicated that it would consider ending its blockade with minimal conditions imposed: The counter-blockade would have to be lifted and the Council of Foreign Ministers reconvened. The bellicose General Clay quietly returned to Washington, ceasing to be military governor and claiming that, in any case, after the tensions of the preceding year he needed a break. On 12th May 1949, the blockade was finally lifted, and the Western military authorities reciprocated by lifting their counter-blockade. Both sides claimed victory and Berliners were jubilant; many thought this would be the end of the conflict between the Great Powers. In reality, the blockades had resulted in the end of the war-time alliance and in the formation of two Berlins: West and East. Added to that, as the heavy transports continued to fly their daily missions, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany was being drafted. Stalin’s attempt to prevent the division of Germany had failed. President Truman commented:

When we refused to be forced out of Berlin, we demonstrated to Europe that we would act when freedom was threatened. This action was a Russian plan to probe the soft spots in the Western Allies’ positions.

018

Above: RIAS, Radio in the American Sector, American-financed, with a mix of popular music and upbeat news, kept up Berliners’ morale. Presenter and entertainer Christina Ohlsen became a celebrity.

The West did, indeed, secure a major propaganda victory through the airlift. It was a reminder to the Soviet Union, and the whole international community, of Western technological superiority, especially in the air. Conversely, the Berlin crisis showed the Soviets in a poor light: they seemed to be willing to threaten 2.3 million people with starvation. The Soviet view of the events was, not surprisingly, quite different:

The crisis was planned in Washington, behind a smoke-screen of anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1948 there was the danger of war. The conduct of the Western powers risked bloody incidents. The self-blockade of the Western powers hit the West Berlin population with harshness. The people were freezing and starving. In the spring of 1949 the USA was forced to yield … their war plans had come to nothing, because of the conduct of the Soviet Union.

019

The Soviets, operating outside the framework of American loan credits and facing the Western alliance, saw themselves to be increasingly threatened. We now know that Stalin privately felt far weaker than was known at the time, but in 1948 many in the West genuinely believed that Stalin planned to dominate the entire European continent. The US policy of ‘containment’ meant confronting Communism at all agreed critical points, and Berlin was one of these. Old wartime loyalties to Russia were being replaced by fear of Soviet ambitions; a “them and us” syndrome had emerged. As US Secretary of State, George C Marshall observed,…

There has been a definite crystallization of American public and Congressional opinion over the Berlin issue. … The country is more unified in its determination not to weaken in the face of pressure of an illegal blockade than on any other issue we can recall in time of peace.  

001

The Berlin blockade made clear to most Americans that the new enemy was definitely the Soviet Union. The Blockade and Airlift was the first open struggle between East and West. The tactics were designed not to start a war, but to threaten to go to war if necessary. This set the pattern for future Cold War conflicts, including further tensions over Berlin. 

Source:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

 

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