Archive for the ‘devolution’ Category

Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1992-1997.   Leave a comment

Epilogue to the Eighties & Prologue to the Nineties:

I can recall the real sense of optimism which resulted from the end of the Cold War, formally ending with President Gorbachev’s announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. Although never an all-out global war, it had resulted in the deaths of up to forty million people throughout the world, involving more than a hundred and fifty smaller ‘proxy’ conflicts. Moreover, we had lived under a continual sense of doom, that it was only a matter of time until our brief, young lives would be snuffed out by a nuclear apocalypse. Now, politicians and journalists in the West talked of a coming ‘peace dividend’ and the end of the surveillance, spy and secret state in both east and west. The only continuing threat to British security came from the Provisional IRA. They hit Downing Street with a triple mortar attack in February 1991, coming close to killing the new Prime Minister, John Major, and his team of ministers and officials directing the Gulf War.

Margaret ThatcherBy the time Margaret Thatcher left office in tears on 28 November 1990, ‘Thatcherism’ was also a spent force, though its influence lingered on until at least the end of the century, and not just among Conservatives. Only a minority even among the ‘party faithful’ had been true believers and the Tory MPs would have voted her out had her cabinet ministers not beaten them to it. As Andrew Marr has written, History is harshest to a leader just as they fall. She had been such a strident presence for so long that many who had first welcomed her as a ‘gust’ of fresh air now felt the need for gentler breezes. Those who wanted a quieter, less confrontational leader found one in John Major.

Yet most people, in the end, had done well under her premiership, not just the ‘yuppies’ but also her lower-middle-class critics who developed their own entrepreneurial sub-cultures rather than depending on traditional sponsorship from arts councils and local authorities. By the early nineties, Britons were on average much wealthier than they had been in the late seventies and enjoyed a wider range of holidays, better food, and a greater variety of television channels and other forms of home entertainment. Nor was everything the Thatcher governments did out of tune with social reality. The sale of council houses which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Sales of state utilities, on the other hand, presupposed a hunger for stakeholdership that was much less deeply rooted in British habits, and the subsequently mixed fortunes of those stocks did nothing to help change those habits. Most misguided of all was the decision to implement the ‘poll tax’ as a regressive tax. In the end, Thatcher’s 1987-90 government became just the latest in a succession of post-war British governments that had seen their assumptions rebound on them disastrously. This ‘trend’ was to continue under John Major. The upper middle-class ‘Victorian Values’ of the grocer’s daughter from Grantham were replaced by the ‘family values’ of the lower middle-class garden gnome salesman from Brixton, only for him to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

The single most important event of the early nineties in Britain, possibly globally too, had nothing to do with politics and diplomacy or warfare and terrorism, at least not in the nineties. Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, invented the World Wide Web, or the Internet. His idea was for a worldwide ‘hypertext’, the computer-aided reading of electronic documents to allow people to work together remotely., sharing their knowledge in a ‘web’ of documents. His creation of it would give the internet’s hardware its global voice. He was an Oxford graduate who had made his first computer with a soldering iron, before moving to CERN, the European Physics laboratory, in Switzerland in 1980, the world’s largest scientific research centre. Here he wrote his first programme in 1989 and a year later he proposed his hypertext revolution which arrived in CERN in December 1990. The ‘internet’ was born the following summer. He chose not to patent his creation so that it would be free to everyone.

The Election of 1992 – A Curious Confidence Trick?:

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John Major called an election for April 1992. Under a pugnacious Chris Patten, now Party chairman, the Tories targeted Labour’s enthusiasm for high taxes. During the campaign itself, Major found himself returning to his roots in Brixton and mounting a ‘soap-box’, from which he addressed raucous crowds through a megaphone. John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, was given the task of covering Major’s own campaign, and on 15 March he travelled to Sawley, in the PM’s constituency of Huntingdon, where Major was due to Meet the People. I have written elsewhere about the details of this, and his soap-box campaign, as reported by Simpson. Although Simpson described it as ‘a wooden construction of some kind’, Andrew Marr claims it was ‘a plastic container’. Either way, it has gone down in political history, together with the megaphone, as the prop that won him the election. The stark visual contrast achieved with the carefully stage-managed Labour campaign struck a chord with the media and he kept up an act that his father would have been proud of, playing the underdog to Neil Kinnock’s government in waiting. Right at the end, at an eve of poll rally in Sheffield, Kinnock’s self-control finally gave way and he began punching the air and crying “y’awl’ right!” as if he were an American presidential candidate. It was totally ‘cringe-worthy’ TV viewing, alienating if not repulsing swathes of the very middle England voters he needed to attract.

On 9 April 1992 Major’s Conservatives won fourteen million votes, more than any party in British political history. It was a great personal victory for the ‘new’ Prime Minister, but one which was also based on people’s fears of higher taxes under a Labour government. It was also one of the biggest victories in percentage terms since 1945, though the vagaries of the electoral system gave the Tories a majority of just twenty-one seats in parliament. Neil Kinnock was even more devastated than he had been in 1987 when he had not been expected to defeat Thatcher. The only organ of the entire British press which had called the election correctly was the Spectator. Its editor, Dominic Lawson, headlined the article which John Simpson wrote for him The Curious Confidence of Mr Major so that the magazine seemed to suggest that the Conservatives might pull off a surprise win. Simpson himself admitted to not having the slightest idea who would win, though it seemed more likely to him that Labour would. Yet he felt that John Major’s own apparent certainty was worth mentioning. When the results started to become clear on that Friday morning, 10 April, the Spectator stood out favourably from the shelves of newsagents, surrounded by even the late, or early editions of newspapers and magazines which had all been predicting a Labour victory.

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The only politician possibly more disappointed than Neil Kinnock, who immediately left front-line politics, was Chris Patten, who had been the real magician behind Major’s remarkable victory. He lost his seat to the Liberals in marginal Bath and went off to become the final governor of Hong Kong ahead of the long-agreed handover of Britain’s last colony in 1997. Kinnock, a former long-term opponent of Britain’s membership of the EEC/ EC went off to Brussels to become a European Commissioner. Despite his triumph in the popular vote, never has such a famous victory produced so rotten an outcome for the victors. The smallness of Major’s majority meant that his authority could easily be eaten away in the Commons. As a consequence, he would not go down as a great leader in parliamentary posterity, though he remained popular in the country as a whole for some time, if not with the Thatcherites and Eurosceptic “bastards” in his own party.  Even Margaret Thatcher could not have carried through her revolutionary reforms after the 1979 and 1983 elections with the kind of parliamentary arithmetic which was dealt her successor. In Rugby terms, although the opposition’s three-quarters had been foiled by this artful dodger of a full-back, he had been dealt a ‘hospital pass’ by his own side. For the moment, he had control of the slippery ball, but he was soon to be forced back into series of crushing rucks and mauls among his own twenty-stone forwards.

 John Smith – Labour’s lost leader and his legacy:

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After Neil Kinnock gave up the Labour leadership following his second electoral defeat in 1992, he was replaced by John Smith (pictured above), a placid, secure, self-confident Scottish lawyer. As Shadow Chancellor, he had been an effective cross-examiner of Nigel Lawson, John Major and Norman Lamont and had he not died of a heart attack in 1994, three years ahead of the next election, most political pundits agreed that, following the tarnishing of the Major administration in the mid-nineties, he would have become Prime Minister at that election. Had he done so, Britain would have had a traditional social democratic government, much like those of continental Europe. He came from a family of herring fishermen on the West Coast of Scotland, the son of a headmaster. Labour-supporting from early youth, bright and self-assured, he got his real political education at Glasgow University, part of a generation of brilliant student debaters from all parties who would go on to dominate Scottish and UK politics including, in due succession, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander. Back in the early sixties, Glasgow University Labour Club was a hotbed not of radicals, but of Gaitskell-supporting moderates. This was a position that Smith never wavered from, as he rose as one of the brightest stars of the Scottish party, and then through government under Wilson and Callaghan as a junior minister dealing with the oil industry and devolution before entering cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, its youngest member at just forty. In opposition, John Smith managed to steer clear of the worst in-fighting, eventually becoming Kinnock’s shadow chancellor. In Thatcher’s England, however, he was spotted as a tax-raising corporatist of the old school. One xenophobic letter he received brusquely informed him:

You’ll not get my BT shares yet, you bald, owl-looking Scottish bastard. Go back to Scotland and let that other twit Kinnock go back to Wales.

Smith came from an old-fashioned Christian egalitarian background which put him naturally out of sympathy with the hedonistic culture of southern England.  Just before he became Labour leader he told a newspaper he believed above all in education, because…

 … it opens the doors of the imagination, breaks down class barriers and frees people. In our family … money was looked down on and education was revered. I am still slightly contemptuous of money.

Smith was never personally close to Kinnock but was scrupulously loyal to him as his leader, he nevertheless succeeded him by a huge margin in 1992. By then he had already survived a serious cardiac arrest and had taken up hill-walking. Though Smith swiftly advanced the careers of his bright young lieutenants, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they soon became disappointed by his view that the Labour party needed simply to be improved, not radically transformed. In particular, he was reluctant to take on the party hierarchy and unions over issues of internal democracy, such as the introduction of a one-member, one-vote system for future leadership elections. He was sure that Labour could regain power with a revival of its traditional spirit. At one point, Tony Blair was so dispirited by Smith’s leadership style that he considered leaving politics altogether and going back to practising law. Smith died of a second heart attack on 12 May 1994. After the initial shock and grief subsided, Labour moved rapidly away from his policy of ‘gradualism’ towards ‘Blairite’ transformation. One part of his legacy still remains, however, shaping modern Britain today. As the minister who had struggled to achieve devolution for Scotland in 1978-9, he remained a passionate supporter of the ‘unfinished business’ of re-establishing the Holyrood Parliament and setting up a Welsh Assembly. With his friend Donal Dewar he had committed Labour so utterly to the idea in Opposition, despite Kinnock’s original strong anti-nationalist stance, that Blair, no great fan of devolution himself, found that he had to implement Smith’s unwelcome bequest to him.

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty:

The crisis that soon engulfed the Major government back in the early autumn of 1992 was a complicated economic one. From August 1992 to July 1996 I was mainly resident in Hungary, and so, although an economic historian, never really understood the immediate series of events that led to it or the effects that followed. This was still in pre-internet days, so I had little access to English language sources, except via my short-wave radio and intermittent newspapers bought during brief visits to Budapest. I had also spent most of 1990 and half of 1991 in Hungary, so there were also longer-term gaps in my understanding of these matters. I have written about them in earlier articles in this series, dealing with the end of the Thatcher years. Hungary itself was still using an unconvertible currency throughout the nineties, which only became seriously devalued in 1994-96, and when my income from my UK employers also fell in value, as a family we decided to move back to Britain to seek full-time sterling salaries. The first thing that happened was that they lost their fiscal policy in a single day when the pound fell out of the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism). In his memoirs, John Major described the effect of this event in stark terms:

Black Wednesday – 16 September 1992, the day the pound toppled out of the ERM – was a political and economic calamity. It unleashed havoc in the Conservative Party and it changed the political landscape of Britain.

For Major and his government, the point was that as the German central bank had a deserved reputation for anti-inflationary rigour, having to follow or ‘shadow’ the mark meant that Britain had purchased a respected off-the-shelf policy. Sticking to the mighty mark was a useful signal to the rest of the world that this government, following all the inflationary booms of the seventies and eighties, was serious about controlling inflation. On the continent, however, the point of the ERM was entirely different, intended to lead to a strong new single currency that the countries of central Europe would want to join as members of an enlarged EC/EU. So a policy which Margaret Thatcher had earlier agreed to, in order to bring down British inflation, was now a policy she and her followers abhorred since it drew Britain ever closer towards a European superstate in the ‘Delors Plan’. This was a confused and conflicted state of affairs for most of the Tories, never mind British subjects at home and abroad.

The catalyst for sterling’s fall was the fall in the value of the dollar, pulling the pound down with it. Worse still, the money flowed into the Deutschmarks, which duly rose; so the British government raised interest rates to an eye-watering ten per cent, in order to lift the pound. When this failed to work, the next obvious step would have been for the German central bank to cut their interest rates, lowering the value of the mark and keeping the ERM formation intact. This would have helped the Italian lira and other weak currencies as well as the pound. But since Germany had just reunited after the ‘fall of the wall’, the whole cost of bringing the poorer East Germans into line with their richer compatriots in the West led to a real fear of renewed inflation as well as to memories of the Berlin Crisis of 1948-49 and the hyperinflation of the Weimar period. So the Germans, regardless of the pain being experienced by Britain, Italy and the rest, wanted to keep their high-value mark and their high interest rates. Major put considerable and concerted pressure on Chancellor Kohl, warning of the danger of the Maastricht treaty failing completely since the Danes had just rejected it in a referendum and the French were also having a plebiscite. None of this had any effect on Kohl who, like a previous German Chancellor, would not move.

In public, the British government stuck to the line that the pound would stay in the ERM at all costs. It was not simply a European ‘joint-venture’ mechanism but had been part of the anti-inflation policy of both the Lawson and Major chancellorships. Then, the now PM had told the unemployed workers and the repossessed homeowners in Britain that if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working, so his credibility had been tied to the success of the ERM ever since. It had also been, as Foreign Secretary and now as Prime Minister, his foreign policy of placing Britain ‘at the heart of Europe’. It was his big idea for both economic and diplomatic survival in an increasingly ‘globalised’ environment. Norman Lamont, who as Chancellor was as committed as Major, told ‘the markets’ that Britain would neither leave the mechanism nor deviate from it by devaluing the pound. ERM membership was at the centre of our policy and there should not be one scintilla of doubt that it would continue. Major went even further, telling a Scottish audience that with inflation down to 3.7 per cent and falling, it would be madness to leave the ERM. He added that:

“The soft option, the devaluer’s option, the inflationary option, would be a betrayal of our future.”

However, then the crisis deepened with the lira crashing out of the ERM formation. International money traders, such as the Hungarian-born György Soros, began to turn their attention to the weak pound and carried on selling. They were betting that Major and Lamont would not keep interest rates so high that the pound could remain up there with the mark – an easy, one-way bet. In the real world, British interest rates were already painfully high. On the morning of ‘Black Wednesday’, at 11 a.m., the Bank of England raised them by another two points. This was to be agonising for home-owners and businesses alike, but Lamont said he would take whatever measures were necessary to keep the pound in the mechanism. Panic mounted and the selling continued: a shaken Lamont rushed round to tell Major that the interest rate hike had not worked, but Major and his key ministers decided to stay in the ERM. The Bank of England announced that interest would go up by a further three points, to fifteen per cent. Had it been sustained, this would have caused multiple bankruptcies across the country, but the third rise made no difference either. Eventually, at 4 p.m., Major phoned the Queen to tell her that he was recalling Parliament. At 7.30 p.m., Lamont left the Treasury to announce to the press and media in Whitehall that he was suspending sterling’s membership of the ERM and was reversing the day’s rise in interest rates.

Major considered resigning. It was the most humiliating moment in British politics since the IMF crisis of 1976, sixteen years earlier. But if he had done so Lamont would have had to go as well, leaving the country without its two most senior ministers in the midst of a terrible crisis. Major decided to stay on, though he was forever diminished by what had happened. Lamont also stayed at his post and was delighted as the economy began to respond to lower interest rates, and a slow recovery began. While others suffered further unemployment, repossession and bankruptcy, he was forever spotting the ‘green shoots’ of recovery. In the following months, Lamont created a new unified budget system and took tough decisions to repair the public finances. But as the country wearied of recession, he became an increasingly easy ‘butt’ of media derision. To Lamont’s complete surprise, Major sacked him as Chancellor a little over six months after Black Wednesday. Lamont retaliated in a Commons statement in which he said: We give the impression of being in office, but not in power. Major appointed Kenneth Clarke, one of the great characters of modern Conservatism, to replace him.

In the Commons, the struggle to ratify the Maastricht Treaty hailed as a great success for Major before the election, became a long and bloody one. Major’s small majority was more than wiped out by the number of ‘Maastricht rebels’, egged on by Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit. Black Wednesday had emboldened those who saw the ERM and every aspect of European federalism as disastrous for Britain. Major himself wrote in his memoirs that it turned …

… a quarter of a century of unease into a flat rejection of any wider involvement in Europe … emotional rivers burst their banks.

Most of the newspapers which had welcomed Maastricht were now just as vehemently against it. The most powerful Conservative voices in the media were hostile both to the treaty and to Major. His often leaded use of English and lack of ‘panache’ led many of England’s snobbish ‘High Tories’ to brand him shockingly ill-educated and third-rate as a national leader. A constantly shifting group of between forty to sixty Tory MPs regularly worked with the Labour opposition to defeat key parts of the Maastricht bill, so that Major’s day-to-day survival was always in doubt. Whenever, however, he called a vote of confidence and threatened his rebellious MPs with an election, he won. Whenever John Smith’s Labour Party and the Tory rebels could find some common cause, however thin, he was in danger of losing. In the end, Major got his legislation and Britain signed the Maastricht Treaty, but it came at an appalling personal and political cost. Talking in the general direction of an eavesdropping microphone, he spoke of three anti-European ‘bastards’ in his own cabinet, an obvious reference to Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley and John Redwood. The country watched a divided party tearing itself apart and was not impressed.

By the autumn of 1993, Norman Lamont was speaking openly about the possibility that Britain might have to leave the European Union altogether, and there were moves to force a national referendum. The next row was over the voting system to be used when the EU expanded. Forced to choose between a deal which weakened Britain’s hand and stopping the enlargement from happening at all by vetoing it, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd went for a compromise. All hell broke loose, as Tory MPs began talking of a leadership challenge to Major. This subsided, but battle broke out again over the European budget and fisheries policy. Eight MPs had their formal membership of the Tory Party withdrawn. By this point, John Smith’s sudden death had brought Tony Blair to the fore as leader of the Opposition. When Major readmitted the Tory rebels, Blair jibed: I lead my party, you follow yours. Unlike Lamont’s remark in the Commons, Blair’s comment struck a chord with the country.

The concluding chapter of the Thatcher Revolution:

While the central story of British politics in the seven years between the fall of Thatcher and the arrival to power of Blair was taken up by Europe, on the ‘home front’ the government tried to maintain the momentum of the Thatcher revolution. After many years of dithering, British Rail was divided up and privatised, as was the remaining coal industry. After the 1992 election, it was decided that over half the remaining coal mining jobs must go, in a closure programme of thirty-one pits to prepare the industry for privatization. This angered many Tory MPs who felt that the strike-breaking effect of the Nottinghamshire-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers in the previous decade deserved a better reward, and it aroused public protest as far afield as Cheltenham. Nevertheless, with power companies moving towards gas and oil, and the industrial muscle of the miners long-since broken, the closures and sales went ahead within the next two years, 1992-4. The economic effect on local communities was devastating, as the 1996 film Brassed Off shows vividly, with its memorable depiction of the social impact on the Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe and its famous Brass Band of the 1992 closure programme. Effectively, the only coalfields left working after this were those of North Warwickshire and South Derbyshire.

Interfering in the railway system became and remained a favourite ‘boys with toys’ hobby but a dangerous obsession of governments of different colours. Margaret Thatcher, not being a boy, knew that the railways were much too much part of the working life of millions to be lightly broken up or sold off. When Nicholas Ridley, as Transport Secretary, had suggested this, Thatcher is said to have replied:

“Railway privatisation will be the Waterloo of this government. Please never mention the railways to me again.”

It was taken up again enthusiastically by John Major. British Rail had become a national joke, loss-making, accident-prone, with elderly tracks and rolling stock, and serving curled-up sandwiches. But the challenge of selling off a system on which millions of people depended was obvious. Making it profitable would result in significant and unpopular fare rises and cuts in services. Moreover, different train companies could hardly compete with each other directly, racing up and down the same rails. There was, therefore, a binary choice between cutting up ‘BR’ geographically, selling off both trains and track for each region, so that the system would look much the way it was in the thirties, or the railway could be split ‘vertically’ so that the State would continue to own the track, while the stations and the trains would be owned by private companies. This latter solution was the one chosen by the government and a vast, complicated new system of subsidies, contracts, bids, pricing, cross-ticketing and regulation was created, but rather than keeping the track under public control, it too was to be sold off to a single private monopoly to be called Railtrack. Getting across the country would become a complicated proposition and transaction, involving two or three separate rail companies. A Franchise Director was to be given powers over the profits, timetables and ticket-pricing of the new companies, and a Rail Regulator would oversee the track. Both would report directly to the Secretary of State so that any public dissatisfaction, commercial problem or safety issue would ultimately be the responsibility of the government. This was a strange and pointless form of privatization which ended up costing the taxpayer far more than British Rail. The journalist Simon Jenkins concluded:

The Treasury’s treatment of the railway in the 1990s was probably the worst instance of Whitehall industrial management since the Second World War.

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One success story in the rail network was the completion of the Channel Tunnel link to France in 1994 (the Folkestone terminal is pictured above), providing a good example of the inter-relationship between transport links and general economic development. The Kent town of Ashford had a relationship with the railways going back to 1842, and the closure of the town’s railway works between 1981 and 1993 did not, however, undermine the local economy. Instead, Ashford benefited from the Channel Tunnel rail link, which made use of railway lines running through the town, and its population actually grew by ten per cent in the 1990s. The completion of the ‘Chunnel’ gave the town an international catchment area of eighty-five million within a single day’s journey. The opening of the Ashford International railway station, the main terminal for the rail link to Europe, attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were opened in and around the town itself, four greenfield sites were opened on the outskirts, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. As the map above shows, Ashford is now closer to Paris and Brussels in travelling time than it is to Manchester and Liverpool. By the end of the century, the town, with its position at the hub of a huge motorway network as well as its international rail link, was ready to become part of a truly international economy.

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Many of the improvements in transport infrastructure on both islands of Britain and Ireland were the result of EU funding, especially in Northern Ireland, and it was also having an impact on transport planning in Britain, with projects in the Highlands and Islands. In 1993 the EU decided to create a European-wide transport network. Of the fourteen priority associated with this aim, three are based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Northern Ireland and the ferry route to Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast rail route in Britain.

As a Brixton man, Major had experienced unemployment and was well prepared to take on the arrogant and inefficient quality of much so-called public service. But under the iron grip of the Treasury, there was little prospect for a revival of local democracy to take charge of local services again. This left a highly bureaucratic centralism as the only option left, one which gained momentum in the Thatcher years. Under Major, the centralised Funding Agency for Schools was formed and schools in England and Wales were ranked by crude league tables, depending on how well their pupils did in exams. The university system was vastly expanded by simply allowing colleges and polytechnics to rename themselves as universities. The hospital system was further centralised and given a host of new targets. The police, faced with a review of their pay and demands by the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke for their forces to be amalgamated, were given their own performance league tables. The Tories had spent seventy-four per cent more, in real terms, on law and order since 1979, yet crime was at an all-time high. Clarke’s contempt for many of the forces as ‘vested interests’ was not calculated to win them round to reform. Across England and Wales elected councillors were turfed off police boards and replaced by businessmen. In 1993 Clarke, the old Tory dog who had clearly learned new tricks during his time at the Department of Health where he was said to have castrated the regional health authority chairmen, defended his new police league tables in the ‘newspeak’ of governments yet to come:

The new accountability that we seek from our public services will not be achieved simply because men of good will and reasonableness wish that it be so. The new accountability is the new radicalism.

Across Britain, from the auditing of local government to the running of courts and the working hours of nurses, an army of civil servants, accountants, auditors and inspectors marched into workplaces. From time to time, ministers would weakly blame Brussels for the imposition of the cult of central control and measurement. But this was mostly a home-grown ‘superstate’. Major called this centralising policy the ‘Citizen’s Charter’, ignoring the fact that Britons are ‘subjects’ rather than citizens. He himself did not like the ‘headline’ very much because of its unconscious echoes of Revolutionary France. Every part of the government dealing with public service was ordered to come up with proposals for improvement at ‘grass-roots level’, to be pursued from the centre by questionnaires, league tables and a system of awards, called ‘Charter Marks’ for organizations that achieved the required standards. He spoke of ’empowering’, ‘helping the customer’ and ‘devolving’ and thought that regulation from the centre would not last long, rather like a Marxist-Leninist anticipating the ‘withering away’ of the state. In his case, though, this would come about as the effects of growing competition are felt. In practice, of course, the regulators grew more powerful, not less so. Despite the rhetoric, public servants were not being given real freedom to manage. Elected office-holders were being sacked. Major’s ‘withering away’ of the state was no more successful than Lenin’s.

Britain and Ireland – first steps on the road to peace:

009Above: US President Bill Clinton addressing a peace rally in Belfast during his visit in 1995. Clinton played a significant role as a ‘peace broker’ in negotiations leading up to ‘the Good Friday Agreement’.

In December 1993, John Major stood outside the steel-armoured door of Number Ten Downing Street with the ‘Taoiseach’ of the Irish Republic, Albert Reynolds. He declared a new principle which offended many traditional Conservatives and Unionists. If both parts of Ireland voted to be reunited, Britain would not stand in the way. She had, said Major, no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. He also stated that if the Provisional IRA, which had lately bombed the very building Major was standing in front of and murdered two young boys in Cheshire, renounced violence, Sinn Fein could be recognised as a legitimate political party. In the run-up to this Downing Street Declaration, which some saw as a betrayal of the Tory Party’s long-held dedication to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the government had been conducting ‘back channel’ negotiations with the terrorist organisation. In August 1994 the IRA finally declared a complete cessation of military operations which, though it stopped a long way short of renouncing the use of violence altogether, was widely welcomed and was followed a month later by a Loyalist ceasefire. A complicated choreography of three-strand talks, framework documents and discussions about the decommissioning of weapons followed, while on the streets, extortion, knee-capping and occasional ‘executions’ continued. But whereas the number of those killed in sectarian violence and bombings in 1993 had been eighty-four, the toll fell to sixty-one the following year, and in 1995 it was in single figures, at just nine deaths.

Long negotiations between London and Dublin led to cross-border arrangements. These negotiations had also involved the United States, where an influential pro-Irish lobby had helped to sustain the IRA campaign into the nineties through finance provided through ‘Noraid’. In the mid-nineties, President Clinton acted as a peace-broker, visiting Belfast in 1995 and helping to maintain the fragile cease-fire in the North. The contradictory demands of Irish Republicanism and Ulster Unionism meant that Major failed to get a final agreement, which was left to Tony Blair, with the ongoing help of the American ex-senator George Mitchell. The fact that in 1991 both countries had signed the Maastricht Treaty for closer political and economic unity in Europe, set a broader context for a bilateral agreement. However, while Irish political leaders eagerly embraced the idea of European integration, their British counterparts, as we have seen, remained deeply divided over it.

Economic decline/ growth & political resuscitation:

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The closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in May 1993 is an illuminating example of the impact of de-industrialisation. Swan Hunter was the last working shipyard in the region but had failed to secure a warship contract. An old, established firm, it was suffering some of the same long-term decline that decimated shipbuilding employment nationally to 26,000 by the end of a century. This devastated the local economy, especially as a bitter legal wrangle over redundancy payments left many former workers with no compensation whatever for the loss of what they had believed was employment for life. But the effects of de-industrialisation could spread much further than local communities. The closure of the shipyard, as shown in the map above, but the failure of the firm also had a ‘knock-on’ effect as suppliers as far afield as London and Glasgow lost valuable orders and, as a result, jobs.

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By 1994, employment in manufacturing in Britain had fallen to four million from the nine million it had reached at its peak in 1966. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the older industries of the Northwest worst, but the losses were proportionately as high in the Southeast, reflecting the decline in newer manufacturing industry. Across most of Britain and Ireland, there was also a decline in the number of manufacturing jobs continuing into and throughout the 1990s. The service sector, however, expanded, and general levels of unemployment, especially in Britain, fell dramatically in the nineties. Financial services showed strong growth, particularly in such places as London’s Docklands, with its new ‘light railway’, and Edinburgh. By the late nineties, the financial industry was the largest employer in northern manufacturing towns and cities like Leeds, which grew rapidly throughout the decade, aided by its ability to offer a range of cultural facilities that helped to attract an array of UK company headquarters. Manchester, similarly, enjoyed a renaissance, particularly in the spheres of music, the media and sport.

In July 1995, tormented by yet more rumours of right-wing conspiracies against him, Major riposted with a theatrical gesture of his own, resigning as leader of the Conservative Party and inviting all-comers to take him on. He told journalists gathered in the Number Ten garden that it was “put up or shut up time”. If he lost he would resign as Prime Minister. If he won, he would expect the party to rally around him. This was a gamble, since other potential leaders were available, not least Michael Heseltine, who had become Deputy Prime Minister, and Michael Portillo, then the pin-up boy of the Thatcherites, whose supporters prepared a campaign headquarters for him, only for him to then decide against standing. In the event, the challenger was John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales and a highly intelligent anti-EU right-winger. Major won his fight, though 109 Tory MPs refused to back him.

Fighting the return of Fascism in Europe:

Major was also having to deal with the inter-ethnic wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia, following the recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia as independent states in the early nineties. The worst violence occurred during the Serbian assault on Bosnia (I have written about the bloody 1992-94 Siege of Sarajevo, its capital, in an article elsewhere on this site based on John Simpson’s reporting). The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used for the first time as woeful columns of refugees fled in different directions. A nightmare which Europeans thought was over in 1945 was returning, only a couple of days’ drive away from London and half a day’s drive from where I was living on the southern borders of Hungary with Serbia and Croatia.

Six years after the siege, during a school visit to the Hague, I sat in the courtroom of the International War Crimes Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia and listened, in horror, to the testimonies of those who had been imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps during the Bosnian War. I couldn’t believe that what I was hearing had happened in the final decade of the twentieth century in Europe. Those on trial at that time were the prison camp guards who had carried out the atrocities, claiming what had become known as the Nuremberg Defence. Later on, those giving the orders, both Mladko Radic and Radovan Karadzic (pictured below with John Simpson in 1993), the military and political leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, went on trial in the same courtroom, were convicted of war crimes and duly locked away, together with the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. Major had asked how many troops it would take to keep the warring three sides apart and was told the number was four hundred thousand, three times the total size of the British Army at that time. He sent 1,800 men to protect the humanitarian convoys that were rumbling south from the UN bases in Hungary.

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Although many British people sent food parcels, warm clothes, medicine and blankets, loaded onto trucks and driven across the Croatian border and into Bosnia, many in the government were reluctant for Britain to become further involved. But the evening news bulletins showed pictures of starving refugees, the uncovered mass graves of civilians shot dead by death squads, and children with appalling injuries. There was a frenzied campaign for Western intervention, but President Clinton was determined not to risk the lives of American soldiers on the ground. Instead, he considered less costly alternatives, such as air strikes. This would have put others who were on the ground, including the British and other nationalities involved in the UN operation, directly into the line of retaliatory fire of the Serbian troops. When the NATO air-strikes began, the Serbs took the UN troops hostage, including British soldiers, who were then used as human shields. When the Serbs captured the town of Srebrenica and carried out a mass slaughter of its Muslim citizens, there were renewed calls for ‘boots on the ground’, but they never came.

Following three years of fighting, sanctions on Serbia and the success of the Croat Army in fighting back, a peace agreement was finally made in Dayton, Ohio. The UN convoys and troops left Hungary. Major became the first British Prime Minister of the post-War World to grapple with the question of what the proper role of the West should be to ‘regional’ conflicts such as the Balkan wars. They showed quite clearly both the dangers and the limitations of intervention. When a civil conflict is relayed in all its horror to tens of millions of voters every night by television, the pressure to ‘do something’ is intense.  But mostly this requires not air strikes but a full-scale ground force, which will then be drawn into the war itself. Then it must be followed by years of neo-colonial aid and rebuilding. Major and his colleagues were accused of moral cowardice and cynicism in allowing the revival of fascist behaviour in one corner of Europe. Yet, especially given the benefit of hindsight of what happened subsequently in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps Western leaders were right to be wary of full-scale intervention.

Back to basics?

For many British voters, the Major years were associated with the sad, petty and lurid personal scandals that attended so many of his ministers, after he made an unwise speech calling for the return as old-style morality. In fact, back to basics referred to almost everything except personal sexual morality; he spoke of public service, industry, sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and the law and the defeat of crime. It gave the press, however, a fail-safe headline charge of hypocrisy whenever ministers were caught out. A series of infidelities were exposed; children born out-of-wedlock, a death from a sex stunt which went wrong, rumours about Major’s own affairs (which later turned out to be truer than realised at the time). More seriously, there was also an inquiry as to whether Parliament had been misled over the sale of arms to Iraq, but these were all knitted together into a single pattern of misbehaviour, referred to as ‘sleaze’.

In 1996, a three-year inquiry into whether the government had allowed a trial to go ahead against directors of an arms company, Matrix Churchill, knowing that they were, in fact, acting inside privately accepted guidelines, resulted in two ministers being publicly criticised. It showed that the government had allowed a more relaxed régime of military-related exports to Saddam Hussein even after the horrific gassing of five thousand Kurds at Falluja, also revealing a culture of secrecy and double standards in the process. Neil Hamilton MP was accused of accepting cash from Mohammed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, for asking questions in the Commons. One of the most dramatic episodes in the 1997 election was the overwhelming defeat he suffered in his Tatton constituency by the former BBC war reporter, Martin Bell, who had been badly injured in Sarajevo who became Britain’s first independent MP for nearly fifty years. Jonathan Aitken, a Treasury minister was accused of accepting improper hospitality from an Arab business contact. He resigned to fight the Guardian over the claims, with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play. He was found guilty of perjury, spending eighteen months in prison.

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By the end of Major’s government, it seemed that the Tories might have learned the lesson that disagreements over the EU were capable of splitting their party. However, there was a general mood of contempt for politicians and the press, in particular, had lost any sense of deference. The reforms of the health service, police and schools had produced few significant improvements. The post-Cold War world was turning out to be nastier and less predictable than the early nineties days of the ‘peace dividend’ had promised. The Labour Opposition would, in due course, consider how the country might be better governed and reformed, as well as what would be the right British approach to peace-keeping and intervention now that the United States was the last superpower left standing. But in the early months of 1997,  Tony Blair and his fresh young ‘New Labour’ team, including Alistair Campbell (pictured above), were oiling their effective election-winning machine and moving in to roll over a tired-looking John Major and his tarnished old Tories.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan-Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2018), A History of Britain, 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

John Simpson (1999), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Pan-Macmillan.

Peter Caterall, Roger Middleton, John Swift (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

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Posted October 17, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Apocalypse, Arabs, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Cold War, devolution, Egalitarianism, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Family, France, Genocide, German Reunification, Germany, Gorbachev, Humanism, Hungary, Immigration, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Italy, Journalism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism, morality, National Health Service (NHS), Refugees, Revolution, Scotland, Security, terrorism, Thatcherism, Unemployment, Wales

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The Rise of Thatcherism in Britain, 1979-83: Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Above: Denis Healey in combatant mood

Labour’s ‘Civil War’ and the Creation of the SDP:

As a general election loomed, with Labour in visible disarray, Margaret Thatcher moved within a couple of months from being one of the least popular prime ministers ever to being an unassailable national heroine. This was the result of two ‘factors’, the struggle for power within the Labour Party, which (as I wrote about in the first part of this article) began with Callaghan’s decision to step down as its leader in the autumn of 1980, and the Falklands Crisis and War of 1982.

Labour’s Civil War began with constitutional arguments about whether MPs should be able to be sacked by their local constituency parties. It became nasty, personal, occasionally physical, and so disgusted those outside its ranks that the party almost disappeared as an effective organisation. Undoubtedly, there was widespread bitterness on the left of the party about what were considered to be the right-wing policies of the defeated Wilson-Callaghan government, and about the small number of party conference decisions which found their way into Labour’s manifesto at the May 1979 election. In this atmosphere, the left wanted to take power away from right-wing MPs and their leadership and carry out a revolution from below. They believed that if they could control the party manifesto, the leadership election and bring the MPs to heel, they could turn Labour into a radical socialist party which would then destroy Thatcher’s economics at the next general election.

At Labour’s October 1980 Blackpool Conference, the left succeeded in voting through resolutions calling for Britain to withdraw from the European Community, unilateral disarmament, the closing of US bases in Britain, no incomes policy and State control of the whole of British industry, plus the creation of a thousand peers to abolish the House of Lords. Britain would become a kind of North Sea Cuba. The Trotskyite Militant Tendency, which had infiltrated the Labour Party, believed in pushing socialist demands so far that the democratic system would collapse and a full-scale class war would follow. Tony Benn, who thought that their arguments are sensible and they make perfectly good rational points, saw Militant as no more than of a threat than the old Tribune group or the pre-war Independent Labour Party. He thought that the left would bring about a thoroughly decent socialist victory. In fact, thuggish intimidation in many local Labour parties by Militant supporters was driving moderate members away in droves. Many mainstream trade unionists went along with Militant, feeling let down by the Wilson and Callaghan governments. So too did those who were driven by single issues, such as nuclear disarmament.

Shrewd tactics and relentless campaigning enabled a small number of people to control enough local parties and union branches to have a disproportionate effect in Labour conference votes, where the huge, undemocratic block votes of the trades unions no longer backed the leadership. At the 1980 Conference, the left won almost every important vote, utterly undermining Callaghan, who quit as leader two weeks later. Since new leadership election rules would not be in place until a special conference the following January, Labour MPs had one final chance to elect their own leader. Michael Foot, the old radical and intellectual, was persuaded to stand.  Benn would stand no chance against him, especially since he had now allied himself with the Trotskyists who were attacking the MPs. But Foot was a great parliamentarian and was considered to be the only candidate who could beat Denis Healey, by now the villain of the piece for the Labour left.

Healey had already highlighted the fatal flaw in their strategy which was that if they did take over the Labour Party, the country wouldn’t vote for it. Activists, he told them, were different from the vast majority of the British people, for whom politics was something to think about once a year at most. His robust remarks about what would later be called ‘the loony left’ were hardly calculated to maximise his chances, despite his popularity in the country at the time. At any rate, he was eventually beaten by Foot by 139 votes to 129. Many believe that Foot was the man who saved the Labour Party since he was the only leader remotely acceptable to both the old guard and the Bennite insurgents. He took on the job out of a sense of duty, with his old-style platform oratory. He was always an unlikely figure to topple Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’. It was the last blast of romantic intellectual socialism against the free market.

At the special party conference, Labour’s rules were indeed changed to give the unions forty per cent of the votes for future Labour leaders, the activists in the constituencies thirty per cent, and the MPs only thirty per cent. Labour’s struggle now moved to its next and most decisive stage, with the left in an exuberant mood. It was decided that Benn must challenge Healey for the deputy leadership the following year. This would signal an irreversible move. A Foot-Benn Labour Party would be a fundamentally different one from a party in which Healey continued to have a strong voice. Both sides saw it as the final battle and ‘Benn for Deputy’ badges began to appear everywhere. Benn went campaigning around the country with verve and relentless energy. I heard him speak impressively at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, though his analysis of the problems in the British economy was far stronger than the solutions he proposed. At public meetings, Healey was booed and heckled and spat at. The intimidation of anyone who would not back Benn was getting worse, though Benn himself was apparently unaware of what was being said and done in his name. Neil Kinnock eventually decided that he would support neither Benn nor Healey, announcing his decision in Tribune. As education spokesman, he had been gradually moving away from the hard left, while continuing to support his neighbouring south Wales and fellow-Bevanite MP and now party leader, Michael Foot. Popular in the party, he was regarded with increasing suspicion by Tony Benn. But this open break with the left’s ‘champion’ shocked many of his friends. At the Brighton conference, Benn was narrowly beaten by Healey, by less than one per cent of the votes. Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill clashed angrily on television, and a young Jeremy Corbyn openly called for the mandatory deselection of Tribune MPs who had refused to back Benn.

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This next phase was too much for those who were already planning to break away and form a new party. Roy Jenkins had already mooted the idea before the Bennite revolt, as he contemplated the state of the British party system from his offices in Brussels, where he was President of the European Commission. He argued that the Victorian two-party system was out-dated and that coalition government was not such a bad thing. It was time, he said, to strengthen the ‘radical centre’ and find a way through the economic challenges which accepted the free market but also took unemployment seriously. Although he was in touch with David Steel, the Liberal leader, and was close to Liberal thinking, he judged that only a new party would give British politics the new dimension it needed. He began holding lunches for his old friends on the right of the Labour Party, including Bill Rodgers, still a shadow cabinet member, and Shirley Williams, who had lost her seat but who remained one of the best-liked politicians in the country. At this stage, the public reaction from Labour MPs was discouraging. Williams herself had said that a new centre party would have no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values. David Owen, the young doctor and former Foreign Secretary, who was now fighting against unilateral nuclear disarmament, said Labour moderates must stay in the party and fight even if it took ten or twenty years.

The Bennite revolt changed many minds, however. After the Wembley conference, at which Owen was booed for his views on defence, he, Jenkins, Williams and Rodgers issued the ‘Limehouse Declaration’, describing Wembley as ‘calamitous’ and calling for a new start in British politics. Two months later, this was formalised as the ‘Social Democratic Party’ (SDP) two months later, in March 1981. In total thirteen Labour MPs defected to it and many more might have done so had not Roy Hattersley and others fought very hard to persuade them not to. Within two weeks, twenty-four thousand messages of support had flooded in and peers, journalists, students, academics and others were keen to join. Public meetings were packed from Scotland to the south coast of England, and media coverage was extensive and positive. In September an electoral pact was agreed with the Liberal Party, and ‘the Alliance’ was formed.

After running the Labour Party close in the Warrington by-election, the SDP won their first seat when Shirley Williams took Crosby from the Conservatives in November, with nearly half the votes cast, followed by Jenkins winning Glasgow Hillhead from the Tories the following year. His victory allowed Jenkins to become the leader of the party in the Commons, but David Owen had always believed that leadership was more rightly his and feared that Jenkins was leading the SDP towards a merger with the Liberals. Owen saw himself still as a socialist, although of a new kind. By the early eighties, the Liberal Party was led by Steel, ‘the boy David’ who was looking for a route back from the Thorpe scandal to the centre ground. The alliance with the SDP provided this, but Owen was not alone in despising the Liberals and the eventual merger between the two parties was bitter and difficult. Nevertheless, the initial upsurge in the SDP’s support shook both the Labour Party and the Conservatives and by the early spring of 1982, the SDP and Liberals could look forward with some confidence to breaking the mould of British politics.

The Falklands ‘Escapade’:

One of the many ironies of the Thatcher story is that she was rescued from the political consequences of her monetarism by the blunders of her hated Foreign Policy. In the great economic storms of 1979-81, and on the European budget battle, she had simply charged ahead, ignoring all the flapping around her in pursuit of a single goal. In the South Atlantic, she would do exactly the same and with her good luck, she was vindicated. Militarily, it could so easily have all gone wrong, and the Falklands War could have been a terrible disaster, confirming the Argentinian dictatorship in power in the South Atlantic and ending Margaret Thatcher’s career after just one term as Prime Minister. Of all the gambles in modern British politics, the sending of a task force of ships from the shrunken and underfunded Royal Navy eight thousand miles away to take a group of islands by force was one of the most extreme.

On both sides, the conflict derived from colonial quarrels, dating back to 1833, when the scattering of islands had been declared a British colony. In Buenos Aires, a newly installed ‘junta’ under General Leopoldo Galtieri was heavily dependent on the Argentine navy, itself passionately keen on taking over the islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas. The following year would see the 150th anniversary of ‘British ownership’ which the Argentines feared would be used to reassert the Falklands’ British future. The junta misread Whitehall’s lack of policy for lack of interest and concluded that an invasion would be easy, popular and impossible to reverse. In March an Argentine ship ‘tested the waters’ by landing on South Georgia, a small dependency south of the Falklands, disembarking scrap-metal dealers. Then on 1 April, the main invasion began, a landing by Argentine troops which had been carefully prepared for by local representatives of the national airline. In three hours it was all over, and the eighty British marines surrendered, having killed five Argentine troops and injured seventeen with no losses of their own. In London, there was mayhem. Thatcher had had a few hours’ warning of what was happening from the Defence Secretary, John Nott. Calling a hurried meeting in her Commons office, Sir John Leach gave her clarity and hope, when her ministers were as confused as she was. He told her he could assemble a task-force of destroyers, frigates and landing craft, led by Britain’s two remaining aircraft carriers. It could be ready to sail within forty-eight hours and the islands could be retaken by force. She told him to go ahead. Soon after, the Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, tended his resignation, accepting responsibility for the Foreign Office’s failings.

But Margaret Thatcher was confronted by a moral question which she could not duck, which was that many healthy young men were likely to die or be horribly injured in order to defend the ‘sovereignty’ of the Falkland Islanders. In the end, almost a thousand did die, one for every two islanders and many others were maimed and psychologically wrecked. She argued that the whole structure of national identity and international law were at stake. Michael Foot, who had been bellicose in parliament at first, harking back to the appeasement of fascism in the thirties, urged her to find a diplomatic answer. Later she insisted that she was vividly aware of the blood-price that was waiting and not all consumed by lust for conflict. Thatcher had believed that from the start that to cave in would finish her. The press, like the Conservative Party itself, were seething about the original diplomatic blunders. As it happened, the Argentine junta, even more belligerent, ensured that a serious deal was never properly put. They simply insisted that the British task-force be withdrawn from the entire area and that Argentine representatives should take part in any interim administration and that if talks failed Britain would simply lose sovereignty. The reality, though, was that their political position was even weaker than hers. She established a small war cabinet and the task-force, now up to twenty vessels strong was steadily reinforced. Eventually, it comprised more than a hundred ships and 25,000 men. The world was both transfixed and bemused.

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Above: Royal Marines march towards Port Stanley during the Falklands War.

The Empire struck back, and by the end of the month South Georgia was recaptured and a large number of Argentine prisoners taken: Thatcher urged questioning journalists outside Number Ten simply to ‘rejoice, rejoice!’ Then came one of the most controversial episodes in the short war. A British submarine, The Conqueror, was following the ageing but heavily armed cruiser, the Belgrano. The British task-force was exposed and feared a pincer movement, although the Belgrano was later found to have been outside an exclusion zone announced in London, and streaming away from the fleet. With her military commanders at Chequers, Thatcher authorised the submarine attack. The Belgrano was sunk, with the loss of 321 sailors. The Sun newspaper carried the headline ‘Gotcha!’ Soon afterwards, a British destroyer was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile and later sunk. Forty died.

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On 18 May 1982, the war cabinet agreed that landings on the Falklands should go ahead, despite lack of full air cover and worsening weather. By landing at the unexpected bay of San Carlos in low cloud, British troops got ashore in large numbers. Heavy Argentine air attacks, however, took a serious toll. Two frigates were badly damaged, another was sunk, then another, then a destroyer, then a container ship with vital supplies. Nevertheless, three thousand British troops secured a beach-head and began to fight their way inland. Over the next few weeks, they captured the settlements of Goose Green and Darwin, killing 250 Argentine soldiers and capturing 1,400 for the loss of twenty British lives. Colonel ‘H’ Jones became the first celebrated hero of the conflict when he died leading ‘2 Para’ against heavy Argentine fire. The battle then moved to the tiny capital, Port Stanley, or rather to the circle of hills around it where the Argentine army was dug in. Before the final assault on 8 June, two British landing ships, Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad were hit by missiles and the Welsh Guards suffered dreadful losses, many of the survivors being badly burned. Simon Weston was one of them. Out of his platoon of 30 men, 22 were killed. The Welsh Guards lost a total of 48 men killed and 97 wounded aboard the Sir Galahad. Weston survived with 46% burns, following which his face was barely recognisable. He later became a well-known spokesman and charity-worker for his fellow injured and disabled veterans. He recalled:

My first encounter with a really low point was when they wheeled me into the transit hospital at RAF Lyneham and I passed my mother in the corridor and she said to my gran, “Oh mam, look at that poor boy” and I cried out “Mam, it’s me!” As she recognised my voice her face turned to stone.

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Simon Weston in 2008

The Falklands Factor and the 1983 Election:

The trauma of the Falklands War broke across Britain, nowhere more strongly than in Wales. The impact on Wales was direct, in the disaster to the Welsh Guards at Bluff Cove and in anxieties over the Welsh communities in Patagonia in Argentina. Plaid Cymru was the only mainstream party to totally oppose the war from the beginning, and it evoked a strong response among artists in Wales. Students from the Welsh College and Drama in Cardiff staged a satirical drama on the war which won many plaudits. They portrayed the war as a mere butchery for a meaningless prize. Veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell hounded the Prime Minister with parliamentary questions as he sought to prove that the sailors on the Belgrano had been killed to keep the war going, not for reasons of military necessity. One of the few memorable moments of the 1983 election campaign came when Mrs Thatcher was challenged on television about the incident by a woman who seemed a match for her. Among the Labour leadership, Denis Healey accused her of glorifying in slaughter and Neil Kinnock got into trouble when, responding to a heckler who said that at least Margaret Thatcher had guts, he replied that it was a pity that other people had had to leave theirs on Goose Green to prove it.  But there had also been those on the left who supported the war, together with Michael Foot, because of their opposition to the Argentine dictatorship, and there is little doubt that it gave a similar impetus to British patriotism across the political spectrum. It also bolstered a more narrow nationalism, jingoism and chauvinism both in the Conservative party and in the media.

For millions, the Falklands War seemed a complete anachronism, a Victorian gunboat war in a nuclear age, but for millions more still it served as a wholly unexpected and almost mythic symbol of rebirth. Margaret Thatcher herself lost no time in telling the whole country what she thought the war meant. It was more than simply a triumph of ‘freedom and democracy’ over Argentinian dictatorship. Speaking at Cheltenham racecourse in early July, she said:

We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence, born in the economic battles at home and found true eight thousand miles away … Printing money is no more. Rightly this government has abjured it. Increasingly the nation won’t have it … That too is part of the Falklands factor. … Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won. 

Of course, the Falklands War fitted into Margaret Thatcher’s personal narrative and merged into a wider sense that confrontation was required in public life country’s politics. The Provisional IRA had assassinated Lord Mountbatten on his boat off the coast of Donegal in 1979 and the mainland bombing campaign went on with attacks on the Chelsea barracks, then Hyde Park bombings, when eight people were killed and fifty-three injured. In Northern Ireland itself, from the spring of 1981, a hideous IRA hunger-strike had been going on, leading to the death of Bobby Sands and nine others. Thatcher called Sands a convicted criminal who chose to take his own life. It was a choice, she added, that the PIRA did not allow to any of its victims. She was utterly determined not to flinch and was as rock-hard as the ruthless Irish republican enemies.

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Thatcher was now becoming a vividly divisive figure. On one side were those who felt they, at last, had their Boudicca, a warrior queen for hard times. On the other were those who saw her as a dangerous and bloodthirsty figure, driven by an inhumane worldview. To the cartoonists of the right-wing press, she was the embodiment of Britannia, surrounded by cringing ‘wets’. To others, she was simply mad, with a sharply curved vulture’s beak nose, staring eyes and rivets in her hair. Gender-confusion was rife. France’s President Mitterrand, who in fact had quite a good relationship with her, summed up the paradox better than any British observer when, after meeting her soon after his own election, he told one of his ministers, She has the eyes of Caligula but she has the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.

The Falklands War confirmed and underlined these opposing and paradoxical views of Thatcher. She encouraged the government’s think tank, the Central Policy Review Staff, to come up with a paper about the future of public spending. They came up with a manifesto which could be characterised as ‘Margaret Thatcher unconstrained’. They suggested ending state funding of higher education, extending student loans to replace grants, breaking the link between benefits and the cost of living, and replacing the National Health Service with a system of private health insurance, including charges for doctor’s visits and prescriptions. In effect, this represented the end of Attlee’s Welfare State. Although some of these ideas would become widely discussed much later, at the time the prospectus was regarded as ‘bonkers’ by most of those around her. The PM supported it but ministers who regarded it as, potentially, her worst mistake since coming to power, leaked the CPRS report to the press in order to kill it off. In this they were successful, but the whole episode was an early indication of how Thatcher’s charge-ahead politics could produce disasters as well as triumphs.

The electoral consequences of the Falklands War have been argued about ever since. The government had got inflation down and the economy was at last improving but the overall Conservative record in 1983 was not impressive. The most dramatic de-industrialisation of modern times, with hundreds of recently profitable businesses disappearing forever, had been caused in part by a very high pound boosted by Britain’s new status as an oil producer. Up to this point, unemployment had been seen as a price worth paying in order to control inflation, but the extent of de-manning required by 1983 had been underestimated. Howe’s economic squeeze, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing deflated the economy, reducing demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared, most of them by 1982. Given the shrinking of the country’s industrial base and unemployment at three million, a total tax burden of forty per cent of GDP and public spending at forty-four per cent, there were plenty of targets for competent Opposition politicians to take aim at. In an ordinary election, the state of the economy would have had the governing party in serious trouble, but this was no ordinary election.

After the war, the Conservatives shot into a sudden and dramatic lead in the polls over the two Opposition groupings now ranged against them.  In the 1983 general election, the SDP and the Liberals took nearly a quarter of the popular vote, but the electoral system gave them just twenty-three MPs, only six of them from the SDP, a bitter harvest after the advances made in the by-elections of 1981-2. Labour was beaten into third place in the number of votes cast. This meant that the Conservatives won by a landslide, giving Mrs Thatcher a majority of 144 seats, a Tory buffer which kept them in power until 1997. It would be perverse to deny that the Falklands conflict was crucial, giving Thatcher a story to tell about herself and the country which was simple and vivid and made sense to millions. But there were other factors in play, ones which were present in the political undercurrents of 1981-2 and the divisions within the Labour Party in particular. For one thing, the Labour Party’s Manifesto at the 1983 Election, based on the left-wing Conference decisions of 1980-82, was later considered to be the longest suicide note in history.

The Political and Cultural Landscape of Wales:

In Wales, we had expected that the calamitous effect of the monetarist policies would produce a surge in support for Labour and that the effect of the Falklands factor would not weigh so heavily in the Tories’ favour as elsewhere in Britain. We were wrong. Moreover, we believed that the efforts we had made on the left-wing of the national movement in association with Welsh language activists, libertarian socialist groups, ecological, peace and women’s groups would bring dividends in electoral terms. But, in the Wales of 1983, these remained marginal movements as the country remained, for the most part, locked into the British two-party system. The General Election of 1983 exposed the myth that South Wales, in particular, was still some kind of ‘heartland of Labour’ and continued the trend of 1979 in relocating it within the South of the British political landscape. In Wales as a whole, the Labour vote fell by nearly ten per cent, exceeded only in East Anglia and the South-East of England, and level with London again. The Labour vote in Wales fell by over 178,000, the Tories by 24,000 (1.7 per cent), the great ‘victors’ being the Alliance, whose votes rocketed by over two hundred thousand. This surge did not, however, benefit the third parties in terms of seats, which simply transferred directly from Labour to Conservative.

The Conservatives, with a candidate of Ukranian descent and strong right-wing views, took the Cardiff West seat of George Thomas, the former Speaker, and swept most of Cardiff. They also took the marginal seat of Bridgend and pressed hard throughout the rural west, almost taking Carmarthen. Michael Foot visited the constituency and held a major rally, during which he spoke powerfully but almost fell of the stage. We canvassed hard on the council estates for the Labour MP, Dr Roger Thomas, managing to hold off both the Tories and Plaid Cymru, in what turned out to be Gwynfor Evans’ last election. Nevertheless, the Tories ended up with thirteen seats out of thirty-eight in Wales. Plaid Cymru, disappointed in the valleys, still managed to hold its green line across the north-west, holding Caernarfon and Merioneth and moving into second place, ahead of Labour, on Anglesey. The Alliance more than doubled the former Liberal poll, reaching twenty-three per cent in the popular vote, and coming second in nineteen out of the thirty-eight seats. But it won only two seats. Labour’s defeat seemed to be slithering into rout even though it retained more than half the seats, twenty in all. It held on by the skin of its teeth not only to Carmarthen but also to Wrexham, its former stronghold in the north-east. In the fourteen seats which covered its traditional base in the south, one fell to the Conservatives and six became three-way marginals. The SDP-Liberal Alliance came second in ten and, in the Rhondda won eight thousand votes without even campaigning. The remaining seven constituencies gave Labour over half of their votes. Of the old twenty thousand majority seats, only three remained: Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent (Ebbw Vale). As Gwyn Williams commented:

They stand like Aneurin Bevan’s memorial stones on the Pound above Tredegar and they are beginning to look like the Stonehenge of Welsh politics.   

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Two other ‘events’ of cultural significance took place in Wales in 1983. The first demonstrates how the question of culture in Wales had become caught up with the arguments over language. The language became a badge, the possession of which by learners is a sign of good faith: I was one of them, though I never learnt how to write in Welsh. In 1979, however, I had managed, with the help of friends, to write a speech in ‘Cymraeg Byw’ (Colloquial Welsh) as ‘Cadeirydd’ (‘Chair’) of UCMC (NUS Wales), which I delivered at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon. I argued for English- speaking and Welsh-speaking students to come back together throughout Wales in order to defend the country, the University and their colleges, paid for by the ‘pennies’ of miners and quarrymen, from the cut-backs in education which the Tories were bringing in. I was not successful in persuading the Welsh-speaking students from Bangor, who had formed their own separate union in 1977, to form a federal union, like the one which existed in Aberystwyth. But what chance did we have when, four years later, the renowned poet R S Thomas, himself a learner of the language, fulminated at the Eisteddfod that the Welshman/ woman who did not try to speak Welsh was, in terms of Wales, an ‘un-person’. His fundamentalism as Dai Smith called it, demanded that reality, the chaos of uncertainty, be fenced in. R S Thomas, for all the brilliant wonder of his own poetry in English, had:

… turned Wales into ‘an analogy for most people’s experience of living in the twentieth century … a special, spare grammar and vocabulary in which certain statements can be made in no other language’. 

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Thomas’ conversion to Welsh language fundamentalism had come rather late in life. In the sixties and seventies, he had remarked that he was rather tired of the themes about nationalism and the decay of the rural structure of Wales and that whereas he used to propagandise on behalf of Welsh Country Life and … the Welsh identity, he felt that he’d wrung that dishcloth dry. In May 1983, the Western Mail had welcomed the poet to Cardiff on the occasion of his seventieth birthday to Cardiff, describing him as a man whose genius found expression in the search for the ancient simplicities of rural Wales. R Gerallt Jones, introducing an evening of celebration at the Sherman Theatre in the capital some days later, acclaimed Thomas as the poet who has expressed the national identity of the Welshman. As Tony Bianchi showed in 1986, Thomas’ work has been used  – within the context of a wide range of prescriptive notions concerning the “Welsh heritage” – to condemn most of the Welsh to a marginal existence in which they are permitted only a vicarious identity. That’s what makes R S Thomas’ statement at the 1983 National Eisteddfod so surprising and intriguing.

The second cultural ‘event’ was the publication of an impressionistic but learned survey of Welsh history by the distinguished Welsh novelist Emyr Humphrys. The Taliesin Tradition took as its theme the survival of a continuous Welsh tradition in the face of all contrary odds. He ascribed this to a ‘poetic tradition’ which had invested the native language with the power and authority to sustain ‘national being’. In order to explain the unfolding of Welsh history, however, he welcomes the blurring of history and myth:

The manufacture and proliferation of myth must always be a major creative activity among a people with unnaturally high expectations reduced by historic necessity … In Wales history and myth have always mingled and both have been of equal importance in the struggle for survival. 

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For ‘organic nationalists’, like R S Thomas and Emyr Humphrys, history must not only mingle with myth but also have its disciplines submitted to the needs of the nation. Dai Smith pointed out that while this provided for acceptable politics for some, it is not good history. The verbal dexterity which it requires, Dai Smith claimed, obscures the reality of Welsh life, by emphasising the myths of ‘the murder of the Welsh language’, and the ‘kowtowing to ‘Britishness’ at the expense of ‘Welshness’. On this theme, Gwyn Williams (below) wrote:

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Ahead, a country which largely lives by the British state, whose input into it is ten per cent of its gross product, faces a major reconstruction of its public sector … a country whose young people are being dumped like in town and country faces the prospect of a large and growing population which will be considered redundant in a state which is already considering a major reduction in the financial burden of welfare.

Small wonder that some, looking ahead, see nothing but a nightmare vision of a depersonalised Wales which has shrivelled up to a Costa Bureaucratica  in the south and a Costa Geriatrica in the north; in between, sheep, holiday homes burning merrily away and fifty folk museums where there used to be communities.

… What seems to be clear is that a majority of the inhabitants of Wales are choosing a British identity which seems to require the elimination of a Welsh one.

As it happened, Dai Smith was right. The idea that ‘Britishness’ and ‘Welshness’ were mutually exclusive was indeed a myth, and both were able to survive as dual identities into the later eighties and beyond.

Ghost Town – The Case of Coventry, 1979-83:

By the late 1970s, the British motor industry had reached an historic crossroads. Entry into the EEC had coincided with an unusually weak range of British products. Models were either outdated or bedevilled by quality and reliability problems. European manufacturers soon captured nearly forty per cent of the home market. The choice facing British manufacturers was varied. Those companies owned by American parents integrated their UK operations with their European counterparts. Ford and General Motors are two successful examples of this strategy. Unfortunately for Coventry, the Chrysler Corporation was experiencing problems in many parts of their ’empire’ and did not possess the resources necessary for the establishment of a high-volume European operation. British-owned Leyland faced a more complex situation. The company produced both high-volume and specialist products. The Cowley and Longbridge plants which produced high-volume products badly needed investment to keep up with the European companies and the American subsidiaries. The specialist producers, Jaguar, Rover and Triumph, also required a large injection of capital in order to meet the growing competition from such companies as Audi, BMW, Alfa Romeo and the Scandinavian manufacturers. The various schemes devised by Ryder and the National Enterprise Board underlined Leyland’s commitment to the large and medium volume plants. The announcement of the collaborative agreement with Honda in 1979 to produce a new Japanese designed quality saloon at Canley was seen by many as an end to uncertainty over Leyland’s long-term commitment to Coventry.

The change of government in 1979 soon quashed the cautious optimism that had been present in the local car industry. The Conservative economic strategy of high-interest rates overvalued the pound, particularly in the USA, the major market for Coventry’s specialist cars. Demand for Coventry models declined rapidly and Leyland management embarked upon a new rationalisation plan. The company’s production was to be concentrated into two plants, at Cowley and Longbridge. Triumph production was transferred to Cowley along with the Rover models produced at Solihull. The Courthouse Green engine plant in Coventry was closed and three of the city’s other car-manufacturing concerns – Alvis, Climax and Jaguar – were sold off to private buyers. Only Jaguar survived the recession. In the first three years of the Thatcher government, the number of Leyland employees in Coventry fell from twenty-seven thousand to just eight thousand. One writer described the effects of Conservative policy on manufacturing industry in these years as turning a process of gentle decline into quickening collapse. The city’s top fifteen manufacturing companies shed thirty-one thousand workers between 1979 and 1982. Well-known names at the base of the pyramid of Coventry’s economic life – Herbert’s, Triumph Motors and Renold’s – simply disappeared.

Even in 1979, before the change in government, unemployment in Coventry stood at just five per cent, exactly the same level as in the early seventies. There was a noticeable rise in youth unemployment towards the end of the decade, but this, as we have seen, was part of a national problem caused mainly by demographic factors. Neither was the election of the Tory government seen as a harbinger of hard times to come. Coventry had prospered reasonably well during previous Tory administrations and even enjoyed boom conditions as a result of the policies of Anthony Barber, Heath’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Heath had ridden to the rescue of Rolls-Royce when it needed government assistance. Unfortunately, the economic brakes were applied too rapidly for the car industry and monetarist policy quickly cut into it. Redundancy lists and closure notices in the local press became as depressingly regular as the obituary column. The biggest surprise, however, was the lack of protest from the local Labour movement. It was as if all the ominous prophecies of the anti-union editorials which had regularly appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph during the industrial unrest of the previous decades were finally being fulfilled.

In any case, it was difficult to devise defensive industrial strategies. Michael Edwardes’ new tough industrial relations programme at British Leyland had seen the removal of Derek Robinson,  ‘Red Robbo’, the strongest motor factory union leader from Longbridge. He also demonstrated, at Speke in Liverpool, that he could and would close factories in the face of trade union opposition. Factory occupations, used to such effect by continental trades unionists had, thanks to the Meriden Triumph Motorcycle fiasco, no chance of local success. The opposition to closures was also undoubtedly diminished by redundancy payments which in many cases cushioned families from the still unrealised effects of the recession. Young people, especially school- leavers, were the real victims. Coventry’s much-prized craft apprenticeships all but vanished, with only ninety-five apprentices commencing training in 1981. In 1982, only sixteen per cent of sixteen-year-old school leavers found employment. The early 1980s were barren years for Coventry’s youth. Even the success of the local pop group, The Specials’, brought little relief, though for a brief moment the band’s song Ghost Town was a national success, giving vent to the plight of young people throughout the manufacturing towns of the Midlands and the North of England, not to mention Wales. The sombre comparison in the lyrics of boom time and recession express an experience that was felt more sharply in Coventry than elsewhere.

For the first time in over a century, Coventry became a net exporter of labour, but unemployment levels still remained stubbornly high. The main loss was mainly among the young skilled and technical management sectors, people who the city could ill afford to lose. Little research and development work was taking place in local industry. Talbot’s research department at Whitley including much key personnel, for example, was removed to Paris in 1983. The Conservatives promised in 1979 that a restructuring of the economy would be followed by increased investment and employment opportunities, but by 1983 there were very few signs of that promise being fulfilled. Coventry’s peculiar dependence on manufacturing and its historically weak tertiary sector has meant that the city was, at that time, a poor location for the so-called ‘high tech’ industries. As a local historian concluded at that time:

Coventry in the mid 1980s displays none of the confidence in the future that was so apparent in the immediate post-war years. . The city, which for decades was the natural habitat of the affluent industrial worker is finding it difficult to adjust to a situation where the local authority and university rank among the largest employers. Coventry’s self-image of progressiveness and modernity has all but vanished. The citizens now largely identify themselves and their environment as part of a depressed Britain. 

This was a sad contrast to the vibrant city of full employment in which my mother had grown up in the thirties and forties and where she had met and married my father in the early fifties. By the time I returned there as a teacher, from a former mill town in Lancashire in 1986 which had recovered from its own decline in the sixties and seventies, Coventry was also beginning to recover, but the shiny new comprehensive schools built thirty years before were already beginning to merge and close due to these years of recession, unemployment and outward migration.

Revolution or retro-capitalism?

Thatcher’s government of 1979-83 was not the return of ‘Victorian Val’, a revival of Gladstonian liberalism, nor even of the Palmerstonian gunboat imperialism which it sometimes resembled in its rhetoric. It was more of a reversion to the hard-faced empire of the 1920s when war socialism was energetically dismantled, leaving industries that could survive and profit to do so and those which couldn’t to go to the wall. As in the twenties, resistance to brutal rationalisation through closure or sell-off of uneconomic enterprises, or by wage or job reductions, was eventually to be met by determined opposition in the confrontation of 1984-5 between Thatcher and the NUM, led by Arthur Scargill, a battle comprehensively won by the PM.

The trouble with this ‘retro-capitalism’ masquerading as innovation was that sixty years after the policy had first been implemented, the regions that were the weaker species in this Darwinian competition were not just suffering from influenza, but prostrate with pneumonia. They were now being told to drop dead. These included South Wales, Lancashire, the West Riding, Tyneside and Clydeside. Those regions which had risen to extraordinary prosperity as part of the British imperial enterprise were now, finally, being written off as disposable assets in a sale. What interest would the Welsh and Scots, in particular, have in remaining part of Great Britain plc? They were also now being joined by those same manufacturing areas which had provided respite for millions of migrants from the older industrial areas in the thirties, centres such as Coventry. The euphoria felt by the Conservatives following their unexpected second victory in 1983 disguised the fact that their majority was built at the price of perpetuating a deep rift in Britain’s social geography. Not since Edward I in the thirteenth century had a triumphant England imposed its rule on the other nations of Britain.

Thatcher’s constituency was not, however, to be found among the engineers of ‘Middle England’ or even the Lincolnshire grocers from whom she hailed, who might have voted for Ted Heath’s ‘Third Way’ Tories. It was overwhelmingly to be found among the well-off middle and professional classes in the south of England, in the Home Counties, or the ‘golden circle’ commuter areas. The distressed northern zones of derelict factories, pits, ports and decrepit terraced houses were left to rot and rust. The solution of her governments, in so far as they had one, was to let the employment market and good old Gladstonian principles of ‘bootstrap’ self-help take care of the problem. People living in areas of massive redundancy amidst collapsing industries ought simply to ‘retrain’ for work in the up-and-coming industries of the future or, in Norman Tebbitt’s famous phrase, “get on their bikes” like their grandfathers had done and move to places such as Milton Keynes, Basingstoke or Cambridge where those opportunities were now clustered. But this vision of ex-welders, or even assembly workers, lining up to use computers was not helped by the absence of such publicly funded retraining. And even if it was available, there was no guarantee of a job at the end of it, no apprenticeship system. The whole point of the computer revolution in industry was to save, not to expand labour. The new jobs it created could, and would be taken by the sons and daughters of the industrial workers of the early eighties, but not by those workers themselves.

Finally, the kick-up-the-rear-end effect of the eighties’ Thatcher counter-revolution ran into something that she could do little about; the Coronation Street syndrome. Like the residents of the mythical TV soap opera, millions in the old British industrial economy had a deeply ingrained loyalty to the place where they had grown up, gone to school, got married and had their kids; to their extended family with older generations, to their pub, their parks and hills, to their football or rugby club. In that sense, at least, the post-war social revolution and welfare state had helped to maintain and even develop towns and cities that, for all their ups and downs, their poverty and pain, were real communities. Fewer people were willing to give up on these places than had been the case fifty years earlier, and certainly not on cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Coventry. But not everything the Thatcher government did was out of tune with social ‘harmony’. The sale of council-houses created an owner-occupier class which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Nationalised industries were failing to take advantage of enterprise and innovation. But many of these more popular reforms were to come after her confrontation with the miners and especially in her third term.

Sources:

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales?  Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1984), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: University of Warwick Cryfield Press.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain III, 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire.  London: BBC Worldwide.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Posted September 26, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Castles, Coalfields, Colonisation, Conquest, Conservative Party, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Demography, devolution, Empire, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Falklands, History, Immigration, Imperialism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, monetarism, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Population, Revolution, south Wales, terrorism, Thatcherism, Trade Unionism, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Welfare State, Welsh language, West Midlands, World War Two

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The Rise of Thatcherism in Britain, 1979-83: Part One.   Leave a comment

Margaret’s Marvellous Medicine:

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Ten years ago, nearly thirty years after Mrs Thatcher’s first general election as Tory leader, Andrew Marr wrote:

Margaret Thatcher … was shrewd, manipulative and bold, verging on the reckless. She was also extremely lucky. Had Labour not been busy disembowelling itself and had a corrupt, desperate dictatorship in South America not taken a nationalistic gamble with some island sheep-farmers, her government would probably have been destroyed after a single term. Had the majority in her cabinet who disagreed with her about the economy  been prepared to say boo to a goose, she might have been forced out even before that. In either case, her principles, ‘Thatcherism’, would be a half-forgotten doctrine, mumbled about by historians instead of being the single most potent medicine ever spooned down the gagging post-war British.

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The one economic medicine so bitter that no minister in the seventies had thought of trying it – mass unemployment – was soon uncorked and poured onto the spoon. Inflation, not unemployment, was seen as public enemy number one, and harsh measures seemed justified. Indeed, as wage-rises were seen as the as the main source of inflation, heavy unemployment, it was sometimes argued, would weaken trade unions and was a price worth paying. An economic squeeze was introduced, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing to deflate the economy, thus reducing demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared. The socially corrosive effects of mass unemployment were manifested nationwide in the inner-city rioting which broke out in 1981. The post-war consensus was well and truly broken. After his defeat in the General Election of 1979, James Callaghan stumbled on as Labour leader until October 1980 after which Denis Healey fought a desperate rearguard action against the left, as his party did its best to commit suicide in public. What exactly was ‘the left’ and how was it composed?

Labour’s ‘Disembowelment’:

By the late 1970s, the Communist Party of Great Britain had almost collapsed. What was left of it had become ‘Eurocommunist’, like the parties in France and elsewhere had become following the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The world’s first elected Marxist leader, Salvador Allende had been deposed in a coup in 1973 and thousands of his supporters became refugees in Britain. Where I lived in 1979-80, Swansea, there was a community of about fifty families, many of them studying at the University. For many of them, Castro’s Cuba was still a beacon of hope, and there were other Marxist movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador which re-focused the outlook of the ‘broad left’ in Britain. But there was widespread disillusionment with the Soviet system to which the CPGB had previously pledged its undying and largely uncritical obedience. The final nails in the coffin were driven in by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, and the crushing of ‘Solidarity’ in Poland the following year. Further to the left were a bewildering number of Trotskyist and Maoist groups, all hostile to the Soviet Union, all claiming to be the true party of Lenin, all denouncing one another over ideological and tactical detail. They tended to be dour and puritanical, though the Socialist Workers’ Party attracted a significant among students following through their setting up of the Anti-Nazi League.

The Militant Tendency had descended from earlier groups which had first organised in Britain in the forties. ‘Militant’ caused a huge convulsion in the Labour Party from the early to mid-eighties. Harold Wilson was the first Labour leader to complain a lot about ‘Trots’ trying to take the party over, but in the seventies, he was largely ignored and Militant was allowed to build up strong local bases, particularly in Liverpool, but also in other traditional Labour strongholds in the Midlands which had been very much in ‘the mainstream’ of the Party, like Coventry, where it had taken control of the City Council as early as 1937, and had continually returned high-profile MPs such as Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman after 1945. The SWP, supporting strikes and campaigning against racism and other ‘single issues’, sold their distinctive newspaper on the streets and their clenched fist logo and dramatic slogans appear in the background to countless industrial and political marches, pickets and marches. In South Wales in 1980, they organised ‘the people’s march for jobs’, a 1930s-style ‘hunger march’. By this time, mass unemployment had already arrived in Britain, especially among young people who had just left school and, as ever, the SWP seized their opportunity. Beyond Militant and the SWP, other far-left groups inside and outside the Labour Party would achieve brief notoriety because they were supported by a famous actress, such as Vanessa Redgrave of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party, or through influence in a local party or borough. Eventually, the ‘loony left’ would come to the boil, enjoying enough support, particularly in London, to shred Labour’s credibility.

In the late seventies and early eighties, however, the influence of ‘hard left’ socialists within the party was far more significant than those working for secretive Marxist parties. Like those on the right, including Callaghan by 1979, they believed the old consensus politics was failing. Some of their thinking was also shared by the Tory right – they were hostile to the European Community, opposed to Welsh and Scottish nationalism, and hostile to the Anglo-American alliance. But that was where the similarities ended. The Labour left wanted to deal with world economic chaos by pulling up the drawbridge, imposing strict controls on what was imported and taking control of major industries, as well as of ‘the City’. The left thought that ‘Planning’ was too weak, and therefore that it should be dramatically expanded. Any extreme political view tends to develop a conspiracy theory. The Labour left believed that Wilson, Callaghan and Healey had been captured by international capitalism. So the ‘siege economy’ and the Alternative Economic Strategy became the main shibboleths of the left, and Tony Benn became the leader of Labour’s peasants’ revolt. He was on the side of strikers who had brought much of the country to a halt in 1979 and Arthur Scargill, elected leader of the NUM soon after, told Benn that he could be the next Labour leader himself.

But within five years, both the NUM and their fellow unions would lose almost half their membership and any political influence they had briefly enjoyed. The ‘high-water’ mark for the left was reached when Benn himself came within a hair’s breadth of winning the deputy leadership against Denis Healey, during the middle of a vicious and deeply damaging Labour civil war. These were the turbulent years of ‘Bennism’ within the party, long before he became a kind of revered national grandfather with a white beard to go with his pipe. During his bid to become deputy, I heard him speak to a packed and transfixed audience at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea in 1980, careful and convincing in his critique of NATO, nuclear weapons and market capitalism, if not in his advocacy of the Alternative Economic Strategy. In the NUS, David Aaronovitch spoke in favour of the AES in a debate in Blackpool on the economy which he admitted afterwards had disappointed him for its lack of new thinking. Speaking to the NUS Wales Conference a few weeks later on the same issue, I adapted a headline from The Guardian:

When England catches a cold, Wales gets influenza: When England gets influenza, Wales develops pneumonia.

Wales: A View from the Abyss:

In 1979-80, Wales was in need of a stronger and better alternative medicine than could be provided by old-fashioned Keynesianism.

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Above: The UCMC (NUS Wales) Executive at the Autumn 1979 Conference

in Llandrindod Wells (the author is in the centre right).

In April 1979, just before the general election, I was elected ‘Cadeirydd’ (‘Chairholder’) of the National Union of Students in Wales (UCMC), working full-time from an office in Swansea. A month later, I began to wish I had declined the nomination, as an abyss seemed to open up below me. In the General Election, Wales located itself firmly within The South of Britain. At a time of heavy swings towards the Conservatives elsewhere, the heaviest swing of all, outside London, was in Wales. The Tory tide swept irresistibly through rural west Wales in particular. It was the real force which unseated the veteran Plaid Cymru President, Gwynfor Evans, in Carmarthen, to Labour’s benefit. The Tories took Brecon and Radnor, Montgomery and Anglesey, the last with a swing of twelve per cent. Apart from the three-way marginal of Carmarthen, Labour was driven back into the valleys of south Wales, though even there its massive majorities were significantly eaten into. Nevertheless, Labour remained by far the biggest party in Wales, with twenty-one seats out of thirty-six and forty-seven per cent of the votes. But the Conservatives, with eleven seats and thirty-two per cent, had reached a high point they had last held fifty years before. They swept through non-industrial Wales, obliterating political landmarks which had been familiar for generations. For Labour, there was a whiff of 1931 in the air and the elimination of Welsh peculiarities strongly suggested an integration into Britain more total than anything yet experienced.

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One paradoxical effect of this abrupt reversal of two hundred years of history was the isolation of the Welsh intelligentsia from its people. In this generation, in sharp contrast to the last, creative writers in Welsh and in English started to draw together. Professor Gwyn Williams (above), my mentor at University College Cardiff, was one of those who articulated English-speaking Wales within national and international contexts, and his work was lauded equally widely. As younger Welsh writers began to move out of the kind of universe which the work of the Saunders Lewis school of Welsh-language writers, younger writers in English (‘sons of the miners’) started to adopt a more firmly nationalist position. In general, the younger Anglo-Welsh poets avoided the sort of polemic which assumed a Welsh national identity. As Tony Curtis wrote in 1986, there was no unquestionable Wales, rather they must work from the immediate context, the known. Emyr Humphries wrote of:

… the sense of disorientation prevailing among the majority who have been deprived of the language and the opportunity of inheriting the history and traditions that go with it.

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John Ormond’s My Grandfather and his Apple-tree is the most successful of “character” poems. In concentrating on the life of one man the poet summarised the whole broad sweep of social change in South Wales from a predominantly rural economy to the accelerating expansion of industrial communities in the coal valleys that created a “Klondike” in Wales. John Ormond’s poem works effectively at several levels: as an historical poem; as a family remembrance it is an allegorical treatment of the life of a man as a social, economic and religious animal; the whole is a brilliantly sustained metaphor with a strong narrative structure. Ormond’s reputation by the time he was in his fifties in 1979 was notable, as was his influence on younger poets. One of these, Gillian Clarke, had first published in 1970, and by 1979 was established as a leading Welsh poet following the publication of her first full-length collection, The Sundial, which became the most successful book of poetry from a Welsh publisher. Living in suburban Cardiff, she was spiritually inhabiting a more rural, Welsh-speaking world to the west. In the seventies, the concern for voicing Welsh issues and proclaiming a specific Welsh identity provided a receptive ground for Gillian Clarke’s growth as a writer. In addition to poetry, major efforts went into drama and a whole range of arts; twin academies and a writers’ association came into being, and the Welsh Arts Council became more active. One of these miners’ sons, Dai Smith was critical of what he called …

… the production of Wales that was proceeding apace in the Cymricising suburbs of Cardiff, in academic and journalistic circles on the subsidised pages of a Welsh-language press and on the air-waves had no real need to take account of those who did not fit into the picture.

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The votes of 1979 dramatically registered the end of the epoch of the ‘old’ Welsh intelligentsia. While the ideologies of technical, managerial and administrative leaders remained opaque and without any specific Welsh identity, the most visible and creative elders of educated opinion among the Welsh had been rejected by their people. The task of transmitting a fresh, iconoclastic reappraisal of Wales to the Welsh fell to historians like Gwyn A. Williams, Dai Smith, Kenneth O. Morgan and D. Hywel Davies, among others. I was fortunate enough to be an apprentice in this task, though more concerned, like my fellow-researcher William D. Jones, with the history of the Welsh outside Wales and their images of the home country. As Tony Curtis observed:

Wales is not what we assumed it to be . Simplistic assumptions of “national pride”, a self-regarding “national” identity, are not to be allowed to go unquestioned… In the contemporary context writers face a harder task than even those raised by the ferment of the language campaign and the Devolution Vote, issues which served to focus much recent writing and to justify its polemic.

Almost Immediately Wales was fully exposed to the Conservative crusade and the radically restructuring of an increasingly multinational capitalism in Britain. The Welsh working population reached a peak in 1979, when 1,002,000 people were at work, fifty-five per cent of them in the service sector and forty-two per cent of them women in the core industries. The run-down of the coal industry continued and was followed by a sharp reduction in steel. Between June 1980 and June 1982, the official working population fell by no fewer than 106,000. The most catastrophic losses were in steel which lost half its workers and plummeted to 38,000. Public administration, however, lost fewer, around three thousand, while a whole range of services in insurance, banking, entertainment and educational and medical services actually gained over four thousand workers. In consequence, more men than women lost jobs at first, particularly in 1980-81, though much women’s work was part-time. During 1982 unemployment was heavier among women, but the overall result, in terms of number, was by June 1983 to increase the proportion of women at work within the central areas of the economy to forty-five per cent. By that time, the official working population of Wales had fallen to 882,000, its lowest level in the century. There was a high level of unemployment and particularly serious was the wasting of a whole generation of young people.

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The entire Welsh working population was beginning to take on the character of an informal, casual, unstructured labour force, an intimation of what was going to become a general experience in Britain to come. In the mid-1980s, Dai Smith commented that,

The crisis that would in the 1980s affect the vast majority of Welsh people was an economic, social and political crisis. … The ‘Condition of Wales Question’ is not for most of the Welsh about Welshness at all, it is about unemployment and jobs, about bad architecture, about bureaucracy and political participation, about dead-ends and opportunities. But nothing in Wales is subsidized more than ‘culture’. 

The Wales TUC was weakened and losing both numbers and funds, seemingly incapable of responding to the crisis. In reality, its autonomy was strictly limited in any case. Out of an income of thirty-three thousand pounds in 1980, nearly twenty thousand was a grant from the British TUC. In that year, its affiliated membership totalled over 580,000, nearly sixty per cent of the working population. But the response to the evident transformation of the working population varied among the unions, with NUPE being the most rapid and adaptable. Overall, the organised workers’ movement seemed encased in a perception of a ‘working class’ which had become a myth. The People’s March for Jobs and other demonstrations were not as significant in Wales as elsewhere in Britain, despite being led by veteran miners’ leader, Will Paynter, for part of the way through south Wales. But in 1982, the South Wales NUM did force a dramatic U-turn from the Thatcher government over proposed regional pit closures. We celebrated, but also asked the question, Have the Miners Really Won? Another former miners’ leader, Dai Francis, had his doubts, which later turned out to be justified. Thatcher would be ready next time.

The student movement was in much the same position as the trade unions, though in 1980 NUS Wales succeeded in prizing greater resources out of NUS UK by its university unions paying directly into a Welsh affiliation fund, rather than sending the money direct to London. By the end of my year in office in August 1980, it had also established a more federal constitution, which helped to win back support from a number of disillusioned and disgruntled Welsh-speaking students in the North and West. The University of Wales had also accepted our proposal for a central board to coordinate the development of Welsh-medium teaching throughout all the university colleges, rather than simply concentrating it in Aberystwyth and Bangor. In other areas, we won support from HRH the Prince of Wales, as Chancellor of the University, for our concerns about the government’s introduction of full-cost fees for overseas students and confronted the Welsh Rugby Union over its support for the unofficial tour of the South African Barbarians. This South Wales Campaign Against Racism in Sport introduced Peter Hain to Wales.

UCMC also campaigned successfully to prevent the Labour-controlled local authorities from imposing projected cuts on part-time students. The rise of the Left within the Labour Party was matched by a leftward shift in Plaid Cymru, which wrote a socialist state into its programme for Wales and a ‘broad left’ was formed with the Welsh Labour left and former Communist Party members. In the student movement, a distinctively Welsh socialist group emerged out of the remnants of the old Broad Left, which had been replaced by the Left Alliance within NUS UK, now including the Union of Liberal Students. Socialist students in Wales decided that a better strategy to manufacturing alliances was to reclaim the university unions and develop unions in other colleges through socialist education and organisation at a more grass-roots level.

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There seemed to be a limited response from a population readily accepting the values and arguments of ‘Thatcherism’ as they developed. The most radical political action went into the multiplying women’s groups, ecological movements and above all CND which acquired much more weight and spirit in the valleys and into west Wales than any other political body.  On 23rd February 1982, all the Welsh local authorities came together to declare Wales a Nuclear Free Zone, refusing to distribute the government’s infamous Protect and Survive pamphlets. The historian and lifelong CND campaigner, E. P. Thompson came to Carmarthen later in the year to address a mass rally. The protest camp at Greenham Common missile base was started by a march of women from Cardiff.

The turmoil continued around the language issue. The census of 1981 revealed that the proportion of Welsh-speakers had slipped back to 18.9 per cent, but that the decline in the use of the language overall had slowed dramatically over the decade and seemed to be coming to a halt. There were marginal increases in the numbers of Welsh-speakers in the most English-speaking areas such as Gwent and Glamorgan, probably due to the migration of Welsh-speakers to fill new jobs in the media in the capital and the increase in the number of Welsh learners in those counties, particularly among students in the arts and young journalists. As one of the enumerators, I found people who declared themselves as Welsh-speakers in some of the most unlikely districts of Cardiff.  Most serious, however, was the continued decline in the heartlands of the language, notably in south-west Wales, where the fall was six per cent. But the retrenchment in Welsh-speaking was noticeable in Ceredigion (Cardiganshire) and parts of Gwynedd and there were signs that the crusading of the past decade had begun to take effect among young people in these heartlands, especially where Welsh-medium or ‘bilingual’ schools had been set up.

Overall, out of a population of 2,790,00, around 550,000 were Welsh-speakers. In the west and north-west, particular districts, villages and even individual pubs created a linguistic map almost as tribally complicated as a cultural map of Northern Ireland. The continuing threat to the heartlands, y Fro Gymraeg, had led to the creation of a new cultural nationalist group, Adfer (‘Restore’), by the mid-seventies, whose intellectual supporters had been dedicated to the creation of a Welsh Gaeltacht, an ethnically pure economy and society on the basis of Welsh self-sufficiency. In Bangor, led by theology students, they had succeeded in creating a breakaway, Undeb Cymraeg (UCMB), a Welsh-speaking student union in 1977. The movement tended to see only the native Welsh-speaking Cymry as truly Welsh. The remainder, the vast majority throughout Wales, were described as Cymreig (‘culturally Welsh’) or at ‘best’, Cymry di-Gymraeg (‘non-Welsh-speaking Welsh’), the other face of the coin to the anti-Welsh-language British chauvinism which was prevalent in many Labour areas in the south, not least on the Left. Between the two groups of chauvinists, the proposal for a national assembly was easily defeated in the referendum of 1978, exposing Wales to economic pneumonia and the onset of Thatcherism, until its narrow reversal in the referendum of 1998.

In the early eighties, the divisions over the language were clear for all to see and were exacerbated by a major campaign of arson against holiday homes in northern and western Wales. In a major police action, Operation Tán (Fire) produced a chorus of complaint about violations of civil-rights, telephone-tapping, and the use of provocateurs. The NUS office phones were by now so routinely tapped that we could almost talk directly to Special Branch. On one occasion they contacted us directly to gather information about the beating up of Iraqi dissidents on the streets of South Wales by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist henchmen, the only students wearing suits and carrying rolled umbrellas! In the winter of 1980, driving out of Snowdonia following a meeting in Bangor, together with other members of the National Executive of NUS Wales, the North Wales Police stopped and searched the union’s fleet-hire hatch-back for flammable materials. They didn’t book us for speeding but joked about how wealthy Welsh students must be to be driving around in a brand-new car. They had obviously spotted the familiar dragons’ tongue Cymdeithas yr Iaith (Welsh Language Society) sticker in the back window.

Later in the year, John Jenkins, one of the bombers behind the botched attempt to blow a hole in the walls of Caernarfon Castle, in which two bombers accidentally blew themselves up and a little child was badly mutilated, before the 1969 Investiture of the Prince of Wales, was released from jail. Whilst there, where he had studied for an Open University degree. Having been initially accepted to study for a postgraduate diploma in social work, he was then rejected by University College Swansea without explanation. As our campaign to get the University to admit Jenkins gathered pace and hit the headlines, both in Welsh and English, both inside and outside Wales, we received a telephone message from ‘friends’ in high places in the university that Jenkins was still, somehow, a threat. That ‘somehow’ was never explained.

Our protests at the University of Wales Court meeting, held at Swansea, went ahead, but all the student representatives, ex-officio sabbatical officers of the constituent college unions, were forced to withdraw when the Jenkins case came up. As an NUS employee, I was initially allowed to stay in the meeting until the registrar of my own university college, Cardiff, pointed out that I was still registered as a student there. I was asked to withdraw, which meant we were prevented from reading our statement on the case, or even from having it read on our behalf by another Court member following my withdrawal. I, therefore, refused to leave, and the case was not discussed. Jenkins was not admitted, and we never found out what ‘good reason’ the college had for rejecting his application.  Soon after I received a message from my own university college, Cardiff, that I would not be allowed to extend my sabbatical at the Swansea NUS HQ for a further year and remain as a registered student, which would mean I had to leave the university permanently. I dutifully obeyed and returned to my PhD research in Cardiff in September 1980. Julie Barton was elected to replace me, becoming the first woman President of a more autonomous UCMC (NUS Wales), holding the post until 1982.

By then, the growth of the academic study of modern Welsh history became a major intellectual force which helped to bridge some of these divisions. The journal Llafur (Labour), the organ of the Welsh Labour History Society, of which I was a member, successfully married academics and workers. I returned to Swansea in the autumn of 1980, to do some research into the history of the mining valleys in the 1930s at the South Wales Miners’ Library, set up by the South Wales NUM in co-operation with University College Swansea, managed by Hywel Francis, son of the former miners’ leader.  It had rescued what was left of the magnificent miners’ institute libraries and created a centre for adult education, active research and a memorial to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War, many of those who joined the International Brigade having been South Wales miners. Soon after, however, the University College was forced into making financial cuts and proposed to lop off the Miners’ Library. In an effort to save it, the miners themselves became the major protagonists.

By 1982, Wales had its own Welsh-medium fourth television channel, a Welsh-medium teaching Board within the still federal University of Wales, and a quasi-official, ubiquitous bilingualism in public life. ‘Superted’ had been launched into orbit from S4C’s new offices in Canton, Cardiff. However, the task still remained of voicing the concerns of the eighty per cent who were outside the ‘orbit’ of the language and who, for a complexity of reasons, had turned their backs on the chance of Devolution, but still felt a deep sense of being “Welsh”.

The Grocer’s Daughter:

Looking back from over thirty-five years later, the epic events of 1979-83 seem to have a clear pattern. Powerful ideas challenged the post-war consensus and, following a nail-biting struggle, defeated its adherents. But from the perspective of those who lived through these events, especially in traditionally ‘left-wing’ areas of Britain, there was remotely inevitable about this ‘victory’. As student leaders, for example, we really thought that we could defeat the Tories on the issue of full-cost fees for overseas students. Even HRH the Prince of Wales, following our Lampeter meeting with him in 1980, expressed his concerns in one of his now famous hand-written missives to the government about the likely effects of these being introduced on Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth and on Britain’s new technical universities, which were dependent on the recruitment of overseas students. Almost the entire University Sector in Britain and its overseas offshoots, was publicly against the government on this, though many vice-chancellors were secretly rubbing its hands with the prospect of attracting more oil-rich Saudis and Baathists from Iraq and Syria, rather than poor South American, African and Middle-Eastern ‘refugees’.

It was also unclear what sort of Britain Margaret Roberts, the grocer’s daughter and devout Lincolnshire Christian, hoped to create. She did not believe in privatising industries or defeating inflation merely for economic reasons. She wanted to remoralize society, creating a nation whose ‘Victorian Values’ were expressed through secure marriages, like her own, self-help and thrift, moderation in all things, good neighbourliness and hard work. Though much attacked by church leaders like her arch nemesis, David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham, she talked of God and morality incessantly from the moment she apparently quoted Francis of Assisi at the door of Number Ten on the morning following her May 1979 Election victory. In fact, it was a Victorian re-working of the well-known prayer. Later, it was endlessly used to show what a hypocrite she was. But for the people she had determined to govern on behalf of, the inflation-ravaged middle-classes who had despaired of Britain’s future, believing that the unions could never be tamed by the State, she brought both faith and hope. She claimed that she was in politics because of the conflict between good and evil. Yet Thatcherism heralded an age of unparalleled consumption, credit, show-off wealth, quick bucks and sexual libertinism. The Thatcher years did not bring harmony to the lives of most of the Queen’s subjects, but further social and economic division. When politicians determine to free people, they can never be sure what they are freeing them for. In reality, the lady in Lincoln green turned out to be the antithetical mirror image of its legendary hero, like the Robin Hood character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Steals from the poor, gives to the rich,

Silly bitch!

Perhaps, as a Wesleyan, she had too generous a view of human nature, especially (and ironically) contrasted with her Calvinistic Baptist predecessor, who believed that people are essentially selfish and need to be moderated and regulated by the state for the common good to prevail. John Wesley’s famous mantra was: Work all you can, earn all you can, give all you can. Unfortunately, it took most of her period in power for her and the country to realise her theological error, that the sin of omission lay in respect of the third part of this triplet, and by that time much of Britain’s wealth and many of its assets had been stripped and shipped abroad. For the first four years of her leadership, the Tories were continuing to talk about a wages policy and the importance of consulting with the trade unions, perhaps on the German model. There was also talk of the need to control the money supply and offer council tenants the right to buy their homes. But other privatization measures barely featured. As to unemployment, Mrs Thatcher herself had been vigorously attacking the Callaghan government for its failure to tackle the dole queues. One of the Tories’ most successful election posters had portrayed an ever-lengthening queue with the slogan Labour isn’t working. I remember seeing it on an Easter visit home, dominating Chamberlain Square in Birmingham. With unemployment still around a million, the message she was giving out while still in opposition was:

We would have been drummed out of office if we’d had this level of unemployment.

If the British public had studied their new Prime Minister a little more closely they would have noticed a more abrasive edge to her personality, especially when she talked of the failure of the three previous administrations, including that of Ted Heath, to control the trade unions. She would point aggressively across the House of Commons and declare, Never forget how near this country came to government by picket. She had also received the nickname, The Iron Lady as an insult from the Soviet leadership for her rabidly anti-communist speech in 1977. It was only much later that it became a badge of honour for her. Moreover, the cabinet full of Tory squires and former Heath supporters hardly looked like a revolutionary cabal. Denis Healy memorably compared being attacked by the Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, to being savaged by a dead sheep. But Mrs Thatcher herself was a far more determined woman than most people realised. The single most important influence throughout her life seems to have come from her father, Alderman Alfred Roberts, a self-made, austere Methodist and hard-working owner of a grocer’s shop on the main road north at Grantham. Although he stood for the council as an independent, Roberts was of Tory instincts. He became mayor in 1945 and chaired local charities, the Workers’ Educational Association, and acted as a director of a local bank. He was independent-minded and taught his daughter to speak her mind and to argue. In this, he was extremely successful, since her governments effectively devastated everything he had stood for in terms of local politics.

Unlike Wilson, who used his Yorkshire accent as a badge of identity, she lost her Lincolnshire ‘burr’ somewhere on her way down the A1. As her biographer, Hugo Young put it, she was born a northerner but became a southerner, the quintessence of a Home Counties politician. She was elected for the well-off middle-class seat of Finchley in 1959, her politics having been formed by the experience of post-war Labour austerity. Seen from above, the socialist experiment in planning and ‘fair shares for all’ might have looked noble, she concluded, but from below it was a maze of deprivation, shortage and envy. She later reflected that…

No one who lived through austerity, who can remember snoek, spam and utility clothing, could mistake the petty jealousies, minor tyrannies, ill-neighbourliness and sheer sourness of those years for idealism and equality.

During the 1979 election, using all the skills of her new image-makers and advertising agency, and with a shrewd understanding of the importance of television, she was still trailing Callaghan in the personal popularity stakes by a full nineteen points. It was Labour’s unpopularity with the electorate which cost the party power, not Margaret Thatcher’s allure. Yet without her, the Tory government of 1979-83 would have been entirely different. Without her confrontational style and determination not to be beaten, Britain would have been stuck with a pay policy and high public spending. The crucial issue for her on being elected was to get a grip of inflation. To the Thatcherites, this meant monetarism, the basic proposition of which was that inflation is directly related to the amount of money in the economy. Where the Thatcherite monetarists diverged from Keynesian economics was in the argument that the paramount role of government in economic management was to control the money supply, which could be scientifically measured and calibrated. The other issues, unemployment and productivity included, would eventually resolve themselves. All the government needed to do was to hold firm to the principle, get the money supply down, and it would succeed.

The Thatcher government, in reality, could have restricted the money supply by raising taxes, but it was committed to cutting most taxes. Almost immediately, Howe cut the basic rate of income tax from thirty-three to thirty per cent and the top rate from eighty-three to sixty per cent. Spending cuts were agreed too, but to make up the difference a huge rise in value-added tax (VAT), doubling to fifteen per cent, was brought in. Money was being redistributed from the masses, paying more for food, clothes and other essential items, to higher rate taxpayers. In industrial policy, one of the ‘moderates’, Jim Prior, made good on the manifesto promise and unveiled a trade union reform bill designed to end closed shops, providing public funds for strike ballots and outlawing secondary picketing of the kind which had been widely seen during ‘the winter of discontent’. These measures would have been radical under any other government, but Thatcher complained that they did not go far enough. She wanted an end to all secondary action. She castigated him as a ‘false squire’, one of a class of Tories who…

have all the outward show of a John Bull – ruddy face, white hair, bluff manner – but inwardly they are political calculators who see the task of Conservatives as retreating gracefully before the Left’s inevitable advance.

In frustration, Thatcher suddenly announced that strikers would in future be assumed to be getting union strike pay and so would not qualify for social security. The battle lines were being clearly drawn.

Howe’s second budget in 1980 set out a Medium-Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) which contained detailed predictions about the growth of the money supply. But with inflation raging, a recession biting and credit restrictions loosened, it was impossible to enforce. The money supply was supposed to be growing at around eight per cent, but it actually grew at a rate of nineteen per cent. The monetarists were beginning to look foolish. Strike-ravaged, unproductive British Leyland came begging for yet more money but instead of closing it down or selling it off, Thatcher gave way, just as Heath had done when Rolls-Royce had tested his resolve not to give bail-outs. But whereas the latter had eventually thrived again, BL died. There was also a steel strike and though the government talked tough and stood firm, the eventual settlement was high and the unions were certainly not humiliated. By the second half of the year, unemployment was up by more than 800,000 and hundreds of manufacturing businesses were going bust, throttled by the rising exchange rate. Industrialists, who had looked to the Tories with great hope, now began to despair once more. Prices were up by twenty-two per cent in a year and wages by a fifth. At the Tory Conference of 1980, the dissidents within the cabinet and the Tory ‘left’ in Parliament who called for a ‘U-turn’ on the economy were dismissed by Thatcher in a phrase coined by the playwright Ronald Millar:

You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!

The word ‘wet’ was a public schoolboy term of abuse describing a fellow pupil who was ‘soppy’ or weak. It was now being applied by monetarist Tories to their Heathite opponents. In the great Thatcher cabinet battles of the eighties, it was appropriated to refer particularly to the senior ministers who did not agree with her – Jim Prior, Francis Pym, Sir Ian Gilmour, Mark Carlisle, Norman St John Stevas, Peter Walker, Christopher Soames and (later) Michael Heseltine. Most of them were ‘wet’ in another sense – despite being in the majority, they were never prepared to act together to face her down, or even to resign individually on points of principle. The great confrontation would have come in 1981, with unemployment headed towards three million, new bankruptcies reported every day and the biggest collapse in manufacturing production in a single year since 1921. Howe planned to take another four billion out of the economy through a combination of swingeing cuts and rises in taxes. Thatcher told Alan Walters, her new economic adviser, that they may get rid of me for this but that it would be worth it for doing the right thing. On the streets, rioting seemed to be confirming all the worst fears of those who had predicted that monetarism would tear the country apart. But in ringing terms, Thatcher told the Tory Party faithful to stay calm and strong:

This is the road I am resolved to follow. This is the path I must go. I ask all who have spirit – the bold, the steadfast and the young at heart – to stand and join with me.

In April 1981, riots broke out in Brixton. Shops were burned and looted, streets barricaded and more than two hundred people, most of them police, were injured. Mrs Thatcher’s response was to pity the shopkeepers. Lord Scaman was asked to hold a public inquiry; but in the first week of July, trouble began again, this time in the heavily Asian west London suburb of Southall, with petrol-bombs, arson attacks and widespread pelting of the police. Then Toxteth in Liverpool erupted and the rioting there continued for two weeks. Black youths, then whites, petrol-bombed the police, waved guns and burned both cars and buildings. The police responded with CS gas, the first time it had been used on the streets of mainland Britain, and with baton charges. As in London, hundreds were injured and one man was killed. Toxteth was followed by outbreaks of looting and arson in Manchester’s Moss Side. With unemployment reaching sixty per cent among young blacks, and both Liverpool and Manchester having suffered badly from recent factory closures, many saw this a clearly linked to Thatcherite economics, what Denis Healey, now in opposition, was now calling ‘sado-monetarism’. Michael Heseltine went to Liverpool and came back calling for government money to bring in private investment, job creation schemes and a minister for Liverpool. He stuck with Liverpool for a year, helping to bring renovation projects and a morale-boosting garden festival which was attended by three million people. Thatcher herself drew very different conclusions from her visit to Liverpool:

I had been told that some of the young people involved got into trouble through boredom and not having enough to do. But you only had to look at the grounds of these houses with the grass untended, some of it almost waist-high, and the litter, to see this was a false analysis. They had plenty of constructive things to do if they wanted. Instead, I asked myself how people could live in such circumstances without trying to clear up the mess.

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The problem, she claimed, was lack of initiative and self-reliance created by years of dependency on the State, and compounded by the media. It was nothing whatsoever to do with monetarist policies. Her views remained unaltered as she then went on into full-scale battle with ‘the wets’. Howe planned another tight Budget for 1982, and, for the first time, there was something approximating a full-scale cabinet revolt. Heseltine warned of despair and electoral meltdown. Even monetarist true believers seemed to be deserting. Thatcher herself called it one of the bitterest arguments in a cabinet in her time. Drawing the meeting to a close, she decided to counter-attack. Four ministers were sacked, and Jim Prior was sent to Northern Ireland. She intervened to stop other ministers settling with public sector workers, even when it would have been cheaper to do so. She had kept the trade union leaders locked out. Len Murray (above), the impeccably moderate TUC chairman who had spent half the Wilson and Callaghan years sitting around the table with them, was allowed into Downing Street just three times in Mrs Thatcher’s first five years.

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In the summer of 1981, most of ‘England and Wales’ allowed itself to be distracted by the dramatic reversal in their Cricket team’s fortunes in the Home ‘Ashes’ series against Australia. A belligerent Ian Botham helped them to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at Headingley, and we all began picking up bats and balls again. In 1982, I enjoyed a brief interlude as ‘the Ian Botham of Grangetown’ in my pub team, more for my inconsistency as an all-rounder, though I did get to make match-winning contributions on the practice pitches at Sophia Gardens.

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Above: In an interview with BBC correspondent, John Simpson

The best evidence of Mrs Thatcher’s belligerent style to date had been the struggle with the other European leaders to reclaim roughly a billion pounds a year of net British payments to the Community. In ‘Thatcher speak’, getting our money back involved an undiplomatic brawl that went on from Dublin to Luxembourg to Brussels. She would not shut up, or back down. Diplomats from all sides suggested interesting side-deals, trade-offs, honourable compromises, but she brushed them all aside. Ultimately, she got three-quarters of what she had first demanded, but, astonishingly, she then said ‘no’. It was only when all her entire cabinet were in favour of the settlement that she grudgingly agreed. The press and the country were beginning to notice her tenacity. Her ‘Bothamesque’ innings in Brussels was to come back to haunt her when she was ‘savaged’ by Geoffrey Howe’s cricketing metaphors in 1990, but until then, the civil war within the Labour Party had helped protect her from the electoral consequences of her shift from the centre-ground. The Tories might be hated, but Labour was unelectable.

(to be continued…)

Posted September 22, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anti-racism, Austerity, Baptists, BBC, Britain, British history, Brussels, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Commonwealth, democracy, devolution, Egalitarianism, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Germany, History, Home Counties, Journalism, Literature, manufacturing, Methodism, Middle East, Migration, monetarism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Population, Second World War, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Thatcherism, tyranny, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History

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