Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Five: The Rise of “Populism” in Hungary & Europe, 2002-18.   1 comment

Hungary at the beginning of its Second Millennium:

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

The Republican George W Bush became US President in January 2001, replacing Bill Clinton, the Democrat and ‘liberal’, whose eight years in the White House had come to an end during the first Orbán government, which lost the general election of 2002. Its Socialist successor was led first by Péter Medgyessy and then, from 2004-09, by Ferenc Gyurcsány (pictured below, on the left).

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

In this first decade of the new millennium, relations between the ‘West’ and Hungary continued to progress as the latter moved ahead with its national commitment to democracy, the rule of law and a market economy under both centre-right and centre-left governments. They also worked in NATO (from 1999) and the EU (from 2004) to combat terrorism, international crime and health threats. In January 2003, Hungary was one of the eight central and eastern European countries whose leaders signed a letter endorsing US policy during the Iraq Crisis. Besides inviting the US Army to train Free Iraqi Forces as guides, translators and security personnel at the Taszár air base, Hungary also contributed a transportation company of three hundred soldiers to a multinational division stationed in central Iraq. Following Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States in the fall of 2005, members of a team of volunteer rescue professionals from Hungarian Baptist Aid were among the first international volunteers to travel to the region, arriving in Mississippi on 3 September. The following April, in response to the severe floods throughout much of Hungary, US-AID provided $50,000 in emergency relief funds to assist affected communities.

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During his visit to Budapest in June 2006, in anticipation the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, President George W Bush gave a speech on Gellért Hill in the capital in which he remarked:

“The desire for liberty is universal because it is written into the hearts of every man, woman and child on this Earth. And as people across the world step forward to claim their own freedom, they will take inspiration from Hungary’s example, and draw hope from your success. … Hungary represents the triumph of liberty over tyranny, and America is proud to call Hungary a friend.” 

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The Origins and Growth of Populism in Europe:

Not without ambivalence, by the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Hungary had stepped out on the Occidental route it had anticipated for more than a century. This is why, from 1998 onwards, Hungarian political developments in general and the rise of FIDESZ-MPP as a formidable populist political force need to be viewed in the context of broader developments within the integrated European liberal democratic system shared by the member states of the European Union. Back in 1998, only two small European countries – Switzerland and Slovakia – had populists in government. Postwar populists found an early toehold in Europe in Alpine countries with long histories of nationalist and/or far-right tendencies. The exclusionist, small-government Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was rooted in ‘authentic’ rural resistance to urban and foreign influence, leading a successful referendum campaign to keep Switzerland out of the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, and it has swayed national policy ever since. The Swiss party practically invented right-wing populism’s ‘winning formula’; nationalist demands on immigration, hostility towards ‘neo-liberalism’ and a fierce focus on preserving national traditions and sovereignty. In Austria, neighbour to both Switzerland and Hungary, the Freedom Party, a more straightforward right-wing party founded by a former Nazi in 1956, won more than twenty per cent of the vote in 1994 and is now in government, albeit as a junior partner, for the fourth time.

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The immediate effect of the neo-liberal shock in countries like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland was a return to power of the very people who the imposition of a free market was designed to protect their people against, namely the old Communist ‘apparatchiks’, now redefining themselves as “Socialist” parties. They were able to scoop up many of the ‘losers’ under the new system, the majority of voters, the not inconsiderable number who reckoned, probably rightly, that they had been better off under the socialist system, together with the ‘surfers’ who were still in their former jobs, though now professing a different ideology, at least on the surface. In administration and business, the latter were well-placed to exploit a somewhat undiscriminating capitalist capitalism and the potential for corruption in what was euphemistically called “spontaneous” privatisation. Overall, for many people in these transition-challenged countries, the famously witty quip of the ‘losers’ in post-Risorgimento liberal Italy seemed to apply: “we were better off when we were worse off”.  The realisation of what was happening nevertheless took some time to seep through into the consciousness of voters. The role of the press and media was crucial in this, despite the claim of Philipp Ther (2014) claim that many…

… journalists, newspapers and radio broadcasters remained loyal to their régimes for many years, but swiftly changed sides in 1989. More than by sheer opportunism, they were motivated by a sense of professional ethics, which they retained despite all Communist governments’ demand, since Lenin’s time, for ‘partynost’ (partisanship).

In reality, journalists were relatively privileged under the old régime, provided they toed the party line, and were determined to be equally so in the new dispensation. Some may have become independent-minded and analytical, but very many more exhibited an event greater partisanship after what the writer Péter Eszterházy called rush hour on the road to Damascus. The initial behaviour of the press after 1989 was a key factor in supporting the claim of the Right, both in Poland and Hungary, that the revolution was only ‘half-completed’. ‘Liberal’ analysis does not accept this and is keen to stress only the manipulation of the media by today’s right-wing governments. But even Paul Lendvai has admitted that, in Hungary, in the first years after the change, the media was mostly sympathetic to the Liberals and former Communists.

This was a long time ago: Viktor Orbán and Zoltán Pokorni in 2004

On the other hand, he has also noted that both the Antall and the first Orbán government (1998-2002) introduced strong measures to remedy this state of affairs. Apparently, when Orbán complained to a Socialist politician of press bias, the latter suggested that he should “buy a newspaper”, advice which he subsequently followed, helping to fuel ongoing ‘liberal’ complaints about the origins of the one-sided nature of today’s media in Hungary. Either way, Damascene conversions among journalists could be detected under both socialist and conservative nationalist governments.

The Great Financial Meltdown of 2007-2009 & All That!:

The financial meltdown that originated in the US economy in 2007-08 had one common factor on both sides of the Atlantic, namely the excess of recklessly issued credit resulting in massive default, chiefly in the property sector. EU countries from Ireland to Spain to Greece were in virtual meltdown as a result. Former Communist countries adopted various remedies, some taking the same IMF-prescribed medicine as Ireland. It was in 2008, as the financial crisis and recession caused living standards across Europe to shrink, that the established ruling centrist parties began to lose control over their volatile electorates. The Eurocrats in Brussels also became obvious targets, with their ‘clipboard austerity’, especially in their dealings with the Mediterranean countries and with Greece in particular. The Visegrád Four Countries had more foreign direct investment into industrial enterprises than in many other members of the EU, where the money went into ‘financials’ and real estate, making them extremely vulnerable when the crisis hit. Philipp Ther, the German historian of Europe Since 1989, has argued that significant actors, including Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, preached the ‘gospel of neo-liberalism’ but were pragmatic in its application.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC, delivered his first State of the Union Address 2015 "Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity" at the plenary session of the EP in Strasbourg, chaired by Martin Schulz, President of the EP. (EC Audiovisual Services, 09/09/2015)

The Man the ‘Populists’ love to hate:  Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission since November 2014, when he succeeded Jóse Manuel Barroso. Although seen by many as the archetypal ‘Eurocrat’, by the time he left office as the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Juncker was the longest-serving head of any national government in the EU, and one of the longest-serving democratically elected leaders in the world, his tenure encompassing the height of the European financial and sovereign debt crisis. From 2005 to 2013, Juncker served as the first permanent President of the Eurogroup.

Dealing with the case of Hungary, László Csaba has expressed his Thoughts on Péter Ákos Bod’s Book, published recently, in the current issue of Hungarian Review (November 2018). In the sixth chapter of his book, Bod admits that the great financial meltdown of 2007-09 did not come out of the blue, and could have been prepared for more effectively in Hungary. Csaba finds this approach interesting, considering that the recurrent motif in the international literature of the crisis has tended to stress the general conviction among ‘experts’ that nothing like what happened in these years could ever happen again. Bod points out that Hungary had begun to lag behind years before the onslaught of the crisis, earlier than any of its neighbours and the core members of the EU. The application of solutions apparently progressive by international standards often proved to be superficial in their effects, however. In reality, the efficiency of governance deteriorated faster than could have been gleaned from macroeconomic factors. This resulted in excessive national debt and the IMF had to be called in by the Socialist-Liberal coalition. The country’s peripheral position and marked exposure were a given factor in this, but the ill-advised decisions in economic policy certainly added to its vulnerability. Bod emphasises that the stop-and-go politics of 2002-2010 were heterodox: no policy advisor or economic textbook ever recommended a way forward, and the detrimental consequences were accumulating fast.

As a further consequence of the impact of the ongoing recession on the ‘Visegrád’ economies, recent statistical analyses by Thomas Piketty have shown that between 2010 and 2016 the annual net outflow of profits and incomes from property represented on average 4.7 per cent of GDP in Poland, 7.2 per cent in Hungary, 7.6 per cent in the Czech Republic and 4.2 per cent in Slovakia, reducing commensurately the national income of these countries. By comparison, over the same period, the annual net transfers from the EU, i.e. the difference between the totality of expenditure received and the contributions paid to the EU budget were appreciably lower: 2.7 per cent of GDP in Poland, 4.0 per cent in Hungary, 1.9 per cent in the Czech Republic and 2.2 per cent in Slovakia. Piketty added that:

East European leaders never miss an opportunity to recall that investors take advantage of their position of strength to keep wages low and maintain excessive margins.

He cites a recent interview with the Czech PM in support of this assertion. The recent trend of the ‘Visegrád countries’ to more nationalist and ‘populist’ governments suggests a good deal of disillusionment with global capitalism. At the very least, the theory of “trickle down” economics, whereby wealth created by entrepreneurs in the free market, assisted by indulgent attitudes to business on the part of the government, will assuredly filter down to the lowest levels of society, does not strike the man on the Budapest tram as particularly plausible. Gross corruption in the privatisation process, Freunderlwirtschaft, abuse of their privileged positions by foreign investors, extraction of profits abroad and the volatility of “hot money” are some of the factors that have contributed to the disillusionment among ‘ordinary’ voters. Matters would have been far worse were it not for a great deal of infrastructural investment through EU funding. Although Poland has been arguably the most “successful” of the Visegrád countries in economic terms, greatly assisted by its writing off of most of its Communist-era debts, which did not occur in Hungary, it has also moved furthest to the right, and is facing the prospect of sanctions from the EU (withdrawal of voting rights) which are also, now, threatened in Hungary’s case.

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Bod’s then moves on to discuss the economic ‘recovery’ from 2010 to 2015. The former attitude of seeking compromise was replaced by sovereignty-based politics, coupled with increasingly radical government decisions. What gradually emerged was an ‘unorthodox’ trend in economic management measures, marking a break with the practices of the previous decade and a half, stemming from a case-by-case deliberation of government and specific single decisions made at the top of government. As such, they could hardly be seen as revolutionary, given Hungary’s historical antecedents, but represented a return to a more authoritarian form of central government. The direct peril of insolvency had passed by the middle of 2012, employment had reached a historic high and the country’s external accounts began to show a reliable surplus.

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Elsewhere in Europe, in 2015, Greece elected the radical left-wing populists of Syriza, originally founded in 2004 as a coalition of left-wing and radical left parties, into power. Party chairman Alexis Tsipras served as Prime Minister of Greece from January 2015 to August 2015 and, following subsequent elections, from September 2015 to the present. In Spain, meanwhile, the anti-austerity Podemos took twenty-one per cent of the vote in 2015 just a year after the party was founded. Even in famously liberal Scandinavia, nation-first, anti-immigration populists have found their voice over the last decade. By 2018, eleven countries have populists in power and the number of Europeans ruled by them has increased from fourteen million to 170 million. This has been accounted for by everything from the international economic recession to inter-regional migration, the rise of social media and the spread of globalisation. Recently, western Europe’s ‘solid inner circle’ has started to succumb. Across Europe as a whole, right-wing populist parties, like Geert Wilder’s (pictured above) anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, have also succeeded in influencing policy even when not in government, dragging the discourse of their countries’ dominant centre-right parties further to the Right, especially on the issues of immigration and migration.

The Migration Factor & the Crisis of 2015:

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Just four momentous years ago, in her New Year message on 31 December 2014, Chancellor Merkel (pictured right) singled out these movements and parties for criticism, including Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), founded in direct response to her assertion at the height of the financial crisis that there was “no alternative” to the EU bailing out Greece. The German people, she insisted, must not have “prejudice, coldness or hatred” in their hearts, as these groups did. Instead, she urged the German people to a new surge of openness to refugees.

Apart from the humanitarian imperative, she argued, Germany’s ‘ageing population’ meant that immigration would prove to be a benefit for all of us. The following May, the Federal Interior Minister announced in Berlin that the German government was expecting 450,000 refugees to arrive in the country that coming year. Then in July 1915, the human tragedy of the migration story burst into the global news networks. In August, the German Interior Ministry had already revised the country’s expected arrivals for 2015 up to 800,000, more than four times the number of arrivals in 2014. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees pondered the question of what they would do with the people coming up through Greece via ‘the Balkan route’ to Hungary and on to Germany. Would they be sent back to Hungary as they ought to have been under international protocols? An agreement was reached that this would not happen, and this was announced on Twitter on 25 August which said that we are no longer enforcing the Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens. Then, on 31 August, Angela Merkel told an audience of foreign journalists in Berlin that German flexibility was what was needed. She then went on to argue that Europe as a whole…

“… must move and states must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum. Universal civil rights were so far tied together with Europe and its history. If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed. It won’t be the Europe we imagine. … ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘We can do this’).

Much of the international media backed her stance, The Economist claiming that Merkel the bold … is brave, decisive and right. But across the continent ‘as a whole’ Merkel’s unilateral decision was to create huge problems in the coming months. In a Europe whose borders had come down and in which free movement had become a core principle of the EU, the mass movement through Europe of people from outside those borders had not been anticipated. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands were walking through central Europe on their way north and west to Germany, Denmark and Sweden. During 2015 around 400,000 migrants moved through Hungary’s territory alone. Fewer than twenty of them stopped to claim asylum within Hungary, but their passage through the country to the railway stations in Budapest had a huge impact on its infrastructure and national psychology.

Is this the truth?

By early September the Hungarian authorities announced that they were overwhelmed by the numbers coming through the country and declared the situation to be out of control. The government tried to stop the influx by stopping trains from leaving the country for Austria and Germany. Around fourteen thousand people were arriving in Munich each day. Over the course of a single weekend, forty thousand new arrivals were expected. Merkel had her spokesman announce that Germany would not turn refugees away in order to help clear the bottleneck in Budapest, where thousands were sleeping at the Eastern Station, waiting for trains. Some were tricked into boarding a train supposedly bound for Austria which was then held near a detention camp just outside Budapest. Many of the ‘migrants’ refused to leave the train and eventually decided to follow the tracks on foot back to the motorway and on to the border in huge columns comprising mainly single men, but also many families with children.

These actions led to severe criticism of Hungary in the international media and from the heads of other EU member states, both on humanitarian grounds but also because Hungary appeared to be reverting to national boundaries. But the country had been under a huge strain not of its own making. In 2013 it had registered around twenty thousand asylum seekers. That number had doubled in 2014, but during the first three winter months of 2015, it had more people arriving on its southern borders than in the whole of the previous year. By the end of the year, the police had registered around 400,000 people, entering the country at the rate of ten thousand a day. Most of them had come through Greece and should, therefore, have been registered there, but only about one in ten of them had been. As the Hungarians saw it, the Greeks had simply failed to comply with their obligations under the Schengen Agreement and EU law. To be fair to them, however, the migrants had crossed the Aegean sea by thousands of small boats, making use of hundreds of small, poorly policed islands. This meant that the Hungarian border was the first EU land border they encountered on the mainland.

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Above: Refugees are helped by volunteers as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos.

In July the Hungarian government began constructing a new, taller fence along the border with Serbia. This increased the flow into Croatia, which was not a member of the EU at that time, so the fence was then extended along the border between Croatia and Hungary. The Hungarian government claimed that these fences were the only way they could control the numbers who needed to be registered before transit, but they were roundly condemned by the Slovenians and Austrians, who now also had to deal with huge numbers on arriving on foot. But soon both Austria and Slovenia were erecting their own fences, though the Austrians claimed that their fence was ‘a door with sides’ to control the flow rather than to stop it altogether. The western European governments, together with the EU institutions’ leaders tried to persuade central-European countries to sign up to a quota system for relocating the refugees across the continent, Viktor Orbán led a ‘revolt’ against this among the ‘Visegrád’ countries.

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Douglas Murray has recently written in his best-selling book (pictured right, 2017/18) that the Hungarian government were also reflecting the will of their people in that a solid two-thirds of Hungarians polled during this period felt that their government was doing the right thing in refusing to agree to the quota number. In reality, there were two polls held in the autumn of 2015 and the spring of 2016, both of which had returns of less than a third, of whom two-thirds did indeed agree to a loaded question, written by the government, asking if they wanted to “say ‘No’ to Brussels”. In any case, both polls were ‘consultations’ rather than mandatory referenda, and on both occasions, all the opposition parties called for a boycott. Retrospectively, Parliament agreed to pass the second result into law, changing the threshold to two-thirds of the returns and making it mandatory.

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Murray has also claimed that the financier George Soros, spent considerable sums of money during 2015 on pressure groups and institutions making the case for open borders and free movement of migrants into and around Europe. The ideas of Karl Popper, the respected philosopher who wrote The Open Society and its Enemies have been well-known since the 1970s, and George Soros had first opened the legally-registered Open Society office in Budapest in 1987.

Soros certainly helped to found and finance the Central European University as an international institution teaching ‘liberal arts’ some twenty-five years ago, which the Orbán government has recently been trying to close by introducing tighter controls on higher education in general. Yet in 1989 Orbán himself received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to attend Pembroke College, Oxford but returned after a few months to become a politician and leader of FIDESZ.

George Soros, the bogiey man

However, there is no evidence to support the claim that Soros’ foundation published millions of leaflets encouraging illegal immigration into Hungary, or that the numerous groups he was funding were going out of their way to undermine the Hungarian government or any other of the EU’s nation states.

Soros’ statement to Bloomberg that his foundation was upholding European values that Orbán, through his opposition to refugee quotas was undermining would therefore appear to be, far from evidence a ‘plot’, a fairly accurate reiteration of the position taken by the majority of EU member states as well as the ‘Brussels’ institutions. Soros’ plan, as quoted by Murray himself, treats the protection of refugees as the objective and national borders as the obstacle. Here, the ‘national borders’ of Hungary he is referring to are those with other surrounding EU states, not Hungary’s border with Serbia. So Soros is referring to ‘free movement’ within the EU, not immigration from outside the EU across its external border with Serbia. During the 2015 Crisis, a number of churches and charitable organisations gave humanitarian assistance to the asylum seekers at this border. There is no evidence that any of these groups received external funding, advocated resistance against the European border régime or handed out leaflets in Serbia informing the recipients of how to get into Europe.

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Viktor Orbán & The Strange Case of ‘Illiberal Democracy’:

On 15 March 2016, the Prime Minister of Hungary used the ceremonial speech for the National Holiday commemorating the 1848 Revolution to explain his wholly different approach to migration, borders, culture and identity. Viktor Orbán told those assembled by the steps of the National Museum that, in Douglas Murray’s summation, the new enemies of freedom were different from the imperial and Soviet systems of the past, that today they did not get bombarded or imprisoned, but merely threatened and blackmailed. In his own words, the PM set himself up as the Christian champion of Europe:

At last, the peoples of Europe, who have been slumbering in abundance and prosperity, have understood that the principles of life that Europe has been built on are in mortal danger. Europe is the community of Christian, free and independent nations…

Mass migration is a slow stream of water persistently eroding the shores. It is masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory. And what is gaining territory for them is losing territory for us. Flocks of obsessed human rights defenders feel the overwhelming urge to reprimand us and to make allegations against us. Allegedly we are hostile xenophobes, but the truth is that the history of our nation is also one of inclusion, and the history of intertwining of cultures. Those who have sought to come here as new family members, as allies, or as displaced persons fearing for their lives, have been let in to make new homes for themselves.

But those who have come here with the intention of changing our country, shaping our nation in their own image, those who have come with violence and against our will have always been met with resistance.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Yet behind these belligerent words, and in other comments and speeches, Viktor Orbán has made clear that his government is opposed taking in its quota of Syrian refugees on religious and cultural grounds. Robert Fico, the Slovakian leader, made this explicit when he stated just a month before taking over the Presidency of the European Union, that…

… Islam has no place in Slovakia: Migrants change the character of our country. We do not want the character of this country to change. 

It is in the context of this tide of unashamed Islamaphobia in central and eastern Europe that right-wing populism’s biggest advances have been made.  All four of the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) are governed by populist parties. None of these countries has had any recent experience of immigration from Muslim populations in Africa or the Indian subcontinent, unlike many of the former imperial powers of western Europe. Having had no mass immigration during the post-war period, they had retained, in the face of Soviet occupation and dominance, a sense of national cohesion and a mono-cultural character which supported their needs as small nations with distinct languages. They also distrusted the West, since they had suffered frequent disappointments in their attempts to assert their independence from Soviet control and had all experienced, within living memory, the tragic dimensions of life that the Western allies had forgotten. So, too, we might add, did the Baltic States, a fact which is sometimes conveniently ignored. The events of 1956, 1968, 1989 and 1991 had revealed how easily their countries could be swept in one direction and then swept back again. At inter-governmental levels, some self-defined ‘Islamic’ countries have not helped the cause of the Syrian Muslim refugees. Iran, which has continued to back the Hezbollah militia in its fighting for Iranian interests in Syria since 2011, has periodically berated European countries for not doing more to aid the refugees. In September 2015, President Rouhani lectured the Hungarian Ambassador to Iran over Hungary’s alleged ‘shortcomings’ in the refugee crisis.

Or that?

For their part, the central-eastern European states continued in their stand-off with ‘Berlin and Brussels’. The ‘Visegrád’ group of four nations have found some strength in numbers. Since they continued to refuse migrant quotas, in December 2017 the European Commission announced that it was suing Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic at the European Court of Justice over this refusal. Sanctions and heavy fines were threatened down the line, but these countries have continued to hold out against these ‘threats’. But Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has benefited substantially from German investment, particularly in the auto industry. German business enjoys access to cheap, skilled and semi-skilled labour in Hungary, while Hungary benefits from the jobs and the tax revenue flowing from the investment. German business is pragmatic and generally ignores political issues as long as the investment climate is right. However, the German political class, and especially the German media, have been forcibly critical of Viktor Orbán, especially over the refugee and migrant issues. As Jon Henley reports, there are few signs of these issues being resolved:

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Philipp Ther’s treatment of Hungary in his History (2016) follows this line of criticism. He describes Orbán as being a ‘bad loser’ in the 2002 election and a ‘bad winner’ in 2010. Certainly, FIDESZ only started showing their true populist colours after their second victory in 2006, determined not to lose power after just another four years. They have now won four elections in succession.

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Viktor Orbán speaking during the 2018 Election campaign: “Only Fidesz!”

John Henley, European Affairs Correspondent of The Guardian, identifies the core values of FIDESZ as those of nationalism, cultural conservatism and authoritarianism. For the past decade, he claims, they have been attacking the core institutions of any liberal democracy, including an independent judiciary and a free press/ media. He argues that they have increasingly defined national identity and citizenship in terms of ethnicity and religion, demonising opponents, such as George Soros, in propaganda which is reminiscent of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. This was particularly the case in the 2018 election campaign, in which ubiquitous posters showed him as the ‘puppet-master’ pulling the strings of the opposition leaders. In the disputed count, the FIDESZ-KDNP (Christian Democrat) Alliance in secured sixty-three per cent of the vote. The OSCE observers commented on the allusions to anti-Semitic tropes in the FIDESZ-KDNP campaign. In addition, since the last election, Jon Henley points out how, as he sees it, FIDESZ’s leaders have ramped up their efforts to turn the country’s courts into extensions of their executive power, public radio and television stations into government propaganda outlets, and universities into transmitters of their own narrowly nationalistic and culturally conservative values. Philipp Ther likewise accuses Orbán’s government of infringing the freedom of the press, and of ‘currying favour’ by pledging to put the international banks in their place (the miss-selling of mortgages in Swiss Francs was egregious in Hungary).

Defenders of Viktor Orbán’s government and its FIDESZ-KDNP supporters will dismiss this characterisation as stereotypical of ‘western liberal’ attacks on Orbán, pointing to the fact that he won forty-nine per cent of the popular vote in the spring elections and a near two-thirds parliamentary majority because the voters thought that overall it had governed the country well and in particular favoured its policy on migration, quotas and relocation. Nicholas T Parsons agrees that Orbán has reacted opportunistically to the unattractive aspects of inward “investment”, but says that it is wishful thinking to interpret his third landslide victory as in April 2018 as purely the result of manipulation of the media or the abuse of power. However, in reacting more positively to Ther’s treatment of economic ‘neo-liberalism’, Parsons mistakenly conflates this with his own attacks on ‘liberals’, ‘the liberal establishment’ and ‘the liberal élite’. He then undermines his own case by hankering after a “Habsburg solution” to the democratic and nationalist crisis in the “eastern EU”.  To suggest that a democratic model for the region can be based on the autocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire which finally collapsed in abject failure over a century ago is to stand the history of the region case on its head. However, he makes a valid point in arguing that the “western EU” could do more to recognise the legitimate voice of the ‘Visegrád Group’.

Nevertheless, Parsons overall claim that Orbán successfully articulates what many Hungarians feel is shared by many close observers. He argues that…

… commentary on the rightward turn in Central Europe has concentrated on individual examples of varying degrees of illiberalism, but has been too little concerned with why people are often keen to vote for governments ritualistically denounced by the liberal establishment  as ‘nationalist’ and ‘populist’. 

Gerald Frost, a staff member of the Danube Institute, recently wrote to The Times that while he did not care for the policies of the Orbán government, Hungary can be forgiven for wishing to preserve its sovereignty. But even his supporters recognise that his ‘innocent’ coining of the term “illiberal democracy” in a speech to young ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania in 2016. John O’Sullivan interpreted this at the time as referring to the way in which under the rules of ‘liberal democracy’, elected bodies have increasingly ceded power to undemocratic institutions like courts and unelected international agencies which have imposed ‘liberal policies’ on sovereign nation states. But the negative connotations of the phrase have tended to obscure the validity of the criticism it contains. Yet the Prime Minister has continued to use it in his discourse, for example in his firm response to the European Parliament’s debate on the Sargentini Report (see the section below):

Illiberal democracy is when someone else other than the liberals have won.

At least this clarifies that he is referring to the noun rather than to the generic adjective, but it gets us no further in the quest for a mutual understanding of ‘European values’. As John O’Sullivan points out, until recently, European politics has been a left-right battle between the socialists and the conservatives which the liberals always won. That is now changing because increasing numbers of voters, often in the majority, disliked, felt disadvantaged by, and eventually opposed policies which were more or less agreed between the major parties. New parties have emerged, often from old ones, but equally often as completely new creations of the alienated groups of citizens. In the case of FIDESZ, new wine was added to the old wine-skin of liberalism, and the bag eventually burst. A new basis for political discourse is gradually being established throughout Europe. The new populist parties which are arising in Europe are expressing resistance to progressive liberal policies. The political centre, or consensus parties, are part of an élite which have greater access to the levers of power and which views “populism” as dangerous to liberal democracy. This prevents the centrist ‘establishment’ from making compromises with parties it defines as extreme. Yet voter discontent stems, in part, from the “mainstream” strategy of keeping certain issues “out of politics” and demonizing those who insist on raising them.

“It’s the Economy, stupid!” – but is it?:

In the broader context of central European electorates, it also needs to be noted that, besides the return of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party in Poland, and the continued dominance of populist-nationalists in Slovakia, nearly a third of Czech voters recently backed the six-year-old Ano party led by a Trump-like businessman and outsider, who claims to be able to get things done in a way that careerist politicians cannot. But, writes Henley, the Czech Republic is still a long way from becoming another Hungary or Poland. Just 2.3% of the country’s workforce is out of a job, the lowest rate anywhere in the EU. Last year its economy grew by 4.3%, well above the average in central-Eastern Europe, and the country was untouched by the 2015 migration crisis. But in the 2017 general election, the populists won just over forty per cent of votes, a tenfold increase since 1998. Martin Mejstrik, from Charles University in Prague, commented to Henley:

“Here, there has been no harsh economic crisis, no big shifts in society. This is one of the most developed and successful post-communist states. There are, literally, almost no migrants. And nonetheless, people are dissatisfied.” 

Henley also quotes Jan Kavan, a participant in the Prague Spring of 1968, and one of the leaders of today’s Czech Social Democrats, who like the centre-left across Europe, have suffered most from the populist surge, but who nevertheless remains optimistic:

“It’s true that a measure of populism wins elections, but if these pure populists don’t combine it with something else, something real… Look, it’s simply not enough to offer people a feeling that you are on their side. In the long-term, you know, you have to offer real solutions.”

By contrast with the data on the Czech Republic, Péter Ákos Bod’s book concludes that the data published in 2016-17 failed to corroborate the highly vocal opinions about the exceptional performance of the Hungarian economy. Bod has found that the lack of predictability, substandard government practices, and the string of non-transparent, often downright suspect transactions are hardly conducive to long-term quality investments and an enduring path of growth they enable. He finds that Hungary does not possess the same attributes of a developed state as are evident in the Czech Republic, although the ‘deeper involvement and activism’ on the part of the government than is customary in western Europe ‘is not all that alien’ to Hungary given the broader context of economic history. László Csaba concludes that if Bod is correct in his analysis that the Hungarian economy has been stagnating since 2016, we must regard the Hungarian victory over the recent crisis as a Pyrrhic one. He suggests that the Orbán government cannot afford to hide complacently behind anti-globalisation rhetoric and that, …

… in view of the past quarter-century, we cannot afford to regard democratic, market-oriented developments as being somehow pre-ordained or inevitable. 

Delete Viktor

Above: Recent demonstrations against the Orbán government’s policies in Budapest.

By November 2018, it was clear that Steve Bannon (pictured below with the leader of the far-right group, Brothers of Italy, Giorgi Meloni and the Guardian‘s Paul Lewis in Venice), the ex-Trump adviser’s attempt to foment European populism ahead of the EU parliamentary elections in 2019, was failing to attract support from any of the right-wing parties he was courting outside of Italy. Viktor Orbán has signalled ambivalence about receiving a boost from an American outsider, which would undermine the basis of his campaign against George Soros. The Polish populists also said they would not join his movement, and after meeting Bannon in Prague, the populist president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, remained far from convinced, as he himself reported:

“He asked for an audience, got thirty minutes, and after thirty minutes I told him I absolutely disagree with his views and I ended the audience.”

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The ‘Furore’ over the Sargentini Report:

Judith-Sargentini-portret.jpg

In Hungary, the European Parliament’s overwhelming acceptance of the Sargentini Report has been greeted with ‘outrage’ by many Hungarian commentators and FIDESZ supporters. Judith Sargentini (pictured right) is a Dutch politician and Member of the European Parliament (MEP), a member of the Green Left. Her EP report alleges, like the Guardian article quoted above, that democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights are under systematic threat in Hungary.

The subsequent vote in the European Parliament called for possible sanctions to be put in place, including removal of the country’s voting rights within the EU institutions. FIDESZ supporters argue that the European Parliament has just denounced a government and a set of policies endorsed by the Hungarian electorate in a landslide. The problem with this interpretation is that the policies which were most criticised in the EU Report were not put to the electorate, which was fought by FIDESZ-KDNP on the migration issue to the exclusion of all others, including the government’s performance on the economy. Certainly, the weakness and division among the opposition helped its cause, as voters were not offered a clear, unified, alternative programme.

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But does the EU’s criticism of Hungary really fit into this “pattern” as O’Sullivan describes it, or an international left-liberal “plot”? Surely the Sargentini Report is legitimately concerned with the Orbán government’s blurring of the separation of powers within the state, and potential abuses of civil rights and fundamental freedoms, and not with its policies on immigration and asylum. Orbán may indeed be heartily disliked in Brussels and Strasbourg for his ‘Eurosceptic nationalism’, but neither the adjective nor the noun in this collocation is alien to political discourse across Europe; east, west or centre. Neither is the concept of ‘national sovereignty’ peripheral to the EU’s being; on the contrary, many would regard it as a core value, alongside ‘shared sovereignty’.

What appears to be fuelling the conflict between Budapest, Berlin and Brussels is the failure to find common ground on migration and relocation quotas. But in this respect, it seems, there is little point in continually re-running the battle over the 2015 migration crisis. Certainly, O’Sullivan is right to suggest that the European Parliament should refrain from slapping Orbán down to discourage other “populists” from resisting its politics of historical inevitability and ever-closer union. Greater flexibility is required on both sides if Hungary is to remain within the EU, and the action of the EP should not be confused with the Commission’s case in the ECJ, conflated as ‘Brussels’ mania. Hungary will need to accept its responsibilities and commitments as a member state if it wishes to remain as such. One of the salient lessons of the ‘Brexit’ debates and negotiations is that no country, big or small, can expect to keep all the benefits of membership without accepting all its obligations.

In the latest issue of Hungarian Review (November 2018), there are a series of articles which come to the defence of the Orbán government in the wake of the Strasbourg vote in favour of adopting the Sargentini Report and threatening sanctions against Hungary. These articles follow many of the lines taken by O’Sullivan and other contributors to earlier editions but are now so indignant that we might well wonder how their authors can persist in supporting Hungary’s continued membership of an association of ‘liberal democratic’ countries whose values they so obviously despise. They are outraged by the EP resolution’s criticism of what it calls the Hungarian government’s “outdated and conservative moral beliefs” such as conventional marriage and policies to strengthen the traditional family. He is, of course, correct in asserting that these are matters for national parliaments by the founding European treaties and that they are the profound moral beliefs of a majority or large plurality of Europeans. 

But the fact remains that, while that ‘majority’ or ‘plurality’ may still hold to these biblically based beliefs, many countries have also decided to recognise same-sex marriage as a secular civil right. This has been because, alongside the ‘majoritarian’ principle, they also accept that the role of liberal democracies is to protect and advance the equal rights of minorities, whether defined by language, ethnicity, nationality or sexual preference. In other words, the measure of democratic assets or deficits of any given country is therefore determined by how well the majority respects the right of minorities. In countries where religious organisations are allowed to register marriages, such as the UK, religious institutions are nevertheless either excluded or exempted from solemnising same-sex marriages. In many other countries, including Hungary and France, the legal registration of marriages can only take place in civic offices in any case. Yet, in 2010, the Hungarian government decided to prescribe such rights by including the ‘Christian’ definition of marriage as a major tenet of its new constitution. Those who have observed Hungary both from within and outside questioned at the time what its motivation was for doing this and why it believed that such a step was necessary. There is also the question as to whether Hungary will accept same-sex marriages legally registered in other EU countries on an equal basis for those seeking a settled status within the country.

O’Sullivan, as editor of Hungarian Review, supports Ryszard Legutko’s article on ‘The European Union’s Democratic Deficit’ as being coolly-reasoned. It has to be said that many observers across Europe would indeed agree that the EU has its own ‘democratic deficit’, which they are determined to address. On finer points, while Legutko is right to point out that violence against Jewish persons and property has been occurring across Europe. But it cannot be denied, as he seeks to do, that racist incident happen here in Hungary too. In the last few years, it has been reported in the mainstream media that rabbis have been spat on in the streets and it certainly the case that armed guards have had to be stationed at the main ‘Reformed’ synagogue in Budapest, not simply to guard against ‘Islamic’ terrorism, we are told, but also against attacks from right-wing extremists.

Legutko also labels the Central European University as a ‘foreign’ university, although it has been operating in the capital for more than twenty-five years. It is now, tragically in the view of many Hungarian academics, being forced to leave for no other reason than that it was originally sponsored by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. The ‘common rules’ which Legutko accepts have been ‘imposed’ on all universities and colleges relate to the curriculum, limiting academic freedom, and bear no relation to the kinds of administrative regulation which apply in other member states, where there is respect for the freedom of the institutions to offer the courses they themselves determine. Legutko’s other arguments, using terms like ‘outrageous’, ‘ideological crusade’, and ‘leftist crusaders’ are neither, in O’Sullivan’s terms, ‘cool’ nor ‘reasoned’.

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György Schöpflin’s curiously titled article, What If?  is actually a series of rather extreme statements, but there are some valid points for discussion among these. Again, the article is a straightforward attack on “the left” both in Hungary and within the European Parliament. The ‘opposition’ in Hungary is certainly ‘hapless’ and ‘fragmented’, but this does not absolve the Hungarian government from addressing the concerns of the 448 MEPs who voted to adopt the Sargentini report, including many from the European People’s Party to which the FIDESZ-MPP-KDNP alliance still belongs, for the time being at least. Yet Schöpflin simply casts these concerns aside as based on a Manichean view in which the left attributes all virtue to itself and all vice to Fidesz, or to any other political movement that questions the light to the left. Presumably, then, his definition of the ‘left’ includes Conservatives, Centrists and Christian Democrats from across the EU member states, in addition to the Liberal and Social Democratic parties. Apparently, this complete mainstream spectrum has been duped by the Sargentini Report, which he characterises as a dystopic fabrication:

Dystopic because it looked only for the worst (and found it) and fabrication because it ignored all the contrary evidence.

Yet, on the main criticisms of the Report, Schöpflin produces no evidence of his own to refute the ‘allegations’. He simply refers to the findings of the Venice Commission and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency which have been less critical and more supportive in relation to Hungary’s system of Justice. Fair enough, one might say, but doesn’t this simply give the lie to his view of the EU as a monolithic organisation? Yet his polemic is unrelenting:

The liberal hegemony has increasingly acquired many of the qualities of a secular belief system – unconsciously mimicking Christian antecedents – with a hierarchy of public and private evils. Accusations substitute for evidence, but one can scourge one’s opponents (enemies increasingly) by calling them racist or nativist or xenophobic. … Absolute evil is attributed to the Holocaust, hence Holocaust denial and Holocaust banalisation are treated as irremediably sinful, even criminal in some countries. Clearly, the entire area is so strongly sacralised or tabooised that it is untouchable.

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001The questions surrounding the events of 1944-45 in Europe are not ‘untouchable’. On the contrary, they are unavoidable, as the well-known picture above continues to show. Here, Schöpflin seems to be supporting the current trend in Hungary for redefining the Holocaust, if not denying it. This is part of a government-sponsored project to absolve the Horthy régime of its responsibility for the deportation of some 440,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, under the direction of Adolf Eichmann and his henchmen, but at the hands of the Hungarian gendarmerie. Thankfully, Botond Gaál’s article on Colonel Koszorús later in this edition of Hungarian Review provides further evidence of this culpability at the time of the Báky Coup in July 1944.

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But there are ‘official’ historians currently engaged in creating a false narrative that the Holocaust in Hungary should be placed in the context of the later Rákósi terror as something which was directed from outside Hungary by foreign powers, and done to Hungarians, rather than something which Hungarians did to each other and in which Admiral Horthy’s Regency régime was directly complicit. This is part of a deliberate attempt at the rehabilitation and restoration of the reputation of the mainly authoritarian governments of the previous quarter century,  a process which is visible in the recent removal and replacement public memorials and monuments.

I have dealt with these issues in preceding articles on this site. Schöpflin then goes on to challenge other ‘taboos’ in ‘the catalogue of evils’ such as colonialism and slavery in order to conclude that:

The pursuit of post-colonial guilt is arguably tied up with the presence of former colonial subjects in the metropole, as an instrument for silencing any voices that might be audacious enough to criticise Third World immigration.

We can only assume here that by using the rather out-dated term ‘Third World’ he is referring to recent inter-regional migration from the Middle East, Africa and the Asian sub-continent. Here, again, is the denial of migration as a fact of life, not something to be criticised, in the way in which much of the propaganda on the subject, especially in Hungary, has tended to demonise migrants and among them, refugees from once prosperous states destroyed by wars sponsored by Europeans and Americans. These issues are not post-colonial, they are post-Cold War, and Hungary played its own (small) part in them, as we have seen. But perhaps what should concern us most here is the rejection, or undermining of universal values and human rights, whether referring to the past or the present. Of course, if Hungary truly wants to continue to head down this path, then it would indeed be logical for it to disassociate itself from all international organisations, including NATO and the UN agencies and organisations. All of these are based on concepts of absolute, regional and global values.

So, what are Schöpflin’s what ifs?? His article refers to two:

  • What if the liberal wave, no more than two-three decades old, has peaked? What if the Third Way of the 1990s is coming to its end and Europe is entering a new era in which left-liberalism will be just one way of doing politics among many? 

‘Liberalism’ in its generic sense, defined by Raymond Williams (1983) among others, is not, as this series of articles have attempted to show,  a ‘wave’ on the pan-European ‘shoreline’. ‘Liberal Democracy’ has been the dominant political system among the nation-states of Europe for the past century and a half. Hungary’s subjugation under a series of authoritarian Empires – Autocratic Austrian, Nazi German and Soviet Russian, as well as under its own twenty-five-year-long Horthy régime (1919-44), has meant that it has only experienced brief ‘tides’ of ‘liberal’ government in those 150 years, all of a conservative-nationalist kind. Most recently, this was defined as ‘civil democracy’ in the 1989 Constitution. What has happened in the last three decades is that the ‘liberal democratic’ hegemony in Europe, whether expressed in its dominant Christian Democrat/ Conservative or Social Democratic parties has been threatened, for good or ill, by more radical populist movements on both the Right and Left. In Hungary, these have been almost exclusively on the Right, because the radical Left has failed to recover from the downfall of state socialism. With the centre-Left parties also in disarray and divided, FIDESZ-MPP has been able to control the political narrative and, having effectively subsumed the KDNP, has been able to dismiss all those to its left as ‘left-liberal’. The term is purely pejorative and propagandist. What if, we might ask, the Populist ‘wave’ of the last thirty years is now past its peak? What is Hungary’s democratic alternative, or are we to expect an indefinite continuance of one-party rule?

Issues of Identity: Nationhood or Nation-Statehood?:

  • What if the accession process has not really delivered on its promises, that of unifying Europe, bringing the West and the East together on fully equal terms? If so, then the resurgence of trust in one’s national identity is more readily understood. … There is nothing in the treaties banning nationhood.

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The Brexit Divisions in Britain are clear: they are generational, national and regional.

We could empathise more easily with this view were it not for Schöpflin’s assumption that ‘Brexit’ was unquestionably fuelled by a certain sense of injured Englishness. His remark is typical of the stereotypical view of Britain which many Hungarians of a certain generation persist in recreating, quite erroneously. Questions of national identity are far more pluralistic and complex in western Europe in general, and especially in the United Kingdom, where two of the nations voted to ‘remain’ and two voted to ‘leave’. Equally, though, the Referendum vote in England was divided between North and South, and within the South between metropolitan and university towns on the one hand and ‘market’ towns on the other. The ‘third England’ of the North, like South Wales, contains many working-class people who feel themselves to be ‘injured’ not so much by a Brussels élite, but by a London one. The Scots, the Welsh, the Northern Irish and the Northern English are all finding their own voice, and deserve to be listened to, whether they voted ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. And Britain is not the only multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation-state in the western EU, as recent events in Spain have shown. Western Europeans are entirely sensitive to national identities; no more so than the Belgians. But these are not always as synonymous with ‘nation-statehood’ as they are among many of the East-Central nations.

Source:Reuters/László Balogh

Above: The Hungarian Opposition demonstrates on one of the main Danube bridges.

Hungarians with an understanding of their own history will have a clearer understanding of the complexities of multi-ethnic countries, but they frequently display more mono-cultural prejudices towards these issues, based on their more recent experiences as a smaller, land-locked, homogeneous population. They did not create this problem, of course, but the solution to it lies largely in their own hands. A more open attitude towards migrants, whether from Western Europe or from outside the EU might assist in this. Certainly, the younger, less ‘political’ citizens who have lived and work in the ‘West’ often return to Hungary with a more modern understanding and progressive attitude. The irony is, of course, due partly to this outward migration, Hungary is running short of workers, and the government is now, perhaps ironically, making itself unpopular by insisting that the ever-decreasing pool of workers must be prepared to work longer hours in order to satisfy the needs of German multi-nationals.  In this  regard, Schöpflin claims that:

The liberal hegemony was always weaker in Central Europe, supported by maybe ten per cent of voters (on a good day), so that is where the challenge to the hegemony emerged and the alternative was formulated, not least by FIDESZ. … In insisting that liberal free markets generate inequality, FIDESZ issued a warning that the free movement of capital and people had negative consequences for states on the semi-periphery. Equally, by blocking the migratory pressure on Europe in 2015, FIDESZ demonstrated that a small country could exercise agency even in the face of Europe-wide disapproval. 

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

Above: Pro-EU Hungarians show their colours in Budapest.

Such may well be the case, but O’Sullivan tells us that even the ‘insurgent parties’ want to reform the EU rather than to leave or destroy it. Neither does Schöpflin, nor any of the other writers, tell us what we are to replace the ‘liberal hegemony’ in Europe with. Populist political parties seem, at present, to be little more than diverse protest movements and to lack any real ideological cohesion or coherence. They may certainly continue ‘pep up’ our political discourse and make it more accessible within nation-states and across frontiers, but history teaches us (Williams, 1983) that hegemonies can only be overthrown by creating an alternative predominant practice and consciousness. Until that happens, ‘liberal democracy’, with its diversity and versatility, is the only proven way we have of governing ourselves. In a recent article for The Guardian Weekly (30 November 2018), Natalie Nougayréde has observed that Viktor Orbán may not be as secure as he thinks, at least as far as FIDESZ’s relations with the EU. She accepts that he was comfortably re-elected earlier last year, the man who has dubbed himself as the “Christian” champion of “illiberal democracy”. Having come under strong criticism from the European People’s Party, the conservative alliance in the EU that his party belongs to. There is evidence, she claims, that FIDESZ will get kicked out of the mainstream group after the May 2019 European elections. Whether this happens or not, he was very publicly lambasted for his illiberalism at the EPP’s congress in Helsinki in November. Orbán’s image has been further tarnished by the so-called Gruevski Scandal, caused by the decision to grant political asylum to Macedonia’s disgraced former prime minister, criminally convicted for fraud and corruption in his own country. This led to a joke among Hungarian pro-democracy activists that “Orbán no longer seems to have a problem with criminal migrants”.

Some other signs of change across central Europe are worth paying careful attention to. Civil society activists are pushing are pushing back hard, and we should beware of caving into a simplistic narrative about the east of Europe being a homogeneous hotbed of authoritarianism with little effort of put into holding it in check. If this resistance leads to a turn in the political tide in central Europe in 2019, an entirely different picture could emerge on the continent. Nevertheless, the European elections in May 2019 may catch European electorates in a rebellious mood, even in the West. To adopt and adapt Mark Twain’s famous epithet, the rumours of the ‘strange’ death of liberal democracy in central Europe in general, and in Hungary in particular, may well have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, the last two hundred years of Hungarian history have demonstrated its resilience and the fact that, in progressive politics as in history, nothing is inevitable. The children of those who successfully fought for democracy in 1988-89 will have demonstrated that ‘truth’ and ‘decency’ can yet again be victorious. The oft-mentioned east-west gap within the EU would then need to be revisited. Looking at Hungary today, to paraphrase another bard, there appears to be too much protest and not enough practical politics, but Hungary is by no means alone in this. But Central European democrats know that they are in a fight for values, and what failure might cost them. As a consequence, they adapt their methods by reaching out to socially conservative parts of the population. Dissent is alive and well and, as in 1989, in working out its own salvation, the east may also help the west to save itself from the populist tide also currently engulfing it.

referendum-ballot-box[1]

Sources (Parts Four & Five):

Jon Henley, Matthius Rooduijn, Paul Lewis & Natalie Nougayréde (30/11/2018), ‘The New Populism’ in The Guardian Weekly. London: Guardian News & Media Ltd.

John O’Sullivan (ed.) (2018), Hungarian Review, Vol. IX, No. 5 (September) & No. 6 (November). Budapest: János Martonyi/ The Danube Institute.

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

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Lobenwein Norbert (2009), a rendszerváltás pillanatai, ’89-09. Budapest: VOLT Produkció

Douglas Murray (2018), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Raymond Williams (1988), Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture & Society. London: Fontana

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Department of State Publication (Bureau of Public Affairs).

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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Three: Hungary 1956 & 1989/90: Revolution, Reaction & Reform.   Leave a comment

002The Expropriation of 1956:

Twenty-five years ago, Árpád Göncz (pictured right), then President of the Republic of Hungary and a former prisoner of the Kádár régime, delivered a speech on the anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy in 1958 in which he made the following observation on the 1956 Revolution:

“Everyone has the right to interpret 1956. But no one has the right to expropriate 1956. Only the knowledge of the undistorted truth can mellow the one-time confrontation into peace.”

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Just the use of the noun ‘Revolution’ involves interpretation, which is why some historians still prefer to refer to it as an ‘Uprising’. István Bart places it next to the events of 1848-49 and 1918-19 as, in Hungarian, a ‘forradalom’ (revolution). He defines it in the following terms:

… the bitter, desperate uprising against the Soviet Empire was one of the few events in the history of Hungary that was also of importance to the history of the world as a whole; the euphoric experience of the precious few days of freedom that followed the rapid, overnight collapse of an oppressive régime could never be forgotten, despite the … strict taboo against any mention of it; its defeat left an equally deep mark on the nation’s consciousness, as did the painful realization that Hungary’s fate was decided by the Great Powers, and not by the bloody fighting on the streets of Budapest; none the less, the events that led to the change in régime (>’rendszerváltás’) became irreversible (with every Hungarian citizen realizing this full well) when it was openly declared that what had happened in Hungary in 1956 was a revolution and not a “counter-revolution”.

Margaret Rooke, in her Case Study on The Hungarian Revolt of 1956 (1986), (intriguingly sub-titled János Kádár: traitor or saviour?) attached a glossary in which she defined ‘liberal democratic’ as a form of government in which several parties of both Right and Left compete for power in free elections; freedom of expression, organisation etc. Based on the variety of sources she consulted for this study, she described the government of Imre Nagy in these terms. She also defined the Petöfi Circle as a ‘Liberal and nationalist’ student society, named after the nationalist poet of the 1848 Revolution, Sándor Petöfi. The circle sponsored public debates and became a focal point for discussion within the wider press in Hungary.

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In 1972, János Kádár gave a speech to his Communist Party colleagues at his sixtieth birthday celebration in which he addressed the problem of the nomenclature of the events of the autumn of 1956:

In 1956 a grave and critical situation arose, which is called counter-revolution by historians. We know that this is the learned definition of what happened in 1956. But there is also another name for it that we can all accept; it was a national tragedy. A tragedy for the Party, the working-class, for the people as a whole and for individuals as well! It was a wrong turning, and this resulted in tragedy. And if we are now past it – and we can safely say we are – it is a very great thing indeed.  

What Kind of Revolution?:

But we also need to consider the adjectives which are often used to ‘appropriate’ the revolution. Sixty years on, Hungarians can certainly agree with Kádár that it was a national tragedy which needs to be commemorated as such, but as a historical event, if we accept that it was not simply a spontaneous ‘insurrection’,’uprising’ or ‘revolt’, but that it was a revolution, was it a socialist one, or was it liberal or nationalist in its ideological origins?

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Imre Nagy became a focal point as both Communist reformers and liberal intellectuals supported him. In April 1955 Nagy had lost power as PM and was expelled from the Hungarian Workers’ Party (Communist Party) in the wake of Khrushchev’s consolidation in Moscow. But following the new Soviet leader’s “secret speech” to the Twentieth Communist Party Congress in February 1956, Hungarian party boss Mátyás Rákosi announced in March that Lászlo Rajk, who had been convicted of spying for the CIA and executed in 1949, would be posthumously exonerated and rehabilitated. At the same time, however, Rákosi forced more collectivisation of agriculture and cracked down on the private sector and the arts.

The US Legation reported that…

… his removal or retirement… would be interpreted… by the general population as a victory for passive resistance.

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On 19 June, Rajk’s widow made a speech to the Petöfi Circle in which she made it clear that this conflict could not be resolved except by the latter tendency gaining the upper hand over the hard-liners:

Comrades, there are no words with which to tell you how I feel facing you after cruel years in jail, without a word, … a letter, or a sign of life reaching me from the outside, living in despair and hopelessness. When they took me away, I was nursing my five-month old infant. For five years I had no word of my baby.

You not only killed my husband, but you killed all decency in our country. You destroyed Hungary’s political, economic and moral life. Murderers cannot be rehabilitated. They must be punished!

Where were the members of the Party while these things were happening? How could they allow such degeneration to take place without rising in wrath against the guilty?

Comrades, stand by me in this fight!

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Then the unbelievable happened. Along with the audience, the Communist officials on the rostrum stood and gave the widow a standing ovation. In July, Soviet leaders in Moscow ordered a reorganisation of the HWP, hoping the move would avert an insurrection like the unrest which had flared in Poland the previous month. Rákosi was sacked as Party First Secretary and Ernő Gerő, his long-term hardline accomplice replaced him, while János Kádár, a ‘homegrown’ reformer, became Secretary of the Politburo. Kádár was well-known, first as a tool of Stalinism, then as a victim. To most people, he seemed an ordinary rehabilitated Party bureaucrat, a few steps down from the top, but with a past that did not differ from that of many others. Yet he was both friend and betrayer of Rajk, whom he then helped to frame when he was imprisoned in the 1949 purges. He is reported to have persuaded Rajk to confess to being an ‘imperialist spy’ by telling him:

Of course we all know that you are innocent. … The Party has chosen you for the role of traitor; you must sacrifice yourself for the Party. This is terrible but after all you are an old militant and cannot refuse to help the Party. 

Rajk had been a comparatively ‘nation-minded’ Communist who had been moved from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before his public destruction. His trial, ‘confession’ to being a Titoist and imperialist spy had been followed by his execution as his wife listened from her own nearby cell. Kádár had also been imprisoned at that time, and his brief moment of notoriety had seemed to be over. But now, with Rákosi’s replacement, Kádár quickly rose to the top of a violently changing and increasingly discontented Communist Party. Its top ranks had melted away around him and he was left almost alone. Gerő was far too closely identified with Rákosi to be able to implement the slow economic and political liberalisation that Moscow hoped for.

In August, the US Legation reported that the Government was making an effort to gain support from Nagy’s adherents within the Party, and from non-Communist elements, and that…

… the basic conflict continues between those wishing to cushion the effect of the Twentieth Congress in Hungary and those wishing to permit a more natural development of ideological thought and practice (within limits).

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Nagy was reinstated to the Hungarian Workers’ Party (HWP) at the beginning of October when an estimated 200,000 people demonstrated against Stalinism, inspired by the ceremonial reburial of Lászlo Rajk and other victims of the 1949 purges. Political opposition groups continued to meet in universities in Szeged, Sopron and Budapest, formulating their demands. On 16 and 23 October, two groups of students met and made the first open Hungarian demands for the removal of Soviet troops. Hungarian newspapers covered the meetings and the students continued to meet and organise openly. In his recent article for the Hungarian Review, Gyula Kodolányi has pointed to the evidence that some planning did go into the events which followed. The political police fired into the unarmed crowd at the Hungarian Radio Station on the evening of the 23rd when the demonstrators pressed for the proclamation of the Hungarian youth, with its list of their political demands, to be broadcast. Armed conflict broke out at the block of buildings next to the Radio building. Hungarian troops ordered to the spot by Gerő’s ‘Military Committee’ handed their weapons over to the demonstrators, some of them also participating in the siege of the Radio Station themselves.

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At the same time, another huge cheering crowd toppled the enormous Stalin statue in City Park and hauled its several pieces through the centre of the city. With this, the Hungarian Revolution, apparently unplanned and without leaders, had started.  There is some evidence that hard-liners in Moscow and Budapest decided in the summer to ignite a small-scale conflict, in order to finally do away with the Imre Nagy faction of the Party and to teach a lesson to the ‘hot-headed Hungarians’. Kodolányi has concluded from this and other scraps of evidence that:

Provocation was certainly an element in igniting the spirits of Hungarians – but the outcome, an armed revolution that humbled the Soviet Army units stationed in Hungary was certainly not in the calculations of the masterminds of the Kremlin and Gerő. 

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As a source for other elements of the 1956 events, Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution is often referred to as a positive appreciation of the 1956 events. She argued that the Revolution itself was not a mere response to probable provocation, but an immense surge of soul and community wisdom in a whole nation, an event that remained unique in modern history.

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In search of a political solution, Gerő and his friends brought in Imre Nagy on the night of 23 October to become Prime Minister for a second time. That was certainly unplanned, as Nagy was on holiday at the time and was pathetically out of touch with the situation, addressing the hundreds of thousands waiting to hear him on Kossúth Square in the late evening with “Comrades!” They booed him for this, but Nagy was not yet ready to accept the leadership of a non-Communist Revolution, and certainly not an anti-Soviet one, despite strong pressure from some intellectuals.

Indeed, a report written by Sefton Delmer which appeared in the Daily Express on 24 October emphasised the seemingly ‘orthodox’ nature of the demonstrations on 23 October:

The fantastic, and to my mind, really super-ingenious nature of this national rising against the ‘Hammer and Sickle’, is that it is carried out under the protective red mantle of pretended communist orthodoxy. Gigantic portraits of Lenin are being carried at the head of the marchers. The purged ex-premier Imre Nagy, who only in the last couple of weeks has been re-admitted to the Hungarian Communist Party, is the rebels’ chosen champion and the leader whom they demand must be given charge of a new, free and independent Hungary. Indeed the socialism of this ex-Premier and – this is my bet – Premier soon to be again, is no doubt genuine enough. But the youths in the crowd, to my mind, were in the vast majority as anti-Communist as they were anti-Soviet, that is, if you agree that calling for the removal of the Red Army is anti-Soviet.

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In a BBC broadcast made in 1962, the revolutionary refugee Pál Ignotus recalled that…

Even those who feel strongly against the present régime … would all agree that nothing of the sort of the semi-feudalist capitalism of pre-war Hungary … should be restored. Those who sparked off the 1956 Revolution were against the then existing régime, not because they found it too socialist, but because they did not find it genuinely Socialist.

Béla Kovács, minister of agriculture in the Nagy government as a member of the Smallholder Party commented at the time:

No one should dream of going back to the world of aristocrats, bankers and capitalists. That world is definitely gone!

Bob Dent, the Budapest-based writer, having researched all the documents recently published in English on the events of 1956, has supported this view:

The attacks on the Party were attacks on its monopoly of power, not on the ideal of socialism or workers’ power as such. … It is even more difficult to find substantive evidence showing that the overall orientation was towards a capitalist restoration.

On the contrary, Dent has pointed out that the crucial role of factory workers, both in Budapest and in other towns, has been underestimated until  recent research uncovered it:

The first workers’ council to appear was established outside the capital at the … iron and steel works in Diósgyőr in the industrial north-east, … on 22 October, the day before the events are usually regarded as having begun. This and similar bodies represented a form of direct democracy somewhat different from the forms of multi-party parliamentary system and from the classic Soviet-style, one-party system.

He has demonstrated how these councils outlived the crack-down by Kádár’s government and survived the initial repression which destroyed the Revolution elsewhere, on the streets and in the universities. Even Kádár himself, in a radio broadcast on 24 October, before he first joined Nagy’s revolutionary government and then formed his own with Soviet backing, recognised that the Revolution had begun ‘innocently’ enough, but was then taken over by reactionaries:

The demonstration of university youth, which began with the formulation of, on the whole, acceptable demands, has swiftly degenerated into a demonstration against our democratic order; and under cover of this demonstration an armed attack has broken out. It is only with burning anger that we can speak of this attack by counter-revolutionary reactionary elements against the capital of our country …

The fight is being waged chiefly by the most loyal unite of our People’s Army, by members of the internal security forces and police, who are displaying heroic courage, and by former partisans with the help of our brothers and allies, the Soviet soldiers. 

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On the following day, 25th, Ernő Gerő disappeared permanently. Kádár made another radio broadcast announcing that the Politburo had ‘entrusted’ him with the post of First Secretary of the HWP in a grave and difficult situation. He warned that the Nagy Government must conduct negotiations with the Soviet Union in a spirit of complete equality between Hungary and the Soviet Union. Over the next few days, however, with Gerő out-of-the-way, Kádár’s attitude towards the Revolution and the Government seemed to soften considerably, resulting in his joining the multi-party cabinet less than a week later. Meanwhile, Nagy kept reshuffling his government, consulting with the two ‘liberal’ emissaries of the Kremlin, Mikoyan and Suslov, who were in constant transit between Moscow and Budapest. He tried to persuade them that concessions, the admission of the most urgent national demands, would appease the fighters and open a peaceful way out of the conflict.

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Turning Points & Days of Change:

Peter Unwin, the British diplomat and envoy in Budapest during the Revolution and Kádár era, and wrote a monograph of Imre Nagy, Voice in the Wilderness (1992). He wrote that of how 28-29 October represented a turning point in Nagy’s thinking, and therefore in the Revolution. On 28th, Nagy made the most significant of his radio broadcasts to date, announcing a ceasefire and the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest: negotiations would start about their complete withdrawal from Hungary. As soon as order was restored, the security police would be abolished. Budapest Radio also announced that the Central Committee had approved the declaration promising the end of the one-party system made by the new Hungarian Government. On 29th he fulfilled this later promise with immediate effect. With these measures, he gained attention, closing the gap between the reform communist leadership and the insurgent street-fighters.

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On 30 October, it looked as if the Revolution had triumphed. A further announcement confirmed that Kádár and the Central Committee (Politburo) of the Hungarian Workers’ Party had backed the cabinet’s decision to abolish the one-party system and to place the country’s government on the basis of democratic cooperation between coalition parties as they existed in 1945. This effectively meant a return to multi-party free elections. Under these terms, Kádár became an ex-officio member of Nagy’s Government. On the 30th, Mikoyan and Suslov spent the whole day in Budapest, and when they left Budapest to return to Moscow, according to Unwin, they remained committed to supporting Nagy’s interim government and its decision to concede a more multi-party government.

Therefore, breaking with the confines of a reform communist programme, Nagy had embraced the multi-party system. The Soviet-backed Government had at first sent tanks in, then yielded and prepared to allow some freedom to the Hungarian people, within the limits of the one-party state. But Hungarians of all classes had had enough. These limits were precisely what they wanted to get rid of. The continuing disturbances and the distribution of leaflets calling for a multi-party system drove Nagy to swing away from an exclusively Communist state and to break all the guarantees of Russian security within the Warsaw Pact. “Russians go home!” was the universal cry. Kádár also had to echo it, but this was just what the Russians dared not do, and the dramatic reversal of the Kremlin’s behaviour took place on that night as the Soviet envoys were flying home.

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By the time Mikoyan and Suslov arrived in Moscow, the balance in the Politburo had already tipped towards the hardliners and the Army leaders who clamoured for revenge for their humiliating losses on the streets of Budapest. Unwin summed up that it was decided that the Hungarian Revolution must be destroyed by force. It may also have been thought that Nagy could be detached from the revolutionary leaders and perhaps even put in charge of an administration that would follow Soviet orders. As it turned out, the man who could be detached was János Kádár. Imre Nagy did not move when he heard the news of new troops pouring into the country from 30 October, and began his journey towards martyrdom.

Also on 30 October, Cardinal Mindszenty was released from his life imprisonment, which had begun in December 1948. He had been badly treated while in custody. In his own account, he said that his guards had a meeting and decided to leave their watch duties, leaving him free. The following morning, he was escorted by armed civilian units to his residence in Buda’s Castle District. A crowd of well-wishers and journalists was waiting outside the building, where the Hungarian tricolour and the papal colours were flying. Although both American magazine reports and the records of the Kádár régime claim that the cardinal blessed the weapons of the freedom fighters and called for foreign intervention, the mainstream Hungarian newspapers that covered the cardinal’s arrival in detail reported no details of a statement of this kind. They simply stated that Mindszenty gave a few words of greeting to the crowd from the balcony. In his own memoirs, he said that he blessed the kneeling crowds and then entered the building he had not seen for years. He showed that he didn’t approve of the idea, expressed in slogans painted on the streets calling for a “Mindszenty government”.

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The following day, 1 November, Mindszenty made it clear that he had called for the formation of a Christian Democratic Party as his price for supporting the Nagy Government. The same day he released a short press statement, broadcast on the radio, in which he said that he felt “no hatred in his heart” after his years of imprisonment. Calling the “struggle for freedom” which had taken place “unparalleled in world history”, he greeted the Hungarian youth and called for prayers for the victims. Two days later, on 3 November, the primate held a press conference at his residence in the morning before making his famous live radio broadcast that evening. In the press conference, he made it clear, to the point of irritation, that he had no intention of heading a government. However, different people interpreted his radio address in differing ways. The ‘official’ view of the Kádár régime, established the next day, was that was that Mindszenty’s radio address was a clear-cut expression of reaction and counter-revolution. János Bercz, in a work published in English at the end of the era, thirty years later, still felt able to write that in the speech Mindszenty presented his programme for the restoration of capitalism, though he didn’t quote anything from it as supporting evidence of this assertion. What Mindszenty actually said, at least according to his own memoirs, was:

“We desire to live in friendship with every people and with every country. … The old-fashioned nationalism must be revalued (‘re-evaluated?’) everywhere. … we give the Russian empire no cause for bloodshed. … We have not attacked Russia and sincerely hope that the withdrawal of Russian military force from our country will soon occur.”

After calling for a general return to work, echoing the Nagy Government, he stated that the uprising was “not a revolution, but a fight for freedom”. The post-1948 régime had been forced on the country, he said, but now had been swept away by the entire Hungarian people…

“because the nation wanted to decide freely on how it should live. It wants to be free to decide about the management of its state and the use of its labour.”

Declaring his own independence from any party, the cardinal called for fresh elections under international control in which every party would be free to nominate. But then he immediately warned everyone not to give way to internecine struggle, even adding that the country needed “as few parties and party leaders as possible”. On political and social matters in general, he affirmed that Hungary was…

“… a constitutional state, in a society without classes and … democratic achievements. We are for private property rightly and justly limited by social interests … we do not oppose the direction of former progress.

As for church matters, Mindszenty called for the immediate granting of Christian religious instruction the restoration of the institutions and associations of the Catholic Church. Towards the end of his broadcast, he asserted that what he had said was “clear and sufficient”. However, for many, it was neither clear nor sufficient. On the question of the return of church lands, for example, in his memoirs, he tried to clarify that he had meant that would be no opposition to the state of affairs which has already been proven right by the course of history, yet this addendum was far from clear either. The speech itself greatly disturbed some supporters of the Nagy government, especially his characterisation of it as “the successors of a fallen régime”. They suspected that he would like to see the government fall too, or at least the communist elements in it. If they suspected that at the time, it is hardly surprising that his words could so easily be misinterpreted and twisted by Kádár’s supporters in the days and years that followed.

Meanwhile, on 1 November, the radio had announced that the revolution had been declared a success, having shaken off the Rákosi régime and achieved freedom for the people and independence for the country. Significantly, it added that without this there can be no socialism and that the ideological and organisational leaders who prepared this uprising were recruited from a range of Communist writers, journalists, university students and members of the Petöfi Circle, as well as from thousands of workers, peasants and political prisoners. The foundation of the new Hungarian Workers’ Party was being established by János Kádár, and the announcement went on to declare that:

Either the Hungarian democratic parties will have enough strength to stabilize our achievements or we must face an open counter-revolution.

The same day, Kádár gave an interview to an Italian journalist, who asked him what type of communism he represented. His reply was: the new type, which emerged from the Revolution and which does not want anything in common with the Communism of the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő group. Asked if it had anything in common with the Yugoslav or Polish type, he responded…

“… our Communism is Hungarian. It is a sort of “third line” with no connection to Titoism or to Gomulka’s Communism. It is Marxism-Leninism, adapted to the particular requirements of our country, to our difficulties and to our national problem. It is not inspired by the USSR nor by any other type of Communism, … it is Hungarian National Communism.”

As to whether this form of Communism would be developed along democratic lines, Kádár assured his interlocutor that there would be no dictatorship and that the opposition would be heard because it would have the national interests of Hungary at heart and not those of international Communism. A further brief announcement was made later the same day, by Nagy himself, informing the Hungarian population that the new government had renounced the Warsaw Pact. Apparently, in the meeting which decided on the withdrawal, Kádár had dramatically offered to fight the Russians with his ‘bare hands’. After the meeting, however, Kádár suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from Budapest. Up until that point, he had seemed to be in favour of the dramatic swing towards Hungary becoming a pluralistic, democratic state.

Nagy continued to negotiate with the democratic coalition parties on the composition of a new representative government, and with representatives of various social groups and revolutionary councils bent on establishing a new order, while General Béla Király united and consolidated the insurgent forces in a newly created National Guard. The following day, the 2nd, Nagy announced that his new government included three Smallholder members, three Social Democrats, two National Peasant Party and two Communist Party ministers, thus resembling the cabinet which resulted from the November 1945 free elections. Pál Maléter was named Minister of Defence, quickly re-establishing control of the streets. The new government was announced on the radio on the 3rd. That day, Hungary became a liberal democracy again for the first time since 1948, but it was to last only until the next morning.

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Operation Whirlwind – The Empire Strikes Back:

At dawn on Sunday 4 November, Soviet forces started Operation Whirlwind, a general attack on the country and its capital, with an armoured force bigger than that of the Red Army which ‘liberated’ Budapest from Nazi occupation in 1944 and more troops than those of the Nazis who occupied Paris in 1940. The invasion marked the beginning of the end of the Revolution, almost as soon as it had succeeded. The announcement of Kádár’s new Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government was made later that same day from the Soviet-Hungarian border:

“… Exploiting mistakes committed during the building of our people’s democratic system, the reactionary elements have misled many honest workers, and in particular the major part of our youth, which joined the movement out of honest and patriotic intentions …

The Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government, acting in the interest of our people … requested the Soviet Army Command to help our nation smash the sinister forces of reaction and restore order and calm in the country.”

I have given more detailed accounts of these events in a series of articles elsewhere on this site. Here, I am more concerned to establish the extent to which the leadership of the Revolution was either non-Communist or anti-Communist. However, the life of the Hungarian Revolution had just blossomed in that fateful moment. Over the following months, the revolutionaries tried all forms of armed and peaceful resistance, of tough negotiation, of demonstrations and protest against the Kádár régime that only slowly consolidated itself by the spring of 1957. As Kodalányi commented:

The life of the revolution blossomed out in all of us Hungarians who lived through it, and in everyone in the wide world who sensed its essence together with us. A flower of spiritual life that would not fade.

One of the earliest accounts of the Revolution, The Tragedy of Central Europe, written by Stephen Borsody in 1960 (revised in 1980), summarised what happened next and how the Soviet leaders justified their action:

Upon reconquering Hungary, the Soviets installed a puppet government under János Kádár, a renegade national Communist, and re-instituted a rule of terror reminiscent of the Stalin era. To justify their bloody deed, the Soviet leaders branded the Hungarian Revolution as a ‘counter-revolution’ launched by ‘Western imperialist circles’ and led by Horthyite Fascists and aristocrats.

Contrary to this ‘branding’, writing in 1977, Domokos Szent-Iványi, one of those ‘liberal’ aristocrats, claimed that he had actually succeeded in preventing the clandestine Hungarian Independence Movement (MFM) from taking part in the Revolution. This was important to him because the pro-Rákosi Communist Party and Press had already shown their determination to put the “blame on ex-prisoners”, in particular on the so-called “Conspirators” for the fighting in Budapest and the country. Even the secret police, the ÁVH had to admit that none of the ‘Conspirators’ had actively participated. The ‘provocations’ of the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő gang greatly contributed to the success of the Kádár régime in this respect, he claimed. The last meeting of a group of eight of them had taken place on 3 November, the date on which Nagy’s Government was announced, along with the declaration of neutrality. At the meeting, Szent-Iványi had outlined the current situation as he viewed it, and gave his opinion about coming events. Many of the leading members, including István Szent-Miklósy, former Major of the General Staff, and László Veress, former diplomat and press officer for the Prime Minister’s Office during the war, left Hungary within a few days of the Soviet invasion on 4 November. Clearly, the Hungarian Independence Movement, the remnant of the aristocratic Horthyite ‘liberals’, did not play a major role in the events of 1956, and deliberately so. Albeit with the benefit of hindsight, Szent-Iványi concluded that…

… As in the past… Hungary was once more abandoned in 1956 by the West Powers which believed that their interests had to be defeated around the borders of Suez and Israel and not on the Eastern bulwark of European Civilization. … Hungary must… try to arrive at some peaceful settlement and cooperation with her most powerful eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union.

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Before the Soviet takeover, on the 2nd, Anna Kéthely (pictured right), President of the hurriedly reorganised Social Democratic Party, had become Minister of State in Imre Nagy’s government. Two days later, she was in Vienna attending a meeting of the Socialist International when the Soviet invasion of Hungary began. Unable to return to Hungary without facing certain imprisonment, she was given the mission by the Nagy Government of protesting to the United Nations. She testified against the invasion at the UN’s HQ in New York on 30 January 1957, as shown in the picture.

By then, of course, Nagy was a prisoner of the Soviets, tricked into leaving the Yugoslav Embassy on 22 November, where he and many members of his government had been taking refuge since the 4th, before being transported to Romania. Kéthely told the UN that she could not believe that he would have accepted his part voluntarily. Protests were made from throughout the world in the period 1956-58. In a letter to the editor of Pravda, written in January 1957, members of the British Parliamentary Labour Party, including Barbara Castle and Tony Benn, questioned the Soviet Government’s justification for its intervention in Hungary as it had appeared in the newspaper:

… your newspaper has portrayed the Hungarian uprising as ‘counter-revolutionary’. May we ask exactly what is meant by this expression? Does it include all systems of government which permit political parties whose programmes are opposed to that of the Communist Party? If, for example, the Hungarian people were to choose a parliamentary system similar to those in Finland or Sweden, would you regard that as counter-revolutionary?

you have said that the Hungarian uprising was planned long in advance by the West and you have in particular blamed Radio Free Europe. Are you seriously suggesting that masses of Hungarian workers and peasants were led by these means into organising mass strikes aimed at restoring the power of feudal landlords and capitalists?

The philosopher Albert Camus was ostracised by Jean Paul-Sartre and his friends for his unflinching condemnation of Soviet aggression and of the West’s moral and political failure to do what could have been done on behalf of the revolutionaries and the country. In her detailed analysis of the Hungarian Revolution, Origins of Totalitarianism, recorded in 1957, the ‘libertarian socialist’ Hannah Arendt wrote:

This was a true event whose stature will not depend on victory or defeat: its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted. What happened in Hungary happened nowhere else, and the twelve days of the revolution contained more history than the twelve years since the Red Army had ‘liberated’ the country from Nazi domination.

Freedom and Truth – The Libertarian Legacy of 1956:

Arendt marvelled at the way in which the Revolution was initiated by the prime objects of indoctrination, ‘the over-privileged’ of the Communist system: intellectuals of the left, university students, and workers, the Communist ‘avant-garde’:

Their motive was neither their own nor their fellow-citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth. …an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable, that nihilism will be futile, that … a yearning for freedom and truth will rise out of man’s heart and mind forever.

In the same spirit of optimism, she also reflected on how, ever since the European revolutions of 1848, a new order was immediately created by a freely convened gathering of citizens. The wonder of the restrained and resourceful operation of Hungary’s spontaneously formed revolutionary and workers’ councils, already referred to above, was one of the great social achievements of the Revolution of 1956. Although by their own admission, there was no direct involvement of the ‘centrist’ liberals in initiating the events of 1956, there was an unmistakable historical thread running through from the reform movements of the 1930s to the clandestine anti-Nazi resistance of 1944, to the democratic parties of the reconstruction between 1945 to 1948 and, with the memory of 1956 in their minds, to the new liberal democracy of 1989-90, despite the stupefying thirty years of János Kádár’s ‘liberal’ socialism. Arendt also observed as a unique trait of the Hungarian Revolution the unanimity of the nation in the spirit of the uprising:

 The amazing thing about the Hungarian revolution is that there was no civil war. For the Hungarian Army disintegrated in hours and the dictatorship was stripped of all power in a couple of days. No group, no class in the nation opposed the will of the people once it had become known and its voice had been heard in the market place. For the members of the ÁVH, who remained loyal to the end, formed neither group nor class, the lower echelons having been recruited from the dregs of the population: criminals, nazi agents, highly compromised members of the Hungarian fascist party, the higher ranks being composed of Moscow agents, Hungarians with Russian citizenship under the orders of NKVD officers.

Echoing the United Nations Special Report of the same year, 1957, this analysis carries weight because of the widely acknowledged integrity of its author. It carries a special significance because of the Soviet propaganda, also spouted by the Kádár régime, which from its very beginning branded the events as a rebellion of fascists, anti-Semites, reactionaries and imperialists.

Nagy was eventually executed, along with Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes, on the orders of the Russians in 1958 to appease the hard-line Chinese. In his last speech to the Court, on 14 June, Imre Nagy was determined to demonstrate his reasons for backing and then leading the Revolution:

“Twice I tried to save the honour of the word ‘socialism’ in the Danube River valley: in 1953 and 1956. The first time, I was thwarted by Rákosi, the second time by the armed might of the Soviet Union. Now I must give my life for my ideas. I give it willingly. After what you have done with it, it’s not worth anything any more. I know that History will condemn my assassins. There is only one thing that would disgust me: if my name were rehabilitated by those who killed me.” 

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Margaret Rooke concluded that the Revolution represented a huge swing of the political pendulum. For ten years the hand had been held by force at the extreme of Rákosi’s one-party rule, directed by the Soviet Communist Party. Suddenly it was released and immediately it swung back through the various stages of Communism past the vital point of permitting other parties to function. But when it swung up in the direction opposite to Communism, from multi-party social democracy, through social democracy to liberal democracy, that was a swing too far for the Soviet system to accommodate. The hand was stopped and then made to swing back, not being allowed to swing again for another thirty years and more. The immediate aftermath of the Revolt was repression. The writers, whose onslaught had fatally undermined Rákosi, were almost silenced. Cardinal Mindszenty, the Catholic primate, was compelled to seek asylum in the US Embassy. In 1958, the year of the trial and executions of Imre Nagy and Pál Maleter, the exile Tibor Meray wrote Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin, commemorating Nagy’s life and death, in which he observed:

To say that Hungary’s history had never known a leadership more thoroughly detested than this ‘Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ would be in no way an exaggeration … Little by little the rule of the Rákosi-Gerő clique was restored … The activities of Kádár Government soon gave the lie to the glowing promises with which it assumed power.

001However, there was virtually no Communist Party with which Kádár could run the country; it had sunk in numbers from 900,000 to 96,000, most of them being Stalinists and/or careerists hated by their fellow Hungarians, who were therefore unreliable supporters of Kádár. After 1961, he could afford to relax rigid controls, and although collectivisation was eventually insisted on, the collective farms were more like state-controlled co-operatives, with working shareholders running them. Entrance to university was no longer confined to the children of workers, peasant and Communist intellectuals. George Lukács, the country’s greatest philosopher, was again allowed to publish his works. An agreement with the Churches, to which sixty per cent of the population belonged, was reached. An amnesty was declared for all 1956 refugees. In 1962, George Páloczi-Horváth, an exile from 1956, broadcast this on the BBC:

When we were marching on that revolutionary protest march, if anyone had told us that in five or six years life would be in Hungary as it is now, we would have been very pleased, because it would have accomplished a great deal, if not everything we wanted to achieve.

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In 1968 the New Economic Mechanism officially introduced private incentive and individual enterprise into the economy. A degree of pluralism was re-introduced when trade unions were given more power and non-Party candidates were allowed to stand in parliamentary elections. However, only the Communist-dominated Fatherland Front was allowed to exist. But 1968 also showed the realities of power under the layers of growing prosperity and individual freedom. Hungary was compelled to send some its forces to Czechoslovakia in support of the Soviet intervention there against Dubcek’s liberalisation (see the picture below). The cage may have been made more comfortable, but the bars were still there and the keeper kept his eyes open. In the 1970s, Hungary enjoyed a massive rise in living standards. The new co-operatives made peasants’ incomes higher than workers’ ones. Hungary had ‘weekend cottage socialism’.

 

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In a material sense, and in terms of the personal and national autonomy of Hungarians, Kádár had succeeded, even if at the expense of the alleged results of prosperity – apathy, lack of high ideals, money-grubbing and high rates of divorce, abortion and suicide. In 1974, William Shawcross wrote Crime and Compromise, in which he summed up Kádár’s position in Hungary:

Out of the rubble of the Revolution which he himself had razed, he has somehow managed to construct one of the most reasonable, sane and efficient Communist states in the world. Hungarians now speak, not only ironically, of their country as the ‘gayest barracks in the Socialist camp’ and praise Kádár for making it so. … Hungary today is personified by Kádár and many Hungarians are convinced that without him their country would be a very different and probably far worse place to live.

Writing in 1977, Domokos Szent-Ivanyi commented that…

… from 1956, the Kádar régime was able to win the confidence both of the Hungarian people and of the Soviet Union and has brought peace to the country and its inhabitants.

Nevertheless, for many intellectuals, the continuing limitations on freedom of speech and action reminded them that there were still taboos in place. The first of these concerned Hungary’s links with the Soviets and foreign policy questions itself. It was generally well-known that it was Nagy’s announcement on Hungary’s neutrality, detailed above, that had changed the stakes in the Revolution itself, rather than the previous announcement of a multi-party government and promise of free elections. Secondly, it was forbidden to criticise the armed forces in any way, as well as the judiciary and the internal security organs. Thirdly, it was not permitted to criticise any living individual by name. The reason for this was the need for ‘cadre responsibility’ so that no-one needed to worry about being attacked from outside the Party. Fourthly, certain facts and subjects could not be subjected to sharp criticisms. These could be made in anecdotes, satire or by means of technical analysis, but not in a direct, radical manner.

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In October 1981, Gordon Brook-Shepherd wrote an article for the Sunday Telegraph in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Revolt. He travelled beyond Budapest to hear survivors from a feudal world … declare that, although Communists were all atheists, Kádár himself was ‘a good man’. Moreover, things were better then than they used to be, This verdict came from a family who had made their daughter break off her engagement to a purely because the fiancé was the son of a local party boss. Brook-Shepherd found that for many ‘ordinary’ Hungarians, much of the ‘fine talk’ about ‘freedom’ was an irrelevance:

Freedom for them today is defined as a weekend house, a better apartment in the city, a shorter wait for a better car, more frequent foreign travel and for the intellectuals (as one of them put it to me), ‘the privilege to go on censuring ourselves’. If you do not get what you like, you eventually like what you get. 

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In 1986, the English Language version of Sándor Kopácsi’s In the Name of the Working Class was published in Toronto. As Budapest’s Chief of Police, Kopácsi was ordered to suppress the uprising, but the former Communist partisan defied the Stalinist authorities and then joined the Revolution under Imre Nagy. He was given a sentence of life imprisonment by the same Court which sentenced Nagy, Maléter and Gimes to hang. Kopácsi’s book makes it evident that the Revolution was initially a Communist uprising, as other sources quoted here suggest, begun not to deny but to fulfil what its participants believed to be true Marxist-Leninist ideas. But in his 1986 Foreward, George Jonas admitted that…

It is hard to say whether originators of the uprising realized at the time that events might carry political reform in Hungary much further, not in the direction of ‘fascism’ – this was simply not on the cards in 1956 – but in the direction of liberal democracy. It is hard to say whether the reformists considered at the time (as the Kremlin certainly did) that if the revolution succeeded Hungary could end up as a genuinely non-aligned parliamentary democracy whose freely elected governments might include no Marxist parties at all.

In fact, even János Kádár, according to a broadcast on Budapest Radio on 15 November 1956, had admitted that, while his Government hoped to regain the confidence of the people, it had to take into account the possibility that we might be thoroughly beaten at the election. Of course, that election was never held because Khrushchev and the Politburo saw ‘democratic Communism’ as a contradiction in terms. They knew, as did Kádár, that Communism and real political freedom were not compatible for the simple reason that, if free to choose, the people in European countries such as Hungary, were not likely to choose Communism. The Soviet leaders were not willing to risk this, nor even an independent Communist régime. One Tito was quite enough, as far as they were concerned. Idealist reform-communists like Imre Nagy identified the dangers differently. They argued that a thaw in the icy grip of the Soviet Union was necessary to avoid a complete popular rejection of the Communist model. Nagy and his collaborators supported the Uprising in Hungary in order prevent one. As Jonas points out:

Nagy and his followers wanted to rescue the system. They believed that allowing events to take their course, following the clear desires of the Hungarian students, workers, soldiers and intellectuals was the best way to rescue it. They also hoped that the Soviet Union might permit this to happen. They were probably wrong in their first belief and undoubtedly wrong in their second. 

In our century the cause of the Marxist-Leninist state – unlike fascism or other totalitarian movements – succeeded in attracting many humane and intelligent people such as Colonel Kopácsi or Imre Nagy. In a sense, therein lies the tragedy of Communism; in a sense, therein lies its danger…

On 23 October 1988, we heard an announcement by the HSWP that the events of 1956 were no longer to be viewed as a ‘counter-revolution’. The following spring, a commission of historians agreed that the term, ‘people’s uprising’ was appropriate, and this was a signal factor in sparking the series of ‘liberalisations’ which followed in 1989. Bob Dent has commented on the connections between the events of 1956 and those of 1989:

… there were overlaps between the goals of 1956 and 1989-90: the idea of national independence, the demand for a multi-party system, a free press and the end of all forms of dictatorship. But … in some significant respects, 1989-90 … was simultaneously both more and less than 1956. … it involved elements not present thirty-three years previously and omitted others which were.

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Authors have rarely reflected deeply themselves on Hannah Arendt’s comments about the ‘direct democracy’ of the workers’ councils as being at the core of what was positive. Bob Dent has pointed out that:

For ‘the West’, the workers’ councils did not fit neatly into any ‘acceptable’ category. In so far as they were ‘anti-Soviet’ or ‘anti-communist’, or perceived as such, that was fine. If they were in favour of liberal reforms such as the introduction of free speech, a multi-party system and parliamentary elections, that was also fine. But it was not quite ‘acceptable’ if they were, as they actually were, ‘anti-capitalist’ and ‘pro-socialist’, even ‘revolutionary’ in the sense that they were firmly in favour of maintaining social ownership of property and putting it under workers’ management. … The Hungarian workers’ councils have been neatly described as ‘anti-Soviet soviets’, and for many that apparently contradictory notion has not been easy to digest, neither in post-1989 Hungary nor indeed elsewhere – therefore easiest, perhaps, to ignore them.

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On the other hand, the events of 1989-90 clearly went far beyond those of 1956 in the popular desire to accelerate privatisation and develop a free-market economy. Ideas of ‘rejoining Europe’ in 1989 were not part of the objectives of 1956, nor was the idea of joining NATO – the demand in 1956 was simply for neutrality, but at that time it proved to be an impossible demand. But Gyula Kodolányi, as Senior Adviser to the first freely elected Prime Minister of Hungary in 1990, József Antall, heard the democratic legacy of 1956 frequently referred to by leaders such as Chancellor Kohl, President Chirac and President Havel: the Hungarian Revolution of that year had made an indelible mark in their political development. They immediately trusted the reformers of 1989-90 as inheritors of that tradition, and that aura made a favourable climate which made the process of Hungary’s return to Europe a matter of continuing the course set in 1956. Thus, the achievements of that autumn formed a ‘spiritual constellation’ which guaranteed the régime change of the later years, not just in Hungarian hearts and minds, symbolised by the reburial of its ‘martyrs’, but in international relations too. In 1989-90, world leaders recognised the significance of the Revolutions of that year because of their own initiation into the idea of freedom by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

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Sources:

Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of Drama. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó.

Bob Dent (2008), Inside Hungary from Outside. Budapest: Európa Könvkiadó.

Margaret Rooke (1986), The Hungarian Revolt of 1956: János Kádár – traitor or saviour? York: Longman Group.

Sándor Kopácsi (1986) (Translated by Daniel & Judy Stoffman, with a foreword by George Jonas), In the Name of the Working Class. Toronto & London: Fontana.

Marc J Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: US Department of State Bureau of Public Affairs.

István Bart (1999), Hungary & The Hungarians: The Keywords – a Concise Dictionary of Facts and Beliefs, Customs, Usage & Myths. Budapest: Corvina.

Gyula Kodolányi (2016), ‘ “With Nine Million Fascists” – On the Origins and Spirit of the Hungarian Revolution’ in Hungarian Review, Vol. VII, No. 6, November 2016. Budapest: György Granasztói/ Danube Institute.

 

Posted December 22, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Semitism, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Co-operativism, Cold War, Colonisation, Communism, Compromise, democracy, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Factories, Family, Humanism, Humanitarianism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Journalism, Labour Party, liberal democracy, liberalism, Medieval, Militancy, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, privatization, Proletariat, Reconciliation, Refugees, Revolution, Statehood, Trade Unionism, Warfare, Welfare State, Yugoslavia

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

E L Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester (West Sussex): Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

Posted December 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Australia, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Empire, Europe, Falklands, Family, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Genocide, George V, Germany, Great War, Gulf War, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, liberal democracy, Literature, Memorial, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Technology, terror, theology, USA, USSR, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part One – The Legacy of a Lost Generation.   Leave a comment

Introduction – Testaments of Torment:

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British sailors march through Whitehall in July 1919 past the temporary cenotaph to commemorate the end of the war.

The main effect of the first world war was a loss on a scale that exceeded the Holocaust, together with the traumas that matched it. As many as nine million combatants from all warring nations were killed in action, at an average of over six thousand on every day of the war’s four-and-a-quarter years’ duration. It was a hell of mud, blood, barbed wire and broken bodies, as vast rows of artillery thundered tons of hot metal on to each already churned-up square metre of earth, tree and human remnant. Spectral memories of the lost men haunted the gleaming white cemeteries, memorials and shrines that sprang up, from Melbourne’s shrine of remembrance to Whitehall’s cenotaph to the battlefield graves and ossuaries at Douaumont and Thiepval. The founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission calculated that if Britain’s war dead were to have marched past Edwin Lutyens’ austere London monument, it would have taken three-and-a-half days before the rearguard trooped by. There were also fifteen million permanently blinded, crippled or maimed, as well as many others whose minds were so damaged they would never recover their equilibrium, and I have written about these survivors elsewhere.

Here I want to concentrate on the psychological torments of parents who lost sons during the conflict, wives who lost husbands, children who lost fathers and sisters who lost brothers. One of those who lost both brothers and lovers was Vera Brittain. Her first world war classic autobiography, Testament of Youth, told the story of the ‘lost generation’ wiped out in the trenches. It was first published in 1933 and remained influential in the late twentieth century, being made into an excellent BBC Television drama in the late seventies. She lost a number of her closest friends as well as her fiancé and brother in the conflict.

Testament of War – Letters of Vera Brittain & Roland Leighton:

003At the heart of Testament of Youth was Vera Brittain’s own anguished love affair with Roland Leighton, the dashing best friend of her brother at Uppingham School. Their letters were published in 1998 and revealed the unbearable poignancy of their relationship. Roland’s first letter to Vera from Uppingham on 15 July 1914 demonstrates just how quickly the plans of young people changed that summer:

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed the two days you were here… You will let me know how you have got on in your exams, won’t you? I suppose I shall not see you again until October at Oxford.

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Roland Leighton

Vera replied from her parents’ home in Buxton (in Derbyshire) that she thought she had failed her Latin exam and so would not be able to go up to Oxford that autumn. On the 29th, Roland wrote back that he would not give up hoping to see her at Oxford that October unless he knew for certain that she had not passed when the results came out at the end of August. But less than a week after he wrote this letter, Britain declared war on Germany. Roland and Vera’s brother, Edward, who had been sent home early from their Officers’ Training Corps summer camp at Aldershot, attempted to find temporary commissions in the army. Roland then wrote to Vera from his mother’s home in Lowestoft on 21 August 1914:

I am feeling very chagrined and disappointed at present. I expected Edward has told you that I have been trying for a temporary commission in the Regulars. On Tuesday it only remained for me to go up for my Medical Exam. I got on very well until they stuck up a board at the end of the room and told me to read off the letters on it. . I had to be able to read at least half, but found I could not see more than the first line of large letters. The Medical Officer was extremely nice about it, … but it was of no use … PS: You may be amused to hear that I am engaged in cultivating a moustache – as an experiment.

Vera wrote back immediately to express her sympathy with him over this rejection, but felt it was for the best as he could now exercise his ‘intellectual qualities’ at Oxford; they would be of little use to him in gaining promotion in the Army. Two days later, on 27 August, she wrote again to inform him that she had, after all, passed her Latin. She was much relieved at this, as she didn’t know how she could have endured the thought of you and Edward enjoying Oxford life and myself cut out of it for another year. Roland confirmed that he was now expecting to go up so that all three of them would be at Oxford together. But on 28 September, with just ten days to go before the start of term, he wrote to tell Vera that he could no longer say confidently that he would be at Oxford after all. He stood a good chance of being accepted into the 4th Norfolks and would know definitely within the week. He wrote that:

Anyhow, I don’t think in the circumstances I could easily bring myself to endure a secluded life of scholastic vegetation. It would seem a somewhat cowardly shirking of my obvious duty. In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it – except that perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing – something, if often horrible, yet very enobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right.

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Vera Brittain

Vera replied, on 1 October, that she never expected him to want to go to Oxford; conditions were now very different from those of a month previously. She didn’t know whether his feelings about war were those of a ‘militarist’ or not: She had always called herself a non-militarist, yet the raging of these elemental forces fascinated her, horribly but powerfully, as it did him. Her mixed feelings about war were complicated by her being a woman:

… whether it is noble or barbarous I am quite sure that had I been a boy I should have gone off to take part in it long ago; indeed I have wasted many moments regretting that I am a girl. Women get all the dreariness of war & none of its exhilaration.

A week later, Roland was informed that he had been approved for a commission. In her next letter to him in mid-October, Vera wrote from Somerville College that he had been right in thinking that life at Oxford would have been difficult for him as an undergraduate in war-time. She didn’t know how those there could endure not to be in khaki. Roland’s mother took rooms in London at Christmas and Vera was invited to visit before New Year. On 1 January 1915, he wrote to her, thanking her for her visit:

It has been such a delight to be with you these past two days. I think I shall  always remember them in their wonderful incompleteness and unreality. When I left you I stood by the fountain in the middle of Piccadilly circus to see the New Year in. It was a glorious night, with a full moon so brightly white as to seem blue slung like an arc-lamp directly overhead. I had the feeling of extreme loneliness one is so often conscious of in a large crowd. There was very little demonstration: two Frenchmen standing up in a cab singing the Marseillaise: a few women and some soldiers behind me holding hands and softly humming ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When twelve ‘o’ clock struck there was only a little shudder among the crowd and a distant muffled cheer, and then everyone seemed to melt away again leaving me standing there with tears in my eyes and feeling absolutely wretched.

At the ‘Ides of March’, Roland went to Buxton to say his farewells. Early on the wintry morning of 19 March, Vera said goodbye to him on Buxton Station as he left on the first stage of the journey, with his regiment, to France. After crossing the Channel on 1 April, the regiment’s only immediate sign of war was a sudden flare of light along the road at night and a glimpse of a French military car rushing past, together with an occasional patrol of blue-coated cavalry. Although they could hear the distant sound of heavy artillery fire, for the time being, they were out of the danger zone.

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A Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse tends to a wounded soldier

On 5 April, Vera wrote from Buxton to tell Roland that she was volunteering to help in a large hospital nearby which had been extended to admit the wounded. The Matron said that they had more work than they could manage satisfactorily so that she was glad to accept Vera’s offer. She was to serve as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse for the rest of the war. By the 11th, she had heard that they were expecting a great many wounded in the summer and would probably want all the extra nurses they could get. They would be almost sure to need her, not merely to darn socks as she had been doing, but to do the usual probationer’s work. Joking, she wrote that if he ‘must get wounded’ he should try to postpone it ’till about August’ by which time she hoped to be efficient enough to be able to look after him. By 12 April, Roland was in the trenches but wrote that there was not really much to do, just that the officers…

…have to go round now and again to see that the men are in their right places and the sentries looking out (in the daytime through periscopes). They go round every three hours or so at night as well and so don’t get much sleep. No one is allowed to take his clothes off, and so you have to scrape as much mud as possible off your boots with a bayonet, tie up each foot in a small sack to keep the mud out of your sleeping bag, and get in boots and all. You rarely have much opportunity to shave or wash properly. It is just getting dusk and the ration parties will be coming in to take the letters back with them. This letter will have been carried under fire by the time it reaches you. Good night, dear, and do not worry on my account…

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May 1915 in the trenches

On 19 April, the Norfolks’ trenches in the middle of a ‘vast wood’ were shelled for some time, and they had their first man killed, shot through the head. But sitting in the sunlight while writing, facing a bank of primroses, Roland was struck by the grim contrast between the danger of war and death and thoughts of the beauty of life and love. The previous morning he had gone up to his fire trench through the sunlit wood and found the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path:

He must have been shot there during the wood fighting in the early part of the war and lain forgotten all of this time … You do not mind my telling you these gruesome things, do you? You asked me to tell you everything. It is of such things that my new life is made.

Vera wrote back affirming that she did want to be told all the gruesome things since she knew that even war would not blunt his sensibilities. She wanted his ‘new life’ to be hers to as great an extent as possible. Her now more conscious ‘feminism’ is evident in the rationale she gave for this:

Women are no longer the sheltered and protected darlings of man’s playtime, fit only for the nursery and the drawing-room – at least, no woman that you are interested in could ever be just that. Somehow I feel it makes me stronger to realise what horrors there are … Now you are in the midst of it all, do you still feel you will come through to the end? 

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On 29th, Roland wrote his letter just after dawn, when everything was very still. Again, he was struck by the contrast between his natural surroundings and the accompanying reminders, sometimes in dramatic interruptions, of the reality of war:

From where I am sitting I can see the sun on the clover field just behind the trenches and a stretch of white road beyond. There are birds singing in the wood on our left, and small curls of blue wood smoke from the men’s fires climbing up through the trees. One of our Machine Guns has been firing single shots every few minutes with a cold and lazy regularity that seems singularly in harmony. Everyone else except the sentries is asleep. … 7.30 am: A French biplane went up a few minutes ago and is circling round and round over the German lines. They have got two anti-aircraft guns and a Maxim trying to hit him. It is a marvellous sight. Every minute there is a rapid report like the pop of a drawn cork magnified, and a fluffy ball of cotton wool appears suddenly in the air beside him. He is turning again now, the white balls floating all around him. You think how pretty it all is – white bird, white puffs of smoke, and the brilliant blue of the sky. It is hard to realise that there is danger up there, and daring, and the calculated courage that is true heroism…

The ‘colour’ in this description also contrasts sharply with our popular images of a war fought in sepia or black-and-white. Meanwhile, on May Day morning in Oxford, Vera was up at dawn for the famous celebrations at the Magdalen tower, the choristers singing the traditional Latin hymn while turning slowly to the sun. Again, her feelings were a mixture of the appreciation of beauty and the pain of thinking how different their lives were now from what they had pictured the previous July, with both of them there enjoying the celebrations together. A week later, she wrote that her greatest object was to get this term over. She didn’t think that another term while the war was in its present condition (and you in yours) would be tolerable. 

Two days later, the first man in Roland’s battalion was killed. He described to Vera the way he had been taking things out of his pockets and tying them round in his handkerchief to be sent back somewhere to someone who would see more than a torn letter, and a pencil, and a knife and a piece of shell. Soon after, Vera received a letter from one of her school friends whose brother was wounded and was then in a hospital in London. Vera’s friend wrote that there were only three officers surviving, including her brother, out of his battalion, and 159 men out of five thousand. They had had to hold their trenches while under shell fire without a single gun to help them and had watched the Germans forming up to attack them without being able to do anything. Their trenches had been taken and as he had been lying wounded he saw the Germans bayoneting his men, including several of his friends, who had also been lying wounded. Vera wondered how he would be affected by this experience.

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On 21 May, Vera wrote that she had never read anything quite so terrible as the official report of the German outrages in Belgium, especially their treatment of the women and children. As a signal of how her attitudes were hardening, like those of many others in response to what we now know was anti-German propaganda, she wrote that she didn’t know how any man could read it and then not enlist, and urged Roland and everyone at the front she knew, “Once you get hold of them, do your very worst.”  She also felt increasingly hostile towards some of the young men among the Whitsuntide trippers whom she witnessed ‘lounging down’ the streets of Oxford…

 … smoking cigarettes with a vacant expression … and a self-satisfied smile on their faces, twirling Japanese umbrellas… and poking them at the passers-by … I can scarcely bear to look at them and think that you and such as you are enduring toil and weariness and risking death that they may remain safe, and that your task is made is made all the harder and heavier because the hero of the Japanese umbrella refrains from relinquishing it for a bayonet. No one has the right to lounge these days, not even an American…

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Above & below, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War

A week later, at the end of May, Vera wrote to Roland of the more than usually heated conflict… going on in the papers about the war in general and conscription in particular. Lord Northcliffe’s papers seemed to be attacking everyone in authority, especially Lord Kitchener, and the rest of the press was attacking Lord Northcliffe. It seemed…

… a dreadful state of affairs that the authorities are quarrelling among themselves at home while men who are in their hands are dying for them abroad. One begins to doubt the advisability even of the freedom of the Press.

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At the beginning of June, Roland wrote to Vera of his growing disillusionment with the war after two months at the front:

I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford … It all seems so very far away now, I sometimes think that I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s.

On 6 June, he wrote again of the possibility of his getting six days’ leave in the near future. Vera wrote back that sometimes she felt that she couldn’t bear to see him again until the war was over, that the only thing she could not endure living over again the morning of March 19th on Buxton railway station, when they had said goodbye. But she knew that even a short visit from him would be worthwhile and that she was willing to pay the bitterness of death for the sweetness of life. Roland, inexplicably, ‘fell silent’ during July, and at the end of the month, Vera heard that there was a ‘faint chance’ of her getting into a large London hospital as a VAD (auxiliary nurse). The hospital was an ‘immense place’ at Camberwell (No 1 London General), established at the beginning of the war but recently extended, containing over a thousand beds. The hospital administration needed to make an increase in nursing staff as a result and to recruit more VAD staff like Vera. She was keen to transfer there as the hospital got all the wounded straight from the trenches and the VADs were needed to do all the minor dressings.

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Wounded soldiers recovering in an English hospital

On 29 July, she sent Roland a volume of the poems of Rupert Brooke, whom she had regarded as the most promising poet of the younger generation. Brooke was a well-known poet before 1914 who had had his poem The Old Vicarage included in a 1912 volume of Georgian Poetry. He had enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out and fought in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp, where the naval brigade fought as if they were soldiers. He wrote his five famous war sonnets at Rugby School during the last months of 1914 when he was home on leave. He served in the fleet that was attacking the Turkish positions in the Dardanelles, but on 23 April  1915, he died of blood poisoning on a French hospital ship of the island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea. He was buried on top of a high hill on the Greek island of Skyros; among the burial party was Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. Brooke had not been dead long, however, before the more clear-sighted of his fellow-poets saw the limitations of the poetry that he typified. Charles Sorley expressed in one of his letters his conviction that Brooke’s sonnets had been overpraised:

He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances.

Arthur Graeme West, who was killed in 1917, expressed his contempt of poets who wrote such lines as ‘O happy to have lived these epic days’ and ignored the revolting appearance of the dead and dying in actual warfare. One of his own poems began with a direct attack on Brooke and his imitators:

God! how I hate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves

As soon as you are in them.

From a literary perspective, the critic F. R. Leavis wrote that Brooke’s verse exhibited a genuine sensuousness rather like Keats’s … and something… rather like Keats’s vulgarity with a Public School accent.  On the other hand, Robert Nichols, a leading Georgian poet and friend both of Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon from before 1914, was still insisting in 1943 that:

Rupert Brooke’s sonnets are full of that sensation of being gathered up. They are wonderful works of art and it is sad that they have come to be regarded by many with suspicion.

But the latter half of the war produced a second generation of young soldiers who produced very different kinds of war poetry from that of  Brooke or Nichols. At the time Vera sent them to Roland she thought he would love them all … not the War Sonnets only, though they are perhaps the most beautiful. She was right, as on receiving the volume, he read it straight through. He wrote of how it made him feel that he wanted to sit down and write things himself instead of doing what he had to do as an officer there, and of how…

It stirs up all the old forgotten things, and makes me so, so angry and impatient with most of the soulless nonentities one finds around one here. I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade, and it is only a matter of taste whether one is a soldier or a greengrocer, as far as I can see. Sometimes by dint of an opportunity a single man may rise from the sordidness to a deed of beauty; but that is all.

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‘No road this way’: the Germans made access very difficult for the advancing Allies.

On 15 August, Roland wrote to let Vera know that he was coming home on leave in three days’ time. He then sent a telegram arranging to meet her at St Pancras’ first-class ladies’ waiting room as soon as he could get across there from Liverpool Street Station. Roland’s leave lasted for just under a week, during which he and Vera agreed to become unofficially engaged “for three years or the duration of the War”. After spending the first night at Buxton, they travelled to Lowestoft to be with his family. As they sat alone on a cliff path, the afternoon before their departure, Roland rested his head on Vera’s shoulder for a while, and then kissed her. As she had to return to report for nursing duty in Buxton and Roland was not returning to France until the end of the week, he saw her off at St Pancras on 23 August. He kissed her goodbye and then, almost furtively, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. Later that day, Vera wrote in her diary, I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much.

Return of the dead officer’s kit:

As the train began to move she had time to kiss him and murmur “Goodbye”. She stood by the door and watched him walk back through the crowd, not turning around. What she could see of his face was ‘set and pale’. That was the last Vera saw of Roland. His next leave was due to be at Christmas 1915, but he died on 23 December of wounds received during a night-time wire inspection a day earlier. Instead of receiving him home in person, his family were sent his ‘personal effects’ in the New Year. What follows here is are extracts from a letter written by Vera to her brother Edward on 14 January 1916 from the London hospital where she was working as a nurse. She had travelled to Brighton to visit Roland’s family:

I arrived at a very opportune, though very awful, moment. All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them  and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible. Mrs Leighton and Clare were both crying as bitterly as on the day we heard of the his death, and Mr Leighton with his usual instinct was taking all the things everybody else wanted and putting them where nobody could ever find them…

These were his clothes – the clothes in which he came home from the front last time. Everything was damp and worn and simply raked with mud. And I was glad that neither of you, nor Victor, nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn those things when he was living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes. I know now what he meant when he used to write of “this refuse heap of a country’ or “a trench that is nothing but a charnel-house’. 

And the wonder is, not that he temporarily lost the extremest refinements of his personality as Mrs Leighton says he did, but that he ever kept any of it at all – let alone nearly the whole. He was more marvellous than even I dreamed. There was his cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition – the soft cap he wore rakishly on the back of his head – with the badge coated thickly with mud. He must have fallen on top of it, or perhaps one of the people who fetched him trampled on it …

We discovered that the bullet was an expanding one. The hole where it went in in front – well below where the belt would have been, just below the right-hand bottom pocket of the tunic – was almost microscopic, but at the back almost exactly where his back bone would have been, there was quite a large rent. The under things he was wearing at the time have evidently had to be destroyed, but they sent back a khaki waistcoat or vest … which was dark and stiff with blood, and a pair of khaki breeches also in the same state, which had been slit open at the top by someone in a great hurry – probably the doctor in haste to get at the wound, or perhaps even by one of the men. Even the tabs of his braces were blood-stained. He must have fallen on his back, as in every case the back of his clothes was much more stained and muddy than the front.

The charnel-house smell seemed to grow stronger and stronger till it pervaded the room and obliterated everything else. Mrs Leighton said,

“Robert, take those clothes away into the kitchen, and don’t let me see them again; I must either burn or bury them. They smell of death; they are not Roland, they seem to detract from his memory and spoil his glamour”.

And indeed one could never imagine those things the same as those in which he had lived and walked. One couldn’t believe anyone alive had been in them at all. No, they were not him. After the clothes had gone we opened the window wide and felt better, but it was a long time before the smell and even the taste of them went away.

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On 1 July 1916, Vera also lost her brother Edward to whom she wrote a poem in 1918 (right). In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera wrote of how she felt on Armistice Day in 1918, having lost Roland, Edward and two other friends. She felt that she was already living in a different world from the one that she had known during the past four years. This new world was one in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. She would have no part in that alien world because she had no-one to share it with; all those with whom she had been intimate had gone. For the first time, she realised how completely everything that had hitherto made up her life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey:

The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return.

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Testament of the Disillusioned Peace:

The First World War was a deep shock to every individual who experienced it personally, from poets to politicians, either directly or indirectly. It often left a lasting sense of loss with them. The war poets, like Wilfred Owen, who was killed just a week before the Armistice was signed, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived, produced brilliant, often pathetic or vituperative, but always compelling pieces of literature on the nature of trench warfare on the western front. I have written extensively about Owen’s life, tragic death and his poetry elsewhere on this site. Sassoon (1886-1967) began the war as a patriot. Already enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, he broke his arm when falling from his horse; consequently, he did not go to the Front till November 1915 and until then his poetry showed much the same attitude as Brooke’s did. He joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a commissioned officer, and early in 1916 was sent to the First Battalion in France. He showed remarkable and rather eccentric courage. His heroic episodes in bringing back wounded from no man’s land and in capturing a trench full of Germans single-handed won him the Military Cross; these episodes were described by Robert Graves, an officer in the same regiment, in Goodbye to All That.

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The war radically changed Sassoon’s approach to poetry, the romanticism of his early works replaced by muddy death, blood, cowardice and suicide. In July 1916 he was invalided home; on leave, he became a virtual pacifist. He had lost faith in the ethical cause for which the Allies were fighting, and in the strategy and tactics used by Allied generals on the Western Front. He was, therefore, the first poet to publish poetry that was openly critical of the Allies’ motives and methods in waging the war. By the spring of 1917, he was back in the front line at the Battle of Arras and was wounded in the neck. Invalided home again he adopted more dramatic methods of showing his opposition to the war. Graves persuaded Sassoon to appear before an army medical board, which sent him to a hospital for neurasthenia at Craiglockart in Scotland, where he was treated by a well-known psychiatrist, Dr W. H. R. Rivers, and where he encouraged his fellow-patient, Wilfred Owen, in writing poetry.

As the historian Henry Pelling pointed out, in 1914 the country had not been psychologically prepared for the trials it had to undergo, the appalling suffering of the trenches and the rate of casualties never previously experienced. Britain and its Empire had lost almost a million men, with twice as many wounded; this placed them fifth behind Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary in a war that claimed more than thirty-five million civilian and military casualties around the world. Technology had given these powers the artillery gun and the machine-gun, and their leaders elected to kill more than sixteen million people with these weapons. In the immediate aftermath, there was a reluctance to get to grips with what had happened. In some ways, this was surprising because, for the first time ever, the ranks were filled with natural reporters. The troops who went into action at the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 were mostly volunteers who had answered the appeal of Lord Kitchener. They came from every stratum of society, from the unemployed to factory hands, clerks and office workers, and on through to lawyers, doctors and landed gentry.

As John Buchan wrote in 1935, a war solves no problem but the one – which side is the stronger. In November 1918 the Allies felt that they had overthrown a great menace and arrogance. But what was to come next? It was an old assumption that some spiritual profit was assured by material loss and bodily suffering, but it was certain that the moral disorder was at least as conspicuous as the moral gain. He went on:

The passions of many millions cannot be stirred for years without leaving a hideous legacy. Human life has been shorn of its sacredness; death and misery and torture have become too familiar, the old decorums and sanctions have lost something of their power. The crust of civilisation has worn thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of the primordial fires. … Principles, which seemed fundamental, are… weakened, and men are inclined to question the cardinal articles of their faith. …

But the chief consequence of so great a war as this was the mental and moral fatigue. Minds were relaxed and surfeited, when they were not disillusioned. They had had enough of the heroic. After the strain of the distant vision they were apt to seek the immediate advantage; after so much altruism they asked leave to attend to private interests; after their unremitting labours they claimed the right of apathy. The conundrums of peace had to be faced not only by jaded statesmen, but by listless, confused peoples. Mr Lloyd George found the right word for the malady when he described it as a “fever of anaemia.”

The situation was the more dangerous for the Allies, because the intricate business of peace should have been the work of the peoples, as they had been the architects of victory. The war was not won by the genius of the few but by the faithfulness of the many. It had been a vindication of the essential greatness of our common nature. … But the peoples seemed to stand aside, and cast the whole burden of settlement on statesmen whose shoulders were already weary. Nothing was more striking than the popular apathy about the business of peacemaking. …

Britain caught the same infection as the rest of the world. … As for youth, it shut its ears for a little to every call except the piping of pleasure. … The War was a memory to be buried. Young men back from the trenches tried to make up for the four years of natural amusement of which they had been cheated; girls, starved for years of their rights, came from dull war-work and shadowed schoolrooms determined to win back something. …

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The soldiers had returned, both male and female, as the picture above of them sitting on Brighton beach in 1919 reveals. The well-known blue uniform was seen about the streets. The wounded looked cheerful in the second picture below, presumably, simply because they were alive.

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The newspaper reporting of the time was factual but restrained and relatively free of ‘comment’ apart from the editorials; “morale” was all-important. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon supplied a tiny audience what was missing from the reportage. He continued to show his distrust of England’s ‘ruling classes’ in several ways, writing Aftermath in 1920:

Have you forgotten yet? …

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and war’s a bloody game …

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look down , and swear by the dead of the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet? …

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

There were some undistinguished novels in the 1920s, but it was ten years before Robert Graves and Sassoon felt able to release their officer-class memoirs and before R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End was first performed. Sassoon became the first literary editor of the Daily Herald, the new Socialist newspaper, and his prose books such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer implied considerable criticism of the class system. The experience scarred many, on all fronts, including the home front, in deep psychological ways.

(to be continued…)

The ‘Other England’ of the Sixties and Seventies: The Changing Fortunes of East Anglia.   Leave a comment

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Looking across the River Deben towards Woodbridge from Sutton Hoo.

East of England; the Country from the Stour to the Wash:

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After the far West of England, East Anglia was one of the most neglected regions of England until the sixties. In the fashionable division of the nation into North and South, it has tended to get lumped in with the South. The South-east Study of 1964 was less vague, however, drawing an arbitrary line from the Wash to the Dorset Coast at Bournemouth and defining the area to the east of this boundary as ‘South-east England’. In the same year, Geoffrey Moorhouse (pictured below), a well-known contemporary Guardian correspondent, wrote that, in time, if policies to encourage a counter-drift of the population from the South were not adopted, the whole of the vast area delineated might well become one in character, in relative wealth and in disfigurement. As far as he was concerned, the ‘carving out’ of this area encroached upon the traditional regions of the West Country, beginning at Alfred’s ancient capital of Winchester in Hampshire, and East Anglia, incorporating Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, or at least that part of it lying to the north of Colchester. To the south, most of Essex was already part of the ‘Golden Circle’ commuter area for the metropolis, stretching from Shoeburyness at the end of the Thames estuary, around the edge of ‘Greater London’ and up the Hertfordshire border to the north of Harlow. Suffolk and Norfolk, however, still remained well ‘beyond the pale’ between the Stour Valley and the Wash, occupying most of the elliptical ‘knob’ sticking out into the North Sea. It was an ‘East Country’ which still seemed as remote from the metropolitan south-east of England as that other extremity in the far south-west peninsular.

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In the fifties, as the wartime airfields were abandoned and the Defence Ministry personnel went back to London, East Anglia went back to its old ways of underemployment, rural depopulation, low land and property values. By the mid-fifties, the people of East Anglia were not yet having it as good as many parts of the Home Counties that Macmillan probably had in mind when he made his famous remark. Urban growth continued, however, into the early sixties. For the most part, development was unimaginative, as council estates were built to replace war-time damage and cater for the growing town populations.  Where, in 1959, the Norfolk County Council was getting four thousand applicants a year for planning permission, by 1964 the figure had risen to ten thousand. Issues of planned town growth became urgent. Old properties, particularly thatched cottages and timber-framed farmhouses were eagerly sought. For all the talk of imminent development, with all the benefits and drawbacks that this implied, East Anglia did not look as if it had changed much by the early sixties. The most noticeable signs of the times were the great number of abandoned railway stations. Railway traffic had declined throughout England as British road transport had eclipsed railways as the dominant carrier of freight. Several branch lines, such as the Long Melford to Bury St Edmunds and sections of the Waveney Valley had already closed before the celebrated ‘Beeching Axe’ was wielded in 1963. Neither Suffolk nor Norfolk enjoyed a share in the slow growth of national prosperity of the fifties, but then the boom came suddenly and Suffolk became the fastest growing county by the end of the decade. It began in the early sixties when many new industries came to the East Anglian towns and cities.

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The abandoned railway station at Needham Market, Suffolk.

The ‘neglected’ Suffolk of the fifties was ready to be rediscovered in the sixties. Companies escaping from the high overheads in London and the Home Counties realised that they could find what they were looking for in Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury and Haverhill. Executives discovered that they could live in an area of great peace and beauty and yet be within commuting distance of their City desks. Moreover, the shift in the balance of international trade focused attention on once more on the eastern approaches. When the bulk of Britain’s trade was with the empire and North America it was logical that London, Southampton and Liverpool should have been the main ports. The railway network had been constructed in the nineteenth century in such a way as to convey manufactured goods to these ports. But the Empire had been all but disbanded and Britain was being drawn, inexorably if sometimes reluctantly, into the European Common Market. More and more industrial traffic took to the road; heavy lorries at first, then containers. Now producers were looking for the shortest routes to the continent, and many of them lay through Suffolk, shown below in Wilson’s 1977 map of the county.

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One of the benefits of East Anglia’s poor communications was that, at the height of summer, it was the only region south of the Bristol-Wash line which was not crammed with holidaymakers and their traffic. The seaboard caught it a little, as of course did the Norfolk Broads. Norfolk reckons, for instance, that caravans are worth two million pounds a year to it one way or another and, like Cornwall, saw this as a mixed blessing; as Moorhouse was writing his book (in 1964), the County Council was in the process of spending fifty thousand pounds on buying up caravan sites which had been placed with an eye more to income than to landscape. But inland and away from the waterways crowds of people and cars were hard to find; out of the holiday season, East Anglia was scarcely visited by any ‘outsiders’ apart from occasional commercial travellers. Local difficulties, small by comparison with those of the North, were lost from sight. As the sixties progressed, more and more British people and continental visitors realised that discovered the attractions the two counties had to offer. As Derek Wilson wrote at the end of the following decade,

They realised that a century or more of economic stagnation had preserved from thoughtless development one of the loveliest corners of England. They came in increasing numbers by their, now ubiquitous, motor-cars to spend quiet family holidays at the coast, to tour the unspoilt villages, to admire the half-timbering, the thatch, the pargetting and the great wool churches. Some decided to stake a claim by buying up old cottages for ‘week-ending’ or retirement.

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So great was the demand for even derelict old properties that prices trebled in the period 1969-73. Village communities were no longer so tight-knit so the arrival of these ‘strangers’ cannot be said to have disrupted a traditional culture. Only in those areas where the newcomers congregated in large numbers, buying up properties at inflated prices which ‘locals’ could no longer afford was any real and lasting cultural damage inflicted. At first, the seaside towns found it difficult to come to terms with the expansion in tourism, having been ignored for so long. Even the established Suffolk holiday resorts – Aldeburgh, Southwold, Dunwich, even Felixstowe – were ‘genteel’ places; compared with Clacton on the Essex coast which was far closer in time and space to for day-trippers from London, they did not bristle with amusement arcades, Wimpy bars, holiday camps and the assorted paraphernalia that urban man seems to expect at the seaside. Derek Wilson commented that Suffolk was more like a coy maiden prepared to be discovered than an accomplished seductress thrusting her charms at every single passer-by. 

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Three centuries of properties in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

A Metropolitan ‘Refugee’ in Dunwich:

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Greyfriars, The Simpson coastal ‘pile’ in Dunwich.

One of the earliest of these ‘refugees’ from the metropolis was John Simpson (who was to become the BBC’s World Affairs Editor). When he was fifteen, in 1959,  moved from Putney to Dunwich. His holidays had already been taken up with following his father’s genealogical enthusiasms, and they went from village church to county archive to cathedral vault searching for records of births, marriages and deaths, and transcribing inscriptions on gravestones. Having discovered the full extent of the full extent of the Simpson’s Suffolk roots, Roy Simpson insisted that they should look for a country house there. John recalled,

We spent a wintry week driving from one depressing place to another and talking to lonely farmers’ wives whose ideal in life was to leave their fourteenth-century thatched manor-houses and move to a semi near the shops. We had almost given up one evening and were setting out on the road to London when I spotted a brief mention at the end of an estate agent’s list of a rambling place on a clifftop overlooking the sea at Dunwich. …

From the moment I saw it I knew I would never be happy until I lived there. No one could call ‘Greyfriars’ handsome. It was the left hand end of an enormous 1884 mock-Elizabethan pile which had been split up into three separate sections at the end of the war. Our part had around eight bedrooms and five bathrooms. … It was always absurdly unsuitable … four hours’ drive from London, and nowhere near the shops or anything else. Its eleven acres of land were slowly being swallowed up by the ravenous North Sea, and it cost a small fortune to keep warm and habitable. … 

The village of Dunwich immediately formed another element of that sense of the past, faded glory which had haunted so much of my life. In the early Middle Ages it had been the greatest port in England, sending ships and men and hundreds of barrels of herrings to the Kings of England, and possessing a bishopric and forty churches and monasteries. But it was built on cliffs of sand, and the storms of each winter undermined it and silted up the port. In the twelfth century, and again in the thirteenth, large parts of the town collapsed into the sea. … Our land ran down to the cliff edge, and we watched it shrink as the years went by. 

The stories about hearing bells under the sea were always just fantasy, but Dunwich was certainly a place of ghosts. A headless horseman was said to drive a phantom coach and four along one of the roads nearby. … In the grounds of our house two Bronze Age long-barrows stood among the later trees, and when the moon shone hard and silver down onto the house, and the thin clouds spread across the sky, and a single owl shrieked from the bare branches of the dead holm-oak outside my bedroom window, it was more than I could do to get out of bed and look at them. I would think of those cold bones and the savage gold ornaments around them, and shiver myself to sleep.

The winter of 1962 was the worst since 1947, and that was the worst since the 1660s, people said. The snow fell in early December and dug in like an invading army, its huge drifts slowly turning the colour and general consistency of rusty scrap iron. In our vast, uneconomic house at Dunwich the wind came off the North Sea with the ferocity of a guillotine blade and the exposed pipes duly froze hard. The Aga stood in the corner of the kitchen like an icy coffin. … We wandered round the house in overcoats, with scarves tied round our heads like the old women at Saxmundham market. None of the lavatories worked.

In October 1963, Roy Simpson drove his son ‘up’ to Cambridge from the Suffolk coast in his old Triumph. John Simpson set down his cases, as had many Suffolk boys before him, outside the porter’s lodge in the gateway of Magdalene College. For the next three years, his life revolved around the University city in the Fens until he joined the BBC in 1966.

Coast, Cathedral City & Inland Industrial Development:

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The curvature of the eastern coastline had been responsible for the lack of metropolitan infiltration hitherto. Norfolk and Suffolk were in a cul-de-sac; even today, apart from the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich, on opposite sides of the mouth of the River Stour, they do not lie on transport routes to anywhere else, and their lines of communication with other parts of the country, except with London, were still poor in the early sixties, and are still relatively retarded half a century later, despite the widening of the A12 and the extension of the A14. The disadvantages of remoteness could be severe, but at the same time, this saved the two countries from the exploitation that had occurred in places with comparable potential. Had there been better communications, Norwich might have been as badly ravaged by the Industrial Revolution as Bradford, but the great East Anglian woollen trade and cloth-making industry were drawn to Yorkshire as much by the promise of easier transport as by the establishment of the power-loom on faster-flowing water sources. Instead, Norwich still retained the air of a medieval city in its centre with its cathedral, its castle, and its drunken-looking lollipop-coloured shops around Elm Hill, Magdalen Street, and St. Benedict’s. Its industries, like the Colman’s mustard factory, were already discreetly tucked away on its flanks, and there they did not intrude.

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Norwich itself was poised to move forward by the sixties, and though its hopes had received a setback as a result of Britain’s early failures to get into the Common Market, it still saw itself as playing an important part in the development of trade between this country and the Continent. European connections were already strong in East Anglia. From the obvious Dutch gables widespread throughout the region (see the example below from a farmhouse near Woodbridge, Suffolk) and concentrated in places like Kings Lynn, to the names beginning with the prefix ‘Van’ in the telephone directories, Flemish influences could, and still can be found everywhere. Dutch farmers had been settling in the two counties since the late seventeenth century. There were two Swiss-owned boatyards on the Norfolk Broads and one of Norwich’s biggest manufacturers, Bata Shoes, was Swiss in origin. In the early sixties, two Danish firms had set themselves up near the city.

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For Suffolk, the sixties and seventies saw a most astonishing growth in the population, which had been decreasing for over a century. The population of Suffolk showed a comparatively modest, but significant growth from 475,000 in 1951 to 560,000 in 1961. Most of this increase was in West Suffolk, where the growth of Haverhill, Bury and Sudbury accounted for most of the extra population. These were designated in the mid-fifties as London overspill areas. In Haverhill, the notion of town expansion had been pioneered in 1955; by the time Geoffrey Moorhouse published his survey in 1964, there was already a plan for a further massive transfusion of people to the town from London.  Thetford, Bury St Edmunds, and Kings Lynn were to be transformed within the next two decades. Between the two censuses of 1961 to 1971, the population of Suffolk jumped by over eighteen per cent (the national average was 5.8 per cent). There were many reasons for this unprecedented growth, which brought Suffolk a prosperity it had not known since the great days of the cloth trade.

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A variety of restored properties in Needham Market today.

But the hinterland towns of central East Anglia presented a bigger problem for the local planners and county authorities. They had grown up as market-places for the sale of agricultural produce like those in other parts of rural England. By the mid-sixties, they had held on to this function much longer than most. But the markets, and particularly the cattle markets, had recently become more and more concentrated in the biggest towns – Norwich, King’s Lynn, Bury and Cambridge – and the justification for places like Stowmarket, Diss, Eye, Downham Market and Needham Market (pictured above), in their traditional form had been rapidly disappearing. Their populations were in need of new industries to take the place of old commerce and, in part, they got them. As early as the sixties, a new town at Diss, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, was already talked of.  Carefully planned industrial and housing estates were built and a variety of service industries and light engineering concerns moved their machines and desks to spacious premises from whose windows the workers could actually see trees and green fields. Writing in the late seventies, Derek Wilson concluded that, while such examples of economic planning and  ‘social engineering’ could only be described as revolutionary, they were still too recent to invite accurate assessment.

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Above: The Centre of Ipswich is now undergoing an extensive renovation, including that of its historic Corn Exchange area, complete with a statue to one of its more famous sons, Giles, the Daily Express cartoonist, popular in the sixties and seventies, when rapid development engulfed many earlier buildings in concrete.

Paradoxically, Suffolk’s depressed isolation gave a boost to the new development. Some of Suffolk’s most beautiful countryside was no further from the metropolis than the ‘stockbroker belt’ of Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Yet land and property prices in Suffolk were less than half of what they were in the desirable areas of those counties. Most of the county was within eighty miles of London and served by still reasonable rail connections, and improving road connections from the capital. The population was now more mobile, and light industry less tied to traditional centres.  But development in the sixties and seventies was not restricted to the eastern side of the two counties. Ipswich, the other town in the two counties which was relatively industrialised, had been, like Norwich, comparatively unscathed by that industrialisation. Its growth occurred largely as a result of migration within Suffolk. Even so, its population increased from a hundred thousand to a hundred and twenty-two thousand between 1961 and 1971. It became the only urban centre in the county to suffer the same fate of many large towns and cities across England in that period – haphazard and largely unplanned development over many years. In the late seventies, farmers could still remember when the county town was still was just that, a large market town, where they could hail one another across the street. By then, however, dual carriageways and one-way systems had been built in an attempt to relieve its congested centre, while old and new buildings jostled each other in what Derek Wilson called irredeemable incongruity.

East Anglia as Archetypal Agricultural England:

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Life on the land had already begun to change more generally in the sixties. East Anglia is an important area to focus on in this respect, because it was, and still is, agricultural England. In the sixties and seventies, agriculture was revitalised: farmers bought new equipment and cultivated their land far more intensely than ever before. The industries here remained identical to the main purpose of life, which was to grow food and raise stock. Many of the industries in the two counties were secondary, and complimentary, to this purpose. Of the thirty-nine major industrial firms in East Suffolk, for example, twelve were concerned with food processing, milling, or making fertilisers, and of the five engineering shops most were turning out farm equipment among other things. These industries varied from the firm in Brandon which employed three people to make and export gun-flints to China and Africa, to the extensive Forestry Commission holding at Thetford, where it was calculated that the trees grew at the rate of seventeen tons an hour, or four hundred tons a day. But a quarter of the total workforce in Norfolk and Suffolk was employed in the primary industry of farming; there were more regular farm-workers in Norfolk than in any other English county. The county produced two of the founders of modern British agriculture, Coke of Holkham and Townshend of Raynham, and it had kept its place at the head of the field, quite literally.

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East Anglia was easily the biggest grain-producing region of the country and the biggest producer of sugar-beet. During the First World War, farmers had been encouraged to grow sugar beet in order to reduce the country’s dependence on imported cane sugar. This had been so successful that in 1924 the government offered a subsidy to beet producers. The crop was ideally suited to the heavy soil of central Suffolk and without delay, a number of farmers formed a co-operative and persuaded a Hungarian company to build a sugar factory near Bury St Edmunds. Five thousand acres were planted immediately and the acreage grew steadily over the next half-century. In 1973, the factory was considerably enlarged by the building of two huge new silos, which came to dominate the skyline along the A14 trunk road. The factory became the largest plant of its kind in Europe and by the late seventies was playing an important part in bringing Britain closer to its goal of self-sufficiency in sugar.

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Local ingenuity and skill had devised and built many agricultural machines during the nineteenth century, like this threshing/ grain crushing machine from the Leiston Richard Garrett works, which made various farming machines, including tractors.

Of all the English counties, Norfolk had the biggest acreage of vegetables and the heaviest yield per acre of main crop potatoes. It was also the second biggest small fruit producer and the second highest breeder of poultry. Suffolk came close behind Norfolk in barley crops, while it had the biggest acreage of asparagus and more pigs than any other county. The region’s importance to agriculture was symbolised by the headquarters of the Royal Agricultural Society having its base in Norfolk, and the region also played host to the British-Canadian Holstein-Friesian Association, the Poll Friesian Cattle Society, the British Goat Society, and the British Waterfowl Association. No other county had as many farms over three hundred acres as Norfolk, and most of the really enormous farms of a thousand acres or more were to be found in the two Easternmost counties. The biggest farm in England, excluding those owned by the Crown, was to be found on the boundary of Bury St Edmunds, the ten-thousand-acre Iveagh estate, covering thirteen farmsteads, and including a piggery, three gamekeepers’ lodgings and homes for its cowmen, foresters and its works department foreman.

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The most significant change taking place on the land throughout England was in the size of farms. The big ones were getting bigger and the small ones were slowly dwindling and going out of business. Mechanisation was reducing the number of jobs available to agricultural workers, and from this followed the steady decline of rural communities. By the end of the sixties, however, the employment position in Norfolk was beginning to stabilise as the old farm hands who were reared as teams-men and field-workers and were kept on by benevolent employers retired and were not replaced. Although it employed fewer people than ever before, farming was still Suffolk’s largest single industry in the mid-seventies. After Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, accessibility to European markets had led to a certain amount of diversity. There were numerous farmers specialising in poultry, pigs and dairying. Yet persistently high world grain prices led to the intensive production of what the heavy soils of central Suffolk are best suited to – cereal crops. The tendency for large estates to be split up and fields to remain unploughed had been dramatically reversed. The larger the unit, the more productive and efficient the farm, with every producer determined to get the maximum yield from their acres.

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The field patterns between Leiston and Sizewell (from the model detailed below).

As the big farms grew bigger and farming became more highly mechanised, farmers were tending to re-organise the shapes and sizes of their fields, making them as large as possible so that the tractor and the combine harvester could work them with greater ease and maximum efficiency. They uprooted trees and whole copses, which were awkward to plough and drill around, cut out hedges which for centuries had bounded small parcels of land, and filled in ditches. To the farmer, this meant the promise of greater productivity, but to the ecologist, it meant the balance of nature was being upset in a way that the farmer and the general countryside population, including animals as well as people, would have to pay for, later if not sooner. The practical answer to this problem has been the increasing use of chemicals to control pests which, as soon became obvious, was a double-edged blade. In addition, the poor land was treated with chemical fertilizers. East Anglia provided a classic example of what could happen as a result of the indiscriminate chemical warfare being conducted in the English countryside. As reported in the New Statesman (20 March 1964), …

… a Norfolk fruit-grower was persuaded by a pesticide salesman that the best way of keeping birds off his six acres of blackcurrants was to use an insecticide spray. Two days after he did so the area was littered with the silent corpses of dozens of species of insects, birds and mammals.

This was very far removed, of course, from the idealised conception of the rural life that most people carried around in their imaginations, and perhaps many of us still do today, especially when we look back on childhood visits to the countryside and relatives living in rural villages.  Moorhouse characterised this contrast as follows:

Smocked labourers, creaking hay carts, farmyard smells, and dew-lapped beasts by the duck-pond – these are still much more to the forefront of our consciousness than DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, and fluoroacetemide. In most of us, however completely we may be urbanised, there lurks some little lust for the land and a chance to work it.  

Rustic Life; Yeomen Farmers and Yokels:

Farmers had to become hard-nosed professional businessmen. The profits from their labour had to be extracted while they were there, for it was never certain what might be around the next bend. This emphasis on business sense, both in himself and in others, his passion for getting the maximum work out of his men and machines, was what made Moorhouse’s Norfolk farmer sound indistinguishable from any high-powered industrialist in the Midlands. In a sense, he wasn’t. He was prepared to try any method which would increase his productivity. In the early sixties, something very odd had been happening in his part of the world. Traditionally, ‘big’ Norfolk farmers like him had tended to be isolated neighbours, seeing each other at the market but otherwise scarcely at all. But he and three other men had taken to sharing their equipment for harvesting quick-freeze peas; this work had to be done particularly fast on a day appointed by the food factory and ‘Farmer Giles’ and his neighbours had decided that it could be done most efficiently and cheaply by pooling their men and machines and having this unit move from property to property in the course of one day. In 1964, they also clubbed together for a contracting helicopter to spray their crops. He and his friends, being staunch Tories, might not have accepted that they were putting co-operative principles into farming practice, but that was precisely what they were doing, just as the Suffolk sugar-beet growers had done forty years earlier.

For all his business acumen, however, ‘Farmer Giles’ measured up to the popular stereotypical image of a yeoman farmer. He was a warden at his local church, had a couple of horses in his stables and during ‘the season’ he went shooting for four days a week. He cared about the appearance of his patch of countryside, spent an impressive amount of time in doing up the tied cottages of his men, rather than selling it to them, as some of them would like. This is not simply because, in the long run, it results in a contented workforce, but because he can control what it looks like on the outside, as pretty as an antique picture, thatched and whitewashed. Fundamentally, he belonged as completely to the land as he possessed it. Though he no longer had any real need to, he did some manual work himself, as well as prowling around the farm to make sure everything was going to his overall plan. He was organic, like his 1,200 acres, which nonetheless produced a profit of sixteen thousand pounds a year. As he himself commented, overlooking his fields, there is something good about all this! A cynic might have responded to this by suggesting that any life that could produce such a profit was indeed, a good life.

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Above & Below: Cattle grazing on the Deben meadows near Woodbridge, Suffolk.

But how had the tied agricultural workers, the eternal rustics, fared in this changing pattern of agriculture? The farm labourer interviewed by Moorhouse worked on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. He left school at fourteen, the son of a mid-Norfolk cowman of thirty-five years standing. He first worked on a poultry farm for a couple of years, had four years as assistant cowman to his father, five years as a stock feeder, then two years ‘on the land’ working with tractors and horses. He then came to the farm Moorhouse found him working on fifteen years previously, just after getting married, as a relief man. At the age of forty-two, with a teenage daughter, he was head cowman for a ‘gaffer’ with 450 arable acres and a hundred acres of pasture which carried fifty Friesian milking cows, forty-six calves, and a bull. His farmer was nearing seventy and didn’t hold with too many of the new ways. It was only in that year, 1964, that the modern method of milking – straight from the cow through a pipeline to a common container – had been adopted by his gaffer. Farmer Giles had been doing it this way ever since it was proved to be the quickest and easiest way. ‘Hodge’ got up at 5.30 a.m. to milk the cows and feed the calves. After breakfast until mid-day, he was busy about the yards, mixing meal, washing up and sterilizing equipment. From 1.30 p.m. he was out again, feeding the calves and doing various seasonal jobs until milking, which generally finished by 5 o’clock. Very often he went out again before bed-time, to check on the cows and the calves. He worked a six-and-a-half-day week, for which he was paid twenty-two per cent more than the basic farm worker’s wage for a forty-six-hour week.

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When he first came to the farm, ‘Hodge’ was given, rent-free, a cottage, which was in rather worse shape than the shelters which housed the cows in winter. It had one of the tin-can lavatories described below and was lit with paraffin lamps. He had to tramp eighty yards to a well for water. There was one room downstairs plus a tiny kitchen, and two bedrooms, one of which was so small you couldn’t fit a full-size bed in it. After a while, the farmer modernised it at a cost of a thousand pounds, knocking it together with the next-door cottage. The renewed place, though still cramped, had all the basic necessities and Hodge paid twelve shillings a week for it. He accepted his situation, though the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW) did not, since it had been trying to abolish tied cottages for forty years on the principle of eviction. Although a socialist and chairman of his local union branch, Hodge argued that tied cottages were necessary because the farm worker had to be near his job so that, as in his case, he could hop across the road before bedtime to check on the cows. Other changes had taken place in his lifetime on Norfolk land. The drift to the towns had fragmented the old society, and traditions had been quietly petering out. The parish church was generally full for the harvest festival, but otherwise ill-attended; the rector had three parishes to cope with.

Rural Poverty & Village Life:

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A former labourer’s cottage in Saxmundham marketplace.

The poverty of the inland, rural villages was the result of far more basic concerns than the pressures on property prices created by newcomers, or the changes in agriculture, which did little to improve the lives of villagers. Their cottages may have looked attractive enough in their appearance on the outside, but too often offered their home-grown dwellers little encouragement to remain in them, and if they got the chance to move out they did, while there was no help at all for those who might be interested in trying their hand at rural life. Moorhouse found one village within ten miles of Ipswich which, apart from its electricity and piped water supplies, had not changed at all since the Middle Ages. Some of its cottages were without drains and in these, the housewife had to put a bucket under the plughole every time she wanted to empty the sink; she then carried it out and emptied onto the garden. Sewerage was unknown in the community of 586 people, none of whom had a flush toilet. They used tins, lacing them with disinfectant to keep down the smell and risk of infection. In some cases, these were housed in cubicles within the kitchens, from where they had to be carried out, usually full to the brim, through the front door. Every Wednesday night, as darkness fell, the Rural District Council bumble cart, as the villagers call it, arrived in the village street to remove the tins from the doorsteps. Moorhouse commented that this was…

… for nearly six hundred people … a regular feature of life in 1964 and the joke must long since have worn thin. There are villages in the remoter parts of the North-west Highlands of Scotland which are better equipped than this.

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This was not by any means an isolated example. While in both counties the coverage of electricity and water supplies were almost complete, drainage and sewerage were far from being so. In the Clare rural district of Suffolk villages were expected to put up with the humiliating visitations of the ‘night cart’ for another five years; in the whole of West Suffolk there were twenty-four villages which could not expect sewerage until sometime between 1968 and 1981, and both county councils accepted that they were some villages which would never get these basic amenities. In East Suffolk, only those places within the narrow commuting belts around the biggest towns could be sure that they would one day soon become fully civilised. In Norfolk, it was estimated that as many as a hundred would never be so. Again, this was the price that East Anglia was paying for being off the beaten track. It was not the indolence of the county councils which ensured the continuance of this residue of highly photogenic rural slums, as Moorhouse put it, so much as cold economics. Both counties had, acre for acre, among the smallest population densities in England; in neither is there very much industry. Therefore, under the rating system of that time, based on property values and businesses, they were unable to raise sufficient funds to provide even these basic services, as we would see them now. Norfolk claimed to have the lowest rateable value among the English counties, and Suffolk was not much better off. They simply did not have the ‘wherewithal’ to make these small communities fit for human habitation. But this simple fact was little ‘comfort’ to those who had to live in them.

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County Hall, Norwich.

For a survey which it undertook for its 1951 development plan, East Suffolk County Council had decided that basic communal necessities consisted of at least a food shop, a non-food shop, a post office, a school, a doctor’s surgery and/or clinic, a village hall, and a church. When it took a long, hard look at its villages, it found that only forty-seven had all of these things, that ninety-three had all three basic requirements and that (food shop, school, village hall), that 133 had only one or two of them and that thirty-one had none. A similar survey by the West Suffolk County Council showed that only sixteen per cent of its 168 parishes had all the facilities and that about the same proportion had none. When the county authorities made a follow-up survey in 1962, using the same criteria, they found that the position of these rural communities had hardly changed in a decade. There were many more surgeries, due to the growing provisions of the NHS, but the number of village schools had dropped from 103 to 92 and of non-food shops from fifty to twenty-seven.

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 Suffolk County flag.

In 1964, a regional, South-east Plan was being considered, which included both Suffolk and Norfolk. Moorhouse considered that it might transform the whole of East Anglia into something more approximating Hertfordshire or Essex in terms of economic development. But he also felt that unless there was a change of national direction, the East Country could not stay as it was, virtually inviolate, its people so conscious of their inaccessibility that they frequently refer to the rest of England as ‘The Shires’, and with so many of them eking out a living in small rural communities as their forefathers had done for generations.  It was scarcely surprising, wrote Moorhouse, that the young were leaving, looking for something better. The appeal of bigger towns and cities, with their exciting anonymity, was great enough for many whose childhood and adolescence had been spent wholly in the confining atmosphere of the village. Combined with the lack of basic amenities and work opportunities, this left young people with few reasons to stay.

Power, Ports & Progress:

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A lonely stretch of coast near Leiston, still enjoyed by caravanners and campers, was the sight of another important development. There, at Sizewell, Britain’s second nuclear power station was built in the early 1960s (the first was built at Windscale in Cumbria in the late fifties). In 1966, power began surging out from the grey, cuboid plant (a model of which – pictured above – can be seen at the Richard Garrett museum in Leiston) into the national grid. By the late seventies, Sizewell’s 580,000 kilowatts were going a long way towards meeting eastern England’s electricity needs.

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Sizewell Nuclear Power Station (2014)

The docks also began to be modernised, with ports like Tilbury and Felixstowe hastening the decline of London, which could not handle containerised freight. In addition, most of the Suffolk ports were no further from London than those of Kent and they were a great deal closer to the industrial Midlands and North. In 1955 the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company had on its hands a dilapidated dock that needed dredging, and warehouses, quays and sea walls all showing signs of storm damage. The total labour force was nine men. By the mid-seventies, the dock area covered hundreds of acres, many reclaimed, made up of spacious wharves, warehouses and storage areas equipped with the latest cargo handling machinery. The transformation began in 1956 as the direct result of foresight and careful planning. The Company launched a three million pound project to create a new deepwater berth geared to the latest bulk transportation technique – containerisation. It calculated that changing trading patterns and Felixstowe’s proximity to Rotterdam and Antwerp provided exciting prospects for an efficient, well-equipped port. Having accomplished that, it set aside another eight million for an oil jetty and bulk liquid storage facilities. In addition, a passenger terminal was opened in 1975. The dock soon acquired a reputation for fast, efficient handling of all types of cargo, and consignments could easily reach the major industrial centres by faster road and rail networks.

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Looking across the estuary from Harwich to the Felixstowe container port today.

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Increasing trade crammed the Suffolk’s main roads with lorries and forced an expansion and improvement of port facilities. The development of new industries and the growth of the east coast ports necessitated a considerable programme of trunk road improvement. From the opening of the first stretches of motorway in the winter of 1958/59, including the M1, there was a major improvement in the road network. By 1967 motorways totalled 525 miles in length, at a cost of considerable damage to the environment.  This continued into the mid-seventies at a time when economic stringency was forcing the curtailment of other road building schemes. East Anglia’s new roads were being given priority treatment for the first time. Most of the A12, the London-Ipswich road, was made into a dual carriageway. The A45, the artery linking Ipswich and Felixstowe with the Midlands and the major motorways, had been considerably improved. Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket had been bypassed. By the end of the decade, the A11/M11 London-Norwich road was completed, bringing to an end the isolation of central Norfolk and Suffolk.

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Above Left: An old milestone in the centre of Woodbridge, Suffolk; Right: The M1 at Luton Spur, opened 1959.

Culture, Landscape & Heritage; Continuity & Conflict:

 

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Suffolk remained a haven for artists, writers and musicians. Indeed, if the county had any need to justify its existence it would be sufficient to read the roll call of those who have found their spiritual home within its borders. Among them, and above them, towers Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh and drew inspiration from the land and people of Suffolk for his opera Peter Grimes. The composer moved to the seaside town in 1947 on his return from the USA and almost at once conceived the idea of holding a festival of arts there. It began quietly the following year but grew rapidly thereafter as the activities multiplied – concerts, recitals, operas and exhibitions – and every suitable local building was made use of. Many great artists came to perform and the public came, from all over the world, to listen. Britten had long felt the need for a large concert hall with good acoustics but he did not want to move the festival away from Aldeburgh and the cost of building a new hall was prohibitive.

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In October 1965, the lease of part of a disused ‘maltings’ at nearby Snape became available. It was in a beauty spot at a bridge over the River Alde (pictured above), and architects and builders were soon drafted in to transform the site into a concert hall and other facilities for making music. Queen Elizabeth II opened the buildings in June 1967, but almost exactly two years later disaster struck when the Maltings was burnt out. Only the smoke-blackened walls were left standing, but there was an almost immediate determination that the concert hall would be rebuilt. Donations poured in from all over the world and in less than forty-two weeks the hall had been reconstructed to the original design, and the complex was extended by adding rehearsal rooms, a music library, an art gallery, an exhibition hall and other facilities.

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The Suffolk shore or, to be more accurate, ‘off-shore’ also made a crucial contribution to the breakthrough of popular or ‘pop’ music in Britain. At Easter 1964 the first illegal ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline, began broadcasting from a ship just off the Suffolk coast (see map, right). Within months, millions of young people were listening to Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South, Radio London and other pirate stations that sprung up. Not only did they broadcast popular music records, but they also reminded their listeners that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct ‘attack on youth’.

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With the advent of these radio stations, the BBC monopoly on airtime was broken, and bands were able to get heard beyond their concerts. Eventually, the Government acted to bring an end to its ‘cold war’ with the British record industry. The BBC set up Radio One to broadcast popular records and in August 1967, the Marine Offences Act outlawed the pirate ships.

Back on dry land, there were areas of conflict, then as now, in which the interests of farmers, businessmen, holidaymakers and country residents clashed. When the farmer rooted out hedges, sprayed insecticides indiscriminately and ploughed up footpaths he soon had conservationists and countryside agencies on his back. When schedule-conscious truck drivers thundered their way through villages, there were angry protests.

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Saxtead Green’s post mill (see OS map above for location near Framlingham) as it looked in the 1970s when it was maintained by the Department of the Environment; it is now managed (2018) by English Heritage.

w290 (1)There were also, still, many for whom the images of Constable’s rolling landscapes were set in their mind’s eye. For them, this was, above all, his inviolable country. It was also dotted with windmills, another echo of earlier continental associations, many of them still working. Every new building project was examined in great detail by environmentalists.

Many local organisations were formed to raise awareness about and resist specific threats to rural heritage, such as the Suffolk Preservation Society and Suffolk Historic Churches Trust.

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Most of the churches, like the very early example at Rendlesham (right), were built of flint, both in Suffolk and in Norfolk, where a great number of them have round towers, a feature unique to that county. The farming people of Barsham in the Waveney Valley added their church to the Norman round tower in the fourteenth century (pictured above). After that, they could not afford elaborate additions. When the nave needed re-roofing, modest thatch seemed to offer the best solution. Suffolk, in particular, had an incredibly rich and well-preserved heritage which gave it its distinct county identity.

DSC09863Almost every church had a superb timber roof, described by Moorhouse as a complex of rafters, kingposts, and hammerbeams which look, as you crane your neck at them, like the inverted hold of a ship (the one pictured left is again, from Rendlesham). Very often these medieval churches were miles from any kind of community, emphasising the peculiarly lonely feeling of most of the area. Most are the remains of the Black Death villages, where the plague killed off the entire population and no one ever came back.

 

Around its magnificent ‘wool church’ (pictured below), the half-timbered ‘perfection’ of Lavenham might not have survived quite so completely had it been located in the South of England. This was one of the hidden benefits of the county’s relative isolation which had, nevertheless, come to an end by the late seventies.

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On the other hand, Wilson has reminded us that the wool-rich men of the town rebuilt their church almost entirely between 1485 and 1530 in the magnificent, new Perpendicular style, yet it remains today and is widely viewed as the crowning glory of ecclesiastical architecture in Suffolk. 

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Many other of the county’s churches are not as Medieval as they look (see the fifteenth-century additions to the transepts of St Michael’s, Framlingham, above) which may challenge our contemporary view of the balance between preservation and progress. In 1974 the Department of the Environment produced a report called Strategic Choice for East Anglia. It forecast a population of over eight hundred thousand in Suffolk alone by the end of the century. It saw the major towns growing much larger and suggested that the counties would inevitably lose some of their individuality:

We know … that the change and the growth … will make East Anglia more like other places. For some, this will mean the growth should be resisted, and the opportunities which it brings should be foregone. Whether or not we sympathise with this point of view, we do not think it is practicable. Much of the change and growth that is coming cannot be prevented by any of the means that is likely to be available. The only realistic approach is to recognize this, and take firm, positive steps to maintain and even enhance the environment of the region, using the extra resources that growth will bring …

By the time the report was published, the people of East Anglia had already begun, as they had always done in earlier times, to face up to many of the problems which change and development brought their way.

 

Sources:

Joanna Bourke, et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

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

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964),… Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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Posted November 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Assimilation, BBC, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, cleanliness, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Conservative Party, Demography, Domesticity, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Family, Great War, History, Home Counties, Hungary, Immigration, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Medieval, Midlands, Migration, Music, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), Norfolk, Population, Poverty, Refugees, Respectability, Scotland, Second World War, Suffolk, Tudor times, Uncategorized, Welfare State, World War One, World War Two

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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.

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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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Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

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

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

Posted October 7, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Apartheid and the Cold War, Balkan Crises, BBC, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Coalfields, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Conservative Party, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Family, France, Germany, Gorbachev, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Labour Party, liberal democracy, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism, Memorial, Migration, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), Navy, Poverty, privatization, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Revolution, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Syria, terror, terrorism, Thatcherism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Warfare

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