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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.

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

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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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Britain, 1974-79: The Three-Day Week to the Winter of Discontent: Part Two.   Leave a comment

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The Decade of Extremes – Punks, Skinheads & Hooligans:

The 1970s was an extreme decade; the extreme left and extreme right were reflected even in its music. Much of what happened in British music and fashion during the seventies was driven by the straightforward need to adopt and then outpace what had happened the day before. The ‘Mods’ and ‘Hippies’ of the sixties and early seventies were replaced by the first ‘skinheads’, though in the course there were ‘Ziggy Stardust’ followers of David Bowie who would bring androgyny and excess to the pavements and even to the playground. Leather-bound punks found a way of offending the older rockers; New Romantics with eye-liner and quiffs challenged the ‘Goths’. Flared jeans and then baggy trousers were suddenly ‘in’ and then just as quickly disappeared. Shoes, shirts, haircuts, mutated and competed. For much of this time, the game didn’t mean anything outside its own rhetoric. One minute it was there, the next it had gone. Exactly the same can be said of musical fads, the way that Soul was picked up in Northern clubs from Wigan to Blackpool to Manchester, the struggle between the concept albums of the art-house bands and the arrival of punkier noises from New York in the mid-seventies, the dance crazes that came and went. Like fashion, musical styles began to break up and head in many directions in the period, coexisting as rival subcultures across the country. Rock and roll was not dead, as Don McLean suggested in American Pie, when heavy metal and punk-rock arrivednor was Motown, when reggae and ska arrived. The Rolling Stones and Yes carried on oblivious to the arrivals of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. 

In this stylistic and musical chaos, running from the early seventies to the ‘noughties’, there were moments and themes which stuck out. Yet from 1974 until the end of 1978, living standards, which had doubled since the fifties, actually went into decline. The long boom for the working-classes was over. British pop had been invented during the optimistic years of 1958-68 when the economy was most of the time buoyant and evolving at its fastest and most creative spirit. The mood had turned in the years 1968-73, towards fantasy and escapism, as unemployment arrived and the world seemed bleaker and more confusing. This second phase involved the sci-fi glamour of David Bowie and the gothic mysticism of the ‘heavy metal’ bad-boy bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The picture below shows Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on stage in Chicago during their 1977 North American tour (Page is playing the double-neck Gibson used for their classic song, Stairway to Heaven).

A colour photograph of Robert Plant with microphone and Jimmy Page with a double necked guitar performing on stage.

The years 1974-79 were a period of deep political disillusion, with strains that seemed to tear at the unity of the United Kingdom: First there was Irish terrorism on the mainland, when in October two IRA bombs exploded in Guildford, followed by two more in Birmingham. Like many others, I will never forget the horrendous scenes in England’s second city the day after the Tavern in the Town was blasted. This was followed by a rise in racial tension and widespread industrial mayhem. The optimism which had helped to fuel the flowering of popular culture in the sixties was suddenly exhausted, so it is perhaps not a coincidence that this period was a darker time in music and fashion, a nightmare inversion of the sixties dream. In sport, the mid-seventies saw the invention of the ‘football hooligan’.

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This led on to serious problems for football grounds around the country, as the government introduced the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act. The home of Wolverhampton Wanderers, ‘Molineux’, had remained virtually unchanged since 1939, apart from the Molineux Street Stand, which had been made all-seater. But this distinctive seven-gabled stand (seen in the picture above) was deemed unsafe according to the act’s regulations and therefore had to be replaced. Architects were commissioned to replace the old stand, with its unique shape, with a new stand. To do this, the club had to purchase the remaining late Victorian terraced houses in Molineux Street and North Street which pre-dated the football ground, and all seventy-one of them were demolished to clear space for the new two million pound stand to be built at the rear of the old stand. The ‘new’ stand, with its 9,348 seats and forty-two executive boxes, was officially opened on 25 August 1979. Once the debris of the old stand was moved away, the front row of seats were almost a hundred feet from the pitch. From the back row, the game was so far away that it had to be reported by rumour! Also, throughout this period, the team needed strengthening.

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In the 1974-75 season, Wolves won the League Cup, beating star-studded Manchester City 2-1 at Wembley, and nearly reversed a 4-1  deficit against FC Porto in the UEFA Cup with an exciting 3-1 home victory. Wolves finished in a respectable twelfth place in the League. But at the end of the season, the team’s talisman centre-forward, Belfast-born Derek Dougan, decided to retire. He had joined the club in 1967, becoming an instant hit with the Wolves fans when he scored a hat-trick on his home debut, and netting nine times in eleven games to help Wolves win promotion that season. He was a charismatic man, a thrilling player and one of the best headers of the ball ever seen. He also held the office of Chairman of the PFA (Professional Football Association) and in 1971/72 forged a highly successful striking partnership with John Richards. Their first season together produced a forty League and UEFA Cup goals, twenty-four the Doog and sixteen for Richards. In 1972/73, they shared fifty-three goals in all competitions, Richards getting thirty-six and Dougan seventeen. In two and a half seasons of their partnership, the duo scored a total of 125 goals in 127 games. Derek Dougan signed off at Molineux on Saturday, 26th April 1975. In his nine years at Wolves, Dougan made 323 appearances and scored 123 goals, including five hat-tricks. He also won 43 caps for Northern Ireland, many of them alongside the great George Best, who himself had been a Wolves fan as a teenager.

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Above: Derek Dougan in 1974/75, the season he retired.

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Wolves had always been considered ‘too good to go down’ after their 1967 promotion but following the departure of ‘the Doog’ they embarked on a run to obscurity, finishing twentieth at the end of the 1975/76 season, resulting in their relegation to the second tier of English football. Worse still, early in 1976, Wolves’ fabulously speedy left-winger, Dave Wagstaffe, was transferred to Blackburn Rovers. In his twelve years at Molineux, ‘Waggy’ had scored thirty-one goals, including a ‘screamer’ in a 5-1 defeat of Arsenal, in over four hundred appearances. In time-honoured fashion, the majority of fans wanted money to be spent on new players, not on a stand of such huge proportions. Although Wolves returned to the League’s top flight at the end of the next season, they were still not good enough to finish in the top half of the division. More departures of longstanding stalwarts followed, including that of captain Mike Bailey, Frank Munro and goalkeeper Phil Parkes. The East Midlands clubs took over in the spotlight, first Derby County and then Nottingham Forest, who won the European Cup in 1979, to make Brian Clough’s dream a reality. Before the 1979-80 season kicked off, Wolves’ manager John Barnwell produced a stroke of genius by signing Emlyn Hughes from Liverpool to be his captain. Then he sold Steve Daley to Manchester City for close to 1.5 million pounds, and three days later signed Andy Gray from Aston Villa for a similar amount. Daley (pictured below in action against FC Porto) was a versatile, attacking midfielder who played in 218 senior games for Wolves, scoring a total of forty-three goals. Andy Gray scored on his debut for Wolves and went on to get another eleven League goals, one behind John Richards. He also scored in the League Cup Final in March to give Wolves a 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, and a place in the next season’s UEFA Cup.

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John Richards continued to play on into the 1980s for Wolves. According to John Shipley, he was a true Wolves legend, a player who would have graced any of Wolves’ Championship-winning teams. He was also a true gentleman, in the Billy Wright mould. He had signed for Wolves in 1967, turning professional two years later. I remember seeing him make his first-team debut at the Hawthorns against West Bromwich Albion on 28 February 1970, scoring alongside Derek Dougan in a 3-3 draw. They both played and scored in the 3-1 away victory against Fiorentina the following May. Richards went on to score 194 goals in 486 appearances, a goalscoring record which stood for ten years. He won only one full England cap, due mainly to injury.

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Like me, the entertainer Frank Skinner grew up on the fictional cartoon comic strip hero, Roy of the Rovers. Of course, when – as in his case – you support a real-life team that never wins anything, like West Bromwich Albion, it’s nice to follow a fictional team that scoops the lot. Melchester Rovers were his mythical alternative, and following them came with none of the attendant guilt that comes with slyly supporting another club, say Liverpool in the seventies. They were his ‘dream team’ with a cabinet of silverware and a true superstar-striker as player-manager. The 1970s were a time when both life and the beautiful game seemed far less complicated for teenagers. Watching it on TV, we would frequently hear a commentator say “this is real Roy of the Rovers Stuff”. What they usually meant was that there was one player on the pitch was doing something remarkable, unbelievable or against all odds. But even in the fictional pages, Roy had to confront the dark realities of hooligans among his own fans, and do battle with it in his own way, as the following frames show:

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Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren turned from creating beatnik jumpers to the ripped T-shirts and bondage gear of punk: the Sex Pistols portrayed themselves as a kind of anti-Beatles. Westwood was in many ways the perfect inheritor of Quant’s role of a dozen years earlier. Like Quant, she was brought up to make her own clothes and came through art college. She was similarly interested in the liberating power of clothes, setting herself up in a Kings Road shop which first needed to be braved before it could be patronised. Yet she was also very different from Quant, in that she had first mixed and matched to create a style of her own at the Manchester branch of C&A and claimed that her work was rooted in English tailoring. Her vision of fashion was anything but simple and uncluttered. According to Andrew Marr, it was a magpie, rip-it-up and make it new assault on the history of coiture, postmodern by contrast with straightforward thoroughly modern designs of Quant. The latter’s vision had been essentially optimistic – easy to wear, clean-looking clothes for free and liberated women. Westwood’s vision was darker and more pessimistic. Her clothes were to be worn like armour in a street battle with authority and repression, in an England of flashers and perverts. Malcolm McLaren formed the Sex Pistols in December 1975, with Steve Jones, Paul Cook, John Lydon and Glen Matlock making up a foursome which was anything but ‘fab’. Pockmarked, sneering, spitting, spikey-haired and exuding violence, they dutifully performed the essential duty of shocking a nation which was still too easily shocked. The handful of good songs they recorded have a leaping energy which did take the rock establishment by storm, but their juvenile antics soon became embarrassing. They played a series of increasingly wild gigs and made juvenile political attacks in songs such as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and, in the year of the Silver Jubilee (1977), ‘God Save the Queen. Jim Callaghan could be accused of many things, but presiding over a ‘fascist régime’ was surely not one of them.

On the other side of the political divide was an eruption of racist, skinhead rock, and an interest in the far right. Among the rock stars who seemed to flirt with these ideas was Eric Clapton. On 5th August 1976, I went, with a group of friends, to his concert at the Odeon in Birmingham. He came on stage an hour late, obviously stoned and drunk, and stated, to a mixed audience, that Enoch Powell was the only bloke who’s telling the truth, for the good of the country. In his autobiography, Clapton apologised for his behaviour and his outburst. He was not alone in his ‘flirting’ with racist views. David Bowie spoke of Hitler as being the first superstar, musing that he might make a good Hitler himself. Though the Sex Pistols liked to see themselves as vaguely on the anarchist left, their enthusiasm for shocking, nihilistic and amoral lyrics left room for ambiguity, particularly after ‘Sid Vicious’ joined them. McLaren and Westwood produced clothing with swastikas and other Nazi emblems if only to outrage people, while Vicious’s dubious contribution to political discourse can be summed up by his lyrics,

Belsen was a gas, I read the other day, about the open graves, where the Jews all lay …

Reacting to the surrounding mood, Rock Against Racism was formed in August 1976. My diary for 1976 records that I attended four anti-Fascist and anti-racist meetings in Birmingham that summer. These concerts and meetings led to the creation of the Anti-Nazi League a year later. Punk bands were at the forefront of the RAR movement, above all the Clash, whose lead singer Joe Strummer became more influential and admired than Johnny Rotten and the rest of the Sex Pistols, and bands such as the Jam. Black music – reggae, ska and soul – was popular enough among white youth like my friends for it to have a real influence in turning the fashion in street culture decisively against racism. Ska revival bands such as the Specials and the reggae-influenced Police and UB40. The latter lived in the same terraced street as my brother in Moseley, Birmingham, and came together as unemployed men whose name was drawn from the unemployment benefit claim form. They had an effect which went beyond the odd memorable song. The seventies produced, in the middle of visions of social breakdown, this musical revival produced a more upbeat atmosphere, especially on the Liberal-Left, as well as the Hard-Left. The racist skinhead bands soon found themselves in a violent and uncomfortable ghetto. As one cultural critic of the time put it, …

A lifestyle – urban , mixed, music-loving, modern and creative – had survived, despite being under threat from the NF.

The NF had been founded in 1967 after the original British National Party and the old League of Empire Loyalists joined together. Electorally it was struggling, though Martin Webster, its leader, polled sixteen per cent in the West Bromwich by-election of May 1973 and in the two 1974 general elections the NF put up first fifty-four and then ninety candidates, entitling them to a television broadcast. More important to their strategy were the street confrontations, engineered by marching through Bangladeshi or Pakistani areas in Leeds, Birmingham and London with Union Jacks and anti-immigrant slogans. A more extreme offshoot of the original skinheads attached themselves to the NF’s racialist politics and by the mid-seventies, they too were on the march. Throughout the summer of 1976, broad-based anti-Fascist meetings took place in Dudley and Birmingham, involving Young Liberals, Labour Party members and more left-wing socialists. There were also national anti-racist conferences in London. The Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party determined to organise street politics of their own to bring things to a halt, forming the Anti-Nazi League in 1977. The ANL brought in tens of thousands of young people who had no interest in Leninism or Trotskyism, but who saw the NF as a genuine threat to immigrants. They flooded to the ANL rallies, marches and confrontations, during which there were two deaths as police weighed in to protect the NF’s right to march.

This was a youth lifestyle which also provided an alternative to the drift to the right more generally in British society and the establishment of ‘Thatcherism’ as the dominant ideology of the late seventies and eighties. But to understand what this ideology was, and how it was able to gain its hold on society, we need first to examine the parliamentary politics of the mid to late seventies.

The Callaghan Years:

James Callaghan.JPGJim Callaghan (right) was the Home Secretary who sent British troops into Northern Ireland, for which, at the time, he was hailed as a hero. He was not such a hero among reformers in the Labour Party, however, when he scuppered the chances of Wilson and Castle of finally curbing the power of the trade union ‘barons’. In the spring of 1976, he finally entered Number Ten after a series of votes by Labour MPs shaved off his rivals – Denis Healey, Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins on the right, and Michael Foot and Tony Benn on the left. After three ballots, he defeated Foot by 176 votes to 137 and replaced Wilson as Prime Minister. For the next three turbulent years, he ran a government with no overall majority in Parliament, kept going by a series of deals and pacts, and in an atmosphere of almost constant crisis. He was, already, on becoming PM, in Andrew Marr’s description,

… a familiar and reassuring figure in Britain, tall, ruddy, no-nonsense, robust and, by comparison with Wilson, straightforward.

He had held all three great offices of state and, at sixty-five, he was one of the most experienced politicians to become Prime Minister. After Heath and Wilson, he was the third and last of the centrist consensus-seekers between hard left and hard right, though he was instinctively looking to the right in the ethos of the mid to late seventies. Churchill apart, all his post-war predecessors had been Oxbridge men, whereas Callaghan had never been to university at all. He was the son of a Royal Navy chief petty officer who had died young, and a devout Baptist mother from Portsmouth. He had known real poverty and had clawed his way up as a young clerk working for the Inland Revenue, then becoming a union official before wartime and national service. As one of the 1945 generation of MPs, he was a young rebel who had drifted to the right as he mellowed and matured, though he always held firm to his pro-trade union instincts. He was a social conservative, uneasy about divorce, homosexuality and vehemently pro-police, pro-monarchy and pro-armed forces, though he was anti-hanging and strongly anti-racialist. As Home Secretary, he had announced that the ‘Permissive Society’ of the sixties had gone too far. As PM, he initiated a debate on ‘trendy teaching’ in schools, calling for an inquiry into teaching methods, standards, discipline and the case for a national curriculum.

Callaghan’s first few days as Prime Minister in April 1976 must have brought back some grim memories. A dozen years earlier, as Chancellor, he had been confronted with awful economic news which nearly crushed him and ended in the forced devaluation of the pound. Now, on the first day of his premiership, he was told that the pound was falling fast, no longer ‘floating’, the euphemism used since the Heath years. A devaluation by sterling holders was likely. The Chancellor, Denis Healey, had negotiated a six-pound pay limit and this would feed through to much lower wage increases and eventually to lower inflation. Cash limits on public spending brought in by Healey under Wilson would also radically cut public expenditure. But in the spring of 1976 inflation was still rampant and unemployment was rising fast. Healey now told Callaghan that due to the billions spent by the Bank of England supporting sterling in the first few months of the year, a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) looked essential. In June, standby credits were arranged with the IMF and countries such as the US, Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

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Healey had imposed tough cuts in the summer but by its end, the pound was under immense pressure again. On 27th September, Healey was meant to fly out to a Commonwealth finance ministers’ conference in Hong Kong with the Governor of the Bank of England. But the crisis was so great and the markets so panicked that he decided he could not afford to be out of touch for the seventeen hours’ flying time. In full view of the television cameras, he turned around at Heathrow airport and went back to the Treasury. There he decided to apply to the IMF for a conditional loan, one which gave authority to the international banking officials above Britain’s elected leaders. With exquisite timing, the Ford workers began a major strike. Healey, for the first and last time in his life, he later said, was close to demoralization. Against Callaghan’s initial advice, Healey decided to dash to the Labour conference in Blackpool and made his case to an anguished and angry party. At the time, there was there was a powerful mood for a siege economy, telling the IMF to ‘get lost’, cutting imports and nationalising swathes of industry. Given just five minutes to speak from the conference floor due to the absurdities of Labour Party rules, the Chancellor warned the party that this would mean a trade war, mass unemployment and the return of a Tory government. But, he shouted against a rising hubbub, emulating his younger self as Major Healey speaking at the 1945 conference, in full battle dress, he was speaking to them from the battlefront again. He would negotiate with the IMF and that would mean…

… things we do not like as well as things we do like. It means sticking to the very painful cuts in public expenditure … it means sticking to the pay policy.

As Healey ruefully recorded in his autobiography, he had begun with a background of modest cheers against a rumble of booing. When he sat down, both the cheering and the booing were a lot louder. Benn called the speech vulgar and abusive, but Healey was one of British politics greatest showmen. Meanwhile, Callaghan had become steadily more convinced, during the crisis, by the monetarists on his right. He told the stunned 1976 Labour conference that the Keynesian doctrines of governments spending their way out of recession, cutting taxes and boosting investment, had had their day …

I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists and that insofar as it ever did exist, it worked by injecting inflation into the economy … Higher inflation, followed by higher unemployment. That is the history of the last twenty years.

So, with the cabinet nervously watching, the negotiations with the IMF started. Callaghan and Healey tried to limit as far as possible the cuts being imposed on them. The IMF, with the US Treasury standing behind them, was under pressure to squeeze ever harder. The British side was in a horribly weak position. The government was riven by argument and threats of resignation, including from Healey himself. In secret talks, Callaghan warned the IMF’s chief negotiator bitterly that British democracy itself would be imperilled by mass unemployment. When the tense haggling came to an end, the IMF was still calling for an extra billion pounds’ worth of cuts and it was only when Healey, without telling Callaghan, threatened the international bankers with yet another Who runs Britain? election, that they gave way. The final package of cuts was announced in Healey’s budget, severe but not as grim as had been feared, and greeted with headlines about Britain’s shame. But the whole package was unnecessary from the start, since the cash limits Healey had already imposed on Whitehall would cut spending far more effectively than anyone realised. Moreover, the public spending statistics, on which the cuts were based, were wrong. Public finances were stronger than they had appeared to be. The Treasury estimate for public borrowing in 1974-5 had been too low by four thousand million, a mistake greater than any tax changes ever made by a British Chancellor; but the 1976 estimate was twice as high as it should have been. The IMF-directed cuts were, therefore, more savage than they needed to have been.

When Britain’s spending was defined in the same way as other countries’, and at market prices, the figure was forty-six per cent of national wealth, not the sixty per cent mistakenly stated in a government white paper of early 1976. By the time Labour left office, it was forty-two per cent, about the same as West Germany’s and well below that of the social democratic Scandinavian countries. Britain’s balance of payments came back into balance long before the IMF cuts could take effect and Healey reflected later that if he had been given accurate forecasts in 1976, he would never have needed to go to the IMF at all. In the end, only half the loan was used, all of which was repaid by the time Labour left office. Only half the standby credit was used and it was untouched from August 1977 onwards. Healey had talked about ‘Sod Off Day’ when he and Britain would finally be free from outside control. That day came far sooner than he had expected, but at the time nobody knew that Britain’s finances were far stronger than they had seemed.

Yet in the national memory, the Callaghan administration soon became associated with failure and remained in that category throughout the Thatcher years, used repeatedly as clinching evidence of its bankruptcy. All of this could have been avoided if only the Tories had been in power, it was argued. The initial drama of the crisis imprinted itself on Britain’s memory – the rush back from Heathrow, the dramatic scenes at the Labour conference, the humiliating arrival of the IMF hard men, backed by Wall Street, a political thriller which destroyed Labour’s self-confidence for more than a decade. But that was only the start of Labour’s woes. It was the prospect of ever greater cuts in public spending, inflation out of control, and the economy in the hands of in the hands of outsiders that helped break the Labour Party into warring factions and gave the hard left its first great opportunity. Healey and the Treasury were operating in a new economic world of ‘floating’ exchange rates, huge capital flows and speculation still little understood. It made him highly critical of monetarism, however, and all academic theories which depended on accurate measurement and forecasting of the money supply. Healey was bitter, though, about the Treasury’s mistakes over the true scale of public spending which so hobbled his hopes of becoming a successful Chancellor. He said later that he could not forgive them for this ‘sin’:

I cannot help suspecting that Treasury officials deliberately overstated public spending in order to put pressure on the governments which were reluctant to cut it. Such dishonesty for political purposes is contrary to all the proclaimed traditions of the British civil service.

After the humiliating, cap-in-hand begging for help from the International Monetary Fund, there was the soaring inflation and high interest rates, and finally the piled-up rubbish, strike meetings and unburied dead of the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent. But the true narrative of the Callaghan-Healey years, for the two must be seen together, is also a story of comparative success before its Shakespearean tragic final act. His defenders point out that Callaghan actually presided over a relatively popular and successful government for more than half of his time in power, some twenty out of thirty-seven months. Following the IMF affair, the pound recovered strongly, the markets recovered, inflation fell, eventually to single figures, and unemployment fell too. By the middle of 1977, the Silver Jubilee year, North Sea Oil was coming ashore to the extent of more than half a million barrels a day, a third of the country’s needs. Britain would be self-sufficient in oil by 1980 and was already so in gas. The pay restraint agreed earlier with Healey was still holding, though only just. Besides their success in getting inflation down, they also got the best deals with international bankers that could be done.

Callaghan also succeeded in purging the left from his cabinet, sidelining Michael Foot, sacking Barbara Castle, and constructing the most right-wing Labour cabinet since the war, including Bill Rodgers, David Owen and Shirley Williams. All would later join Roy Jenkins, for now European Commissioner in Brussels, in forming the breakaway Social Democratic Party. Callaghan’s newly found faith in monetarism and his increasingly aggressive attitude to high wage demands also put him to the right of Wilson and Healey. In the late seventies, Callaghan was, for the first time, getting a good press while the Tory opposition under Margaret Thatcher seemed to be struggling. After having to rely on an odd mixture of nationalist MPs for its precarious Commons majority, Labour entered a deal with David Steel’s Liberals from March 1977 to August of the following year, giving Callaghan a secure parliamentary position for the first time. The Lib-Lab Pact gave the smaller party, with only thirteen MPs, rights only to be consulted, plus vague promises on possible changes to the voting system: it was far more helpful to Labour, who gained a modest majority over the Tories in the opinion polls and the prospect of Callaghan being returned to rule well into the eighties. It did not look like a dying government, much less the end of an era.

The Labour left believed that Callaghan and Healey had been captured by international capitalism, as had many MPs. Their answer was to make the MPs accountable to ‘ordinary people’, as the obsessive activists of Labour politics innocently believed themselves to be. So the siege economy, or Alternative Economic Strategy as it became known by 1978, following the publication of a book by Sam Aaronovitch, a Marxist economist, and the mandatory reselection of MPs became the two main planks of the left. The AES was soon abandoned by many on the broad left, however, who, following the fall of the Callaghan government, tired of Keynesian solutions involving Labour governments spending their way out of crises. But Tony Benn (pictured below) persisted in his enthusiasm for workers’ cooperatives and nationalisation. He became increasingly detached from his cabinet colleagues in the Callaghan government, including the remaining left-wingers, like Michael Foot. He came close to leaving it over his opposition to Labour’s deal with the Liberals. His general attitude to the party is well expressed in his diary entry for 15 January 1978:

The whole Labour leadership now is totally demoralised and all the growth on the left is going to come up from the outside and underneath. This is the death of the Labour Party. It believes in nothing any more, except staying in power.

Képtalálat a következőre: „tony benn”

Benn was still a senior member of the government when he wrote this, attending intimate meetings at Chequers, hearing deep military and security secrets, while at the same time becoming an ‘inside-outsider’.

The Winter of Their Discontent:

The ‘winter of discontent’, a Shakespearean phrase, was used by James Callaghan himself to describe the industrial and social chaos of 1978-9. It has stuck in the popular memory as few events have since because schools were closed, ports were blockaded, rubbish was rotting in the streets and the dead were unburied. Left-wing union leaders and activists whipped up the disputes for their own purposes. Right-wing newspapers, desperate to see the end of Labour, exaggerated the effects and rammed home the picture of a country which had become ungovernable.

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It came an explosion of resentment, largely by poorly paid public employees, against a public incomes policy they felt was discriminatory. In the picture above, rubbish is left piled up in London’s Leicester Square in February 1979. Such scenes provided convincing propaganda for the Conservatives in the subsequent general election. Callaghan himself had been part of the problem, since his failure to understand the threat posed by the union challenge to the elected power, and his earlier lack of interest in radical economic ideas, came home to haunt him as the incumbent of Number Ten. But it was not just that he had opposed the legal restrictions on union power pleaded for by Wilson and Castle, and then fought for vainly by Heath. Nor was it even that he and Healey, acting in good faith, had imposed a more drastic squeeze on public funding and thus on the poorest families than was economically necessary. It was also that by trying to impose an unreasonably tough new pay limit on the country, and then dithering about the date of the election, he destroyed the fragile calm he had so greatly enjoyed.

Most people, including most of the cabinet, had assumed that Callaghan would call a general election in the autumn of 1978. The economic news was still good and Labour was ahead in the polls. Two dates in October had been pencilled in, though 12th October had been ruled out because it was Margaret Thatcher’s birthday. But Callaghan did not trust the polls and during the summer he decided that he would ‘soldier on’ until the spring. But he didn’t tell anyone until, at the TUC conference in September, he sang a verse from an old music hall song:

There was I waiting at the church, waiting at the church,

When I found he’d left me in the lurch, Lor’ how it did upset me.

All at once he sent me round a note, here’s the very note, this is what he wrote,

Can’t get away to marry you today: My wife won’t let me!

While it was a popular song in its day, fondly remembered by many in his audience, it was hardly a clear message to Britain as a whole. Was the jilted bride supposed to be Mrs Thatcher? The trade union movement? Callaghan’s intention was to suggest that he was delaying the election, but many trade union leaders, journalists and even cabinet ministers were confused. When he finally told the cabinet, they were genuinely shocked. The decision to delay might not have mattered so much had Callaghan not also promised a new five per cent pay limit to bring inflation down further. Because of the 1974-5 cash limit on pay rises at a time of high inflation, take-home pay for most people had been falling. Public sector workers, in particular, were having a tough time. The union leaders and many ministers thought that a further period of pay limits would be impossible to sell, while a five per cent limit, which seemed arbitrary on Callaghan’s part, was considered to be ridiculously tough. But had Callaghan gone to the country in October then the promise of further pay restraint might have helped boost Labour’s popularity still further, while the trade union leaders could believe that the five per cent ceiling was designed to appease rightward-drifting middle-class voters. By not going to the country in the autumn, Callaghan ensured that his five per cent ceiling would, instead, be tested in Britain’s increasingly impatient and dangerous industrial relations market.

Almost as soon as Callaghan had finished his music-hall turn, the Transport & General Workers’ Union smashed it by calling for the 57,000 car workers employed by Ford, the US giant, to receive a thirty per cent wage increase, citing the huge profits being made by the company and the eighty per cent pay rise just awarded to Ford’s chairman. Callaghan was sorely embarrassed, not least because his son worked for the company. After five weeks of lost production, Ford eventually settled for seventeen per cent, convincing Callaghan that he would now lose the coming election. Oil tanker drivers, also in the T&GWU, came out for forty per cent, followed by road haulage drivers, then workers at nationalised British Leyland. They were followed by public sector workers in water and sewerage. BBC electricians threatened a black-out of Christmas television. The docks were picketed and closed down, blazing braziers, surrounded by huddled figures with snow whirling around them, were shown nightly on the television news. Hull, virtually cut off by the action, became known as the ‘second Stalingrad’. In the middle of all this, Callaghan went off for an international summit in the Caribbean, staying on for a sightseeing holiday in Barbados. Pictures of him swimming and sunning himself did not improve the national mood. When he returned to Heathrow, confronted by news reporters asking about the industrial crisis, he replied blandly:

I don’t think other people in the world will share the view that there is mounting chaos.

This was famously translated by the Daily Mail and the Sun into the headline, Crisis? What Crisis. As the railwaymen prepared to join the strikes, the worst blow for the government came when the public sector union NUPE called out more than a million school caretakers, cooks, ambulance men and refuse collectors on ‘random stoppages’ for a sixty pound guaranteed minimum wage. Now the public was being hit directly, and the most vulnerable were being hit the hardest. Children’s hospitals, old people’s homes and schools were all plunged into turmoil. The most notorious action was taken by the Liverpool Parks and Cemeteries Branch of the General & Municipal Workers’ Union refused to bury dead bodies, leaving more than three hundred to pile up in a cold storage depot and a disused factory. Liverpool Council discussed emergency plans to dispose of some of the corpses at sea. Funeral cortéges were met at some cemeteries by pickets and forced to turn back. Strikers were confronted with violence in local pubs. Of course, most of those striking were woefully badly paid and living in relative poverty. Moreover, many had no history of industrial militancy. Nor was the crisis quite as bad as some of the papers and politicians represented it. As with Heath’s three-day week, many people enjoyed the enforced holiday from their poorly paid jobs and tough working conditions. Contrary to rumour, no-one was proved to have died in hospital as a result of union action, there were no food shortages and there was, besides the odd punch-up in the pubs, there was no violence and troops were never used. If it was a ‘revolt’, it was a very British one. It was chaos and a direct, coordinated challenge to the authority of the government, but it was not an attempt to overthrow it, as the 1974 Miners’ Strike had been. This was not a revolution.

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Nevertheless, in London (above) and other cities, rotting rubbish piled up, overrun by rats and posing a serious health hazard. The effects of isolated incidents and images were revolutionary, ushering in not socialism, but Thatcherism. Inside government, ordinary work had almost ground to a halt. Eventually, a St Valentine’s Day concordat was reached between the government and the TUC, talking of annual assessments and guidance, targeting long-term inflation and virtually admitting, on the government’s part, that the five per cent wage ceiling had been a mistake. By March most of the industrial action had ended and various generous settlements had been reached, or inquiries had been set up which would lead to them. But in the Commons, the government was running out of allies, spirit and hope.

Spring ‘Awakening’:

The failure of the referenda on Scottish and Welsh devolution gave the nationalists no reason to continue supporting Labour. A bizarre amendment to the Bill had meant that, although the Scots voted in favour, the ‘absences’ of dead people and those who had left but were still registered, were counted against, so the act had to be repealed. In Wales, the measure was in any case defeated by four to one of those voting, in a tidal-wave shift to the right across North Wales and an anti-Nationalist and anti-establishment surge in the valleys. This was led by Neil Kinnock and the Labour left against the leaders of their own party, including Callaghan, himself a Cardiff MP, the Wales TUC and the allegedly corrupt Labour leaders of local authorities. The political division of Wales was confirmed soon after the St David’s Day ‘massacre’ when, as broad left student leaders we witnessed, with horror, the Young Conservatives take control of half the six University College unions in Wales (Bangor, Aberystwyth and UWIST in Cardiff), a sure sign of a sea-change which was soon confirmed at the general election. After the devolution debácle, the nationalists, especially in Scotland, would never trust Labour again.

The Liberals, facing the highly embarrassing trial of Jeremy Thorpe for conspiracy to murder, had their own reasons for wanting a spring election. In the frenetic atmosphere of an exhausted Parliament, in which dying MPs had been carried through the lobbies to vote in order to keep the government afloat, final attempts were made by Michael Foot and the Labour whips to find some kind of majority with the help of whatever support they could muster from a motley crew of Ulster Unionists, Irish Nationalists (SDLP) and renegade Scots. But by now, Callaghan himself was in a calmly fatalistic mood. He did not want to struggle on through another chaotic summer and early autumn. His famous and much-quoted remark to an aide, just as Labour was losing power in 1979, that the country was going through a once-in-thirty-years sea change, suggested that he half-accepted that the years of consensus had failed:

There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 General Election campaign.

Finally, on 28th March 1979, the game ended when the government was defeated by a single vote, brought down at last by a ragged coalition of Tories, Liberals, Scottish Nationalists and Ulster Unionists. Callaghan was the first Prime Minister since 1924 to have to go to Buckingham Palace and ask for a dissolution of Parliament because he had lost a vote in the House of Commons. The five-week election campaign started with the IRA’s assassination of Mrs Thatcher’s campaign manager, Airey Neave, on his way into the underground car-park at Westminster. On the Labour side, it was dominated by Callaghan, still more popular than his party, emphasising stable prices and his ‘deal’ with the unions. On the Tory side, Thatcher showed a clever use of the media, working with television news teams and taking advice from her advertising ‘gurus’, the Saatchis. Callaghan was soundly beaten, as he himself had suspected he would be, with the Conservatives taking sixty-one seats directly from Labour, gaining nearly forty-three per cent of the vote and a substantial majority with 339 seats.

Sources:

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

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

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against the World: European Nights, 1953-80. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

Frank Skinner (Foreword) (2009), Roy of the Rovers: The 1970s. London: Titan Books.

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Britain in the Seventies: 1974-79 – The Three-day week to The Winter of Discontent, Part One.   Leave a comment

Part One: The Economic Storm and Europe.

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Denis Healey, chancellor during Britain’s economic storm,

making a characteristic point to his opponents.

The Return of Harold & the Advent of The Social Contract:

In January 1974, the Heath government announced a three-day working week to save fuel. It is remembered as the darkest month, quite literally, in the story of mid-seventies’ Britain. I was in my first year of A Level studies in Birmingham, writing essays on the kitchen table by candlelight since all the lights went out by 10.30 p.m. each evening. At least there was no TV to act as a distraction! Heath and his government struggled to find a solution to the miners’ claim, but this process was hardly helped when he asked Mick McGahey, the legendary Scottish Communist mineworkers’ leader what he really wanted and was met by the typically blunt reply, to bring down the government. After much messing about with intermediaries and mixed messages, not least from the government’s own Pay Board, it became clear that no effective compromise could be found. The miners voted 81% in favour of striking, including those in some of the traditionally most moderate areas in the country. In February, Heath asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament and he went to the country on the election platform he had prepared two years earlier; Who Governs Britain? The country’s answer was not the one he had hoped for.

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Harold Wilson had expected the Tories to win another term and began the campaign in a low-key mood. However, Labour’s cause was helped by its offer of a referendum on EEC membership, which led many Powellites and anti-EEC Tories to think of voting for them, at least covertly. Also, his year in opposition had given him the opportunity to come up with a more workable solution to the problems posed by inflation and union wage demands. The Social Contract was a joint agreement between the union leaders and the Labour shadow cabinet, and was essentially a return to the politics of the forties, with price controls, a complex system of food subsidies and the end of the Tory union laws. In return for this Attlee-age ‘austerity’ manifesto, the unions gave vague promises of voluntary pay restraint. It was a one-way deal, but it was in Wilson’s interests to pretend that he could find practical agreements with ‘the brothers’ where Heath could not.  It was in the unions’ interests to pretend that they were signing up to a new era of sweetness and light which would replace the bitter hostility towards the Tories and their anti-union legislation. Outside observers saw it as it as a ploy for the TUC to gain a privileged place in government in return for very little and a recipe for further inflation.

As it turned out, and with the benefit of hindsight, the three-day week was not the outright disaster it had seemed it would be. Industry had managed to maintain production levels, providing an interesting perspective on the limitations of five and six-day working which economists have periodically pointed to since. It had even provided for greater efficiency, and relatively few jobs had been lost. But Heath’s authority had gone, and in the election campaign the idea of the Social Contract caught on with voters. Wilson was able to present himself on television as the calm bringer of reason and order. A slew of bad economic news arrived during the campaign and was followed by Powell’s declaration that he was quitting the Conservatives over their failure to offer a Referendum on Europe and would be recommending everyone to vote Labour in order to ensure a choice on the subject. A mistake by the Pay Board revealed that the miners were more relatively poorly paid than had been recognised. A surge in support for the Liberals to a quarter of the popular vote also helped Labour more than it aided the Tories. Having decided that Heath should not rule, the government seemed undecided about whether Wilson should replace him. Enjoying a late swing in its favour, Labour won the most seats, 301 against 297, but no party had an overall majority. Heath hung on, trying to do a deal with the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who had just fourteen MPs despite the surge in the support for the party, but he eventually conceded defeat. This resulted in the Queen asked Harold Wilson to form his third administration, a decade after his first.

But Wilson was governing without a Commons majority at a time when the economy was still coming to terms with the oil price hike, with rampant inflation, rising unemployment and the pound under almost constant pressure. Furthermore, the fragile ‘Social Contract’ had yet to be tested. Almost the first thing the Labour government did was to settle with the miners for almost double what Heath had thought was possible. The chances of the new government enjoying easy popularity, even with its working-class base, were practically nil, however. Nevertheless, an opposition comprising divided Tories, Liberals, Nationalists and Irish Unionists was unlikely to combine to defeat it on a regular basis. The new Chancellor, Denis Healey, introduced an emergency Budget a few weeks into the new Parliament, followed by another in the autumn which raised income tax to 83% at the top rate of earnings, and 98% for unearned income, eye-wateringly high. Healey claimed that his aim was to squeeze the rich until the pips squeak, a phrase which was to come back to haunt Labour for a generation to come. In the spirit of the ‘Social Contract’ Healey also increased help for the poorest, with higher pensions and housing and food subsidies. He was delivering for the unions as promised, just as Wilson himself was doing in abolishing the Conservative employment legislation. Heath remained as Tory leader, for the time being, convinced that Wilson would soon have to call a second election, which he would win. However, when this came in October, Wilson gained eighteen seats, enough to give him a workable overall majority of three.

Wilson, though, had privately decided that he would go in 1976, and he publicly acted accordingly. The question as to who would succeed him, Jenkins or Callaghan, Healey or even Benn, had become one about the direction of the Labour government, rather than a personal threat to Wilson. He seems likely to have known about the early stages of Alzheimer’s, which was to wreak a devastating toll on him in retirement. He forgot facts, confused issues and repeated himself. For a man whose memory and wit had been so important, this was a grim burden. If Roy Jenkins had been Wilson’s most important minister in the mid-sixties, it was Denis Healey who dominated public perceptions of the Labour government of the mid-seventies. As a Chancellor of the Exchequer during the worst economic storm of post-war times, through both the Wilson and Callaghan governments, he rivalled each of them as a public icon. Healey was one of the most widely read, cultured intelligent and self-assured politicians of modern times, whose early Communism, active war service and a vast range of international contacts did much to establish him in this role.

But the economy Wilson and Healey inherited from Heath and Barber in 1974 meant that much of his energy for the next five years would be thrown into dealing with the newly unstable world economy. The following Labour governments faced huge balance-of-payments crises and the tumbling value of the pound. Healey was taxing and cutting as much as he dared, but his only real hope was to control inflation by controlling wages. Wilson insisted that any incomes policy must be voluntary, with no going back to legal restraints. The unions became increasingly worried that rampant inflation might bring back the Tories. So for a while, the ‘Social Contract’ did deliver fewer strikes. In 1974-75, the number of days lost to strikes halved and then halved again in 1976. Contrary to popular myth, the seventies were not all about mass meetings and walk-outs. The real trouble did not start again until 1978-79. But the other half of the ‘Social Contract’ was supposed to deliver lower wage settlements, and this was an utter failure. By the early months of 1975, wage settlements were already running at thirty per cent above inflation. By June inflation was already up to twenty-three per cent and wage settlements were even further ahead. Healey reflected later that…

Adopting a pay policy is rather like jumping out of a second-floor window: no one in his senses would do it unless the stairs were on fire. But in postwar Britain the stairs have always been on fire.

By refusing to allow companies to pass on inflationary wage increases as higher prices, and by endless haggling with union leaders, Healey did manage to squeeze inflation downwards. It had reached twenty-four per cent by 1975 and came to be seen as a far more important issue than unemployment. On reflection, Healey believed that if the unions had kept their promises it would have been down to single figures by the autumn of 1975. The government was also at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund, which insisted on severe spending cuts. The contraction of manufacturing began to accelerate. There was a national and international political swing to the right as a reaction to against perceived high-taxing and high-spending governments. Demands were being made that governments cease propping up ‘lame duck’ industries with public money. Attacks on trade union power were becoming more and more popular, owing to a growing perception that they had become too powerful and disruptive, as the Miners’ Strike and the three-day week had graphically illustrated. At the same time, Healey was under constant pressure within the Labour party and wider ‘movement’ to show that he was delivering for socialism. He never accepted the Tory argument that high taxes stopped people from working harder and blamed Britain’s poor industrial performance on low investment in industry, poor training and bad management. Healey ultimately suffered quite personally from his own policies. He wrote:

As a result of my tax changes and my determination to prevent ministerial salaries from rising as fast as the pay norm, my own real take-home pay as Chancellor fell to only half what I had been earning as Defence Secretary, although I was working harder and longer.

The Great Debate – The EEC Referendum of 1975:

Against the background of the international economic crisis, Wilson kept his election promise and carried out a largely sham renegotiation of Britain’s terms of entry to the EEC. The reopened talks were understood to be more for Wilson’s benefit than for anyone else’s. He needed to persuade people that he was putting a different deal to the country than the one Heath had put to Parliament two years earlier. Helmut Schmidt, the new German Chancellor (pictured below), travelled to London to help win round the Labour conference, a trip that he regarded more as a cosmetic operation than a mission.

Wilson then put the result to the country in the Benn-inspired 1975 referendum, though when the referendum campaign actually began, his old evasiveness returned and he mumbled vaguely in support, rather than actively or enthusiastically making the European case. There were plenty of others to do this for him, however, and the campaign became a rare high-point in the political decade. To preserve longer-term party unity, he allowed the anti-EEC cabinet ministers to speak from the ‘No’ platform and Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Michael Foot were among those who did so, in alliance with Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Scottish Nationalists and others. But the ‘Yes’ campaign could boast most of the Labour cabinet, with Roy Jenkins the chief protagonist, plus most of the Heath team, and popular Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Although I missed out on voting by just four days, my eighteenth birthday coming just after referendum day, I remember the sixth form debates, formally in General Studies sessions and informally out on the school playing fields at lunchtime. The arguments ranged from the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the British economy through to the preservation of peace in Europe. This latter issue was important not just to younger voters, but also to their parents and grandparents who had experienced the Second World War.

Yes girls: Pro-EEC campaigners back Brussels at the 1975 referendum

Business was also strongly in favour of remaining in, a CBI survey of company chairmen found that out of 419 interviewed, just four were in favour of leaving the Community. Almost all the newspapers were in favour of staying in, including the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express. So was every Anglican bishop, but their ‘flocks’ were more divided, believing, like my own nonconformist father, that the EEC was a ‘rich man’s club’ formed to rip off the poorer nations more effectively. The fight between ‘the Establishment’ and its critics was far from being funded on an equal basis. Britain in Europe, leading the ‘Yes’ campaign, outspent the ‘No’ camp by more than ten pounds to one. Both sides used scare stories. Britain in Europe constantly warned of a huge loss in jobs if the UK left the Community. The ‘No’ camp warned of huge rises in food prices if Britain remained in the CAP.

Yet this was also an almost carnival-like exercise in participatory democracy of a kind Britain had never seen. There were meetings, several thousand strong, night after night around the country, with hecklers and humour. There were all kinds of stunts and the country was covered with posters. The spectacle of politicians from rival parties who normally attacked one another sitting down together agreeing was a tonic to those watching. There were good television arguments, most notably between Jenkins and Benn. On the Labour side, however, there were awkward moments when rhetoric got too fierce and Wilson had to intervene to mediate between warring minister. Margaret Thatcher was also out campaigning, in a spectacularly hideous jumper with the flags of the member states knitted across her chest. The pictures from the time, shown above and below, captured something of the carnival atmosphere of the campaign.

Margaret Thatcher,  William Whitelaw and Peter Kirk, at a referendum conference. June 1975. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

In the end, the people voted on the simple question on the ballot paper, Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)? Their response produced seventeen million, a two-thirds majority (68.3 per cent) voting ‘Yes’, with 32.8 per cent, some 8.5 million voting ‘No’. Only in the Shetland and Western Isles of Scotland were there majorities for ‘No’. Benn instantly conceded defeat though privately considered the vote some achievement considering we had absolutely no real organisation, no newspapers, nothing. Powell, however, warned that the decision was only ‘provisional’ and might be reopened in the future. As so often, his was a lone voice. More than forty years later, and in the light of the 2016 Referendum result, the biggest question which remains is whether the British were told, by either Heath or Jenkins, the full implications of membership of the supranational organisation they were signing up to. Campaigners in 2016 on both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ sides reported that people ‘on the doorstep’ complained that in 1975 we voted to remain in a Common Market, we didn’t vote to join a political union. Many among the third of the people who originally voted to leave the EEC in 1975 were joined by younger people over the following decades in suggesting that Heath and Jenkins had lied to the country, at least by omission, because they had not explained that the European Community’s law and institutions would sit above those of Westminster. What is the truth about this? Britain in Europe campaigners can point to speeches and advertisements which directly mention loss of sovereignty. One of the latter read:

Forty million people died in two European wars this century: Better lose a little national sovereignty than a son or daughter.

Yet both in Parliament and the referendum campaign, although the importance of securing a Pax Europa was constantly featured, the full consequences of membership for national independence were mumbled, not spoken clearly enough. Besides, it was the job of NATO to keep the peace, not the EEC. Undoubtedly, a free trade area in Europe would assist in this process, but it was not the primary purpose of the European Community. Geoffrey Howe, who drafted Heath’s European Communities Bill, later admitted that it could have been more explicit about lost sovereignty. Heath talked directly about the ever closer union of the peoples of Europe but was never precise about the effect on British law, as compared to an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and rivers. It cannot be held back. Hugo Young, the journalist and historian who studied the campaign in great detail, wrote:

I traced no major document or speech that said in plain terms that national sovereignty would be lost, still less one that categorically promoted the European Community for its single most striking characteristic that it was an institution positively designed to curb the full independence of the nation-state.

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Above: In the 1975 referendum, both sides campaigned more about the cost of food than about the constitutional implications of surrendering sovereignty.

There were, of course, the explicit warnings about lost sovereignty delivered by the ‘No’ campaigners among the more populist arguments about food prices. Above all, these arguments came from Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Powell’s language can be gauged from a speech he gave to political journalists in the Commons while the Bill was being debated. He lamented that the Commons was…

…perishing by its own hand. Week by week, month by month, the House of Commons votes to divest itself of what it had gained by through a length of time not much shorter than the History of England itself.

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Of course, a lot depends on when you begin your reading of the History of England from, but Powell (pictured above) would almost certainly have traced it back to the end of the tenth century, a period of a thousand years. In fact, the History of Parliament could be traced back only to the early thirteenth century, to the time of the De Montfort Rebellion, and it was only in the seventeenth century that it acquired real power. Michael Foot, though recovering from an operation and so not as prominent in the campaign as he might have been, wrote in The Times that the British parliamentary system had been made farcical and unworkable. Historians, he said, would be amazed…

that the British people were urged at such a time to tamper irreparably with their most precious institution; to see it circumscribed and contorted and elbowed off the centre of the stage. 

Tony Benn, confiding to his diary his reaction to the possibility of a Europe-wide passport, showed how much the left’s instincts could chime with those of the right-wing opponents of European change:

That really hit me in the guts… Like metrication and decimilisation, this really strikes at our national identity.

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All these arguments were made in the press, despite the overall bias, and repeatedly in public meetings and broadcast debates. So it is not as if people were not told, but the truth revealed by opinion polls both at the time and more recently, is that sovereignty as an issue did not, and does not concern the British public as much as jobs and food prices. By later standards under Thatcher, Major and Blair, the position of Parliament was not taken as seriously in public debates as it was by some leading, vociferous parliamentarians. It may be that ‘sovereignty’ as an abstract concept is always only of great interest to the political ‘classes’, not to the ordinary working-classes and professional middle-classes, except where a loss of sovereignty directly impacts on daily life and produces resented laws. In the seventies, as now, Britain’s political class was not highly respected, and Europe seemed to offer a glossier, richer future, especially for younger voters. Though the pro-Community majority in business and politics did not strive to ram home the huge implications of membership, the idea that they deceitfully hid the practical, political nature of what was happening was, and is a myth, a convenient one for those who subsequently changed their minds about the benefits of membership. The argument would return fifteen years later to the Conservative backbenches, though few people cared about it elsewhere until the divisions among Tory MPs spread to the cabinet a full forty years after the first referendum, provoking the second vote on the issue in 2016. This time, the issue of sovereignty was given a popular edge by the ‘inability’ of successive governments to control internal migrations to Britain from within the EU, and their continued failure to control immigration from the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the world.

Goodbye to Ted and Harold, and All That… :

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Much of the remaining time of Wilson’s final government was taken up with foreign affairs. Despite American disapproval, the Labour government began the final withdrawal from east of Suez, giving up any pretensions of continuing British influence in the Far East. The Empire was finally, formally, over. A few ‘outposts’ remained, most significantly Hong Kong, and the lines it had drawn on the map in the Middle East – Transjordan, Israel, Iraq – were to provide the focus for continuing and future conflicts. In Iraq, an unpopular king was overthrown in a military coup, leading to the régime of Saddam Hussein. The Commonwealth was never a coherent policy-setting organisation, and this was particularly so after the UK decided to stay in the European Economic Community. Her members often had diametrically opposed trading interests. Time and again, on issues such as Apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, and questions of migration, the Commonwealth would fracture, or embarrass London. Was it kept going out of nostalgia and sentimentality or to give the Queen a role outside the UK? At least it provided the last English-speaking worldwide ‘club’ not dominated by the USA.

Wilson, by now clearly to the right of the party, was equally determined that Tony Benn would not introduce a socialist economy via the National Enterprise Board. When it eventually arrived, the NEB was a weak, ill-funded repository for lost economic causes, British Leyland in particular. Benn’s enthusiasm for workers’ control continued to irritate most of the other ministers and civil servants he worked with, so that he confided in his diary that he felt like he was trying to swim up the Niagara Falls. He was particularly keen on co-operatives, and took up the cause of the Meriden Motorcycle factory, struggling to survive under workers’ control. But these were the last days in the era of planning and public control of industry and Benn’s support for these made him a traditionalist rather than a radical. Later, Healey brutally summed up his rival’s contribution as minister to British industry. There were only two monuments to Benn in power, he said: a uranium mine in Namibia he had authorised as energy secretary, which helped support apartheid; and Concorde, used by rich people on expense accounts and subsidised by poorer taxpayers.

Wilson retired, as he had always said he would, at the age of sixty. Nevertheless, his announcement astonished his cabinet and left London awash with rumours. He was still witty enough to joke that, in respect of his preferred successor Jim Callaghan, that he was making way for an older man, and wily enough to give Callaghan a tip-off which helped him steal a march on the other candidates, including Healey, who only heard the news of Wilson’s retirement from Wilson himself in the gents toilet before the cabinet meeting at which he formally announced it. Wilson saw his reputation sink steadily downwards with his memory. It was a sad way for a fundamentally decent man to subside.

Meanwhile, in the middle of June 1974, a speech by Sir Keith Joseph signalled a major shift in Tory thinking. Joseph was the son of a rich London businessman, who had risen to become housing and then health minister under first Macmillan and then Heath. He had spent heavily on a bigger bureaucracy for the NHS and higher social security levels. Now he was quite literally wringing his hands and rolling his eyes with mortification. There had, he said, been thirty years of government interventions, good intentions and disappointments, thirty years of socialism under both Labour and the Tories. He admitted: I must take my blame for following too many of the fashions. His conversion to free-market, small-state economics had the force of a religious experience. He had joined the Conservative Party in the 1950s, but now felt that he had never really been a Conservative. Within five years, this kind of thinking would lead to the Thatcher revolution and the wholesale rejection of the Heath years, building on the ideas of academic economists right into the centre of British public life. Other fellow travellers were Americans and a few Powellite Tories who were outside the Tory mainstream. Crucial to the success of these ideas in government would be controlling the amount of money in the economy to keep out inflation, which meant squeezing how much was borrowed and spent by the State. As a former cabinet minister with close and direct experience of government. With his Centre for Policy Studies, he was the rain-maker, the storm-bringer, the Old Testament prophet denouncing his tribe. For now, however, the approaching cloud was no bigger than a man’s hand.

Keith Joseph argued that the Britain of the mid-seventies had a fundamental choice to make between a socialist siege economy or a breakaway into proper liberal capitalism, in effect between Benn and Joseph. He could not have formed his ideas without the libertarian and monetarist thinkers of the fifties and sixties. During the Tories’ years in opposition from 1964 to 1970, Joseph had educated himself in free-market economics and was soon using as his speechwriter Alfred Sherman, an East End boy from a left-wing family who had fought as a machine-gunner in the Spanish Civil War before swinging right round later and becoming an insistent right-wing critic of the British way. But in Heath’s government, Joseph’s radicalism had gone into hiding again, and Sherman described him dismissively as a good man fallen among civil servants. But the defeat of 1974 had shaken Joseph and with other monetarists he began a rethink of the Heath years, culminating in a shadow cabinet post-mortem when they argued that the early radicalism of 1970-71, led by the Cliveden group, had been right, and the subsequent U-turn a disaster. Heath blankly refused to listen, or at any rate to heed, the attack. Heath’s haughty assessment in his autobiography was that Joseph…

had resumed a friendship with a person called Alfred Sherman, a former communist, and undergone what he liked to call “a conversion” as a result … (this) failed to cut any ice with the great majority of his colleagues, though we did them the courtesy of listening.

In fact, many Tories were beginning to listen. With Joseph were Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher. Early on, Howe warned,

I am not at all sure about Margaret. Many of her economic prejudices are certainly sound. But she is inclined to be rather too dogmatic for my liking on sensitive matters like education and might actually retard the case by simplification.

There were other new radicals, such as the Powellite MP John Biffen, the young economist Nigel Lawson and a crowd of journalists and academics. They produced an intellectual analysis, hard and uncompromising, which excited a generation of new recruits to the party, while it repelled Tories of the comfortable, compromising Macmillan persuasion. Macmillan himself said of Joseph that he was the only boring Jew I’ve ever known. and later there would be much snide muttering about the men Thatcher learned from and worked with – Hayek, Sherman, Joseph, Lawson and Friedman. Jews were prominent in intellectual thinking on the right, as they had been on the left, bringing opposite lessons to Britain from the disasters of continental Europe. A serious commitment to ideas and old-fashioned attitudes to education gave them their unique influence in politics. Thatcher was open to these ideas, ready to listen, unprejudiced, unlike many traditional Tories.

In the winter of 1974-5, after Heath had lost his second successive election to Wilson, there was no such thing as ‘Thatcherism’. Margaret Thatcher was still expressing her public support for the politics of ‘consensus’. She backed intervention in the housing market and queried the sale of council housing by Tory-run local authorities. Neither was there any sign that she would become the leader of the Tory party. Heath was stubbornly determined to stay on, insisting that his supporters, who included most of the well-known Tories of the day, were backing him in this determination. Indeed, polls suggested that seventy per cent of Tories wanted him to stay on. Yet there was deep dissatisfaction on the Tory benches in Parliament. Sir Edward Du Cann, who chaired the all-important backbenchers’ 1922 Committee, began to take soundings about a challenge to Heath. He was backed by the arch-intriguer Airey Neave, but Neave soon pulled out in favour of Keith Joseph. He then made a catastrophically ill-judged speech in which he suggested that working-class women were having too many babies and should be prevented from degrading the gene pool. This finished the man who Private Eye had already dubbed the mad monk.

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Heath had failed to accept that two successive general election defeats meant he really had to go so that Tory moderates were not lining up to replace him. Airey Neave persuaded many of them to vote for Thatcher because she had no chance of defeating Heath, but a contest might force him out, as a ‘stalking horse’, then allowing more serious candidates to stand. On 4 February 1975, she shocked everyone by defeating Heath in the first ballot by 130 votes to 119. She then went on to beat the two other candidates easily. The undercurrent of free-market thinking that had been gurgling around since the fifties broke to the surface in spectacular fashion, changing Britain for good. Few of the Tory MPs in what was called the peasants’ revolt realised quite where their new leader would take them. For the next four years, supercilious, misogynist remarks from first Wilson and then Callaghan would be continually directed against her, but then she would turn her femininity, if not her feminism, against them to great effect. She was to break the mould of the Wilson-Heath era in more ways than one.

(to be continued…)

The ‘Other England’ of the Sixties: The Changing Faces of the West Midlands.   Leave a comment

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The National Division – the ‘Two Englands’:

In 1964, the well-known Guardian correspondent, Geoffrey Moorhouse (pictured above), ‘ventured’ out of his metropolitan England, caught up in the cobweb of roads and rails around London, into the interior of England to see how the other three-quarters live. The Penguin Special he produced was the first of its kind since J.B. Priestley published his English Journey thirty years beforehand. Looking behind the Cotswold stone and the dereliction of the Black Country … the vaunted development schemes of Birmingham, he attempted to uncover England as it was in the 1960s – beauty, traffic, tradition, negroes, noise, and all.

One side of the debate about the migration debate, was the problem of the continued drift of the population to the industrial Midlands and South-east of England, foreseen in the Barlow Report of 1937. But there had never been such a fixation with the division of England into North and South on almost every count as there was in the sixties. Moorhouse argued that while two Englands did visibly exist in 1964, the demarcation was vague and misleading and that the ‘two Englands’ could be more precisely defined. The nine county boroughs with the highest mortality ratios in England were in the industrial North, and the ten with the lowest rates were south of a line drawn from the Severn estuary to the Thames estuary. Traditionally, the boundary between the Midlands and the North was drawn along the upper reaches of the Severn and then following the Trent from its source to the River Ouse on the Humber estuary. One observer commented that without financial intervention, it will not take a generation to complete the establishment of two nations, or, in contemporary language, two cultures, divided by a line from the Humber to the Wirral. 

What became clear in the early sixties was that all the generalised observations that were bandied about on the comparative wealth and health of England North and England South were based on the haziest possible conceptions of where they were. Commentators had got into the habit of talking about a generally poor North and a generally rich South, based on inadequate definitions of these areas. Two damaging consequences followed: the North was painted blacker than it was and the South whiter. Certainly, no-one who lived in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North-East during the late fifties and early sixties could fail to be aware that these areas were gradually falling behind the national averages in many ways – in housing conditions, in mortality, in investment, and, above all, in employment. But many generalised assumptions were made about ‘the North’ based on the perpetuated, negative impression that it was almost wholly covered in the worst residue of the Industrial Revolution. This stereotype of an area of utter depression with no real future meant that financial investment was slow and grudging.

Scarcely less unfortunate in its side effects was the tacit assumption that all was well, in economic terms, with the South. The theory that this was a land flowing with milk and honey from end to end was not one that would find ready acceptance among the thousands of homeless people in London, or the unemployed of Norwich, where the rate of joblessness was above the national average. In fact, the highest rate was to be found not in the North-east, or on Merseyside, but in Cornwall. In March 1964, the national rate was 1.9 per cent, on Merseyside, it was 4.5 per cent, in the worst parts of the North-east at 8.8 per cent, and in Falmouth 10.8 per cent. Like London’s homeless, Falmouth’s unemployed tended to be overlooked. Unemployment in the North was a more striking problem than in the South because of the absolute numbers involved.

Between 1952 and 1960, the London region, with twenty-seven per cent of Great Britain’s population, acquired forty per cent of the new jobs created. Those who lived within the ‘golden circle’ of the Home Counties, within an hour’s journey of their workplace, were members of a giant migrant society which moved great distances both for work and for pleasure. Their allegiances were divided between their ‘dormitory’ town and the great city itself, and their feeling for ‘community’ in both places tended to be weaker than it was in places where the population did not have this split personality. It was one of the more remarkable things about London and its suburbs to anyone who had lived in other parts of the country, how many people there made scarcely any contact with their neighbours. Instead, their contacts were with people they met through work or pleasure who lived miles away, and so gatherings of ‘soulmates’ took place in a kind of no man’s land. Of course, this was very much a professional and middle-class way of life.

A very high proportion of those living within the ‘Golden Circle’ had never been anywhere in England north of Whipsnade or the Norfolk Broads. They took their holidays on the South Coast or in the West Country and then turned their attention to the Continent. After all, Paris was nearer than Cumberland, more urbane and metropolitan. This widespread inexperience of the North was strikingly illustrated by one of the Observer’s professional travel writers. In April 1964, after describing the playgrounds of Europe and beyond, she visited the English Lake District for the first time in her life. The message that came loud and clear out of London was that if anyone wished to be smart and up to date then these were the attitudes they must adopt, the values they must hold, the fashions they must follow. The old provincial community feeling – the instinctive regard, warmth, and understanding for someone from the other side of town or even region which gently pressed people to place themselves at the disposal of each other – was broken. Moorhouse commented on the parallel process at work in the South-east and the ‘Home Counties’:

Meanwhile we become implicated in the structure of the Golden Circle, with its ephemeral relationships, with its unparalleled amenities of one kind or another, with its own introspective regard for things. And such are the pressures of this new society that after a time, I think, we too look towards the other England and wonder how on earth it could be so provincial, so backward, so completely out of step with the times. And then we turn our backs on it like so many before us. That is the really alarming thing about this national division.

There was much talk of modernizing Britain in 1964, and the country had clearly reached a point at which its whole shape and appearance was going to be drastically altered within a decade or two. Quite apart from the fact that the facilities Britain had were inadequate for its needs at that time, there was also the future to think of. The population was going to run away with itself and there was nothing that could be done to stop it, short of war or natural disaster. The advent and availability of the contraceptive pill did have a moderating effect, but the population still advanced beyond fifty-five million towards the estimated seventy-two million by the year two thousand. In just over thirty years, the population was expected to grow by almost a third.

Various prophecies had been made about the appearance of England at the turn of the century, and none of them bore much resemblance to what it looked like in the mid-sixties. One suggestion was that, by the year two thousand, there might be thirty conurbations of one to three million living in areas of forty square miles. From Dover to Bristol, and from the Home Counties to Lancashire and Yorkshire, there would be more people living in metropolitan conditions than there were in the whole of Britain in 1964. Two-thirds of them would be confined to virtually unbroken conurbations. Peter Hall, in his book London 2,000, sketched a prototype for the ideal Fin-de-siecle new town. It had a population of 95,000 and was constructed so artfully that seventy thousand of its citizens could walk to the central shopping area within a quarter of an hour. What, asked Moorhouse was to become of the lovely country towns in such an age? The answer, as it has turned out, was that few people suggested that it would be beneficial to raze everything and start all over again, as was the case in Sheffield and, due to its war-time destruction, to Coventry. No one but a blind iconoclast would have suggested that places like Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Worcester, and all the smaller towns of the West Midlands deserved the same treatment.

The ‘rural’ West Midlands:

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In the 1960s, the West Midlands was defined as the region between Bristol and Crewe going north and between Birmingham and the Welsh border from east to west. It therefore included the largely rural areas of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire, whereas today it is thought of as comprising the main metropolitan areas of Coventry, Solihull, Birmingham, Sandwell and Wolverhampton. The latter two of these areas roughly correspond with what was, and still is, known as ‘the Black Country’, the industrial area stretching across southern Staffordshire. When Moorhouse wrote that there is no part of England lovelier than this he was not thinking of the Black Country, which he wrote about in a subsequent chapter together with Birmingham. Thus, what Nikolaus Pevsner wrote about Herefordshire, Moorhouse suggested, could be said to be true of the rest of the West Midlands as defined in the sixties:

There are not many counties of England of which it can be said that, wherever one goes, there will not be a mile which is visually unrewarding or painful.

Moorhouse added that there was certainly no other comparable stretch of country which had been more enhanced rather than spoiled by man. This was a man-made landscape which over the centuries has been broken in, tamed and softened in a way that some of the most attractive of Scotland, Wales and Ireland – the Highlands, Snowdonia, Connemara – have not. In the rural West Midlands are the Cotswolds, the Wye Valley, the Vale of Evesham, the Malverns, the Long Mynd, Wenlock Edge and the upper Severn Valley of Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale. In these areas there was a little industry, formed early in the Industrial Revolution but never developed; where Birmingham and the Black Country spilt over the Worcestershire boundary they did so because of pressure from their foundries and factories. Industry in these West Midlands was…

… more a matter of cider-making, hop-gathering, pear-picking and cattle-herding than anything they understand the word to mean in Birmingham and surrounding districts. Here the towns were built mostly to market farm products … We remember them best for their picturesque qualities: Worcester, with the prettiest county cricket ground in England; Shrewsbury, with probably the finest collection of half-timbered Tudor buildings; Hereford, because it is less industrialized than any place of its size; Cheltenham, for the elegance of its Promenade and parks; Ludlow, for its charming disorder beneath the castle; Gloucester, for its cathedral and especially for that staggering east window.

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What made these cities and towns so iconic was not just their possession of a high proportion of buildings which are aesthetically pleasing or of considerable historical value, but that more often than not by their very disordered arrangement, their textures and their colouring, they actually enhance the landscapes in which they are set. Somehow the planners were pressured into preserving them either as the core or as the adjunct to the bright new towns of the future. Yet some of the most abysmal hovels in England continued to lie behind some of the prettiest facades (see the picture of Spon Street, Coventry, above). There were already thousands of examples of reclamation of country cottages and market townhouses without damage to the exterior or the context. But the example of Gloucester was not one to be followed. Everything that was obsolescent for practical purposes was knocked down to make way for the latest urban device when more thought would have shown that by careful adaptation and selective demolition the same practical result could be achieved. In 1964, there was a clear danger that many other Midland towns might fall into the same trap as Gloucester. Fortunately, it was not the last chance we had to look around and see things as they always seemed to have been. Coaching inns, Tudor gables, and Regency mansions have remained into the current century. The Georgian face of Worcester has survived the widening of the High Street and the erection of a shopping centre opposite the cathedral. Yet at the time Worcester seemed generally quite oblivious of what was happening to it. An overspill population of forty thousand rolled in from Birmingham, yet it had no overall plan for development. Unlike Coventry’s Donald Gibson, Worcester had no city architect to start thinking about one, and to ensure that what was being done in the centre of the city was properly co-ordinated.

Birmingham & The Black Country:

Above: The local government structure within North Worcestershire and South Staffordshire – Prior to the West Midlands Order 1965 reorganisation

Strictly speaking, the Black Country is a quadrilateral of towns whose four corners are Wolverhampton, Walsall, Stourbridge and Smethwick. Most of it lies in the South-western angle of Staffordshire but it has spread over into Worcestershire as well. Not far from the geographical centre of England, it fizzles out on two sides into some of England’s most unspoilt countryside. It is itself the heart of industrial England and has become England’s unloveliest and most completely spoiled parcel of land. It is crammed with boroughs which have traditional specialities of manufacture: locks at Willenhall, chains at Cradley, nails at Blackheath, springs at West Bromwich, enamels at Bilston, glass at Stourbridge, leathers at Walsall, and so on. As Moorhouse remarked,

These places are so close to each other that it is only by keeping an eye on the signs outside the post offices as you pass through the Black Country that you can be sure which town you are in. Together with the Potteries it is the only part of England I know that I would not at any price exchange for life in South Lancashire… Here there is nothing but endless vistas of ugliness in stone, brick, mortar, rusting iron, and waste earth. Look at the streets and the factories here, peer into the canals, sniff the air, and you can be sure that they weren’t kidding when they called this the Black Country.

Strictly speaking, Birmingham has never part of the Black Country, which lies just over the south-eastern boundary of the region at West Bromwich, Smethwick and Bearwood, where the old counties of Warwickshire and Worcestershire met. The boundary was literally at the end of the long back garden of our ‘manse’ in Edgbaston, the Baptist Church being in Bearwood. Yet in an economic rather than a geographical sense, Birmingham is at the centre of the Black Country. Like the towns spilling out from its northern suburbs it was built from the start upon industry, but whereas specialization was the general rule in the Black Country’s boroughs, Birmingham spread itself over an enormous variety of trades. The typical working-class Brummie was, as the folk-song had it, a Roving Jack of many a trade, of every trade, of all trades. More than any other city in Britain, including Manchester, by the mid-twentieth century Birmingham could claim to be the unrivalled workshop of the world. By the 1960s its reputation rested on its heavy engineering and its part in the growth of the car industry, but it was still the home of about 1,500 separate trades, making everything from pins to hundred-ton presses.

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Birmingham was never as wholly bleak as the area to the north, though. Its southern suburbs became a dormitory for the middle and upper classes, almost devoid of factories, except for the Austin motor works at Longbridge and the Cadbury factory at Bournville which, like his predecessor J B Priestley, Geoffrey Moorhouse writes about at some length in his chapter on the Black Country.  I don’t intend to focus on it in this article. These suburbs were spacious and tree-lined, running eventually out into the Shakespeare country of the former Forest of Arden, along the Stratford Road. Birmingham was one of the very few places in England which lived up to its motto – in this case, ‘Forward’. It was certainly going forward in the mid-sixties. Nowhere else was there more excitement in the air, and no other major British city had identified its problems, tackled them and made more progress towards solving them than ‘the second city’. Not even in London was there so much adventure in what was being done.

Moorhouse suggested that you would have had to have gone to some of the Dutch and German cities to see something changing in shape and its approach to life as dramatically as Birmingham had been doing in the early sixties. If you entered the city by way of Snow Hill station and went along Colmore Row towards Victoria Square and the Town Hall nothing much seemed to be happening. But if you turned down New Street, at the bottom of the street you walked straight out of the nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth, or maybe even into the twenty-first. You could carry on into the Bull Ring, at that time the centre of the transformation, and stand with your back to St Martin’s Church. Looking up, the sky was cut across at one end by a great horizontal slab of concrete, embellished with a fierce symbolic Taurus in metal at one end. That was the then new Bull Ring market. Behind it was a cylindrical office block, ‘the Rotunda’, all glass with a concrete frame. No-one had ever thought of making one of these in England before. At ground level was an open market, its stalls sheltered by huge individual umbrellas in lollipop colours.

This was Birmingham moving ‘forward’. Out of sight, there were streets along which traffic could pass without being stopped by crossing pedestrians because someone had the bright idea that it was possible for people on foot to get from one side to the other by going under the main thoroughfare. A portable flyover was also set across a junction so that cars, buses and lorries could go up and down it like trippers on the Big Dipper. Birmingham had been moving forward in this fashion since 1957, the year I was born, and when I went to live there in the summer of 1965 much of the new city centre around St Martin’s in the Bull Ring had been completed. At the time, it was probably the most extensive programme of rebuilding and redevelopment to take place in any European city not already demolished by the war. Plymouth, Exeter and neighbouring Coventry had no alternative but to rebuild.

Birmingham had to start its own demolition before it could proceed to re-creation. It started with a new inner ring road, costing twenty-five million, followed by the Bull Ring development which cost five million out of a total cost of forty million for the city centre as a whole. This was followed by the Midlands Arts Centre and a new civic theatre, the Repertory.  Plans for New Street station were first drawn up in 1958, an underground construction at an estimated cost of twelve million. In all, the city council reckoned in 1964 that they would spend another fifty million on various projects in the centre and at Edgbaston, including the test cricket ground. Not all these schemes were to be funded from the public purse, but the freedom of civic spending was the envy of many other cities. Birmingham’s forward movement was impressive enough to attract the best architects of the day to produce plans there, whereas other provincial cities had their futures shaped by trusty local architects, whose worthiness was generally equalled only by their lack of imagination. 

The danger, however, was that all this central enterprise would distract the city from looking too closely at its unfulfilled needs. Life in Sparkbrook or Balsall Heath didn’t look nearly as prosperous as it did from St Martin’s. Birmingham could have done itself more good by concentrating more on its tatty central fringes, what became known in the seventies and eighties as its inner-city areas. Something like seventy thousand families were in need of new homes and since the war it had been building houses at a rate of no more than two to three thousand a year. This compared poorly with Manchester, otherwise a poor relation, which had been building four thousand a year over the same period. However, more than any other municipality in the country, Birmingham had been successive ministers of Housing and Local Government to force lodging-house landlords to register with their local authorities. In 1944, it was the only place in England to take advantage of an ephemeral Act of Parliament to acquire the five housing areas it then developed twenty years later. At Ladywood, Lee Bank, Highgate, Newton and Nechells Green 103,000 people lived in 32,000 slum houses; a mess sprawling over a thousand acres, only twenty-two acres of which were open land. More than ten thousand of these houses had been cleared by 1964, and it was estimated that by 1970 the total number of people living in these areas was expected to dwindle to fifty thousand, with their homes set in 220 acres of open ground.

The other tens of thousands of people who lived there were expected to have moved out to Worcester, Redditch and other places. The prospect of Birmingham’s excess population being deposited in large numbers on the surrounding countryside was not an attractive one for those who were on the receiving end of this migration. At the public enquiry into the proposals to establish a new town at Redditch, the National Farmers’ Union declared, with the imagery that pressure groups often resort when their interests are threatened, that the farmers were being sacrificed on the altar of Birmingham’s ‘overspill’, which was the latest password among the planners. Birmingham needed to clear its slums before it could start talking about itself with justification as the most go-ahead city in Europe. Yet it already, in the mid-sixties, felt much more affluent than the patchwork affair among more Northerly towns and cities. It had more in common with the Golden Circle of London and the Home Counties than any other part of England. In 1964, forty-seven per cent of its industrial firms reported increased production compared with the national average of twenty-five per cent. Above all, Birmingham felt as if everything it set itself to was geared to an overall plan and purpose, with no piecemeal efforts going to waste at a tangent. The people living in Birmingham in the mid-sixties had a feeling, rare in English life at that time, of being part of an exciting enterprise destined to succeed. As for the city itself, it was not prepared to yield pride of place to anyone on any matter, as a quick glance at the civic guide revealed:

Many of the world’s finest organists have joined with the City Organist in giving recitals on the Town Hall’s massive organ, admittedly one of the finest in the country.

Such off-hand immodesty neatly caught the tone of Birmingham in the sixties, and when all the projects were completed, it was a city to crow about and for schoolboys like me to sing in, whether in the choir stalls at St Martin’s in the Bull Ring at Christmas or in front of that massive organ in the Town Hall, together with thousands of other choristers from all over the city.

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There was some ‘overspill’ of Birmingham’s bouncing vitality to be seen in the Black Country proper. The worthies of Wolverhampton had their own six million pound development plan on their plates, and in the town centre they had cleared a wide open space and started to build afresh. The city was especially proud of its football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, which under its manager, Stan Cullis, had won the League Championship three times (also finishing as runners-up three times) and the FA Cup twice between 1949 and 1960. They had also played a number of European club teams in a series of floodlit mid-week games at their Molineux Stadium, beating the crack Hungarian Champions Honved, led by the legendary Ferenc Puskás, earning them the unofficial title of ‘Champions of the World’.  They drew with Honved 1-1 at Molineux in 1962 and lost 2-1 to them in Budapest in ’63, but in 1964 Stan Cullis suffered a long illness and after a disastrous start to the season Chairman John Ireland sacked him on 15 September 1964. The Wolves were then relegated at the end of the season, not returning to the top flight until 1967, when I began to go to ‘the Moli’ with my dad, who was originally from Bilston. Of course, their great rivals were their Black Country neighbours, West Bromwich Albion, known as ‘the baggies’. In the first home game of the season, attracting a crowd of 51,438, Wolves were winning until ‘Bomber’ Brown punched the ball into the Wolves net with only a couple of minutes to go. The referee didn’t spot the infringement, and the match ended in a 3-3 draw.

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The Wolverhampton Coat of Arms and Motto (also worn by the football team).

In West Bromwich, they had come up with a seven million pound scheme for a pedestrian centre covering thirty-seven acres. Moorhouse felt that this was long overdue since no-one seemed to have spent a penny in the last century on the appearance of the place. He commented that whilst this was officially the most affluent place in the other England, with unemployment standing at just one per cent compared with the national average of 2.2, it was a curious unbalanced people who can satisfy itself indoors with its television set, washing machine, its hair dryer and modish lamp standard, and put up with West Bromwich as it looks from the outside. For West Bromwich, he wrote, you could substitute the name of any town in the Black Country and draw the same conclusion. Taking a bus from West Bromwich to Wolverhampton via Wednesbury and Bilston, he concluded that there is nothing to be seen which would induce anyone to go and live there unless he had to. I have to admit that, visiting my father’s brothers and sisters a few years later, I often wondered, and still do, as to what drew his parents there. My father worked as a draughtsman in the GKN works before the war, so perhaps his father did too. Wednesbury, where he had his first ministry as a young man, had a steep main street of market stalls, which gave it an almost rural air, reminding you that once there was open country running out of the bottom of the hill. Otherwise, Moorhouse’s description matches accurately my own childhood recollections:

Where the decrepit buildings of the Industrial Revolution peter out, bleak and gritty housing estates have been allowed to sprawl with here and there patches of waste ground full of broken glass, fractured brick, garbage and willowherb. The bus lurches through a maze of side streets whose corners are so sharp and narrow that it is surprising that it doesn’t finish up in somebody’s front parlour. … It is a picture of desolation, and no-one yet seems to have made a start in cleaning it up.

Certainly, for all the money that must have been made in these parts since industry moved in, precious little was spent on the needs of the local communities. Tipton was so bereft of civic facilities that the mayor had to entertain either in the local pub or the Territorial drill hall. As far as Moorhouse could tell, there was not a scrap of difference between Tipton, Coseley, Bilston and Willenhall, not a rusty piece of iron that you could insert between one boundary and the next. The only advantage that this gave them was that they were obviously all in the same boat together and that they might as well pool their resources and try to work out an overall plan. The Local Government Commission came to a similar conclusion in 1962, resulting in a reorganisation of the Black Country with the small towns being amalgamated into larger groupings or assimilated into the bigger places – Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Smethwick, and Dudley. These changes were not brought about without a fight, however, as civic jealousies were strong among the Black Country towns. The hearing of objections to the Commission’s plan lasted over five weeks and was the costliest in the history of British local government; some of the local authorities even threatened to sue the Minister of Housing and Local Government. With the consolidation of the Black Country, there was some hope that some of Birmingham’s ‘bright ideas’ might get transfused to its hinterland.

Immigration: The Case of Smethwick in 1964.

The Black Country outside Birmingham may have appeared to have been standing still for a century or more, but by looking at its population it was possible to see that an enormous change had come over it in the late fifties and early sixties. The pallid, indigenous people had been joined by more colourful folk from the West Indies, India and Pakistan. In some cases, the women from the subcontinent could not speak English at all, but they had already made their mark on Black Country society, queuing for chickens on Wolverhampton market on Saturday mornings. The public transport system across Birmingham and the Black Country would certainly have ground to a halt had the immigrant labour which supplied it been withdrawn. Several cinemas had been saved from closing by showing Indian and Pakistani movies, and a Nonconformist Chapel had been transformed into a Sikh Gurdwara. The whole area was ‘peppered’ with Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Several years before the national press discovered the West Indian cricket supporters at Lord’s in 1963, they were already plainly visible and vocal at Edgbaston Cricket Ground.

The overseas immigrants had been coming into Birmingham and the Black Country in a steady trickle since the end of the war for the same reason that the region attracted migrants from all over the British Isles since the mid-twenties: comparatively high wages and full, stable, employment. The trickle became a torrent in the months before the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was enacted in 1962. By 1964, the region had one of the biggest concentrations of immigrants in the country. Their integration into the communities of Birmingham and the Black Country had proceeded without the violent reaction which led to the race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958. But tensions had been building up in the region as they had in every mixed community in Britain. One of the first open antagonisms took place in Birmingham in 1954 over the employment of coloured migrants as drivers and conductors on the local buses. After that, little was heard of racial pressures until the end of 1963, when events in Smethwick began to make national headlines. The situation there became typical in its effects on traditional allegiances, and in its ripeness for exploitation, of that in every town in England with a mixed community.

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With a population of seventy thousand, Smethwick contained an immigrant community variously estimated at between five and seven thousand. It was claimed that this is proportionately greater than in any other county borough in England. The settlement of these people in Smethwick had not been the slow process over a long period that Liverpool, Cardiff and other seaports had experienced and which had allowed time for adjustments to be made gradually. It had happened at a rush, mainly at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. In such circumstances, the host communities learnt to behave better, but it was always likely that a deeply rooted white population would regard with suspicion the arrival of an itinerant coloured people on its home ground, and that friction would result. In Smethwick, the friction followed a familiar pattern. Most pubs in the town barred coloured people from their lounge bars. Some barbers refused to cut their hair. When a Pakistani family were allocated a new council flat after slum clearance in 1961, sixty-four of their white neighbours staged a rent strike and eventually succeeded in driving them out of, ironically enough, ‘Christ Street’.

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Looking for lodgings on Gillett Road, west Birmingham, 1955.

Most of the usual white prejudices were keenly displayed in Smethwick, the reasons offered for hostility to the migrants being that they made too much noise, that they did not tend to their gardens with the customary English care, that they left their children unattended too long, and that their children were delaying the progress of white pupils in the schools. The correspondence columns of the local weekly newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone, have provided a platform for the airing of these prejudices, as a letter quoted by a correspondent of The Times on 9 March 1964 shows:

With the advent of the pseudo-socialists’ ‘coloured friends’, the incidence of T.B. in the area has risen to become one of the highest in the country. Can it be denied that the foul practice of spitting in public is a contributory factor? Why waste the ratepayers’ money printing notices in five different languages? People who behave worse than animals will not in the least be deterred by them.

At the time, no-one seems to know who originated the slogan: If you want a Nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour, which was circulating in Smethwick before the 1963 municipal elections. The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan but Colin Jordan, leader of the neo-Nazi British Movement, claimed that his members had produced the initial slogan as well as spread the poster and sticker campaign; Jordan’s group in the past had also campaigned on other slogans, such as: Don’t vote – a vote for Tory, Labour or Liberal is a vote for more Blacks! Griffiths denied that the slogan was racist, saying that:

I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.

— quoted in The Times (9 March 1964).

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The specific issue which the Labour and Conservatives debated across the Smethwick council chamber was how best to integrate immigrant children in the borough’s schools. Many of them had very little English when they arrived in Smethwick. The Conservatives wanted to segregate them from normal lessons; Labour took the view that they should be taught in separate groups for English only and that the level of integration otherwise should be left to the discretion of the individual schools. But the party division soon got far deeper as the housing shortage in Smethwick, as great as anywhere in the Black Country, exacerbated race relations. The Conservatives said that if they controlled the council they would not necessarily re-house a householder on taking over his property for slum clearance unless he had lived in the town for ten years or more. While the local Labour party deprecated attempts to make immigration a political issue, the Conservatives actively encouraged them. Councillor Peter Griffiths, the local Tory leader had actively supported the Christ Street rent strike.

At the municipal elections in 1963, the Conservatives fared disastrously over the country in general, gaining no more than five seats. Three of these were in Smethwick. In the elections for aldermen of 1964, the Conservatives gained control of the council, the ‘prize’ for having been consistently critical of the immigrant community in the area. The Smethwick constituency had been held by Labour since 1945, for most of that time by Patrick Gordon Walker, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary. His majorities at successive general elections had dwindled from 9,727 in 1951 to 6,495 in 1955 to 3,544 in 1959. This declining majority could not, obviously, be solely attributed to Labour’s policy on immigration, either nationally or locally. It reflected a national trend since 1951, a preference for Tory economic management. But the drop in 1959 seemed to be in part, at least, a reaction to local issues. Moorhouse, writing in mid-1964, just before the general election, found few people who would bet on Gordon Walker being returned to Westminster, however successful Labour might be in the country as a whole. His opponent in the election was Councillor Griffiths, who was so convinced of the outcome by the end of 1963 that he had already fixed himself up with a flat in London. Moorhouse wrote:

If he does become Smethwick’s next MP it will not simply be because he has attracted the floating voter to his cause. It will also be because many people who have regarded themselves as socialist through thick and thin have decided that when socialism demands the application of its principles for the benefit of a coloured migrant population as well as for themselves it is high time to look for another political creed which is personally more convenient.   

There had been resignations from the party, and a former Labour councillor was already running a club which catered only for ‘Europeans’. The Labour Club itself (not directly connected to the constituency party) had not, by the end of 1963, admitted a single coloured member. Smethwick in 1964 was not, he commented, a place of which many of its inhabitants could be proud, regardless of how they voted. That could be extended to ‘any of us’, he wrote:

We who live in areas where coloured people have not yet settled dare not say that what is happening in Smethwick today could not happen in our slice of England, too. For the issue is not a simple and straightforward one. There must be many men of tender social conscience who complain bitterly about the noise being imposed on them by road and air traffic while sweeping aside as intolerant the claims others about the noise imposed on them by West Indian neighbours, without ever seeing that there is an inconsistency in their attitude. It is not much different from the inconsistency of the English parent who demands the segregation of coloured pupils whose incapacities may indeed be retarding his child’s school progress but who fails to acknowledge the fact that in the same class there are probably a number of white children having a similar effect. One issue put up by Smethwick (and the other places where social problems have already arisen) does, however, seem to be clear. The fact is that these people are here and, to put it at the lowest level of self-interest, we have got to live amicably with them if we do not want a repetition of Notting Hill and Nottingham, if we do not want a coloured ghetto steadily growing in both size and resentment. …

Smethwick is our window on the world from which we can look out and see the street sleepers of Calcutta, the shanty towns of Trinidad, the empty bellies of Bombay. And what do we make of it? Somebody at once comes up and sticks a notice in it. ‘If you want a Nigger neighbour, vote Labour.’   

Smethwick Town Council

The 1964 general election had involved a nationwide swing from the Conservatives to the Labour Party; which had resulted in the party gaining a narrow five-seat majority. However, in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate, Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker. Griffiths did, however, poll 436 votes less in 1964 than when he stood unsuccessfully for the Smethwick constituency in 1959. He was declared “a parliamentary leper” by Harold Wilson, the new Labour Prime Minister (below).

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Griffiths, in his maiden speech to the Commons, pointed out what he believed were the real problems his constituency faced, including factory closures and over 4,000 families awaiting council accommodation. The election result led to a visit by Malcolm X to Smethwick to show solidarity with the black and Asian communities. Malcolm’s visit to Smethwick was “no accident”; the Conservative-run council attempted to put in place an official policy of racial segregation in Smethwick’s housing allocation, with houses on Marshall Street in Smethwick being let only to white British residents. Malcolm X claimed that the Black minorities were being treated like the Jews under Hitler. Later in 1964, a delegation of white residents successfully petitioned the Conservative council to compulsorily purchase vacant houses in order to prevent non-whites from buying the houses. This, however, was prevented by Labour housing minister Richard Crossman, who refused to allow the council to borrow the money in order to enact their policy. Nine days after he visited Marshall Street, Malcolm X was shot dead in New York. The Labour Party regained the seat at the 1966 general election when Andrew Faulds became the new Member of Parliament.

The actions taken in Smethwick in 1964 have been described as ugly Tory racism which killed rational debate about immigration. However, colour bars were then common, preventing non-whites from using facilities. As already noted, The Labour Club in Smethwick effectively operated one, as, more overtly did the local Sandwell Youth Club, which was run by one of the town’s Labour councillors. Moorhouse pointed out that had the community been on the economic rocks, it might have been possible to make out a case for controls on immigration. Had there been a high rate of unemployment, where the standard of living was already impoverished, there might have been a case for keeping migrants at bay so as to prevent competition for insufficient jobs becoming greater and the general sense of depression from deepening. But that was not the case in west Birmingham and the Black Country in 1964, or for at least another decade. It may have been as ugly as sin to look at, at least in parts, but outside the Golden Circle around London, there was no wealthier area in England and no place more economically stable. When the Birmingham busmen had objected to coloured colleagues a decade earlier, it was not because these would be taking jobs which might otherwise have gone to ‘Brummies’ but because it was feared they might have an effect on wages which a shortage of labour had maintained at an artificial level. These were real fears that had led to prejudice against previous immigrants to the region, most notably from Wales in the thirties and Ireland in the forties. At root, this was not a problem about colour per se, though there were cultural stereotypes at play, as there were previously and as we have seen there were in the early sixties. It was essentially about wages. This is how Anthony Richmond summarised it in his book The Colour Problem:

The main objections to the employment of coloured colonials appeared to come from the trade unions, but less on the grounds of colour than because, if the number of drivers and conductors was brought up to full establishment by employing colonials, their opportunities for earning considerable sums as overtime would be reduced.

fearful social sickness?

Smethwick’s problems in 1964 sprung from the same root, if not over wages, then over rents, with tenants fearing that competition for housing would drive these upwards, and quickly. According to Moorhouse, this was part of a fearful social sickness affecting the Midlands as a whole which seemed to be compounded of a desire to make money fast while the going was good, a willingness to go to any lengths to achieve this. For the first time in the industrial history of the West Midlands, it was possible for the working classes to reach their target of acquiring a surplus through full employment. This left no space or energy for any other considerations. It was an attitude of mind which had been copied from those higher up the social scale in industry and was most in evidence in the car factories. There men were earning over twenty pounds and sometimes thirty pounds a week on the production lines, putting them up among the highest-paid manual labourers in the land. The Coventry Evening Telegraph made it clear what it thought of car workers striking for higher pay in 1956 by juxtaposing the two photographs below:

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Wages in Coventry motor firms were undoubtedly higher than elsewhere during the fifties and sixties, but the caricature of the ‘greedy car worker’ was somewhat misleading, both in Coventry and the West Midlands more generally, as economic historians have pointed out. I have written about these observations in other articles on this site. Nevertheless, Moorhouse identified, that emerging from the works around Birmingham was…

A new race of artisans… which makes cars and the bits and pieces that go into cars. An increasing number live in mass-produced semi-detached houses with fitted carpets and all the latest domestic gadgets, mostly acquired on hire purchase. They take their wives out to dinner in the poshest hotels in the district rather than for a drink in the local pubs as their fathers did. They spend weekends in country in their own cars, and holidays touring the Continent. In some cases they even dabble on the stock exchange and think of buying plots of land in the Bahamas against the day of retirement. And why ever not, if they can afford it? There seems to be no good reason why such things should be synonymous with only with a front seat on the board and a back seat in the Rolls. But the price they pay for this taste of affluence is, it seems to me, a form of sweated labour. They spend their days doing a repetitive job alongside a conveyor belt, the most deadly dull thing imaginable. Their wages are high because they work ridiculous extra stints in overtime. When they get home, some of them say, they are fit for nothing but flopping down in front of the television set or a supine contemplation of their other riches. They are so worn out by this headlong pursuit of wealth that they cannot even enjoy normal family activity. How can a feeling for community expect to survive in such a climate? How can anyone be surprised that in such a single-minded environment, with everything geared to acquisitive purpose, there appears to be little contentment but plenty of hostility for anything likely to hinder the chase?

But Moorhouse presents no evidence to suggest that immigrant workers either hindered – or threatened to hinder – this ‘chase’ for ever- greater affluence among the indigenous population. We do know that in Coventry, the Caribbean and Asian immigrants were excluded from high-paying engineering jobs. Even on the less well-paid buses, the unions operated a colour bar more or less openly until 1960 when Morris Minta, a Jamaican, became the first coloured busman in Coventry. The only inroads they made into engineering were in the lowest-paid and dirtiest end of the trade, particularly the foundries, of which there were many in Smethwick and the Black Country. Even there they were they were confined to the lowliest jobs by a tacit consensus of management and workers. As early as 1951, the management of Sterling Metals in Coventry, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was their main desire to recruit white labour and agreed to keep black and white gangs segregated. The white labourers were given guarantees against the upgrading of Indians. At the ‘paternalistic’ Alfred Herbert’s works in 1953, the AEU Chief Steward threatened strike action if Indians were upgraded from labourers to machines and management gave them informal assurances that this would not happen.

Trade union officials began to be more critical of such attitudes as time went on, but they rarely took a firm stand against them. Overt discrimination within the workplace was comparatively rare, however, especially since most black workers never got inside the factory gates. Most significant engineering employers had long-since stopped recruiting at the gates anyway. Modern recruitment practices at the major firms were a sufficient barrier in themselves, since hiring through union offices gave advantages to local, skilled engineering workers. Informal networks of friends, relatives and personal links with foremen remained, as it had been for Welsh workers in the thirties, the other main mode of hiring. These methods kept out the new Commonwealth immigrants, who lacked access to channels of information and influence, especially as they were usually barred from pubs and clubs in any case. These practices were common throughout the industrial West Midlands. The engineering workers of the West Midlands had their hierarchies and, while many were changing districts, occupations and factories all the time, the newly arrived immigrants were at the bottom of the tree and unlikely to topple it, or undermine the fruits it provided for those near the top.

Therefore, the case of Smethwick in 1964 cannot easily be explained by reference to economic factors, though we know that the social and cultural factors surrounding the issues of housing and education did play significant roles. The main factor underpinning the 1964 Election result would appear to be political, that it was still acceptable, at that time and among local politicians of both main parties, together with public and trade union officials, for racial discrimination and segregation to be seen as instruments of public policy in response to mass immigration. In this, Smethwick was not that different from other towns and cities throughout the West Midlands, if not from those elsewhere in England. And it would take a long time for such social and industrial hierarchies to be worn down through local and national government intervention which went ahead of, and sometimes cut across the ‘privileged’ grain of indigenous populations. Smethwick represented a turning point in this process; four years later Wolverhampton and Birmingham would become the fulcrum in the fight against organised racialism. I have written about these events elsewhere on this site, especially about the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech made by Wolverhampton MP, Enoch Powell.

Sources:

Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964), Britain in the Sixties: The Other England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against The World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1980), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press, University of Warwick.

Whither Hungary? An Interested Observer’s Rejoinder to Reflections on the Outcome of the 2018 Elections.   Leave a comment

Reactions from Home & Abroad:

It’s been four months since the Hungarian general election (on the 8th April), so I’ve been interested to discover what Hungarians make of their country’s direction since the Orbán government was returned with two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. I have Hungarian Christian friends in Britain, working in the NHS, with young children, who have decided to return in advance of ‘Brexit’. Whether this is partly because of the ‘return to power’ of Viktor Orbán and his family-friendly policies I have yet to discover. Others, single professionals with different lifestyles, have decided to stay in the West, concerned about what sort of Hungary they would be returning to, defined as an ‘illiberal democracy’ by its Prime Minister. Yet the country has been a net recipient of funding from the European Union, an organisation which is built on ‘liberal values’ through the co-operation of countries which have been proud to describe themselves as ‘liberal democracies’ with pluralist parliamentary systems accommodating parties across the mainstream political spectrum. It’s not a scientific survey, but those who are socially conservative Christians seem unworried by this evolving ‘atmosphere’, whereas those with more ‘liberal’ attitudes seem keen to remain, especially in London, even after Britain leaves the EU.

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Tourists are still welcome of course since they bring with them much-needed additional income.  The MTI and Index.hu reported last month (July) that the Hungarian Parliament building had a record-breaking number of visitors in 2017. Nearly 650,000 people wanted to see the interiors of the famous sight in Budapest. The Parliament had never had so many visitors before. Among them were some left-wing friends from Wales, on a weekend break in the capital, whom I recommended should certainly include this on the brief itinerary. They did and wrote that they were greatly impressed by what they saw. The statistics show that a total of 647,000 people visited the Hungarian Parliament in 2017, up by eleven per cent from the year before. Twenty per cent of these were Hungarians, compared with eighty per cent from abroad. Of this latter number, nearly seventy per cent were from other EU countries. In the first four months of 2018, before the election, 201,000 people visited the building, eighteen per cent more than in the first four months of 2017. Tourists generated a revenue of HUF 1,188,000,000 (circa 3.7 million Euro) just by visiting this most popular tourist attraction in the Hungarian capital.

So, the unsavoury atmosphere reported by the OSCE* observers as prevalent in the country’s election campaign had little effect on foreign tourists. Quite rightly, Hungary has continued to polish its front gates and to proudly display its ‘Hungaricums’ in its shop window. Behind the this magnificent facade, the election slogans have not been so welcoming to ‘the west’. Of course, since very few visitors understand Hungarian, they were unlikely to pick up on the anti-Semitic trope inherent in the orange Fidesz election posters pointing to a ‘Soros Plot’, (térv in Hungarian). The American financier and philanthropist, George Soros (pictured below), not being a politician, is largely unknown outside Hungary though British people of middle age may recall his role in ‘Black Friday’ and the collapse of sterling in the early nineties. Even fewer would be aware of his Jewish-Hungarian origins. The ‘slogan’ has not gone away since the election either, as a proposed law designed to stop international charities and church groups from working with asylum-seekers and migrants has been introduced to Parliament known as the ‘Stop Soros’ Bill. They run the risk of being charged with ‘people smuggling’ and other offences for providing food and water, clothes and even bibles to ‘illegal immigrants’. Of course, all ‘asylum seekers’ from Syria and Iraq are illegal, having left their neighbouring refuge in Turkey, until they have been granted asylum elsewhere. They are not seeking to settle in Hungary, simply to cross it on their onward ‘trek’ to ‘northern Europe’. However, applications can take years to process, during which time the ‘illegals’ of all ages are held in tin boxes at the southern border, in all weather and temperatures, within high steel fences.

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Interestingly, a British friend who visits Hungary for extended periods on a regular basis could pick up on these ‘hate messages’ when he visited during the campaign. What was most noticeable for me was the way that most of my Hungarian friends in the town where I live, a Fidesz stronghold, clammed up during the campaign, and have continued to be unwilling to discuss the outcome of the election. Those who do comment have either ‘swallowed’ the government propaganda on ‘the vagrants’, or are dismissive of all politicians: like my wife, they recall the 1970s and 1980s when it was an unwritten rule that ordinary people did not discuss politics, certainly if they were not members of the Communist Party. Even ‘millennials’, not born until Hungary had emerged from the Kádár years, shared their parents’ view.

John O’Sullivan, the Associate Editor of the Hungarian Review and President of the Danube Institute in Budapest, ran into the large political demonstration of tens of thousands which took place in Kossúth tér, the square outside Parliament on the Saturday after the election. Those invited included supporters of ‘Jobbik’, the former ‘hard’ Right party, now by-passed by Fidesz, as well as the Left Opposition. The demonstration was, however, mainly the Left-wing protest of an election landslide for the Right (or, to broaden the analysis, by the elites against “populism”). In the May edition of the journal, he points out that, largely because of the numbers involved, criticism in the national and international media switched from the election process itself, still questioned in the case of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, to the nature of the campaign. Here the most authoritative criticism was made in the preliminary report of the OSCE (election monitors, invited by the Hungarian government to observe) which can be read at:

*https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/hungary/377410?download=true.

The report distinguishes between the conduct of the election itself, which it describes as professional and transparent and the campaign, which it concluded provided limited space for substantive debate. It also claims that media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarised and lacking critical analysis. It further criticised the overlap between state and party spending. 

Whatever the merits of the OSCE’s criticism of the popular political discourse, O’Sullivan points out that these arguments were, in turn, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the Fidesz victory which entrenched the post-2010 political culture in Hungarian society for the foreseeable future. It became clear, he argues, that this new culture and orientation arose more from the pressure on Hungary of international organisations, such as the EU, and from foreign governments, such as the Obama administration in the US, which produced Viktor Orbán’s justification of his policy that Hungary is reasonably entitled to protect its national character as a European and Christian society against mass immigration. That justification ran counter to the prevailing EU orthodoxy that Europe’s future should be rooted in post-nationalism, multiculturalism and official secularism. If Orbán’s policy had been one representing only a minority, O’Sullivan suggests, it would surely have been defeated, but it won the day by a hat-trick of landslides.

The Strange Death of Liberal Democracy?:

These insights are confirmed and fortified by two articles on the election result by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi. The latter sees it as a contributory wave in an internationally significant sea-change that is now transforming the broad Western consensus on how we should be governed. Liberal democracy, as it is currently interpreted by global élites, is both splintering between radical progressives and disheartened centrists and running up against popular resistance which generates its own… alternative courses. Lánczi argues:

Anyone who is not committed or enchanted by the latest liberal ideas concerning gender or radical egalitarianism, will be reduced to refurbishing ideas of the discarded past, especially the natural right or natural law theories, and traditions which are seen on the Left as obsolete or untenable. But they are neither obsolete, nor untenable… Epoch-making changes are underway in political thought. The political symbol of Orbán’s political world is the new constitution enacted in 2011. It is based on regained national pride, a re-interpretation of Hungarian history, and a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, while rejecting the goals of modern radical liberalism.

However, as O’Sullivan points out, this contains an inherent conflict and contradiction in the understanding of both Orbán and Lánczi of the developed world outside Hungary, and especially of Western European states. In fact, both of them have misunderstood liberalism in this context as being polarised between a classical form and a modern radical form. The historical development of liberal institutions in Europe, both within and between nations, has been a mostly gradual progression from the classical to the radical over the past century and a half, with the radical form providing renewal during and after periods of rapid social change and war. Hungary’s ‘absorption’ first by the German axis and then by the Soviet Empire during the latter half of this period cut it off from western influences and delayed its transformation from one type of liberalism to the other. In the last decade, the breakdown of the twenty-year transition to liberal democracy has forced it back into traditional regressive forms of nationalism and authoritarianism. In his review of two books on Europe since 1989, Nicholas T. Parsons argues that enabling the countries of Central Europe to develop politically and economically in accordance with their own customs and traditions would have better results than forcing all of them to adapt their quite different societies to the same Euro-style approach of centrally planning a free market. He may have a point, but again his mischaracterization of this as The Hapsburg Option indicates a reactionary view. His view of the ‘Single Market’ as a ‘centrally planned free market’ is a contradiction in terms. It has to be pointed out, as it has been in the ongoing ‘Brexit’ debate, that the strongest advocate of both the creation of the single market and Hungary’s early accession and integration into the EU was Margaret Thatcher, who, although a strong ‘free-marketeer’, was hardly an advocate of central planning in economic matters.

Lánczi is also mistaken in dismissing all those who point to the growing mood of authoritarianism of the past eight years over the past eight years as heirs of the intellectuals of the Communist period… poignantly described by Czeslaw Milos as “captive minds”. Whilst he may not like ‘liberal’ or ‘libertarian’ thinking, he is himself guilty of the same lazy thinking which places all legitimate democratic criticism as Left-Liberal or Leftist. He argues that In a post-Communist country like Hungary many intellectuals are still in a state of “captive mind”. He acknowledges that this may seem ‘Paradoxical’, but does not confront the central conundrum to which I have already referred, that the current antagonism towards Left-Liberalism in Hungary would seem to be the product of the eighty years of authoritarianism, ending in fascist and communist dictatorships which Hungarians endured, through few if any faults of their own. The twenty years of transition to 2010 were hardly enough for Hungary to take its place as a European liberal democracy, in the broadest meaning of that term. Libertarians are, by definition, not ‘captive minds’ but ‘free thinkers’, and the only ‘Method’ they employ is, in Aristotelian terms, their willingness to entertain ideas without necessarily accepting them. If they are not convinced by ideas from within Hungary or from outside, why should they be expected to accept them? The coalition may have won the election, but it would still seem, on the evidence of results themselves, to have a major task before it in winning over large sections of public opinion within Hungarian society, including those who are naturally conservative in social matters. The simple repetition of campaign mantras will not be sufficient to achieve that and ‘libertarianism’ should not be confused with ‘liberalism’ in this respect. 

Populists, Realists & Utopians:

Certainly, all European political thinkers and politicians need to concern themselves with the current perceived revolt against ‘liberal democracy’, including that in the name of a rather dim concept of “illiberal democracy” as voiced by Viktor Orbán. The populist ‘revolt’ against ‘liberal democracy’ if that is, indeed, what the political events of the last decade represent, has to be set in the historical context of the development of pluralistic, liberal democracies across Europe and America over the past century and a half. These histories reveal that there is more than one way of developing an independent and inter-dependent nation-state within a variety of supra-national structures. As Lánczi himself suggests, the common element to all of these experiments with liberal democracy is the concept of a ‘social contract’. This contract may or may not be expressed on a solitary piece of parchment or paper, but it has to be continually renewed and refreshed. Lánczi rightly points out that élites fail to respect this mostly unwritten rule at their peril. He claims, with some justification, that…

… Most public intellectuals are… inclined to forget that in order to run a society you need to ensure the majority of votes, and this job is more than endless moralising and playing out the authority of the intellectuals. It is easier to denigrate the succesful politician as “populist” than to work for the active support of the people, and suffer intellectually for the more profound understanding of the conditions of the world.

To that we may add that to be ‘populist’ does not mean being right or wrong, but being in the moment. However, sooner or later, the ‘populist’ politician – whether of the Right, Left or Centre – must also deal with truths which are not simply contemporary or contextual, but timeless and universal, especially if they claim to be Christian Democrats. After all, these are what give us the fundamental notion of a social contract, made up of basic absolute rights and duties. Politicians may be in the moment in responding to popular concerns, but they are not ‘of it’, and they must use their wider experience, wisdom and judgement to create sound public policy. ‘Populist’ should not be an insult or even a negative label for an ‘unprincipled’ form of politics. It might even be a compliment for a less dogmatic approach to governing. But by itself ‘Populism’, like ‘Patriotism’ (to paraphrase Edith Cavell), is not enough. Any teacher will tell you that being popular with students will only go so far in winning their respect and promoting their success. Sometimes the ‘tough love’ approach of stating the unpalatable truth is required. In dealing with the masses, politicians sometimes need to remember this. Majorities are, in any case, made up of minorities who may not all want the same thing, as the difficulty over the ‘Brexit’ vote shows, and – even if they do – the strength of a libertarian democracy is not revealed in its rewarding of the majority, but in the respect it shows to the minority/ minorities. That is how it will form new majorities in the future, by going beyond ‘Populist Majoritarianism’. Otherwise, like the ‘Bolsheviks’ (the ‘Majoritarians’ in Russian) we end up with ‘popular’ dictatorship rather than any recognizable form of democracy.

Another ‘obsession’ which Lánczi seems to possess is the idea that there is an irresolvable dichotomy between the development of the nation-state and transnational organisations as agents of the political community. In practical terms, there are certainly tensions, of which we are only too well aware, but such tensions can also be creative and constructive. Lánczi argues that the nation-state has legally, socially and culturally determined limits or boundaries and that only economic development exists outside these boundaries as an activity to be regulated by supra-national mechanisms. In doing so, he posits both a false dichotomy and an abstract, artificial division of the aspects of governance. In reality, it is impossible to separate the social, cultural and economic dimensions of human activity, whether local or global. He quotes those who argue that if the dominant nation-state system of the day remains the only political framework, the global economic and technological developments would prevail without any political control. In the era of global finance, mass media, mass migration, advancing new technologies and ecological trauma, they argue that we have to create transnational organisations capable of operating on the same scale. The current political system, they say, needs to be supplemented with global financial regulations in order to control economic globalisation, which is still dangerously unregulated. The political infrastructure required to complete globalisation has not even been conceived of, they argue. In particular, Lánczi highlights several of Rana Dasgupta’s references to Viktor Orbán in which the former observes that…

 … similar varieties of populism are erupting in many countries. Several have noted the parallels in style and substance between leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan … Like Putin or Orbán, Trump imbues citizenship with new martial power, and makes a big show of withholding it from people who want it: what is scarcer, obviously, is more precious.  

Lánczi argues that the dominant view on Orbán’s policy in the ‘world press’ is embedded in a context biased towards the mainstream ‘liberal’ interpretations of politics, that ‘liberal democracy’ is good and that ‘the idea of progress’ should triumph in all debates. He claims that “populism” should be viewed as a political paradigm which presents a new model of democracy which is neither liberal nor demagogic, in which the focus has been removed from the ‘liberal intellectuals’ and ‘expert institutions’ to the people and their concept of ‘leadership’. ‘Populists’ are therefore seen by him as realists, concerned with the actual framework of political developments, common sense judgements and the actual series of events in the past narrative. ‘Liberals’, on the other hand, are ‘utopians’, seeking to convince the electorate about the most desirable outcomes to be achieved in the future.

The ‘Realist View’  begins by pointing out that Fidesz got 650,000 more votes in 2018 than in 2014 and had 336,000 more votes than total votes of the opposition parties. The people voted for Orbán in an undisputable proportion and manner after two terms full of reforms and decisions, all derived from political principles, and amid what Lánczi regards as an often rude and threatening international reception. From this point of view, he asserts, Communism and today’s liberal democracy are easy ideological bedfellows since both allow utopian ideas to occupy the arena of practical politics. Both Communism and liberalism are not just utopian ideologies, but both claim that they know what is to come and therefore what is to be done. This explains how an arch anti-Communist like Viktor Orbán could also become anti-liberal in the sense of the reaction against all forms of modernism. However, this analysis ignores the accepted definitions of both ‘classical’ and ‘radical’ liberalism in western Europe, as they evolved in the practical political contexts of the previous century and a half, for more than half of which Hungary was under the authoritarian rule of varying descriptions. If there is a misunderstanding here between ‘East’ and ‘West’, it is certainly a mutual one.

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In any case, the ‘reality’ is that Orbán’s disagreements with those he identifies as ‘liberals’ in the 1990s, to which Lánczi himself refers in his essay, were far from being ideological in nature. My recollection of the SZDSZ (the ‘Free Democrats’) in 1990-94 was that they were neither ‘classical’ nor ‘radical’ liberals, in British terms neither Gladstonian nor Lloyd Georgian, a remark I made to the late Charles Kennedy MP when I met him in the early nineties on his visit to Hungary as their guest (he later became the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Britain). It was Fidesz who, at that time, was seen as the ‘Young Liberal’ party of Hungary. The ‘SZDSZ’ were commonly spoken and written about, in the Hungarian English language press at least, as being ‘Thatcherite’ free-marketeer centrists. In that sense, in western terms, they were economic neo-liberals, but we were careful not to use too many western descriptors for the politics of post-Communist Hungary. It would be more accurate to say that they were in favour of a complete opening up and deregulation of the Hungarian economy at that time, whereas other parties were more concerned to cushion to blows to employment and social benefits which might result from the conversion to capitalism. Their decision to go into coalition with the MSZP (Socialist Party) in 1994, abandoning Fidesz, was born not to ideology but out of the need to manage the economic and social transition at that time. Like the Socialists, they recognised that political and cultural transition would have to wait until after Hungary had joined the EU, which it did in 2004, securing the economic assistance that it needed. But the young Viktor Orbán never forgave them for this ‘betrayal’ of the ‘liberals’, and thus began his journey to the ‘hard right’ and an alliance with the centre-right Christian Democrats.

Aftermath & Analysis – What’s Left for the Left?

Orbán certainly won the 2018 election with evenly distributed votes from every category of society – blue-collar workers, intellectuals, rural workers, and middle-class professionals. He also won among both religious and non-religious voters and across all demographic groups.  But not all of Hungary voted for the victors in the election, and even those who did didn’t all support the fulfilment of the entire Fidesz programme if indeed we can call it such. In fact, Fidesz did not produce election programmes in either the 2014 or 2018 elections. In 2014 Orbán simply sent out a message, We Carry On! In the last election, the main slogan was For Us, Hungary is First! Otherwise, all the Fidesz posters and publicity were simply anti-immigration, re-running the government plebiscite campaign (‘national consultation exercise’) of a few months earlier. Lánczi maintains, rather unconvincingly,  that the lack of an explicit programme or set of promises did not mean that Orbán had no policies to present to the electorate. Apparently, he has central goals which are continually defined and re-defined in his frequent talks about ideas. In his ‘acceptance speech’, the returned PM was able for once to be magnanimous and statesmanlike rather than triumphalist. In an article that otherwise stresses the legitimacy conferred on the new government by the vote, Gáspár Gróh draws a cautionary lesson for both Fidesz and its Prime Minister:

The voter turnout of some seventy per cent suggests that the government enjoys the active support of about one-third of Hungarian society. This shows that humility would not be out of line. In order to secure the survival of the nation and accomplish the momentous tasks it faces, we need even broader co-operation. Indeed, the most complex and most daunting task of the new-old administration lies in figuring out how to convert its overwhelming parliamentary majority into winning the support of society on a similar scale.

Many on the Hungarian Left have perhaps been too quick to denounce their own leaders as more responsible than Fidesz for the landslide result. After all, there was no landslide in Budapest, where Fidesz had done badly even in those middle-class areas where the former MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) had predominated in the past. The victory had been largely achieved in the countryside, with its small provincial towns and cities, than among the conservative metropolitan intelligentsia, many of whom had voted for minor parties. The wholesale victory in the countryside was the product of an eight-year project of the party network to take control of the local institutions; town and county halls, schools and churches, through a system of popular patronage and quiet coercion which would have been the envy of Kádár’s cadres. Those who do not declare for Fidesz are not necessarily declared to be against the ruling party, but those who are known to be opposed to it find themselves moved sideways or even demoted. I have watched this happen over the past eight years in the significant provincial town where I live and work, where the opposition has been cowed and the ruling party’s control is now almost absolute, so much so that, as an almost inevitable product of this evolution, in-fighting has broken out in its ranks since the election victory.

Following the election, there were two further demonstrations in Budapest, all three having the aim of getting the elections annulled, gradually shrinking in size. Then the disgruntled intellectuals put their placards away for another four years. Opposition politicians have now, generally, backed away from challenging the result and started the painful process of internal blood-letting, demanding that their own parties look critically at themselves and why they lost. Meanwhile, oblivious to all that, the tourists continue to flock in and with the added support of EU loans, and the re-building is continuing, both in the capital and the countryside. The false boom continues, with no sign of bust in sight as long as Fidesz and Viktor Orbán can stay on the ‘right’ side of the Conservatives and Christian Democrats in the rest of Europe who subsdise their project of constructing illiberal Hungary.

As Gróh points out, however, we have become, sadly, inured to American-style negative campaigning, and increasingly accept that, in the populist era we live in, campaigns do not cease when the elections are over. Almost inevitably, a new one begins just as the previous one has ended. In Hungary, this is not quite the norm, but we are now ‘looking forward’ to two other rounds of elections within the space of just a year: one being for the EU Parliament, and the other in local elections, both of which extend the franchise to other EU nationals living here. Any appeasement by Fidesz will not, therefore, last long. Gróh suggests that it would be vain to expect the sentiments to subside or to hope for an impending period of calm, peaceful governance and an attendant constructive political rivalry focused on real substantial issues. ‘Campaign psychosis’  will continue to define the public discourse in Hungary for the foreseeable future. Fidesz will continue to retain its clinch on the majority of the middle classes with nationalist leanings and of regressive persuasions, as well as win over voters from other camps.

Gróh suggests that, despite their self-flagellation, there was little the opposition parties could do to shore up a united front in order to oust the government. In doing so, they would have been risking winning votes from conservative-minded citizens from the Right by offering them right-wing policies with which other centre-left parties could not agree. This would likely have produced an even more serious haemorrhaging of votes to the centre-right parties. This was particularly the case with the centre-left LMP’s strategy. In any case, the re-election of the ruling Fidesz-led coalition could easily be predicted from the fact that the Hungarian Forint exchange rate had shown no appreciable fluctuation as election day neared. International markets, always sensitive to major political changes, was clearly banking on the ‘devil’ they knew being returned to power. Nevertheless, Gróh maintains that the opposition parties were prevented from winning by their own incompetence, as the leaders like Ferenc Gyúrcsány, the former Prime Minister (pictured on the right, below), have been ready to admit. Altogether, the centre-left opposition parties garnered 320,000 fewer votes in 2018 than in 2014.

A partial agreement between MSZP and DK – Hungarian Spectrum

The reasons for this sharp decline are complicated, but Lánczi suggests that it is because both the post-Communist left and the liberals have always looked to the West to borrow ideas indiscriminately from and implement them on home soil. He claims that the merging of liberal and ‘leftist’ ideologies has resulted in an emaciated content of leftism based on the amelioration of the free market and “capitalism” through redistributive policies. Yet, these have always been the policies of the centre-left in Hungary since the 1990s, as the Communist period, for all its faults, had already provided a universal, comprehensive if basic, health, social welfare and education system from ages three to eighteen. There was little left for social democrats and liberals to achieve. However, gender egalitarianism can hardly be dismissed as the latest liberal idea to be imported from the West. Surely it is a matter of universal ‘Common Sense’ that fifty per cent of the population of any country should enjoy equal rights with its other half? A century-long campaign for female emancipation, equal rights and equal pay is hardly a leftist fad. It is a political priority for all mainstream parties across Europe, in government or in opposition, if no longer in the US. If by gender Gróh is referring to more recent demands for transgender rights he may have a point, but the assertion of these has met resistance from feminists, liberal or otherwise, on the grounds that it threatens hard-won women’s rights to female-only spaces in society.

Gróh is probably more justified in his assertion that Conservative ideas have become more attractive in Europe recently, partly because much of the agenda of the left has been fulfilled in many of its liberal democracies, and partly because social conservatism, as distinct from political ‘Conservatism’ is a resurgent though not dominant force in many of them. Orbán’s Conservatism, based on regained national pride and a re-interpretation of Hungarian history (which has sometimes ignored, distorted or falsified the facts, however), is not so different from changes underway in politics elsewhere, though these can hardly be described, yet, as epoch-making. Whether the legitimate concerns, both within Hungary itself and in the EU, about his apparent unwillingness to maintain a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, will now evaporate remains to be seen and will largely depend on whether he now abandons his efforts to restrict the freedom and pluralism of the press and media and demonstrates his commitment to the independence of the judiciary.

Migration, the EU & Economic Policy:

Orbán Viktor miniszterelnök távozik az Európai Unió csúcsértekezletének végén, a 2015. október 16-ra virradó éjjel(MTI/EPA/Laurent Dubrule)

The key to the success of the Fidesz-Christian Democrat (KDNP) coalition had little to do with their performance in government, but much to do with its ability to campaign effectively. Consequently, their main campaign message was not about their achievements over the previous two consecutive terms, but on a platform built on their handling of the single issue of mass migration, and their handling of it during and after the summer of 2016, when large numbers of Syrian asylum seekers and migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan crossed Hungary and Austria en route to Germany and Northern Europe. In reality, this had been an issue of transit, which was temporarily resolved by Angela Merkel and the German government when it opened its borders to those crossing Hungary on their ‘Great Trek’ across the Balkans. Most of these ‘migrants’ had been in refugee camps in Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, having fled from the war across the border. Many of them were professional people and students in the process of gaining qualifications. When the war showed no signs of being brought to an end after three years, and with the advent of the Islamist Caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, they gave up hope of returning home, determining instead to pursue their aspirations in western Europe. In doing so, they were following a natural impulse to secure human rights that those in Europe take for granted. In reality, very few had any intention of settling in Hungary, and to this date there are only a small number of them in the Hungarian capital, running successful businesses and services.

Nevertheless, the experience of the ‘Great Trek’, with its bottle-necks at the railway stations in Budapest, haunted the Hungarian imagination, with its folk-memory of the Ottoman occupation of centuries before, and led to the building of a ‘steel curtain’ along Hungary’s thousand-kilometre Balkan borders and its claim to be protecting ‘Christian Europe’ from ‘marauding Muslims’. Of course, much of this argument was ‘fake’, drawing on the Islamophobia which has been on the increase since 9/11, and some would argue since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ongoing wars with the Taliban in Afghanistan since then. As Hungary has no recent experience of interaction with Islamic cultures itself, references were made to isolated incidents of loss of control in German cities, to the social and cultural problems of integrating so many migrants, the situation at Calais and the Islamist terror attacks in Brussels, Barcelona, Paris, London and Manchester. The coalition parties in Hungary simply used the more recent tidal wave of Islamophobia hitting Europe to retain the upper hand they had gained on the issue of migration in 2016. This in itself was enough to lock in the coalition’s victory for the third time running, and since the election there has been no let-up in this anti-Muslim rhetoric and propaganda at every level, and especially in the government-controlled press and media.

In the election, no reference to the government’s record on the economy was required since the influx of EU funds had disguised its shortcomings to control inflation and improve wages and living standards among ordinary Hungarians. Had the election been fought on this record, Gróh comments, it would hardly have sufficed for the kind of sweeping victory we have seen. The Fidesz-KDNP coalition pulled of its ‘hat-trick’ with unprecedented mass backing on the ‘fake’ issue of migration, though with almost a third of voters staying at home.

The latter-day exodus to Europe in recent years is a historic challenge far too momentous to be considered as a mere campaign theme. The phenomenon has increasingly come to shape the outcome of elections across Europe, most recently in Italy. Gróh believes that this will continue, with implications for peace and prosperity in Europe. The corollary global issues of environmental damage, overconsumption and the impending demographic collapse of native populations are provoking the most general intellectual crisis in Europe since the seventeenth century. These emerging global issues emerging in recent years have now manifested themselves in more than just the influx of the masses from the destitute and war-torn continents in search of a better life. Nevertheless, they are ‘external’ to national elections since the problems they create can neither be solved nor even contained at a purely national level. They are beyond the control of national governments, which are only capable of mitigating the effects on their populations.

Although its seemingly tough stance on immigration policy was a clear vote-winner, in reality, the coalition government has little control over this issue independent from the other twenty-seven EU member states, acting in concert. It remains to be seen whether, and for how long, Hungary can continue to ignore its obligations as a member state to accept its quota of asylum seekers without jeopardising its central funding from the EU, or whether it can engineer an alternative, less humane strategy with other central European states and the recently elected Eurosceptic government in Italy. Viktor Orbán is making overtures to former Yugoslav and Balkan states, but many of these are not yet integrated into the EU, and are unlikely to be accepted any time soon. They are also suspicious of Orbán’s long-stated goal of reasserting Hungary’s influence in countries which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a century ago, and still have significant though dwindling, ethnic Hungarian populations. This remains a major ‘plank’ of the nationalist government’s foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the re-election of Hungary’s incumbent government bodes well for bolstering the leverage of the revived Central European co-operation of the ‘Vísegrád’ countries as a means of seeking answers to strategic regional questions rather than simply as a means of ‘Saying No to Brussels’, another of the campaign slogans. The consolidation of central Europe as a distinct region within the EU should be welcomed by the western European states as it has far-reaching consequences for the European continent as a whole. As Gróh comments, however, the psychology of campaigns will continue to override the otherwise desirable limits of sober public affairs and responsibility. Meanwhile, Hungary still has its own internal problems to confront, some of which may have a European dimension or context, but most of which are distinctly within the control of the government. It is not enough that the Orbán governments had to cope with the economic problems it inherited in 2010, including the spiralling triple debt traps at personal, corporate and national levels, the passivity of overall society, the unjust distribution of tax and national insurance, and corporate and structural forms of corruption. Voters tend only to be really irritated by individual instances of corruption, even though these are dwarfed by entrenched corruption on a structural level, even now. The institutionalised corruption of the 1990s has now fallen into oblivion, and the danger for the current ‘régime’ is that, in continuing to utilise the campaigning tactic of blaming past administrations for the loss of billions of forint to the national treasury, it will increasingly draw the spotlight onto individual ‘oligarchs’ among its own associates and their corporate relations.

Certainly, it took a major effort by the Orbán governments to overcome institutionalised corruption between 2010 and 2018 and to dislodge the labour market and domestic consumption from stagnation, setting the country on a path to growing wages and bringing about a period of prosperity for some of its citizens. Hungary has yet to reach this destination for most of its citizens, however, and without prosperity, none of the problems in the public services can be solved, especially in health and education, because the new tax structure restricts its revenue. The foreign-exchange loans for housing purposes taken out before 2008 have finally been paid off with the help of the financial measures of the last Orbán government. Wages have risen steadily in the private sectors, and the government has begun to address the gap between those sectors and the public services, especially for teachers. Higher wages at home may yet have the ancillary benefit of keeping more of the workforce from seeking better wages in other EU countries, and in persuading those who have already done so to return. Higher earnings and tax incentives at home may enable more citizens to enter the housing market, enabling them to pay the rent or the mortgage without their dwelling becoming their only asset.

Much remains to be done in closing the gap for regions and social groups lagging behind, and in improving demographic trends and family policy, and it is in these areas, as much as in the restoration and retention of Hungary’s unique cultural values, that the next general election will most likely be fought. In other words, on the legacy of the Orbán administration in every area that matters in the life of a modern nation and which is within the control of its national government. All of this may be taken care of by the two-third parliamentary majority of the newly re-elected coalition, which is surely enough for good governance, but will it prefer to continue its shadow-boxing with external issues and policies it has a say in, but no real control over?

Orbán’s Goals – Family, Sovereignty & Community:

Miklós K. Radványi: “Open letter to Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary”  – Hungarian Spectrum

So, what are the central goals of the new Órban government? Lánczi has read between the lines of the PM’s speeches to identify three central ‘areas’ from which the star striker will aim to score: ‘Family’, ‘Sovereignty’ and what he calls a meritorious moral system based on a shift to an ethic of individual responsibility. The first two areas are nothing new in Fidesz’s programme. Lánczi admits that the idea of ‘family’ has played a central role in all of Orbán’s governments, affecting economic, financial, social and educational policies. The fundamental political idea was framed in the new Hungarian Fundamental Law (or ‘constitutional amendment’) of 2011:

Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation.

This places great emphasis on the role of the nation-state in ‘family affairs’ and what many would consider as being ‘private matters’ and questions of individual, universal human rights. In particular, the question of mutual recognition of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships across the member states of the EU under this law has not been addressed either in the Hungarian Parliament or in the General Election. Lánczi agrees that the Law, in general terms, runs counter to developments within the EU, although decisions on social matters are still considered to be the territory of the individual states. Many have eulogised Orbán for his ‘courage’ in this respect, particularly among socially-conservative religious people, but even among these it needs to be questioned whether the institution of Christian marriage needs to be protected and ‘enshrined’ in the law of the land, or whether the state should simply continue to concentrate on the legal requirements and relationships of marriage in the secular sphere. The Law, as currently written, may yet lead to lead to an unnecessary conflict over the rights of EU citizens resident in Hungary to have their legal relationships recognised here, with implications for property and pension rights in particular. Nevertheless, as Lánczi points out, the centrality of the family in the policies of the ruling party has important demographic motivations:

Almost all European countries have been facing the economic, social and cultural consequences of their declining populations. The smaller a nation is, the less likely they are to share the view of bigger nations’ seemingly comfortable solution to the problem: migration.

However, Lánczi then poses another false dichotomy, between the individual and the family as the smallest unit of society. The former leads, he suggests, to the organisation of society into a liberal democracy, whereas the latter leads to the strengthening of the nation-state. Viktor Orbán, he claims, is one of the few European political leaders who can see the correlation between the weakening institution of the family and the growing antipathy against the idea of the nation. But are the western liberal democracies really weakening the institution of marriage and the family by opening it up to a broader interpretation of what a family actually is, or can be, in modern society? Leaving aside religious concerns, at least for a minute, does the exact gender formation of a family really matter in societal and demographic terms? Evidence published to date suggests a negative answer, although we have yet to see the longer-term effects of changes in marriage law on wider society.

There is also a bigger social ‘demographic’ issue which we might refer to, in colloquial terms, as the elephant in the room. It could be argued that an insistence on one ‘traditional’ model of ‘the nuclear family’ might be detrimental to another ‘traditional’ model, still prevalent in Hungary, that of the ‘extended’ family. In placing all the emphasis on nation-state help for 2.4 children, are we not in danger of marginalizing the increasing numbers of elderly people, many of them living alone or in care homes, rather than with younger family members? At the same time, where is the help for those family members who are willing and able to care for their parents at home, in addition to continuing to care for their own children as well as holding down full-time employment? Surely, they need to be encouraged to remain economically active. In Hungary, as elsewhere, and as a member of such a family, I don’t see this support as forthcoming. Perhaps that will be the next step in the government’s family-friendly policies. It is certainly long overdue, and a challenge that needs somehow to be confronted.

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On the question of ‘sovereignty’, a term which also continues to be much in use in the ‘Brexit’ debates, Lánczi has pointed out that this concept has been a central ‘instrument’ of the Orbán governments. Among his early campaign slogans, Orbán used the statement, Small victory, little changes; big victory, big changes! We might balance this with the concept employed in many other European democracies, The bigger the majority, the greater the respect shown to minorities! However, this concept is unlikely to find its way into Orbán’s political vocabulary. On the other hand, the people’s will has to be assessed not only by pure numbers but also, according to his supporters, by the intensity of emotions, expectations and passions expressed.

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Sovereignty, the wielding of power on behalf of the people, needs to meet two criteria: the reasonableness of the political goals and the reliability of the political background. Orbán drew a lesson from his 2002 defeat that it was not enough to have popular goals and policies, but that he must organise the political machinery without which the leader would turn out to be a mere puppet of the civil service, very soon losing control over political developments. In particular, however, the issue of sovereignty which has preoccupied the administration since 2016 has been that of whether the EU or the Hungarian state should have the largest measure of sovereignty in the management of the mass migration across the member states. As mentioned elsewhere in this essay, there seems to be little prospect of a resolution to this issue in the near future.

Until the 2008 economic crisis the moral foundations of liberal democracy, “justice as fairness” and human rights had no viable alternative. Political arguments were supposed to be based on the idea that there were certain inalienable rights which every individual should be able to enjoy. But the monopoly of the modern liberal interpretation of rights is being widely challenged, not least in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Here, the renewed basis for political discourse involves the resuscitation of the traditional moral ties which are seen as binding Hungarian society together in the face of external threats and challenges. Egalitarian concepts of justice, both post-Communist and liberal, still have a strong grip on society, but it is increasingly questioned whether western individual-based moralities can and will hold the Hungarian nation-state and the European Union together. Lánczi argues that the emphasis has now shifted from one on the rights of the individual in society to the rights of the community. According to him, rights are nothing if there is no community that warrants them. The primary issue is, therefore, the unity of the community in which individuals can trust each other to a reasonable extent. In particular, Lánczi questions whether immigrants should expect to immediately be given the same rights as natives in the communities to which they move.

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Apparently, Orbán believes in the evolution of a system of ‘meritorious moral relationships’ in which individuals are given rights only when they have fulfilled their obligations. In other words, individuals must ‘fit in’ and integrate themselves into the community first before the latter will ‘reward’ them with rights. This effectively turns rights into privileges which must be earned. Rights are no longer absolute or universal, as in the ‘classical liberal’ sense, but  ‘mutual merits’ defined relative to a national or local moral code which is seen as the basis of the harmony between the individual and the community.  In Hungary, this is the basis for the lowering of personal income tax to 15% for all. Those who work more and risk more are rewarded. There is no longer any system of graduated taxation in which the richer pay a higher proportion of their income to support the poorer in the community. In addition, those on social benefits are required to do ‘workfare’, performing tasks for the community in return for those benefits. So the central moral virtues in Hungary are the ‘senses’ of obligation and responsibility, and individual rights are regarded as being dependent on them. This is seen as the secret of an illiberal morality which underpins Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy. It is therefore incumbent on newcomers to ‘discover’ this secret since expectations are not always clearly articulated or, indeed, static.

Again, this reveals a fundamental misreading of the first principles of classical liberal democracy, in which there has always been an understanding between individuals and the state of the need to balance rights and responsibilities or obligations, and to earn or merit privileges. However, in European liberal democracies, there has also always been, at least since the seventeenth century, an understanding that there are certain fundamental human rights which are either believed to be God-given or part of the social contract between the state and the individual. In addition, there is the question as to how ‘merits’ are to be valued and rewarded, and who determines what these should be and how they should be awarded, assuming that the concept of “justice as fairness” still applies. Otherwise, society is in danger of being dragged back into moral relativism, or an essentially Medieval morality underpinning a system of feudal patronage in which ‘rights and dues’ are determined and arbitrated by an individual ‘lord’. This renewed social contract between ‘the people’ and Viktor Orbán is therefore founded on a new top-down ‘meritorious’ moral code.

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Wherever Next then… ?

For the time being, at least, ‘Leftists’ and ‘Liberals’ are not popular in Hungary, seen as being in the pay of alien forces. What Lánczi refers to as the intellectually exhausted post-Communist Left and the dogmatic liberals have been marginalised within the new national community. If these principles and processes ring alarm bells for western democrats, Lánczi assures us that Orbán’s political model has managed to see off both leftist and rightist radicalism. His politics, we are told, is about the political centre defined in terms of national history and identity, the Christian context of our way of living, and a view of the good life. This is what provides the stable political background against which the people’s aspirations can be fulfilled by their governers. Perhaps, in time, there may also be a coral growth of more popular centrists, as in France, whether progressive liberals or pro-European social democrats, untainted by past associations. The Centre-Right also shows signs of splitting into Christian conservatives and more radical nationalists, led by ‘Jobbik’, who still attracted one million voters out of 5.6 million. But the reactionary and regressive elements in political life, both local and national, are likely to remain in control for much of the next four years, and perhaps beyond. They are deeply entrenched in Hungarian society, and it will take a seismic shift among younger generations, including those returning from abroad, to supplant them. The next four years will be crucial to Hungary’s survival as an open, pluralistic democracy at the heart of Europe.

Sources:

Gyula Kodolányi & John O’Sullivan (eds.) (May 2018), Hungarian Review, Vol. IX,  No. 3. Articles by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi; essay by Nicholas T. Parsons; editorial note by John O’Sullivan.        

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