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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Western Armistice of November 1918 and its Aftermath in Britain & its Empire.   Leave a comment

Celebrating the Armistice in Britain:

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Londoners celebrating the Armistice.

Even before the Armistice was signed on the Western Front, there was a clattering down of thrones in Europe, and the world was a little dazed by the sound and dust which this created. But to those thrones that endured – in Britain, Belgium and Italy – the peoples turned, as they had always done, to the symbols of liberty for which they had always fought. On 11th November great crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace, following a common impulse, and the King and Queen appeared on the balcony to receive such an acclamation as had rarely greeted the sovereigns of an unemotional people. The writer H. G. Wells described military trucks riding around London picking up anyone who wanted a ride to anywhere, and ‘vast vacant crowds’ consisting mostly of students, schoolchildren, the middle-aged and the old, and home-front soldiers choking the streets: Everyone felt aimless, with a kind of strained and aching relief. A captured German gun carriage was thrown on to a bonfire of ‘Hun’ trophies in Trafalgar Square.  Vera Brittain, who had left Oxford University to be a Red Cross nurse witnessed the jubilant atmosphere of Armistice Day, drawn out from the hospital where she was working to observe the celebrations with mixed emotions, including a chilly gloom resulting from the realisation that almost all her best friends were dead and that she would be facing the future without them. She later wrote about her memories of it, and those she had lost in the war, in her biography, Testament of Youth (1933). She noticed that…

When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 a.m. … the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: “We’ve won the War!” They only said: “The War is over.”

From Millbank I heard the maroons crash with terrifying clearness, and, like a sleeper who is determined to go on dreaming after being told to wake up, I went on automatically washing the dressing bowls in the annex outside my hut. Deeply buried beneath my consciousness there stirred a vague memory of a letter that I had written to Roland in those legendary days when I was still at Oxford …

But on Armistice Day not even a lonely survivor drowning in black waves of memory could be left alone with her thoughts. A moment after the guns had subsided into sudden, palpitating silence, the other VAD from my ward dashed excitedly into the annex.

“Brittain! Brittain! Did you hear the maroons? It’s over – it’s all over! Do lets come out and see what’s happening!” …

Late that evening … a group of elated VADs … prevailed upon me to join them. Outside the Admiralty a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis. … Wherever we went a burst of enthusiastic cheering greeted our Red Cross uniform, and complete strangers adorned with wound stripes rushed up and shook me warmly by the hand. …

I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were my contemporaries.

For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over, a new age was beginning, but the dead were dead and would never return.   

On the late afternoon of Armistice Day, in the wet November dusk, the King and Queen drove in a simple open carriage through the city of London, almost unattended and wholly unheralded. The merrymakers left their own occupations to cheer, and crowds accompanied the carriage through the newly lit streets, running beside it and shouting friendly greetings. It was an incident which interpreted the meaning of a ‘People’s King’. Next morning, 12 November 1918, ‘Victory’ dawned upon a western world too weary even for comprehension. The crescendo of the final weeks had dazed minds as ordinary people could not grasp the magnitude of a war which had dwarfed all other, earlier conflicts, and had depleted the world of life to a far greater extent than centuries of invasions, conflicts and wars put together. There were some eight million dead combatants in addition to twenty-five million non-combatants worldwide. In Britain, the figures were too astronomical to have much meaning – nearly ten million men in arms from the Empire as a whole, of whom over three million were wounded, missing or dead. At least seven hundred thousand British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another hundred and fifty thousand were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some three hundred thousand children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out.

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But the statistics of the conflict, meticulously recorded by the War Office to the very last man and the very last minute of the war, convey nothing of the sheer agonising misery of the limbless, blinded, deformed and shell-shocked survivors from the Western Front. John Buchan, journalist and war correspondent, commented that the ordinary citizen…

… could only realise that he had come, battered and broken, out of a great peril, and that his country had not been the least among the winners of the victory.

The newspaper headlines from around the world were:

Great War Ends

Chicago Daily Tribune

Armistice Signed, End of the War!

The New York Times

Germany Gives Up: War Ends at 2 p.m.

New York Journal

Germany Signs Armistice

Sydney Morning Herald

The World War At An End

Yorkshire Telegraph and Star

Allies Drastic Armistice Terms to Huns

How London Hailed the End of War

The Daily Mirror

Peace!

Greatest Day In All History Being Celebrated

The Ogden Standard (Utah)

World Celebrates Return of Peace, End of Autocracy

Oregon Journal

Germany Surrenders

New Zealand Herald

War is Over

The Washington Times

Armistice Is Signed

The Toronto Daily News

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Britain’s fleet had conducted the blockade which sapped the enemy’s strength and had made possible the co-operation of Allies separated by leagues of ocean. Its wealth had borne the main financial burden of the alliance. Its armies, beginning from small numbers, had grown to be the equal of any in the world, in training, discipline and leadership. Moreover, the resolution shown by the British forces and people had been a bulwark to all her confederates in the darkest hours. Such had always been Britain’s record in European wars. At the beginning of the war, Germany had regarded it as a soft, pacifistic power already on the decline. It had come to a decision slowly, entered the war unwillingly, but then waged it with all the strength and determination it could muster and did not slacken until its aims had been achieved.

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The next few days and weeks were pregnant with ceremonial events. On the 12th the King and Queen went solemn procession to St. Paul’s to return thanks to the ‘Giver’ of victory. In the following week, they drove through all the districts of London and paid a brief visit to Scotland. On the 27th, the King visited France. He had been on the battlefield during the final offensive of 8th August and was now able to examine the ground on which victory had been won and to greet his troops as they moved eastward to the German frontier, or westward to return home to Britain. In Paris, at banquets at the Élysée and the Hotel de Ville, he spoke words of gratitude and friendship to the French people. On Tuesday, 19th November, in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, he replied to the addresses of the two Houses of Parliament. In the presence of political leaders, and the great officers of State, and representatives of the overseas dominions, he expounded in simple words the debt of the nation to its fleets and armies for their achievement; the pride of Britain in her Allies; the unspectacular toil of the millions at home who had made victory possible, and the task still before the nation if a better world was to be built out of the wreckage of the old:

In what spirit shall we approach these great problems? How shall we seek to achieve the victories of peace? Can we do better than remember the lessons which the years of war have taught, and retain the spirit which they have instilled? In these years Britain and her traditions have come to mean more to us than they had ever meant before. It became a privilege to serve her in whatever way we could; and we were all drawn by the sacredness of the cause into a comradeship which fired our zeal and nerved our efforts. This is the spirit we must try to preserve. … The sacrifices made, the sufferings endured, the memory of the heroes who have died that Britain may live, ought surely to ennoble our thoughts and attune our hearts to a higher sense of individual and national duty, and to a fuller realisation of what the English-speaking race, dwelling upon the shores of all the oceans, may yet accomplish for mankind. For centuries Britain has led the world along the path of ordered freedom. Leadership may still be hers among the peoples who are seeking to follow that path. … 

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He was entitled to exhort his people in this way because he and his family had played their part in the struggle, performing hard and monotonous duties, sharing gladly in every national burden. John Buchan commented that it was also beginning to dawn on the British people that they had also been well-served, in the end, by the military leader to whom they had entrusted their ‘manhood’:

Haig could never be a popular hero; he was too reserved, too sparing of speech, too fastidious. In the early days his limitations had been obvious, but slowly men had come to perceive in him certain qualities which, above all others, the crisis required. He was a master in the art of training troops, and under his guidance had been produced some of the chief tactical developments of the campaign. He had furnished the ways and means for Foch’s strategic plans. Certain kinds of great soldier he was not, but he was the type of great soldier most needed for this situation, and he succeeded when a man of more showy endowments would have failed. Drawing comfort from deep springs, he bore in the face of difficulties a gentle and unshakable resolution. Gradually his massive patience and fortitude had impressed his efforts for the men who had fought with him won their deep and abiding affection. The many thousands who, ten years later, awaited in the winter midnight the return of the dead soldier to his own land, showed how strong was his hold upon the hearts of his countrymen.

For many others, however, his name became synonymous with the way the war was waged with a contempt for human life on a scale unparalleled in history, as well as being stamped on billions of artificial poppies. For them, his name became a byword for stupid butchery. He himself felt that every step in his plan was taken with divine help. After the Armistice, the higher ranks were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages, while the ‘other ranks’ were lucky if they had been lucky enough to survive intact, while the families of every member of the armed forces who were killed were given what became known as the ‘Death Penny’. This was actually a four-and-a-half-inch circular bronze plaque depicting Britannia, a lion and the name of the deceased. The disabled faced the future on pitiful pensions and some were reduced to the helplessness of the wounded soldier being pushed around Leicester in a pram in the picture below, taken in 1918.

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A Fit Country for Heroes? The Political Aftermath of the Armistice in Britain:

As the new minister for ‘war and air’, Winston Churchill understood the strange mix of emotions the country was feeling. He was responsible for demobilization which, before he took office, had already become a source of great anger and distress for all those who had survived the inferno. They were supposed to be discharged according to industrial and economic priorities, which inevitably meant slowly. Judging this inhuman, Churchill speeded up the rate of discharge and made wounds, age and length of service the priorities instead. But there was an outpouring of meaningless platitudes from politicians. Lloyd George proclaimed the fruits of victory with his usual eloquence in speeches like the following as the General Election approached at the end of the year, the second made in Wolverhampton on 23 November:

“Let us make the victory the motive power to link the old land in such measure that it will be nearer the sunshine than ever before and that at any rate it will lift up those who have been living in dark places to a plateau where they will get the rays of the sun.”

” … the work is not over yet – the work of the nation, the work of the people, the work of those who have sacrificed. Let us work together first. What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”

‘Never again’ and ‘homes fit for heroes’ fell easily from the tongues of those who had ‘kept the home fires burning’ while persuading others to do the fighting.

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The purpose of the politicians to maintain the same corporate national effort as had been successful in the war did them credit, but it was shallowly interpreted and led to the blunder of the 1918 Election in Britain. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. A fresh mandate from the people was required for the work of peacemaking and to continue, the war-time coalition of all parties; both worthy aims to tap the patriotism of the country. But for sitting MPs the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons from the previous May on a criticism of the Coalition Government by a distinguished staff officer, a criticism which may have been ill-timed, but was fair. Those who supported the government in that vote had been given ‘coupons’, whereas the malcontents were ‘outlawed’ as far as their candidature in the forthcoming election was concerned. The immediate consequence of this was a descent from the Prime Minister’s high words after the Armistice about a peace based on righteousness, and the need to put away base, sordid, squalid ideas of vengeance and avarice. The coupon candidates swept the board in the election and gave the government a huge working majority with 484 members (see the caption above). Labour returned fifty-nine MPs and the non-Coalition Liberals were reduced to a little more than a score.

But the mischief lay more in the conduct of the campaign than in its result. Responsible statesmen lent themselves to cries about “hanging the Kaiser” and extracting impossible indemnities from Germany. Britain stood before the world as the exponent of the shoddiest form of shallow patriotism, instead of the reasoned generosity which was the true temper of the nation. The result of the election produced one of the least representative parliaments in British political history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, more like a chamber of commerce than a House of Commons. It did not represent the intelligence, experience or wisdom of the British people since it was mainly an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. It also left out certain vital elements of opinion, which as a consequence were driven underground. It mirrored the nation at its worst and did much to perpetuate its vengeful mood. The feverish vulgarities of the election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and engineers, and made infinitely harder the business of economic reconstruction. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been held in abeyance during the War and which could not afford any decline in esteem at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutional politics to more revolutionary ideas, attitudes and methods, as apparent on the continent.

The returned prime minister’s aspirations and promises were not met or fulfilled, and by 1919, the euphoria of victory was replaced by reality as the ex-servicemen found that their old jobs in fields and factories were no longer available. There followed a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst returning servicemen who often found themselves unemployed, as did many women who had worked in the munitions factories and other engineering works during the war. At the same time, the number of trade unionists had risen to its highest level since 1912 and the second highest since figures were kept in 1893. Trade Unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the ‘demobbed’ servicemen. The post-war boom was suddenly replaced by a trade slump, throwing many more out of work. The number of unemployed reached two million in 1921, and ex-servicemen stood on street corners selling matches, playing the barrel organ and singing for pennies. Some remembrance events were disrupted by protesting ex-soldiers as the year turned, and especially on the anniversary of the armistice, which had become ‘Poppy Day’. The picture below was taken outside the British Legion offices on 11 November 1921, showing a protest by the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors’ Federation.

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Dominions, Colonies & Mandates:

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John McCrae was born in Canada in 1872 and died of pneumonia in January 1918. He was a distinguished doctor who wrote an important book on pathology. He went to Europe in 1914 as a soldier, a gunner, but was transferred to the medical service and served as a doctor in the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres. His famous poem, In Flanders Fields, appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital in Boulogne but died before he could take up his appointment. Although written and published in the early years of the war, it is one of a number of poems that in various ways manage to look at the War from a distance. McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died.

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McCrae’s poem also serves to remind us of the contributions of the British Empire’s dominions to the war on the Western Front, and the effects it had upon them. But while the British only have to be reminded of the contributions of the ANZACs and the Canadians to the war in Gallipoli and on the Western front, their ‘gratitude’ to those from what Simon Schama has called the ‘off-white empire’ has been a lot less apparent. Nearly a million Indian troops were in service, both in the ‘barracks of the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front and in the ultimately disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Official estimates of Indian losses in that campaign were put at fifty-four thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded. At least forty thousand black Africans had served as bearers and labourers in the British armies in France, as well as a larger force fighting in the colonial African theatre; their casualty rates were not properly recorded, but they are likely to have been very high.

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The contribution of Indians made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would suffice to stem the nationalist tide, which Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India (pictured right), had described in November 1917 as a seething, boiling political flood raging across the country.  For a while, the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if he had done nothing else, wrote Montagu in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.

In the middle east, a whole gamut of British interests which previously had rested fairly heavily on Turkish neutrality was imperilled, chief among them, of course, the Suez Canal and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. The Arab Revolt which began in 1916 had helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields. But this did not solve Britain’s longer-term problems of how to safeguard its middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem of how to avoid quarrelling with its friends over it. To settle these problems, the British had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman Empire would be partitioned after the war.

Then, in November 1917, the Balfour Declaration had given the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It was the kind of commitment which could only have been made in wartime when political geography was so fluid that such an artificial creation could be considered. To reassure both the Arabs and the growing number of critics at home, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arab leaders in a series of ‘declarations’ from January to November 1918.

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By the end of the war, the middle east was a tangle of promises which Britain had made to the Arabs, to the Jews, to France, and to itself. They were contradictory, although no-one knew quite how contradictory, or how intentional the contradictions had been. Words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation in the middle eastern context as much as they were in the European one. The British believed that Arab ‘independence’ was quite consistent with a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon said at the end of the war that he was quite happy to accept ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the Arab people would ‘determine in our favour’.

In October 1915, the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon had promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to encourage the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire which had begun with British military and financial help in June 1916. But in one of the reservations to Arab independence contained in ‘the MacMahon Letter’ there was ambiguity in the use of one word, which in Arabic could refer either to a district or a province, and on that ambiguity hung the fate of Palestine. The most ambiguous term of all was in the Balfour Declaration, however, because although Balfour himself was subsequently clear that he had intended the promise of a national home in Palestine for the Jews to refer to a Jewish state, on the face of it the term could be taken to mean a number of lesser things. Yet no-one pretended that all the pieces of the diplomatic puzzle could be put together in such a way as to make them fit. Curzon was sure that MacMahon had promised Palestine to the Arabs, but Balfour read the exclusion of Palestine from Arab control into MacMahon’s ‘reservation’. These were contradictions of interpretation which led, after the war, to accusations of ‘betrayal’.  T. E. Lawrence (…of Arabia), who was to accompany the Arab delegation to Paris in January 1919, claimed that it had always been evident to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would be ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he was complicit in deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose. 

The African-Near Eastern empire was much shakier in its loyalty after the war than before. In 1918, partly driven by the accumulating momentum of post-Khalifa Muslim nationalism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a delegation of Egyptian intellectuals and politicians – the wafd – asked the British authorities to set a timetable for the end of the protectorate that had been in force since 1914. The high commissioner in Egypt did not dismiss them out of hand but was not optimistic. Even this degree of cooperation was laughed at by Curzon in London as being deeply unwise. When the rejection became known, the Egyptian government resigned and there were strikes and riots, precisely the same kind of demonstrations which occurred contemporaneously in India, and with even more tragic results. Some fifteen hundred Egyptians were killed over two months of fighting between the British army and the nationalists. As in Iraq, the anti-wafd monarchy was established on the understanding that Egypt would be ‘protected’, along with the Suez Canal, by British troops. The resentment caused by these events towards the British created the context for future conflicts over Egypt and Suez, and therefore in the middle east more widely.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government after the war simply because she had promised it to them. It might keep its promise and very often it did, but if it could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was modified subsequently, was determined much more by the immediate post-war conditions – the interests, strengths and weaknesses of the different parties at that time – than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the course of the war itself. The conditions which existed at the end of 1918 determined that, in colonial terms at least, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. Britain and its allies had won the war, Germany and Turkey had lost. This meant that there were a number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, and only Britain and France were in a position to ‘snaffle them up’, as Porter (1984) has put it. Japan would be satisfied with expanding its empire in the north Pacific, the USA did not want colonies, and Italy, whose contribution to the Entente victory had been negligible, was considered by the other allies not to deserve any.

The ‘Khaki’ election of December 1918 had returned Lloyd George’s wartime coalition with an unstoppable majority; Balfour, Curzon and Milner were all in it, and they were not the kind of men to exercise self-restraint in colonial matters. Neither was Churchill, the jaw-jutting, table-pounding belligerent defender of empire, as Schama has characterised him. Nor were the leaders of the Dominions. For his part as their Prime Minister, Lloyd George was not bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists accepting whatever fell into their laps. In the final days of the conflict, Leopold Amery had soothed his conscience by emphasising that while the war had been fought over Europe, incidentally …

… if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

This was probably the interpretation of Britain’s position that most people in Britain and the Dominions shared. The first result of the war for Britain was, therefore, a considerable augmentation of its empire. The middle east was divided up almost according to the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf states and Iraq, which may at first have looked like ‘annexations’ but were not called that at the time. In 1919 at Paris, they became ‘Mandates’ under the League of Nations, which meant that they were entrusted to Britain and France to administer in the interests of their inhabitants, and with a view to their eventual independence. Nevertheless, in the short-term these territories, together with Britain’s existing protectorates in Egypt, Cyprus and Aden made up, in Porter’s words, a tidy little middle eastern empire. As a result, the British Empire was larger than it had ever been. But in adding new territories to Britain’s collection of colonies, the war had also weakened her grip on old ones. The fact that the self-governing dominions had co-operated in wartime did not necessarily mean that they wished to be shackled to the empire in peacetime. In all of them, not just in India, the experience of war had stimulated local nationalism just as much as did a common imperialism, whether among Afrikaners or French-speaking Canadians.

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The war had provoked or provided an opportunity for, a more vigorous assertion of forms of nationalism with a harder edge than had existed before it. In India, the war had given the Muslim League over to Congress, and Congress over to the extremists. Before the war there had been violence and terrorism both in India and Ireland, but the mainstream of colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress or Redmond’s Irish Home Rule Party: moderate in their aims, generally not in favour of absolute independence, and in their methods, which were constitutional. Sinn Féin in Ireland shared with Gandhi’s campaign of ‘non-cooperation’ a willingness to work unconstitutionally, outside the system. Many had assumed that the shared experience of fighting for a common cause would unite the Irish, but the unexpectedly long duration of the war changed everything. Support for the war by constitutional nationalists, and their willingness to compromise in the preceding negotiations exposed them to criticism from more extreme nationalists when the war dragged on. Dissatisfaction with the Irish Party – who sought Home Rome by constitutional means at Westminster – was galvanised by the events of Easter 1916. Ireland might possibly have accepted old-fashioned ‘Home Rule’, self-government in domestic affairs only, which had satisfied the constitutional nationalist leader, John Redmond, in 1914, had it not been for the fifteen punitive executions carried out after the ‘Easter Rising’, as depicted above. Moderate ‘Home Rulers’ were appalled by the heavy-handed reaction to the rebellion, the executions and the thousands of arrests which followed it.

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This alienation from British rule of any kind, combined by the willingness of the Irish Party to compromise and the looming introduction of conscription in Ireland turned the population away from the Irish Party to the more revolutionary objectives of Sinn Féin. This became increasingly apparent in the increasingly daring nature of the actions of the reorganised Irish Volunteers, but even clearer in the 1918 general election. The Republican party almost swept the board in the 1918 election, winning seventy-three seats compared with just six won by the constitutional nationalists, all of them in the North, though Sinn Féin actually only won forty-eight per cent of the vote, conducted on an all-Ireland basis. It was also clear that in Ulster, the contribution made by Irish regiments in the war had strengthened the determination of Protestants to remain within the United Kingdom. The Republicans refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin. The electoral success of Sinn Féin was subsequently used to justify the republican’s violent campaign for independence, but their 1918 manifesto did not suggest the use of physical force but rather had strongly advocated passive resistance and an appeal to the Versailles Peace Conference. When this failed, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) became increasingly violent, leading to the outbreak of the bloody Anglo-Irish War in 1920.

The nationalist struggle in India and Ireland had shifted into a higher gear and this foreshadowed danger for the empire as a whole. By the end of 1918, it seemed secure from attacks from outside but was now more vulnerable than ever before to threats from within. It might be able to contain one of these at a time, two – as with India and Ireland – with difficulty, but if it were challenged on three or four fronts at the same time, it could collapse. With the troops back from the western front, the empire should have been in a position to contain trouble in Ireland or/and India. Its armies were big enough if they could be kept in ‘khaki’, but they could not, not because of the expense alone, but because of the very real threat of mutiny. Many of the soldiers were restless at not being demobilized immediately, and there were strikes and mutinies both in Britain and France. When they had beaten Germany the British soldiery felt they had done their job. They had not joined up to police the empire.

Churchill argued that the government had no choice but to speed up demobilization and in this, as in so many other matters in the immediate aftermath of the war, he was right. Looked at from the twenty-first century, the post-First World War Churchill was proved correct in almost all of his positions and prophecies – on Russia, Ireland, the Middle East and even on the issue of German reparations and the blockade put in place by Balfour to force assent. Often he would swerve from a hard-line to a soft one, so that having banged away like Lloyd George in the election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, he then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, as did Lloyd George, in opposing the blockade. After all was said and done, the Great War was a war which Britain only just won, with the help of its empire but also that of the USA. There had been many defeats along the way, as Lloyd George himself noted: the prestige and authority of the British Empire were still intact, even if dented and damaged.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

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

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

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

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

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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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The Other Side of the Eighties in Britain, 1983-1988: The Miners and The Militants.   Leave a comment

Labour – Dropping the Donkey Jacket:

From 1980 to 1983, Michael Foot’s leadership had saved the Labour Party from splitting into two, but in all other respects, it was a disaster. He was too old, too decent, too gentle to take on the hard left or to modernise his party. Foot’s policies were those of a would-be parliamentary revolutionary detained in the second-hand bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. I enjoyed this experience myself in 1982, with a minibus full of bookish ‘revolutionaries’ from Cardiff, who went up there, as it happened, via Foot’s constituency. When roused, which was often, his Cromwellian hair would flap across a face contorted with passion, his hands would whip around excitedly and denunciations would pour forth from him with a fluency ‘old Noll’ would have envied. During his time as leader, he was in his late sixties, and would have been PM at seventy, had he won the 1983 General Election, which, of course, was never a remote possibility. Unlike Thatcher, he was contemptuous of the shallow presentational tricks demanded by television, and he could look dishevelled, being famously denounced for wearing a ‘donkey jacket’, in reality, a Burberry-style woollen coat, at the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph. But he was more skilled than anyone I saw then or have seen since, in whipping up the socialist faithful in public meetings, or in finger-stabbing attacks on the Tory government in the House of Commons, both in open debates and questions to the PM. He would have been happier communing with Jonathan Swift and my Gulliver forbears in Banbury than attempting to operate in a political system which depended on television performances, ruthless organisation and managerial discipline. He was a political poet in an age of prose.

Nobody in the early eighties could have reined in its wilder members; Foot did his best but led the party to its worst defeat in modern times, on the basis of a hard-left, anti-Europe, anti-nuclear, pro-nationalisation manifest famously described by Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history. Kaufman had also urged Foot to stand down before the election. It was a measure of the affection felt for him that his ‘swift’ retirement after the defeat was greeted with little recrimination. Yet it also meant that when Neil Kinnock won the subsequent leadership election he had a mandate for change no previous Labour leader had enjoyed. He won with seventy-one per cent of the electoral college votes, against nineteen per cent for Roy Hattersley. Tony Benn was out of Parliament, having lost his Bristol seat, and so could not stand as the standard-bearer of the hard left. Kinnock had been elected after a series of blistering campaign speeches, a Tribunite left-winger who, like Foot, advocated the unilateral abandonment of all Britain’s nuclear weapons, believed in nationalisation and planning and wanted Britain to withdraw from the European Community. A South Wales MP from the same Bevanite stock as Foot, he also supported the abolition of private medicine and the repeal of the Tory trade union reforms. To begin with, the only fights he picked with the Bennites were over the campaign to force Labour MPs to undergo mandatory reselection, which handed a noose to local Militant activists. Yet after the chaos of the 1983 Campaign, he was also sure that the party was in need of radical remedies.

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To win power, Labour needed to present itself better in the age of the modern mass media. Patricia Hewitt (pictured above), known for her campaigning on civil liberties, joined Kinnock’s new team. She was chosen to fight Leicester East in the 1983 Election but was unsuccessful. In her new role, she began trying to control interviews and placing the leader in more flattering settings than those Foot had found himself in. Kinnock knew how unsightly ‘old’ Labour had looked to the rest of the country and was prepared to be groomed. He gathered around him a ‘Pontypool front row’ of tough, aggressive heavy-weights, including Charles Clarke, the former communist NUS leader; John Reid, another former communist and Glaswegian backbench bruiser. Hewitt herself and Peter Mandelson, grandson of Herbert Morrison and Labour’s side-stepping future director of communications, led the three-quarter line with Kinnock himself as the able scrum-half. Kinnock was the first to flirt with the once-abhorred world of advertising and to seek out the support of pro-Labour pop artists such as Tracy Ullman and Billy Bragg. In this, he was drawing on a long tradition on the Welsh left, from Paul Robeson to the Hennesseys. He smartened up his own style, curtailing the informal mateyness which had made him popular among the ‘boyos’ and introduced a new code of discipline in the shadow cabinet.

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Neil Kinnock attacking the Militant Tendency at the party conference in 1985.

In the Commons, he tried hard to discomfit Thatcher at her awesome best, which was difficult and mostly unsuccessful. The mutual loathing between them was clear for all to see, and as Thatcher’s popularity began to decline in 1984, Labour’s poll ratings slowly began to improve. But the party harboured a vocal minority of revolutionaries of one kind or another. They included not only the long-term supporters of Tony Benn, like Jeremy Corbyn, but also Arthur Scargill and his brand of insurrectionary syndicalism; the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, a front for the Revolutionary Socialist League, which had been steadily infiltrating the party since the sixties; and assorted hard-left local councillors, like Derek Hatton in Liverpool, a Militant member who were determined to defy Thatcher’s government, no matter how big its democratic mandate, by various ‘ultra-vires’ and illegal stratagems. Kinnock dealt with them all. Had he not done so New Labour would never have happened, yet he himself was a passionate democratic socialist whose own politics were well to the left of the country.

Neil Kinnock was beginning a tough journey towards the centre-ground of British politics, which meant leaving behind people who sounded much like his younger self. On this journey, much of his natural wit and rhetoric would be silenced. He had created his leadership team as if it were a rugby team, involved in a confrontational contact sport against opponents who were fellow enthusiasts, but with their own alternative strategy. He found that political leadership was more serious, drearier and nastier than rugby. And week after week, he was also confronting someone in Thatcher someone whose principles had been set firm long before and whose politics clearly and consistently expressed those principles on the field of play. Yet, like a Welsh scrum-half, he was always on the move, always having to shadow and shade, to side-step and shimmy, playing the ball back into the scrum or sideways to his three-quarters rather than kicking it forward. The press soon dubbed him ‘the Welsh windbag’, due to his long, discursive answers in interviews.

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The first and toughest example of what he was up against came with the miners’ strike. Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill (above) had already shown their loathing for each other over the mainstream leadership’s battles with the Bennites. The NUM President was probably the only person on the planet that Kinnock hated more than Thatcher. He distrusted Scargill’s aims, despised his tactics and realised early on that he was certain to fail. In this, he was sharing the views of the South Wales NUM who had already forced a U-turn on closures from an unprepared Thatcher in 1981. Yet they, and he had to remain true to their own traditions and heritage. They both found themselves in an embarrassing situation, but more importantly, they realised that like it or not, they were in an existential struggle. As the violence spread, the Conservatives in the Commons and their press continually goaded and hounded him to denounce the use of ‘flying pickets’ and to praise the police. He simply could not do so, as so many on his own side had experienced the violence of the police, or heard about it from those who had. For him to attack the embattled trade union would be seen as the ultimate betrayal by a Labour leader. He was caught between the rock of Thatcher and hard place of Scargill. In the coalfields, even in South Wales, he was shunned on the picket lines as the miner’s son too “frit” in Thatcher’s favourite phrase, to come to the support of the miners in their hour of need. Secretly, however, there was some sympathy for his impossible situation among the leadership of the South Wales NUM. Kinnock at least managed to avoid fusing Labour and the NUM in the mind of many Labour voters, ensuring that Scargill’s ultimate, utter defeat was his alone. But this lost year destroyed his early momentum and stole his hwyl, his Welsh well-spring of ‘evangelical’ socialist spirit.

The Enemy Within?:

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Above: Striking Yorkshire miners barrack moderate union leaders in Sheffield.

The first Thatcher government was had been dominated by the Falklands War; the second was dominated by the miners’ strike. Spurred on by ‘the spirit of the Falklands’, the government took a more confrontational attitude towards the trade unions after the 1983 General Election. This year-long battle, 1984-5, was the longest strike in British history, the most bitter, bloody and tragic industrial dispute since the General Strike and six-month Miners’ Lock-out of 1926. The strike was eventually defeated, amid scenes of mass picketing and running battles between the police and the miners. It resulted in the total defeat of the miners followed by the end of deep coal-mining in Britain. In reality, the strike simply accelerated the continuing severe contraction in the industry which had begun in the early eighties and which the South Wales NUM had successfully resisted in what turned out, however, to be a Pyrrhic victory. By 1984, the government had both the resources, the popular mandate and the dogged determination to withstand the miners’ demands. The industry had all but vanished from Kent, while in Durham two-thirds of the pits were closed. They were the only real source of employment to local communities, so the social impact of closures proved devastating. In the Durham pit villages, the entire local economy was crippled and the miners’ housing estates gradually became the ghost areas they remain today.

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The government had little interest in ensuring the survival of the industry, with its troublesome and well-organised union which had already won a national strike against the Heath government a decade earlier. For the Thatcher government, the closures resulting from the defeat of the strike were a price it was willing to pay in order to teach bigger lessons. Later, the Prime Minister of the time reflected on these:

What the strike’s defeat established was that Britain could not be made ungovernable by the Fascist Left. Marxists wanted to defy the law of the land in order to defy the laws of economics. They failed and in doing so demonstrated just how mutually dependent the free economy and a free society really are.

It was a confrontation which was soaked in history on all sides. For the Tories, it was essential revenge for Heath’s humiliation, a score they had long been eager to settle; Margaret Thatcher spoke of Arthur Scargill and the miners’ leaders as ‘the enemy within’, as compared to Galtieri, the enemy without. For thousands of traditionally ‘militant’ miners, it was their last chance to end decades of pit closures and save their communities, which were under mortal threat. For their leader Arthur Scargill, it was an attempt to follow Mick McGahey in pulling down the government and winning a class war. He was no more interested than the government, as at least the other former, more moderate leaders had been, in the details of pay packets, or in a pit-by-pit review to determine which pits were truly uneconomic. He was determined to force the government, in Thatcher’s contemptuous phrase, to pay for mud to be mined rather than see a single job lost.

The Thatcher government had prepared more carefully than Scargill. Following the settlement with the South Wales NUM, the National Coal Board (NCB) had spent the intervening two years working with the Energy Secretary, Nigel Lawson, to pile up supplies of coal at the power stations; stocks had steadily grown, while consumption and production both fell. Following the riots in Toxteth and Brixton, the police had been retrained and equipped with full riot gear without which, ministers later confessed, they would have been unable to beat the pickets. Meanwhile, Thatcher had appointed a Scottish-born Australian, Ian MacGregor, to run the NCB. He had a fierce reputation as a union-buster in the US and had been brought back to Britain to run British Steel where closures and 65,000 job cuts had won him the title ‘Mac the Knife’. Margaret Thatcher admired him as a tough, no-nonsense man, a refreshing change from her cabinet, though she later turned against him for his lack of political nous. His plan was to cut the workforce of 202,000 by 44,000 in two years, then take another twenty thousand jobs out. Twenty pits would be closed, to begin with. When he turned up to visit mines, he was abused, pelted with flour bombs and, on one occasion, knocked to the ground.

Arthur Scargill was now relishing the coming fight as much as Thatcher. In the miners’ confrontation with Heath, Scargill had led the flying pickets at the gates of the Saltley coke depot outside Birmingham. Some sense of both his revolutionary ‘purity’, combined with characteristic Yorkshire bluntness, comes from an exchange he had with Dai Francis, the Welsh Miners’ leader at that time. He had called Francis to ask for Welsh pickets to go to Birmingham and help at the depot. Francis asked when they were needed and Scargill replied:

“Tomorrow, Saturday.”

“But Wales are playing Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park.”

“But Dai, the working class are playing the ruling class at Saltley.”

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Many found Scargill inspiring; many others found him scary. Like Francis, he had been a Communist, but unlike Dai (pictured above, behind the poster, during the 1972 strike), he retained hard-line Marxist views and a penchant for denouncing anyone who disagreed with him. Kim Howells, also a former Communist and an officer of the South Wales NUM, gained a sense of Scargill’s megalomania when, just prior the 1984-5 strike, he visited his HQ in Barnsley, already known as ‘Arthur’s Castle’. Howells, a historian of the Welsh Labour movement, later becoming an MP and New Labour minister, was taken aback to find him sitting at this Mussolini desk with a great space in front of it. Behind him was a huge painting of himself on the back of a lorry, posed like Lenin, urging picketing workers in London to overthrow the ruling class. Howells thought anyone who could put up a painting like that was nuts and returned to Pontypridd to express his fears to the Welsh miners:

And of course the South Wales executive almost to a man agreed with me. But then they said, “He’s the only one we’ve got, see, boy.  The Left has decided.”

Scargill had indeed been elected by a huge margin and had set about turning the NUM’s once moderate executive, led by Joe Gormley, into a militant group. The Scottish Miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, although older and wiser than his President, was his Vice-President. Scargill had been ramping up the rhetoric for some time. He had told the NUM Conference in 1982, …

If we do not save our pits from closure then all our other struggles will become meaningless … Protection of the industry is my first priority because without jobs all our other claims lack substance and become mere shadows. Without jobs, our members are nothing …

Given what was about to happen to his members’ jobs as a result of his uncompromising position in the strike, there is a black irony in those words. By insisting that no pits should be closed on economic grounds, even if the coal was exhausted, and that more investment would always find more coal, from his point of view the losses were irrelevant. He made sure that confrontation would not be avoided. An alternative strategy put forward by researchers for the South Wales NUM was that it was the NCB’s economic arguments that needed to be exposed, along with the fact that it was using the Miners’ Pension Fund to invest in the production of cheap coal in Poland and South Africa. It’s definition of what was ‘economic’ in Britain rested on the comparative cost of importing this coal from overseas. If the NCB had invested these funds at home, the pits in Britain would not be viewed as being as ‘uneconomic’ as they claimed. But Scargill was either not clever enough to deploy these arguments or too determined to pursue the purity of his brand of revolutionary syndicalism, or both.

The NUM votes which allowed the strike to start covered both pay and closures, but from the start Scargill emphasised the closures. To strike to protect jobs, particularly other people’s jobs, in other people’s villages and other countries’ pits, gave the confrontation an air of nobility and sacrifice which a mere wages dispute would not have enjoyed. But national wage disputes had, for more than sixty years, been about arguments over the ‘price of coal’ and the relative difficulties of extracting it from a variety of seams in very different depths across the various coalfields. Neil Kinnock, the son and grandson of Welsh miners, found it impossible to condemn Scargill’s strategy without alienating support for Labour in its heartlands. He did his best to argue the economics of the miners’ case, and to condemn the harshness of the Tory attitude towards them, but these simply ran parallel to polarised arguments which were soon dividing the nation.

Moreover, like Kinnock, Scargill was a formidable organiser and conference-hall speaker, though there was little economic analysis to back up his rhetoric. Yet not even he would be able to persuade every part of the industry to strike. Earlier ballots had shown consistent majorities against striking. In Nottinghamshire, seventy-two per cent of the areas 32,000 voted against striking. The small coalfields of South Derbyshire and Leicestershire were also against. Even in South Wales, half of the NUM lodges failed to vote for a strike. Overall, of the seventy thousand miners who were balloted in the run-up to the dispute, fifty thousand had voted to keep working. Scargill knew he could not win a national ballot, so he decided on a rolling series of locally called strikes, coalfield by coalfield, beginning in Yorkshire, then Scotland, followed by Derbyshire and South Wales. These strikes would merely be approved by the national union. It was a domino strategy; the regional strikes would add up to a national strike, but without a national ballot.

But Scargill needed to be sure the dominoes would fall. He used the famous flying pickets from militant areas to shut down less militant ones. Angry miners were sent in coaches and convoys of cars to close working pits and the coke depots, vital hubs of the coal economy. Without the pickets, who to begin with rarely needed to use violence to achieve their end, far fewer pits would have come out. But after scenes of physical confrontation around Britain, by April 1984 four miners in five were on strike. There were huge set-piece confrontations with riot-equipped police bused up from London or down from Scotland, Yorkshire to Kent and Wales to Yorkshire, generally used outside their own areas in order to avoid mixed loyalties. As Andrew Marr has written, …

It was as if the country had been taken over by historical re-enactments of civil war battles, the Sealed Knot Society run rampant. Aggressive picketing was built into the fabric of the strike. Old country and regional rivalries flared up, Lancashire men against Yorkshire men, South Wales miners in Nottinghamshire.

The Nottinghamshire miners turned out to be critical since without them the power stations, even with the mix of nuclear and oil, supplemented by careful stockpiling, might have begun to run short and the government would have been in deep trouble. To Scargill’s disdain, however, other unions also refused to come out in sympathy, thus robbing him of the prospect of a General Strike, and it soon became clear that the NUM had made other errors in their historical re-enactments. Many miners were baffled from the beginning as to why Scargill had opted to strike in the spring when the demand for energy was relatively low and the stocks at the power stations were not running down at anything like the rate which the NUM needed in order to make their action effective. This was confirmed by confidential briefings from the power workers, and it seemed that the government just had to sit out the strike.

In this civil war, the police had the cavalry, while the miners were limited to the late twentieth-century equivalent of Oakey’s dragoons at Naseby, their flying pickets, supporting their poor bloody infantry, albeit well-drilled and organised. Using horses, baton charges and techniques learned in the aftermath of the street battles at Toxteth and Brixton, the police defended working miners with a determination which delighted the Tories and alarmed many others, not just the agitators for civil rights. An event which soon became known as the Battle of Orgreave (in South Yorkshire) was particularly brutal, involving ‘Ironside’ charges by mounted police in lobster-pot style helmets into thousands of miners with home-made pikes and pick-axe handles.

The NUM could count on almost fanatical loyalty in coalfield towns and villages across Britain. Miners gave up their cars, sold their furniture, saw their wives and children suffer and lost all they had in the cause of solidarity. Food parcels arrived from other parts of Britain, from France and most famously, from Soviet Russia. But there was a gritty courage and selflessness in mining communities which, even after more than seventy years of struggle, most of the rest of Britain could barely understand. But an uglier side to this particularly desperate struggle also emerged when a taxi-driver was killed taking a working miner to work in Wales. A block of concrete was dropped from a pedestrian bridge onto his cab, an act swiftly condemned by the South Wales NUM.

In Durham, the buses taking other ‘scabs’ to work in the pits were barraged with rocks and stones, as later portrayed in the film Billy Elliot. The windows had to be protected with metal grills. There were murderous threats made to strike-breaking miners and their families, and even trade union ‘allies’ were abused. Norman Willis, the amiable general secretary of the TUC, had a noose dangled over his head when he spoke at one miners’ meeting. This violence was relayed to the rest of the country on the nightly news at a time when the whole nation still watched together. I remember the sense of helplessness I felt watching the desperation of the Welsh miners from my ‘exile’ in Lancashire, having failed to find a teaching post in the depressed Rhondda in 1983. My Lancastrian colleagues were as divided as the rest of the country over the strike, often within themselves as well as from others. In the end, we found it impossible to talk about the news, no matter how much it affected us.

Eventually, threatened by legal action on the part of the Yorkshire miners claiming they had been denied a ballot, the NUM was forced onto the back foot. The South Wales NUM led the calls from within for a national ballot to decide on whether the strike should continue. Scargill’s decision to accept a donation from Colonel Gaddafi of Libya found him slithering from any moral ground he had once occupied. As with Galtieri, Thatcher was lucky in the enemies ‘chosen’ for her. Slowly, month by month, the strike began to crumble and miners began to trail back to work. A vote to strike by pit safety officers and overseers, which would have shut down the working pits, was narrowly avoided by the government. By January 1985, ten months after they had first been brought out, strikers were returning to work at the rate of 2,500 a week, and by the end of February, more than half the NUM’s membership was back at work. In some cases, especially in South Wales, they marched back proudly behind brass bands.

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Above: ‘No way out!’ – picketing miners caught and handcuffed to a lamp-post by police.

Scargill’s gamble had gone catastrophically wrong. He has been compared to a First World War general, a donkey sending lions to the slaughter, though at Orgreave and elsewhere, he had stood with them too. But the political forces engaged against the miners in 1984 were entirely superior in strength to those at the disposal of the ill-prepared Heath administration of ten years earlier. A shrewder, non-revolutionary leader would not have chosen to take on Thatcher’s government at the time Scargill did, or having done so, would have found a compromise after the first months of the dispute. Today, there are only a few thousand miners left of the two hundred thousand who went on strike. An industry which had once made Britain into a great industrial power, but was always dangerous, disease-causing, dirty and polluting, finally lay down and died. For the Conservatives and perhaps for, by the end of the strike, the majority of the moderate British people, Scargill and his lieutenants were fighting parliamentary democracy and were, therefore, an enemy which had to be defeated. But the miners of Durham, Derbyshire, Kent, Fife, Yorkshire, Wales and Lancashire were nobody’s enemy. They were abnormally hard-working, traditional people justifiably worried about losing their jobs and loyal to their union, if not to the stubborn syndicalists in its national leadership.

Out with the Old Industries; in with the New:

In Tyneside and Merseyside, a more general deindustrialisation accompanied the colliery closures. Whole sections of industry, not only coal but also steel and shipbuilding, virtually vanished from many of their traditional areas.  Of all the areas of Britain, Northern Ireland suffered the highest level of unemployment, partly because the continuing sectarian violence discouraged investment. In February 1986, there were officially over 3.4 million unemployed, although statistics were manipulated for political reasons and the real figure is a matter of speculation. The socially corrosive effects were felt nationally, manifested in further inner-city rioting in 1985. Inner London was just as vulnerable as Liverpool, a crucial contributory factor being the number of young men of Asian and Caribbean origin who saw no hope of ever entering employment: opportunities were minimal and they felt particularly discriminated against. The term ‘underclass’ was increasingly used to describe those who felt themselves to be completely excluded from the benefits of prosperity.

Prosperity there certainly was, for those who found alternative employment in the service industries. Between 1983 and 1987, about 1.5 million new jobs were created. Most of these were for women, and part-time vacancies predominated. The total number of men in full-time employment fell still further, and many who left the manufacturing for the service sector earned much-reduced incomes. The economic recovery that led to the growth of this new employment was based mainly on finance, banking and credit. Little was invested in British manufacturing. Far more was invested overseas; British foreign investments rose from 2.7 billion in 1975 to a staggering 90 billion in 1985. At the same time, there was a certain amount of re-industrialisation in the South East, where new industries employing the most advanced technology grew. In fact, many industries shed a large proportion of their workforce but, using new technology, maintained or improved their output.

These new industries were not confined to the South East of England: Nissan built the most productive car plant in Europe at Sunderland. After an extensive review, Sunderland was chosen for its skilled workforce and its location near major ports. The plant was completed in 1986 as the subsidiary Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd. Siemens established a microchip plant at Wallsend on Tyneside in which it invested 1.1 billion. But such industries tended not to be large-scale employers of local workers. Siemens only employed about 1,800. Traditional regionally-based industries continued to suffer a dramatic decline during this period. Coal-mining, for example, was decimated in the years following the 1984-5 strike, not least because of the shift of the electricity generation of the industry towards alternative energy sources, especially gas. During 1984-7 the coal industry shed 170,000 workers.

The North-South Divide – a Political Complex?:

By the late 1980s, the north-south divide in Britain seemed as intractable as it had all century, with high unemployment particularly concentrated in the declining extractive and manufacturing industries of the North of England, Scotland and Wales. That the north-south divide increasingly had a political as well as an economic complexion was borne out by the outcome of the 1987 General Election. While Margaret Thatcher was swept back to power for the third time, her healthy Conservative majority largely based on the voters of the South and East of England. North of a line roughly between the Severn and the Humber, the long decline of the Tories, especially in Scotland, where they were reduced to ten seats, was increasingly apparent. At the same time, the national two-party system seemed to be breaking down. South of the Severn-Humber line, where Labour seats were now very rare outside London, the Liberal-SDP Alliance were the main challengers to the Conservatives in many constituencies.

The Labour Party continued to pay a heavy price for its internal divisions, as well as for the bitterness engendered by the miners’ strike. It is hardly Neil Kinnock’s fault that he is remembered for his imprecise long-windedness, the product of self-critical and painful political readjustment. His admirers recall his great platform speeches, the saw-edged wit and air-punching passion. There was one occasion, however, when Kinnock spoke so well that he united most of the political world in admiration. This happened at the Labour conference in Bournemouth in October 1985. A few days before the conference, Liverpool City Council, formally Labour-run but in fact controlled by the Revolutionary Socialist League, had sent out redundancy notices to its thirty-one thousand staff. The revolutionaries, known by the name of their newspaper, Militant, were a party-within-a-party, a parasitic body within Labour. They had some five thousand members who paid a proportion of their incomes to the RSL so that the Militant Tendency had a hundred and forty full-time workers, more than the staff of the Social Democrats and Liberals combined. They had a presence all around Britain, but Liverpool was their great stronghold. There they practised Trotsky’s politics of the transitional demand, the tactic of making impossible demands for more spending and higher wages so that when the ‘capitalist lackeys’ refused these demands, they could push on to the next stage, leading to collapse and revolution.

In Liverpool, where they were building thousands of new council houses, this strategy meant setting an illegal council budget and cheerfully bankrupting the city. Sending out the redundancy notices to the council’s entire staff was supposed to show Thatcher they would not back down, or shrink from the resulting chaos. Like Scargill, Militant’s leaders thought they could destroy the Tories on the streets. Kinnock had thought of taking them on a year earlier but had decided that the miners’ strike made that impossible. The Liverpool mayhem gave him his chance, so in the middle of his speech at Bournemouth, he struck. It was time, he said, for Labour to show the public that it was serious. Implausible promises would not bring political victory:

I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.

By now he had whipped himself into real anger, a peak of righteous indignation, but he remained in control. His enemies were in front of him, and all the pent-up frustrations of the past year were being released. The hall came alive. Militant leaders like Derek Hatton stood up and yelled ‘lies!’ Boos came from the hard left, and some of their MPs walked out, but Kinnock was applauded by the majority in the hall, including his mainstream left supporters. Kinnock went on with a defiant glare at his opponents:

I’m telling you, and you’ll listen, you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services, or with their homes. … The people will not, cannot abide posturing. They cannot respect the gesture-generals or the tendency tacticians.

Most of those interviewed in the hall and many watching live on television, claimed it was the most courageous speech they had ever heard from a Labour leader, though the hard left remained venomously hostile. By the end of the following month, Liverpool District Labour Party, from which Militant drew its power, was suspended and an inquiry was set up. By the spring of 1986, the leaders of Militant had been identified and charged with behaving in a way which was incompatible with Labour membership. The process of expelling them was noisy, legally fraught and time-consuming, though more than a hundred of them were eventually expelled. There was a strong tide towards Kinnock across the rest of the party, with many left-wingers cutting their ties to the Militant Tendency. There were many battles with the hard left to come, and several pro-Militant MPs were elected in the 1987 Election. These included two Coventry MPs, Dave Nellist and John Hughes, ‘representing’ my own constituency, whose sole significant, though memorable ‘contribution’ in the House of Commons was to interrupt prayers. Yet by standing up openly to the Trotskyist menace, as Wilson, Callaghan and Foot had patently failed to do, Kinnock gave his party a fresh start. It began to draw away from the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the polls and did better in local elections. It was the moment when the New Labour project became possible.

A Third Victory and a Turning of the Tide:

Yet neither this internal victory nor the sharper management that Kinnock introduced, would bring the party much good against Thatcher in the following general election. Labour was still behind the public mood. Despite mass unemployment, Thatcher’s free-market optimism was winning through, and Labour was still committed to re-nationalisation, planning, a National Investment Bank and unilateral nuclear disarmament, a personal cause of both Neil and his wife, Glenys, over the previous twenty years. The Cold War was thawing and it was not a time for the old certainties, but for the Kinnocks support for CND was fundamental to their political make-up. So he stuck to the policy, even as he came to realise how damaging it was to Labour’s image among swing voters. Under Labour, all the British and US nuclear bases would be closed, the Trident nuclear submarine force cancelled, all existing missiles scrapped and the UK would no longer expect any nuclear protection from the US in time of war. Instead, more money would be spent on tanks and conventional warships. All of this did them a lot of good among many traditional Labour supporters; Glenys turned up at the women’s protest camp at Greenham Common. But it was derided in the press and helped the SDP to garner support from the ‘middle England’ people Labour needed to win back. In the 1987 General Election campaign, Kinnock’s explanation about why Britain would not simply surrender if threatened by a Soviet nuclear attack sounded as if he was advocating some kind of Home Guard guerrilla campaign once the Russians had arrived. With policies like this, he was unlikely to put Thatcher under serious pressure.

When the 1987 election campaign began, Thatcher had a clear idea about what her third administration would do. She wanted more choice for the users of state services. There would be independent state schools outside the control of local councillors, called grant-maintained schools.  In the health services, though it was barely mentioned in the manifesto, she wanted money to follow the patient. Tenants would be given more rights. The basic rate of income tax would be cut and she would finally sort out local government, ending the ‘rates’ and bringing in a new tax. On paper, the programme seemed coherent, which was more than could be said for the Tory campaign itself. Just as Kinnock’s team had achieved a rare harmony and discipline, Conservative Central Office was riven by conflict between politicians and ad-men. The Labour Party closed the gap to just four points and Mrs Thatcher’s personal ratings also fell as Kinnock’s climbed. He was seen surrounded by admiring crowds, young people, nurses, waving and smiling, little worried by the hostile press. In the event, the Conservatives didn’t need to worry. Despite a last-minute poll suggesting a hung parliament, and the late surge in Labour’s self-confidence, the Tories romped home with an overall majority of 101 seats, almost exactly the share, forty-two per cent, they had won in 1983. Labour made just twenty net gains, and Kinnock, at home in Bedwellty, was inconsolable. Not even the plaudits his team had won from the press for the brilliance, verve and professionalism of their campaign would lift his mood.

The SDP-Liberal Alliance had been floundering in the polls for some time, caught between Labour’s modest revival and Thatcher’s basic and continuing popularity with a large section of voters. The rumours of the death of Labour had been greatly exaggerated, and the ‘beauty contest’ between the two Davids, Steel and Owen, had been the butt of much media mockery. Owen’s SDP had its parliamentary presence cut from eight MPs to five, losing Roy Jenkins in the process. While most of the party merged with the Liberals, an Owenite rump limped on for a while. Good PR, packaging and labelling were not good enough for either Labour or the SDP. In 1987, Thatcher had not yet created the country she dreamed of, but she could argue that she had won a third consecutive victory, not on the strength of military triumph, but on the basis of her ideas for transforming Britain. She also wanted to transform the European Community into a free-trade area extending to the Baltic, the Carpathians and the Balkans. In that, she was opposed from just across the Channel and from within her own cabinet.

In the late eighties, Thatcher’s economic revolution overreached itself. The inflationary boom happened due to the expansion of credit and a belief among ministers that, somehow, the old laws of economics had been abolished; Britain was now supposed to be on a continual upward spiral of prosperity. But then, on 27 October 1986, the London Stock Exchange ceased to exist as the institution had formerly done. Its physical floor, once heaving with life, was replaced by dealing done by computer and phone. The volume of trading was fifteen times greater than it had been in the early eighties. This became known as ‘the Big Bang’ and a country which had exported two billion pounds-worth of financial services per year before it was soon exporting twelve times that amount. The effect of this on ordinary Britons was to take the brake off mortgage lending, turning traditional building societies into banks which started to thrust credit at the British public. Borrowing suddenly became a good thing to do and mortgages were extended rather than being paid off. The old rules about the maximum multiple of income began to dissolve. From being two and a half times the homeowner’s annual salary, four times became acceptable in many cases. House prices began to rise accordingly and a more general High Street splurge was fuelled by the extra credit now freely available. During 1986-88 a borrowing frenzy gripped the country, egged on by swaggering speeches about Britain’s ‘economic miracle’ from the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, and the Prime Minister. Lawson later acknowledged:

My real mistake as Chancellor was to create a climate of optimism that, in the end, encouraged borrowers to borrow more than they should.

In politics, the freeing up and deregulation of the City of London gave Margaret Thatcher and her ministers an entirely loyal and secure base of rich, articulate supporters who helped see her through some tough battles. The banks spread the get-rich-quick prospect to millions of British people through privatisation share issues and the country, for a time, came closer to the share-owning democracy that Thatcher dreamed of.

The year after the election, 1988, was the real year of hubris. The Thatcher government began an attack on independent institutions and bullying the professions. Senior judges came under tighter political control and University lecturers lost the academic tenure they had enjoyed since the Middle Ages. In Kenneth Baker’s Great Education Reform Bill (‘Gerbil’) of that year, Whitehall grabbed direct control over the running of the school curriculum, creating a vast new state bureaucracy to dictate what should be taught, when and how, and then to monitor the results. Teachers could do nothing. The cabinet debated the detail of maths courses; Mrs Thatcher spent much of her time worrying about the teaching of history. Working with history teachers, I well remember the frustration felt by them at being forced to return to issues of factual content rather than being able to continue to enthuse young people with a love for exploring sources and discovering evidence for themselves. Mrs Thatcher preferred arbitrary rules of knowledge to the development of know-how. She was at her happiest when dividing up the past into packages of ‘history’ and ‘current affairs’. For example, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was, she said, part of history, whereas the 1968 Prague Spring was, twenty years on, still part of ‘current affairs’ and so should not appear in the history curriculum, despite the obvious connections between the two events. It happened at a time when education ministers were complaining bitterly about the lack of talent, not among teachers, but among civil servants, the same people they were handing more power to. A Hungarian history teacher, visiting our advisory service in Birmingham, expressed his discomfort, having visited a secondary school in London where no-one in a Humanities’ class could tell him where, geographically, his country was.

At that time, my mother was coming to the end of a long career in NHS administration as Secretary of the Community Health Council (‘The Patients’ Friend’) in Coventry which, as elsewhere, had brought together local elected councillors, health service practitioners and managers, and patients’ groups to oversee the local hospitals and clinics and to deal with complaints. But the government did not trust local representatives and professionals to work together to improve the health service, so the Treasury seized control of budgets and contracts. To administer the new system, five hundred NHS ‘trusts’ were formed, and any involvement by elected local representatives was brutally terminated. As with Thatcher’s education reforms, the effect of these reforms was to create a new bureaucracy overseeing a regiment of quangos (quasi/ non-governmental organisations). She later wrote:

We wanted all hospitals to have greater responsibility for their affairs.  … the self-governing hospitals to be virtually independent.

In reality, ‘deregulation’ of care and ‘privatisation’ of services were the orders of the day. Every detail of the ‘internal market’ contracts was set down from the centre, from pay to borrowing to staffing. The rhetoric of choice in practice meant an incompetent dictatorship of bills, contracts and instructions. Those who were able to vote with their chequebooks did so. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people covered by the private health insurance Bupa nearly doubled, from 3.5 million to a little under seven million. Hubris about what the State could and could not do was to be found everywhere. In housing, 1988 saw the establishment of unelected Housing Action Trusts to take over the old responsibility of local authorities for providing what is now known as ‘affordable housing’. Mrs Thatcher claimed that she was trying to pull the State off people’s backs. In her memoirs, she wrote of her third government,

… the root cause of our contemporary social problems … was that the State had been doing too much.

Yet her government was intervening in public services more and more. The more self-assured she became, the less she trusted others to make the necessary changes to these. That meant accruing more power to the central state. The institutions most heart in this process were local councils and authorities. Under the British constitution, local government is defenceless against a ‘Big Sister’ PM, with a secure parliamentary majority and a loyal cabinet. So it could easily be hacked away, but sooner or later alternative centres of power, both at a local and national level, would be required to replace it and, in so doing, overthrew the overbearing leader.

Sources:

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

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

 

 

 

Posted October 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Britons, Caribbean, Coalfields, Cold War, Communism, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Europe, European Economic Community, France, guerilla warfare, History, Humanities, Hungary, Ireland, Journalism, Labour Party, Marxism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, Population, Remembrance, Revolution, Russia, Social Service, south Wales, Thatcherism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Victorian, Wales, Welfare State

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Britain and the World, 1979-84: A post-imperial postscript.   Leave a comment

Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s main supporter in her election as Conservative leader and in her early governments, once said that, in the past, Britain’s trouble had been that she had never had a proper capitalist ruling class. In 1979, the first Thatcher government sought consciously to put this right. The task it set itself was daunting – the liberation of British enterprise from a hundred years of reactionary accretions, in order to return the machine to the point along the path where it had stood when it was diverted away. It was helped by the fact that, with the empire gone, very little remained to sustain the older, obstructive, pre-capitalist values any longer, or to cushion Britain against the retribution her industrial shortcomings deserved. This movement promised to mark the real and final end of empire, the Thatcher government’s determination to restore the status quo ante imperium, which meant, in effect, before the 1880s, when imperialism had started to take such a hold on Britain. Thatcher looked back to the Victorian values of Benjamin Disraeli’s day, if not to those of William Gladstone. She itemized these values in January 1983 as honesty, thrift, reliability, hard work and a sense of responsibility. This list strikingly omitted most of the imperial values, like service, loyalty and fair play, though she did, later on, add ‘patriotism’ to them. Nevertheless, the new patriotism of the early 1980s was very different from that of the 1880s, even when it was expressed in a way which seemed to have a ring of Victorian imperialism about it.

Part of the backdrop to the Falklands War was the residual fear of global nuclear war. With hindsight, the Soviet Union of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko may seem to be a rusted giant, clanking helplessly towards a collapse, but this is not how it seemed prior to 1984. The various phases of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) were underway, but to well-informed and intelligent analysts the Soviet empire still seemed mighty, belligerent and unpredictable. New SS20 missiles were being deployed by the Soviets, targeted at cities and military bases across western Europe. In response, NATO was planning a new generation of American Pershing and Cruise missiles to be sited in Europe, including in Britain. In the late winter of 1979 Soviet troops had begun arriving in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev was an obscure member of the Politburo working on agricultural planning, and glasnost was a word no one in the West had heard of. Poland’s free trade union movement, Solidarity, was being crushed by a military dictator. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter had issued an ultimatum: the Soviets must withdraw or the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympic Games due to be held in the summer of 1980. Margaret Thatcher supported the call for a boycott, but the British Olympic Association showed its independence from government and defiantly sent a team, supported by voluntary contributions from students, among others. Two British middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett each won gold medals.

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Western politics echoed with arguments over weapons systems, disarmament strategies and the need to stand up to the Soviet threat. Moscow had early and rightly identified Margaret Thatcher as one of its most implacable enemies. She had already been British Prime Minister for eighteen months when Ronald Reagan’s administration took over in Washington. He may have been many things Thatcher was not, but like her, he saw the world in black and white terms, especially in his first term to 1984. She was from a Methodist background, he was from a Presbyterian one, so they both shared a view of the world as a great stage on which good and evil, God and Satan, were pitched against each other in endless conflict. Reagan found a ‘soul mate’ in Thatcher. Already dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ by the Russians, Thatcher was resolute in her determination to deregulate government and allow the benefits of capitalism to flourish at home and abroad. Although the UK was committed to Europe, Thatcher was also a strong believer in Britain’s “enduring alliance” with the United States. Reagan and Thatcher saw eye-to-eye on many key issues. Their shared detestation of socialism in general and Soviet communism, in particular, underpinned their remarkably close personal relationship which was eventually to help steer the world away from Armageddon.

Of course, in a sense, the Falklands War of 1982 could be seen as an imperial war, fought as it was over a fag-end of Britain’s old empire: but that was an accident. There was no imperial rationale for the war. Britain did not fight the Argentines for profit, for potential South Atlantic oil reserves (as some suggested), or for the security of her sea lanes, or indeed for the material or spiritual good of anyone. She fought them for a principle, to resist aggression and to restore her government’s sovereignty over the islands in the interests of the islanders themselves. The war also served to restore to Britain some of the national pride which many commentators had long suggested was one of the other casualties of the empire’s demise. That was what made an otherwise highly burdensome operation worthwhile if that sense of pride could be translated into what Sir Nicolas Henderson had described three years earlier as a sense of national will. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher believed that if British Leyland could be injected with some of the same ‘Falklands spirit’ then there was no reason why British industry could not reverse its decline. The popular jingoism the affair aroused and encouraged showed that a post-imperial Britain would not necessarily be a post-militaristic one. But it was not an imperial jingoism per se, more one which expressed a national pride and patriotism. It did not indicate in the least that ‘imperialism’ proper was about to be resurrected, even if that were practicable; or that anyone intended that it should be.

However proud Britons were to have defended the Falklands, no one was particularly proud any longer of having them to defend. Most of Britain’s remaining colonial responsibilities were regarded now as burdens it would much rather be without and would have been if it could have got away with scuttling them without loss of honour or face. In her new straitened circumstances, they stretched its defence resources severely, and to the detriment of its main defence commitment, to NATO. They also no longer reflected Britain’s position in the world. When Hong Kong and the Falklands had originally been acquired, they had been integral parts of a larger pattern of commercial penetration and naval ascendancy. They had been key pieces in a jigsaw, making sense in relation to the pieces around them. Now those pieces had gone and most of the surviving ones made little sense in isolation, or they made a different kind of sense from before. If the Falklands was an example of the former, Hong Kong was a good example of the latter, acting as it now did as a kind of ‘cat-flap’ into communist China. The Falklands was the best example of an overseas commitment which, partly because it never had very much value to Britain, now had none at all.

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Diplomatically, the Falklands ‘Crisis’ as it was originally known, was an accident waiting to happen, no less embarrassing for that. At the time, the defence of western Europe and meeting any Soviet threat was the main concern, until that began to abate from 1984 onwards. The British Army was also increasingly involved in counter-insurgency operations in Northern Ireland. Small military detachments helped to guard remaining outposts of the empire such as Belize. But Argentine claims to the Falklands were not taken seriously, and naval vessels were withdrawn from the South Atlantic in 1981. In April 1982, though, Argentina launched a surprise attack on South Georgia and the Falklands and occupied the islands.

001Even if oil had been found off its shores, or South Georgia could have been used as a base from which to exploit Antarctica, Britain was no longer the sort of power which could afford to sustain these kinds of operations at a distance of eight thousand miles. The almost ludicrous measures that had to be put into place in order to supply the Falklands after May 1982 illustrate this: with Ascension Island serving as a mid-way base, and Hercules transport aircraft having to be refuelled twice in the air between there and Port Stanley, in very difficult manoeuvres. All this cost millions, and because Britain could not depend on the South American mainland for more convenient facilities.

But it was not only a question of power. Britain’s material interests had contracted too: especially her commercial ones. For four centuries, Britain’s external trade had used to have a number of distinctive features, two of which were that it far exceeded any other country’s foreign trade and that most of it was carried on outside Europe. However, between 1960 and 1980, Britain’s pattern of trade had shifted enormously, towards Europe and away from the ‘wider world’. In 1960, less than thirty-two per cent of Britain’s exports went to western Europe and thirty-one per cent of imports came from there; by 1980, this figure had rocketed to fifty-seven per cent of exports and fifty-six per cent of imports. In other words, the proportion of Britain’s trade with Europe grew by twenty-five per cent, compared to its trade with the rest of the world. Of course, this ‘shift’ was partly the result of a political ‘shift’ in Britain to follow a more Eurocentric commercial pattern, culminating in the 1975 Referendum on EEC membership.

By 1980 Britain was no longer a worldwide trading nation to anything like the extent it had been before. Moreover, in 1983, a symbolic turning-point was reached when, for the first time in more than two centuries, Britain began importing more manufactured goods than it exported. It followed that it was inappropriate for it still to have substantial political responsibilities outside its own particular corner of the globe. British imperialism, therefore, was totally and irrevocably finished, except as a myth on the right and the left. I remember Channel Four in the UK screening a programme called ‘the Butcher’s Apron’ in 1983 which argued, from a left-wing perspective, that it was still very much alive, and that the Falklands War was clear evidence of this. Likewise, there were, and still are, many nationalists in Scotland and Wales who used the term as a metaphor for the ‘domination’ of England and ‘the British state’ over their countries. Of course, in historical terms, they could only do this because the British Empire was a thing of the past, and the sending of Welsh guardsmen to recover islands in the South Atlantic was an unintended and embarrassing postscript, never to be repeated.

The imperial spirit had dissipated too, despite Mrs Thatcher’s brief attempt to revive it in Falklands jingoism and whatever might be said by supercilious foreign commentators who could not credit the British for having put their imperialist past behind them so soon after Suez and all that and certainly by 1970, when they had abandoned overseas defence commitments ‘east of Suez’. But Britain had indeed left its past behind it, even to the extent of sometimes rather rudely ‘putting its behind in its past’ to emphasise the point. Scattered around the globe were a few little boulders, ‘survivals’ from the imperial past, which were no longer valued by Britain or valuable to her. There were also some unresolved problems, such as Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, as an independent territory in 1980. Britain had clearly dissociated itself from its white racist leaders even at the cost of bringing an ‘unreconstructed Marxist’ to power. After that, smaller island colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific continued to be granted their independence, so that by 1983 the Empire had effectively ceased to exist.

In 1984 Bernard Porter wrote, in the second edition of his book on British imperialism, that it was…

… unlikely that any subsequent edition of this book, if the call for it has not dried up completely, will need to go beyond 1980, because British imperialism itself is unlikely to have a life beyond then. That chapter of history is now at an end.

It was not a very long chapter, as these things go; but it is difficult to see how it could have been. The magnificent show that the British empire made at its apogee should not blind us to its considerable weaknesses all through. Those who believe that qualities like ‘will’ and ‘leadership’ can mould events might not accept this, of course; but there was nothing that anyone could have done in the twentieth century to stave off the empire’s decline. It was just too riddled with contradictions.

The Imperialists themselves were the first to predict the decline; that Britain could not help but be overhauled and overshadowed by the growing Russian and American giants. Britain did not have the will to resist this development and the empire was not, in any case, a fit tool for resistance. While Britain had it, in fact, the Empire was rarely a source of strength to the ‘mother country’, despite the attempts of imperialists to make it so.

A part of the narrative of the Falklands Crisis not revealed at the time was the deep involvement, and embarrassment, of the United States. Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan had already begun to develop their personal special relationship. But the Argentine junta was important to the US for its anti-Communist stance and as a trading partner. Prior to 1982, the United States had supported the Argentine generals, despite their cruel record on human rights, partly because of the support they gave the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua. Therefore, they began a desperate search for a compromise while Britain began an equally frantic search for allies at the United Nations. In the end, Britain depended on the Americans not just for the Sidewinder missiles underneath its Harrier jets, without which Thatcher herself said the Falklands could not have been retaken, but for intelligence help and – most of the time – diplomatic support too. These were the last years of the Cold War. Britain mattered more in Washington than any South American country. Still, many attempts were made the US intermediary, the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, to find a compromise. They would continue throughout the fighting. Far more of Thatcher’s time was spent reading, analysing and batting off possible deals than contemplating the military plans. Among those advising a settlement was the new Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, appointed after Lord Carrington’s resignation. Pym and the Prime Minister were at loggerheads over this and she would punish him in due course. She had furious conversations with Reagan by phone as he tried to persuade her that some outcome short of British sovereignty, probably involving the US, was acceptable.

Thatcher broke down the diplomatic deal-making into undiplomatic irreducibles. Would the Falkland Islanders be allowed full self-determination? Would the Argentine aggression be rewarded? Under pulverizing pressure she refused to budge. She wrote to Ronald Reagan, who had described the Falklands as that little ice-cold bunch of land down there, that if Britain gave way to the various Argentine snares, the fundamental principles for which the free world stands would be shattered. Reagan kept trying, Pym pressed and the Russians harangued, all to no avail. Despite all the logistical problems, a naval task force set sail, and with US intelligence support, the islands were regained after some fierce fighting.

Back in London in the spring of 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s advisers looked into the new, younger members of the Soviet Politburo who had emerged under Konstantin Chernenko, the last of the ‘old guard’. He was old and frail, like his predecessor, Yuri Andropov. The advisors to the Prime Minister wondered with whom she, and they, would be dealing with next, and issued a number of invitations to visit Britain. By chance, the first to accept was Mikhail Gorbachev, who visited Thatcher in London. He arrived with his wife, Raisa, itself remarkable, as Soviet leaders rarely travelled with their wives. By comparison to the old men who had led the Soviet Union for twenty years, the Gorbachevs were young, lively and glamorous. The visit was a great success. After Thatcher and Gorbachev met, the Prime Minister was asked by reporters what she thought of her guest. She replied with a statement that, again with the benefit of hindsight, was to usher in the final stage of the Cold War:

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Sources:

David Killingray (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.

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

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.

Britain & Ireland Fifty Years Ago, 1968-73: Troubles, Turmoil & Turning Points: Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Decline & Deindustrialisation under Heath:

The long-term decline of the nineteenth-century staple industries such as coal, iron and steel, and shipbuilding, was well underway by the early seventies and manageable only through nationalisation, but that of the manufacturing industries, in particular, became known a ‘deindustrialisation’ and posed a greater threat to Britain’s place in the world. Employment in manufacturing had reached a peak of nine million in 1966 but thereafter fell rapidly. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the old industries of the Northwest of England first, but by the early 1970s, they were proportionately as high in the West Midlands and the South-East, where the newer car-making and manufacturing industries were located, a process which continued into the mid-nineties (see map below). In fact, the decline in the South-East was actually much greater. The lowest was in East Anglia, simply because there was comparatively little manufacturing there to decline.

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A great variety of explanations for the decline in British manufacturing competitiveness has been put forward. None of the economic explanations has proved satisfactory, but one cultural reason may have some credence, that the British came to despise industry by the 1960s and that they were not sufficiently materialistic to work hard for the rewards associated with improved productivity. Added to this, complacency from generations of national success has been blamed, together with the post-war welfare state’s ‘cosseting’ of the workforce. In political terms, the failure of successive governments to address the needs of industry for research and development combined with the ‘exclusive’ cultural and educational background of the Civil Service has also been held responsible for the lack of modernisation of the economy. Obstructionist trade unions were a favourite target for many in the early seventies, but incompetent and outdated management was also a factor. Britain’s failing competitiveness was, by this time, making it increasingly difficult for governments to maintain high employment by intervening in the economy.

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In the summer of 1969, Enoch Powell (pictured above), representing one of the most rapidly declining manufacturing areas of the West Midlands, Wolverhampton, had continued to attack Heath on a broad range of policies, over the need for tax cuts, privatisation and freer markets in economics; over Northern Ireland or ‘Ulster’ as he referred to it,  over proposed British membership of the EEC, which Powell opposed as strongly as Heath supported it. So Powell’s battle-cry for repatriation and an end to immigration was taken by the Tory leadership as part of his campaign to unseat Heath and then replace him. There were plenty in the party and the country who yearned for just that. Apart from the dockers and other marchers, wealthy bankers wanted to fund a campaign for Powell’s leadership. Marcel Everton, a Worcestershire industrialist, raised money for a national federation of Powellite groups and talked of a march on Conservative headquarters to oust Heath. Wilson’s call for an election early in 1970, created an obvious trap which Powell could see very clearly even if his supporters ignored it. His best chance by far would be if Heath lost the election. Then he could attack him openly and perhaps even seize control of the party. Everton openly declared that it would be better for right-wingers to vote Labour so that the Tory party would fall into Enoch’s lap like a ripe cherry. Yet Powell himself recognised that he would be forever branded a traitor by thousands of loyal Conservatives. Either Heath would win and Powell would be finished, or he would lose and Powell would be blamed for splitting the party. Late in the campaign, Powell finally gave his clear and unequivocal support to the official Tory campaign, though not before he had caused Heath a great deal of irritation and embarrassment. Tony Benn called him…

… the real leader of the Conservative Party. He is a far stronger character than Mr Heath. He speaks his mind … Heath dare not attack him publicly even when he says things that disgust decent Conservatives … the flag hoisted at Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered over Dachau and Belsen.

Powell, once he realised the consequences of Heath’s victory, according to his biographer, sat around on his own with his head in his hands, deep in gloom. He had realised that, after Wilson, he had been the greatest loser of the election. The winners, at least in the medium-term, were a group of young Tories who eventually formed themselves into ‘the Selsdon Group’. The ‘Third Way’, a term which was given to the free-enterprise anti-collectivist economics of Tories like Anthony Barber, Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph at the Selsdon Park conference in 1969, prepared the way for Margaret Thatcher’s attempt in the 1980s to ‘roll back’ what was left of the welfare state. It was billed as a return to the Victorian values that had made Britain great, but was not a revival of Gladstonian liberalism, nor even to Palmerstonian ‘gunboat diplomacy’ which at times the Thatcher administrations resembled. Heath abandoned the 1970 manifesto in the face of bitter opposition from the trade unions. This historic U-turn was the catalyst for the formation of the Selsdon Group in 1973.  A handful of young libertarian Conservatives created the new group with Nicholas Ridley MP as president to uphold and promote the free market policies that they believed had won the Conservative Party the 1970 General Election. The group was criticised by many figures within the Conservative Party establishment at the time. Many of its policies, however, influenced later governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In economic terms at least, the Thatcher government elected in 1979 was a return to the hard-faced monetary control of the 1920s in which resistance to brutal rationalization through closure or by wage and job reductions took the form of determined opposition from trades unions.

Deindustrialisation was not simply a regional problem of the older industrial areas of the North of England and Wales. Nonetheless, long-standing regional disadvantages in terms of employment opportunities and incomes were continuing and worsening – the north-south divide was growing. Employment in agriculture was also in decline; only the service sector was expanding, becoming the major employer in all regions by the mid-seventies (see the diagrammatic map below). But this sectoral growth was still in the future in the early seventies, and it is hard to underestimate quite how heavily, how painfully, relative economic decline weighed on the necks of all politicians forty to fifty years ago.

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Edward Heath’s government (1970-74) struggled to follow pro-active, interventionist policies in the face of the world recession associated with the OPEC oil price rise of 1973. But before that, British productivity had remained pitifully low compared to both the United States, Japan and the European Economic Community, a major reason why there was no real opposition in the country to it joining the EEC. The country was spending too much on new consumer goods and not nearly enough on modernised and more efficient factories and businesses. Prices were rising by seven per cent and wages by double that. Britain was still part of the old post-war world of fixed exchange rates which meant that the Heath government, like those of Attlee and Wilson faced a sterling crisis and perhaps another devaluation.

Heath had identified reform of the unions as his first challenge. They had just seen off Wilson and Barbara Castle’s attempts to ‘moderate’ them collectively, so Heath had decided that he would need to take them on individually, facing down at least one major public sector strike, in addition to removing some of the benefits that he thought encouraged strikes. Britain not only had heavy levels of unionization through all the key industries but also, by modern standards, an incredible number of different unions, more than six hundred altogether. Some of these were still organised on a ‘craft’ basis more relevant to a nineteenth-century economy, rather than as modern industrial unions, and others, like the Transport and General Workers’ Union, incorporated masses of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers across a range of occupations. As a result, the leaders of large unions had only a wobbly hold on what happened on the factory floor or at the dockside. It was a time of industrial militancy at shop-floor level, and this mood was made fun of by the 1973 hit from the folk-rock band the Strawbs, whose song, Part of the Union, had the chorus, You don’t get me, I’m part of the union and each verse began with a reason why:

As a union man I’m wise to the lies of the company spies … With a hell of a shout it’s “out, brothers, out!” … I always get my way, if I strike for higher pay … So though I’m a working man, I can ruin the government’s plan …

So he could, and so he did. Almost immediately on coming to power, Heath had faced a dock strike, followed by a big pay settlement for local authority dustmen, then a power workers’ go-slow which led to power cuts. Then the postal workers struck. Douglas Hurd, later regarded as a ‘wet’ in Margaret Thatcher’s government of nine years later, was Heath’s parliamentary personal secretary at the time, and recorded in his diary:

A bad day. It is clear that all the weeks of planning in the civil service have totally failed to cope with what is happening in the electricity dispute; and all the pressures are to surrender.

Hurd confronted Heath in his dressing-gown, warning him that the government machine was moving too slowly, far behind events. Apparently, things were so bad in the car industry that Henry Ford III visited to warn Heath that his company was thinking of pulling out of Dagenham and its other plants in the UK. Yet Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill of 1971 was ‘balanced’ in its approach, even giving new rights to trade unions while at the same time trying to make agreements with employers legally enforceable through a new system of industrial courts. This was following in the conciliatory footsteps of Wilson and Castle, rather than embarking on a more radical journey.

However, the role of the local shop-steward organisation was sometimes be exaggerated by the press at the time and has sometimes been overplayed by more recent commentators. In the Coventry car industry, where a worker was said to work half as hard as his Dagenham counterpart, Stephen Tolliday has pointed to the difference between factories as being the result of the unions consolidating their positions in the late forties and early fifties in Coventry, whereas workers at Ford, Morris, Austin and Vauxhall were poorly organised until the late 1950s. One might, therefore, expect the extension of union organisation to have a marked effect in pushing forward relative earnings. On the contrary, however, average weekly earnings in the period fell back from twenty-four per cent above the national average between 1959 and 1963 to nineteen per cent between 1968 and 1973. Given that motor industry productivity growth was above average and that union density was increasing in motors throughout the sixties, more quickly than in manufacturing as a whole, this could be an indicator that shop floor bargaining did not have as decisive an impact as has been often asserted. As Bill Lancaster and Tony Mason have pointed out, the caricature of the greedy… car worker… prone to go on strike is somewhat misleading… co-operation with management was still the norm. It was the workers in the older industries who were finding it more difficult to maintain a ‘living wage’. So then the miners struck…

The National Miners’ Strike of 1972:

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At the beginning of 1972, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began their first national strike since the dark days of the 1920s. The government, with modest coal stocks, was quickly taken by surprise at the disciplined and aggressive tactics of the NUM. Arthur Scargill (pictured above), a rousing speaker, former Communist Party member and highly ambitious union activist, described the mass picket at Saltley as “the greatest day of my life.” Heath blamed the police for being too soft; for the PM, Scargill’s greatest day was…

… the most vivid, direct and terrifying challenge to the rule of law that I could ever recall emerging from within our own country. … We were facing civil disorder on a massive scale … the prospect of the country becoming ungovernable, or having to use the armed forces to restore order, which public opinion would never have tolerated…

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Following the miners’ victory, Heath and his ministers knew that they would have to go directly to the country with an appeal about who was in charge but before that, they tried a final round of compromise and negotiation. It went under the name of tripartism, a three-way national agreement on prices and wages, investment and benefits, involving the government, the TUC and the CBI. The Industry Act of 1972 gave the Tory government unprecedented powers of industrial intervention. There was much ‘wooing’ of moderate trade union leaders. Money, effort and organisation went into Job Centres as unemployment rose steadily towards a million. The industrialists did as much as they could, sitting on yet more committees when in truth they might have been more usefully employed trying to run their companies. The unions, however, had the bit between their teeth. By first refusing to recognise Heath’s industrial relations court as really legitimately a law of the land, and then refusing to negotiate seriously until he repealed the Act, they made the breakdown of this last attempt at consensual economics almost inevitable.

By now, Heath had leaned so far to the left to try to win over the unions that he was behaving like a Wilsonian socialist. He was reinstating ‘planning’, particularly on a regional basis. He was bailing out failing companies such as Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, something he later regarded as a mistake. By offering the unions a privileged place in the running of the nation he had hoped that the individual roles of trade union leaders, as well as those of company directors and politicians, would take second place behind a general commitment to ‘the common good’. But those leaders had got their jobs by promising their members higher wages and better conditions. They could hardly be blamed for doing everything they could within the law to carry out the role they had been given. Similarly, industrialists were driven by profit margins and returns to investors; they were not auxiliary politicians. Heath’s government was later criticised by ‘Thatcherites’ for doing things which a government ought not to do, while not doing things that it ought to do. It was not the business of good governments to try to run businesses or to do the wage bargaining of companies and trade unions for them. Neither should they attempt to control prices.

The Heath government also introduced tax reforms, meant to increase investment, a deal with business on keeping price rises to five per cent, and even some limited privatisation – the travel agents, Thomas Cook, then in public ownership, was sold off, along with some breweries. But Tory messages were still mixed and Heath’s instincts on state control were quickly tested when the most valuable parts of Rolls-Royce faced bankruptcy over the cost of developing new aircraft engines. Unemployment rose sharply in Coventry as employment in the city’s manufacturing industries continued to decline rapidly. Heath briskly nationalised the company, with the engine plant being taken into government hands as a ‘lame duck’. In all, the measures saved eighty thousand jobs, allowing the company to regroup and survive, to the relief of the defence industry. It did revive and was returned to the private sector, making it a clear example, with hindsight, of how nationalisation could be made to work in everyone’s interest. On the other hand, cuts in some personal taxes encouraged spending and thereby increased inflation. This was further fuelled by the removal of lending limits for high street banks which encouraged home ownership through mortgage borrowing. An unbalanced amount was sunk into bricks and lawns over the next thirty to forty years, and the credit ‘boom’ and ‘bust’, involving long-term unaffordable increases in property prices can be traced back to this decision.

Heath’s ‘corporatism’ has been derided and forgotten in the wake of the monetarist, free-market economics of the thirty-year ‘Thatcher era’. In reality, much of the country in the early seventies was simply more left-wing than it was even just five years later. The unions, having defeated their own political leaders, were more self-confident than ever before or since. Many industrial workers, living in bleak towns far away from the glossy pop world of the ‘swinging’ cities, were underpaid and left behind. Heath himself later argued that the consequences of an alternative policy, the mass unemployment of the 1980s, would have been unacceptable to the country in the previous decade. He was surely right in this assessment.  

What finally finished off the Heath government was the short ‘Yom Kippur war’ between Israel and Egypt in October 1973. Israel’s swift and decisive victory was a humiliation for the Arab world and it struck back, using oil. The international cartel of oil producers retaliated against the West after the USA gave Israel strong support during the war, by cutting the supplies of oil each month, thereby quadrupling the price of oil. In addition to provoking an immediate recession, this also fuelled international inflation, and in Britain it arrived with special force. The miners put in another huge wage claim, which would have added half as much again to their wage packets. Despite an appeal by its leader, the moderate Joe Gormley, the NUM executive rejected a thirteen per cent pay increase and voted to ballot for another national strike.

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The rise in oil prices stimulated the search for new sources in British and Irish waters, but these were still the days just before North Sea oil and gas were being produced commercially. Britain could survive high oil prices for a while and could endure coal shortages for a while, but both coming together represented a ‘perfect storm’, or, as the Chancellor Anthony Barber called it, the greatest economic crisis since the war. It certainly compared to that of 1947. Coal stocks had not been built up in preparation for a stoppage so that a whole series of panic measures were introduced. Plans were made for petrol rationing and coupons printed and distributed. The national speed limit was cut by twenty miles per hour, to fifty, in order to save fuel. Then, in January, came the announcement of a three-day working week.

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By the end of 1973, Britain had entered a period of severe recession. This was set against the background of Britain’s share of world trade falling dramatically, from over twenty per cent in the 1950s to about ten per cent by 1975. Nor could it maintain its hold on the domestic market; in 1965 only one car in twenty was imported but by 1978 about half were. Oil and fuel price rises together with the general recession also had the effect of cutting back expenditure on British motorway construction and motor vehicle use during the 1970s. Plans to triple the 660 miles (1,060 km) of motorway in use by 1970 were also frustrated by environmental protest (see map above).

Common Market, Commonwealth and Immigration:

Above: Front page report from the Guardian, 1st January 1973

Edward Heath is a political leader whose reputation and legacy deserves to be revisited. If his premiership, which lasted less than four years, is associated with a single action, it is British entry into ‘Europe’, but throughout his time in office, it was the economy, not Europe, which was the biggest problem facing him. Certainly, his attempts to rein in trade union power and to conquer inflation failed, as did those of Wilson, both before and after his government. The cause that excited him more than any other, Europe, also inflamed his enemies who accused him of lying to the country about the true, political nature of the coming political union which would eventually, inevitably, replaced the Economic Community. These claims, although largely a work of fiction, have continued to play as a strong narrative right up to the current time of ‘Brexit’. Apart from being the first Tory leader to break through the class barriers of the old party and to promote other ‘outsiders’ to the cabinet, his European vision was the product of his own first-hand experiences. Before the war, on a student visit to Germany, he had literally rubbed shoulders with Hitler and met other Nazi leaders. Later he had returned as a fighting officer to see their final defeat in 1945. As he wrote later:

My generation did not have the option of living in the past; we had to work for the future. We were surrounded by destruction, homelessness, hunger and despair. Only by working together right across our continent had we any hope of creating a society which would uphold the true values of European civilisation. 

He was a genuinely compassionate conservative and an unusually brave politician, whose analysis of what was wrong with Britain in the seventies was far more acute than Wilson’s. But he was no starry-eyed idealist when it came to negotiating Britain’s entry to the EEC. He had risen through the Tory Parliamentary Party as a tough chief whip and then as an equally tough negotiator on Europe in the Macmillan years when he had struggled in the face of President de Gaulle’s repeated ‘Non’. Long before becoming PM, he had identified Georges Pompidou, who replaced de Gaulle, as his likely future interlocutor, the man who would say ‘Oui’. Heath later revealed how Pompidou had told him, in French, at Chequers:

If you ever want to know what my policy is, don’t bother to call me on the telephone. I do not speak English, and your French is awful. Just remember that I am a peasant, and my policy will always be to support the peasants.

Pompidou was giving ‘fair warning’ about the vast expense of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but it did not truly reflect his wider vision of Europe. In fact, he wanted a Europe of large manufacturing countries to take on the cartels of the US and the Far East. By 1970, after a decade during which Britain had grown much more slowly than the six members of the Common Market, Heath was in a weaker position now than he had been under Macmillan. But besides being a trusted negotiator by the French, Britain’s economic weakness served as a strength with Paris at that time, and Pompidou believed that ‘les rosbifs’ were ready to be admitted. Like the rest of the Community, France had struggled for years to understand what Britain really wanted, especially when the British left had appeared so divided on the issue. After eighteen months of further tough negotiations as PM, and in the teeth of opposition from Britain’s fishermen and the Powellites, a deal was thrashed out. It left intact the existing Common Market designed for the convenience of French farmers, and vast amounts of European law had to be swallowed whole. The Commonwealth farmers’ deal was won at the expense of a worse deal on the budget, which would later be reopened by Margaret Thatcher. The British negotiators had decided that it was important for their country’s future to get an entry deal.

When Heath began negotiations, Wilson was a publicly declared supporter of British membership, but as accession loomed, he began sniping at Heath, perhaps looking over his shoulder at his potential successor, Jim Callaghan, who was campaigning openly against membership. The left was in full cry, and two-thirds of Labour’s MPs were on Callaghan’s side. So Wilson changed his position on tactical grounds, claiming that he could not support membership on the Heath terms. After the long and tortuous negotiations, this infuriated the Labour pro-Europeans. Neither did it enthuse the anti-Marketeers, who simply did not believe that Wilson had had a change of heart and assumed that he would sign up if and when he was returned to Number Ten. Nevertheless, when the Heath proposals for membership were put to the Commons, sixty-nine Labour pro-Europeans led by Roy Jenkins defied the party whips and voted with the Conservatives. The left-wing New Statesman delivered a withering verdict on Wilson, whom it labelled as…

… the principal apostle of cynicism, the unwitting evangelist of disillusion … Mr Wilson has now sunk to a position where his very presence in Labour’s leadership pollutes the atmosphere of politics.

After winning the Commons vote, Heath returned to Downing Street to play Bach on the piano, while the opposition MPs, not for the first or last time, conducted screaming matches and ghastly personal confrontations in the voting lobbies. In the aftermath, Tony Benn began to argue that on a decision of such national importance, the people should be able to vote in a referendum. His constituency was in Bristol, represented by the great philosopher Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. Burke had once sent a letter to his constituents explaining to them that as their MP he owed them his judgement, not his slavish obedience to their opinions. Reversing this argument, Benn expressed the view that a democracy which denied its people the right to choose directly on a matter of such importance would lose all respect. To begin with, Benn had almost no support for his radical view of ‘direct democracy’. Labour traditionalists despised ‘plebiscites’ as the populist devices of fascist demagogues, not in keeping with the principles of representative democracy. Harold Wilson had committed himself publicly and repeatedly against a referendum. Slowly and painfully, however, he came to realise that opposing Heath’s deal while promising to renegotiate, while offering a referendum could be the way out. When Pompidou suddenly announced that France would be holding a referendum on the issue, Wilson snatched at the Benn plan. Although the referendum was still two years away, Wilson’s ‘switch’ had set an important precedent, providing a means for parties to divide on key issues, but remain intact.

Immigration from the ‘old empire’ continued but, following restrictive legislation by Britain, at greatly reduced levels. The 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. When Ted Heath came to power in the General Election of 1970, he showed that he was desperately worried about the anti-immigration mood which had been revealed in this most bitter of elections. Heath’s manifesto had promised a new single system of control over all immigration from overseas. While denouncing Powell, he moved quickly to pass a restrictive piece of legislation which removed the right to immigrate to Britain of anyone who did not have a parent or grandparent born in the country. The 1971 Immigration Act effectively restricted citizenship on racial grounds by enacting this ‘Grandfather Clause’, by which a Commonwealth citizen who could prove that one of his or her grandparents was born in the UK was entitled to immediate entry clearance. This operated to the disadvantage of black and Asian applicants while favouring citizens from the ‘old Commonwealth’ – the descendants of (white) British settlers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Powell hit back by likening the distinction to a Nazi race purity law; he wanted a new definition of British citizenship instead. The grandparent rule was defeated by the right and the left combining for opposite reasons, though it was restored two years later. Thus immigration control had moved away from primary immigration to restricting the entry of dependants, or secondary immigration.

Had this been all, then Heath would be remembered as being yet another panicked politician, slamming the door shut and keeping his party happy. It was not all, since the Kenyan crisis of 1968 was about to be replayed, this time at greater speed, in Uganda. There, the anti-British Prime Minister, Milton Obote, had just been replaced in a coup by the fat, swaggering, Sandhurst-educated Idi Amin who announced that he had been told in a dream that he must expel the country’s Asian population, just as the Kenyans had done. Amin was clearly a monster, whose thugs clubbed his enemies to death with staves, who threatened to kill British journalists, who was rumoured to keep human flesh in his fridge and to feast on it, and who enthused about the way the Nazis had dealt with the Jews. Though Powell argued angrily that Britain had no obligation to the trapped Ugandan Asians, Heath acted decisively to allow them in to settle. Airlifts were arranged, and some 28,000 people arrived within a few weeks in 1971. They eventually settled in the same areas as other East African Asians, even though Leicester, which had become the ‘least white’ city in England, had published notices in Ugandan papers pleading with migrants not to try to settle there. Within a few years, Powell would no longer be a conservative, Heath having confronted him head on and defeated him.

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The employment available to new immigrants was poorly paid and working conditions were little better, causing some black and Asian workers to resort to industrial action. The photograph above shows an Asian immigrant employed in a Bradford textile factory. The decline of this industry in the early seventies led to high long-term unemployment in the Asian communities. To begin with, faced with prejudice in finding private rented accommodation, as well as more subtle discrimination in residency requirements for council housing, immigrants tended to concentrate in poor inner city areas, as can be seen below in the map of Birmingham in 1971. However, as New Commonwealth immigrants began to become established throughout Birmingham and the West Midlands, community infrastructure including places of worship, ethnic grocers, butchers and restaurants began to develop. These contributions to the cultural and social life of the British cities helped to overcome earlier prejudices among the native population, and some middle-class Indians began to move further out into the suburbs.

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Britain’s experience of migration is not just a narrative of those who have come to Britain, but also of those who have left, to South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, well over half a million in the sixties alone. At the same time, there is no doubt that, more than any almost any other single social factor in post-1945 Britain, immigration changed Britain. At no stage was there a measured and frank assessment of the likely scale and long-term social effects of immigration by party leaders, voluntarily, in front of the electorate. The main parties did very little to ensure that mass immigration from the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent and East Africa was successful. West Indians and Ugandan Asians got very little official help to integrate into British society. The reluctance with which the latter were let into Britain in 1972 showed how narrow-minded and less generous towards its former imperial subjects Britain had become. There was very little attempt to create mixed communities or to avoid mini-ghettoes. The real question is whether this neglect of public opinion and of the consequences of immigration, not least for the immigrant communities, has produced a better country. It is now clear that this is a far bigger story than simply a tidying up after Empire.

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Further afield, Britain had retreated from most of its empire by the 1970s. The major remaining colony was Rhodesia, which had been illegally ruled by a white minority government since 1967 when it had declared independence unilaterally. In 1968 the Labour government decided to pull the considerable British contingents out of the Persian Gulf and Singapore, which was done by 1971. There was also an end to Britain’s role ‘east of Suez’. The fabric of the old empire had gone and now the frame which had taken its weight had gone too. There was nothing left but a few bricks, and some shadows. None of the shadows was substantial enough to make up fully for what had been lost. At first it was thought that the Commonwealth might. In the 1950s the fact that so many ex-colonies had elected to stay within the Commonwealth had led some imperialists to assume a substantive continuity between it and the old empire: with the black and brown nations joining Australia, New Zealand and Canada in an extended family cemented by common bonds of tradition, friendship and mutual interest. They believed that the whole structure could be a force to be reckoned with in the world still. The old imperialists retained a sentimental affection for it and sought to cement its parts more tightly together, through trade preferences for Commonwealth countries, and by preserving the definition of ‘British nationality’ which had been laid down in 1948, allowing all Commonwealth citizens the right to enter Britain freely, without restriction.

‘Common citizenship’ was meant to symbolise the continuing unity, and hence the strength of ‘Empire into Commonwealth’. But by the sixties, it had become abundantly clear that the Commonwealth was turning out to be something less than the sum of its countries. Its members did not have common interests, not even the ‘white’ dominions among them, which were too far apart geographically, if not politically. For the black and brown nations, their membership was not an expression of filial gratitude and loyalty. Rather it provided merely a convenient platform on the world stage from which they could air their grievances against Britain and demand a share of whatever British aid was available. The Commonwealth was never united. Its new members fought each other, broke off diplomatic relations with each other and with the ‘mother country’. In 1971, at a conference in Singapore, they sent Edward Heath into a ‘huff’ by criticising him over the issue of supplying arms to South Africa, which had been forced out of the association in 1961. Clearly, this new organisation was of little use as a means of exerting British power and influence in the world.

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There were some in public life who continued to value the new Commonwealth, but as something rather different from the old empire: as an informal debating club for widely divergent cultures, a possible means of scaling the barriers of racism and chauvinism going up all over the world, an example to the world of how different countries and continents could get along together even if they could not agree together, a corrective to the contemporary  consolidation of the world into continental blocs. Alongside the idealistic old imperialists, there were also anti-imperialist Fabians who were genuinely interested in questions of international co-operation and foreign aid. When a television series about the British Empire in 1972 provoked a flood of letters to the newspapers and a lengthy debate in the House of Lords, most of the letters and many of the speeches betraying an almost personal sense of injury, it was clear that there had been a ‘bottling up’ in some élite quarters of strong emotions on the issue of an Empire which some still felt had been the noblest Empire the world had ever seen. For the most part, however, the mass of the ‘ordinary’ British people cared little about it.

That the empire was almost forgotten in Britain by the seventies did not mean that it had left no marks at all, or that it was quite gone. In a strictly legalistic sense, Britain still had overseas colonies and crown dependencies. Most importantly, she still had Rhodesia, though she had been powerless to do anything there since Smith’s UDI. She also had Hong Kong, with four million inhabitants, but otherwise, the total population of all her other outposts was well under a million. These traces of empire could be irritating, but they were little more. They were not the significant remains of empire. For all parties concerned, however, the British empire left a legacy which was substantial and lasting, though it was not one which was altogether predictable or intended. In 1969 Professor Max Beloff warned that the loss of empire might make Britain parochial and bitter:

We now face … the danger of a sudden and total revulsion against anything that reminds us of past advantages and past glories, a sudden shift into an isolationist little-Englandism with unhealthy overtones of xenophobia and even racialism accompanying it.

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The treatment most frequently prescribed for Britain’s post-imperial trauma was to join the European Economic Community, to give Britain a new European vision to compensate for the loss of its imperial one and a share in something big again. But when Britain eventually joined in January 1973, it was with a sullenness and singular lack of enthusiasm and public support which was attributed by other countries to her unwillingness to shake off her imperial past, and accept that she was now, like France, just an ordinary European nation. This excuse was widely seized on by British observers too. During the 1970s the view that Britain had wasted her first twenty-five post-war years clinging nostalgically to outworn imperial glories became something of an established orthodoxy. Nicholas Henderson, a retiring ambassador, recollected in 1979:

We had… every western European government eating out of our hand in the immediate aftermath of war. For several years our prestige and influence were paramount and we could have stamped Europe as we wished.

But the opportunity was allowed to pass, as the British spurned the Schuman Plan, with the result that Europe eventually formed its own ‘community’ of nations without reference to Britain. That was why when Britain joined that community later, its terms were so unfavourable to her. There were a number of reasons for Britain’s blunder, but the chief ones were her loyalty to her Commonwealth and the illusion that she still had a global role. These were clearly both legacies of empire, and extremely damaging ones. Britain’s subsequent fractious position within the EEC and her 2016 Referendum decision to leave derives from the fact that her old imperial blinkers led her to read the signs of the times too late. These conclusions are currently too controversial to go into in detail here, especially as neither the chronicles nor the narratives are yet complete, but it is interesting to note how ubiquitous it was in the 1970s, especially in the view of the empire as a kind of ghostly dragon Britain’s coat-tails after the vision had died among imperialists. The bright new cause of ‘Europeanism’ gave light to a new generation as the liberal and internationalist antidote to imperialism, but the old empire continued to cast a long shadow over British politics.

It was also widely blamed for Britain’s economic decline, as we have seen. Britain had been falling behind the other industrial powers for many years before 1970. After that year, however, the situation got worse. After twenty years of full employment, minimal inflation and rising standards of living, which buffered the social impact of Britain’s relative decline, it became associated with mass unemployment, high inflation and lower living standards once again. But it was also a common ploy in the 1970s to put the blame on the empire for Britain’s managerial shortcomings. The argument was that the service of the empire had somehow displaced the running of manufacturing industry as an object of ambition for the younger generations of the middle classes. As one public school headmaster put it in 1980, Britain’s imperial experience had left her with too many ‘prefects’ and not enough ‘pirates’ for the post-imperial age. In the past, Sir Keith Joseph once said, Britain’s trouble had been that it had never had a proper capitalist ruling class; in 1979 the government of which he was a member sought consciously to remedy this. Back in the days of the oil crisis of 1973-74, it was obvious that if Britain had still been able to dictate policy in the Persian Gulf, the West could not have been ‘held to ransom’ and neither could the miners have done the same to Heath’s government. Yet asked by some Gallup pollsters whether they thought it was important for Britain to retain her status as a major world power, only thirty per cent replied ‘yes’ in 1975 compared with fifty-five per cent ten years earlier. Significantly, this was also the year in which the British people expressed their ‘will’ in Wilson’s Referendum to remain in the EEC, by a similar majority of two to one. The imperial ‘game’ was over, though it would be remembered with nostalgia by many for decades to come. As Bernard Porter has commented, even cricket became commercialised and vulgarized in the 1970s in the wake of the decline of the old imperialist ‘fuddy-duddies’ in the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club).

Sources:

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

Joanna Bourke, Sabine Wichert, Roger Middleton, John Swift (contributors) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.

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