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

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Looking across the River Deben towards Woodbridge from Sutton Hoo.

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

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

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

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The abandoned railway station at Needham Market, Suffolk.

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

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

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

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

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Three centuries of properties in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

A Metropolitan ‘Refugee’ in Dunwich:

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Greyfriars, The Simpson coastal ‘pile’ in Dunwich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coast, Cathedral City & Inland Industrial Development:

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

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

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

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A variety of restored properties in Needham Market today.

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

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

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

East Anglia as Archetypal Agricultural England:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rustic Life; Yeomen Farmers and Yokels:

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

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

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

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

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

Rural Poverty & Village Life:

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A former labourer’s cottage in Saxmundham marketplace.

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

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

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

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County Hall, Norwich.

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

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 Suffolk County flag.

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

Power, Ports & Progress:

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

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Sizewell Nuclear Power Station (2014)

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

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

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

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

Culture, Landscape & Heritage; Continuity & Conflict:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

 

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

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Above: Denis Healey in combatant mood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falklands ‘Escapade’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simon Weston in 2008

The Falklands Factor and the 1983 Election:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Political and Cultural Landscape of Wales:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolution or retro-capitalism?

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Decade of Extremes – Punks, Skinheads & Hooligans:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Callaghan Years:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Képtalálat a következőre: „tony benn”

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

The Winter of Their Discontent:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring ‘Awakening’:

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

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

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

Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 General Election campaign.

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

Part One: The Economic Storm and Europe.

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Denis Healey, chancellor during Britain’s economic storm,

making a characteristic point to his opponents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Debate – The EEC Referendum of 1975:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye to Ted and Harold, and All That… :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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

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The National Division – the ‘Two Englands’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘rural’ West Midlands:

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

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

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

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

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

Birmingham & The Black Country:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration: The Case of Smethwick in 1964.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— quoted in The Times (9 March 1964).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smethwick Town Council

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

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

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

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

fearful social sickness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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.

no british arms AA

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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