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You Only Live Twice – Cool Britannia to Cold Brexit: The United Kingdom, 1999-2019. Part One: Economics, Culture & Society.   Leave a comment

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Cold Shoulder or Warm Handshake?

On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will leave the European Union after forty-six years of membership, since it joined the European Economic Community on 1 January 1973 on the same day and hour as the Republic of Ireland. Yet in 1999, it looked as if the long-standing debate over Britain’s membership had been resolved. The Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union had been signed by all the member states of the preceding European Community in February 1992 and was succeeded by a further treaty, signed in Amsterdam in 1999. What, then, has happened in the space of twenty years to so fundamentally change the ‘settled’ view of the British Parliament and people, bearing in mind that both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, while England and Wales both voted to leave? At the time of writing, the manner of our going has not yet been determined, but the invocation of ‘article fifty’ by the Westminster Parliament and the UK government means that the date has been set. So either we will have to leave without a deal, turning a cold shoulder to our erstwhile friends and allies on the continent, or we will finally ratify the deal agreed between the EU Commission, on behalf of the twenty-seven remaining member states, and leave with a warm handshake and most of our trading and cultural relations intact.

As yet, the possibility of a second referendum – or third, if we take into account the 1975 referendum, called by Harold Wilson (above) which was also a binary leave/ remain decision – seems remote. In any event, it is quite likely that the result would be the same and would kill off any opportunity of the UK returning to EU membership for at least another generation. As Ian Fleming’s James Bond tells us, ‘you only live twice’. That certainly seems to be the mood in Brussels too. I was too young to vote in 1975 by just five days, and another membership referendum would be unlikely to occur in my lifetime. So much has been said about following ‘the will of the people’, or at least 52% of them, that it would be a foolish government, in an age of rampant populism, that chose to revoke article fifty, even if Westminster voted for this. At the same time, and in that same populist age, we know from recent experience that in politics and international relations, nothing is inevitable…

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One of the major factors in the 2016 Referendum Campaign was the country’s public spending priorities, compared with those of the European Union. The ‘Leave’ campaign sent a double-decker bus around England stating that by ending the UK’s payments into the EU, more than 350 million pounds per week could be redirected to the National Health Service (NHS).

A British Icon Revived – The NHS under New Labour:

To understand the power of this statement, it is important to recognise that the NHS is unique in Europe in that it is wholly funded from direct taxation, and not via National Insurance, as in many other European countries. As a service created in 1948 to be ‘free at the point of delivery’, it is seen as a ‘British icon’ and funding has been a central issue in national election campaigns since 2001, when Tony Blair was confronted by an irate voter, Sharon Storer, outside a hospital. In its first election manifesto of 1997, ‘New Labour’ promised to safeguard the basic principles of the NHS, which we founded. The ‘we’ here was the post-war Labour government, whose socialist Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, had established the service in the teeth of considerable opposition from within both parliament and the medical profession. ‘New Labour’ protested that under the Tories there had been fifty thousand fewer nurses but a rise of no fewer than twenty thousand managers – red tape which Labour would pull away and burn. Though critical of the internal markets the Tories had introduced, Blair promised to keep a split between those who commissioned health services and those who provided them.

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Under Frank Dobson, Labour’s new Health Secretary, there was little reform of the NHS but there was, year by year, just enough extra money to stave off the winter crises. But then a series of tragic individual cases hit the headlines, and one of them came from a Labour peer and well-known medical scientist and fertility expert, Professor Robert Winston, who was greatly admired by Tony Blair. He launched a furious denunciation of the government over the treatment of his elderly mother. Far from upholding the NHS’s iconic status, Winston said that Britain’s health service was the worst in Europe and was getting worse under the New Labour government, which was being deceitful about the true picture. Labour’s polling on the issue showed that Winston was, in general terms, correct in his assessment in the view of the country as a whole. In January 2000, therefore, Blair announced directly to it that he would bring Britain’s health spending up to the European average within five years. That was a huge promise because it meant spending a third as much again in real terms, and his ‘prudent’ Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was unhappy that Blair had not spoken enough on television about the need for health service reform to accompany the money, and had also ‘stolen’ his budget announcements. On Budget day itself, Brown announced that until 2004 health spending would rise at above six per cent beyond inflation every year, …

… by far the largest sustained increase in NHS funding in any period in its fifty-year history … half as much again for health care for every family in this country.       

The tilt away from Brown’s sharp spending controls during the first three years of the New Labour government had begun by the first spring of the new millennium, and there was more to come. With a general election looming in 2001, Brown also announced a review of the NHS and its future by a former banker. As soon as the election was over, broad hints about necessary tax rises were dropped. When the Wanless Report was finally published, it confirmed much that the winter crisis of 1999-2000 had exposed. The NHS was not, whatever Britons fondly believed, better than health systems in other developed countries, and it needed a lot more money. ‘Wanless’ also rejected a radical change in funding, such as a switch to insurance-based or semi-private health care. Brown immediately used this as objective proof that taxes had to rise in order to save the NHS. In his next budget of 2002, Brown broke with a political convention that which had reigned since the mid-eighties, that direct taxes would not be raised again. He raised a special one per cent national insurance levy, equivalent to a penny on income tax, to fund the huge reinvestment in Britain’s health.

Public spending shot up with this commitment and, in some ways, it paid off, since by 2006 there were around 300,000 extra NHS staff compared to 1997. That included more than ten thousand extra senior hospital doctors (about a quarter more) and 85,000 more nurses. But there were also nearly forty thousand managers, twice as many as Blair and Brown had ridiculed the Tory government for hiring. An ambitious computer project for the whole NHS became an expensive catastrophe. Meanwhile, the health service budget rose from thirty-seven billion to more than ninety-two billion a year. But the investment produced results, with waiting lists, a source of great public anger from the mid-nineties, falling by 200,000. By 2005, Blair was able to talk of the best waiting list figures since 1988. Hardly anyone was left waiting for an inpatient appointment for more than six months. Death rates from cancer for people under the age of seventy-five fell by 15.7 per cent between 1996 and 2006 and death rates from heart disease fell by just under thirty-six per cent. Meanwhile, the public finance initiative meant that new hospitals were being built around the country. But, unfortunately for New Labour, that was not the whole story of the Health Service under their stewardship. As Andrew Marr has attested,

…’Czars’, quangos, agencies, commissions, access teams and planners hunched over the NHS as Whitehall, having promised to devolve power, now imposed a new round of mind-dazing control.

By the autumn of 2004 hospitals were subject to more than a hundred inspections. War broke out between Brown and the Treasury and the ‘Blairite’ Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, about the basic principles of running the hospitals. Milburn wanted more competition between them, but Brown didn’t see how this was possible when most people had only one major local hospital. Polling suggested that he was making a popular point. Most people simply wanted better hospitals, not more choice. A truce was eventually declared with the establishment of a small number of independent, ‘foundation’ hospitals. By the 2005 general election, Michael Howard’s Conservatives were attacking Labour for wasting money and allowing people’s lives to be put at risk in dirty, badly run hospitals. Just like Labour once had, they were promising to cut bureaucracy and the number of organisations within the NHS. By the summer of 2006, despite the huge injection of funds, the Service was facing a cash crisis. Although the shortfall was not huge as a percentage of the total budget, trusts in some of the most vulnerable parts of the country were on the edge of bankruptcy, from Hartlepool to Cornwall and across to London. Throughout Britain, seven thousand jobs had gone and the Royal College of Nursing, the professional association to which most nurses belonged, was predicting thirteen thousand more would go soon. Many newly and expensively qualified doctors and even specialist consultants could not find work. It seemed that wage costs, expensive new drugs, poor management and the money poured into endless bureaucratic reforms had resulted in a still inadequate service. Bupa, the leading private operator, had been covering some 2.3 million people in 1999. Six years later, the figure was more than eight million. This partly reflected greater affluence, but it was also hardly a resounding vote of confidence in Labour’s management of the NHS.

Public Spending, Declining Regions & Economic Development:

As public spending had begun to flow during the second Blair administration, vast amounts of money had gone in pay rises, new bureaucracies and on bills for outside consultants. Ministries had been unused to spending again, after the initial period of ‘prudence’, and did not always do it well. Brown and his Treasury team resorted to double and triple counting of early spending increases in order to give the impression they were doing more for hospitals, schools and transport than they actually could. As Marr has pointed out, …

… In trying to achieve better policing, more effective planning, healthier school food, prettier town centres and a hundred other hopes, the centre of government ordered and cajoled, hassled and harangued, always high-minded, always speaking for ‘the people’.  

The railways, after yet another disaster, were shaken up again. In very controversial circumstances Railtrack, the once-profitable monopoly company operating the lines, was driven to bankruptcy and a new system of Whitehall control was imposed. At one point, Tony Blair boasted of having five hundred targets for the public sector. Parish councils, small businesses and charities found that they were loaded with directives. Schools and hospitals had many more. Marr has commented, …

The interference was always well-meant but it clogged up the arteries of free decision-taking and frustrated responsible public life. 

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Throughout the New Labour years, with steady growth and low inflation, most of the country grew richer. Growth since 1997, at 2.8 per cent per year, was above the post-war average, GDP per head was above that of France and Germany and the country had the second lowest jobless figures in the EU. The number of people in work increased by 2.4 million. Incomes grew, in real terms, by about a fifth. Pensions were in trouble, but house price inflation soured, so the owners found their properties more than doubling in value and came to think of themselves as prosperous. By 2006 analysts were assessing the disposable wealth of the British at forty thousand pounds per household. However, the wealth was not spread geographically, averaging sixty-eight thousand in the south-east of England, but a little over thirty thousand in Wales and north-east England (see map above). But even in the historically poorer parts of the UK house prices had risen fast, so much so that government plans to bulldoze worthless northern terraces had to be abandoned when they started to regain value. Cheap mortgages, easy borrowing and high property prices meant that millions of people felt far better off, despite the overall rise in the tax burden. Cheap air travel gave the British opportunities for easy travel both to traditional resorts and also to every part of the European continent. British expatriates were able to buy properties across the French countryside and in southern Spain. Some even began to commute weekly to jobs in London or Manchester from Mediterranean villas, and regional airports boomed as a result.

Sir Tim Berners Lee arriving at the Guildhall to receive the Honorary Freedom of the City of LondonThe internet, also known as the ‘World-Wide Web’, which was ‘invented’ by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee at the end of 1989 (pictured right in 2014), was advancing from the colleges and institutions into everyday life by the mid- ‘noughties’. It first began to attract popular interest in the mid-nineties: Britain’s first internet café and magazine, reviewing a few hundred early websites, were both launched in 1994. The following year saw the beginning of internet shopping as a major pastime, with both ‘eBay’ and ‘Amazon’ arriving, though to begin with they only attracted tiny numbers of people.

But the introduction of new forms of mail-order and ‘click and collect’ shopping quickly attracted significant adherents from different ‘demographics’.  The growth of the internet led to a feeling of optimism, despite warnings that the whole digital world would collapse because of the inability of computers to cope with the last two digits in the year ‘2000’, which were taken seriously at the time. In fact, the ‘dot-com’ bubble was burst by its own excessive expansion, as with any bubble, and following a pause and a lot of ruined dreams, the ‘new economy’ roared on again. By 2000, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), around forty per cent of Britons had accessed the internet at some time. Three years later, nearly half of British homes were ‘online’. By 2004, the spread of ‘broadband’ connections had brought a new mass market in ‘downloading’ music and video. By 2006, three-quarters of British children had internet access at home.

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Simultaneously, the rich of America, Europe and Russia began buying up parts of London, and then other ‘attractive’ parts of the country, including Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Yorkshire and Cornwall. ‘Executive housing’ with pebbled driveways, brick facing and dormer windows, was growing across farmland and by rivers with no thought of flood-plain constraints. Parts of the country far from London, such as the English south-west and Yorkshire, enjoyed a ripple of wealth that pushed their house prices to unheard-of levels. From Leith to Gateshead, Belfast to Cardiff Bay, once-derelict shorefront areas were transformed. The nineteenth-century buildings in the Albert Dock in Liverpool (above) now house a maritime museum, an art gallery, shopping centre and television studio. It has also become a tourist attraction. For all the problems and disappointments, and the longer-term problems with their financing, new schools and public buildings sprang up – new museums, galleries, vast shopping complexes (see below), corporate headquarters in a biomorphic architecture of glass and steel, more imaginative and better-looking than their predecessors from the dreary age of concrete.

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Supermarket chains exercised huge market power, offering cheap meat and dairy products into almost everyone’s budgets. Factory-made ready-meals were transported and imported by the new global air freight market and refrigerated trucks and lorries moving freely across a Europe shorn of internal barriers. Out-of-season fruit and vegetables, fish from the Pacific, exotic foods of all kinds and freshly cut flowers appeared in superstores everywhere. Hardly anyone was out of reach of a ‘Tesco’, a ‘Morrison’s’, a ‘Sainsbury’s’ or an ‘Asda’. By the mid-noughties, the four supermarket giants owned more than 1,500 superstores throughout the UK. They spread the consumption of goods that in the eighties and nineties had seemed like luxuries. Students had to take out loans in order to go to university but were far more likely to do so than previous generations, as well as to travel more widely on a ‘gap’ year, not just to study or work abroad.

Those ‘Left Behind’ – Poverty, Pensions & Public Order:

Materially, for the majority of people, this was, to use Marr’s term, a ‘golden age’, which perhaps helps to explain both why earlier real anger about earlier pension decisions and stealth taxes did not translate into anti-Labour voting in successive general elections. The irony is that in pleasing ‘Middle Englanders’, the Blair-Brown government lost contact with traditional Labour voters, especially in the North of Britain, who did not benefit from these ‘golden years’ to the same extent. Gordon Brown, from the first, made much of New Labour’s anti-poverty agenda, and especially child poverty. Since the launch of the Child Poverty Action Group, this latter problem had become particularly emotive. Labour policies took a million children out of relative poverty between 1997 and 2004, though the numbers rose again later. Brown’s emphasis was on the working poor and the virtue of work. So his major innovations were the national minimum wage, the ‘New Deal’ for the young unemployed, and the working families’ tax credit, as well as tax credits aimed at children. There was also a minimum income guarantee and a later pension credit, for poorer pensioners.

The minimum wage was first set at three pounds sixty an hour, rising year by year. In 2006 it was 5.35 an hour. Because the figures were low, it did not destroy the two million jobs as the Tories claimed it would. Neither did it produce higher inflation; employment continued to grow while inflation remained low. It even seemed to have cut red tape. By the mid-noughties, the minimum wage covered two million people, the majority of them women. Because it was updated ahead of rises in inflation rates, the wages of the poor also rose faster. It was so successful that even the Tories were forced to embrace it ahead of the 2005 election. The New Deal was funded by a windfall tax on privatised utility companies, and by 2000 Blair said it had helped a quarter of a million young people back into work, and it was being claimed as a major factor in lower rates of unemployment as late as 2005. But the National Audit Office, looking back on its effect in the first parliament, reckoned the number of under twenty-five-year-olds helped into real jobs was as low as 25,000, at a cost per person of eight thousand pounds. A second initiative was targeted at the babies and toddlers of the most deprived families. ‘Sure Start’ was meant to bring mothers together in family centres across Britain – 3,500 were planned for 2010, ten years after the scheme had been launched – and to help them to become more effective parents. However, some of the most deprived families failed to show up. As Andrew Marr wrote, back in 2007:

Poverty is hard to define, easy to smell. In a country like Britain, it is mostly relative. Though there are a few thousand people living rough or who genuinely do not have enough to keep them decently alive, and many more pensioners frightened of how they will pay for heating, the greater number of poor are those left behind the general material improvement in life. This is measured by income compared to the average and by this yardstick in 1997 there were three to four million children living in households of relative poverty, triple the number in 1979. This does not mean they were physically worse off than the children of the late seventies, since the country generally became much richer. But human happiness relates to how we see ourselves relative to those around us, so it was certainly real. 

The Tories, now under new management in the shape of a media-marketing executive and old Etonian, David Cameron, also declared that they believed in this concept of relative poverty. After all, it was on their watch, during the Thatcher and Major governments, that it had tripled, which is why it was only towards the end of the New Labour governments that they could accept the definition of the left-of-centre Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee. A world of ‘black economy’ work also remained below the minimum wage, in private care homes, where migrant servants were exploited, and in other nooks and crannies. Some 336,000 jobs remained on ‘poverty pay’ rates. Yet ‘redistribution of wealth’, a socialist phrase which had become unfashionable under New Labour lest it should scare away middle Englanders, was stronger in Brown’s Britain than in other major industrialised nations. Despite the growth of the super-rich, many of whom were immigrants anyway, overall equality increased in these years. One factor in this was the return to the means-testing of benefits, particularly for pensioners and through the working families’ tax credit, subsequently divided into a child tax credit and a working tax credit. This was a U-turn by Gordon Brown, who had opposed means-testing when in Opposition. As Chancellor, he concluded that if he was to direct scarce resources at those in real poverty, he had little choice.

Apart from the demoralising effect it had on pensioners, the other drawback to means-testing was that a huge bureaucracy was needed to track people’s earnings and to try to establish exactly what they should be getting in benefits. Billions were overpaid and as people did better and earned more from more stable employment, they then found themselves facing huge demands to hand back the money they had already spent. Thousands of extra civil servants were needed to deal with the subsequent complaints and the scheme became extremely expensive to administer. There were also controversial drives to oblige more disabled people back to work, and the ‘socially excluded’ were confronted by a range of initiatives designed to make them more middle class. Compared with Mrs Thatcher’s Victorian Values and Mr Major’s Back to Basics campaigns, Labour was supposed to be non-judgemental about individual behaviour. But a form of moralism did begin to reassert itself. Parenting classes were sometimes mandated through the courts and for the minority who made life hell for their neighbours on housing estates, Labour introduced the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (‘Asbo’). These were first given out in 1998, granted by magistrates to either the police or the local council. It became a criminal offence to break the curfew or other sanction, which could be highly specific. Asbos could be given out for swearing at others in the street, harassing passers-by, vandalism, making too much noise, graffiti, organising ‘raves’, flyposting, taking drugs, sniffing glue, joyriding, prostitution, hitting people and drinking in public.

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Although they served a useful purpose in many cases, there were fears that for the really rough elements in society and their tough children they became a badge of honour. Since breaking an Asbo could result in an automatic prison sentence, people were sent to jail for crimes that had not warranted this before. But as they were refined in use and strengthened, they became more effective and routine. By 2007, seven and a half thousand had been given out in England and Wales alone and Scotland had introduced its own version in 2004. Some civil liberties campaigners saw this development as part of a wider authoritarian and surveillance agenda which also led to the widespread use of CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) cameras by the police and private security guards, especially in town centres (see above). Also in 2007, it was estimated that the British were being observed and recorded by 4.2 million such cameras. That amounted to one camera for every fourteen people, a higher ratio than for any other country in the world, with the possible exception of China. In addition, the number of mobile phones was already equivalent to the number of people in Britain. With global satellite positioning chips (GPS) these could show exactly where their users were and the use of such systems in cars and even out on the moors meant that Britons were losing their age-old prowess for map-reading.

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The ‘Seven Seven’ Bombings – The Home-grown ‘Jihadis’:

Despite these increasing means of mass surveillance, Britain’s cities have remained vulnerable to terrorist attacks, more recently by so-called ‘Islamic terrorists’ rather than by the Provisional IRA, who abandoned their bombing campaign in 1998. On 7 July 2005, at rush-hour, four young Muslim men from West Yorkshire and Buckinghamshire, murdered fifty-two people and injured 770 others by blowing themselves up on London Underground trains and on a London bus. The report into this worst such attack in Britain later concluded that they were not part of an al Qaeda cell, though two of them had visited camps in Pakistan, and that the rucksack bombs had been constructed at the cost of a few hundred pounds. Despite the government’s insistence that the war in Iraq had not made Britain more of a target for terrorism, the Home Office investigation asserted that the four had been motivated, in part at least, by ‘British foreign policy’.

They had picked up the information they needed for the attack from the internet. It was a particularly grotesque attack, because of the terrifying and bloody conditions in the underground tunnels and it vividly reminded the country that it was as much a target as the United States or Spain. Indeed, the long-standing and intimate relationship between Great Britain and Pakistan, with constant and heavy air traffic between them, provoked fears that the British would prove uniquely vulnerable. Tony Blair heard of the attack at the most poignant time, just following London’s great success in winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games (see above). The ‘Seven Seven’ bombings are unlikely to have been stopped by CCTV surveillance, of which there was plenty at the tube stations, nor by ID cards (which had recently been under discussion), since the killers were British subjects, nor by financial surveillance, since little money was involved and the materials were paid for in cash. Even better intelligence might have helped, but the Security Services, both ‘MI5’ and ‘MI6’ as they are known, were already in receipt of huge increases in their budgets, as they were in the process of tracking down other murderous cells. In 2005, police arrested suspects in Birmingham, High Wycombe and Walthamstow, in east London, believing there was a plot to blow up as many as ten passenger aircraft over the Atlantic.

After many years of allowing dissident clerics and activists from the Middle East asylum in London, Britain had more than its share of inflammatory and dangerous extremists, who admired al Qaeda and preached violent jihad. Once 11 September 2001 had changed the climate, new laws were introduced to allow the detention without trial of foreigners suspected of being involved in supporting or fomenting terrorism. They could not be deported because human rights legislation forbade sending back anyone to countries where they might face torture. Seventeen were picked up and held at Belmarsh high-security prison. But in December 2004, the House of Lords ruled that these detentions were discriminatory and disproportionate, and therefore illegal. Five weeks later, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke hit back with ‘control orders’ to limit the movement of men he could not prosecute or deport. These orders would also be used against home-grown terror suspects. A month later, in February 2005, sixty Labour MPs rebelled against these powers too, and the government only narrowly survived the vote. In April 2006 a judge ruled that the control orders were an affront to justice because they gave the Home Secretary, a politician, too much power. Two months later, the same judge ruled that curfew orders of eighteen hours per day on six Iraqis were a deprivation of liberty and also illegal. The new Home Secretary, John Reid, lost his appeal and had to loosen the orders.

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Britain found itself in a struggle between its old laws and liberties and a new, borderless world in which the hallowed principles of ‘habeas corpus’, free speech, a presumption of innocence, asylum, the right of British subjects to travel freely in their own country without identifying papers, and the sanctity of homes in which the law-abiding lived were all coming under increasing jeopardy. The new political powers seemed to government ministers the least that they needed to deal with a threat that might last for another thirty years in order, paradoxically, to secure Britain’s liberties for the long-term beyond that. They were sure that most British people agreed, and that the judiciary, media, civil rights campaigners and elected politicians who protested were an ultra-liberal minority. Tony Blair, John Reid and Jack Straw were emphatic about this, and it was left to liberal Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to mount the barricades in defence of civil liberties. Andrew Marr conceded at the time that the New Labour ministers were ‘probably right’. With the benefit of hindsight, others will probably agree. As Gordon Brown eyed the premiership, his rhetoric was similarly tough, but as Blair was forced to turn to the ‘war on terror’ and Iraq, he failed to concentrate enough on domestic policy. By 2005, neither of them could be bothered to disguise their mutual enmity, as pictured above. A gap seemed to open up between Blair’s enthusiasm for market ideas in the reform of health and schools, and Brown’s determination to deliver better lives for the working poor. Brown was also keen on bringing private capital into public services, but there was a difference in emphasis which both men played up. Blair claimed that the New Labour government was best when we are at our boldest. But Brown retorted that it was best when we are Labour. 

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Tony Blair’s legacy continued to be paraded on the streets of Britain,

here blaming him and George Bush for the rise of ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq.

Asylum Seekers, EU ‘Guest’ Workers & Immigrants:

One result of the long Iraqi conflict, which President Bush finally declared to be over on 1 May 2003, was the arrival of many Iraqi asylum-seekers in Britain; Kurds, as well as Shiites and Sunnis. This attracted little comment at the time because there had been both Iraqi and Iranian refugees in Britain since the 1970s, especially as students and the fresh influx were only a small part of a much larger migration into the country which changed it fundamentally during the Blair years. This was a multi-lingual migration, including many Poles, some Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans whose countries had joined the EU and its single market in 2004. When the EU expanded Britain decided that, unlike France or Germany, it would not try to delay opening the country to migrant workers. The accession treaties gave nationals from these countries the right to freedom of movement and settlement, and with average earnings three times higher in the UK, this was a benefit which the Eastern Europeans were keen to take advantage of. Some member states, however, exercised their right to ‘derogation’ from the treaties, whereby they would only permit migrant workers to be employed if employers were unable to find a local candidate. In terms of European Union legislation, a derogation or that a member state has opted not to enforce a specific provision in a treaty due to internal circumstances (typically a state of emergency), and to delay full implementation of the treaty for five years. The UK decided not to exercise this option.

There were also sizeable inflows of western Europeans, though these were mostly students, who (somewhat controversially) were also counted in the immigration statistics, and young professionals with multi-national companies. At the same time, there was continued immigration from Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as from Russia, Australia, South Africa and North America. In 2005, according to the Office for National Statistics, ‘immigrants’ were arriving to live in Britain at the rate of 1,500 a day. Since Tony Blair had been in power, more than 1.3 million had arrived. By the mid-2000s, English was no longer the first language of half the primary school children in London, and the capital had more than 350 different first languages. Five years later, the same could be said of many towns in Kent and other Eastern counties of England.

The poorer of the new migrant groups were almost entirely unrepresented in politics, but radically changed the sights, sounds and scents of urban Britain, and even some of its market towns. The veiled women of the Muslim world or its more traditionalist Arab, Afghan and Pakistani quarters became common sights on the streets, from Kent to Scotland and across to South Wales. Polish tradesmen, fruit-pickers and factory workers were soon followed by shops owned by Poles or stocking Polish and East European delicacies and selling Polish newspapers and magazines. Even road signs appeared in Polish, though in Kent these were mainly put in place along trucking routes used by Polish drivers, where for many years signs had been in French and German, a recognition of the employment changes in the long-distance haulage industry. Even as far north as Cheshire (see below), these were put in place to help monolingual truckers using trunk roads, rather than local Polish residents, most of whom had enough English to understand such signs either upon arrival or shortly afterwards. Although specialist classes in English had to be laid on in schools and community centres, there was little evidence that the impact of multi-lingual migrants had a long-term impact on local children and wider communities. In fact, schools were soon reporting a positive impact in terms of their attitudes toward learning and in improving general educational standards.

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Problems were posed, however, by the operations of people smugglers and criminal gangs. Chinese villagers were involved in a particular tragedy when nineteen of them were caught while cockle-picking in Morecambe Bay by the notorious tides and drowned. Many more were working for ‘gang-masters’ as virtual, in some cases actual ‘slaves’. Russian voices became common on the London Underground, and among prostitutes on the streets. The British Isles found themselves to be ‘islands in the stream’ of international migration, the chosen ‘sceptred isle’ destinations of millions of newcomers. Unlike Germany, Britain was no longer a dominant manufacturing country but had rather become, by the late twentieth century, a popular place to develop digital and financial products and services. Together with the United States and against the Soviet Union, it was determined to preserve a system of representative democracy and the free market. Within the EU, Britain maintained its earlier determination to resist the Franco-German federalist model, with its ‘social chapter’ involving ever tighter controls over international corporations and ever closer political union. Britain had always gone out into the world. Now, increasingly, the world came to Britain, whether poor immigrants, rich corporations or Chinese manufacturers.

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Multilingual & Multicultural Britain:

Immigration had always been a constant factor in British life, now it was also a fact of life which Europe and the whole world had to come to terms with. Earlier post-war migrations to Britain had provoked a racialist backlash, riots, the rise of extreme right-wing organisations and a series of new laws aimed at controlling it. New laws had been passed to control both immigration from the Commonwealth and the backlash to it. The later migrations were controversial in different ways. The ‘Windrush’ arrivals from the Caribbean and those from the Indian subcontinent were people who looked different but who spoke the same language and in many ways had had a similar education to that of the ‘native’ British. Many of the later migrants from Eastern Europe looked similar to the white British but shared little by way of a common linguistic and cultural background. However, it’s not entirely true to suggest, as Andrew Marr seems to, that they did not have a shared history. Certainly, through no fault of their own, the Eastern Europeans had been cut off from their western counterparts by their absorption into the Soviet Russian Empire after the Second World War, but in the first half of the century, Poland had helped the British Empire to subdue its greatest rival, Germany, as had most of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Even during the Soviet ‘occupation’ of these countries, many of their citizens had found refuge in Britain.

Moreover, by the early 1990s, Britain had already become both a multilingual nation. In 1991, Safder Alladina and Viv Edwards published a book for the Longman Linguistics Library which detailed the Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and Yiddish speech communities of previous generations. Growing up in Birmingham, I certainly heard many Polish, Yiddish, Yugoslav and Greek accents among my neighbours and parents of school friends, at least as often as I heard Welsh, Irish, Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani accents. The Longman book begins with a foreword by Debi Prasanna Pattanayak in which she stated that the Language Census of 1987 had shown that there were 172 different languages spoken by children in the schools of the Inner London Education Authority. In an interesting precursor of the controversy to come, she related how the reaction in many quarters was stunned disbelief, and how one British educationalist had told her that England had become a third world country. She commented:

After believing in the supremacy of English as the universal language, it was difficult to acknowledge that the UK was now one of the greatest immigrant nations of the modern world. It was also hard to see that the current plurality is based on a continuity of heritage. … Britain is on the crossroads. It can take an isolationist stance in relation to its internal cultural environment. It can create a resilient society by trusting its citizens to be British not only in political but in cultural terms. The first road will mean severing dialogue with the many heritages which have made the country fertile. The second road would be working together with cultural harmony for the betterment of the country. Sharing and participation would ensure not only political but cultural democracy. The choice is between mediocrity and creativity.

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Language and dialect in the British Isles, showing the linguistic diversity in many English cities by 1991 as a result of Commonwealth immigration as well as the survival and revival of many of the older Celtic languages and dialects of English.

Such ‘liberal’, ‘multi-cultural’ views may be unfashionable now, more than a quarter of a century later, but it is perhaps worth stopping to look back on that cultural crossroads, and on whether we are now back at that same crossroads, or have arrived at another one. By the 1990s, the multilingual setting in which new Englishes evolved had become far more diverse than it had been in the 1940s, due to immigration from the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, the Far East, and West and East Africa. The largest of the ‘community languages’ was Punjabi, with over half a million speakers, but there were also substantial communities of Gujurati speakers (perhaps a third of a million) and a hundred thousand Bengali speakers. In some areas, such as East London, public signs and notices recognise this (see below). Bengali-speaking children formed the most recent and largest linguistic minority within the ILEA and because the majority of them had been born in Bangladesh, they were inevitably in the greatest need of language support within the schools. A new level of linguistic and cultural diversity was introduced through Commonwealth immigration.

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Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s. By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards of North and Central Birmingham (see the map above).  After the hostility towards New Commonwealth immigrants in some sections of the local White populations in the 1960s and ’70s, they had become more established in cities like Birmingham, where places of worship, ethnic groceries, butchers and, perhaps most significantly, ‘balti’ restaurants, began to proliferate in the 1980s and ’90s. The settlers materially changed the cultural and social life of the city, most of the ‘white’ population believing that these changes were for the better. By 1991, Pakistanis had overtaken West Indians and Indians to become the largest single ethnic minority in Birmingham. The concentration of West Indian and South Asian British people in the inner city areas changed little by the end of the century, though there was an evident flight to the suburbs by Indians. As well as being poorly-paid, the factory work available to South Asian immigrants like the man in a Bradford textile factory below, was unskilled. By the early nineties, the decline of the textile industry over the previous two decades had let to high long-term unemployment in the immigrant communities in the Northern towns, leading to serious social problems.

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Nor is it entirely true to suggest that, as referred to above, Caribbean arrivals in Britain faced few linguistic obstacles integrating themselves into British life from the late 1940s to the late 1980s. By the end of these forty years, the British West Indian community had developed its own “patois”, which had a special place as a token of identity. One Jamaican schoolgirl living in London in the late eighties explained the social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, but which made it almost obligatory in London. She wasn’t allowed to speak Jamaican Creole in front of her parents in Jamaica. When she arrived in Britain and went to school, she naturally tried to fit in by speaking the same patois, but some of her British Caribbean classmates told her that, as a “foreigner”, she should not try to be like them, and should speak only English. But she persevered with the patois and lost her British accent after a year and was accepted by her classmates. But for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylized form that was not truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians had come from all parts of the Caribbean. When another British West Indian girl, born in Britain, was taken to visit Jamaica, she found herself being teased about her London patois and told to speak English.

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The predicament that still faced the ‘Black British’ in the late eighties and into the nineties was that, for all the rhetoric, they were still not fully accepted by the established ‘White community’. Racism was still an everyday reality for large numbers of British people. There was plenty of evidence of the ways in which Black people were systematically denied access to employment in all sections of the job market.  The fact that a racist calamity like the murder in London of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence could happen in 1993 was a testimony to how little had changed in British society’s inability to face up to racism since the 1950s. As a result, the British-Caribbean population could still not feel itself to be neither fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips has called “The Final Passage”, the title of his novel which is narrated in Standard English with the direct speech by the characters rendered in Creole. Phillips migrated to Britain as a baby with his parents in the 1950s, and sums up his linguistic and cultural experience as follows:

“The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic shizophrenia – you have an identity that mirrors the larger cultural confusion.”

One of his older characters in The Final Passage characterises “England” as a “college for the West Indian”, and, as Philipps himself put it, that is “symptomatic of the colonial situation; the language is divided as well”.  As the “Windrush Scandal”, involving the deportation of British West Indians from the UK has recently shown, this post-colonial “cultural confusion” still ‘colours’ political and institutional attitudes twenty-five years after the death of Stephen Lawrence, leading to discriminatory judgements by officials. This example shows how difficult it is to arrive at some kind of chronological classification of migrations to Britain into the period of economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s; the asylum-seekers of the 1970s and 1980s; and the EU expansion and integration in the 1990s and the first decades of the 2000s. This approach assumed stereotypical patterns of settlement for the different groups, whereas the reality was much more diverse. Most South Asians, for example, arrived in Britain in the post-war period but they were joining a migration ‘chain’ which had been established at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, most Eastern European migrants arrived in Britain in several quite distinct waves of population movement. This led the authors of the Longman Linguistics book to organise it into geolinguistic areas, as shown in the figure below:

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The Poles and Ukrainians of the immediate post-war period, the Hungarians in the 1950s, the Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and the Tamils in the 1980s, sought asylum in Britain as refugees. In contrast, settlers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean, had, in the main come from areas of high unemployment and/or low wages, for economic reasons. It was not possible, even then, to make a simple split between political and economic migrants since, even within the same group, motivations differed through time. The Eastern Europeans who had arrived in Britain since the Second World War had come for a variety of reasons; in many cases, they were joining earlier settlers trying either to escape poverty in the home country or to better their lot. A further important factor in the discussion about the various minority communities in Britain was the pattern of settlement. Some groups were concentrated into a relatively small geographical area which made it possible to develop and maintain strong social networks; others were more dispersed and so found it more difficult to maintain a sense of community. Most Spaniards, Turks and Greeks were found in London, whereas Ukrainians and Poles were scattered throughout the country. In the case of the Poles, the communities outside London were sufficiently large to be able to sustain an active community life; in the case of Ukrainians, however, the small numbers and the dispersed nature of the community made the task of forging a separate linguistic and cultural identity a great deal more difficult.

Groups who had little contact with the home country also faced very real difficulties in retaining their distinct identities. Until 1992, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians and Estonians were unable to travel freely to their country of origin; neither could they receive visits from family members left behind; until the mid-noughties, there was no possibility of new immigration which would have the effect of revitalizing these communities in Britain. Nonetheless, they showed great resilience in maintaining their ethnic minority, not only through community involvement in the UK but by building links with similar groups in Europe and even in North America. The inevitable consequence of settlement in Britain was a shift from the mother tongue to English. The extent of this shift varied according to individual factors such as the degree of identification with the mother tongue culture; it also depended on group factors such as the size of the community, its degree of self-organisation and the length of time it had been established in Britain. For more recently arrived communities such as the Bangladeshis, the acquisition of English was clearly a more urgent priority than the maintenance of the mother tongue, whereas, for the settled Eastern Europeans, the shift to English was so complete that mother tongue teaching was often a more urgent community priority. There were reports of British-born Ukrainians and Yiddish-speaking Jews who were brought up in predominantly English-speaking homes who were striving to produce an environment in which their children could acquire their ‘heritage’ language.

Blair’s Open Door Policy & EU Freedom of Movement:

During the 1980s and ’90s, under the ‘rubric’ of multiculturalism, a steady stream of immigration into Britain continued, especially from the Indian subcontinent. But an unspoken consensus existed whereby immigration, while always gradually increasing, was controlled. What happened after the Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997 was a breaking of that consensus, according to Douglas Murray, the author of the recent (2017) book, The Strange Death of Europe. He argues that once in power, Tony Blair’s government oversaw an opening of the borders on a scale unparalleled even in the post-war decades. His government abolished the ‘primary purpose rule’, which had been used as a filter out bogus marriage applications. The borders were opened to anyone deemed essential to the British economy, a definition so broad that it included restaurant workers as ‘skilled labourers’. And as well as opening the door to the rest of the world, they opened the door to the new EU member states after 2004. It was the effects of all of this, and more, that created the picture of the country which was eventually revealed in the 2011 Census, published at the end of 2012.

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The numbers of non-EU nationals moving to settle in Britain were expected only to increase from 100,000 a year in 1997 to 170,000 in 2004. In fact, the government’s predictions for the number of new arrivals over the five years 1999-2004 were out by almost a million people. It also failed to anticipate that the UK might also be an attractive destination for people with significantly lower average income levels or without a minimum wage. For these reasons, the number of Eastern European migrants living in Britain rose from 170,000 in 2004 to 1.24 million in 2013. Whether the surge in migration went unnoticed or was officially approved, successive governments did not attempt to restrict it until after the 2015 election, by which time it was too late.

(to be continued)

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

Epilogue to the Eighties & Prologue to the Nineties:

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

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

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

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

The Election of 1992 – A Curious Confidence Trick?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The concluding chapter of the Thatcher Revolution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic decline/ growth & political resuscitation:

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

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

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

Fighting the return of Fascism in Europe:

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

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

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

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

Back to basics?

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1989 – 1992.   1 comment

Heroes and Villains at Home and Abroad:

In the middle of all the heroic struggles for freedom in the world in 1989, the Westminster village ‘bubble’ witnessed an event which seemed anything but heroic. Thatcher had been challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer, an elderly ‘backbencher’, pro-European, who was seen as a ‘stalking horse’ for bigger beasts to enter the fray in a challenge to the Prime Minister. He was much mocked on the Conservative benches as ‘the stalking donkey’, In the 1989 leadership election on 5 December, Meyer was defeated by 314 votes to 33, yet the vote was ominous for Thatcher when it was discovered sixty Tory MPs had either voted for ‘the donkey’ or abstained. Meyer himself said that people started to think the unthinkable, while in the shadows, prowling through Conservative associations and the corridors of Westminster was a far more dangerous, wounded creature.

Michael Heseltine, who had walked out of the Tory cabinet four years earlier, was licking his wounds, recovering and ready to pounce. He showed sympathy towards Tory MPs, in trouble in their constituencies over the poll tax, but tried neither to lick his lips nor sharpen his claws too obviously in public. On 31 March 1990, the day before the poll tax was due to take effect in England and Wales, there was a massive demonstration against it which ended with a riot in Trafalgar Square (pictured below). Scaffolding was ripped apart and used to throw at the mounted police, cars were set on fire and shop windows were smashed. More than three hundred people were arrested and four hundred policemen were hurt.

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Thatcher dismissed the riots as mere wickedness, which of course they were. Yet beneath them, it was obvious that there was a growing swell of protest by the lower middle class, normally law-abiding voters who insisted that they simply could not and would not pay it. That was what shook her cabinet and her MPs, worried about their electoral prospects in 1992. One by one, the inner core of true Thatcherites peeled off from their leader. Her Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, had to resign after being rude about the Germans in a magazine interview. John Major turned out to be worryingly pro-European after all. Ian Gow, one of her closest associates, was murdered by an IRA bomb at his home. As the Conservatives’ ratings slumped in the country, Tory MPs who had opposed the tax, including Michael Heseltine’s key organiser, Michael Mates, began to ask their colleagues whether it was not now time that she was removed from power.

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Abroad, great world events continued to overshadow the last days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A few weeks after the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, the man whom Margaret Thatcher had once denounced as a terrorist, was released from gaol in South Africa to global acclaim. In April, Douglas Hurd, who had replaced Geoffrey Howe as the British Foreign Secretary, visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. The BBC’s John Simpson (pictured below) was among a group of journalists had assembled outside the Spassky Gate he Kremlin and as the bells sounded their strange falling peel on the hour they were ushered in by a side entrance.

Inside, there was little obvious security; for Simpson, the Kremlin in 1990 was a more relaxed place than the Palace of Westminster or the White House. However, a Kremlin official was watching and listening to them nervously. The doors were opened and they went into a room that was large and echoing, with Gorbachev and Hurd sitting with their translators in one corner of it, at a small table. Later, Hurd said that Gorbachev had been his usual enthusiastic and ebullient self, but to Simpson, he looked a good deal older and more tired than when he had seen him last in Belgrade, describing to the camera the problems he was having with the ‘regional problems’ in the Soviet Union. Only his eyes remained as intense and concentrated as they had then. He leaned across the table, holding Douglas Hurd’s gaze while their public compliments were translated. Simpson commented:

If the problems of coping with a collapsing empire were telling on him, they had not crushed him. The man who asked Margaret Thatcher at length in December 1984 about how Britain had divested herself of her colonies now had personal experience of the process. 

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At the time, Gorbachev had his problems with the demands of the Baltic States to leave the Soviet Union quickly and without face-saving negotiations. As the journalists grouped around the table where he and Douglas Hurd faced each other, Simpson caught the eye of Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister, who was sitting next to Gorbachev:

I mouthed the word ‘Question’ to him and nodded towards Gorbachev. Shevardnadze shrugged and mouthed back the English word ‘Try’. But directly my colleagues and I began asking about Lithuania, Gorbachev smiled and shook his head. “I answered several hundred questions from the ‘Komosol’ this morning. That’s enough for me,” he said. The strain in his face seemed greater than ever. We were ushered out, and the double doors closed on him.

For John Simpson, the lesson of the winter of change in Central and Eastern Europe was that, no matter how hard the Communist Party tried to reform itself, the voters would punish it for the sins and failures of the past. That was what happened at the polls in Hungary later that spring, Imre Pozsgay had made multi-party democracy a possibility; his newly-formed Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) of ‘reformed’ communists received a tiny percentage of the vote. I observed the spirit of national renewal which seemed to sweep the centre-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to power under the leadership of József Antall, the first freely-elected Prime Minister for forty years. In East Germany, most people agreed that Hans Modrow, the former Communist prime minister, was the best and most respected candidate standing in the election; he and his fellow communists felt that it was a considerable achievement to have won sixteen per cent of the vote. By the first few months of 1990 the mood in the Soviet Union was such that if there had been an election there, Simpson sensed that the Communist Party would have been swept out of office. Realising this, Gorbachev insisted that his election as President of the Soviet Union should be carried out by the deputies of the People’s Congress, not by popular vote. When local elections were held in the spring, Communist candidates usually fared badly.

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Above: August 1990 – The Iraqi Army invades and annexes Kuwait.

On 2 August, however, the whole world was taken by surprise by events in the Middle East. John Simpson was on holiday in the south of France (I was on a delayed honeymoon on Jersey) when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Within three hours of hearing the news on the radio, Simpson was on a plane back to London and two weeks later he was part of the first European television team to be allowed into Baghdad since the invasion. Negotiation had failed to dislodge the Iraqi forces and Thatcher had urged President George Bush to go into what became the Gulf War. An international coalition had been assembled. Simpson had decided that he wanted to report the war from the epicentre of the crisis, from Baghdad itself. He had left Iraq four months earlier, assuming that the authorities there would never have him back.

This was because he had become involved in the case of Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian journalist working for the Observer in Iraq. Between 1987 and 1989 the young Iranian had travelled to Iraq five times with nothing more substantial than British travel documents. The last time was in September 1989, and on the day he left London the news leaked out that a huge explosion had taken place at Iraqi government’s weapons manufacturing plant at Al Qa’qa sixty miles south of Baghdad. Committed to investigative journalism, Farzad Bazoft used his ‘considerable charm’ to persuade an attractive British nurse living in Baghdad, Daphne Parish, to drive him down there. He also asked an Iraqi minister and the information ministry for help to visit there and told the Observer over a heavily tapped phone line precisely what he was going to do. Farzad was picked up as he was leaving Baghdad airport at the end of his visit. In his luggage were some samples he had gathered from the roadside at Al Qa’qa; presumably, he wanted to have them analysed back in London to reveal what type of weapon had exploded there the previous month. He was tortured and eventually confessed to everything they wanted: in particular, to spying for the British and the Israelis. Daphne Parish refused to confess since she had not broken the law. When the Iraqi authorities put them together Farzad tried to persuade her to do as he had. It would, he said, mean that she would be released.

It didn’t of course; it just meant that the Iraqis had the grounds they wanted to execute Farzad Bazoft. At their trial, Farzad was sentenced to death and Parish to fifteen years. No one translated the sentence for them or told them what was going to happen. A British diplomat had to break the news to Farzad that he was to be hanged directly their meeting ended. Minutes later he was taken out and executed. Daphne Parish was released after ten difficult months in prison. Hanging Farzad Bazoft was Saddam Hussein’s first open defiance of the West. Mrs Thatcher had asked for his release, and called his action ‘an act of barbarism’. Those of us who had been campaigning on behalf of Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents who had fallen foul of such acts of imprisonment, torture and murder for the previous ten years, only to be told these were part of internecine conflict felt some vindication at last in these tragic circumstances. Had firm action, including effective sanctions, been taken against the Ba’athist régime been taken sooner, not only might Farzad and many others have been saved, but the whole sorry chapters of the wars in Iraq might have been unwritten. If the tabloid press in Britain hadn’t suddenly become hysterical about it, insulting the Iraqis, Farzad might, at least, have been spared the hangman’s noose.

All this had determined John Simpson to go to Baghdad himself to report the reality of Saddam’s reign of terror. Six weeks after Farzad’s death, he arrived there with a small team from the BBC and several other British journalists. There were daily demonstrations outside the British embassy complaining about the efforts which the British government was then belatedly making to stop weapons technology reaching Iraq. Simpson and his team were virtual prisoners in their hotel, and no one in the streets wanted to talk to them, knowing that such contacts with Western journalists were dangerous. The Ministry of Information decided to impound all of their video cassettes. Simpson had said something in a broadcast about the total surveillance under which they were working, which had upset their minders. Eamonn Matthews, the producer, decided to stay on to on for a few days to get them back and was picked up at the airport the following day exactly as Farzad had been. He was threatened, treated roughly, and kept a virtual prisoner overnight. When he walked into the Newsnight office in London his face showed signs of the stress he had been under. Simpson assumed he wouldn’t be let back into Iraq, and at that time, was not too upset about that.

When he changed his mind after the invasion of Kuwait in August, Saddam’s henchmen had already started taking British, European and American hostages. The risk seemed to be extremely high, but he couldn’t back away from it. The BBC didn’t like it, however, but he persuaded his bosses to let him see if he could get permission to return there in the first place. Since Britain had cut its diplomatic relations with Iraq after the execution of Farzad Bazoft, he had to apply for a visa in Paris. After receiving a ‘polite’ refusal from the Iraqi ambassador there, he processed through the Middle East reporting on the growing crisis and trying to find a way to get to Baghdad, with the producer and picture editor, Mike Davis. They started in Cairo, moved on to Jerusalem, and ended up in Amman, all without success in getting the visas. Just as he was about to leave for London, he heard that Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister was coming to Amman to give a press conference. He asked a couple of questions during the course of it, then ‘doorstepped’ Aziz as he left:

“Would it be possible for the BBC to visit Baghdad?”

“Why not?” he said, as he climbed into his expensive limousine. This time, though, I had the faint sense that he meant it.

The following day the Iraqi embassy in London called. Our visas had come through. 

When Simpson and his crew finally arrived in Baghdad, the streets were silent and empty. People were terrified of what might happen and mostly stayed indoors with their families. On his first afternoon there, Saddam Hussein visited some of the British hostages from Kuwait, accompanied by Iraqi television cameras, and stroked the hair of a young English boy as he talked to the parents. In an Arab context, there was nothing wrong with that, but back in Britain, the pictures set everyone’s teeth on edge. John Simpson was still meeting officials when the pictures were broadcast, and in between handshakes he tried to make out what was happening on the screen in the corner of the ministerial office. He asked if the hostages were going to be released, but the officials were vague and unwilling to commit themselves. They later discovered what Saddam had said during his meeting with the British family was that women and children taken hostage in Kuwait would be able to leave. They were brought up by coach to Baghdad and flown out from there. Many of the women behaved superbly, as Simpson reported. They smiled and kept calm while the Iraqi cameramen sweated and shoved them around. They talked in terms of quiet endearment about husbands and sons they had been forced to leave behind, and whose fate was completely uncertain. Many had no homes to go to in Britain, and no idea about where their future income would come from, or what it would be. Yet they spoke of returning to Britain’s green and pleasant lands and…

… to nice cups of tea … as if nothing had changed since the Blitz. They fought back the tears for the sake of their children, and busied themselves with their luggage so that the cameras couldn’t pry into their emotions.

Others complained. Their meals were cold, they couldn’t use the swimming pool in the luxurious hotel which the Iraqis had set aside for them in Baghdad, the journey from Kuwait had taken too long. …

Many complained that the Foreign Office or the British embassy had failed to help them enough, and seemed to feel it was all the  Government’s fault, as though Saddam Hussein were an act of God like drought or flooding, and Mrs Thatcher should do something about it.

“I don’t see why we should suffer because of her and President Bush,” said one affronted woman.

Another agreed. “If she’s going to call Saddam a dictator, why didn’t she wait till we were safely out of Kuwait?”

The British tabloid press lapped all this up, of course. They weren’t allowed into Iraq, so they interviewed the women as they came through Amman. Journey Through Hell was the way one headline described the trip by air-conditioned coach from Baghdad; Burning desert, torturing thirst, fiends, evil, sobbing loved ones, anguish: the newspaper hack’s thesaurus was in constant use. When he went back to London for a short break, the first ‘poster’ he saw declared Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam. As John Simpson commented,…

When the newspapers put a compulsory ‘evil’ in front of someone’s name, you know there’s a particular need for coolness and rationality. And to prove the superiority of our civilization over Saddam’s, someone threw a brick through the window of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Tottenham Court Road.

Simpson returned to Baghdad after a week or so, staying there from September to November 1990. There were some ‘peace tourists’ there too; well-intentioned people who hoped to prevent the war by join the Iraqi protests in Baghdad or try a bit of freelance negotiation. Others had come to plead for the release of their fellow citizens whom Saddam Hussein was holding hostage. As far as the foreign press and media were concerned, a government which had been so paranoid about them a few months earlier now invited them to Baghdad in such large numbers that the pool of English-speaking Iraqi ‘spooks’ was drained by the effort of following them around. By the autumn, there were well over a hundred journalists from the main western countries, and the main international news organisations. The man who had invited them, the chief civil servant in the Information ministry, Najji al-Haddithi, spoke fluent English and had managed to persuade his minister to approach Saddam Hussein with a plan: that Iraq should now regard Western journalists as useful in its own propaganda campaign. As a result, the régime gradually opened its doors to every major British broadsheet newspaper and every major American, Canadian, Japanese and European news organisation, which each had its own representative in Baghdad.

Simpson was allowed to stay the longest because he got on well with Najji al-Hadithi, who liked Britain and the British and had a British sense of humour. In reciprocation, and as he got to know both officials and private citizens, Simpson grew to love Iraq and to sympathise with it too. At a private dinner party in October, he asked al-Hadithi why he allowed so many foreign journalists to come to Baghdad when, only a few months before, the Iraqi government had kept the doors so firmly shut. The chief civil servant answered him,

Because we want you to see that we are human beings like yourselves. So that your readers and viewers will see it. So that if, God forbid, President Bush decides to bomb us, you will know what you are bombing. You are a form of protection for us.

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In the Gulf War, US marines arrive at Khabji, Saudi Arabia, to reinforce the front line.

In all his six months in the country, however, John Simpson had not managed to meet Saddam Hussein himself. In November 1990, just as he was about to arrange the details of their meeting, he found himself suddenly unable to get in touch with the officials, including al-Hadithi. He knew that this was because of Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to let anyone edit his words. Simpson had warned the officials that the BBC would not be able to run ninety minutes of the president uncut, that this was something that would not be allowed to any British politician, even to the Prime Minister herself. The Iraqis resolved this stand-off by offering the interview to Independent Television News instead, who said yes at once. Simpson was furious and decided to go back to London: he was also tired, after ten weeks in Baghdad without a break. More to the point, when the news came through of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, he decided he wanted to cover the campaign for the succession.

Saint Margaret – Down and Out in Paris and London:

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The final act in Margaret Thatcher’s near-eleven-year premiership had begun on the European continent earlier that autumn, which was also where it was to end at the end of that remarkable season in British politics. There was another summit in Rome and further pressure on the Delors plan. Again, Thatcher felt herself being pushed and dragged towards a federal scheme for Europe. She vented her anger in the Commons, shredding the proposals with the words, ‘No! … No! … No!’ After observing her flaming anti-Brussels tirade, Geoffrey Howe decided, that he had had enough. The former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary had already been demoted by Thatcher to being ‘Leader of the House’. Serving in the two great offices of state, and now Deputy Prime-Minister, a face-saving but significant status, he had endured a decade of her slights and snarls, her impatience and mockery. He would finally leave the government, joining Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson on the ‘back benches’ of the Commons but, like them, he would leave on his own terms.

Howe resigned on 1 November, but it was not until a fortnight later, on 13 November 1990, that he stood up from the back benches to make a famous resignation statement which was designed to answer Number Ten’s narrative that he had gone over nothing much at all. Howe had written a carefully worded letter of resignation in which he criticised the Prime Minister’s overall handling of UK relations with the European Community. After largely successful attempts by Number Ten to claim that there were differences only of style, rather than substance, in Howe’s disagreement with Thatcher on Europe, Howe, therefore, chose to send a powerful message of dissent. To a packed chamber, he revealed that Lawson and he had threatened to resign together the previous year at the summit in Madrid. He attacked Thatcher for running increasingly serious risks for the future of the country and criticised her for undermining the policies on EMU proposed by her own Chancellor and Governor of the Bank of England. He also accused her of sending her ministers to negotiate in Brussels without the means to do so. He used a rather strange cricketing simile about captains and broken bats, which would have meant something to most MPs, but very little to those listening on the other side of the channel concerned with British negotiations on EMU in Europe:

Lord Geoffrey Howe (cropped).jpg

It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

Curiously and perhaps ironically, it is this part of his statement which is best remembered and most replayed. However, his dispute with Thatcher was over matters of substance more than ones of style; this was no game, not even one of cricket. He was advocating a move back towards a more centrist position on constitutional and administrative issues, such as taxation and European integration.

Geoffrey Howe (pictured more recently, above right) represented a kind of moderate ‘Whiggery’ in the party, being educated, lawyerly, and diligent; while direct, he was conciliatory and collegiate in style. He calmly ended his speech with an appeal to his remaining cabinet colleagues:

The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.

Television cameras had just been allowed into the Commons so that, across the country as well as across the channel, via satellite channels, people could watch Howe, with Nigel Lawson nodding beside him, Michael Heseltine’s icy-calm demeanour and the white-faced reaction of the Prime Minister herself. The next day Heseltine announced that he would stand against her for the party leadership. She told The Times that he was a socialist at heart, someone whose philosophy at its extreme end had just been defeated in the USSR. She would defeat him. But the balloting system for a leadership contest meant that she would not just have to get a majority of votes among Tory MPs, but that she had to get a clear margin of fifteen per cent in total votes cast. At a summit in Paris, she found that she had failed to clear the second hurdle by just four votes. There would be a second ballot and she announced to a surprised John Sargent of the BBC, waiting at the bottom of the steps outside the summit, that she would fight on. It was a pure pantomime moment, seen live on TV, with viewers shouting “she’s behind you” at their TV sets as she came down the steps behind him. Then she went back up the steps to rejoin the other leaders at the ballet. While she watched the dancing in front of her, Tory MPs were dancing through Westminster either in rage or delight. Her support softened as the night went on, with many key Thatcherites believing she was finished and that Heseltine would beat her in the second ballot, tearing the party in two. It would be better for her to withdraw and let someone else fight him off.

Had she been in London throughout the crisis and able to summon her cabinet together to back her, she might have survived. But by the time she got back, even Maggie couldn’t pull it off. She decided to see her ministers one-by-one in her Commons office. Douglas Hurd and John Major had already given her their reluctant agreement to nominate her for the second round, but the message from most of her ministers was surprisingly uniform. They would give her their personal backing if she was determined to fight on but felt that she would lose to Heseltine. In reality, of course, she had lost them, but none of them wanted to join Heseltine in posterity as a co-assassin. Her MPs were too scared of the electoral vengeance to be wreaked after the poll tax. Only a few on the ultra-right, mostly outside the cabinet, were sincerely urging her to continue the struggle. One of them was Alan Clark, the diarist, who told her to fight on at all costs. She later commented, …

Unfortunately, he went on to argue that… it was better to go down in a blaze of glorious defeat than to go gentle into that good night. Since I had no particular fondness for Wagnerian endings, this lifted my spirits only briefly.

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She returned to Downing Street, where she announced to her cabinet secretary at 7.30 the next morning that she had decided to resign. She held an uncomfortable cabinet meeting with those she believed to have betrayed her, saw the Queen, phoned other world leaders and then finished with one final Commons performance, vigorously defending her record. When she left Downing Street for the last time, in tears, she already knew that she was replaced as Prime Minister by John Major rather than Michael Heseltine. She had rallied support by phone for him among her closest supporters, who had felt that he had not quite been supportive enough. Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only required a simple majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case, 186  out of 372 MPs. The ballot was held on the afternoon of 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning total, he polled far enough ahead of both Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine to secure immediate concessions from both of them. With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day. Although Thatcher herself had her private doubts about him, the public transition was complete, and the most nation-changing premiership of modern British history was at its end. Andrew Marr has conveyed something of the drama of this ‘final act’ in her political career:

She had conducted her premiership with a sense of vivid and immediate self-dramatisation, the heroine of peace and war, figthing pitched battles in coalfields and on the streets, word-punching her way through triumphal conferences, haranguing rival leaders, always with a sense that history was being freshly minted, day by day. This is why so many insults levelled at her tended to twist into unintended compliments – ‘the Iron lady’, ‘She who must be obeyed’, ‘the Blessed Margaret’ and even ‘the Great She-Elephant’… She had no sense of her own limits. The world was made anew. Her fall lived up in every way to her record. When a great leader topples, poetry requires that her personal failings bring her down. The story insists that it must be more than… weariness or age. And this story’s ending lives up to its earlier scenes.  

Major (minor), Return to Baghdad & the Magic Moment in Maastricht:

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John Major’s seven years in office make him the third longest-serving peacetime prime minister of modern times, behind Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but he often gets overlooked, probably because he came in the middle of what is increasingly referred to as the Thatcher-Blair era in British politics. To Mrs Thatcher and others in the cabinet and Commons, he appeared to be a bland, friendly, loyal Thatcherite. He was elected because of who he was not, not a posh, old-school Tory like Douglas Hurd, nor a rich, charismatic charmer like Michael Heseltine. His father was a music-hall ‘artiste’ with a long stage career, Tom Ball: ‘Major’ was his stage name. When John Major was born, his father was already an old man, pursuing a second career as a maker of garden ornaments. He lost everything in a business deal that went wrong and the family had to move from their comfortable suburban house into a crowded flat in Brixton.

John Major-Ball was sent to grammar school, but was a poor student and left at sixteen. He worked as a clerk, made garden gnomes with his brother, looked after his mother and endured a ‘degrading’ period of unemployment before eventually pursuing a career as a banker and becoming a Conservative councillor. His politics were formed by his experiences of the inner-city and he was on the anti-Powellite, moderate wing of the party. He was selected for the Cambridgeshire seat of Huntingdon and entered Parliament in 1979, in the election which brought Thatcher to power. After the 1987 election, Thatcher promoted him to the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, from where he became Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor. To everyone outside the Tory Party, Major was a blank canvas. At forty-seven, he was the youngest Prime Minister of the century and the least known, certainly in the post-war period. The Conservatives were content with this choice, having grown tired of amateur dramatics. He was seen by many as the bloke from next door who would lead them towards easier times. He talked of building a society of opportunity and compassion, and for privileges once available to ‘the few’ to be spread to ‘the many’. But he had little time to plan his own agenda. There were innumerable crises to be dealt with. He quickly killed off the poll tax and replaced it with a new council tax, which bore a striking resemblance to the ‘banded’ system previously proposed as an alternative.

One of the first things that John Major did as PM was to meet the elder President Bush and promise him full support through the Gulf War. When John Simpson returned to Baghdad in mid-December 1990, the atmosphere had changed as war loomed. Mr Hattem, the BBC’s driver, was much more subservient to their minders, and wouldn’t take the crew anywhere without consulting them. Once they missed an entire story as a result. Saddam Hussein had ordered the release of all the foreign hostages, a decision of considerable importance to the Coalition forces headed by the United States; public opinion at home would have been much more reluctant to support the air war if it had seemed likely that ordinary Americans, Britons and other Europeans would be killed by the bombs and missiles. The man who persuaded Saddam Hussein to give up one of his best cards in an otherwise rather empty hand was Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. According to Simpson, contrary to some Western stereotypes of him, he was always instinctively a man of peace and compromise. Apparently, he told Saddam that if he let the hostages go, this would weaken the moral argument of the US. It turned out to be a tactical mistake, of course, but Arafat had assumed that Saddam had been genuine when, early on in the crisis, he had offered to withdraw from Kuwait if Israel agreed to pull out of the West Bank. He had publicly come out in support of Iraq and had settled in Baghdad for the duration of the crisis. In an interview just before Christmas, he told Simpson that he was certain there would be no war:

YA: “… I can tell you that there will be not be a war. I promise it: you will see. Something will happen: there will be an agreement. You must not think that President Bush is so foolish. You must not think that the Arab brothers are so foolish. War is a terrible thing. Nobody wants it. President Bush will compromise.

At that stage, it looked as if Arafat might well be right about a deal being made. Bush was starting to talk about going the extra mile for peace, and the Iraqi press was announcing a major diplomatic victory for Saddam Hussein. As for the threat of terrorist attacks from Palestinian extremists elsewhere in the Middle East, the PLO had far more control over them in those days, and Arafat had shown that he could be ferocious in curbing it if he chose to do so. By the third week in December, Simpson was getting discreet visits from a very senior figure in the Iraqi régime, whom he nicknamed ‘Bertie’ and who persuaded him that he should go public on Saddam Hussein’s determination not to withdraw from Kuwait before the deadline imposed by the United Nations. Like the US and UK governments, Simpson was inclined to think that Iraq would pull back at the last-minute. ‘Bertie’ was absolutely certain that this wouldn’t happen, and he was right. This was what Simpson told BBC Radio 4 over their line from London about Saddam’s intentions, on 2 January 1991:

‘People who have seen him in the past day or so have told me that he is determined to stand and fight. He told one visiter that if he pulled his forces back now, there would be an uprising against him in the army and he might not be able to cope with it. It feels it’s essential to his own survival in power to face a war: he’ll certainly do it.

Simpson continued to press the same line even when James Baker, the US Secretary of State was due to meet the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, in Geneva, and ITN reported that Aziz was bringing with him an offer of conditional withdrawal. In the event, he brought no such thing, and the meeting broke up without any possibility of a diplomatic settlement. On 13 January, ‘Bertie’ told him that Saddam had said that Iraq would only have to face two waves of air-strikes and that Baghdad would be so destroyed and loss of life would be so great that international opinion would force the US, UK and France to stop, resulting in a diplomatic victory for him. Asked by Simpson whether Saddam himself might be killed in the strikes, ‘Bertie’ said that Saddam’s ‘bunker’ was impenetrable and that he will survive, even if tens of thousands die. On 11 January, they discovered exactly where the bunker was. Saddam Hussein was due to appear at an international Islamic conference at the government centre immediately opposite the Al-Rashid Hotel, where Simpson and the BBC crew were staying, along with many other international film crews and newspaper journalists. They had stationed camera crews at every entrance to the conference centre, in the hope of getting something more than the usual official pictures of the Iraqi president. Simpson himself sat in the hotel, watching the live coverage of the event on Iraqi television:

On cue the great man appeared on stage, holding out his arm in the affected way which is his trade-mark, while the audience went wild. I looked forward to the pictures the camera crews must be getting. But when they came back, each of them said that Saddam hadn’t come past him. That convinced me. We had long heard rumours that his command complex was based under our hotel: this indicated that there were underground roads and passages from the complex to enable him to reach the various important government buildings in the area. … So there we were, living and working a hundred feet or so above Saddam Hussein’s head. We were his protection. And if he knew it, the Coalition forces did as well: the European company which had built much of the bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The outlook wasn’t good. The American embassy in Baghdad, before it closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed in the bombing. President Bush himself had phoned the editors of the big American organisations represented in Baghdad and begged them to pull out. … the big organisations (with the exception of CNN) obliged.

I have written elsewhere about John Simpson’s own motives for staying and his experiences and accounts of the bombing of the city which began less than a week later, on 17 January, before the BBC crew were forced to leave. Suffice it here to quote from his interview some months later (10.5.91) with Sue Lawley, the then presenter of the popular and long-running BBC Radio programme, Desert Island Discs:

SL: But these things – I mean, it’s not really enough to risk your life to write a book, is it?

(Pause)

JS: I suppose it’s just that I’m a bit of a ‘chancer’, that’s all.

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The Gulf War was the first major conflict since the Second World War in which it was essential for the multi-national allied forces not to have large-scale casualties. It ended when President Bush began to get nervous about the pictures of death and destruction which were coming in from the desert. Public opinion in the United States did not want another Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, with large-scale carpet-bombing of civilian populations, pictures of massacres and of American GIs being flown home in body bags. In Britain too, people wanted a limited war fought to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but they didn’t want a huge body-count. They didn’t get one either, though there were some significant losses among the British forces. The Gulf War achieved its limited objectives, freeing Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion and resulting in the immolation the Iraqi army’s Republican Guard. It generated nothing like the controversy of the later Iraq War. It was widely seen as a necessary act of international retribution against a particularly horrible dictator. The bigger problem for the country itself was the quarter of a million deaths which occurred after the war, caused by UN Sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s reaction to them, especially his vengeful acts of genocide against the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country.

After the controversies and alarms of the Thatcher years, foreign affairs generated less heat, except for the great issue of European federalism. John Major had to turn straight away to confront Jacques Delors’ agenda, which was threatening to divide the Tory Party. If ever a place was well-chosen for debating the end of a Europe of independent nation-states, it was Maastricht in Holland, nestled so close to the German and Belgian borders it is almost nationless. Here the great showdown of the winter of 1991 took place. A new treaty was to be agreed and it was one which made the federal project even more explicit. There was to be fast progress to a single currency. Much of the foreign policy, defence policy and home affairs were to come under the ultimate authority of the EU. A ‘social chapter’ would oblige Britain to accept the more expensive work guarantees of the continent and surrender some of the trade union reforms brought in under Thatcher. For a country with a weak industrial base whose economy partly depended on undercutting her continental rivals, all this would be grave. For a Conservative Party which had applauded Lady Thatcher’s defiant Bruges speech, it was almost a declaration of war, in which Europe’s ‘federal’ destiny had been made more explicit.

John Major was trying to be practical. He refused to rule out the possibility of a single currency for all time, believing it would probably happen one day since it had obvious business and trading advantages. But now was too soon, partly because it would make life harder for the central European countries being freed from communism to join the EU. In his memoirs, he protests that he was accused of dithering, procrastination, lacking leadership and conviction. Yet at Maastricht, he managed, during genuinely tense negotiations, to keep Britain out of most of what was being demanded of the member states. He and his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, negotiated a special British opt-out from monetary union and managed to have the social chapter excluded from the treaty altogether. Major kept haggling late and on every detail, wearing out his fellow leaders with more politeness but as much determination as Thatcher ever had.  For a man with a weak hand, under fire from his own side at home, it was quite a feat. Major returned to plaudits in the newspapers using the remark of an aide that it was ‘game, set and match’ to Britain.

Briefly, Major was a hero. He described his reception by the Tory Party in the Commons as the modern equivalent of a Roman triumph, quite something for the boy from Brixton. Soon after this, he called the election most observers thought he must lose. The most immediate worries had been economic, as the hangover caused by the Lawson boom began to throb. Inflation rose towards double figures, interest rates were at fourteen per cent and unemployment was heading towards two million again. Moreover, a serious white-collar recession was beginning to hit Britain, particularly the south, where house prices would fall by a quarter. An estimated 1.8 million people found that their homes were worth less than the money they had borrowed to buy them in the eighties when credit had been easy to obtain. Now they were in what became known as ‘negative equity’ and were often unable to sell their properties. During 1991 alone, more than seventy-five thousand families had their homes repossessed. The economy was so badly awry, the pain of the poll tax so fresh, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party now so efficiently organised, that the Tory years seemed sure to be ending. Things turned out differently. Lamont’s pre-election had helped since it proposed to cut the bottom rate of income tax by five pence in the pound, which would help people on lower incomes, badly wrong-footing Labour.

With a party as full of anger and resentment as the Conservative Party behind him, he had little chance of succeeding as prime minister.  He was a throwback to an older kind of conservatism, middle-of-the-road, not too noisy, lacking in any particular conviction except that the Conservative Party was the natural governing party of Britain. The country had indeed been governed by Conservatives like Major for most of the twentieth century, and people were slow to understand how ideological the party had become under Thatcher. John Major shared none of her deepest views. He gambled that even if the backbenchers discovered his lack of right-wing conviction, the voters of Britain who traditionally dislike extremism and ideology would give him their backing. In the eyes of the British press, Major was the council-school boy, the anorak, the ‘swot’, who had ended up in Whitehall. He seemed to fit into a recognisable niche within the dreary, peculiarly English system of snobbery and was looked down on accordingly. In addition, many in the Conservative Party resented the fact that Mrs Thatcher had been overthrown, and would have taken it out on anyone who succeeded her.

Major lacked her convictions, certainly. For the many, this was a relief. These convictions, brandished like sticks, were what made her so unpopular in the country as a whole; and if she had led the party into the 1992 election she would have lost it. No one would have blamed Major if he had led the Tories to defeat in the 1992 election, which he called for April.

(to be continued…)

 

Britain & Ireland Fifty Years Ago, 1968-73: Troubles, Turmoil & Turning Points: Part One.   1 comment

Chronology, 1968-73

1968:

January: the Beatles filmed a cameo for the animated movie Yellow Submarine, which featured cartoon versions of the band members and a soundtrack with eleven of their songs, including four unreleased studio recordings that made their debut in the film. Released in June 1968, the film was praised by critics for its music, humour and innovative visual style. It would be seven months, however, before its soundtrack album appeared.

May: (8th) – at a meeting between Cecil King, Hugh Cudlipp (proprietor & editor of The Daily Mirror) and Lord Louis Mountbatten, King proposed an anti-Wilson ‘putsch’; Mountbatten rejected the idea and informed the Queen.

October: Widespread student discontent continued.

1969:

A terrace house with four floors and an attic. It is red brick, with a slate roof, and the ground floor rendered in imitation of stone and painted white. Each upper floor has four sash windows, divided into small panes. The door, with a canopy over it, occupies the place of the second window from the left on the ground floor.

30 January: The Beatles’ final live performance was filmed on the rooftop of the Apple Corps building at 3 Savile Row, London (pictured left).

Voting age lowered to eighteen. Open University founded; maiden flight of Concorde. In the summer, union leaders (including Hugh Scanlon & Jack Jones of the TUC) were given a private dinner at Chequers to discuss In Place of Strife, the government’s plan, led by Barbara Castle, to reform industrial relations. The Labour cabinet split on the issue. A Gallup poll suggested 54% of electorate agreed with Powell’s plans on repatriating coloured immigrants.

Bernadette Devlin, civil rights campaigner and member of the radical Ulster Unity Party elected to the Commons, the youngest ever woman MP. James Chichester-Clarke replaced Terence O’Neill as Stormont PM. In the summer, the Apprentice Boys of Londonderry (a Loyalist & anti-Catholic organization) held their annual march for the same route as a civil rights demo. This was attacked by the police, including the ‘B-Specials’, an armed, 12,000-strong voluntary wing of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Seventy-five marchers were injured, including leading, moderate political figures. At the beginning of August, there was a serious pitched battle between Catholic residents, Loyalist extremists and police in the middle of Belfast. Wilson & James Callaghan (Home Secretary) decided to send in British troops and abolish the B-specials. In November, at a Dublin meeting, the IRA split, bringing into being the pro-violence Provisional Army Council, or ‘Provos’ (PIRA).

1970:

January: Sir Edward Heath (Conservative leader of the Opposition since 1965) held a brainstorming session of the shadow cabinet at The Selsdon Park Hotel near Croydon, Surrey. The aim of the meeting was to formulate policies for the 1970 General Election manifesto. The result was a radical free-market agenda, condemned by the then Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as the work of “Selsdon Man”. Meanwhile, 66% of those polled said they were either more favourable to Powell than Heath.

Wilson called an election, confident despite the failure of ‘In Place of Strife’. Late in the campaign, Powell gave his backing to Heath, leading in a late surge in support of the Tories. Edward Heath won the General Election by an overall majority of thirty. He began negotiations with Pompidou for Britain to join the EEC. Over the next eighteen months, a deal was thrashed out in London, Paris and Brussels.

In Dublin, two Irish cabinet ministers, Charles Haughey & Neil Blaney were sacked for being Provo-sympathisers & arrested for smuggling guns into the Republic (they were later acquitted).

31 December 1970: Paul McCartney filed suit for the dissolution of the Beatles’ contractual partnership on  Legal disputes continued long after their break-up, and the dissolution was not formalised until 29 December 1974, when John Lennon signed the paperwork terminating the partnership.

1971:

First British soldier killed in Northern Ireland. Free milk for schoolchildren abolished (by Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State for Education & Science, who became known as the ‘milk-snatcher’).

On May Day afternoon, the popular Kensington boutique Biba was the object of a bomb attack by ‘The Angry Brigade’, Britain’s own and only terror group, a bunch of anarchists.

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Above: In 1971, the editors of the underground magazine ‘Oz‘ were prosecuted for obscenity. A libidinous cartoon Rupert Bear was at the centre of the case, but the significance of the whip is unclear.

At a press conference at the Élysée Palace, Pompidou revealed to the surprise of the media that, as far as France was concerned, Britain could now join the EEC. The Labour Opposition had become anti-EEC, a special conference in July voting five to one against joining (their MPs were two to one against). Heath won a Commons majority for going in, with 69 pro-European Labour MPs defying their party & voting with the Tories.

Expulsion of British Overseas Nationals (originally from Asia) from Uganda. Enoch Powell led an angry opposition to Heath’s decisive action to bring them into Britain. Airlifts were arranged and a resettlement board established to help the refugees; 28,000 arrived within a few weeks.

Also in 1971, ‘Decimilization’ replaced a coinage which had its origins in Anglo-Saxon times. This brought about a big change in everyday life, initially very unpopular and blamed (together with the decision to join the EEC) on Edward Heath, though it had first been agreed by the Wilson government in 1965.

1972:

‘Bloody Sunday’ – 30th January; troops from the Parachute Regiment killed thirteen unarmed civilians in Londonderry. An immediate upsurge in violence led to twenty-one further deaths in three days.  In Dublin, Irish ministers reacted with fury, and The British Embassy was burned to the ground during protests. Bombings and shootings in the first eight weeks of 1972 led to forty-nine people killed and 250 serious injured. Over four hundred people in the province had lost their lives as a result of political violence by the end of the year.

In Britain, the national Miners’ Strike, the first since 1926, led to power cuts; The miners were pursuing a pay demand of 45%. Arthur Scargill, a militant South Yorkshire pit agent organised a mass picket of 15,000 of the Saltley coke depot in Birmingham. An independent inquiry into miners’ wages led to a 20% wage increase, 50% higher than the average increase. The NUM accepted this, winning the most clear-cut defeat of any government by any British trade union ever. Heath was forced into a U-turn on incomes policy and industrial intervention after the Industry Act had given them unprecedented powers in this respect.

Cosmopolitan and Spare Rib published for the first time. Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal published.

The removal of lending limits for high street banks led to a surge of 37% in 1972, followed by a rise of 43% in 1973, the precondition for the credit boom of the Thatcher years. The old imperial sterling area was abandoned.

Also in 1972, the contraceptive pill was made freely available on the NHS, and local government was radically reorganised, with no fewer than eight hundred English councils disappearing and huge new authorities, much disliked, being created in their place.

1973:

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1 January: The UK and the Republic of Ireland joined the EEC (European Economic Community).

British Prime Minister Edward Heath (centre) with Alec Douglas-Home (left) and Chief Negotiator Geoffrey Rippon sign the Common Market Accession in Brussels Photograph: POPPERFOTO/ Getty Images

July: Twenty bombs went off in Belfast, killing eleven people.

September: The “Selsdon Declaration”, to which all members must subscribe, was adopted at the Selsdon Group’s first meeting at the Selsdon Park Hotel. Folk-rock band The Strawbs reached number two with their anthem, Part of the Union. 

October: The Yom Kippur War, a short war between Israel and Egypt resulted in Israel’s decisive victory and a humiliation for the Arab world; it struck back, using oil, and placing a total embargo on the United States, Israel’s most passionate supporter.

OPEC (Organisation of oil-producing countries), dominated by the Saudis, raised the price of oil fourfold, leading to a crisis in Western countries and bringing to an end Britain’s Golden Age. School leaving age raised to sixteen; VAT (Value-Added Tax) introduced.

The Break-up of the Beatles:

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During recording sessions for their Double White Album, which stretched from late May to mid-October 1968, relations between the Beatles grew openly divisive. Starr quit for two weeks, and McCartney took over the drum kit for Back in the U.S.S.R. (on which Harrison and Lennon drummed as well) and Dear Prudence. Lennon had lost interest in collaborating with McCartney, whose contribution Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da he scorned as “granny music shit”. Tensions were further aggravated by Lennon’s romantic preoccupation with avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, whom he insisted on bringing to the sessions despite the group’s well-established understanding that girlfriends were not allowed in the studio. Describing the double album, Lennon later said:

“Every track is an individual track; there isn’t any Beatles music on it. John and the band, Paul and the band, George and the band.”

McCartney has recalled that the album “wasn’t a pleasant one to make.” Both he and Lennon identified the sessions as the start of the band’s break-up. Issued in November, the White Album was the band’s first Apple Records album release, although EMI continued to own their recordings. The new label was a subsidiary of Apple Corps, which Epstein had formed as part of his plan to create a tax-effective business structure. The record attracted more than two million advance orders, selling nearly four million copies in the US in little over a month, and its tracks dominated the playlists of American radio stations. Despite its popularity, it did not receive flattering reviews at the time.

Five weeks later after their last ‘concert’ on the rooftop in Savile Row, engineer Glyn Johns, Get Back’s “uncredited producer”, began work assembling what was to be the Beatles’ final album, Let it Be. He was given “free rein” as the band had “all but washed their hands of the entire project”. New strains developed among the band members regarding the appointment of a financial adviser, the need for which had become evident without Epstein to manage business affairs. Lennon, Harrison and Starr favoured Allen Klein, who had managed the Rolling Stones and Sam Cooke; McCartney wanted Lee and John Eastman – father and brother, respectively, of Linda Eastman, whom McCartney married on 12 March. Agreement could not be reached, so both Klein and the Eastmans were temporarily appointed: Klein as the Beatles’ business manager and the Eastmans as their lawyers. Further conflict ensued, however, and financial opportunities were lost. On 8 May, Klein was named sole manager of the band, the Eastmans having previously been dismissed as the Beatles’ attorneys. McCartney refused to sign the management contract with Klein, but he was out-voted by the other Beatles.

George Martin stated that he was surprised when McCartney asked him to produce another album, as the Get Back sessions had been “a miserable experience” and he had “thought it was the end of the road for all of us”. The primary recording sessions for Abbey Road began on 2 July 1969. Lennon, who rejected Martin’s proposed format of a “continuously moving piece of music”, wanted his and McCartney’s songs to occupy separate sides of the album. The eventual format, with individually composed songs on the first side and the second consisting largely of a medley, was McCartney’s suggested compromise. On 4 July, the first solo single by a Beatle was released: Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, credited to the Plastic Ono Band. The completion and mixing of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on 20 August 1969 was the last occasion on which all four Beatles were together in the same studio. Lennon announced his departure to the rest of the group on 20 September but agreed to withhold a public announcement to avoid undermining sales of the forthcoming album.

Released six days after Lennon’s declaration, Abbey Road sold 4 million copies within three months and topped the UK charts for a total of seventeen weeks. Its second track, the ballad Something, was issued as a single – the only Harrison composition ever to appear as a Beatles A-side. Abbey Road received mixed reviews, although the medley met with general acclaim. Unterberger considers it “a fitting swan song for the group”, containing “some of the greatest harmonies to be heard on any rock record”. George Martin has singled it out as his personal favourite of all the band’s albums; Lennon said it was “competent” but had “no life in it”. Recording engineer Emerick notes that the replacement of the studio’s valve mixing console with a transistorised one yielded a less punchy sound, leaving the group frustrated at the thinner tone and lack of impact but contributing to its “kinder, gentler” feel relative to their previous albums.

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For the still unfinished Get Back album, one last song, Harrison’s I Me Mine, was recorded on 3 January 1970. Lennon, in Denmark at the time, did not participate. In March, rejecting the work Johns had done on the project, now retitled Let It Be, Klein gave the session tapes to American producer Phil Spector. In addition to remixing the material, Spector edited, spliced and overdubbed several of the recordings that had been intended as “live”. McCartney was unhappy with the producer’s approach and particularly dissatisfied with the lavish orchestration on The Long and Winding Road, which involved a fourteen-voice choir and 36-piece instrumental ensemble. McCartney’s demands that the alterations to the song be reverted were ignored, and he publicly announced his departure from the band on 10 April 1970, a week before the release of his first, self-titled solo album.

On 8 May, the Spector-produced Let It Be was released. Its accompanying single, The Long and Winding Road, was the Beatles’ last; it was released in the United States, but not in the UK. The Let It Be documentary film followed later that month, and would win the 1970 Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. Sunday Telegraph critic Penelope Gilliatt called it “a very bad film and a touching one … about the breaking apart of this reassuring, geometrically perfect, once apparently ageless family of siblings”. Several reviewers stated that some of the performances in the film sounded better than their analogous album tracks. Describing Let It Be as the “only Beatles album to occasion negative, even hostile reviews”, Unterberger calls it “on the whole underrated”; he singles out “some good moments of straight hard rock” in I’ve Got a Feeling and Dig a Pony, and praises Let It Be, Get Back, and “the folky” Two of Us, with John and Paul harmonising together.

McCartney filed suit for the dissolution of the Beatles’ contractual partnership on 31 December 1970. With Starr’s participation, Harrison staged the Concert for Bangladesh in New York City in August 1971, but the ‘fab four’ never recorded or performed as a group again. Legal disputes continued long after their break-up, and the dissolution was not formalised until 29 December 1974, when John Lennon signed the paperwork terminating the partnership.

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Two double-LP sets of the Beatles’ greatest hits, compiled by Klein, 1962–1966 and 1967–1970, were released in 1973, at first under the Apple Records imprint. Commonly known as the “Red Album” and “Blue Album“, respectively, each has earned a Multi-Platinum certification in the United States and a Platinum certification in the United Kingdom.

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The Troubles in Northern Ireland:

By the late 1960s, politics in Northern Ireland had moved onto the streets of Belfast, Londonderry (‘Derry’) and other cities and towns across ‘the Province’. The relatively peaceful civil rights demonstrations of the mid-sixties had campaigned in particular to end discrimination against the Catholic minority in employment and housing as well as against electoral ‘gerrymandering’ (changing constituency boundaries in order to ensure domination by the Ulster Unionists). By 1968-69, Terence O’Neill’s Stormont government had achieved little, torn between the more conservative fringes of unionism and the increasingly more radical Irish nationalism among the Catholic communities. The radicals may only have wanted a fully democratic society, but the majority of the province’s population increasingly saw this as a return to the ancient tribalistic power-struggles between unionism and nationalism. While the unionist governments under Chichester-Clark from 1969 to 1970 were trying to create a consensus by granting most of the civil rights demands, the revival of the latent violent sectarianism made the province ungovernable. The Westminster government of Harold Wilson, therefore, deployed troops in the province in 1969.

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From 1970, Irish military forces were also involved in co-operation with the British in securing the Republic’s border with Northern Ireland. On coming to power in 1970, Edward Heath worked closely with the Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Irish Republic), Jack Lynch, and the new Stormont leader, Brian Faulkner, a middle-class businessman by origin, was more in Heath’s image than the old Etonian landowner, Chichester-Clark had been. Eventually, he had even managed to get the leaders of the Republic and Northern Ireland to sit and negotiate at the same table, something which had not happened since ‘Partition’ in 1920. Chichester-Clark had simply demanded more and more troops, more and more repression, but Faulkner was open to a political solution. Inside Downing Street, three options were being considered. Northern Ireland could be carved into smaller, more intensely Protestant areas, with the rest surrendered to the Republic, thus effectively getting rid of many Catholics. Or it could be ruled by a power-sharing executive, giving Catholics a role in government. Or, finally, it could be governed jointly by Dublin and London, with its citizens losing their joint citizenship.

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Though Edward Heath rejected the first option because it would be crude and leave too many people on the wrong side of the borders and the last one, because the Unionists would reject it, his second option would be taken up by successive British governments. A fourth option, advocated by Enoch Powell who later became an Ulster Unionist MP, was that the UK should fully incorporate Northern Ireland into British structures and treat it like Kent or Lincolnshire, but Heath never took this seriously. Nevertheless, his readiness to discuss other radical solutions gives the lie to the idea that his administration was pig-headed and unimaginative. But before he had a chance to open serious talks, the collapsing security situation had to be dealt with, and politics had to take a back seat. Ordered in from Belfast to put a stop to stone-throwing Bogside demonstrators, the Parachute Regiment began firing, as it turned out, on unarmed people, many of them teenagers. Some were killed with shots to the back when, clearly, they were running away. It was the climax of weeks of escalation. Reluctantly, Heath had introduced internment for suspected terrorists. Reprisals against informers and anti-British feeling meant that the normal process of law was entirely ineffective against the growing PIRA threat so, despite the damage it did to relations with other European countries and the United States, he authorised the arrest and imprisonment in Long Kesh of 337 IRA suspects. In dawn raids, three thousand troops had found three-quarters of the people they were looking for. Many of them were old or inactive, and many of the real, active ‘Provos’ escaped south across the border. Protests came in from around the world.

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At the beginning of 1972, the most violent year of the ‘Troubles’, Heath was forced to take over the government of Northern Ireland through Direct Rule. The British government had become involved very reluctantly and its subsequent policies were aimed at finding a political solution by creating a middle ground in which the liberal wings of nationalism and unionism could find a consensus that would eventually marginalise the militants on both sides of the sectarian divide and make them redundant. This strategy proved unsuccessful at first, due mainly to the nature of Direct Rule. Denied access to power, both sides could attack British policies as inappropriate and blame the government for failing to deliver their respective demands. At the same time, paramilitaries on both sides could drive these point home by the use of violence which was justifiable in the eyes of their respective communities. This was the background to the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ which, despite endless inquiries and arguments, and more recent government apologies, remain hotly disputed. Who shot first? How involved were the IRA involved in provoking the confrontation? Why did the peaceful march split and stone-throwing begin? Why did the paratroopers suddenly appear to lose control?

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Whatever the answers, this was an appaling day when Britain’s reputation was burned to the ground along with its embassy in Dublin. ‘Bloody Sunday’ made it far easier for the PIRA to raise funds abroad, particularly in the USA. The Provos hit back with an attack on the Parachute Regiment’s Aldershot headquarters, killing seven people, none of whom were soldiers. The violence led to yet more violence and the imposition by degrees of direct rule by London and trials without juries in the ‘Diplock Courts’. Besides the Belfast bombs of the same year, mainland Britain became the main Provo target. In October 1974, five people were killed and sixty injured in attacks on pubs in Guildford, and in December twenty-one people were killed in pub bombings in Birmingham city centre. Those responsible, although known to both the British and Irish governments, have never been brought to justice, while innocent Irishmen served lengthy terms in jail. But that’s a sad, subsequent narrative which deserves to be told separately, as I have done previously on this site.

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Nonetheless, the level of political violence on the island of Ireland itself subsided considerably after 1972; in most subsequent years more people died in road accidents in Northern Ireland. However, in 1973, the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement failed to restore government to Stormont because the majority of unionists would not accept an ‘Irish dimension’ in the form of the proposed Council of Ireland that nationalists demanded.  While the British government’s approach became more nuanced towards unionist concerns, a formula that was acceptable to both sides was to remain elusive for the next thirty years, until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

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Paranoia, Plots & Politics under Wilson:

Fifty years on, the paranoid atmosphere which existed only a few years of Wilson’s first administration is difficult to fathom. Nonetheless, there was a rising conviction among some in business and the media that democracy itself had failed. Cecil King, the megalomaniac nephew of those original press barons of interwar Britain, Lords Rothermere and Harmsworth, and the effective owner of The Daily Mirror was at the centre of the plotting and attempted coup which followed. He had originally supported Wilson but was offended when the egalitarian PM declined to offer him a hereditary title. However, Wilson did make him a life peer as well as a director of the Bank of England and gave him seats on the National Coal Board and the National Parks Commission. King was also offered a number of junior government jobs, but he attacked Wison as a dud, a liar and an incompetent who was ruining the country and should be replaced as soon as possible. King’s theme, which was not uncommon in business circles, was that Britain was coming near to the failure of parliamentary government and now needed professional administrators and managers in charge rather than ‘dodgy’ politicians who had made…

such a hash of our affairs that people must be brought into government from outside the rank of professional politicians.

His private views came close to a call for insurrection or a coup, to be fronted by himself and other business leaders. This culminated in a clumsily attempted plot which sought to inveigle Lord Louis Mountbatten, former last Viceroy of India, Chief of the Defence Staff and close member of the Royal Family. He stood above politics, though many believed he liked to be thought of as a man of destiny and looked up to by those who dreamed of an anti-Wilson ‘putsch’. He had voiced his concerns about the country but had denied that he was advocating or supporting any notion of a Right Wing dictatorship – or any nonsense of that sort. In fact, his candidate to replace Wilson was Barbara Castle. Nevertheless, King’s conversation during a meeting in May 1968 was wild. He told Mountbatten that, in the coming crisis…

… the government would disintegrate, there would be bloodshed in the streets; the armed forces would be involved.

He then asked Mountbatten to agree to become the titular head of a new administration. According to Cudlipp, Mountbatten then asked Sir Solly Zuckerman, the government’s chief scientific advisor (who had also been present at the meeting) what he made of this discussion. The scientist rose, walked to the door and replied:

This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine guns at street corners is appalling. I am a public servant and will have nothing to do with it. Nor should you, Dickie.

Mountbatten agreed and later recorded that it was he who had told King that the idea was ‘rank treason’ and had booted him out. King, for his part, claimed that Mountbatten himself had said that morale in the armed forces was low and that the Queen was worried and had asked for advice. He had simply replied that…

There might be a stage in the future when the Crown would have to intervene: there might be a stage when the armed forces were important. Dickie should keep himself out of public view so as to have clean hands…

That the meeting took place is beyond doubt, even if what was actually said is. Mountbatten then reported the conversation to the Queen, while King unleashed a full front page attack on Wilson in The Daily Mirror under the headline, Enough is Enough, calling for a new leader. Shortly afterwards, he himself faced a putsch by his severely embarrassed board. Of course, there is no evidence that the ‘plot’ ever got further than this conversation, or that the security services were involved, as has since been asserted. But the Cecil King conspiracy counts in two ways. First, it gives some indication of the fevered and at times almost hysterical mood about Wilson and the condition of the country which had built up by the late sixties, a time more generally remembered as a golden age. Alongside the obvious cultural successes of the period, a heady cocktail of rising and organised crime, student protest, inflation, and violence in Northern Ireland had convinced some that the United Kingdom as a whole was becoming ungovernable. The suggestion that British democracy, which had survived through the post-war period, was ever threatened, seems with retrospect to be an outlandish suggestion. Yet there were small but significant groups of conspiracy theorists on the left and fantasists on the right who emerged in the transition from the discredited old Etonian guard of Macmillan-era Britain and the new cliques of Wilsonian Britain.

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Wilson himself was a genuine outsider so far as the old Establishment was concerned, and he seemed to run a court full of outsiders. The old Tory style of government by cliques and clubs gave way to government by faction and feud, a continued weakness of Labour politics since the inception of the party through trade union patronage. Wilson had emerged as what we would now call a populist leader, hopping from group to group, without a settled philosophical view or strong body of popular support in any particular faction within the party. Instead, he relied on a small gang of personal supporters, including Peter Shore, Gerald Kaufman and, in the early years, Tony Benn. Added to these were outside advisors, such as the Hungarian-born economists Thomas Balogh and Nicholas Kaldor, who acquired the nicknames of ‘Buddha’ and ‘Pest’!  The elder son of a wealthy Budapest Jewish family (his father was head of public transport, his mother the daughter of a professor), Balogh studied at the city ‘Gimnázium’, considered ‘the Eton of Hungarian youth’, then at the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest and then in Berlin. He took a two-year research position at Harvard University as a Rockefeller Fellow in 1928. Following this, Balogh worked in banking in Paris, Berlin and Washington before arriving in England. He acquired British citizenship in 1938, he became a lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford, and was elected to a Fellowship in 1945, then became Reader in 1960. He was also the economic correspondent for the New Statesman,  becoming an economic adviser to Harold Wilson’s Cabinet office following the 1964 Labour Party victory. He was a critic of consumption- and profit-orientated tax policies, arguing that…

… profit can be earned not merely by satisfying long felt wants more efficiently and in a better fashion, but also by creating new wants through artificially engendered satisfaction and the suggestion of status symbols.

He argued that nationalisation was a better means of securing wage restraint and a more equitable tax system as a whole. He later opposed Britain’s entry to the EEC. Balogh was created a life peer as Baron Balogh, “of Hampstead in Greater London” on 20 June 1968.

Nicholas Kaldor.jpgNicholas Kaldor, Baron Kaldor (12 May 1908 – 30 September 1986), pictured right, born Káldor Miklós in Hungary, was a Cambridge economist in the post-war period. He developed the “compensation” criteria called Kaldor–Hicks efficiency for welfare comparisons (1939), derived the cobweb model, and argued for certain regularities observable in economic growth, which are called Kaldor’s growth laws.

From 1964, Kaldor was an advisor to the Labour government of the UK and also advised several other countries, producing some of the earliest memoranda regarding the creation of value-added tax.

Kaldor was considered, with his fellow-Hungarian Thomas Balogh, to be one of the intellectual authors of the Harold Wilson’s 1964–70 government’s short-lived Selective Employment Tax (SET) designed to tax employment in service sectors while subsidising employment in manufacturing. On 9 July 1974, Kaldor was made a life peer as Baron Kaldor, of Newnham in the City of Cambridge.

Other members of Wilson’s ‘gang’ came from business, such as the Gannex raincoat manufacturer Joseph Kagan, or from the law, such as the arch-fixer of the sixties, Lord Goodman. Suspicious of the Whitehall Establishment, with some justification, and cut off from the right-wing former Gaitskillites and the old Bevanites, Wilson felt forced to create his own gang. A Tory in that position might have automatically turned to old school tie connections, or family ones, as Macmillan had done. Wilson turned to an eclectic group of individuals, producing a peculiarly neurotic little court, riven by jealousy and misunderstanding. This gave ammunition to Wilson’s snobbish enemies in the press, especially Private Eye, which constantly displayed its xenophobia towards insiders with foreign-sounding names. Many in the old Establishment struggled to accept that Wilson was a legitimately elected leader of the United Kingdom. Wilson was indeed paranoid, but, as the saying goes, that didn’t mean that there were not plenty of powerful people who were out to get him, or at least to get him out.

‘In Place of Strife’: Labour and the Trade Unions:

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Until the end of the decade, the sixties had not been particularly strike-prone compared to the fifties. Strikes tended to be local, unofficial and easily settled. Inflation was still below four per cent for most years and, being voluntary, incomes policies rarely caused national confrontation. But by 1968-9 inflation was rising sharply. Wilson had pioneered the matey ‘beer and sandwiches’ approach to dealing with union leaders. But after the seamen’s strike of 1966, he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with attempts to moderate the activities of the union ‘rank and file’ shop stewards through their leadership. He was supported by an unlikely ‘hammer’ of the unions, the left-winger Barbara Castle (pictured above in 1965), the then Secretary of State for Employment.

In an act of homage to her early hero, Nye Bevan, and his book In Place of Fear, she called her plan for industrial harmony, In Place of Strife. She proposed new government powers to order pre-strike ballots, and a 28-day pause before strikes took place. The government would be able in the last resort to impose settlements for wildcat strikes. There would be fines if the rules were broken. This was a package of measures which now looks gentle by the standards of the laws which would come in the Thatcher years, but at the time men like Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon saw it as a return to the legal curbs of the twenties and thirties which they had fought for decades to lift.

The battle which followed nearly ended the careers of both Wilson and Castle, and made the Thatcher revolution inevitable. The failure of In Place of Strife is one of the great lost opportunities of modern British politics. Castle’s angry harangues put the backs up of male MPs, trade union leaders and newspaper journalists and editors, who compared her to a fishwife and a nag, just as they would Margaret Thatcher. Her penchant for luxury yachting holidays in the Mediterranean at the height of the conflict did not help her cause among ‘the brothers’. That same summer of ’69, at a dinner at Chequers, Scanlon warned both ministers that he would not accept any legal penalties or even any new legislation. Wilson replied that he found such a position unacceptable, as he would be running a government that was not allowed to govern. If the unions mobilised their sponsored MPs to vote against him,

… it would clearly mean that the TUC, a state within a state, was putting itself above the government in deciding what a government could and could not do. 

This was just the sort of language which would be heard in more public arenas first from Ted Heath and then, more starkly, from Margaret Thatcher. Scanlon rounded on Wilson, denouncing him as an arch turncoat, another Ramsay MacDonald. Wilson hotly denied this and referred to the Czech reformist leader of 1968, who had been crushed by the Red Army:

Nor do I intend to be another Dubcek. Get your tanks off my lawn, Hughie!

But, just as in Prague, the tanks stayed resolutely parked under Wilson’s nose. Wilson and Castle contemplated a joint resignation, for if the PM walked away then the Tories would almost certainly be returned, and would no doubt introduce even tougher measures to control the trade unions. As the stand-off continued, the unions suggested a simple series of voluntary agreements and letters of intent. They had decided to tough it out since they knew that Wilson and Castle were isolated in the cabinet and on the back benches, and on both wings of the party. Jim Callaghan, the Home Secretary and a former trade union official, voted against the measures at a meeting of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee. His enemies were now fully convinced that the failure of In Place of Strife would finish Wilson off and become a question of who would become the leader ‘In Place of Harold’. In a bitter cabinet meeting, Richard Crossman made a plea that they must all sink or swim together, to which Callaghan retorted with the phrase “sink or sink…” George Thomas, Callaghan’s fellow Cardiff MP, described him as ‘our Judas Iscariot’. Ten years later, following ‘the Winter of Discontent’ I passed up on the opportunity to vote for Callaghan as a student in the Welsh capital. By then, he was seen as the Prime Minister who had betrayed us all by failing to support labour relations reform and enabling Margaret Thatcher to sweep to power. Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins, two other big-hitters on the right of the party also ratted on Wilson, and Tony Benn, having previously supported Castle on the left, also changed his mind.

It is possible to argue that Castle’s plans were too hardline for 1969, though Callaghan himself later admitted that penal sanctions had been necessary. At the time, he and other ministers left Wilson with no option but to give way. His earlier threats to resign were swiftly forgotten, and it was Barbara Castle who was now isolated, even from Wilson himself. He cruelly joked about her:

Poor Barbara. She hangs around like someone with a still-born child. She can’t believe it’s dead.

She made a ‘solemn and binding’ agreement with the TUC under which the unions agreed to accept  TUC advice on unofficial strikes. ‘Solomon Binding’ became a national figure of speech, and of fun. Roy Jenkins admitted that both Wilson and Castle emerged from the debacle with more credit than the rest of the cabinet. Andrew Marr poses a great background question about the Labour governments of the sixties:

… whether with a stronger leader they could have gripped the country’s big problems and dealt with them. How did it happen that a cabinet of such brilliant, such clever and self-confident people achieved so little? In part, it was the effect of the whirling court politics demonstrated by ‘In Place of Strife’.

In the end, however, it was not the wild-eyed plotters which destroyed the Wilson government, but the electorate. There were good reasons for Labour to think that, in spite of the cabinet split over In Place of Strife, they would see off the Tories again. The opinion polls were onside and the press was generally predicting an easy Labour victory. Even the right-wing commentators lavished praise on Wilson’s television performances and mastery of debate, though he pursued an avowedly presidential style and tried to avoid controversy. Just before the campaign had begun, Jenkins learnt, too late, that more bad balance of payments figures were about to be published along with bad inflation figures. This helped tip things away from Wilson and gave Heath his thirty-seat majority. Polls afterwards, however, scotched the idea that Jenkins’ pre-election budget had lost Labour the election. In fact, it had been quite popular.

(to be continued… )

Posted August 27, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Assimilation, BBC, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Cold War, democracy, Discourse Analysis, Egalitarianism, Europe, European Economic Community, Hungarian History, Hungary, Integration, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Militancy, Narrative, nationalisation, Trade Unionism, Unemployment, USA, USSR, World War Two

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British Society and Popular Culture, 1963-68: Part One – Protest & Politics.   Leave a comment

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Demographics and Reconfigurations:

The 1960s were dramatic years in Britain: demographic trends, especially the increase in the proportion of teenagers in the population, coincided with economic affluence and ideological experimentation to reconfigure social mores to a revolutionary extent. In 1964, under Harold Wilson, the Labour Party came into power, promising economic and social modernisation. In an attempt to tackle the problem of poverty, public expenditure on social services was expanded considerably, resulting in a small degree of redistribution of income. Economically, the main problems of the decade arose from the devaluation of the currency in 1967 and the increase in industrial action. This was the result of deeper issues in the economy, such as the decline of the manufacturing industry to less than one-third of the workforce. In contrast, employment in the service sector rose to over half of all workers. Young people were most affected by the changes of the 1960s. Education gained new prominence in government circles and student numbers soared. By 1966, seven new universities had opened (Sussex, East Anglia, Warwick, Essex, York, Lancaster and Kent). More importantly, students throughout the country were becoming increasingly radicalized as a response to a growing hostility towards what they perceived as the political and social complacency of the older generation. They staged protests on a range of issues, from dictatorial university decision-making to apartheid in South Africa, and the continuance of the Vietnam War.

Above: A Quaker ‘advertisement’ in the Times, February 1968.

Vietnam, Grosvenor Square and All That…

The latter conflict not only angered the young of Britain but also placed immense strain on relations between the US and British governments. Although the protests against the Vietnam War were less violent than those in the United States, partly because of more moderate policing in Britain, there were major demonstrations all over the country; the one which took place in London’s Grosvenor Square, home to the US Embassy, in 1968, involved a hundred thousand protesters. Like the world of pop, ‘protest’ was essentially an American import. When counter-cultural poets put on an evening of readings at the Albert Hall in 1965, alongside a British contingent which included Adrian Mitchell and Christopher Logue, the ‘show’ was dominated by the Greenwich Village guru, Allen Ginsberg. It was perhaps not surprising that the American influence was strongest in the anti-war movement. When the Vietnam Solidarity Committee organised three demonstrations outside the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square, the second of them particularly violent, they were copying the cause and the tactics used to much greater effect in the United States. The student sit-ins and occupations at Hornsey and Guildford Art Colleges and Warwick University were pale imitations of the serious unrest on US and French campuses. Hundreds of British students went over to Paris to join what they hoped would be a revolution in 1968, until de Gaulle, with the backing of an election victory, crushed it. This was on a scale like nothing seen in Britain, with nearly six hundred students arrested in fights with the police on a single day and ten million workers on strike across France.

Wilson & the ‘White Heat’ of Technological Revolution:

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Andrew Marr has commented that the term ‘Modern Britain’ does not simply refer to the look and shape of the country – the motorways and mass car economy, the concrete, sometimes ‘brutalist’ architecture, the rock music and the high street chains. It also refers to the widespread belief in planning and management. It was a time of practical men, educated in grammar schools, sure of their intelligence. They rolled up their sleeves and took no-nonsense. They were determined to scrap the old and the fusty, whether that meant the huge Victorian railway network, the Edwardian, old Etonian establishment in Whitehall, terraced housing, censorship, prohibitions on homosexual behaviour and abortion. The country seemed to be suddenly full of bright men and women from lower-middle-class or upper-working-class families who were rising fast through business, universities and the professions who were inspired by Harold Wilson’s talk of a scientific and technological revolution that would transform Britain. In his speech to Labour’s 1963 conference, the most famous he ever made, Wilson pointed out that such a revolution would require wholesale social change:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods … those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and speak in the language of our scientific age. … the formidable Soviet challenge in the education of scientists and technologists in Soviet industry (necessitates that) … we must use all the resources of democratic planning, all the latent and underdeveloped energies and skills of our people to ensure Britain’s standing in the world.

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In some ways, however, this new Wilsonian Britain was already out of date by the mid-sixties. In any case, his vision, though sounding ‘modern’ was essentially that of an old-fashioned civil servant. By 1965, Britain was already becoming a more feminised, sexualized, rebellious and consumer-based society. The political classes were cut off from much of this cultural undercurrent by their age and consequent social conservatism. They looked and sounded what they were, people from a more formal time, typified by the shadow cabinet minister, Enoch Powell MP.

Education – The Binary Divide & Comprehensivisation:

By 1965, the post-war division of children into potential intellectuals, technical workers and ‘drones’ – gold, silver and lead – was thoroughly discredited. The fee-paying independent and ‘public’ schools still thrived, with around five per cent of the country’s children ‘creamed off’ through their exclusive portals. For the other ninety-five per cent, ever since 1944, state schooling was meant to be divided into three types of schools. In practice, however, this became a binary divide between grammar schools, taking roughly a quarter, offering traditional academic teaching, and the secondary modern schools, taking the remaining three-quarters of state-educated children, offering a technical and/or vocational curriculum. The grandest of the grammar schools were the 179 ‘direct grant’ schools, such as those in the King Edward’s Foundation in Birmingham, and the Manchester Grammar School. They were controlled independently of both central and local government, and their brighter children would be expected to go to the ‘better’ universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, from where they would enter the professions. Alongside them, also traditionalist in ethos but ‘maintained’ by the local authorities, were some 1,500 ordinary grammar schools, like George Dixon Grammar School in Birmingham, which the author attended from 1968.

The division was made on the basis of the selective state examination known as the ‘eleven plus’ after the age of the children who sat it. The children who ‘failed’ this examination were effectively condemned as ‘failures’ to attend what were effectively second-rate schools, often in buildings which reflected their lower status. As one writer observed in 1965, ‘modern’ had become a curious euphemism for ‘less clever’. Some of these schools were truly dreadful, sparsely staffed, crowded into unsuitable buildings and sitting almost no pupils for outside examinations before most were released for work at fifteen. At A Level, in 1964, the secondary moderns, with around seventy-two per cent of Britain’s children, had 318 candidates. The public schools, with five per cent, had 9,838. In addition, the selective system was divisive of friendships, families and communities. Many of those who were rejected at the eleven plus and sent to secondary moderns never got over the sense of rejection. The IQ tests were shown not to be nearly as reliable as first thought. Substantial minorities, up to sixty thousand children a year, were at the ‘wrong’ school and many were being transferred later, up or down. Different education authorities had widely different proportions of grammar school and secondary modern places; division by geography, not even by examination. A big expansion of teachers and buildings was needed to deal with the post-war baby boom children who were now reaching secondary school.

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Desperately looking for money, education authorities snatched at the savings a simpler comprehensive system, such as that pioneered and developed in Coventry in the fifties, might produce. Socialists who had wanted greater equality, among whom Education Secretary Tony Crosland had long been prominent, were against the eleven plus on ideological grounds. But many articulate middle-class parents who would never have called themselves socialists were equally against it because their children had failed to get grammar school places. With all these pressures, education authorities had begun to move towards a one-school-for-all or comprehensive system during the Conservative years, Tory Councils as well as Labour ones. So when Crosland took over, the great schooling revolution, which has caused so much controversy ever since, was well under way. There were already comprehensives, not just in Coventry, but also on the Swedish model, and they were much admired for their huge scale, airy architecture and apparent modernity. Crosland hastened the demise of the grammar schools by requesting local authorities to go comprehensive. He did not say how many comprehensives must be opened nor how many grammar schools should be closed, but by making government money for new school building conditional on going comprehensive, the change was greatly accelerated.

Population ‘Inflow’ and ‘Rivers of Blood’:

Although the 1962 Commonwealth and Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of Caribbeans and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effects: fearful of losing the right of free entry, immigrants came to Britain in greater numbers. In the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced in 1963, the volume of newcomers, 183,000, equalled the total for the previous five years. Harold Wilson was always a sincere anti-racist, but he did not try to repeal the 1962 Act with its controversial quota system. One of the new migrations that arrived to beat the 1963 quota system just before Wilson came to power came from a rural area of Pakistan threatened with flooding by a huge dam project. The poor farming villages from the Muslim north, particularly around Kashmir, were not an entrepreneurial environment. They began sending their men to earn money in the labour-starved textile mills of Bradford and the surrounding towns. Unlike the West Indians, the Pakistanis and Indians were more likely to send for their families soon after arrival in Britain. Soon there would be large, distinct Muslim communities clustered in areas of Bradford, Leicester and other manufacturing towns. Unlike the Caribbean communities, which were largely Christian, these new streams of migration were bringing people who were religiously separated from the white ‘Christians’ around them and cut off from the main forms of working-class entertainment, many of which involved the consumption of alcohol, from which they abstained. Muslim women were expected to remain in the domestic environment and ancient traditions of arranged marriages carried over from the subcontinent meant that there was almost no inter-marriage with the native population. To many of the ‘natives’ the ‘Pakis’ were less threatening than young Caribbean men, but they were also more alien.

Wilson had felt strongly enough about the racialist behaviour of the Tory campaign at Smethwick, to the west of Birmingham, in 1964, to publicly denounce its victor Peter Griffiths as a ‘parliamentary leper’. Smethwick had attracted a significant number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the largest ethnic group being Sikhs from the Punjab in India, and there were also many Windrush Caribbeans settled in the area. There was also a background of factory closures and a growing waiting list for local council housing. Griffiths ran a campaign critical of both the opposition and the government’s, immigration policies. The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” but the neo-Nazi British Movement, claimed that its members had produced the initial slogan as well as spread the poster and sticker campaign. However, Griffiths did not condemn the phrase and was quoted as saying “I should think that is a manifestation of popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that.” 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, as Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, who had served as Shadow Foreign Secretary for the eighteen months prior to the election. In these circumstances, the Smethwick campaign, already attracting national media coverage, and the result itself, stood out as clearly the result of racism.

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. But in  1965, Wilson’s new Home Secretary, Frank Soskice, tightened the quota system, cutting down on the number of dependents allowed in, and giving the Government the power to deport illegal immigrants. At the same time, it offered the first Race Relations Act as a ‘sweetener’. This outlawed the use of the ‘colour bar’ in public places and by potential landlords, and discrimination in public services, also banning incitement to racial hatred like that seen in the Smethwick campaign. At the time, it was largely seen as toothless, yet the combination of restrictions on immigration and the measures to better integrate the migrants already in Britain did form the basis for all subsequent policy.

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When the author went to live there with his family from Nottingham in 1965, Birmingham’s booming postwar economy had not only attracted its ‘West Indian’ settlers from 1948 onwards, but had also ‘welcomed’ South Asians from Gujarat and Punjab in India, and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) both after the war and partition, and in increasing numbers from the early 1960s. The South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards of the city and in west Birmingham, particularly Sparkbrook and Handsworth, as well as in Sandwell (see map above; then known as Smethwick and Warley). Labour shortages had developed in Birmingham as a result of an overall movement towards skilled and white-collar employment among the native population, which created vacancies in less attractive, poorly paid, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing, particularly in metal foundries and factories, and in the transport and healthcare sectors of the public services. These jobs were filled by newcomers from the Commonwealth.

Whatever the eventual problems thrown up by the mutual sense of alienation between natives and immigrants, Britain’s fragile new consensus and ‘truce’ on race relations of 1964-65 was about to be broken by another form of racial discrimination, this time executed by Africans, mainly the Kikuyu people of Kenya. After the decisive terror and counter-terror of the Mau Mau campaign, Kenya had won its independence under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta in 1963 and initially thrived as a relatively tolerant market economy. Alongside the majority of Africans, however, and the forty thousand whites who stayed after independence, there were some 185,000 Asians in Kenya. They had mostly arrived during British rule and were mostly better-off than the local Kikuyu, well established as doctors, civil servants, traders business people and police. They also had full British passports and therefore an absolute right of entry to Britain, which had been confirmed by meetings of Tory ministers before independence. When Kenyatta gave them the choice of surrendering their British passports and gaining full Kenyan nationality or becoming foreigners, dependent on work permits, most of them chose to keep their British nationality. In the generally unfriendly and sometimes menacing atmosphere of Kenya in the mid-sixties, this seemed the sensible option. Certainly, there was no indication from London that their rights to entry would be taken away.

Thus, the 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. As conditions grew worse for them in Kenya, many of them decided to seek refuge in the ‘mother country’ of the Empire which had settled them in the first place. Through 1967 they were coming in by plane at the rate of about a thousand per month. The newspapers began to depict the influx on their front pages and the television news, by now watched in most homes, showed great queues waiting for British passports and flights. It was at this point that Conservative MP Enoch Powell, in an early warning shot, said that half a million East African Asians could eventually enter which was ‘quite monstrous’. He called for an end to work permits and a complete ban on dependants coming to Britain. Other prominent Tories, like Ian Macleod, argued that the Kenyan Asians could not be left stateless and that the British Government had to keep its promise to them. The Labour government was also split on the issue, with the liberals, led by Roy Jenkins, believing that only Kenyatta could halt the migration by being persuaded to offer better treatment. The new Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, on the other hand, was determined to respond to the concerns of Labour voters about the unchecked migration.

By the end of 1967, the numbers arriving per month had doubled to two thousand. In February, Callaghan decided to act. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act effectively slammed the door while leaving a ‘cat flap’ open for a very small annual quota, leaving some twenty thousand people ‘stranded’ and stateless in a country which no longer wanted them. The bill was rushed through in the spring of 1968 and has been described as among the most divisive and controversial decisions ever taken by any British government. Some MPs viewed it as the most shameful piece of legislation ever enacted by Parliament, the ultimate appeasement of racist hysteria. The government responded with a tougher anti-discrimination bill in the same year. For many others, however, the passing of the act was the moment when the political élite, in the shape of Jim Callaghan, finally woke up and listened to their working-class workers. Polls of the public showed that 72% supported the act. Never again would the idea of free access to Britain be seriously entertained by mainstream politicians. This was the backcloth to the notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech made in Birmingham by Enoch Powell, in which he prophesied violent racial war if immigration continued.

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Powell had argued that the passport guarantee was never valid in the first place. Despite his unorthodox views, Powell was still a member of Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet which had just agreed to back Labour’s Race Relations Bill. But Powell had gone uncharacteristically quiet, apparently telling a local friend, I’m going to make a speech at the weekend and it’s going to go up “fizz” like a rocket, but whereas all rockets fall to earth, this one is going to stay up. The ‘friend’, Clem Jones, the editor of Powell’s local newspaper, The Wolverhampton Express and Star, had advised him to time the speech for the early evening television bulletins, and not to distribute it generally beforehand. He came to regret the advice. In a small room at the Midland Hotel on 20th April 1968, three weeks after the act had been passed and the planes carrying would-be Kenyan Asian immigrants had been turned around, Powell quoted a Wolverhampton constituent, a middle-aged working man, who told him that if he had the money, he would leave the country because, in fifteen or twenty years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man. Powell continued by asking rhetorically how he dared say such a horrible thing, stirring up trouble and inflaming feelings:

The answer is I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a decent, ordinary fellow-Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that this country will not be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else. What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking … ‘Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.’ We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual flow of some fifty thousand dependants, who are for the most part the material growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping its own its own funeral pyre. … 

 … As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”.

He also made various accusations, made by other constituents, that they had been persecuted by ‘Negroes’, having excrement posted through their letter-boxes and being followed to the shops by children, charming wide-grinning pickaninnies chanting “Racialist.” If Britain did not begin a policy of voluntary repatriation, it would soon face the kind of race riots that were disfiguring America. Powell claimed that he was merely restating Tory policy. But the language used and his own careful preparation suggests it was both a call to arms and by a politician who believed he was fighting for white English nationhood, and a deliberate provocation aimed at Powell’s enemy, Heath. After horrified consultations when he and other leading Tories had seen extracts of the speech on the television news, Heath promptly ordered Powell to phone him, and summarily sacked him. Heath announced that he found the speech racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions. As Parliament returned three days after the speech, a thousand London dockers marched to Westminster in Powell’s support, carrying ‘Enoch is right’ placards; by the following day, he had received twenty thousand letters, almost all in support of his speech, with tens of thousands still to come. Smithfield meat porters and Heathrow airport workers also demonstrated in his support. Powell also received death threats and needed full-time police protection for a while; numerous marches were held against him and he found it difficult to make speeches at or near university campuses. Asked whether he was a racialist by the Daily Mail, he replied:

We are all racialists. Do I object to one coloured person in this country? No. To a hundred? No. To a million? A query. To five million? Definitely.

Did most people in 1968 agree with him, as Andrew Marr has suggested? It’s important to point out that, until he made this speech, Powell had been a Tory ‘insider’, though seen as something of a maverick, and a trusted member of Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. He had rejected the consumer society growing around him in favour of what he saw as a ‘higher vision’. This was a romantic dream of an older, tougher, swashbuckling Britain, freed of continental and imperial (now ‘commonwealth’) entanglements, populated by ingenious, hard-working white people rather like himself. For this to become a reality, Britain would need to become a self-sufficient island, which ran entirely against the great forces of the time. His view was fundamentally nostalgic, harking back to the energetic Victorians and Edwardians. He drew sustenance from the people around him, who seemed to be excluded from mainstream politics. He argued that his Wolverhampton constituents had had immigration imposed on them without being asked and against their will.

But viewed from Fleet Street or the pulpits of broadcasting, he was seen as an irrelevance, marching off into the wilderness. In reality, although immigration was changing small patches of the country, mostly in west London, west Birmingham and the Black Country, it had, by 1968, barely impinged as an issue in people’s lives. That was why, at that time, it was relatively easy for the press and media to marginalize Powell and his acolytes in the Tory Party. He was expelled from the shadow cabinet for his anti-immigration speech, not so much for its racialist content, which was mainly given in reported speech, but for suggesting that the race relations legislation was merely throwing a match on gunpowder. This statement was a clear breach of shadow cabinet collective responsibility. Besides, the legislation controlling immigration and regulating race relations had already been passed, so it is difficult to see what Powell had hoped to gain from the speech, apart from embarrassing his nemesis, Ted Heath.

Those who knew Powell best claimed that he was not a racialist. The local newspaper editor, Clem Jones, thought that Enoch’s anti-immigration stance was not ideologically-motivated, but had simply been influenced by the anger of white Wolverhampton people who felt they were being crowded out; even in Powell’s own street of good, solid, Victorian houses, next door went sort of coloured and then another and then another house, and he saw the value of his own house go down. But, Jones added, Powell always worked hard as an MP for all his constituents, mixing with them regardless of colour:

We quite often used to go out for a meal, as a family, to a couple of Indian restaurants, and he was on extremely amiable terms with everybody there, ‘cos having been in India and his wife brought up in India, they liked that kind of food.

On the numbers migrating to Britain, however, Powell’s predicted figures were not totally inaccurate. Just before his 1968 speech, he had suggested that by the end of the century, the number of black and Asian immigrants and their descendants would number between five and seven million, about a tenth of the population. According to the 2001 census, 4.7 million people identified as black or Asian, equivalent to 7.9 per cent of the total population. Immigrants were and are, of course, far more strongly represented in percentage terms in The English cities. Powell may have helped British society by speaking out on an issue which, until then, had remained taboo. However, the language of his discourse still seems quite inflammatory and provocative, even fifty years later, so much so that even historians hesitate to quote them. His words also helped to make the extreme right Nazis of the National Front more acceptable. Furthermore, his core prediction of major civil unrest was not fulfilled, despite riots and street crime linked to disaffected youths from Caribbean immigrant communities in the 1980s. So, in the end, Enoch was not right, though he had a point.

Trains, Planes and Motor Cars:

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By the 1960s, British road transport had eclipsed railways as the dominant carrier of freight. In 1958 Britain had gained its first stretch of dedicated, high-speed, limited-access motorway, and by the early 1960s, traffic flow had been eased by a total of a hundred miles (160k) of a three-lane motorway into London (the M1, pictured above). In 1963 there were double the number of cars on the road than there had been in 1953. Motorways allowed fast, convenient commercial and social travel, household incomes were rising, and the real cost of private motoring was falling. Workplace, retail and residential decentralisation encouraged the desertion of trains and a dependence on cars. That dependency was set down between 1958 and 1968. By the mid-sixties, there were brighter-coloured cars on the roads, most notably the Austin Mini, but much of the traffic was still the boxy black, cream or toffee-coloured traffic of the fifties. The great working-class prosperity of the Midlands was based on the last fat years of the manufacture of cars, as well as other goods.

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The map above shows what Britain’s transport network looked like by the early seventies. The start of Britain’s largest-ever road-building programme in the 1960s coincided with a more rapid decline in the railways. Roughly half of Britain’s branch-lines and stations had become uneconomic and its assets were therefore reduced. By 1970, the loss of rolling stock, locomotives, workforce, two thousand stations, 280 lines and 250 services meant that the railway network in Britain had been reduced to half of the length it had been in 1900. By the mid-sixties, flight frequencies and passenger loads on intercity air routes were also increasing vigorously. Nonetheless, rail passenger mileage remained stable for most of the second half of the century as rising oil and fuel prices put a ‘brake’ on motor vehicle use in the 1970s. Plans to triple the 660 miles of motorway in use by 1970 were also frustrated by a combination of the resulting economic recession, leading to cutbacks in public expenditure, and environmental protest.

(To be continued… for sources, see part two).

Posted July 17, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Anti-racism, Birmingham, Black Country, Britain, British history, Britons, Caribbean, Church, Civilization, Colonisation, Commonwealth, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Demography, Discourse Analysis, Edward VIII, Empire, English Language, Family, History, homosexuality, Immigration, Imperialism, India, Integration, manufacturing, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Population, Poverty, Racism, Respectability, Revolution, Technology, Victorian, West Midlands

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