Archive for the ‘Brassed Off’ Tag

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

Epilogue to the Eighties & Prologue to the Nineties:

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

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

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

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

The Election of 1992 – A Curious Confidence Trick?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The concluding chapter of the Thatcher Revolution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic decline/ growth & political resuscitation:

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

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

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

Fighting the return of Fascism in Europe:

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

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

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

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

Back to basics?

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952 – 2002: Chapter Four   Leave a comment

Chapter Four: Those Two Impostors: Triumph and Disaster                       

In 1978 the House of Lords held a special debate on the state of the English language. Due to rapid social and economic transformation, thanks mainly to the technology of mass communication, fears for the future of British English had become one of the staples of newspaper columns and television chat shows. Now it was the turn of the peers of the realm to have their say. The record of the debate, The English language: Deterioration and Usage, makes very interesting reading. All but one of the speakers in it accepted, without question, that the language was deteriorating. They unrolled a catalogue of familiar complaints. One peer remarked,

It seems to me virtually impossible for a modern poet to write ’the choir of gay companions’. What has happened is that is that a word has been used for propaganda purposes which have destroyed its useful meaning in English.

 

Pronunciation was also considered to be slipping, and here the BBC came in for a substantial amount of criticism for failing in its clear duty to uphold the standards of English. There was praise for the Plain English Campaign, which had begun a series of successful battles against Civil Service gobbledygook, and complaints about the prevalence of jargon in official documents. There were also laments over the latest translations of the Bible and the recent revisions of the Book of Common Prayer. And, of course, more than one noble speaker blamed the Americans. Lord Somers, observed:

If there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

 

In fact, the noble peers blamed just about every institution in society – the schools, the universities, and the mass media. Children were no longer educated in grammar or the classics. Newspaper, radio and television were familiarising the public with a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous… a language that makes unblushing use of jargon whenever that can assist evasion. They also displayed more than a touch of xenophobia, one of them arguing rather perversely that a major cause of deterioration in the use of the English language is very simply the enormous increase in the number of people who are using it. The most revealing comment of all was perhaps the one made by Lord Davies of Leek who remarked,

Am I right in assuming that in an age tortured by uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and property, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous?

 

Certainly, as with sexual intercourse, the moral relativist revolution of the sixties and seventies had also encouraged a more permissive approach to social intercourse. Tongues were loosened and noses unblocked. However, Lord Davies’ remark was using language-change as a means of complaining about deeper changes in society. Against this, we might point out that speakers of Standard British Mercian English have often taken second place to other users, whether Scots, Irish or Welsh, the East Anglian Founding Fathers, Cockneys, Jews, Caribbeans or Indians. Influential changes and diversifications have usually occurred at the cultural centre of the language rather than at its fringes, in Britain itself. From this perspective, Standard British English remains as radical a tool as it did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Just as in the ninth century, the fusion of Norse and Saxon languages was happening far from the main centres of trade and administration in the South of England, so in the late twentieth century the dominant forms, accents and voices in British English as it was used and taught were not those of the Establishment, speaking in the House of Lords, but those of Brixton, the East End and Coventry.

The Celtic countries and provinces also have their own brands of English, each of which can be subdivided into further localised varieties. For example, Welsh English, or Anglo-Welsh, has differing northern and southern varieties, also spoken in some of the border areas of England. The traditional Northumbrian Saxon dialect, sometimes referred to as the Scots’ language, and there is also Lallans, another lowland Scots dialect. Both have literary traditions. In Northern Ireland, Ulster Scots remains as the dialect of those who migrated from south-west Scotland. While some traditional features of these varieties fall out of use, other innovations, both regional and national, continue to be made to British English, so that the idea that there will one day be a uniform standard spoken English throughout the British Isles is unlikely to ever become a reality. In addition, there are still (officially) half a million Welsh-speakers, about one in five of the resident population of Wales. In Scotland, the Gaelic speech community is just over one per cent of the population, sparsely distributed through the western islands and highlands. In the Republic of Ireland, about forty per cent of the population have some level of Irish, but the number of habitual speakers is far lower. There are few monoglot speakers of either Irish or Welsh, but both languages are taught to school-leaving age to all students, thus ensuring continuing bilingualism. Both languages have strongly influenced the forms, vocabulary and pronunciation of Anglo-Welsh and Irish English, sometimes deliberately recorded by poets and writers.

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Above: Factory workers strike over low pay

In the 1977-79 there was an explosion of resentment, largely by poorly paid public employees, against a minority Labour government incomes policy they felt was discriminatory. It began earlier in the year, but got far worse with a series of strikes going into winter, resulting in rubbish being left piled up in the streets throughout the country.This became known as the Winter of Discontent after Shakespeare’s opening soliloquy spoken by Richard, Duke of Gloucester in his history play, Richard III. The scenes provided convincing propaganda for the conservatives in the subsequent election in May. Using the slogan Labour isn’t working, which appeared on huge hoardings showing long dole queues, they came back to power with a clear majority in the General Election in 1979, led by Margaret Thatcher, who promised a return to the values which had made Victorian Britain great. However, what the British people got was more of a return to the hard-nosed Toryism of the interwar years as the Thatcher government set about the task of deliberately lengthening those dole queues. As wage-rises were believed to be the main source of inflation, heavy unemployment, it was often openly argued, would weaken trade union bargaining power, and was a price worth paying. At the same time, an economic squeeze was introduced, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing to deflate the economy, thus reducing both demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared, most of them by 1982.

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Above: Rubbish is left piled up in London’s Leicester Square in February 1979

In Coventry, nearly sixty thousand jobs were lost in this period of recession. The Conservative policy of high interest rates tended to overvalue the pound, particularly in the USA, the major market for Coventry’s specialist cars, leading to a rapid decline in demand. Also, the Leyland management embarked on a new rationalisation plan. The company’s production was to be concentrated at its Cowley and Longbridge plants. Triumph production was transferred to Cowley, and Rover models were to be produced at the new Solihull plant. The Coventry engine plant at Courthouse Green was closed and Alvis, Climax and Jaguar were sold off to private buyers. In these first three years of the Thatcher government the number of Leyland employees in the city fell from twenty-seven thousand to eight thousand. One writer summarised the effects of Conservative policy on Coventry in these years as turning a process of gentle decline into quickening collapse. Overall the city’s top manufacturing firms shed thirty-one thousand workers between 1979 and 1982. Well-known pillars of Coventry’s economic base such as Herbert’s, Triumph Motors and Renold’s all disappeared. Unemployment had stood at just five per cent in 1979, the same level as in 1971. By 1982 it had risen to sixteen per cent.

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None of this had been expected locally when the Thatcher government came to power. After all, Coventry had prospered reasonably well during the previous Tory administrations. The last real boom in the local economy had been stimulated by the policies of Ted Heath’s Chancellor, Anthony Barber. However, the brakes were applied rather than released by the new government. Monetarist policy was quick to bite into the local industry. Redundancy lists and closure notices in the local press became as depressingly regular as the obituary column. The biggest surprise was the lack of resistance from the local Labour movement, given Coventry’s still formidable trade union movement. There was an atmosphere of bewilderment and an element of resignation characterised the responses of many trades-union officials. It was as if the decades of anti-union editorials in the Coventry Evening Telegraph were finally being realised. There were signs of resistance at Longbridge, but the BL boss, Michael Edwardes, had introduced a tough new industrial relations programme which had seen the removal from the plant of Red Robbo, Britain’s strongest motor factory trade union leader. He had also closed the Speke factory on Merseyside, demonstrating that he could and would close plants in the face of trade union opposition. Coventry’s car workers and their union leaders had plenty of experience in local wage bargaining in boom times, but lacked strategies to resist factory closures in times of recession. Factory occupation, imitating its successful use on the continent, had been tried at the Meriden Triumph Motorcycle factory, but with disastrous results. The opposition from workers was undoubtedly diminished by redundancy payments which in many cases promised to cushion families for a year or two from the still unrealised effects of the recession.

002 Above: Employment levels in Coventry

Young people were the real victims of these redundancies, as there were now no places for them to fill. The most depressing feature of Coventry’s unemployment was that the most severely affected were the teenagers leaving the city’s newly-completed network of Community Comprehensives. As the recession hit the city large numbers of them joined the job market only to find that expected opportunities in the numerous factories had evaporated. By June 1980, forty-six per cent of the city’s sixteen to eighteen year-olds were seeking employment and over half of the fourteen thousand who had left school the previous year were still unemployed. Much prized craft apprentices all but vanished and only ninety-five apprentices commenced training in 1981. The Local Education Authority was pioneering in its attempts to provide even basic employment and training for youngsters in cooperation with central government schemes and with major firms such as GEC and Courtaulds. It established a city-wide Careers Service, with full-time officers attached to individual schools, but working from a centralised service for employers and school leavers. In 1981-2, some 5,270 youths were found posts in training course, work experience and community projects, but with limited long-term effects. The early 1980s were barren years for Coventry youngsters, despite the emergence of their own pop group, The Specials, and their own theme song, Ghost Town, which also gave vent to what was becoming a national phenomenon. The lyric’s sombre comparison of boom time and bust was felt much more sharply in Coventry than elsewhere.

Coventry paid a very heavy price in the 1980s for its over-commitment to the car industry, suffering more than other comparable Midland towns such as Leicester and   Nottingham, both of which had broader-based economies. Its peculiar dependence on manufacturing and its historically weak tertiary sector meant that it was a poor location for the so-called sunrise industries. These were high-tech enterprises, based largely along the axial belt running from London to Slough, Reading and Swindon, so they had little initial impact on unemployment in Coventry and other Midland and Northern industrial centres. The growth in service industries was also, initially at least, mainly to the benefit of the traditional administrative centres, such as Birmingham, rather than to its West Midland neighbours. While little development work took place in local industry, but Nissan recruited hundreds of foremen from Coventry for its new plant in Sunderland, announced before the Thatcher government, and Talbot removed its Whitley research and development facility to Paris in 1983, along with its French-speaking Coventrians. Only at Leyland’s Canley site did research provide a service for plants outside the city. For the first time in a hundred years, Coventry had become a net exporter of labour. By the time of the 1981 Census, the city had already lost 7.5 per cent of its 1971 population. The main losses were among the young skilled and technical management sectors, people who any town or city can ill afford to lose. Summing up the city’s position at this time, Lancaster and Mason emphasised the dramatic transition in its fortunes from boomtown, a magnet for labour from the depressed areas, to a depressed district itself:

Coventry in the mid 1980s displays more of the confidence in the future that was so apparent in the immediate post-war years. The city, which for four decades was the natural habitat of the affluent industrial worker is finding it difficult to adjust to a situation where the local authority and university rank amongst the largest employers. Coventry’s self-image of progressiveness and modernity has all but vanished. The citizens now largely identify themselves and their environment as part of depressed Britain.  

 002Above: A 1982 cartoon: Britain was at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The inhabitants of the islands, a dependent territory of the United Kingdom, wanted to remain under British rule, but Argentina invaded.

Thatcher was victorious, but it was a costly war for the British.

Below: The Royal Marines march towards Port Stanley during the Falklands War, June 1982

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The government had promised in 1979 that a restructuring of the economy would be followed by increased investment and employment opportunities but three years later, in the spring of 1982 there was no sign of this promise being kept.   There had already been serious rioting by the disaffected of Brixton in 1981. After this, the Tories had looked destined for defeat in the 1983 General Election, but following the Falklands War, the Iron Lady, also variously characterised as Boadicea and Britannia, swept back to power on a tidal wave of revived jingoistic imperialism. Even in Labour heartlands, such as south Wales, the Tories made major gains. The government then took a more confrontational approach at home. As in the 1920s, resistance to brutal rationalisation through the closure or selling off of uneconomic enterprises, or by wage or job reductions, was met by determined opposition, never tougher than in the confrontation of 1984-85 with the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill. The National Coal Board, supported by the government, put forward a massive programme of pit closures. The bitter, year-long miners’ strike which followed was roundly defeated, amid scenes of mass picketing and some violence from both miners and the police. Ultimately the government proved too determined even for the miners, and had, in any case, built up the resources to resist their anticipated demands for it to back down.

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Above: Miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill/ Striking Yorkshire miners

However, the strike and the colliery closures left a legacy of bitterness and division in British which was only too apparent at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s recent state funeral, and is the subject or background for many recent films, some of which have distorted or trivialised our recollection of the reality. Among the better representations of it is Billy Elliott. Under the thirty years rule, the government documents from 1984 have only just become available, so we can now look forward to the more rounded perspectives of historians on these events. Already, politicians have called for government apologies to be given to the miners and their families.

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Above: In the Durham Coalfield, pits were often the only real source of employment in local communities,

so the economic and social impact of closures could be devastating.

The 1984-5 Strike was an attempt to force a reversal of the decline.

The pit closures went ahead and the severe contraction of the mining industry continued: it vanished altogether in Kent, while in Durham two-thirds of the pits were closed. The government had little interest in ensuring the survival of the industry, determined to break its militant and well-organised union. The social cost of the closures, especially in places in which mining was the single major employer, as in many of the pit villages of Durham and the valleys of south Wales, was devastating. The entire local economy was crippled. On Tyneside and Merseyside a more general deindustrialisation occurred. Whole sections of industry, including coal, steel and shipbuilding, simply vanished from their traditional areas. Of all the areas of the United Kingdom, however, it was Northern Ireland that suffered the highest levels of unemployment. This was largely because the continuing sectarian violence discouraged inward investment in the six counties of the Province.

Nationally, in February 1986 there were over 3.4 million unemployed, although statistics were manipulated for political reasons and the real figure is therefore a matter of speculation. The socially corrosive effects of the return of widespread mass unemployment, not seen since the early thirties, were felt throughout the country, manifesting themselves in the further bouts of inner-city rioting that broke out in 1985. This was more serious for the government than the rioting against the Means Test of half a century before, because it occurred in cities throughout the country, rather than in depressed mining areas. London was just as vulnerable as Liverpool, and a crucial contributory factor was the number of young men of Asian and Caribbean origin who saw no hope of ever entering employment: opportunities were minimal and they felt particularly discriminated against. The term underclass was increasingly used to describe those who felt themselves to be completely excluded from the benefits of prosperity.

The only sizeable addition to the immigrant population during the recession of the early eighties was among the Polish community. After the Polish government’s clampdown on the shipyard-led Solidarity movement in 1980, about two thousand refugees entered Britain. It was hard for researchers at the time to assess the extent to which these new arrivals influenced the already well-established Polish communities and organisations throughout Britain. The only reported figures, taken from a Language Census conducted by ILEA between 1981 and 1987, shows nearly six hundred Polish pupils in London schools. Assuming that these were pupils with Polish as their strong first language (L1), requiring English as an Added Language (EAL) tuition support, rather than established Polish bilingual children with English as a strong L1 or L2, we might therefore conclude that the majority of these new immigrants settled in London, probably using already-established kinship networks and institutions. No matter how much Polish was the language used at home, second-generation Polish children showed a strong preference to switch to English in conversations involving the expression of abstract concepts, even within the home context.

The Linguistic Minorities Project (LMP) Survey, conducted in Coventry and Bradford in 1985 showed that the Polish language skills of the adult respondents were, perhaps predictably, very high. However, the reported levels of fluency in Polish for members of respondents’ households as a whole, likely to include a high proportion of British-born children, was significantly lower. Ninety-one per cent of the respondents in Coventry reported that their children used only English between themselves, and third-generation children in Polish Saturday schools used Polish only with the teachers and assistants. The influx of younger first-generation Poles in the 1980s helped to create new relationships in which second and third generations could use Polish in more realistic ways. The Survey also showed that in Coventry and Bradford, whereas almost half of Polish workers were in a workplace where at least one fellow-worker was a Polish-speaker, more than sixty per cent of them used only English with their workmates. Nevertheless, the Poles maintain a network of friends with whom they could use their mother tongue. They also had a wide range of opportunities to use the language in the community:

The Pole can buy Polish food from Polish shops, eat in Polish restaurants, sleep in Polish hotels or digs, with a Polish landlady, entertain friends in Polish clubs, attend a Polish doctor (over five hundred are practising in Britain) or dentist (eighty Polish dental surgeries), have a Polish priest and be buried by a Polish undertaker.

In the 1980s, Polish was not taught in the mainstream schools, though there were some unsuccessful attempts made in this direction in Stepney in 1981. Some years later, ILEA approached the Polish Educational Society Abroad with a similar suggestion which also failed, partly because Poles insist that mother tongue teaching must include Polish cultural content. In 1982 a section of Polish Studies was added to the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University of London. For L1 or bilingual speakers of Polish, the degree lasted for three years and included language, literature and history as compulsory elements. Additional options included economics, politics, geography and planning. The Polish Section also organises conferences for Polish teachers and pupils. Otherwise, only Oxford and Cambridge hold lectures on Polish as a Slavic Language. These developments encouraged a note of optimism for the Polish community in Britain at a time when other immigrant groups were struggling to integrate, or felt alienated by the host country, particularly in the second and third generations. Together with the arrival of the Solidarity generation, there was a revival of awareness of linguistic and cultural roots in Britain in this decade. This helped the Poles to integrate into British society while resisting linguistic and cultural assimilation: becoming British did not necessarily involve losing their Polish identity.

By 1987, service industries were offering an alternative means of employment in Britain. Between 1983 and 1987 about one and a half million new jobs were created. Most of these were for women, many of whom were entering employment for the first time, and many of the jobs available were part-time and, of course, lower paid than the jobs lost in primary and secondary industries. By contrast, the total number of men in full-time employment fell still further. Many who had left mining or manufacturing for the service sector also earned far less. By the end of the century there were more people employed in Indian restaurants than in the coal and steel industries combined, but for much lower pay. The economic recovery that led to the growth of this new employment was based mainly on finance, banking and credit. Little was invested in home-grown manufacturing, but far more was invested overseas, with British foreign investments rising from 2.7 billion pounds in 1975 to 90 billion in 1985. At the same time, there was also a degree of re-industrialisation, especially in the Southeast, where new industries employing the most advanced technology were growing. In fact, many industries shed a large proportion of their workforce but, using new technology, maintained or improved their output. These new industries were certainly not confined to the M4 Corridor by the late eighties. By then, Nissan’s car plant in Sunderland had become the most productive in Europe, while Siemens established a microchip plant at Wallsend. However, such companies did not employ large numbers of local workers. Nissan recruited its foremen in Coventry, while Siemens invested more than a billion pounds, but only employed a workforce of about 1,800.

Regionally based industries suffered a dramatic decline during this period. Coal-mining, for example, was decimated in the decade following the 1984-85 miners’ strike, not least because of the shift of the electricity generating industry to other alternative energy sources, especially gas. During the period 1984-87 the coal industry shed a hundred and seventy thousand miners, and there was a further net loss of employment in the coalfields, with the exception of north Warwickshire and south Derbyshire, in the early 1990s. The economic effect upon local communities could be devastating, as the 1996 film Brassed Off accurately shows, with its memorable depiction of the social impact on the Yorkshire pit village of Grimethorpe of the 1992 closure programme.

The trouble with the economic strategy followed by the Thatcher governments was that South Wales, Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Tyneside and Clydesdale were precisely those regions that had risen to extraordinary prosperity as part of the British imperial enterprise. Now they were being written off as disposable assets, so what interest did the Scots in particular, but also the Welsh, have in remaining as part of that enterprise, albeit a new corporation in the making? The understandable euphoria over Thatcher and her party winning three successive general elections disguised the fact the last of these victories was gained at the price of perpetuating a deep rift in Britain’s social geography. Without the Falklands factor to help revive the Union flag, a triumphalist English conservatism was increasingly imposing its rule over the other nations of an increasingly disunited Kingdom.   Thatcher’s constituency was, overwhelmingly, the well-off middle and professional classes in the south of England, whilst the distressed northern zones of derelict factories, pits, ports and terraced streets were left to rot and rust. People living in these latter areas were expected to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, retrain for work in the up-and-coming industries of the future and if need be get on Tory Chairman, Norman Tebbitt’s bicycle and move to one of the areas of strong economic growth such as Cambridge, Milton Keynes or Slough, where those opportunities were clustered. However, little was provided by publicly funded retraining and, if this was available, there was no guarantee of a job at the end of it. The point of the computer revolution in industry was to save labour, not to expand it.

In the late 1980s, the north-south divide seemed as intractable as it had all century, with high unemployment continuing to be concentrated in the declining manufacturing areas of the North and West of the British Isles. That the north-south divide increasingly had a political dimension as well as an economic one was borne out by the 1987 General Election in the UK. Margaret Thatcher’s third majority was this time largely based in the votes of the South and East of England. North of a line running from the Severn estuary through Coventry and on to the Humber estuary, the long decline of Toryism, especially in Scotland, where it was reduced to only ten seats, was apparent to all observers. At the same time, the national two-party system seemed to be breaking down so that south of that line, the Liberal-SDP Alliance were the main challengers to the Conservatives in many constituencies.

Culturally, the Thatcher counter-revolution ran into something of a cul-de-sac, or rather the cobbled streets of Salford, typified in the long-running TV soap opera, Coronation Street. Millions in the old British industrial economy had a deeply ingrained loyalty to the place where they had grown up, gone to school, got married and had their kids; to the pub, their park, their football team. In that sense at least the Social Revolution of the fifties and sixties had recreated cities and towns that, for all their ups and downs, their poverty and pain, were real communities. Fewer people were willing to give up on Liverpool and Leeds, Nottingham and Derby than the pure laws of the employment market-place demanded. For many working-class British people, it was their home which determined their quality of life, not the width of their wage-packet.

Not everything that the Thatcher governments did was out of tune with social reality. The sale of council houses created an owner-occupier class which, as Simon Schama has written, corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Sales of remaining state-owned industries, such as the public utility companies, were less successful, since the concept of stakeholderdship was much less deeply rooted in British traditions, and the mixed fortunes of both these privatised companies and their stocks did nothing to help change customs. Most misguided of all was the decision to call a poll tax imposed on house and flat owners a community charge, and then to impose it first, as a trial run, in Scotland, where the Tories already had little support. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham that it would be a good way of creating a property-owning, tax-paying democracy, where people paid according to the size of their household. This was another mistaken assumption. Soon after, the iron lady was challenged for her leadership of the Party, and therefore the country, and was forced to step down from the contest. She was then replaced as PM by one of her loyal deputies, John Major, another middle-class anti-patrician, the son of a garden-gnome salesman, apparently committed to family values and a return to basics. Although winning the 1992 General Election, the Major government ended up being overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals and blunders, as well as by the back-bench right-wing in the House of Commons who wanted Britain to withdraw from the European Union.

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The old north-south divide in Britain seemed to be eroding during the recession of the early 1990s, which hit southeast England relatively hard, but it soon reasserted itself with a vengeance later in the decade as young people moved south in search of jobs and property prices rose. Even though the shift towards service industries was reducing regional economic diversity, the geographical distribution of regions eligible for European structural funds for economic improvement confirmed the continuing north-south divide. The administrative structure of Britain also underwent major changes by the end of the nineties. The relative indifference of the Conservative ascendancy to the plight of industrial Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. In the 1987 election, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, previously confined mainly to middle-class, rural and intellectual constituencies, now made huge inroads into Conservative areas and even into the Labour heartlands of industrial south Wales and Clydeside.

In a 1992 poll in Scotland, half of those asked said that they were in favour of independence within the European Union. In the General Election of the same year, however, with Mrs Thatcher and her poll tax having departed the political scene, there was a minor Tory recovery. Five years later this was wiped out by the Labour landslide of 1997, when all the Conservative seats in both Scotland and Wales were lost. Only one Scottish seat was regained by the Tories in 2001. The Tories became labelled as a centralising, purely English party. Nationalist political sentiment grew in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales. The devolution promised and instituted by Tony Blair’s new landslide Labour government did seem to take some of the momentum out of the nationalist fervour , but apparently at the price of stoking the fires of English nationalism among Westminster Tories, resentful at the Scots and Welsh having representatives in their own assemblies as well as in the UK Parliament. In 1999, twenty years after the first campaigns for devolution, a devolved Parliament was set up in Scotland, in Edinburgh, Wales got an Assembly in Cardiff, and Northern Ireland had a power-sharing Assembly again at Stormont near Belfast. In 2000, an elected regional assembly was established for Greater London, the area covered by the inner and outer boroughs in the capital, with a directly elected Mayor. This new authority replaced the Greater London Council which had been abolished by the Thatcher Government in 1986, and was given responsibility over local planning and transport.

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The process of deindustrialisation continued into the nineties with the closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in May 1993. It was the last working shipyard in the region, but failed to secure a warship contract. It was suffering the same long-term decline that reduced shipbuilding from an employer of two hundred thousand in 1914 to a mere twenty-six thousand by the end of the century. This devastated the local economy, especially as a bitter legal wrangle over redundancy payments left many former workers without any compensation at all for the loss of what they had believed was employment for life. As the map above shows, the closure’s effects of spread far further than Tyneside and the Northeast, which were certainly badly hit by the closure, with two hundred and forty suppliers losing their contracts. According to Keynesian economics, the results of rising unemployment are multiplied as the demand for goods and services declines. The closure of Swan Hunter certainly had a widespread impact on Suppliers as far afield as Southampton and Glasgow, as well as in the West Midlands and the Southeast. They lost valuable orders and therefore also had to make redundancies. Forty-five suppliers in Greater London also lost business. Therefore, from the closure of one single, large-scale engineering concern, unemployment resulted even in the most prosperous parts of the country. In the opposite economic direction, the growing North Sea oil industry helped to spread employment more widely throughout the Northeast and the Eastern side of Scotland, with its demands for drilling platforms and support ships, and this benefit was also felt nationally, both within Scotland and more widely, throughout the UK. However, this did little in the short-term to soften the blow of the Swan Hunter closure.

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Overall, however, the 1990s were years of general and long-sustained economic expansion. The continued social impact of the decline in coal, steel and shipbuilding was to some extent mitigated by inward investment initiatives. Across most of the British Isles, there was also a continuing decline in the number of manufacturing jobs throughout the nineties. Although there was an overall recovery in the car industry, aided by the high pound in the export market, much of this was due to the new technology of robotics which made the industry far less labour-intensive and therefore more productive. The service sector, however, expanded, and general levels of unemployment, especially in Britain, fell dramatically in the 1990s. Financial services saw strong growth, particularly in places such as the London Docklands and Edinburgh. Indeed, by the end of the decade, the financial industry was the largest employer in northern manufacturing towns like Leeds, which grew rapidly, 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 music and football. Manchester United’s commercial success led it to become the world’s largest sports franchise.

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Other areas of the country were helped by their ability to attract high technology industry. Silicon Glen in central Scotland was, by the end of the decade, the largest producer of computer equipment in Europe. Computing and software design was also one of the main engines of growth along the silicon highway of the M4 Corridor west of London. But areas of vigorous expansion were not necessarily dominated by new technologies. The economy of East Anglia, especially Cambridgeshire, had grown rapidly in the 1980s and continued to do so throughout the 1990s. While Cambridge itself, aided by the university-related science parks, fostered high-tech companies, especially in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, expansion in Peterborough, for instance, was largely in low-tech areas of business services and distribution.

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Getting around Britain was, at least, getting easier. By 1980 there were nearly one and a half thousand miles of motorway in Britain. In the last twenty years of the century, the stretching of the congested motorway network to just over two thousand miles, mostly involving the linking of existing sections. Motorway building and airport development was delayed by lengthy public enquiries and well-organised public protest. Improving transport links was seen as an important means of stimulating regional development as well as combating local congestion. Major road developments in the 1990s included the completion of the M25 orbital motorway around London, the Skye bridge and the M40 link between London and Birmingham. However, despite this construction programme, congestion remained a problem: the M25 was labelled the largest car park on the planet, while average traffic speeds in central London fell to only ten miles per hour in 2001, a famous poster on the underground pointing out that this was the same speed as in 1901. Improvements to public transport networks tended to be concentrated in urban centres, such as the light rail networks in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon. At the same time, the migration of some financial services and much of the Fleet Street national press to major new developments in London’s Docklands prompted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee line extension, as well as some of the most expensive urban motorway in Europe. Undoubtedly, the most important transport development was the Channel Tunnel rail link from Folkestone to Calais, completed in 1994. By the beginning of the new millennium, millions of people had travelled by rail from London to Paris in only three hours.

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The development of Ashford in Kent, following the opening of the Channel Tunnel rail link, provides a good example of the relationship between transport links and general economic development. The railway had come to Ashford in 1842 and a railway works was established in the town. This was eventually run down and closed between 1981 and 1993, but this did not undermine the local economy. Instead, Ashford benefited from the Channel Tunnel rail link, which made use of the old railway lines running through the town, and its population actually grew by ten per cent in the 1990s. The completion of the Tunnel combined with the M25 London orbital motorway, with its M20 spur, to give the town an international catchment area of some eighty-five million people within a single day’s journey. This, together with the opening of Ashford International railway station as a main terminal for the rail link to Europe, attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies. Fourteen business parks were opened in and around the town, together with a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge, and a popular outlet retail park on the outskirts of the town. By the beginning of the new millennium, the Channel Tunnel had transformed the economy of Kent. Ashford is closer to Paris and Brussels than it is to Manchester and Sheffield, both in time and distance. By the beginning of this century, it was in a position to be part of a truly international economy.

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Transport policy was only one of the ways in which the EU increasingly came to shape the geography of the British Isles in the 1990s. It was a key factor in the creation of the new administrative regions of Britain in 1999. At the same time, a number of British local authorities opened offices in Brussels for lobbying purposes. The enthusiasm the Scottish National Party discovered in the late 1980s for the supposed benefits that would result from independence in Europe may help to explain its subsequent revival. The European connection has proved less welcome in other quarters. Fishermen, particularly in Cornwall and on the East coast of England, have felt themselves the victims of the Common Fisheries Policy quota system. A strong sense of Euroscepticism developed in England in particular, fuelled by a mixture of concerns about sovereignty and economic policy. Nevertheless, links with Europe have been growing, whether via the Channel Tunnel, or the connections between the French and British electricity grids, or airline policy, as have the number of policy decisions shaped by the EU. This pace of change quickened as the result of the 1987 Single European Act, as it became clear that the UK was becoming increasingly integrated with the European continent.

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By the late 1990s, another indispensible marker of British identity, the monarchy, began to look tired, under strain of being simultaneously a ceremonial and familial institution. Ever since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, which suddenly propelled the ten year-old Princess Elizabeth into the spotlight as the heir apparent, the membership of this institution was thought to require standards of personal behaviour well above the norm of late twentieth century expectations. Just as the monarchy had gained from its marriages, especially that resulting from the fairy tale romance of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, whose wedding at St Paul’s in 1981 had a world-wide audience of at least eight hundred million viewers, so it lost commensurately from the failure of those unions. The year 1992, referred to by the Queen as her annus horriblis, saw not just the separations of Charles and Diana (the Wales) as well as Andrew and Sarah (the Yorks), but also a major fire at Windsor Castle in November. When it was announced that the Crown would only pay for the replacement and repair of items in the royal private collection, and that repairs to the fabric would therefore come from the tax-paying public, a serious debate began about the state of the monarchy’s finances. In a poll, eight out of ten people asked thought the Queen should pay taxes on her private income, hitherto exempt. A year later, Buckingham Palace was opened to the public tours for the first time and the Crown did agree to pay taxes. In 1994 the royal yacht Britannia, the emblem of the queen’s global presence, was decommissioned.

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Above: A sea of flowers laid in tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, outside Kensington Palace, London, August 1997

The most difficult moment came in August 1997, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris. Royal protocol dictates that the royal standard should be flown above Buckingham Palace when the Queen is in residence. The Union Flag is only flown above the royal palaces and other government and public buildings on certain special days, such as the Princess Royal’s birthday, 15 August. Since it was holiday time for the Royal family, they were away from London, so there were no flags flying. The Queen, as the only person who could authorise an exception to these age-old customs, received criticism for not flying the union flag at half-mast in order to fulfill the deep need of a grief-stricken public. They are only flown at half-mast on the announcement of the death of a monarch until after the funeral, and on the day of the funeral only for other members of the royal family. Although Her Majesty meant no disrespect to her estranged daughter-in-law, the Crown lives and dies by such symbolic moments. The immense outpouring of public emotion in the days and weeks that followed was very different from the more conventional but no less heartfelt mourning of the Queen and her immediate family. The crisis was rescued by a television speech she made which was both informal and sincere in its expression of personal sorrow, adding to the tidal wave that swept over the whole country, for England’s rose, or the People’s Princess of Wales.

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The monarchy was fully restored to popularity by the Millennium festivities, at which the Queen watched dancers from the Notting Hill carnival under the ill-fated Dome, and especially by the Golden Jubilee celebrations of 2002, which continued the newly struck royal mood of greater informality. Brian May, the lead guitarist of the rock-band Queen began the pop concert at Buckingham Palace by playing his instrumental version of God Save the Queen from the roof-top overlooking the Mall. Modern Britannia seemed at last to be at ease with its identity within a multi-national, multi-ethnic, United Kingdom, in all its mongrel glory.

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Above: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, aged 75. She has already (in 2014) reigned for another thirteen years,

and celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Sources:

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

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

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1987), The Story of English. London: Penguin Books.

John Haywood & Simon Hall, et.al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Safder Alladina, Viv Edwards & Elizabeth Muir (1991), Multilingualism in the British Isles. Harlow: Longman (Linguistics).

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